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Online Learning Consortium: Can affirmation help online learning?

Author: Holly Shiflett, Director, North American Partnerships at FutureLearn

This year was the 25th anniversary celebration of the Online Learning Consortium (OLC). OLC is one of my favorite conferences, and not just because it’s in warm, sunny Florida. I really enjoy the opportunity to discover new ways to engage students and create great experiences online. As I participate in these conference experiences, I always look for one key theme that ties everything together. My one key takeaway for OLC is “the power of encouragement.” This core idea was illustrated in a variety of ways at the event. From skills based degree programs which allow learners to capitalize on what they already know and align to future jobs to AI technology that helps teachers focus on the most critical interactions, it’s really all about enabling learners to be successful.

I guess this really came into focus for me with the first keynote speaker Talithia Wlliams from Harvey Mudd College. Dr. Williams shared an encouraging story of how one professor shared one affirmation “you’re good at math and you should pursue it,” and this was all it took to pursue a career as a PhD in statistics. Dr. Williams is a frequent TED Talk speaker and inspirational voice for STEM careers. I have my own similar story. I too was inspired by an individual comment that led me to take an unexpected journey. Like many students nearing graduation, I was pretty much willing to try anything just to get some experience for my resume. And so, I applied for a job as a newspaper reporter at the Maryland Coast Dispatch. I didn’t like writing (I still don’t!) and had never taken a newspaper writing class. No one thought I’d get the job — not even my Mom! BUT, hiding in the back of my mind was an offhand comment from a faculty member who told me that I was a good writer. And so, I went for it. I got the interview and somehow convinced them that in spite of having no experience, I could do the job. Full disclosure, it is a tiny little weekly newspaper in a tiny, little, seasonal beach town, but to me it was a HUGE success!

Both Dr. Williams and I had the confidence to try based on the power of one small compliment. That’s what encouragement can do. A recent article in Psychology Today, called Using Self Affirmation in the Classroom shared a similar finding – value affirmations in teaching, particularly in STEM fields can lead to success. It’s important to mention that affirmation can come externally like in Dr. Wiliams’ case or internally as a way to encourage ourselves forward. But, how can affirmations help us in online education? As online learning is often a very solitary activity, I think that it is a perfect environment for the practice of affirmation. Classmates, instructors or student support liaisons, can all provide affirmation.  We can even do this in very small ways, the micro-affirmation. It’s like a micro-aggression but positive. As discussed in an article by We Are Teachers, individuals can use these small acts – greetings, encouragement, inclusive language, using names – to have an impact on student achievement.

So what does this mean for online education?

To me, it seems that while we are getting better at using technology to support students, we need to remember the human side and connect with learners on an individual basis. A simple “you can do it” or just an understanding response to a frantic email from a learner can help them to succeed. And whether it’s a chatbot automatically responding with an auto-generated reply or a real person providing content specific support, it’s still an enabler of success. If fact, chatbots can successfully be used for encouragement and you may have interacted with a caring bot already! Affirmation works. For example, a recent online class that I took required that participations share one affirmation or positive thing that happened that week before asking a question. It was a great way to keep the mood positive and implement the idea of affirmation.

Of course this theme fits in really well at OLC and they had a number of different tracks related to this topic. The conference covers leadership, instruction strategies, student support, tools and technologies and research. One specific session that I found very interesting was by Western Governors University (WGU) about skills based degrees. WGU is innovative in this area and they had a number of sessions exploring the topic. They differentiated this from competencies based degree as it’s more about the skills from a degree matching the skills required by employers. WGU gleans these insights from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Burning Glass by merging skills from job postings and aligning these particular skills with a number of degrees and with 120,000 students, they are good at caring and affirming.

In closing, I wrote down one thing from the keynote, the power of affirmation. For those of you who were there, yes, I did cry when she shared the story of her mentor. We all need that person to look up to who encourages us and challenges us to be our best. It’s a lesson to all that we can make a difference. The great thing about keynote speeches is that they give us a theme and an inspiration, a lens through which to view the conference experience. So, be kind to yourself, be kind to others. I can’t help but share this message from icon Dolly Parton who urges us to affirm ourselves but let’s also remember to give a little encouragement to others. The affirmation you share could be the one small nudge that moves another to a better future and isn’t that what education is all about? Who can you affirm today?

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