Online Instruction and the Feedback Loop

In my mind, the individualized feedback loop is at the core of education. Anyone can buy a book. Anyone can watch a video. The value you cannot get “on your own” is individualized expert feedback.

I made the image below to describe the idea of how formalized learning generally occurs. It’s not as if there is anything novel here, but it provides good background. You can see that “Provide Individualized Critique” is an instructor responsibility during the grading or sign-off intervention.

As we shifted to online mode curing the COVID-19 outbreak, I was most concerned about the “provide individualized critique” element.

Being that I teach in a hands-on environment, students work on laboratory exercises, then come to me for sign-off. I review their progress on-the-spot and say “Great start. Have you considered N?” They address N, and come back. I ask, “What about O?” And so on. Until they and I are satisfied with their work. I sign them off.

Under this arrangement, students are progressing at different rates. They are working with each other. They overhear what I tell other students. It works quite nicely.

For example, we spend several weeks working with ICS device inventories for security purposes. In one exercise I require students to identify what fields they would want the inventory to include, and why.

Generally speaking, the sharpest students are not those that get it right the first time — because no one does. They are those that move through the loop more times.

Once we went online, this level of individualized feedback was largely lost. Students were submitting their lab assignments as best they could, and I provided feedback, but then it was on to the next exercise. Instead of running through that loop several times, we only made it through once.

As the in-person paradigm is now regularly supplanted by the online paradigm in schools throughout the world, I/we will struggle to maintain (and enhance) our effectiveness.

I am particularly concerned about how this will play out for technical professionals, who will be expected to keep critical facilities like water provisioning systems up and running — for whom “work from home” is not an option.

“Hands-on. Online.” We’re going to figure this out.

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