September 3, 2014

No. 5 aha moment: the Web as a universal standard

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This is the sixth in a series of posts about the most seminal ‘discoveries’ in my researching and working in educational technology, where I discuss why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning. The others to date are:

My seven ‘a-ha’ moments in the history of educational technology (overview)

1.  Media are different.

2. God helps those who help themselves (about educational technology in developing countries).

3. Asynchronous is (generally) better than synchronous teaching

4. Computers for communication, not as teaching machines

What was the discovery? (1995) 

Like most people in education, I was caught cold by the World Wide Web. In 1995, I published a book: ‘Technology, Open Learning and Distance Education.’ There is not a single mention of the World Wide Web in the book. Nor was I alone. Two other books, more influential than mine, came out that year, Moore and Kearsley’s ‘Distance Education: A Systems View‘ and Linda Harasim and colleagues’ ‘Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching & Learning Online ‘ both of which also failed to mentioned the Web. It is really difficult to realise that the Web was not invented until around 1990, and by 1994 (when the books went to press) there were hardly any web-based online courses..

So, until 1995, I was still using non-web technology for teaching online. That was the year I moved from the Open Learning Agency to the University of British Columbia. My task was to help the university innovate in its use of learning technologies, and in particular to move the university’s print-based distance education courses online. Almost on the day I started work at UBC, I was approached by Tec de Monterrey in Mexico. They wanted me to help them develop a joint graduate program with UBC for teachers on educational technology. We started by developing five courses for a certificate in technology-based distributed learning (now known as online learning!).

At that time there were no learning management systems, so we used html to create web pages and a separate piece of software for online discussion forums. This meant having our webmaster work with the course authors (myself, and three colleagues who were also instructional designers) to manually transform Word-based documents into html. Fortunately, at the same time, Murray Goldberg, a young computer science professor at UBC, was developing the first version of WebCT, which made loading content much simpler. We started to use WebCT for our online courses in 1996 (after it had been thoroughly beta-tested elsewhere).

Why is this significant?

The web allows rich multimedia material to be transmitted to any computer, any software system, anywhere in the world, with an Internet connection. This has had profound implications for the design of online teaching which we still have by no means fully understood or exploited.

The main reason for the significance of the WWW for online learning is that by using a browser and a standard mark up language, materials on the Web can be used by anyone with any kind of computer and Internet access. Until that point, different versions of courses had to be created for different kinds of operating systems (at that time, mainly Mac and Microsoft OS). The development of learning management systems such as WebCT made the creation of online material much simpler, with authors able to directly input material without having to go through a specialist programmer (although even today, I would recommend authors to work with a good web designer, at least to set up a template or framework for a course).

The implications for online learning

For the certificate in technology-based distributed learning, and also for the first credit online courses being developed with UBC faculty, we developed what is now considered ‘standard’ e-learning 1.0 online courses. We took ‘best practice’ from print-based course design and applied and adapted it to online courses. Thus we created a framework that set out the overall structure of the course, mainly in weekly segments, with clearly defined learning objectives for each week’s work, readings online sometimes supplemented with printed textbooks and increasingly urls to other online materials (although in those days there wasn’t a great deal of academically suitable material online). We built in regular student online activities, online discussion forums, and regular monthly essay-type assignments in the form of attached Word documents that were marked and assessed online.

The important point was that because we came from a (print-based) distance education background, we either created new online courses from scratch, or re-designed campus-based courses to meet the needs of distance learners. We did not try to move lectures online through video recordings, or use audio-conferencing over the web, not just because at that time there was insufficient bandwidth to download videos, but also because we felt this was not the right pedagogy for online learners. In particular:

  • We placed a strong emphasis on student interaction and discussion, or in the more quantitative subjects on computer-marked assignments, with a quick turn-round in marking and feedback on all the online courses.
  • We tried always to have a tenured faculty member responsible for an online course, although we also relied heavily on adjunct professors for the online delivery and extra sections of courses, to keep the ratio of instructors to students below 1:30.
  •  Strong emphasis was put on the need for regular and timely interaction between the online structor and the students.
  • Using a team approach of a faculty member working with an instructional designer, we were also able to control faculty workload.

The goal incidentally at that time was not to reduce costs but to demonstrate that learning could be just as effective online as in the classroom (which I believe has now been achieved.)

How this affects online learning today

This ‘e-learning 1.0′ approach has been very successful, and not just at UBC. We had strong enrollments in online courses, high course completion rates (above 80%),  and high student satisfaction ratings. This approach to online learning worked well for the first 10-15 years or so from 1995, and it is only with the development of web 2.0 tools that new approaches to online course design have become necessary and possible, although many of the principles of e-learning 1.0, such as a strong course structure, regular student activities, and interaction between students, and between students and instructor, apply just as strongly to the effective application of web 2.0 tools. Thus the e-learning 1.0 approach has set best practice standards for online learning.

However, e-learning 1.0 is very much controlled by the instructor, who decides the content, the structure and the student learning activities as well as the assessment. Web 2.0 tools allow learners to find, analyse, create, adapt, and apply knowledge, thus enabling the development of 21st century skills of knowledge management. Nevertheless, many of the lessons learned from e-learning 1.0 are still relevant, even in this new, more learner-centered web 2.0 approach. The need then is to carry forward from e-learning 1.0 what still has value, while using the new web 2.0 tools to enable more relevant and more learner-centered approaches to teaching.

In conclusion

New technologies have a direct affect on pedagogy. New technologies enable new approaches to teaching and a changing emphasis on different kinds of learning outcomes. We take the World Wide Web for granted these days, but it is a relatively new technology. Further developments in Internet-based technologies could easily disrupt our current models of online teaching, just as we are now only just exploring the significance of web 2.0.

Nevertheless, despite these changes, we need to be guided by clear principles that underly good teaching, such as clarity of objectives, good course structure, relevant student activities that lead to skills development, interaction and feedback between a skilled instructor and students, and social and collaborative learning. New technologies that strengthen these approaches and enable higher levels of learning to be achieved will continue to add value to education, but they will still need to be embedded within a strong pedagogical framework.

 

 

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