March 5, 2015

Nine questions to ask when choosing modes of delivery

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Figure 10.5.2 Can the study of haematology be done online?

Figure 10.6.1 Can the study of haematology be done online?

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This is the fifth of five posts on choosing modes of delivery for Chapter 10 of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

The previous four posts were:

So now we come to the denouement! (Exciting, eh!). In this post (spoiler alert) I will suggest a methodology and a set of questions to ask in order to reach a decision for any particular course or program.

A suggested method for deciding between online and face-to-face delivery on solely pedagogic grounds

The standard work on this is by Dietmar Kennepohl, of Athabasca University (Kennepohl, 2010). I have drawn heavily on his work here, although the example given is mine.

The most pragmatic way to go about this is to trust the knowledge and experience of subject experts who are willing to approach this question in an open-minded way, especially if they are willing to work with instructional designers or media producers on an equal footing. So here is a process for determining when to go online and when not to, on purely pedagogical grounds, for a course that is being designed from scratch in a blended delivery mode.

I will choose a subject area at random: haematology (the study of blood), in which I am not an expert. But here’s what I would suggest if I was working with a subject specialist in this area:

Step 1: identify the main instructional approach.

This is discussed in some detail in Chapters 3 to 4, but here are the kinds of decision to be considered:

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Table 10.6.2 Which teaching approach?

Table 10.6.2 Which teaching approach?

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This should lead to a general plan or approach to teaching that identifies the teaching methods to be used in some detail. In the example of haematology, the instructor wants to take a more constructivist approach, with students developing a critical approach to the subject matter. In particular, she wants to relate the course specifically to certain issues, such as security in handling and storing blood, factors in blood contamination, and developing student skills in analysis and interpretation of blood samples.

Step 2. Identify the main content to be covered

and in particular any presentational requirements of the content, i.e. what do they need to know in this course? In haematology, this will mean understanding the chemical composition of blood, what its functions are, how it circulates through the body, what external factors may weaken its integrity or functionality, etc. In terms of presentation, dynamic activities need to be explained, and representing key concepts in colour will almost certainly be valuable. Observations of blood samples under many degrees of magnitude will be essential, i.e. the use of a microscope.

Step 3. Identify the main skills to be developed during the course

what they must be able to do with the content they are learning. This will probably include the ability to analyse the components of blood, such as the glucose and insulin levels, to interpret the results, and to present a report.

Let’s call Steps 2 and 3 the key learning objectives for the course.

Step 4: Analyse the most appropriate mode for each learning objective

Then create a table as in Figure 10.6.3

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Figure 10.5.4 Allocating mode of delivery

Figure 10.6.3 Allocating mode of delivery

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In this example, the instructor is keen to move as much as possible online, so she can spend as much time as possible with students, dealing with laboratory work and answering questions about theory and practice. She was able to find some excellent online videos of several of the key interactions between blood and other factors, and she was also able to find some suitable graphics and simple animations of the molecular structure of blood which she could adapt, as well as creating with the help of a graphics designer her own graphics. Indeed, she found she had to create relatively little new material or content herself.

The instructional designer also found some software that enabled students to design their own laboratory set-up for certain elements of blood testing which involved combining virtual equipment, entering data values and running an experiment.  However, there were still some skills that needed to be done hands-on in the laboratory, such as inserting glucose and using a ‘real’ microscope to analyse the chemical components of blood. However, the online material enabled the instructor to spend more time in the lab with students.

This is a crude method of determining the balance between face-to-face teaching and online learning for a blended learning course, but it least it’s a start. A similar kind of process was used in the early days of the Open University, when science faculty worked with BBC producers and instructional designers to decide between the use of text, audio, television, home experimental kits and a compulsory residential campus-based laboratory component for the foundation science program. The desired content and skills were identified then allocated across the different media. Because the residential component was the most expensive and the least flexible for students, the aim was to move as much as possible to the other modes, in order to keep to a minimum the residential component. This resulted in a highly successful program which won high praise and awards in science teaching at the time. In fact the Open University no longer has a compulsory residential component for its science courses.

10.6.2 Analyse the resources available

There is one more consideration besides the type of learners, the overall teaching method, and making decisions based on pedagogical grounds, and that is to consider the resources available.

This will need to take place in parallel with steps 1-4 above. In particular, the key resource is the time of the instructor. Careful consideration is needed about how best to spend the limited time available to this instructor. It may be all very well to identify a series of videos as the best way to capture some of the procedures for blood testing, but if these videos do not already exist in a format that can be freely used, shooting video specially for this one course may not be justified, in terms of either the time the instructor would need to spend on video production, or the costs of making the videos with a professional crew.

The availability and skill level of learning technology support from the institution will also be a critical factor. Can the instructor get the support of an instructional designer and media producers? If not, it is likely that much more will be done face-to-face than online, unless the instructor is already very experienced in online learning.

Are there resources available to buy out the instructor for one semester to spend time on course design? Many institutions have development funds for innovative teaching and learning, and there may be external grants or creating new open educational resources, for instance. This will increase the practicality and hence the likelihood of more of the teaching moving online.

We shall see that as more and more learning material becomes available as open educational resources, teachers and instructors will be freed up from mainly content presentation to focusing on more interaction with students, both online and face to face. However, although open educational resources are becoming increasingly available, they may not exist in the topics required or they may not be of adequate quality in terms of either content or production standards.

10.6.3 Questions for consideration in choosing modes of delivery

In summary, here are some questions to consider, when designing a course from scratch:

1. What kind of learners are likely to take this course? What are their needs? Which mode(s) of delivery will be most appropriate to these kinds of learners? Could I reach more or different types of learners by choosing a particular mode of delivery?

2. What is my view of how learners can best learn on this course? What is my preferred method(s) of teaching to facilitate that kind of learning on this course?

3. What is the main content (facts, theory, data, processes) that needs to be covered on this course?

4. What are the main skills that learners will need to develop on this course? What are the ways in which they can develop/practice these skills?

5. How can technology help with the presentation of content on this course?

6. How can technology help with the development of skills on this course?

7. When I list the content and skills to be taught, which of these could be taught:

  • fully online
  • partly online and partly face-to-face
  • can only be taught face-to-face?

8. What resources do I have available for this course in terms of:

  • professional help from instructional designers and media producers
  • possible sources of funding for release time and media production
  • good quality open educational resources

9. In the light of the answers to all these questions, which mode of delivery makes most sense?

Feedback

1. If anyone’s a haematologist out there, first forgive me, then tell me how to make it better. (I chose haematology, because I was asked when giving a presentation how would I apply this method to haematology – I had to think quickly on my feet.)

2. Would this method work for you? If not, how are decisions made in your institution about which mode to use? In particular, would you have to go to an unrealistic level of detail to do this for a whole course?

Next up

Open education and open educational resources.

Reference

Kennepohl, D. (2010) Accessible Elements: Teaching Science Online and at a Distance Athabasca AB: Athabasca University Press

 

Challenging the supremacy of face-to-face teaching

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What makes classroom teaching pedagogically unique?

What makes classroom teaching pedagogically unique?

This is the second of five posts on choosing appropriate modes of delivery, part of Chapter 10 of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. The first looked at the wide range of options now available to instructors, from face-to-face teaching to blended to fully online. This post looks at what we know both from best practices and research about the pedagogical differences, and suggests that no one mode of delivery is inherently better than another. What we need to know are the conditions or circumstances that are needed for the mode to succeed.

Many surveys have found that a majority of faculty still believe that online learning or distance education is inevitably inferior in quality to classroom teaching. In fact, there is no scientifically-based evidence to support this opinion. At the same time, although the technology keeps changing, we can learn a great deal from earlier developments in distance education. Fully online learning is, after all, just another version of distance education.

The influence of distance education on online learning

A great deal has been written about distance education (see, for instance, Wedemeyer, 1981; Keegan, 1990; Holmberg, 1995; Moore and Kearsley, 1996; Peters, 2002; Bates, 2005; Evans et al., 2008) but in concept, the idea is quite simple: students study in their own time, at the place of their choice (home, work or learning centre), and without face-to-face contact with a teacher. However, students are usually ‘connected’, usually today through the Internet, with an instructor, adjunct faculty or tutor who provides learner support and student assessment. (For another definition of distance education – especially relevant to economically developing countries – see Commonwealth of Learning.)

Distance education has been around a very long time. It could be argued that in the Christian religion, St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians was an early form of distance education (53-57 AD). The first distance education degree was offered by correspondence by the University of London (UK) in 1858. Students were mailed a list of readings, and took the same examination as the regular on-campus students. If students could afford it, they hired a private tutor, but the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens called it the People’s University, because it provided access to higher education to students from less affluent backgrounds. The program still continues to this day, but is now called the University of London International Programmes, with more than 50,000 students worldwide. (As an aside, the University of London was primarily established in 1838 to set a common examination system between its different colleges, thus separating teaching and assessment – perhaps the earliest example of ‘disaggregation’ in education.)

In North America, historically many of the initial land-grant universities, such as Penn State University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of New Mexico in the USA, and Memorial University, University of Saskatchewan and the University of British Columbia in Canada, had state- or province-wide responsibilities, As a result these institutions have a long history of offering distance education programs, mainly as continuing education for farmers, teachers, and health professionals scattered across the whole state or province. These programs have now been expanded to cover undergraduate and professional masters students. Australia is another country with an extensive history of both k-12 and post-secondary distance education.

Qualifications received from most of these universities carry the same recognition as degrees taken on campus. For instance, the University of British Columbia, which has been offering distance education programs since 1936, makes no distinction on student transcripts between courses taken at a distance and those taken on campus, as both kinds of students take the same examinations.

Another feature of distance education, pioneered by the British Open University in the 1970s, but later adopted and adapted by North American  universities that offered distance programs, is a course design process, based on the ADDIE model, but specially adapted to serve students learning at a distance. This places a heavy emphasis on defined learning outcomes, production of high quality multimedia learning materials, planned student activities and engagement, and strong learner support, even at a distance. As a result, universities that offered distance education programs were well placed for the move into online learning in the 1990s. These universities have found that in general, students taking the online programs do almost as well as the on-campus students (course completion rates are usually within 5-10 per cent of the on-campus students – see Ontario, 2011), which is a little surprising as the distance students often have full-time jobs and families.

It is important to acknowledge the long and distinguished pedigree of distance education from internationally recognised, high quality institutions, because commercial diploma mills, especially in the USA, have given distance education an unjustified reputation of being of lower quality. As with all teaching, distance education can be done well or badly. However, where distance education has been professionally designed and delivered by high quality public institutions, it has proved to be very successful, meeting the needs of many working adults, students in remote areas who would otherwise be unable to access education on a full-time basis, or on-campus students wanting to fit in an extra course or with part-time jobs whose schedule clashes with their lecture schedule. However, universities, colleges and even schools have been able to do this only by meeting high quality design standards.

At the same time, there has also been a small but very influential number of campus-based teachers and instructors who quite independently of distance education have been developing best practices in online or computer-supported learning. These include Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff who were experimenting with online or blended learning as early as the late 1970s at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Marlene Scardamalia and Paul Bereiter at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, and Linda Harasim at Simon Fraser University, who all focused particularly on online collaborative learning and knowledge construction within a campus or school environment.

There is also plenty of evidence that teachers and instructors in many schools, colleges and universities new to online learning have not adopted these best practices, instead merely transferring lecture-based classroom practice to blended and online learning, often with poor or even disastrous results.

 What the research tells us

There have been thousands of studies comparing face-to-face teaching to teaching with a wide range of different technologies, such as televised lectures, computer-based learning, and online learning, or comparing face-to-face teaching with distance education. With regard to online learning there have been several meta-studies, that is, studies that have combined the results of many ‘well-conducted scientific’ studies, i.e. studies that used the matched comparisons or quasi-experimental method (Means et al., 2011; Barnard et al., 2014). Nearly all such ‘well-conducted’ meta-studies find no or little significant difference in the teaching methods, in terms of the effect on student learning or performance. For instance, Means et al. (2011), in a major meta-analysis of research on blended and online learning for the U.S. Department of Education, reported:

In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches. When used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so.

Means et al. attributed the slightly better performance of blended learning to students spending more time on task. This highlights a common finding, that where differences have been found, they are often attributed to factors other than the mode of delivery. Tamim et al. (2011) identified ‘well-conducted’ comparative studies covering 40 years of research. Tamim et al. found there is a slight tendency for students who study with technology to do better than students who study without technology. However, the measured difference was quite weak, and the authors state:

it is arguable that it is aspects of the goals of instruction, pedagogy, teacher effectiveness, subject matter, age level, fidelity of technology implementation, and possibly other factors that may represent more powerful influences on effect sizes than the nature of the technology intervention.’

Research into any kind of learning is not easy; there are just so many different variables or conditions that affect learning in any context. Indeed, it is the variables we should be examining, not just the technological delivery. In other words, we should asking a question first posed by Wilbur Schramm as long ago as 1977:

What kinds of learning can different media best facilitate, and under what conditions?

In terms of making decisions then about mode of delivery, we should be asking, not which is the best method overall, but:

What are the most appropriate conditions for using face-to-face, blended or fully online learning respectively? 

Fortunately, there is a great deal of research and best practice that provides guidance on that question, at least with respect to blended and online learning (see, for instance, Anderson, 2008; Picciano et al., 2013; Halverson et al., 2013; Zawacki-Richter and Anderson, 2014.) Ironically, we shall see that what we lack is good research on the unique potential of face-to-face teaching in a digital age when so much can also be done just as well online.

Challenging the supremacy of face-to-face teaching

Although there has been a great deal of mainly inconclusive research comparing online learning with face-to-face teaching in terms of student learning, there is very little evidence or even theory to guide decisions about what is best done online and what is best done face-to-face in a blended learning context, and or about the circumstances when fully online learning is in fact a better option than classroom teaching. Generally the assumption appears to have been that face-to-face teaching is the default option by virtue of its superiority, and online learning is used only when circumstances prevent the use of face-to-face teaching, such as when students cannot get to the campus, or when classes are so large that interaction with students is at a minimum.

However, online learning has now become so prevalent and effective in so many contexts that it is time to ask:

what are the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching that make it pedagogically different from online learning?

It is possible of course that there is nothing pedagogically unique about face-to-face teaching, but given the rhetoric around ‘the magic of the campus’ (Sharma, 2013) and the hugely expensive fees associated with elite campus-based teaching, or indeed the high cost of publicly funded campus-based education, it is about time that we had some evidence-based theory about what makes face-to-face teaching so special.

As someone who has devoted a great deal of his working life in distance education and online learning, I am probably not the best person to make this particular argument, and indeed the following is based mainly on the known limitations of online learning rather than the strengths of face-to-face teaching. I therefore throw open the challenge to all those who are passionate about the benefits of face-to-face teaching to help me out with the following sections.

Feedback

For once, I am going to ask you to hold your comments (unless you are particularly incensed about something in the post) until you see the following posts.

Up next

The next post in the series is the first of three in which I propose a method of deciding between modes of delivery, based on student needs, pedagogical differences and the resources available. In the next post I will argue that student characteristics are the most important criterion for deciding on mode of delivery.

References

Anderson, A. (ed.) (2008) The Theory and Practice of Online Learning Athabasca AB: Athabasca University Press

Bates, A.W. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge

Evans, T., Haughey, M. and Murphy, D. (2008) International Handbook of Distance Education Bingley UK: Emerald Publishing

Halverson, L. R., Graham, C. R., Spring, K. J., & Drysdale, J. S. (2012). ‘An analysis of high impact scholarship and publication trends in blended learning’ Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3

Keegan, D. (ed.)  (1990) Theoretical Principles of Distance Education London/New York: Routledge

Means, B. et al. (2009) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies Washington, DC: US Department of Education

Moore, M. and Kearsley, G. (1996) Distance Education: A Systems View Belmont CA: Wadsworth

Ontario (2011) Fact Sheet Summary of Ontario eLearning Surveys of Publicly Assisted PSE Institutions Toronto: Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities

Peters, O. (2002) Distance Education in Transition: New Trends and Challenges Oldenberg FGR: Biblothecks und Informationssystemder Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenberg

Picciano, A., Dziuban, C. and & Graham, C. (eds.), Blended Learning: Research Perspectives, Volume 2. New York: Routledge, 2013

Schramm, W. (1977) Big Media, Little Media Beverley Hills CA/London: Sage

Sharma, S. (2013) The Magic of the Campus Boston MA: LINC 2013 conference (recorded presentation)

Tamim, R. et al. (2011) ‘What Forty Years of Research Says About the Impact of Technology on Learning: A Second-Order Meta-Analysis and Validation Study’ Review of Educational Research, Vol. 81, No. 1

Wedemeyer, C. (1981) Learning at the Back Door: Reflections on Non-traditional Learning in the Lifespan Madison: University of Wisconsin Press

Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds.) (2014) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda Athabasca AB: AU Press, pp. 508

Deciding on modes of delivery

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This is the first of a series of five posts that look at the following:

  • deciding whether a whole course or program should be offered wholly face-to-face, as a blended course,  or wholly online
  • if a course is to be offered in a blended mode, how to decide on what’s done face-to-face, and what online.

This will form part of Chapter 10 on modes of delivery for my online textbook Teaching in a Digital Age.

Today I start by looking at the decisions instructors are now facing regarding what kind of course to offer. The following post will look at the problems in comparing delivery modes, then there will be three more posts on making decisions.

In Chapters 8 and 9, the use of media incorporated into a particular course or program was explored. In this chapter, the focus is on deciding whether a whole course or program should be offered partly or wholly online, and to what extent the course or program should be restricted to registered students or open to anyone.

Decisions, decisions

Online learning, blended learning, hybrid learning, flexible learning, open learning and distance learning are all terms that are often used inter-changeably, but there are significant differences in meaning. More importantly, these forms of education, once considered somewhat esoteric and out of the mainstream of conventional education, are increasingly taking on greater significance and in some cases becoming mainstream themselves.

We saw in Chapter 1, Section 7 that in recent years there has been:

  • major growth in the number of fully online course enrolments, now constituting almost one third of post-secondary enrolments in the USA;
  • a move towards blended learning, where on-campus students combine classroom or lab teaching with online work;
  • the development of the flipped classroom, where students study a video recorded lecture online then come to class for interaction with instructors and teaching assistants.
  • growing interest in developing and delivering MOOCs, which are open to anyone but do not directly lead to specific qualifications other than a badge or certificate
  • growing availability of open educational resources and open textbooks.

These developments open up a whole new range of decisions for instructors. Every instructor now needs to decide:

  • what kind of course or program should I be offering?
  • what factors should influence this decision?
  • what is the role of classroom teaching when students can now increasingly study most things online?
  • if content is increasingly open and free, how does that affect my role as an instructor?
  • when should I create my own material and when should I use open resources?
  • should I open up my teaching to anyone, and if so, under what circumstances?

Each of these questions will be addressed in this chapter.

The continuum of technology-based learning

We saw in Chapter 1, Section 7 that there is a variety of ways in which online learning is being used in education, and as teachers and instructors become more familiar and confident with online learning and new technologies, we will see more innovative methods developing all the time. At the time of writing though it is possible to identify at least the following modes of delivery:

  • classroom teaching with no technology at all (which is very rare these days).
  • blended learning, which encompasses a wide variety of designs, including:
    • technology-enhanced learning, or technology used as classroom aids; a typical example would be the use of Powerpoint slides and/or clickers
    • the use of a learning management system to support classroom teaching, for storing learning materials, set readings and perhaps online discussion
    • the use of lecture capture for flipped classrooms
    • one semester on a residential-type campus and two semesters online (the Royal Roads University model)
    • a shortened time on campus spent on campus hands-on experience or training preceded or followed by a concentrated time spent studying online (an example is apprenticeship training for mature students at Vancouver Community College, or what UBC calls the compressed classroom experience)
    • hybrid or flexible learning requiring the redesign of teaching so that students can do the majority of their learning online, coming to campus only for very specific face-to-face teaching, such as lab or hands-on practical work, that cannot be done satisfactorily online (for examples, see below.)
  • fully online learning with no classroom or on-campus teaching, which is one form of distance education, including:
    • courses for credit, which will usually cover the same content, skills and assessment as a campus-based version,
    • non-credit courses offered only online, such as courses for continuing professional education.
    • fully open courses, such as MOOCs
    • open educational resources, which either instructors or students can access to support teaching and learning

There is an important development within blended learning that deserves special mention, and that is the total re-design of campus-based classes that takes greater advantage of the potential of technology, which I call hybrid learning, with online learning combined with focused small group face-to-face interactions or mixing online and physical lab experiences. In such designs, the amount of face-to-face contact time is usually reduced, for instance from three classes a week to one, to allow more time for students to study online.

In hybrid learning the whole learning experience is re-designed, with a transformation of teaching on campus built around the use of technology. For instance:

  • Carol Twigg at the National Center for Academic Transformation has for many years worked with universities and colleges to redesign usually large lecture courses programs to improve learning and reduce costs through the use technology. This program has been running successfully since 1999.
  • Virginia Tech many years ago created a successful program for first and second year math teaching built around 24 x 7 computer-assisted learning supported by ‘roving’ instructors and teaching assistants (Robinson and Moore, 2006).
  • The University of British Columbia launched in 2013 what it calls a flexible learning initiative focused on developing, delivering, and evaluating learning experiences that promote effective and dramatic improvements in student achievement. Flexible learning enables pedagogical and logistical flexibility so that students have more choice in their learning opportunities, including when, where, and what they want to learn.

Thus there is a continuum of technology-based learning:

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Figure 10.1.2 The continuum of technology-based teaching

Figure 10.2 The continuum of technology-based teaching

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 (adapted from Bates and Poole, 2003)

Thus ‘blended learning’ can mean minimal rethinking or redesign of classroom teaching, such as the use of classroom aids, or complete redesign as in flexibly designed courses, which aim to identify the unique pedagogical characteristics of face-to-face teaching, with online learning providing flexible access for the rest of the learning.

Over to you

Other than recognising the increasingly significant choices that instructors now need to make regarding the design of courses, and particularly the range of blended learning designs that are emerging, there is nothing particularly new or challenging in this section, but it is necessary as preparation for what comes. However:

1. Is this classification of different modes of delivery helpful? If not how would you do it?

2. How is it decided in your institution whether a course is to be blended or online? Is this the personal choice of the instructor, is it a program decision or does the institution decide? What are the guidelines or criteria for making this decision?

3. I know the U of Ottawa and UBC have institutional plans for ‘flexible’ learning/blended learning. Any others? How are they going?

Next up

A real beauty: comparing delivery modes.

Students as a criterion for media selection in online learning

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The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2015

The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced in 2012 that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines
Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2012

Decisions are being made every day by government, institutions, teachers and students about technology use in education. How are these decisions made? What criteria are used?

In my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I am suggesting using the SECTIONS model for media selection based on an examination of the following criteria:

  • tudents
  • E ase of use
  • osts
  • eaching functions
  • I nteraction
  • rganisational issues and Open-ness
  • etworking and Novelty
  • peed and Security.

Here is my first draft on questions about students and their needs:

At least three issues related to students need to be considered when choosing media and technology:

  • student demographics;
  • access; and
  • differences in how students learn.

Student demographics

One of the fundamental changes resulting from mass higher education is that university and college teachers must now teach an increasingly diverse range of students. This increasing diversity of students presents major challenges for post-secondary teachers. It requires that courses should be developed with a wide variety of approaches and ways to learn if all students in the course are to be taught well.

In particular, it is important to be clear about the needs of the target group. First and second year students straight from high school are likely to require more support and help studying at a university or college level. They are likely to be less independent as learners, and therefore it may be dangerous to expect them to be able to study entirely through the use of technology. However, technology may be useful as a support for classroom teaching, especially if it provides an alternative approach to learning from the face-to-face teaching, and is gradually introduced, to prepare them for more independent study later in a program.

On the other hand, for students who have already been through higher education as a campus student, but are now in the workforce, a program delivered entirely by technology at a distance is likely to be attractive. Such students will have already developed successful study skills, will have their own community and family life, and will welcome the flexibility of studying this way.

Third and fourth year undergraduate students may appreciate a mix of classroom-based and online study or even one or two fully online courses, especially if some of their face-to-face classes are closed to further enrolments, or if students are working part-time to help cover some of the costs of being at college.

Lastly, within any single class or group of learners, there will be a wide range of differences in prior knowledge, language skills, and preferred study styles. The intelligent use of media and technology can help accommodate these differences. This will be discussed further below (Section 9.2.3).

Access

Of all the criteria in determining choice of technology, this is perhaps the most discriminating. No matter how powerful in educational terms a particular medium or technology may be, if students cannot access it in a convenient and affordable manner they cannot learn from it. Thus you may believe that video streaming is the best way to get your great lectures to students off campus, but if they do not have Internet access at home, or if it takes four hours to download, then forget it. (This is a particular weakness in the argument for using xMOOCs in developing countries. Even if potential learners have Internet or mobile phone access, which 5 billion still don’t, it often costs a day’s wages to download a single YouTube video – see Marron, Missen and Greenberg, 2014).

If you are intending to use computers, tablets or mobile phones for students, then you need answers to a number of questions.

  • What is your or your department’s policy with regard to students’ access to a computer, tablets or mobile phones?
  • Can they use any device or is there a limited list of devices that the institution will support?
  • Is the medium or software you are using compatible with all makes of mobile phones?
  • Is the network adequate to support any extra students your class might add?
  • Who else in the institution needs to know that you are requiring students to use particular devices?

If students are expected to provide their own devices (which increasingly makes sense),

  • what kind of device do they need: one at home with Internet access or a portable that they can bring on to campus – or one that can be used both at home and on campus?
  • What kind of applications will they need to run on their device(s) for study purposes?
  • Will they be able to use the same device(s) across all courses, or will they need different software/apps and devices for different courses?
  • What software skills will students need?
  • Will they need to know how to use a particular software before taking a course, or will they be taught this during the course?

Students (as well as the instructor) need to know the answers to these questions before they enrol in a course or program. In order to answer these questions, you and your department must know what students will use their devices for. There is no point in requiring students to go to the expense of purchasing a laptop computer if the work they are required to do on it is optional or trivial. This means some advance planning on your part.

  • What are the educational advantages that you see in student use of a particular device?
  • What will students need to do on the device in your course?
  • Is it really essential for them to use a device in these ways, or could they easily manage without the device?
  • What technology skills will they need, and will most students have these skills?
  • If students do not have the skills, would it still be worth their learning them, and will there be time set aside in the course for them to learn these skills?

It will really help if your institution has good policies in place for student technology access (see Section 9.7 below). If the institution doesn’t have clear policies or infrastructure for supporting the technologies you want to use, then your job is going to be a lot harder.

The answer to the question of access and the choice of technology will also depend somewhat on the mandate of the institution and your personal educational goals. For instance, highly selective universities can require students to use particular devices, and can help the relatively few students who have financial difficulties in purchasing and using specified devices. If though the mandate of the institution is to reach learners denied access to conventional institutions, equity groups, the unemployed, the working poor, or workers needing up-grading or more advanced education and training, then it becomes critical to find out what technology they have access to or are willing to use.

For instance, the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal conducted a study on how best to improve the communication of health information and education for ‘hard to reach’ patients. These were defined as patients or clients with low levels of literacy, those who face language and cultural barriers, and those who have difficulties processing information because of physical or cognitive disabilities. The study found that most of these patients do not, and do not want to, use computers, even though many Canadian hospitals and health care centers are increasingly relying on computer-mediated information systems for patients (Centre for Literacy, 2001). If an institution’s policy is open access to anyone who wants to take its courses, the availability of equipment already in the home (usually purchased for entertainment purposes) becomes of paramount importance.

If students do not already have personal access to specific technologies, alternatives are to provide the necessary equipment on campus, or through access at local community centres or the workplace. However, the use of local centres may limit another important factor with regard to access, and that is flexibility. If students have to travel to a local centre, or if the centre is open only at certain times, then this will reduce flexibility and increase the barriers to learning. Also, costs can escalate rapidly if the institution has to provide hardware and software for students.

Another important factor to consider is access for student with disabilities. This may mean providing textual or audio options for deaf and visually impaired students respectively. Fortunately there are now well established practices and standards under the general heading of Universal Design standards. Universal Design is defined as follows:

Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, refers to the deliberate design of instruction to meet the needs of a diverse mix of learners. Universally designed courses attempt to meet all learners’ needs by incorporating multiple means of imparting information and flexible methods of assessing learning. UDL also includes multiple means of engaging or tapping into learners’ interests. Universally designed courses are not designed with any one particular group of students with a disability in mind, but rather are designed to address the learning needs of a wide-ranging group.

Brokop, F. (2008)

Most institutions with a centre for supporting teaching and learning will be able to provide assistance to faculty to ensure the course meets universal design standards.  A good guide is available here.

Student differences with respect to learning with technologies

It may seem obvious that different students will have different preferences for different kinds of technology or media. The design of teaching would cater for these differences. Thus if students are ‘visual’ learners, they would be provided with diagrams and illustrations. If they are auditory learners, they will prefer lectures and podcasts. It might appear then that identifying dominant learning styles should then provide strong criteria for media and technology selection. However, it is not as simple as that.

McLoughlin (1999), in a thoughtful review of the implications of the research literature on learning styles for the design of instructional material, concluded that instruction could be designed to accommodate differences in both cognitive-perceptual learning styles and Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle. In a study of new intakes conducted over several years at the University of Missouri-Columbia, using the Myers-Briggs inventory, Schroeder (1993) found that new students think concretely, and are uncomfortable with abstract ideas and ambiguity.

However, a major function of a university education is to develop skills of abstract thinking, and to help students deal with complexity and uncertainty. Perry (1984) found that learning in higher education is a developmental process. It is not surprising then that many students enter college or university without such ‘academic’ skills. Indeed, there are major problems in trying to apply learning styles and other methods of classifying learner differences to media and technology selection and use. Laurillard (2001) makes the point that looking at learning styles in the abstract is not helpful. Learning has to be looked at in context. Thinking skills in one subject area do not necessarily transfer well to another subject area. There are ways of thinking that are specific to different subject areas. Thus logical-rational thinkers in science do not necessarily make thoughtful husbands, or good literary critics.

Part of a university education is to understand and possibly challenge predominant modes of thinking in a subject area. While learner-centered teaching is important, students need to understand the inherent logic, standards, and values of a subject area. They also need to be challenged, and encouraged to think outside the box. This may clash with their preferred learning style. Indeed, the research on the effectiveness of matching instructional method to learning styles is at best equivocal. For instance, Dziuban et al. (2000), at the University of Central Florida, applied Long’s reactive behavior analysis of learning styles to students in both face-to-face classes and Web-based online classes. They found that learning style does not appear to be a predictor of who withdraws from online courses, nor were independent learners likely to do better online than other kinds of learners.

The limitations of learning styles as a guide to designing courses does not mean we should ignore student differences, and we should certainly start from where the student is. In particular, at a university level we need strategies to gradually move students from concrete learning based on personal experience to abstract, reflective learning that can then be applied to new contexts and situations. We shall see in Section 9.5 that technology can be particularly helpful for that.

Thus when designing courses, it is important to offer a range of options for student learning within the same course. One way to do this is to make sure that a course is well structured, with relevant ‘core’ information easily available to all students, but also to make sure that there are opportunities for students to seek out new or different content. This content should be available in a variety of media such as text, diagrams, and video, with concrete examples explicitly related to underlying principles. We shall see in Chapter 10 that the increasing availability of open educational resources makes the provision of this ‘richness’ of possible content much more viable.

Similarly, technology enables a range of learner activities to be made available, such as researching readings on the Web, online discussion forums, synchronous presentations, assessment through e-portfolios, and online group work. The range of activities increases the likelihood that a variety of learner preferences are being met, and also encourages learners to involve themselves in activities and approaches to learning where they may initially feel less comfortable. Such approaches to design are more likely to be effective than courses in multiple versions developed to meet different learning styles. In any case developing multiple versions of courses for different styles of learner is likely to be impractical in most cases. So avoid trying to match different media to different learning styles but instead ensure that students have a wide range of media (text, audio, video, computing) within a course or program.

Lastly, one should be careful in the assumptions made about student preferences for learning through digital technologies. On the one hand, technology ‘boosters’ such as Mark Prensky and Don Tapscott argue that today’s ‘digital natives’ are different from previous generations of students. They argue that todays students live within a networked digital universe and therefore expect their learning also to be all digitally networked. It is also true that professors in particular tend to underestimate students’ access to advanced technologies (professors are often late adopters of new technology), so you should always try to find up-to-date information on what devices and technologies students are currently using, if you can.

On the other hand, it is also dangerous to assume that all students are highly ‘digital literate’ and are demanding that new technologies should be used in teaching. Jones and Shao (2011) conducted a thorough review of the literature on ‘digital natives’, with over 200 appropriate references, including surveys of relevant publications from countries in Europe, Asia, North America, Australia and South Africa. They concluded that:

  • students vary widely in their use and knowledge of digital media
  • the gap between students and their teachers in terms of digital literacy is not fixed, nor is the gulf so large that it cannot be bridged
  • there is little evidence that students enter university with demands for new technologies that teachers and universities cannot meet;
  • students will respond positively to changes in teaching and learning strategies that include the use of new technologies that are well conceived, well explained and properly embedded in courses and degree programmes. However there is no evidence of a pent-up demand amongst students for changes in pedagogy or of a demand for greater collaboration;
  • the development of university infrastructure, technology policies and teaching objectives should be choices about the kinds of provision that the university wishes to make and not a response to general statements about what a new generation of students are demanding;
  • the evidence indicates that young students do not form a generational cohort and they do not express consistent or generationally organised demands.

Graduating students that have been interviewed about learning technologies at the University of British Columbia made it clear that they will be happy to use technology for learning so long as it contributes to their success (in the words of one student, ‘if it will get me better grades’) but the students also made it clear that it was the instructor’s responsibility to decide what technology was best for their studies.

It is also important to pay attention to what Jones and Shao are not saying. They are not saying that social media, personal learning environments, or collaborative learning are inappropriate, nor that the needs of students and the workforce are unchanging or unimportant, but the use of these tools or approaches should be driven by a holistic look at the needs of all students, the needs of the subject area, and the learning goals relevant to a digital age, and not by an erroneous view of what a particular generation of students are demanding.

In summary, one great advantage of the intelligent application of technology to teaching is that it provides opportunities for students to learn in a variety of ways, thus adapting the teaching more easily to student differences. Thus, the first step in media selection is to know your students, their similarities and differences, what technologies they already have access to, and what digital skills they already possess or lack that may be relevant for your courses. This is likely to require the use of a wide range of media within the teaching.

References

Brokop, F. (2008) Accessibility to E-Learning for Persons With Disabilities: Strategies, Guidelines, and Standards Edmonton AB: NorQuest College/eCampus Alberta

Centre for Literacy of Québec (2001) Needs assessment of the health education and information needs of hard-to-reach patients Montréal: Centre for Literacy of Québec

Dziuban, C. et al. (2000) Reactive behavior patterns go online  The Journal of Staff, Program and Organizational Development, Vol. 17, No.3

Jones, C. and Shao, B. (2011) The Net Generation and Digital Natives: Implications for Higher Education Milton Keynes: Open University/Higher Education Academy

Kolb. D. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall

Laurillard, D. (2001) Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Marron, D. Missen, C. and Greenberg, J. (2014) “Lo-Fi to Hi-Fi”: A New Way of Conceptualizing Metadata in Underserved Areas with the eGranary Digital Library Austin TX: International Conference on Dublin Core and Metadata Applications

McCoughlin, C. (1999) The implictions of the research literature on learning styles for the design of instructional material Australian Journal of Educational Technology, Vol. 15, No. 3

Perry, W. (1970) Forms of intellectual development and ethical development in the college years: a scheme New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Prensky, M. (2001) ‘Digital natives, Digital Immigrants’ On the Horizon Vol. 9, No. 5

Schroeder, C. (1993) New students – new learning styles, Change, Sept.-Oct

Feedback

As always, feedback will be much appreciated. In particular:

  1. It seems obvious that students should be the first consideration in any educational decision. However, apart from student access to technology, student differences do not seem to me to be a very strong determinant of media choice, because there is so much variability in their needs. Do you agree?
  2. Linked to this, where do you stand on learning styles and media selection? You see I have been cautious about this and have fallen back on a general statement of ensuring a wide mix of media within a course. What are your views on this?
  3. One of the great benefits of the Internet is that it enables/includes nearly all media (text, audio, video, computing) – so do we really need a decision model? If we do, why?
  4. Any other comments, suggestions about appropriate graphics or video to illustrate this section, or examples of how you make decisions about choice of media, will be welcomed.

Next

Ease of use and costs as criteria.

Review of ‘Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda.’

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Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds.) (2014) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda Athabasca AB: AU Press, pp. 508

It is somewhat daunting to review a book of over 500 pages of research on any topic. I doubt if few other than the editors are likely to read this book from cover to cover. It is more likely to be kept on one’s bookshelf (if these still exist in a digital age) for reference whenever needed. Nevertheless, this is an important work that anyone working in online learning needs to be aware of, so I will do my best to cover it as comprehensively as I can.

Structure of the book

The book is a collection of about 20 chapters by a variety of different authors (more on the choice of authors later). Based on a Delphi study and analysis of ‘key research journals’ in the field, the editors have organized the topic into three sections, with a set of chapters on each sub-section, as follows:

1. Macro-level research: distance education systems and theories

  • access, equity and ethics
  • globalization and cross-cultural issues
  • distance teaching systems and institutions
  • theories and models
  • research methods and knowledge transfer

2. Meso-level research: management, organization and technology

  • management and organization
  • costs and benefits
  • educational technology
  • innovation and change
  • professional development and faculty support
  • learner support services
  • quality assurance

3. Micro-level: teaching and learning in distance education

  • instructional/learning design
  • interaction and communication
  • learner characteristics.

In addition, there is a very useful preface from Otto Peters, an introductory chapter by the editors where they justify their structural organization of research, and a short conclusion that calls for a systematic research agenda in online distance education research.

More importantly, perhaps, Terry Anderson and Olaf Zawacki-Richter demonstrate empirically that research in this field has been skewed towards micro-level research (about half of all publications).  Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly given its importance, costs and benefits of online distance education is the least researched area.

What I liked

It is somewhat invidious to pick out particular chapters, because different people will have different interests from such a wide-ranging list of topics. I have tended to choose those that I found were new and/or particularly enlightening for me, but other readers’ choices will be different. However, by selecting a few excellent chapters, I hope to give some idea of the quality of the book.

1. The structuring/organization of research

Anderson and Zawacki-Richter have done an excellent job in providing a structural framework for research in this field. This will be useful both for those teaching about online and distance education but in particular for potential Ph.D. students wondering what to study. This book will provide an essential starting point.

2. Summary of the issues in each area of research

Again, the editors have done an excellent job in their introductory chapter in summarizing the content of each of the chapters that follows, and in so doing pulling out the key themes and issues within each area of research. This alone makes the book worthwhile.

3. Globalization, Culture and Online Distance Education

Charlotte (Lani) Gunawardena of the University of New Mexico has written the most comprehensive and deep analysis of this issue that I have seen, and it is an area in which I have a great deal of interest, since most of the online teaching I have done has been with students from around the world and sometimes multi-lingual.

After a general discussion of the issue of globalization and education, she reviews research in the following areas:

  • diverse educational expectations
  • learners and preferred ways of learning
  • socio-cultural environment and online interaction
  • help-seeking behaviours
  • silence
  • language learning
  • researching culture and online distance learning

This chapter should be required reading for anyone contemplating teaching online.

4. Quality assurance in Online Distance Education

I picked this chapter by Colin Latchem because he is so deeply expert in this field that he is able to make what can be a numbingly boring but immensely important topic a fun read, while at the same time ending with some critical questions about quality assurance. In particular Latchem looks at QA from the following perspectives:

  • definitions of quality
  • accreditation
  • online distance education vs campus-based teaching
  • quality standards
  • transnational online distance education
  • open educational resources
  • costs of QA
  • is online distance education yet good enough?
  • an outcomes approach to QA.

This chapter definitely showcases a master at the top of his game.

5. The elephant in the room: student drop-out

This is a wonderfully funny but ultimately serious argument between Ormond Simpson and Alan Woodley about the elephant in the distance education room that no-one wants to mention. Here they start poking the elephant with some sticks (which they note is not likely to be a career-enhancing move.) The basic argument is that institutions should and could do more to reduce drop-out/increase course completion. This chapter also stunned me with providing hard data about really low completion rates for most open university students. I couldn’t help comparing these with the high completion rates for online credit courses at dual-mode (campus-based) institutions, at least in Canada (which of course are not ‘open’ institutions in that students must have good high school qualifications.)

Woodley’s solution to reducing drop-out is quite interesting (and later well argued):

  • make it harder to get in
  • make it harder to get out

In both cases, really practical and not too costly solutions are offered that nevertheless are consistent with open access and high quality teaching.

In summary

The book contains a number of really good chapters that lay out the issues in researching online distance education.

What I disliked

I have to say that I groaned when I first saw the list of contributors. The same old, same old list of distance education experts with a heavy bias towards open universities. Sure, they are nearly all well-seasoned experts, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se (after all, I see myself as one of them.)

But where are the young researchers here, and especially the researchers in open educational resources, MOOCs, social media applications in online learning, and above all researchers from the many campus-based universities now mainstreaming online learning? There is almost nothing in the book about research into blended learning, and flipped classrooms are not even mentioned. OK, the book is about online distance learning but the barriers or distinctions are coming down with a vengeance. This book will never reach those who most need it, the many campus-based instructors now venturing for the first time into online learning in one way or another. They don’t see themselves as primarily distance educators.

And a few of the articles were more like lessons in history than an up-to-date review of research in the field. Readers of this blog will know that I strongly value the history of educational technology and distance learning. But these lessons need to be embedded in the here and now. In particular, the lessons need to be spelled out. It is not enough to know that Stanford University researchers as long ago as 1974 were researching the costs and benefits of educational broadcasting in developing countries, but what lessons does this have for some of the outrageous claims being made about MOOCs? A great deal in fact, but this needs explaining in the context of MOOCs today.

Also the book is solely focused on post-secondary university education. Where is the research on online distance education in the k-12/school sector or the two-year college/vocational sector? Maybe they are topics for other books, but this is where the real gap exists in research publications in online learning.

Lastly, although the book is reasonably priced for its size (C$40), and is available as an e-text as well as the fully printed version, what a pity it is not an open textbook that could then be up-dated and crowd-sourced over time.

Conclusion

This is essential reading for anyone who wants to take a professional, evidence-based approach to online learning (distance or otherwise). It will be particularly valuable for students wanting to do research in this area. The editors have done an incredibly good job of presenting a hugely diverse and scattered area in a clear and structured manner. Many of the chapters are gems of insight and knowledge in the field.

However, we have a huge challenge of knowledge transfer in this field. Repeatedly authors in the book lamented that many of the new entrants to online learning are woefully ignorant of the research previously done in this field. We need a better way to disseminate this research than a 500 page printed text that only those already expert in the field are likely to access. On the other hand, the book does provide a strong foundation from which to find better ways to disseminate this knowledge. Knowledge dissemination in a digital world then is where the research agenda for online learning needs to focus.