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Thursday, August 12, 2010

On GPS's and Online Courses - Reflections of an Adult Learner

I took an online course in Excel 2007 at our local community college this summer and thoroughly enjoyed it, but now that it's over, I realize that not all the insights I gained concerned Excel. Granted there were some pretty cool Excel moments - I've been using spreadsheets since the early 80's, but I have to admit to being WOWed and amazed with this newer version of Excel. And, yes, sometimes a bit annoyed by what it still did not do.

Even though I was a seasoned Excel user (as were many of my classmates, most of whom fell into the broad category of adult learners), I had wanted to add some certifications to my resume. I thought an MCAS/MOS certification in Excel 2007 would be a good way to break the ice. Although I'd had some formal introduction to spreadsheets early on in my IT career, so much of how we learned at the inception of the desktop revolution (before the certifications, degree programs, and the standardization that exists today)  involved 90% intuition and exposure on the job, and 10% (re)reading the manual. ;)  None of which I regret for even a minute - for me it was a fabulous way to learn. But intuition is right-brained and as such does not conveniently lend itself to words, which are how we communicate, teach, and convey concepts. 
(My grandmother must have been extremely right-brained because she would often say, "It's just easier for me to do it myself than to try to show you how to do it." This applied to cooking, housework, and most things, and was why I ended up being such a bookworm.  But I digress.) While I probably intuitively knew 80% of what the Mastering Excel 2007 course would teach, I didn't know the new Excel interface or if there were far better ways to do what I already knew. (And I was really curious about pivot tables and how they were used!)

Our local community college offered the summer school class in Excel over distance through the program of Office Administration. While I signed on primarily to upgrade my skills and obtain certification, most of my classmates took the class as part of their various degree objectives. So what I would like to do in this article is consider the challenges of effectively teaching an online course in Excel to users of varied experience and motivation.

We purchased our textbooks, obtained our weekly assignments each Monday via Blackboard, and handed them in each Sunday before midnight. Each week usually included working through a unit in the textbook, completing chapter and unit exercises in a programmed instruction sort of fashion, taking a unit exam, and participating in a weekly discussion board topic. The instructor was available via email but we relied primarily on ourselves in true correspondence course fashion, and upon one another's advice on a Discussion Board reserved for help topics. I learned lots, but I don't know that I'd do an intensive eight-week Summer School online course again to prepare for a certification exam. Well, not without more roadmaps along the way.

Let me explain by telling a little story. This summer at a family reunion, we were discussing GPS systems. My cousin Barb, who is a seasoned teacher, said flatly, "They make you stupid."

 I snickered because her comment reminded me of a TV insurance commercial that always caught my eye. The commercial starts out in a car with a driver who's following the instructions of a friendly GPS voice.  Music's playing, and everything's grooving like clockwork:

"Turn right in 20 feet." 


"Turn left at the next intersection."

(pause) ...

Then abruptly, "Turn right here.


The camera pulls away to show us the car sticking through a store front window as the dazed driver looks about in disbelief. 


While Benny and I don't own a GPS, our family reunion discussion also resurrected memories of our various driving excursions using Mapquest and Google. It dawned on me that the difference between using a map versus following step by step instructions, whether from a GPS or from Google, is that the GPS gives us the steps, but the map gives us a strong visual context in which to use our powers of reasoning. The task of navigating usually requires both skills. Furthermore, I believe our minds were made to see steps or details presented in a context. That's how we make sense of things. Otherwise, we're just driving blind. 

The same concept applies to the online Excel class which consisted, in part, of using a textbook to complete assignments step by step in programmed instruction fashion.  Actually the textbook was very well conceived. It was quite readable and presented material in digestible portions. It was well-organized and presented concepts in fairly logical progression (one exception being data tables, which were presented in a later chapter than the rest of the "What If" Analysis Tools, Scenarios, Goal Seek, and Solver). The book had many, many summary lists and tables and other visual cues, as well as review questions at the end of each chapter and unit. The authors very wisely included a fun situated case study of an ice cream company to which all exercises and homework related (yum). The book also reviewed and drilled us on earlier concepts as it presented new ones. However, the unrelenting step by step approach taken with the exercises became a bit tedious and frustrating. This approach is sometimes necessary, but learning a new task step by step, even with a little review and backtracking thrown in, can sometimes feel like "driving blind." The exercises also needed an overview, which the book did not provide.

To help us prepare for the MCAS certification exam, the book listed the MCAS objective numbers at the beginning of each chapter and throughout. However, it would have been nice to also have a list of the actual MCAS objectives - those were nowhere to be found - either on the web or in the class.

Not enought roadmaps.

No one in the class had ever taken the Microsoft certification exam. Researching online, we discovered that examples of the test were no longer available. No reason was given. A classmate eventually came up with a one page pdf file of the super-arching objectives, which did help. But essentially we were expected to gamble $85.00 on a test about which we remained pretty much in the dark - we had no idea how long it would take, how many questions were on it, what format the test would use, or what would be the best strategy to prepare for it. Needless to say, many of us were hesitant to pony up that much money in the face of such overwhelming lack of information.

Our text did a thorough job in covering Excel 2007 over the 8 week span of the class. I enjoyed the material. But to prepare students to pass a certification exam as well as to effectively use Excel 2007 in a workplace, I feel that it is important to scaffold the adult learner in strategies of comprehension AND RETENTION. The class mainly concentrated on covering a whole lotta ground in a short amount of time in step by step programmed instruction fashion. I was so focused on just getting through the chapter readings and exercises, completing the chapter and unit assignments, participating in the weekly discussion topic, and taking the unit exam by Sunday midnight, as well as keeping up with my other coursework, that I didn’t think, “What am I going to do to retain all this good information so that I have it when I need it?

Well, actually I did, but my stop-gap solution was to copy the many helpful summary tables, tips, new information, and lists from each chapter with the idea of using them for a quick review before the exams. Copying pages and pages of textbook on one's all-in-one home printer, however, is probably not the most effective use of time or resources, and in the end, did not prove to be the
strategy of choice. What I did wind up doing right before the certification exam was to revisit the text and construct my own Excel "job aid" workbook with notes, tips and examples, using many of the new skills I had learned. I only wished I'd thought of this early\ier on. This approach  makes sense in view of two learning theories, Constructivism and Scaffolding, which now that I've mentioned, I will briefly discuss.

Constructivism's basic tenet is that knowledge is not so much transmitted as it is constructed. While a teacher or a text may present material, in the end the student must have encoded the information structures in his own brain to be able to use and retrieve them, a process known as knowledge construction, which also dovetails with theories of Cognitive Psychology.  As a learning theory, Constructivism is more about a change in focus. It eschews traditional teacher-lead methods to suggest that learning activities be intentional in helping facilitate or scaffold the knowledge construction process. This approach is referred to as being more student-centered.
Scaffolding, a concept introduced by Lev Vygotsky, proposes, among other things, that students can go further faster if you can find ways to scaffold them (my rough definition). This has to do with a student's "zone of proximal development  which is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can do with help."
Back to the summer Excel course. As busy as we were getting through each week's alloted activities, ironically too much was not enough. In addition to having us work through exercises liberally sprinkled throughout the chapters, the book had plenty of additional programmed exercises at the end of the chapter – plus suggestions for applications we could come up with on our own. It also drilled us on previously presented concepts while it presented new material. So in that sense, the book did an excellent job of scaffolding. But in summer school we only had time to complete about three programmed exercises per chapter, plus three for the unit before we had to move on to the next stop.

Not enough time to construct roadmaps.

We needed more time to play with concepts and to construct our own learning and retention strategies, which were likely different for beginners than for experienced users, or for people preparing for a certification exam versus people fulfilling a degree objective. For one thing, the experienced user has to unlearn established habits with a product and to integrate new information with a large volume of pre-existing knowledge and experience. The inexperienced user, on the other hand, is continually confronted with new concepts and the daunting process of constructing a whole "big picture." In terms of learning tasks, these are fairly different exercises in cognition, each difficult in their own right.

Part of scaffolding an experienced user to learn a newer version of Excel may involve (re)awakening and retraining them to use their powers of observation. Which reminds me of a drawing class I took in college. I remember one particular class where we spent three, count 'em, three whole hours drawing a chair. Just a plain old chair. The instructor kept repeating that he did not want us to draw our concept of a chair - he wanted us to draw THAT chair. Which all goes to show that getting someone to really see something is not as easy as one might think, and that analysis of the audience and the learning task is fairly critical to the success of helping the individual adult learner accomplish his or her goal and to accomplishing the overall course goals (one of which was to prepare students to take the Microsoft certification exam).

In preparing for the certification exam, I used the index to back-track through the step by step exercises in the text to review complex skills. It would have helped to have more quick and easy "how-to" references in the chapters - something visual that showed at a glance where we had just been. I also think the book could  have spent more time building visual side by side comparisons - for instance we were introduced to named ranges, tables, list ranges, structured references, and data tables weeks apart from one another. With the lapse of time, these terms tend to run together, so it becomes important to scaffold people in keeping track of what each one means and what are the differences between them. As students, if we knew what was coming, we might have done that ourselves - but ... we were busy driving blind.

I also think McGraw-Hill, with whom I once interviewed, may have rushed the book to market because it contained several errors in the chapters and tests. This could lead to confusing or misleading students, especially distance learners struggling with new concepts. Two-thirds through the course I began wishing I had kept a list of errata. I also wondered if the company did a substantive formative evaluation, particularly in the context of a distance class and a distance audience of varied experience. A focus group may have proved truly helpful in this respect.

See, McGraw-Hill, you should have hired me. ;)

However, all things considered, it is probably beyond the scope of a textbook to accomplish everything involved in preparing learners to learn, so the better question to ask might be what is the balance or what are the roles of the instructor, the learners, and the text in an intensive distance class that teaches a new software product?

I think the designers and instructor of our little online summer course were well on the way to figuring that out. In the end I did get my MCAS/MOS certification. It was not the perfect score I had envisioned, but it was good enough (certification exams and scoring being a whole 'nother topic which I'll skip for now, except to say that with effective planning, institutions may be able to improve numbers of successful certifications as well as certification scores). I had fun with the class and with Excel 2007. There were moments in which I was wowed. I was able to achieve my goals which were understanding the new Excel 2007 interface, learning more of the complex features such as Pivot Tables and What If Analysis (as a programmer, I already had a good general grasp on functions and formulas), discovering better ways to get things done, and passing my MCAS/MOS Excel certification exam. The attrition rate seemed quite modest and other members of the class reported feeling similarly positive about their experience. Overall, I'd say that adds up to an effective albeit fast-paced summer school course in mastering Excel 2007! :)

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