Limited by Modality

Many conversations addressing education lately have returned to the way various designers, instructors, learners, and stakeholders define a particular modality and its effectiveness. Some individuals focus on a modality’s apparent constraints instead of its affordances as an excuse to do less or remain stagnant, while others view the very same limitations in addition to the modalities strengths as a way to explore more options for how to reach learning goals in a new way. 

We see this same mindset outside the educational environment too. In the community I lived in several years ago, gas prices were raised to what was deemed an unacceptably high amount. Some people stopped travelling and complained about the prices making them unable to leave the house. Others began to find different ways of travel like bike riding or walking and found joy in a new experience—a modality shift. 

We have this same struggle world-wide with concern over COVID-19. Social distancing requirements limit our ability to meet in public places as groups, including churches, K-12 Institutions, universities, and many workplaces. So, what do we do as we try to reopen educational institutions with the looming fear of modality changes being inevitable? Do we view this as a limitation and therefore neglect coming up with new ideas? Or do we get creative?

It’s time to get creative

One glimmer of hope is that many people are getting creative. They are taking existing communication technologies that do not involve physical contact and improving them through re-thinking the potential to fulfill the needs of the receiver of information. Over the past several months, I’ve seen this done through people using: 

  • Phones for voice calls and FaceTime instead of just texting to create interaction using multiple senses (which is lacking with quarantine)
  • Handwritten letters to communicate daily experiences and encouragement on a more personal level than a Hallmark card
  • Web-based social media and conferencing software being used on a wider scale for communities to stay in touch

Social media and conferencing have a lot of publicity lately with questions about their long-term sustainability, security risks, and impact. These discussions have existed in instructional design communities for many years now (for example you can check out this article E‐learning in higher education: some key aspects and their relationship to approaches to study from back in 2007. Or search for viewpoints and articles by simply exploring the word e-learning or online learning in an academic journal, blog, or podcast). So let’s revisit and illuminate how we view these online tools.

Social media, web conferencing, email, and messaging are being used by educational institutions, instructors or teachers, and students on a larger scale than ever before—almost every k12 institution and higher education institution moved to remote instruction in the spring of 2020, and many continue to consider (or have already chosen) that same decision for the fall. These tools help to create altered learning and interaction environments out of necessity so people can teach and learn while remaining employed and connected both personally and professionally. 

I find beauty and creativity in this—a hope for the post COVID-19 future. But we also need to remember the effectiveness of any tool relies on those using it. New ways of thinking about technology will always have a learning curve. It can vary by individual and is essential to consider for this to be a sustainable solution. It is not just about making a learning environment that is “tech savvy.” Instead, the focus is making the material engaging, interactive, and effective for our learners, while using what is available to us in its current form or in new ways.

I’m not saying that anyone who questions the validity of web conferencing and its ability to replace a face to face conversation is in the “doing nothing” category. But when we decide one modality is automatically sub-par to another, we begin down a dangerous path of becoming limited by our tools rather than being innovative with them. The tool then becomes the focus instead of the learning goals. 

In every interaction, we have a choice. We can push ourselves beyond what’s easy and comfortable, we can sit back and be receivers of information with no intention to do anything with it, or we can end up somewhere in-between the two extremes. How much a learner engages in the material presented is a choice made outside of a modality and by the individual. We cannot control the choice that students make, but we can do our best to engage them to push past disengagement to motivation, interaction, and learning. 

Working in higher education—specifically with online courses—the idea that everyone needed to move to a virtual classroom was exciting to me. While some faculty have taken this idea in stride and are using whatever tools they can to create an effective, engaging courses for their students, others are just trying to get by with the bare minimum. The latter scenario could be because they disregard the online space as ineffective or could be because they do not feel equipped in the tools, time, or know how to design well. 

This is not acceptable. 

The online environment (a learning management software, virtual conferencing, email correspondence, social media, and any other variation) definitely has limitations, but those limitations do not hinder the ability to learn. As facilitators of learning, the overarching goal is to provide as many opportunities as we can to help our students engage, no matter the limitations. For example, K-12 teachers have been driving around and honking outside their students’ house. It’s not the same as a high five in class, but it does add value and worth to that child’s experience—it makes them feel important and connected, much like the in-class high five. Virtual learning will not look the same as face to face instruction. Even though they are inevitably different, we can still find ways to create effective and engaging learning in both environments. 

So, what to do? 

First, find out what resources you have available. There are many readily available free tools out there in addition to the tools your organization potentially already pays for and you would have access to. Explore and brainstorm with others in the same position as you and learn to use them well. How do you learn to use it? YouTube and tutorials on the product website are great places to begin. If there are videos about how to fix a kitchen sink on YouTube, there are definitely videos on how to use software.

Second, look for your experts. Find people familiar with these modalities and ask questions. Let them flex their expertise a little and help, just like you would want someone to let you do the same if they came to you with questions. Usually these people are in IT (information technology) or L&D (learning and design). While their job titles may vary, these are the people who you see designing the onboarding and continuing training experiences for your organization. This is their bread and butter and a lot of knowledge can be gained by asking them the questions you have. Don’t let them do it for you but ask them to teach and coach you through it. If they don’t know, I’m sure they can connect you to another person who can help. It becomes a fun engaging adventure of solving a puzzle for both of you, helping you feel socially connected during this physical isolation as well. You can also just look around on social media. There are plenty of individuals becoming experts out there trying new things that might be worth repeating, so browse around for ideas. Some sites like LinkedIn can connect you with a company like the Online Learning Consortium or eLearning Industry that post ideas for you to consider for online learning. There are also groups forming on Facebook that have a broader audience and are similar to a grassroots movement in people just connecting to share their clever ideas and experiences to inspire others. If you are wondering if there is a group for your specific focus, there probably is, just do a search for it. For example there is a group developed by the Chronicle of Higher Education called Higher ed and the Corona Virus, and that’s just one of the many pandemic developed groups so we can effectively help each other. 

Finally, be ready to flex those mental muscles and grow. We all need to position ourselves in a place where we are ready to learn and explore, much like a child encountering a new experience. Find ways to make the learning process more engaging, meaningful, and relevant for yourselves and others, especially, if there are other learners looking to you for instruction, learning, or guidance in this time. While our current circumstances are beyond our control, how invested you are shapes the learner’s response to what you present. You are responsible for your growth in this unique time in history, so make the most of it and develop the positive change the world so desperately needs to see. 

Author: Jessica Pierce, Instructional Designer

Jess enjoys the science behind learning and cognition and how it applies in multiple modalities, including eLearning. In the off hours, she likes spending time with her husband and three kids, going out for coffee, or running the occasional road race for the “free” shirt (to counteract the caffeine).

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