21 July 2009

On the Aims of Consultation

Students in the 21st Century have a considerable range of choices available to them in regard to completing formal education programs. University campuses are opening in more and more remote communities, and advances in technology have made distance education much more attractive than it was formerly. It is now quite possible and affordable for students to complete many programs entirely by distance education, and many residents of communities too small for a university program have chosen this route to acquire the academic degrees they desire. Not only are undergraduate university programs being offered, there are also increasing graduate programs that are available for students to complete while they stay in remote locations close to their families, their employment, and their social networks. The rise in quality and availability of distance education is very good news for those who want to pursue university education without relocating to university towns or who want to complete a university program on a personal schedule that does not allow for attendance at classes on a typical university's schedule.
An important aspect of education that may be lost in this sort of academic program done at a distance is that of individual consultation. This is the focus of this present essay. The claim to be discussed herein is that there are four aspects of individual consultation that must not be overlooked, if students are to take proper responsibility and have true ownership of their education. These involve the provision for planning of an education, adequate security for learners, some contexts that are non-competitive, and the exploration of and reflection upon one's individual learning experience.
We will look first at the planning aspect of consultation.
Education in the past and in the classroom is a series of events that is planned by an educational institution. The benefit of this planning is that it is (often) based upon well-researched, well-thought-out approaches to adult learning at an individual level. Also often (not always), the conversion of education from the classroom to online media involves the mere placing of materials (not always, but often text) on web pages where registered students can access them. Assignments are aimed at a clear objective: Students demonstrate competence in understanding, performing tasks, or expressing attitudes that are sought in the course taken. Students are only involved in the planning of education insofar as they pick from (an often very small roster of) electives in their programs. At times, courses may involve students' choosing from among various ways to demonstrate their competence at demonstrating knowledge, skills or attitudes, but such courses are still in the minority of university course offerings.
The paradox of online education from the perspective of students today is that they must somehow personalize what is provided as a "one size fits all" approach to learning. They must find how they will benefit individually from taking a particular course and completing a particular program of instruction. Thus, in an environment where students are controlled, they must find ways to take charge of their own education.
The most convenient way for students to individualize their education is with the help of a consultant, who will probe the individual's educational history, interests, and aptitudes and monitor her or his experience in courses s/he takes. This sort of consultation is often seen to be the province of university academic advisors, but these are often classroom instructors with full academic loads who have little time for personal consultation with more than a handful of students assigned as their 'advisees'. Generally, advising schedules allow only about 15 minutes of personal attention to anywhere from a dozen to a hundred potential students, depending upon the university and program. These interactions are generally held twice yearly during the fall and spring advising periods (about two weeks prior to the pre-enrolment for the following semester.
It is the claim of this present essay, that such advising falls well short of the personal attention students need from consultants to help assure them of proper individualization and ownership of their educational program. Rather, students would be better served by the availability of a consultant throughout their learning experience and by sessions of about an hour each month during their formal program to monitor their experience and to cultivate a relationship that will put students at ease at a very difficult phase of their lives.
While it is good to provide opportunity for students to be more proactive in setting their own academic course and monitoring their own progress, it is also true that proper consultation provides added security to students in their academic careers.
In the classroom, security is found by attending to the materials produced by the course instructor and careful practising of activities assigned in the course. In an online setting, security is easy to lose and hard to maintain, since feedback tends to be limited to obvious lack of comprehension or flaws in performance of assigned tasks. Students find that the need to pursue good grades struggles against the obvious benefits of transparency in this regard: if they are finding the material and assignments difficult to understand and perform, the very questions they ask for clarification may cause their own marks to take a tumble. Thus, they tend to use a "hide and hope for the best" strategy in completing the course. This very strategy tends to isolate learners from each other and from instructional staff.
Regular appointments for individualized consulting allow students to voice concerns about their educational experience in a context removed from people whose task it is to provide evaluation and ultimate grades for courses taken. Such a context does not pit interaction against potential penalty as the students struggle to understand the course curriculum. Rather, it opens the way for students to articulate their own experience and to better understand themselves and the courses they are taking.
It should be obvious as we discuss the planning and security aspects of individualized consultation that such sessions also provide a non-competitive (by which we also mean a non-comparative) context for students to articulate their experiences.
The context of classroom instruction encourages teachers and students to compare individual students' knowledge, skills, and attitudes with each other. Classrooms are not inevitably, but often competitive environments, rather than collaborative ones. This is especially true when grading comes into focus and performances are being evaluated. Little attention is paid to the unique personal history of individuals in the class, and each individual is measured according to an "objective" standard of performance. Thus, students who are showing a great deal of improvement over past attempts may be seen to be woefully lacking in comparison to others who (for whatever reason) are building upon a much superior personal history and whose present performance may even be lacklustre, compared to past performances.
Often, the very context in which there is supposed to be encouragement and companionship provides an intimidation that stifles creativity and expression that would lead to greater learning.
In individual consultation with students, an academic coach can take the attention off how the individual is performing among peers and can remind students how they are doing compared to their earlier performances. Such coaches can also remind students how their present efforts fit into their total educational plan, instead of focusing exclusively upon the objectives of a single course.
If the planning, security, and non-competitive context of consultation is evident from the discussion above, it should also be evident that such consultation is also focused upon the individual in a very encouraging and supportive way.
Personal Attention
The classroom provides an opportunity for students to have regular contact with instructors as they are exposed to the course curriculum and perform the course assignments. In an online setting, such contact is supposed to be addressed using mediated tools, such as chats, forums, email, phone, and so forth. One of the biggest differences in the sort of contact provided in classrooms as opposed to online instruction is the regularity of the contact in non-problem-oriented contexts. In the classroom, instructors meet with students without regard to problems students may be facing with the curriculum. In addition, when students express difficulties with the curriculum in the class, other students can indicate relative support for the student who comments, giving the instructors valuable feedback concerning generalized problems that the class may be facing in the course. In an online course, there is often little contact between instructors and students (tutors may provide help at student-initiated contact) and such contact is often oriented to particular problems students are having with the material. Often the student has no idea whether problems being faced are solely his/her concern or a concern to many in the class.
The paradox of online education in this regard is that while the flexibility of online course delivery makes it attractive to students who have scheduling issues that require such flexibility, the very individualized environment created by their unique schedules focuses the individual attention they have access to on their problems; they have no one to share their successes with.
The individual consulting that is done by an academic coach focuses attention back on students learning experience overall and does not exclusively attend to problems faced as the occasion for meeting. Rather than scheduling sessions when students are challenged by problems or in need of help, the sessions are regular and frequent enough to provide as much opportunity for celebration of success and achievement as it provides to address shortcomings and obstacles.
Clearly online education offers many students who cannot attend universities valuable learning opportunities. However, these opportunities may be largely unexplored and unrealized in the event that adequate support structures outside the actual online course are in place. Other essays in this blog have discussed aspects of these necessary support structures, in particular, those of academic coaching and collaborative learning. It has been the task of this present essay to discuss the need for individual consultation in academic programs and some crucial aspects of such consultation.

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