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Sep 14, 2020

Don’t replicate, recreate: Observational learning in an online course

In his effort to overcome the limitations of behaviorism, Albert Bandura demonstrated the existence of observational learning, a subspecies of social learning. We learn our behaviors from others, and can develop cognitive models by observing others. In a good f2f class, such opportunities abound. For example, when one student tries to think aloud through a problem presented by instructor, the rest of the students observe and learn to apply the same moves in problem solving. The instructor always identifies good moves, and correct wrong ones. It creates a situation of guided observation. A similar thing happens in small group discussions: students will learn to reproduce skills shown by their more advanced peers. The phenomenon is not the only learning mechanism, but an important one.

For example, in courses on multicultural education, we teach student how to become culturally de-centered. In other words, they need to overcome the very common and naïve assumption that their own culture is normal, and all others are good but exotic. They master an ability to view their own cultural background just as exotic as any other, if viewed from outside. It is a fairly difficult mental and emotional shift. An instructor can explain it many times, and still students are unable to overcome the deeply help assumption about their own “normality.” The main pedagogical problem is that you cannot only use other people’s examples or stories; students need to work through their own, highly individual cultural experiences and assumptions. We orchestrate some sort of an explication activity, where students share their specific cultural experiences, compare them to each other. We wait for one of them to have the “aha” moment, to slip out of their own egocentric point of view and view themselves through the eyes of the very different other. And then we focus on that experience, call the attention of others, more or less asking them to do what this student just did. This is just one illustration. In almost any course, there are 2-3 significant growth points, where students need to move up to the next level. If you have not identified key jumps like this, you should definitely think more about your course. The point is, complex skills are hard to teach without the support of observational learning.

The common learning management systems facilitate student-teacher interaction really well. They are OK at facilitating student-student interactions. But they do not have an easy way of supporting the kind of three-way dance with students observing, and instructor approving/disapproving their actions and thoughts. This is why so many instructors are desperately trying to force their students to keep their cameras on during Zoom sessions. The really want to read and send the non-verbal clues. But that is not the solution; it simply does not work through Zoom. Besides, the requirement to keep the cameras on all the time has a whole set of legal and ethical implications.

The direct replication of f2f world generally does not work in an online course. This is why it is important to remember one rule: don’t replicate, re-create. What you need to do instead is build a routine where students are asked to produce bite-size performances that get them one small step closer to the target skill. Then you need to make sure they read or watch each other’s performances/texts, with explicit instructions on how to critique and learn from each other. Do that, repeat, crank it up one notch, repeat again. Wait for a breakthrough, and then point out explicitly to that break-through, and ask everyone do the same thing Jenni or Jose just did. In other words, structure your activities in a way that observational learning still takes place, even though more slowly, a lot more explicitly, and more deliberate. However, the larger point is more important: do not replicate the exact behavior, re-create something else, with similar pedagogical properties.

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