Rick’s Schwier’s Keynote – Riding the Crest of Change

The final keynote session of the RTCOC conference was delivered by Rick Schwier of the University of Saskatchewan. The presentation was titled, Brass Tacks for Online Learning – Observations from the Trenches.

I was looking forward to this presentation since I noticed that Rick was the keynote. I was lucky enough to have had taken EDCMM 802 from Rick about 3 or 4 years ago, and it was a terrific experience. Rick was excellent, and has been a source of knowledge and great friend ever since.

Rick started off the session with Schwier-patented high-energy and humour, and proclaimed “My name is Rick Schwier, and I am a webaholic”. This led to an open description of how several mistakes have been made over the years (online learning specific), and that Rick, through experience and through the help of graduate students and colleagues, has developed blended learning techniques to move online teaching forward.

Here are some of the highlights:
1) There has been a movement from asynchronous to synchronous technologies. Although much of the literature stated that synchronous is less desirable (e.g., messy, perhaps not as rich, technical difficulties), Rick went against the grain and moved much of the courses toward a synchronous approach.

2) Rick gave a tour of his EDCMM 802 course … parts which are housed in WebCT.

3) As an instructor, Rick felt that he was doing “way too much” lecturing during the early offerings of the EDCMM 802 course, and placed less emphasis on developing rich learning experience. Therefore, many of the lectures have been put to streaming video, and is now available on the course site. As the course in its entirety took a blended learning approaches, elements of transmission are suitable and useful. Note: It was interesting to hear the story of how exactly Rick setup the video sessions in his own backyard … I won’t go into details here.

4) Rick went over his latest use of blogging technology, and showed a link to his blog and explained his use of blogging, even at the conference. (Note: I think this is getting dangerous as I am blogging a blogger talking about blogging presenters – to blog is to be blogged).

5) Wikis were also mentioned … as an idea to Rick from Rob Wall in a Graduate class. Rick is planning on using blogs and wikis to a great extent in the upcoming academic year. (Addition: Thanks to Rob Wall’s trackback … I actually got the URL for the Notes Wiki that Rob set up. Here it is: http://www.omegageek.net/wiki.pl?EdCmm802. It’s a good example of how a wiki could be used in any course, online or not. – Thanks Rob!)

6) Rick explained a perceived “mistake”: “using two-way technology, for one-way teaching”. Rick explained his experience in teaching a two-way televised course, that ended up being more of a transmission approach.

7) Another perceived mistake: “staying out of the conversations with online learners”. As a strategy, Rick tried to remain quiet in the online conversations. Finding? Graduate students (particularly), WANT you to be part of the conversation. They want feedback to help them learn and make them feel more comfortable.

8) Another perceived mistake: “having two many students in chat rooms”. Rick mentioned the “Dunbar’s number” … the # of people that you can have successful social relationships with (i.e., 147.8). However, the Dunbar # is different when you are trying to do different things … like creative conversations. For instance, the # is likely smaller in chatrooms environments, as much of the time is spent in “grooming processes”. Chatrooms, in most cases with learning, are likely much more effective with smaller numbers (less than 12).

9) Principle – “Virtual environments are Real”. Rick mentioned research from Reeves and Nass, The Media Equation. It’s literature that recommended to me some time ago, and it’s certainly worth a read.

10) Principle – “Intimacy is critical”. Psychological distance is more important than geographic distance. This is the distance that needs to be closed in online learning. Graduate students, in particular, often want to be very close to their instructors. Undergraduates, however, can be a very different body … there is much less of this need to be close to the instructor, or to other students. This is very important to consider when thinking about online community/course development.

11) The Principle of Intensity – Intensity is important in courses in general. When students feel that something is “important” and relevant, that students are much more motivated to learn. “Students also need to feel that the instructor is passionate about the content they are teaching”. “Students want to know that they are getting somewhere, with someone that wants to take them there.”

12) Engagement Matters – “Participation does not equal engagement”. “Students do not spontaneously combust into conversations around content”. Rick also brought in a phenomenon known as “the bystander effect” – the premise that people are less likely to go for help/or to help people, when there are less people around. Interesting research … and it’s neat how this sociological premise could apply to participation in online communities.

13) Principle – “Content is KEY to developing community”. When students have more to talk about … more in common …, this has much to do with the growth of communities. Some of the best online discussion seem to occur when familiar content is discussed … and not when newer content is tacked on.

14) Appreciation is key – Students need to know that their participation is being appreciated. This was evident in WebCT discussion groupsl

15) Face-to-face components are critical.

16) Reverse Engineering – Rick mentioned Downe’s research on how we have certain things backwards in instructional design. For instance, why do we separate content and discussions in WebCT? These should be integrated in better ways. Stephen Downes is an excellent read … be sure to visit his homepage.

17) “The Family Plot” – Students often miss the communities that have been developed. Rick has been opening his courses open, and allowing students to continue to collaborate, discuss and communicate. And where we don’t continue the communities, there may be some ways of closing these communities through “ceremonies” … “to bring these communities to close in sensitive ways”. This is certainly an excellent premise. I keep most of my own courses open after semester … and it’s amazing to see the activity that continues many months later.

Final Lessons:
a) “Instructional Designers are absolutely amazing and important people.” They have a transformative function … and are utterly important.
b) “A great teaching assistant is incredibly important”. Even if you have to pay for them yourself.
c) It’s incredibly exciting to teach this way (in distributed learning environments). “This is a very rich playground”.

One of the really neat things about this presentation is Rick’s openness to past assumptions and mistakes. From my own experience, I felt many connections through this presentation. Excellent ideas, and an excellent presentation as always from Rick. Absolutely worth every second!

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