Book Review: Teach Beyond Your Reach
One of the things that makes the author of this book particularly well-qualified to write on the subject is the fact that she had to overcome her own scepticism of distance learning in the course of gaining her creative writing degree. Robin Neidorf has since built a successful business, Electric Muse, which is dedicated to providing high standards of online learning through training and related services.
From the position of her experience the author can now argue that teaching through distance learning is even more rewarding than teaching face-to-face and through this book she sets out to help trainers make the journey equally rewarding for the student. The main difference between face-to-face and distance learning is that in the online context, apart from decisions on content, you have to think about which platform to use, how to integrate technology in order to enhance learning and how to guide students effectively through the virtual classroom experience. The author expands on ideas about the creative possibilities in distance learning and proactive knowledge and explains why Web-based education dominates the field.
There are many different options for delivering online training from the Webinar (real-time Web-based presentation) to downloadable e-books and personalised e-mail support. The book covers a wide range of topics including tools, best practice, e-learning behaviour, learning styles and attitudes, ideas on how to create content and choosing appropriate design for it, interactive activities and tips on how to do the hardest thing - build an on-line learning community.
Robin Neidorf convinces you that like a face-to-face teacher cannot fake commitment, neither can an on-line one. You need the ability to create connections, communicate and motivate to an even higher degree. In addition you must understand the impact of the choice of tools on delivery and satisfaction. There are many options to consider: e-mail, teleconferencing synchronous and asynchronous discussions, lists, blogs, multimedia, proprietary and open source Web-based course management systems. The author also looks to the future - the extended use of palmtop appliances, cell-phones and e-book readers - and the need for further functionality in order to take the leap and deliver just-in-time learning.
The text is well structured with tables, examples, case studies and tips outlined in highly visible tables and boxes. This book is very good at setting out the characteristics of adult learners and how instructors should approach teaching them with true understanding of their motivation, of the multi-dimensional demands on their lives and above all with respect for their life wisdom.
There is useful advice on how to work with designers, and how to create effective, targeted and engaging content, how to balance textual, visual and other information in crafting a suitable 'container for the learning experience'. Specific requirements such as the expectation of interactivity, variety, single purpose documents, non-linear approaches and customised pathways, screen design and testing your course are addressed in detail. There are suggestions on how to deal with problems such as anti-social online behaviour, slackening motivation and difficulties with written English and the hardest of all problems - creating a community of online learners infused with positive peer energy. The three appendices cover further online sources, sample introductory material, netiquette and a lecture on how to beat writer's block.
This is a non-technical book with potentially a very diverse readership such as college teachers, consultants and instructors. I read it as a student on the receiving end of Web-based distance learning and wished some of its suggestions had been picked up by those designing my courses.