November 1, 2014

Dialogue and discussion: critical for 21st century skills development

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Tutorial 2

Introduction

First of all, thanks to the numerous people who commented on  my earlier posts on Why Lectures are Dead, and on Learning Theories and Online Learning. These were previews of chapters for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

This feedback was particularly helpful, because several people commented that there are lots of different kinds of lectures. I fully accept that criticism, and although I did define ‘lecture’ quite narrowly in the actual post (some of the comments picked up quotes from the article in the form of tweets or LinkedIn comments that did not include the narrow definition I used.) That definition was really about lectures that were focused primarily or entirely on the transmission of knowledge. I have therefore changed the heading of that section in the book to ‘Transmissive Lectures.’

In the next section, I discuss another important method of teaching based on discussion and argument that reflects a more constructivist approach to teaching and learning. Here is the first draft.

Interactive lectures, seminars, tutorials and MOOCs

In this section, I will examine a number of different ways in which teaching can help develop conceptual knowledge. There is a particular emphasis on conceptual learning at a post-secondary level, but in recent years conceptual learning has become an increasing focus in the school or k-12 systems in many jurisdictions.

The theoretical and research basis for social learning

In the previous section, I wrote that research on lectures showed that:

‘in order to understand, analyze, apply, and commit information to long-term memory, the learner must actively engage with the material. In order for a lecture to be effective, it must include activities that compel the student to mentally manipulate the information.’

This is a cognitive approach to learning, but constructivists go beyond interaction between student and learning materials. They believe, as I wrote earlier, that:

‘individuals consciously strive for meaning to make sense of their environment in terms of past experience and their present state. It is an attempt to create order in their minds out of disorder, to resolve incongruities, and to reconcile external realities with prior experience. Problems are resolved, and incongruities sorted out, through strategies such as seeking relationships between what was known and what is new, identifying similarities and differences, and testing hypotheses or assumptions…knowledge is mainly acquired through social processes or institutions that are socially constructed.’

Researchers have identified a distinction, often intuitively recognised by instructors, between meaningful and rote learning (Asubel et al, 1978). Meaningful learning involves the learner going beyond memorization or surface comprehension of facts, ideas or principles, to a deeper understanding of what those facts, ideas or principles mean to them. Marton and Saljö, who have conducted a number of studies that examined how university students actually go about their learning, make the distinction between deep and surface approaches to learning (see, for instance, Marton and Saljö, 1997).

Students who adopt a deep approach to learning tend to have a prior intrinsic interest in the subject. Their motivation is to learn because they want to know more about a topic. Students with a surface approach to learning are more instrumental. Their interest is primarily driven by the need to get a pass grade or qualification.

Subsequent research (e.g. Entwistle and Peterson, 2004) showed that as well as students’ initial motivation for study, a variety of other factors also influence students’ approaches to learning. In particular, certain learning environments, such as an emphasis in the teaching on information transmission, tests that rely mainly on memory, and a lack of interaction and discussion, encourage surface approaches to learning, while a focus on analytical or critical thinking or problem-solving, in-class discussion, and assessment based on analysis, synthesis, comparison and evaluation tends to drive students more to a deeper approach to learning. It should also be noted that approaches to learning are not always consistent or stable, even for the same student in the same course. Nevertheless, the teaching environment is critical in establishing expectations and methods that are more likely to engage students and hence lead to more conceptual and deeper learning

In addition, others, such as Laurillard (2001) and Harasim (2010), have emphasised that academic knowledge requires students to move constantly from the concrete to the abstract and back again, and to build or construct knowledge based on academic criteria such as logic, evidence and argument. This in turn, it is argued, requires a strong teacher presence within a dialectical environment, in which argument and discussion within the rules and criteria of the subject discipline are encouraged and developed by the instructor or teacher. Laurillard calls this a rhetorical exercise, an attempt to get learners to think about the world differently.

Lastly, connectivist approaches to learning place heavy emphasis on networking learners, with all participants learning through interaction and discussion between each other, driven both by their individual interests and the extent to which these interests connect to the interests of other participants. The very large numbers participating means that there is a high probability of converging interests for all participants, although those interests may vary considerably over the whole group.

The combination of theory and research here suggests the need for frequent interaction between students, and between teacher and students, for the kinds of learning needed in a digital age. This interaction usually takes the form of semi-structured discussion. I will now examine the very wide range of ways in which this kind of learning is facilitated by educators.

Interactive lectures

Definition: An interactive lecture is a lecture where at least 25% of the time is taken up with questions and discussion from students and responses from the lecturer to points raised by students

Many lecturers deliberately design a large lecture experience to encourage interaction with and between students, even though the focus of the lecture is still mainly on information transmission, such as facts, concepts, procedures and ideas. The most common format is to allow at least 15 to 20 minutes at the end of the presentation for questions and discussion, where the instructor may well take the lead in putting questions to students and requiring particular students to provide a response, to get discussion going. However, the research suggests that a better way to ensure comprehension and the development of conceptual thinking is to break the session into small chunks of perhaps 10 minutes presentation, followed by five to ten minutes of questions and discussion.

© Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Washington, 2014

© Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Washington, 2014

More recently, instructors have started to record their lectures through lecture capture then use class time for discussion of the contents of the lecture. This model is called the ‘flipped’ classroom. Again, this is still a mainly transmissive way of teaching requiring students to respond to instructor-led presentation, and there are sometimes problems in getting students to view the lecture in advance of the class time. Clickers and Twitter back-chat channels are other ways in which technology has been used to increase student interaction.

Even interactive lectures can be criticised as being mainly behaviouristic, with a defined body of knowledge to be learned and assimilated by the student. Often discussion is cut short because ‘there is too much content to get through’ to cover the curriculum, and consequently students adopt surface rather than deep approaches to learning. Problems often appear later, when for instance students who need mathematical concepts and procedures in later engineering courses struggle because they have forgotten or been unable to conceptualise fully concepts, formulae and methods taught in earlier courses.

The main reason though why the interactive lecture is still so common is because it is one way to build some form of interaction into very large classes with 200 students or more. It should be noted though that even in interactive classes, it is unlikely that over the whole length of a thirteen week semester, more than ten per cent of the students will have the chance to ask a question or make a comment if the class size is large. (Research again has indicated that it tends to be the same ten or so students who always ask unprompted questions.)

Seminars and tutorials

Definitions:

seminar is a group meeting (either face-to-face or online) where a number of students participate at least as actively as the teacher, although the teacher may be responsible for the design of the group experience, such as choosing topics and assigning tasks to individual students.

tutorial is either a one-on-one session between a teacher and a student, or a very small group (five or less) of students and an instructor, where the learners are at least as active in discussion and presentation of ideas as the teacher.

Socrates and his student: Johann Friedrich Greuter, 1590: (San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts 

Socrates and his students: Painter: Johann Friedrich Greuter, 1590: (San Francisco, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts)

Seminars can range from six or more students, up to 30 students in the same group. Because the general perception is that seminars work best when numbers are relatively small, they tend to be found more at graduate level or the last year of undergraduate programs, or anywhere where class size is around 25-30.

Seminars and tutorials again have a very long history, going back at least to the time of Socrates. Plato, the philosopher, was a student or follower of Socrates, although Socrates denied he was a teacher, rebelling against the idea common at that time in ancient Greece that ‘a teacher was a vessel that poured its contents into the cup of the student’. Instead, according to Plato, Socrates used dialogue and questioning ‘to help others recognize on their own what is real, true, and good.’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) 

The format of seminars can vary a great deal. One common format, especially at graduate level, although similar practices can be found at the school/k-12 level, is for the teacher to set advance work for a selected number of students, and then have the selected students present their work to the whole group, for discussion, criticism and suggestions for improvement. Although there may be time for only two or three student presentations in each seminar, over a whole semester every student gets their turn. Another format is to ask all the students in a group to do some specified advanced reading or study, then for the teacher to introduce questions for general discussion within the seminar that requires students to draw on their earlier work.

Tutorials are a particular kind of seminar that are identified with Ivy League universities, and in particular Oxford or Cambridge. There may be as few as two students and a professor in a tutorial and the meeting often follows closely the Socratic method of the student presenting his or her findings and the professor rigorously questioning every assumption made by the student – and also drawing in the other student to the discussion.

Both these forms of dialogical learning can be found not only in classroom contexts, but also online. Online discussion forums go back to the 1970s, but really took off after the introduction of the WorldWide Web and high band telecommunications enabled the development of learning management systems, most of which now include an area for online discussions. These online discussion forums have some differences though with classroom seminars:

  • first,they are text based, not oral
  • second, they are asynchronous: participants can log in at any time, and from anywhere with an Internet connection, but this can cause some difficulties in following or participating in a particular argument or discussion
  • thus, third, many discussion forums allow for ‘threaded’ connections, enabling a response to be attached to the particular comment which prompted the response, rather than just displayed in chronological order. This allows for dynamic sub-topics to be developed, with sometimes more than ten responses within a single thread of discussion. This enables participants to follow multiple discussion topics over a period of time.

However, in general, the pedagogical similarities between online and face-to-face discussions are much greater than the differences. For academic and conceptual development, discussions need to be well organized by the teacher, and the teacher needs to provide the necessary support to enable the development of ideas and the construction of new knowledge for the students. There are several ways this can be done:

  • set clear goals for the discussions that are understood by the students, such as: ‘to explore gender and class issues in selected novels’ or ‘to compare and evaluate alternative methods of coding.’
  • set clear guidelines about expectations of students, such as ‘you should log in at least once a week to each discussion topic and make at least one substantive contribution to each topic each week.’
  • set clear, written codes of conduct for participating in discussions, and ensure that they are enforced
  • set topics for discussion that complement and expand issues in the study materials, and are relevant to answering assessment questions
  • provide the appropriate scaffolding or support, such as comments that help students develop their thinking around the topics, refer them back to study materials if necessary, or explain issues when students seem to be confused or misinformed
  • monitor the discussions to prevent them getting off topic or too personal
  • provide encouragement for those that are making real contributions to the discussion,  head off those that are trying to hog or dominate the discussions, and track those not participating, and help them to participate.

MOOCs

Massive, open, online courses usually include opportunities for discussion among students. The importance of discussion and the methods for organizing it, vary considerably within MOOCs. In instructionist MOOCs, based on video-recorded lectures, the discussion is usually ancillary, and is added to enable mainly clarification of concepts covered in the lectures. Because of the number of participants in instructionist MOOCs, it is unusual for the instructor responsible for the content of the MOOC to become heavily engaged in the discussions, although frequently teaching assistants may be asked to monitor the overall discussion and direct significant issues back to the main instructor for a general response.

In connectivist MOOCs, the interaction between participants is the core of the MOOC, and various methods and technologies are used to connect participants together. Thus hash tags may be used to enable participants to share in tweets from other participants, individuals may create their own blogs for their comments and reflections on the topics under discussion, with the blog urls being collected together and shared with other participants, or there may, less frequently, be a common discussion forum or area where all comments are posted. Even connectivist MOOCs though tend to have some form of loose central structure, with perhaps a variety of ‘experts’ being invited to start off conversations with some form of transmissive communication, such as a webcast or a reading, then the experts continue to participate in the following discussions.

These of course are two extremes, and as MOOCs develop, we are seeing some convergence, but for nearly all MOOCs, discussion between participants is seen as crucial for facilitating and developing learning. Nevertheless, there are some strong criticisms of the effectiveness of the discussion element of MOOCs for developing the high-level conceptual development required for academic learning. I have suggested that to develop deep, conceptual learning, there is a need in most cases for intervention by a subject expert, to clarify misunderstandings or misconceptions, to provide accurate feedback,  to ensure that the criteria for academic learning, such as use of evidence, clarity of argument, etc., are being met, and to ensure the necessary input and guidance to seek deeper understanding. Indeed, there has been a great deal of research into credit-based online courses that show instructor presence is a key factor in ensuring high completion rates for online courses. Firmin et al. (2014) have shown that when there is some form of instructor ‘encouragement and support of student effort and engagement’, results improve for all participants in MOOCs.

Furthermore, the more massive the course, the more likely participants are to feel ‘overload, anxiety and a sense of loss’, if there is not some instructor intervention or structure imposed (Knox, 2014). Without a structured role for subject experts, participants are faced with a wide variety of quality in terms of comments and feedback from other participants. There is again a great deal of research on the conditions necessary for the successful conduct of collaborative and co-operative group learning (see for instance, Dillenbourg, 1999, Lave and Wenger, 1991), and these findings certainly have not been applied to the management of MOOC discussions to date. (We will return to this topic in a later chapter.)

The counter argument is that MOOCs develop a new form of learning based on networking and collaboration that is essentially different from academic learning, and MOOCs are thus more appropriate to the needs of learners in a digital age. Adult participants in particular, it is claimed, have the ability to self-manage the development of high level conceptual learning.  MOOCs are ‘demand’ driven, meeting the interests of individual students who seek out others with similar interests and the necessary expertise to support them in their learning, and for many this interest may well not include the need for deep, conceptual learning but more likely the appropriate applications of such learning in specific contexts.

MOOCs do appear to work best for those who already have a high level of education and therefore bring many of the conceptual skills developed in formal education with them when they join a MOOC, and therefore contribute to helping those who come without such skills. Over time, as more experience is gained, MOOCs are likely to incorporate and adapt  for large numbers some of the findings from research on smaller group work. Indeed, MOOCs are likely to develop new ways to manage discussion effectively in very large groups. In the meantime, though, there is much work still to be done if MOOCs are to provide the support and structure needed to ensure deep, conceptual learning where this does not already exist in students.

Summary

For many faculty, the ideal teaching environment is Socrates sitting under the linden tree, with a small group of dedicated and interested students. Unfortunately, the reality of mass higher education makes this impossible for all but the most elite and expensive institutions. However, seminars for 25-30 students are not unrealistic, even in public undergraduate education. More importantly, seminar models enable the kind of teaching and learning that are most likely to facilitate the types of skills needed from our students in a digital age. Seminars are flexible enough to be offered in class or online, depending on the needs of the students. They are probably best used when students have done individual work before the seminar. Of upmost importance, though, is the ability of teachers to teach successfully in this manner, which requires different skills from transmissive lecturing.

We saw in Chapter 1 that although expansion of student numbers in higher education is part of the problem, it’s not the whole problem. Other factors, such as senior professors teaching less, and focusing mainly on graduate students, results in larger classes at undergraduate level, using transmissive lecturing. These classes are often taught by teaching assistants who have little more knowledge than the students they are teaching. And if more senior or experienced instructors switched from transmissive lectures, and instead required students to find and analyse content for themselves, this would free up more time for the instructors to spend on seminar-type teaching. So it as much an organizational issue, a matter of choice and priorities, as an economic issue. The more we can move towards a seminar approach to teaching and learning and away from large, transmissive lectures, the better, if we are to develop students with the skills needed in a digital age.

Over to you

Your feedback on this will be invaluable. In particular:

  • Do you agree that the kind of teaching conducted in seminar-type contexts is more appropriate for today’s learners than transmissive lectures? If so, why (or conversely, why not?)
  • is the description of the way dialogue and discussion operate to enhance learning accurate and if not, what should be changed?
  • are there important ways of teaching built around dialogue or discussion that have been missed and should be included?
  • do you agree with my comments about the current limitations of MOOCs for engendering the kind of discussions that lead to deep, conceptual learning? What could or do MOOCs do to help the development of such knowledge?
  • how realistic is it to move away from large, transmissive lecture classes to smaller, seminar-type teaching? What is preventing this from happening more often in our educational systems? Is it just a money issue, or are there other factors at work?

References

Asubel, D. et al. (1978) Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston

Dillenbourg, P. (ed.) (1999) Collaborative-learning: Cognitive and Computational Approaches. Oxford: Elsevier

Entwistle, N. and Peterson, E. (2004) Conceptions of Learning and Knowledge in Higher Education: Relationships with Study Behaviour and Influences of Learning Environments International Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 41. pp. 407-428

Firmin, R. et al. (2014) Case study: using MOOCs for conventional college coursework Distance Education, Vol. 35, No. 2

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Knox, J. (2014) Digital culture clash: ‘massive’ education in the e-Learning and Digital Cultures Distance Education, Vol. 35, No. 2

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

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Marton, F. and Saljö, R. (1997) Approaches to learning, in Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N. (eds.) The experience of learning: Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press (out of press, but available online)

Next up

Experiential learning (learning by doing): labs, field trips, apprenticeships and workplace/co-op training

Main lessons for developing skills for a digital age.

Does distance education socialize students? A study from Québec

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image ©www.ameriquefrançais.org, 2014

image © www.amériquefrançaise.org, 2014

Loisier, J. (2014) Socialisation des Etudiants en FAD au Canada Francophone Montréal QC: REFAD

REFAD (the Canadian francophone distance education network) has published a very interesting research paper on socialization and distance education in francophone Canada by one of its research consultants, Dr. Jean Loisier. If you can read French, and are interested in research on the extent to which socialization exists and the role it plays in online and distance education, this report is essential reading. (Because of the value of this report, I hope it will be made available in English so that it can have a wider market).

As well as providing a good review of theoretical issues around the subject of socialization in education, which takes into account  students’ use of social media, the report is based on in-depth interviews with 26 distance education leaders in the majority of francophone post-secondary institutions, and 121 questionnaires received from distance education instructors.

The report covers six topics:

  • characteristics of francophone distance learners and their mode of distance learning (individual, cohort, flexible);
  • technologies that support or discourage socialization;
  • teaching strategies that focus or not on collaborative activities;
  • phenomena associated with group activities;
  • the need for “social relations” between students;
  • actions taken by Canadian institutions to support the integration of distance students, and the importance these institutions give to different aspects of socialization in relation to educational goals, and the importance these aspects of socialization have in maintaining and strengthening ties within the Francophone communities outside Quebec.

I’m not going to attempt to summarize a 144 page report in French, but Loisier’s conclusions in particular are quite provocative (if I have translated correctly!). He notes that while most distance education leaders support the idea of collaborative learning and the socialization of students, in practice this does not happen often in distance programs, and in any case collaborative learning often conflicts with the desire of distance students for individual and flexible learning. Furthermore, socialization does not occur automatically online merely by putting students together in groups. Nevertheless, there are important educational goals that are best facilitated through collaborative learning, but careful planning and a framework/context  are needed that avoid the more affective or emotional elements of socialization, and focus more on the cognitive elements of learning in a group.

This is one of the most interesting, provocative and useful research reports I’ve read in a long while.

Teaching assistants, adjunct faculty and online learning

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Lecture to hybridI am struggling these days with the issue of who should teach online courses, in terms of qualifications and status, and in particular, the issue of how to scale up credit-based online courses while maintaining or improving quality.

These questions are coming to the forefront because, through blended learning, practices that are common in face-to-face teaching come head to head with quite different practices in online learning.

What has made this an issue for me

Recently I’ve been involved in assessing proposals for funding for large-enrollment online credit courses. Most of the proposals have focused on using several/many teaching assistants working under a professor to provide the learning support. I’m also finding this model being increasingly used where institutions are moving to a hybrid model, combining both online and face-to-face components, especially where a former very large lecture-based course is being redesigned for hybrid learning. Even including the TAs, the instructor/student ratio is often 1:100 or higher for these large enrollment courses (in other words, the same ratio more or less as when the course was delivered solely through large lectures.) In the proposals, and in the reports I am receiving, there is usually no additional training for TAs about how to teach online, although in many – but by no means all – cases, they do get some kind of training in teaching face-to-face.

This is a problem for me, because I have always worked with a model for online courses where the instructor: student ratio has been under 40 for undergraduate courses, and under 30 for graduate courses. Scaling up has been handled by hiring on contract additional part-time adjunct or associate professors, either with a doctoral degree in the subject area, or with strongly related work experience. The adjuncts would be paid to take a short online briefing course on teaching online which sets out the expectations for online teaching. This was an affordable model because the additional student tuition fees would more than cover the cost of hiring additional contract instructors, once the course was developed.

However, this has been possible because most of the online courses I have been responsible for have been aimed mainly at higher level undergraduate students or graduate students. With both blended and online courses now being targeted at large first and second year classes, new models are being developed that I fear will not have the same level of quality as the ‘best practice’ online courses I have been working with.

Why this is not an easy issue for me

This is a particularly difficult issue for me to discuss for several reasons:

  • most of my experience is with fully online courses; when I have taught face-to-face, it’s usually been me on my own, and generally with relatively small groups of between 25 to 200 maximum
  • practices both for dealing with large face-to-face classes and with online classes vary considerably within each form of delivery, and from one institution to another, so making generalizations is fraught with danger
  • decisions about whether to use teaching assistants or part-time, contract instructors, are driven more by financial considerations than by best pedagogical practice, although institutions do their best to make it as effective educationally as possible once a model for TAs and/or adjuncts has been decided on
  • there are other factors at work besides money and pedagogy in the use of teaching assistants and adjunct faculty, such as the desire to provide financial support to international and graduate students, the idea of apprenticeship in teaching, and the supply and demand effects on the employment of doctoral graduates seeking a career in university teaching and research
  • there is no golden mean for instructor/student ratios in either blended or online learning. In the mainly quantitative/STEM subjects, much higher ratios are sustainable without the loss of quality, through the use of automated marking and feedback
  • MOOCs (rightly or wrongly) are giving the impression that it is possible to scale up even credit-based online learning at lower cost.

What follows then is tentative, and I’m ready to change my views especially on the evidence of others who have grappled with this issue.

My concern

My real concern is that the over-reliance on teaching assistants for online and blended courses will have three negative consequences for both students and online learning in general:

  • As with the large face-to-face classes, the pedagogy for online or blended courses will resort more to information transmission.
  • however, for the online or hybrid courses, student drop-out and dissatisfaction will increase because, especially in first and second year teaching, they will not get the learning support they need when studying online.  As a result, faculty and students will claim that online learning is inferior to classroom-based instruction
  • faculty will see online learning and blended learning being used by administrations to cut costs and over time to reduce the employment of tenured faculty, and will therefore try to block its implementation.

Why can’t TAs provide the support needed online if they can do this for face-to-face classes? First, I’m not sure they do provide adequate support for students in large first year classes, but I’m not in a position to judge. But in online courses in subject domains where discussion is important, where qualitative judgements and decisions have to be made by students and instructors, where knowledge needs to be developed and structured, in other words in any field where the learning requires more than the transmission and repetition of information, then students need to be able to interact with an instructor that has a deep understanding of the subject area. For this reason, I am more than happy to hire adjunct faculty to teach online, but not TAs in general (although there will always be exceptions). Furthermore this kind of teaching and learning (‘the learning that matters most’) is very difficult to do with a very large instructor/student ratio, although with good design and faculty training, we could possibly push numbers higher than 1/40.

One possible solution

I’m not sure there is an easy solution to this problem. Whether online or face-to-face, large numbers of students per instructor limits what is possible pedagogically.

Furthermore, in my view online learning works better for some kinds of students than others. Students in their first year of university or college are not the best target group. They are often young, have little experience of independent learning, lack confidence or discipline in their study habits, and indeed expect to be in a face-to-face teaching environment and want the social and cultural milieu that a campus provides. What we should be doing though in their first and second year is gradually introducing them to online components so that they slowly develop the discipline and skills required for successful online learning. This still doesn’t resolve the issue though of very large classes.

So here’s my suggestion for these large introductory courses of 1,000 students or more (this is not new – see the National Center for Academic Transformation‘s course redesign):

  • create a team to design, develop and deliver the course. The team will include a senior professor, several adjunct professors, and two or three TAs, plus an instructional designer and web/multimedia designer.
  • The senior professor acts as a teaching consultant, responsible for the overall design of the course, hiring and supervising the work of the adjuncts/TAs, and the assessment strategy/questions and rubrics. This though is done in consultation with the rest of the team.
  • Most content is provided online.
  • Students work in groups of 30, and each of the adjuncts is responsible for several student groups. Students do both individual and group work (e.g. projects, problem-solving),
  • Students participate in ongoing online discussion forums, under the moderation of an adjunct or TA
  • The senior professor meets for one hour a week three times face-to-face or synchronously with  a group of 30 students; this brings the professor in face-to-face contact with just over 1,000 students a semester; adjuncts where possible meet once a week with a group on campus or synchronously.
  • Adjuncts and TAs mark assignments, and the senior professor monitors/calibrates the marking between instructors
  • Now think of what could happen if this course was shared with other universities. Savings could be made on course development, but the delivery of the course would still need instructors at the other universities. So there would be some economies of scale from sharing, but not a very large saving, because the development cost is a small proportion of the overall cost. This does not mean that institutions shouldn’t co-operate and share resources, but this will not bring the large economies of scale that are often claimed for sharing online courses.

Whatever detailed design is done, these large courses should have a clear business model to work with, which basically provides an overall budget for the course, that includes the cost of tenure track and adjunct faculty and TAs, and takes account of the students numbers (more students, more budgeted money), but allowing the senior professor to build the team as best as possible within that budget.

The two elephants in the room

The above scenario works with the current system of allocating resources to different level of courses. But there are two factors that lead to the very large class sizes in first and second year that no-one really wants to talk about:

Elephant in room

  • the starvation of first and second year students of teaching resources; senior faculty concentrate more on upper level courses, and want to keep these class sizes smaller. As a consequence first and second year students suffer
  • teaching subsidizes research: too often tuition revenues get filtered off into supporting research activities. The most obvious case is that if teachers spent more time teaching and less doing research, there would be more faculty available for teaching. Teaching loads for experienced, tenured faculty are often quite light and as stated above, focused on small upper level classes.

Do a simple calculation: divide the total number of students by the number of tenure track instructors  in your institution, and that will give you an overall average instructor/student ratio for the university as a whole. So if you have 40,000 students and 2,000 full-time instructors , you have an overall instructor/student ratio of 1:20. However, then deduct 40% of their time for research, so that equals 1,200 full time equivalent, or a ratio of one instructor for 33.3 students. Then deduct another 20% of their time for administration and public service and that leaves 800 FTEs, or a ratio of one instructor for every 50 students. Even with this fairly generous allowance of 60% of their time for other activities, and WITHOUT adjuncts or TAs, in this large university there should be enough instructors to teach without having the absurdly large first and second year classes commonly found in such large universities. Add in adjuncts and TAs, and this ratio drops even further.

So don’t expect online learning to solve this problem on its own.

Your turn

I would particularly like to hear from the relatively rare instructors who have taught large classes both face-to-face and online. Do you share my concern about using TAs for distance or hybrid courses?

I’d also like to hear in general about experiences with TAs or adjunct/contract instructors as well on this topic.

Is Athabasca University moving away from tutoring?

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image from www.ssmaritime.com.

image from www.ssmaritime.com.

Nolais, J. (2014) Concerns dialed up over ‘call-centre model’ at Alberta’s Athabasca University Metro: Calgary, January 27

More signs of trouble at ‘Canada’s Open University’, as Athabasca University likes to describe itself (see also: What’s going on at Athabasca University? and Athabasca University’s President to stand down – but not soon).

The Faculty of Science is moving to a call-centre model of learner support for some of its undergraduate courses. Under this model, students call with a question, and are given a tracking number, and then someone will call them later, depending on who is available. Some might call this the Telus or Bell system of phone service customer support, and we know how well that works.

Under the previous tutorial system, a student has direct contact with someone teaching the course, and the tutor can initiate contact, for instance, if the student is not participating actively or appears to be struggling. Under a tutorial system students will have the same ‘tutor’ or instructor for the whole course, who also usually is involved in student assessment. (In an online course, it may well be the instructor who designed the course).

There is an excellent, more detailed description and discussion of the pros and cons of the call centre vs tutorial model on Bob Barnetson’s blog. Bob is a faculty member in the School of Business, and has been an instructor under both systems.

This is clearly an attempt to save money (according to Barnetson, the call centre model is almost half the cost of the tutorial model). The university has a large operating deficit, and this move will save at least $1 million a year.

What is even more worrying is not so much the decision but how it was made. It never went to Athabasca’s equivalent of a Senate (the General Faculties Council) because it was considered an administrative rather than an academic decision. Yet the tutorial model is all about helping students with their learning, which could not more clearly be an academic decision regarding the quality of the courses. Furthermore, the research on this issue is clear: the earlier students receive a response to a question, the better their performance, and the less likely they are to drop out.

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This is another sign that Athabasca University is losing the plot. The university is facing a major financial crunch having eaten up a large reserve and going into substantial debt in recent years, and at the same time many of its undergraduate programs are still mainly print or text-based, a costly and antiquated model, supported by tutoring which is an essential component of this type of distance course.

Rather than undertaking a general review of its undergraduate teaching with an attempt to develop more interactive, online programs, more emphasis on social learning, and more flexible course designs, it is tinkering with what it sees as the most expensive part of its program delivery.

No wonder the Alberta government is losing confidence in the institution. From the outside, it is like watching an old massive ocean liner heading straight for the iceberg. If Athabasca University sinks, as it increasingly looks likely, this will be a major tragedy for Canadian online and distance learning. There are nearly 30,000 students, with over 40% coming from other parts of Canada. It should be the flagship for Canadian online learning, not an old, rusting hulk that has seen better days.

 

2020 Vision: Outlook for online learning in 2014 and way beyond

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 2020 visionTaking the long view

Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail on  January 4 wrote an interesting piece on prediction, entitled: “Gadgets alone don’t make the future.” Having shown how amazingly accurate technologists in 1961 were in predicting what technologies would roll out in the future, he also showed how poorly they predicted how these gadgets would impact on our lives. In summary:

‘We are very good at guessing where our inventions might lead. We are very poor in understanding how humans might change their lives….the decision of what kind of life to live between the screens remains a political one, shaped not by our inventions but by our own decisions.’

Last year I spent some time discussing the value of predictions. One point I didn’t mention is the limitation of predicting just one year ahead, because you can’t identify the long term directions, and so often you’re driven by what happened in the very recent past, i.e. last year, because that’s the latest and often only data you have. More importantly, though, looking one year ahead assumes that there is no choice in what technologies we will use and how we will use them, because they are already entering our society. Also, this is likely to be the last year in which I make predictions for the future. I will be 75 in April, and I plan to stop all paid professional activities at that point (although I will keep my blog, but more as a journalist than as a practitioner).

So this seems to be a good point to look not just at 2014, but where we might be going five to ten years from now, and in doing this, I want to include choice or human decision-making as well as technological determinism. In other words, what kind of online learning do I expect in the future, given what I know so far?

The disappearance of online learning as a separate construct

In 2020, people won’t be talking about online learning as such. It will be so integrated with teaching and learning that it will be like talking today about whether we should use classrooms. In fact, we may be talking much more about classrooms or the campus experience in 2020, because of online learning, and how it is changing the whole way that students are learning. There is likely to be heated discussions about the role and purpose of campuses and school buildings, the design of classrooms, and who needs to be there (teachers and students) and more importantly what for, when students can do so much of their learning online – and generally prefer to, because of the flexibility, and of their control over their own learning. The big changes then are likely to be on-campus, rather than on-line.

Steelcase Node Classroom

Steelcase Node Classroom

Multi-mode delivery concentrated in fewer institutions – but more diversity

Quite a few public and smaller private post-secondary institutions will be gone or radically transformed by 2020. Particularly at risk are smaller, low status state or provincial universities and colleges or their campuses in metropolitan areas, where there is local and regional competition for students. They will have lost students to more prestigious universities and high status vocationally oriented institutions using online and flexible learning to boost their numbers. Government will be increasingly reluctant to build new campuses, looking to more flexible and more cost effective online delivery options to accommodate increasing demand. Nevertheless, politics will occasionally trump economics, with small new universities and colleges still being created in smaller towns away from the larger urban areas. Even these though will have much smaller campuses than today and probably as much as 50% of all course enrollments online, often in partnership with more established and prestigious universities through course sharing and credit transfer.

Those institutions that have survived will be offering students a range of choices of how they can access learning. Courses or programs will be deliberately designed to accommodate flexibility of access. Thus students will be able to decide whether to do all their studying on campus, all of it online, or a mix of both, although courses or programs are likely to have a common assessment strategy (see below). This will not be driven so much by academic or even political decisions, but by students voting with their feet (or mouses) to study at those institutions that provide such flexibility.

Multi-purpose, open delivery, with multiple levels of service and fees

Content will be multi-purposed, depending on a learner’s goals. Thus the same content can be part of a credit-based degree-level course, program or competency, part of a non-credit certificate or diploma, or available as open access. Learners will also be able to choose from a range of different course or program components, dependent on their needs and interests. Because most content will be open and modular, in the form of open textbooks, open multimedia resources, and open research, institutions will offer a variety of templates for courses and programs built around open content. For example, for a degree in physics, certain topics must be covered, with a strong recommendation for the sequence of study, but within those core levels of competency, there will be a variety of routes or electives towards a final degree, where broadly based learning outcomes are set, but multiple routes are offered for progress to these outcomes. Those content components can be accessed from a wide range of approved sources. It is the competency and academic performance of the learner that the institution will accredit.

Most institutions will have an open education portal, that contains not only a wide range of open educational resources, but also a range of open services, such as program templates or free academic guidance for specific target groups, as part of their enrollment strategy. Although such portals are likely to include materials from a wide range of sources from around the world, special emphasis will be given to open content developed by their own faculty, based on their latest research or scholarship, as a way of branding their institution. iTunesU, MIT’s Opencourseware, OpenLearn, and MOOCs are early prototypes, but content quality in the future will be greatly improved in terms of pedagogical and media design to accommodate online learners. Also states and provinces will also establish system-wide portals of open educational resources, particularly at the k-12 and two year college level (see eLearnPunjab and open.bccampus.ca as prototype models).

Because academic content is almost all open, free and easily accessible over the Internet, students will not pay tuition fees for content delivery, but for services such as academic guidance and learning support, and these fees will vary depending on the level of service required. Thus students who want a traditional course that covers guidance on and access to content, tutorial help, access to campus facilities, feedback and assessment will pay full fee (some of which may still be government subsidized in the public system). Students who want just open access will pay nothing, but will get few if any support services, and if they need a formal assessment, they will need to pay for this (although again this may be subsidized in a public system). Other students may want feedback and some form of continuous assessment, but will not want to pay for full tutorial support.

There are several consequences of this increased flexibility. Some institutions will specialize in small-class, on-campus education at high cost. Others will focus on high quality delivery through a variety of delivery modes, with a particular emphasis on course design and learner support. Some institutions will focus on low cost, competency-based open access programs, supported by businesses requiring specific skilled labour, and a few institutions will be specialists in fully online distance delivery operating on a national or international basis, at a lower cost but equally high quality as campus-based institutions. The majority of institutions though will become multi-purpose, multiple delivery institutions because of the economies of scale and scope possible.

Goodbye to the lecture-based course

In most institutions, courses based on three lectures a week over 13 weeks will have disappeared. There are several reasons for this. The first is that all content can be easily digitalized and made available on demand at very low cost. Second, institutions will be making greater use of dynamic video (not talking heads) for demonstration, simulations, animations, etc. Thus most content modules will be multi-media. Third, open textbooks incorporating multi media components and student activities will provide the content, organization and interpretation that are the rationale for most lectures. Lastly, and most significantly, the priority for teaching will have changed from information transmission and organization to knowledge management, where students have the responsibility for finding, analyzing, evaluating, sharing and applying knowledge, under the direction of a skilled subject expert. Project-based learning, collaborative learning and situated or experiential learning will become much more widely prevalent. Also many instructors will prefer to use the time they would have spent on a series of  lectures in providing more direct, individual and group learner support, thus bringing them into closer contact with learners.

This does not mean that lectures will disappear altogether, but they will be special events, and probably multi-media, synchronously and asynchronously delivered. Special events might include a professor’s summary of his latest research, the introduction to a course, a point mid-way through a course for taking stock and dealing with common difficulties, or the wrap-up to a course. It will provide a chance for an instructor to makes themselves known, to impart their interests and enthusiasm, and to motivate learners, but this will be just one, relatively small, but important component of a much broader learning experience for students.

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Goodbye to the written exam – and welcome to the final implementation of lifelong learning

For most post-secondary qualifications, written exams will have been replaced by assessment through multimedia portfolios of student work. These will show not only students’ current knowledge and competencies, but also their progression over time, and a range of equally important skills, such as their ability to work collaboratively, self-management of learning, and general communication skills. Assessment will be mainly on a continuous, on-going basis.

As well as change in the method of assessing learning there will be greater variety in the range of accredited qualifications. Degrees, certificates and diplomas will still be important, but these will be complemented with a wide range of assessments of informal or non-formal learning, such as badges, some offered by post-secondary institutions, others offered by employers’ organizations or co-operatives of professionals. University and college diplomas and degrees will increasingly be seen as milestones on the journey to lifelong learning, and for demographic and economic reasons, the lifelong learning market will become a much larger market than the high school leaver market.

This means academic departments will need to develop programs and courses that range from introductory or foundational through undergraduate degrees to professional masters to lifelong learning, again using similar content modules adapted to different markets, as well as creating or adapting new content, based on the latest research in a field, for these newer markets. Much of the lifelong market will lend itself to online and hybrid learning, but in different structures (short modules, for instance) than the undergraduate and higher degree market. Universities and colleges will increasingly compete with the corporate training industry for these post-postgraduate learners, who will be able and willing to afford top dollar for top-level lifelong learning opportunities, based on the latest research coming out of universities, government and businesses.

However, a large part of the lifelong learning market will become occupied by communities of practice and self-learning, through collaborative learning, sharing of knowledge and experience, and crowd-sourcing new ideas and development, particularly assisted by an evolution of what are now known as cMOOCs. Such informal learning provision will be particularly valuable for non-governmental or charitable organizations, such as the Red Cross, Greenpeace or UNICEF, or local government, looking for ways to engage communities in their areas of operation. These communities of learners will be open and free, and hence will provide a competitive alternative to the high priced lifelong learning programs being offered by research universities. This will put pressure on universities and colleges to provide more flexible arrangements for recognition of informal learning, in order to hold on to their current monopoly of post-secondary accreditation.

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

New financial models

Because most content will be freely accessible, and because students will pay incrementally for a wide variety of services, new financial models will need to be developed, to support the flexibility and range of services that students will increasingly demand and require. The biggest move is likely to be away from block funding or enrollment-driven funding by government towards pay-for-service through student fees for teaching. There will be further separation of the funding for research and teaching (this has already happened in some countries, such as in England and Wales.) As a result government financing may well change, so that students are given a post-secondary grant at the age of 17, and have the right to decide how to spend that grant on post-secondary education, rather than funding institutions directly for teaching.

This may have some unexpected benefits for academic departments. Under this model it makes much more sense to fund programs directly from fees for the program, than to pool grants and fees centrally then break out money for teaching and filter it down through the departments. Thus program fees or service fees  would come to academic departments (or more accurately the program areas) directly, then the programs would pay for university services such as registration and financial services on a direct cost basis, plus a percentage for general overheads. This is already happening in some public universities at post-graduate levels, where tuition fees for online professional masters more than cover all the costs, direct and indirect, of a program, including the cost of full-time research professors who teach on the program.

This model would also have two other benefits. It would put pressure on service departments, such as HR, financial services, the Registry, etc., to become more cost-efficient, because direct costs to programs become more transparent. Second, since online students do not need a range of campus services such as campus building maintenance, lighting, and heating, it would lead to the different costs of online vs campus-teaching becoming more transparent and comparable, with an economic incentive to move more towards the most cost-efficient delivery model.

There are also disadvantages. Some model would be needed to support more expensive programs to deliver, or programs that are specialized but important in a university community. However, a program-based financial model may help save small departments who are struggling for minimal enrolments from their local market. Online courses can open the market to regional or international students and offer the chance of collaboration and partnership with other institutions, through course and student sharing.

The disaggregation of institutional activities required for the flexible delivery of programs in a world where content is free offers opportunities for rethinking how teaching and learning is funded.

Systematic faculty development and training

Since content will be freely accessible, institutions’ reputation and branding will increasingly depend on the way they support learners. This will put much greater emphasis on instructors having good teaching skills as well as subject expertise. Thus most universities and colleges will require faculty to have assessed teaching skills before tenure or permanent appointment, and equal attention will be given to teaching expertise as research in promotion. This will mean incorporating teaching practice and methods within most post-graduate subject areas, college instructors having compulsory pre-service teacher training, and regular faculty having systematic ongoing professional development as new technologies and new teaching approaches develop over time. The immediate benefit of this will be better student retention rates and higher quality learning outcomes.

Devolved decision-making and organizational models

A move to program-based funding, the need for effective course designs to attract students, the differentiation of services, the increased professionalism in teaching, and freely available open content will result in a move to systematic program planning and team teaching. A typical team will consist of a senior research professor, several junior or adjunct professors, an instructional designer/project manager and a media/web designer. The senior faculty member, in collaboration with the other team members, will be responsible for decisions about curriculum content, methods of learner support, and assessment standards. The team will develop assessment criteria and rubrics, and where necessary hire additional instructors for learner support and marking of assessments , under the supervision of the senior faculty members.

One consequence will be the disappearance of central centres for teaching and technology, except in small institutions. Instructional design staff will be located in program areas and will be responsible with academic faculty for faculty development activities, as well as with overall course design input. There will be increased demand for media designers, while instructional designers will be in less demand in the future, but still necessary to support faculty, especially as new learning technologies develop.

Student privacy, data security and student online behaviour will become more difficult

Learning will increasingly be delivered through student-owned devices, and learners will increasingly integrate social life, work and study in a seamless manner. Services will increasingly be delivered through the cloud. Security agencies, Internet-based companies and knowledge-based companies will constantly be seeking access to student data, especially student learning performance and online behaviour, as this information will be increasingly valuable for state security and commercial reasons. As a result it will become increasingly difficult for institutions to protect student data and their privacy. This may turn out to be the biggest challenge for students, institutions, and government in the next 20 years and could seriously inhibit the development of online learning in the future, if students or faculty lose trust in the system.

The future is about choices

This is my view about where we could be going with online learning in the next five to ten years. However, I will not be making the decisions, as I am retiring in April. If you do not like this vision, then you are in a position to influence a different kind of vision. Although as McLuhan says, we are shaped by our devices, we also shape the world around these devices. The worst thing we could do is to leave it to computer scientists to decide our future.

The value such a vision lies not in its detail, but in identifying some of the key choices or decisions that will need to be made. So here are the decisions that are thrown up by this vision for the future, for students, faculty, institutions and government (and some of these, such as those about campus facilities, should be being made right now):

Students and learners

  • at this point in my life, what are my learning goals? What is the best way to meet these? Where can I get advice for this?
  • do I need a qualification and if so, what kind?
  • what is the best way for me to access this learning? On-campus; online; or a mix of both?
  • what kind of learning support do I need?
  • how much do I want to – or must I – pay for these services?
  • what institution or other method of delivery will provide what I want? Where can I get independent advice on this?
  • how can I protect my privacy when I am online studying?

Faculty and instructors

  • why do students need to come to campus? What am I offering on-campus that they couldn’t get online? Have I looked up the research on this?
  • what teaching methods will lead to the kind of learning outcomes that students will need in life?
  • what should be my role if content is freely available online?
  • what kind of teaching spaces do I need for what I want to offer on campus?
  • how should I best use my time in teaching? In what kind of teaching activities can I really make a difference for students?
  • if I create new or original content for my teaching, should I make it openly available to anyone to use?
  • what methods of assessment should I use in a digital age? How do I assess prior or informal learning?
  • what kind of courses or programs should we be offering for lifelong learners?
  • what do I need to know about student data, and the protection of student privacy?
  • what training or professional development do I need to ensure that I can meet the learning needs of my students?

Institutions

  • what kind of campus will we need in 10 years time?
  • what proportion of course enrollments are likely to be accessed off-campus?
  • what will be the best way to accommodate more students – online learning or more buildings?
  • what kind and number of teaching spaces will we need?
  • what partnerships or strategies should we adopt to protect our enrollment base?
  • what are our strategies and policies regarding open educational resources?
  • what is our strategy for lifelong learning?
  • what financial models should we put in place to encourage innovation in teaching and to attract students?
  • how do we ensure that faculty have the skills necessary for teaching in a digital age?
  • how can we best reward innovation and high quality teaching?
  • what kind of organization and staff do we need to support faculty in their teaching?
  • how do we best protect student data and privacy (as well as our staff’s) in a digital age?

Government

  • what kind of post-secondary system, in terms of institutional differentiation, program delivery and innovations in teaching, do we need in a digital age?
  • how many, and what kind of, campuses do we need when students are also studying online? What is the best way to accommodate expansion in the system?
  • how can we best support system-wide open education, to reduce costs and increase quality?
  • how should we fund post-secondary education in a digital age? How much and what should ‘first-time’ students pay for themselves? What should lifelong learners who have already been through the system pay? What funding models would encourage innovation in teaching and help improve quality?
  • how can online learning help to increase the productivity of the post-secondary educational system? What can we do to encourage this?
  • what does government need to do to protect student data and student privacy?

What’s YOUR vision?

I won’t be around to make or influence these decisions, but most of you will. Are there decisions I’ve missed? What decisions would you make? What’s your vision for the future?

If you are willing to share just one response to any of these questions or decisions, this will be very much appreciated. Because the future will be increasingly about sharing knowledge.