Confessions of a SMECWID 3: Learning from the Other Side of the Podium

Recently, I went back to school for the first time in 20 years. Although I was at the university every day teaching until about two years ago and have often taken adult-education courses, I hadn’t been a student in a class for credit since 1997. (In case you’re wondering, I recently celebrated my third 28th birthday. 😉 ) This summer, I enrolled in an intensive computer graphics (a.k.a. Adobe Creative Cloud) course to learn to create visual material for my company. I have wanted to become competent in Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign, three of the most-used products for web graphics, for quite some time now. Although I already create illustrations using my iPad and free applications (including some by Adobe mentioned in this post), prior to this summer I had made do with the rudimentary tools and skills I already possessed, rather than invest the time and money needed to learn such complex programs. The paucity of quality free photos and the exaggerated price of stock material has made me (and my company) realize the value of creating graphics in-house, which is why I attended twelve hours of class a week for eight weeks at a local community college.

Despite the amazing things I learned, this blog entry is not about the course material, but about the experience of being a student again. The chance for an educator to step into the shoes of a learner is as easy as it is underappreciated. Experiencing the classroom from the “other side” of the lectern, so to speak, gave this SMECWID the chance to reflect on his own practices as a content creator and designer. Even as I sat peering at pixels in the giant monitor inches from my face, I tried to maintain awareness of what was going on around me and to reflect on how I was experiencing the class from the perspective of a student, with the goal of improving the courses that I myself write and build.

Although this course took place in a physical location and had no online component, other than accessing course materials through the LMS, its live instruction threw internet-based education into relief, making it easier for me to see the advantages and disadvantages of both modes of instruction. My first two weeks in class reminded me of the “reality” of face-to-face learning; I had to contend with both space and time, as I navigated the stormy weather and cavernous buildings that stressed me on my first day of class. The nervousness I felt made me realize that students who work from home do not have to worry about being late or finding classrooms, as do people who travel to a campus. The particular challenge of students taking online courses is to make time in their day for classwork, while still meeting the demands of daily life whose structure has most likely not changed. Although four hours is long, when I was in class, I was learning—not vacuuming, doing laundry, or performing any of the other distracting tasks that loom in the background. Even if I freed up four hours in my day to study, I doubt I would work for such a long stretch given the other things I have to do—including work as an instructional designer.

Having a teacher in the classroom reminded me of the advantageousness of presence. Adobe programs are notoriously complex. (There must be at least three ways to do everything!) All too frequently, I found myself stuck, unable to figure out how to do something simply because I couldn’t find right the tool. Online assistance, which I usually checked first, was surprisingly unhelpful; the answers often didn’t apply to my situation. Frequently I couldn’t find even related solutions, since I didn’t know the right way to ask the question, which required knowing what a particular tool is called. Fortunately, I had a great teacher in the room with me. She was patient as she listened to my grousing (yes, I grouse), and also gave constructive feedback on the spot. I have written elsewhere about the importance of presence in the online classroom, but my experience in Adobe class really drove the point home. I wondered what completing assignments would have been like if I’d had to wait for answers from even a responsive online instructor. The work certainly would have taken me much longer. Given that the class had a creative element, the evaluation of my work as it was in development was vital. Not only did we engage in regular critiques before handing in our projects (which is certainly possible in an online class), the teacher also provided suggestions for our work. Her ideas often shaped what I did afterwards. Real-time feedback is a synchronous activity of the sort that is often discouraged in online courses, since having to be available at a particular time can be a burden on students. This realization made me again wonder what the class would have been like, had I taken it online.

Part way through the term I began to tire of the three-days-a-week, four-hours-at-a-time schedule, which was intense and fatiguing. I also felt that the in-class lectures that explained how to do something were often too long and abstract. More than once, I wished I could have “rewound” the teacher to hear again what she had just said, or that I could have listened to portions of the lecture later, so that I could have written down the three locations of a tool that had been pointed out in passing. Although we did take a break after about two hours, I wanted more frequent pauses, to get up, have a snack, and stretch without bothering the other people in the classroom (and maybe do a little vacuuming). I was, in fact, reminded of why I like being a telecommuter; I am able to work at my own pace and in various locales—like a café in Berlin, which is where I am writing now. The online nature of my job not only helps me avoid the sore back and tired eyes from which I suffered at the end of every class period, but also assures that I remain engaged in what I’m doing, rather than tuning things out, which is what often happened after about three hours in a physical classroom.

The spontaneous nature of live teaching, while social and engaging, sometimes made the course confusing. Although the instructor obviously had a well-conceived lesson plan, its live delivery concealed the intellectual itinerary in a way that online courses, which can be looked at the micro- and macro-levels, do not. Another issue that I experienced was the aforementioned difficulty of solving problems on my own because of my inability to find the correct answer online. Electronic references for certain elements of the program were provided, but the actual course instruction was only loosely related to them. When I undertook assignments at home, I often found myself in the same situation that I had imagined students in a fully online course encountering: I got stuck. As I thought about the carefully-planned wholly-complete courses that I often build with course writers, I was reminded of the advantage of having all the materials available and overtly aligned with the assignments. The spontaneous nature of face-to-face teaching did make working on assignments easier when I was in class, but became a hindrance when I was not.

Now that the summer semester is over and I have completed the course, I can say that it was an enjoyable and productive experience. I cannot, however, argue for the superiority of live instruction over an online course. Ever since I became an instructional designer, I have had some nostalgia for in-class interaction (see posts #1 and #2 of “Confessions of a SMECWID”). Although I do not think these feelings misplaced, returning to a physical classroom as a student, not as a professor, has made me realize that I was not only idealizing the experience, but that I was viewing it from my previous perspective as a teacher, as well. Although the above could be considered an argument for the value of hybrid courses, I am not promoting this design, nor any other. As I already knew—intellectually—online courses represent not only an undeniable part of the future of education, but are of real value for students, especially those who would not have access to education otherwise. After this summer’s experience, however, I have become more personally aware of the specific value of studying online.

In addition to making me more proficient with Adobe programs, the course I took has informed my attitude towards instructional design, as described above. If there is one recommendation that I would make to designers and course writers alike, it would be to enroll as a student both in courses taught online and in physical classrooms. Going back to school was perhaps the most valuable experience that I had, since it taught me things about student engagement, made me realize the value of particular modes of presentation, and stressed yet again the importance of presence. Although I set out to learn how to create graphics, the end result of the course (represented by the final project above that illustrates this post) almost seems like icing on the cake compared to what I discovered about my profession.

Tom Armbrecht has a PhD in French Studies from Brown University. Formerly a tenured Professor of French, he taught literature and philosophy to both undergraduate and graduate students at an R1 university before deciding to focus his career on online learning. Tom has been involved in educational technology since its inception, first as a student, then as a professor, and now as an instructional designer. His current position as an Online Learning Architect allows him to capitalize on his pedagogical expertise to create courses that engage and inspire students and teachers alike.

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Confessions of a SMECWID 3: Learning from the Other Side of the Podium

by Tom Armbrecht
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