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Tuesday, April 16, 2013



Dr. Ryan Donlan
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

New vistas in education are on my mind. 

In a few short weeks, I’ll present Closing the Distance by Unpacking Personality at a national distance learning conference in the beautiful city of St. Louis. While doing so, I’ll most likely be thinking of some globally relevant conversations I had with some visiting scholars from Thailand last week. I’ll certainly have on my mind this week’s opportunity to conduct a program review in a very innovative, Midwest school that delivers most instruction virtually. 

Who would have thought a high school student could navigate virtual courses on a laptop, pedaling atop a stationary exercise bike in a spacious room, hopping off when the urge strikes to confer with a personal trainer employed by the school?! 

Wow!  New vistas, for sure.

The world of virtual and on-line learning is inescapable if we are to remain competitive.  It is invaluable if we are to accept the responsibility of serving ALL students, as let’s face it … some just can’t show up to attend class, in person.  Whether for reasons of physical mobility or the realities of global positioning, some of our newest learners in K-12 need to be served at a distance … as they may be pedaling.

Closing that distance by making on-line learning “real” is one of the biggest challenges in education.

One solution is to equip everyone with microphone/headsets, while video tiling their images through Internet-based instructional dashboards and making our best attempt to replicate physical classrooms.  Yet this only works for synchronous instruction.  For asynchronous, it’s a whole different ballgame.

As K-12 instructional leaders, how do we manage our on-line delivery mediums in a world that both shrinks and expands at the same time? What do we actually SAY to teachers to help them improve when they desire our instructional leadership?

I have a thought.  The first thing that I would say is that we must ensure that we are “BEING THERE,” as opposed to a “HAS BEEN.” I realize that this is a poor English construction ... but please bear with me.

What do I mean? 

Teachers need to BE THERE with their students, even without a presence in the same room, building, state, country, or time frame.  Being there means that virtual or on-line teachers very much KNOW their students, as face-to-face teachers would know theirs. It’s a tall order, but it can be accomplished.

We had this discussion at a faculty meeting about a year ago, if I recall.  The question on the table was, “Can this sense of BEING THERE ever be as “complete” on-line, as it is in person?”  Some argued yes; others no. 

My thought is that it probably isn’t. 

One colleague spoke with quick wit of the potential shortcomings of attending virtual weddings or sunning oneself on a virtual trip to the beach. 

Yet we can gain some distance on this lack of physical proximity, gleaning insight into whom our students are and what they need when we’re teaching. 

To discuss how, I would begin by posing certain questions that my staff and I could explore together, if we were still collaborating in weekly staff meetings.

“In the on-line medium, how do we ‘begin’ to know our students?” As an old Irish proverb once said – A Good Beginning is Half the Work.  Do we begin our on-line classes by asking our students to offer short, personal or professional narratives of themselves?  Maybe even podcasts? Do we ask them to share their thoughts, feelings, opinions, reactions, reflections, or intended actions about our coursework ahead?  By doing so, might we open-up portals to their personalities? Might we turn students off with these same strategies, if we pry too much?  As important, do we disclose anything about ourselves that might be of interest to them?  And … what are the boundaries?

“In the on-line medium, have we considered allowing our students to showcase themselves as experts or mediators of learning?” What about asking our students to provide their own signature stamp – in an on-line, virtual marketplace of their ideas and artifacts gleaned during class. Do we provide an avenue for students to design, publish, and continually update their own spaces for sharing instructional content with each other (articles, website links, etc.)? Building these marketplaces, personalizing them, and making them available in a professional learning community will allow us to see students showcasing content and sharing more about their on-line identities.  For some, teams work best … for others, an individual approach is better.  Up to us … and them.

“In the on-line medium, how do we show responsiveness to students as members of our shared learning community?” In an asynchronous, on-line environment, I have said often that student urgency is really OUR importance.  E-mails really should be returned within a few hours if at all possible.  Let us consider that many on-line learners do not learn in predictable, traditional (daily) segments.  Some may work in bursts of effort, compressing much of their activity into just a few days (or nights) per week.  Let’s say we get an e-mail.  What happens if we do not reply to an urgent question quickly? Our students may not be able to recommit to their studies for a handful of days, resulting in lost time and teachable moments. Over time, this could result in a lost relationship with someone depending on us.  Are we THERE for this new generation of students, on their time?  Or, are we still operating on the time frame that we have considered “ours”?

Finally, “In the on-line medium, how do we detect distress in students, and further … when detected, what do we do about it?”  You’ll have to come to St. Louis for this one.  :-)

I am trying to imagine a new type of school – a new vista in education that as best it can, will allow for a teacher/student experience to be as rich and mutually satisfying as the face-to-face experiences I had while spending my career in K-12. 

As I now teach in a combination of face-to-face and on-line mediums at Indiana State University, I am beginning better to reimagine how teachers and I would ask smarter questions in our staff meetings about connecting with students who are increasingly less land-locked than I have been for the last 45 years. 

Are you “BEING THERE” or a “HAS BEEN”?


Will you help Dr. Ryan Donlan help other leaders by sharing your best practices and conversations that are resulting in your BEING THERE, when everyone’s physically not?  Call or write anytime at (812) 237-8624 or

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