What Are My Experiences That Will Help Me Succeed In Online Learning?

Charles A. McArthur Is an Associate Professor of Communications At Springfield College, Massachussetts.

This guest post is by Charles McMOlly, a former associate professor of biology at the University of Kentucky who has spent several years teaching on campus and online. He currently works as a social media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @ChmMcArthur.

I thought about being an active member of the ON22 community when I left university as an associate professor several years ago. But I got distracted in the quest for “something better.” I remember meeting the ON22 speaker, Spencer Wagner, back when he first got together to build a community around his fascination with the process of microbiology, especially the relationship between the natural world and its “makers.” (Who is your maker?)

With a nod to the power of the crowd, I spent much of my last few months as an undergraduate getting to know Spencer and a group of other young researchers, all of whom were making scientific discoveries in fields from material science to environmental science and life sciences. So as I pondered my next career move, Spencer and the peers taught me what I needed to know.

I had written about Spencer in Higher Ed Week a few years earlier. He had reached out to me, as part of the Cambridge Scientific Student Exploration Initiative, to explore ways to engage a “virtual” community of scientists and professors at universities around the world. It’s when I found out that Spencer was a member of ON22 that I realized I could help him, and others, when he returned from the West Coast to Oklahoma and beyond as a master’s student.

Online learning gets attention in part because it enables students to learn in a way that can’t happen in a physical classroom—and because the classrooms are equipped with technological wizardry. Each new school year brings a slew of college-level courses. Yet as I consider the downside of these online education offerings, I realized that almost all of them will fail unless students and teachers can find some way to drive meaningful gains that benefit both. A student who gets too many devices to look at (trendy conversations), too few moments to learn, and too little time to master is not going to thrive in the world of online learning.

I and other online educators must work to establish lasting relationships. I learned about online education from someone who was interested in it because he knew that he would be working with a group of experts and learners who had respected one another for years. The ON22 community, I discovered, fosters a sense of community rooted in shared experiences, most often during labs and social gatherings. Research has shown that students who are in this kind of community will seek it out and make it part of their daily lives.

One of the best ways to establish meaningful connections with ON22 members is to always have a platform to share experiences with them that you can see or access through others. Ideas are valuable, but so are the broader context and context for the ideas. You need an opportunity to look through an old photo, read the details of an article, or listen to Spencer talk about how he came to publish his latest paper. It’s only through these types of experiences that students and teachers learn to trust each other. And trust, as we all know, is a crucial part of learning.

The first year I attended ON22, I worked on two research projects with the group. One involved interacting with several members of the community, including people working on beer yeast, microbial populations, and hosted microbes. We used our communication tools to text message questions back and forth to each other. We used them to seek out “good” and “bad” collaborators and graduate students. We had talks in their houses and breweries. We discussed astronomy together and issues about social media and culture.

We made contacts that changed the path of my career and opened many opportunities.

I feel confident that many students will reach out to me in the future as I follow that same path. One thing that I learned about Spencer and his peers is that they are generous people who will be eager to connect with others and help others improve their works. If you’re interested in online learning, I strongly encourage you to connect with folks who have gathered in Oklahoma to help promote the online learning experience as a useful tool for people of all ages, of every background, and of every cultural context. This is a community, and by doing so, we will facilitate not only the best outcomes online but also those in the human context.

*An earlier version of this article stated that Charles McArthur was the faculty director of Cambridge Scientific Student Exploration Initiative. It should be noted that as I am no longer affiliated with CSEI, this blog post does not represent my current views on online learning.

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