December 21, 2014

Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: philosophy and practice

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They're big: but will they survive? Image: © Wikipedia

They’re big: but will they survive? Image: © Wikipedia

The story so far

For my open textbook Teaching in a Digital Age, I am writing a chapter on different design models for teaching and learning. I have started writing the section on MOOCs, and in my previous post, ‘What is a MOOC?‘, I gave a brief history and described the key common characteristics of all MOOCs.

In this post I examine the differences in philosophy and practice between xMOOCs and cMOOCs.

Design models for MOOCs

MOOCs are a relatively new phenomenon and as a result are still evolving, particularly in terms of their design. However the early MOOC courses had relatively identifiable designs which still permeate most MOOCs. At the same time, there are two quite different philosophical positions underpinning xMOOCs and cMOOCs, so we need to look at each design model separately.

xMOOCs

I am starting with xMOOCs because at the time of writing they are by far the most common MOOC. Because instructors have considerable flexibility in the design of the course, there is considerable variation in the details, but in general xMOOCs have the following common design features:

  • specially designed platform software: xMOOCs use specially designed platform software that allows for the registration of very large numbers of participants, provides facilities for the storing and streaming on demand of digital materials, and automates assessment procedures and student performance tracking.
  • video lectures: xMOOCs use the standard lecture mode, but delivered online by participants downloading on demand recorded video lectures. These video lectures are normally available on a weekly basis over a period of 10-13 weeks. Initially these were often 50 minute lectures, but as a result of experience some xMOOCs now are using shorter recordings (sometimes down to 15 minutes in length) and thus there may be more video segments. Over time, xMOOC courses, as well as the videos, are becoming shorter in length, some now lasting only five weeks. Various video production methods have been used, including lecture capture (recording face-to-face on-campus lectures, then storing them and streaming them on demand), full studio production, or desk-top recording by the instructor on their own.
  • computer-marked assignments: students complete an online test and receive immediate computerised feedback. These tests are usually offered throughout the course, and may be used just for participant feedback. Alternatively the tests may be used for determining the award of a certificate. Another option is for an end of course grade or certificate based solely on an end-of-course online test. Most xMOOC assignments are based on multiple-choice, computer-marked questions, but some MOOCs have also used text or formula boxes for participants to enter answers, such as coding in a computer science course, or mathematical formulae, and in one or two cases, short text answers, but in all cases these are computer-marked.
  • peer assessment: some xMOOCs have experimented with assigning students randomly to small groups for peer assessment, especially for more open-ended or more evaluative assignment questions. This has often proved problematic though because of wide variations in expertise between the different members of a group, and because of the different levels of involvement in the course of different participants.
  • supporting materials: sometimes copies of slides, supplementary audio files, urls to other resources, and online articles may be included for downloading by participants.
  • a shared comment/discussion space where participants can post questions, ask for help, or comment on the content of the course.
  • no or very light discussion moderation: the extent to which the discussion or comments are moderated varies probably more than any other feature in xMOOCs, but at its most, moderation is directed at all participants rather than to individuals. Because of the very large numbers participating and commenting, moderation of individual comments by the instructor(s) offering the MOOC is impossible. Some instructors offer no moderation whatsoever, so participants rely on other participants to respond to questions or comments. Some instructors ‘sample’ comments and questions, and post comments in response to these. Some instructors use teaching assistants to comb for or identify common areas of concern shared by a number of participants then the instructor or teaching assistants will respond. However, in most cases, participants moderate each other’s comments or questions.
  • badges or certificates: most xMOOCs award some kind of recognition for successful completion of a course, based on a final computer-marked assessment. However, at the time of writing, MOOC badges or certificates have not been recognised for credit or admission purposes even by the institutions offering a MOOC, or even when the lectures are the same as for on-campus students. No evidence exists to date about employer acceptance of MOOC qualifications.
  • learning analytics: Although to date there has not been a great deal of published information about the use of learning analytics in xMOOCs, the xMOOC platforms have the capacity to collect and analyse ‘big data’ about participants and their performance, enabling, at least in theory, for immediate feedback to instructors about areas where the content or design needs improving and possibly directing automated cues or hints for individuals.

xMOOCs therefore primarily use a teaching model focused on the transmission of information, with high quality content delivery, computer-marked assessment (mainly for student feedback purposes), and automation of all key transactions between participants and the learning platform. There is almost no direct interaction between an individual participant and the instructor responsible for the course.

cMOOCs

cMOOCs have a very different educational philosophy from xMOOCs, in that cMOOCs place heavy emphasis on networking and in particular on strong content contributions from the participants themselves.

Key design principles

Downes (2014) has identified four key design principles for cMOOCs:

  • autonomy of the learner: in terms of learners choosing what content or skills they wish to learn, learning is personal, and thus there being no formal curriculum
  • diversity: in terms of the tools used, the range of participants and their knowledge levels, and varied content
  • interactivity: in terms of co-operative learning, communication between participants, resulting in emergent knowledge
  • open-ness: in terms of access, content, activities and assessment

Thus for the proponents of cMOOCs, learning results not from the transmission of information from an expert to novices, as in xMOOCs, but from sharing of knowledge between participants.

From principles to practice

Identifying how these key design features for cMOOCs are turned into practice is somewhat more difficult to pinpoint, because cMOOCs depend on an evolving set of practices. Most cMOOCs to date have in fact made some use of ‘experts’, both in the organization and promotion of the MOOC, and in providing ‘nodes’ of content around which discussion tends to revolve.  In other words, the design practices of cMOOCs are still more a work in progress than those of xMOOCs.

Nevertheless, I see the following as key design practices to date in cMOOCs:

  • use of social media: partly because most cMOOCs are not institutionally based or supported, they do not at present use a shared platform or platforms but are more loosely supported by a range of ‘connected’ tools and media. These may include a simple online registration system, and the use of web conferencing tools such as Blackboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect, streamed video or audio files, blogs, wikis, ‘open’ learning management systems such as Moodle or Canvas, Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook, all enabling participants to share their contributions. Indeed, as new apps and social media tools develop, they too are likely to be incorporated into cMOOCs. All these tools are connected through web-based hashtags or other web-based linking mechanisms, enabling participants to identify social media contributions from other participants. Downes (2014) is working on a Learning and Performance Support System that could be used to help both participants and cMOOC organisers to communicate more easily across the whole MOOC and to organise their personal learning. Thus the use of loosely linked/connected social media is a key design practice in cMOOCs
  • participant-driven content: in principle, other than a common topic that may be decided by someone wanting to organise a cMOOC, content is decided upon and contributed by the participants themselves, in this sense very much like any other community of practice. In practice though cMOOC organisers (who themselves tend to have some expertise in the topic of the cMOOC) are likely to invite potential participants who have expertise or are known already to have a well articulated approach to a topic to make contributions around which participants can discuss and debate. Other participants choose their own ways to contribute or communicate, the most common being through blog posts, tweets, or comments on other participants’ blog posts, although some cMOOCs use wikis or open source online discussion forums. The key design practice with regard to content is that all participants contribute to and share content.
  • distributed communication: this is probably the most difficult design practice to understand for those not familiar with cMOOCs – and even for those who have participated. With participants numbering in the hundreds or even thousands, each contributing individually through a variety of social media, there are a myriad different inter-connections between participants that are impossible to track (in total) for any single participant. This results in many sub-conversations, more commonly at a binary level of two people communicating with each other than an integrated group discussion, although all conversations are ‘open’ and all other participants are able to contribute to a conversation if they know it exists. The key design practice then with regard to communication is a self-organising network with many sub-components.
  • assessment: there is no formal assessment, although participants may seek feedback from other, more knowledgeable participants, on an informal basis. Basically participants decide for themselves whether what they have learned is appropriate to them.

cMOOCs therefore primarily use a networked approach to learning based on autonomous learners connecting with each other across open and connected social media and sharing knowledge through their own personal contributions. There is no pre-set curriculum and no formal teacher-student relationship, either for delivery of content or for learner support. Participants learn from the contributions of others, from the meta-level knowledge generated through the community, and from self-reflection on their own contributions.

This is very much a personal interpretation of how cMOOCs work in practice, based largely on my own experience as a participant, but much more has been written and spoken about the philosophy of cMOOCs, and much less about the implementation of that philosophy, presumably because cMOOC proponents want to leave it open to practitioners to decide how best to put that philosophy into practice.

What is clear though is that Downes was correct in clearly distinguishing cMOOCs from xMOOCs – they are very different beasts.

Coming next to a web page near you

Now for the fun part. Over the next few days I will be writing about the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs, focusing particularly on the following question:

Can or do MOOCs provide the learning and skills that students will need in the future? 

I can in fact provide you with the short answer now: a resounding NO, for both kinds of MOOC, although one is a bit better than the other! Tune in later for the full details.

Feedback, please

In the meantime, I need to know whether I have got it right in describing the two kinds of MOOCs. Does my description – because that is all it’s meant to be at this stage – match your experience of MOOCs? Have I missed important characteristics? Do I have my facts wrong? Is this useful or is there a better way to approach this topic?

The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age

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Online student 2

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, is now published. In Chapter 5, I developed the concept of a learning environment.

I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’ In my last two posts I discussed respectively the appropriateness of the classroom model and the ADDIE model for a digital age. In this post, I explore the same issue for competency-based learning model. (Some of this material has been published earlier by Contact North in its Gamechangers series.)

Competency-based learning

Competency-based learning attempts to break away from the regularly scheduled classroom model, where students study the same subject matter at the same speed in a cohort of fellow students.

What is competency-based learning?

Competency-based learning begins by identifying specific competencies or skills, and enables learners to develop mastery of each competency or skill at their own pace, usually working with a mentor. Learners can develop just the competencies or skills they feel they need (for which increasingly they may receive a ‘badge’ or some form of validated recognition), or can combine a whole set of competencies into a full qualification, such as a certificate, diploma or increasingly a full degree. Learners work individually, rather than in cohorts. If learners can demonstrate that they are already have mastery of a particular competency or skill, through a test or some form of prior learning assessment, they may be allowed to move to the next level of competency without having to repeat a prescribed course of study for the prior competency.

Its value for developing practical or vocational skills or competencies is more obvious, but increasingly competency-based learning is being used for education requiring more abstract or academic skills development, sometimes combined with other cohort-based courses or programs. The Western Governors University, with nearly 40,000 students, has pioneered competency-based learning, but with the more recent support of the Federal Department of Education it is expanding rapidly in the USA.

Competency-based learning is particularly appropriate for adult learners with life experience who may have developed competencies or skills without formal education or training, for those who started school or college and dropped out and wish to return to formal study, but want their earlier learning to be recognized, or for those learners wanting to develop specific skills but not wanting a full program of studies. Competency-based learning can be delivered through a campus program, but it is increasingly delivered fully online, because many students taking such programs are already working or seeking work.

Designing competency-based learning

There are various approaches, but the Western Governors model illustrates many of the key steps.

Defining competencies

A feature of most competency-based programs is a partnership between employers and educators in identifying the competencies required, at least at a high level. Some of the skills outlined in Chapter 1, such as problem-solving or critical thinking, may be considered high-level, but competency-based learning tries to break down abstract or vague goals into specific, measurable competencies.

For instance, at Western Governors University (WGU), for each degree, a high-level set of competencies is defined by the University Council, and then a working team of contracted subject matter experts takes the ten or so high level competencies for a particular qualification and breaks them down into about 30 more specific competencies, around which are built online courses to develop mastery of each competency. Competencies are based upon what graduates are supposed to know in the workplace and as professionals in a chosen career. Assessments are designed specifically to assess the mastery of each competency; thus students receive either a pass/no pass following assessment. A degree is awarded when all 30 specified competencies are successfully achieved.

Defining competencies that meet the needs of students and employers in ways that are progressive (i.e. one competency builds on earlier competencies and leads to more advanced competencies) and coherent (in that the sum of all the competencies produces a graduate with all the knowledge and skills required within a business or profession) is perhaps the most important and most difficult part of competency-based learning.

Course and program design

At WGU, courses are created by in-house subject matter experts selecting existing online curriculum from third parties and/or resources such as e-textbooks through contracts with publishers. Increasingly open educational resources are used. WGU does not use an LMS but a specially designed portal for each course. E-textbooks are offered to students without extra cost to the student, through contracts between WGU and the publishers. Courses are pre-determined for the student with no electives. Students are admitted on a monthly basis and work their way through each competency at their own pace.

Students who already possess competencies may accelerate through their program in two ways: transferring in credits from a previous associate degree in appropriate areas (e.g. general education, writing); or by taking exams when they feel they are ready.

Learner support

Again this varies from institution to institution. WGU currently employs approximately 750 faculty who act as mentors. There are two kinds of mentors: ‘student’ mentors and ‘course’ mentors. Student mentors, who have qualifications within the subject domain, usually at a masters level, are in at least bi-weekly telephone contact with their students, depending on the needs of the student in working through their courses, and are the main contact for students. A student mentor is responsible for roughly 85 students. Students start with a mentor from their first day and stay with their mentor until graduation. Student mentors assist students in determining and maintaining an appropriate pace of study and step in with help when students are struggling.

Course mentors are more highly qualified, usually with a doctorate, and provide extra support for students when needed. Course mentors will be available to between 200-400 students at a time, depending on the subject requirement.

Students may contact either student or course mentors at any time (unlimited access) and mentors are expected to deal with student calls within one business day. Student mentors are pro-active, calling students regularly (at least once every two weeks, more if necessary) to maintain contact. Mentors are full-time but work flexible hours, usually from home. Mentors are reasonably well paid, and receive extensive training in mentoring.

Remote proctoring of exams

Remote proctoring of exams

Assessment

WGU uses written papers, portfolios, projects, observed student performance and computer-marked assignments as appropriate, with detailed rubrics. Assessments are submitted online and if they require human evaluation, qualified graders (subject matter experts trained by WGU in assessment) are randomly assigned to mark work on a pass/fail basis. If students fail, the graders provide feedback on the areas where competency was not demonstrated. Students may resubmit if necessary.

Students will take both formative (pre-assessment) and summative (proctored) exams. WGU is increasingly using online proctoring, enabling students to take an exam at home under video supervision, using facial recognition technology to ensure that the registered student is taking the exam. In areas such as teaching and health, student performance or practice is  assessed in situ by professionals (teachers, nurses).

Strengths of a competency-based approach to design

Proponents have identified a number of strengths in the competency-based learning approach:

  • it meets the immediate needs of businesses and professions; students are either already working, and receive advancement within the company, or if unemployed, are more likely to be employed once qualified
  • it enables learners with work or family commitments to study at their own pace
  • for some students, it speeds up time to completion of a qualification by enabling prior learning to be recognized
  • students get individual support and help from their mentors
  • tuition fees are affordable ($6,000 per annum at WGU) and programs can be self-funding from tuition fees alone, since WGU uses already existing study materials and increasingly open educational resources
  • increasingly, competency-based education is being recognized as eligible for Federal loans and student aid in the USA.

Consequently, institutions such as WGU, the University of Southern New Hampshire, and Northern Arizona University, using a competency-based approach, at least as part of their operations, have seen annual enrolment growth in the range of 30-40 per cent per annum.

Weaknesses of a competency-based approach to design

Its main weakness is that it works well with some learning environments and less well with others. In particular:

  • it focuses on immediate employer needs and is less focused on preparing learners with the flexibility needed for a more uncertain future
  • it does not suit subject areas where it is difficult to prescribe specific competencies or where new skills and new knowledge need to be rapidly accommodated
  • it takes an objectivist approach to learning
  • it ignores the importance of social learning
  • it will not fit the preferred learning styles of many students.

In conclusion

Competency-based learning is a relatively new approach to learning design which is proving increasingly popular with employers and suits certain kinds of learners such as adult learners seeking to re-skill or searching for mid-level jobs requiring relatively easily identifiable skills. It does not suit though all kinds of learners and may be limited in developing the higher level, more abstract knowledge and skills requiring creativity, high-level problem-solving and decision-making and critical thinking.

Over to you

I have been very gratified by the feedback and open-ness of many of the readers of this blog on my earlier drafts for this book. I do not feel I am an expert on competency-based learning, never having designed a course this way, so feedback and advice from more experienced practitioners will be particularly welcome. In particular:

1. I have focused mainly on the Western Governors design model for competency-based learning, which is entirely online. Do you know other models of designing competency-based learning that I should have included?

2. What are your views on the competency-based model? Is it a useful model for designing teaching in a digital age? Do you agree with my criticisms of the model?

3. What is the difference between a competency and a skill? Or is there no difference?

4. What key articles, videos or books on competency-based learning would you recommend?

What’s next

So far I have done drafts of the following (as blogs)

  • What is a design model?
  • The classroom model
  • Classroom models in online learning
    • LMSs
    • lecture capture
  • ADDIE
  • competency-based learning

Still to come:

  • Connectivist models, including communities of practice and cMOOCs
  • PLEs
  • AI approaches
  • Flexible design models
  • Conclusion

My next post in this series then will be on the appropriateness of connectivist design models for teaching in a digital age.

Is the ADDIE model appropriate for teaching in a digital age?

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© Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

Click on the graphic for the interactive version © Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, is now published. In Chapter 5, I developed the concept of a learning environment.

I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’ In my last post I discussed the appropriateness of the classroom design model for a digital age. In this post, I explore the same issue for the ADDIE model.

What is ADDIE?

ADDIE stands for:

Analyse

  • identify all the variables that need to be considered when designing the course, such as learner characteristics, learners’ prior knowledge, resources available, etc.  This stage is similar to describing the learning environment outlined in Chapter 5.

Design

  • this stage focuses on identifying the learning objectives for the course and how materials will be created and designed (for instance, it may include describing what content areas are to be covered and a storyboard outlining what will be covered in text, audio and video and in what order), and deciding on the selection and use of technology, such as an LMS, video or social media

Develop

  • the creation of content, including whether to develop in-house or outsource, copyright clearance for third party materials, recording videos or audio, loading of content into a web site or LMS, etc.

Implement

  • this is the actual delivery of the course, including any prior training or briefing of learner support staff, and student assessment

Evaluate

  • feedback and data is collected in order to identify areas that require improvement and this feeds into the design, development and implementation of the next iteration of the course.

The interactive infographic above provides an in-depth, step-by-step approach to the design of learning, with lots of online resources to draw on. There have been many books written about the ADDIE model (see for instance, Morrison, 2010; Dick and Carey, 2004).

Where is ADDIE used?

This is a design model used by many professional instructional designers for technology-based teaching. ADDIE has been almost a standard for professionally developed, high quality distance education programs, whether print-based or online. It is also heavily used in corporate e-learning and training. There are many variations on this model (my favourite is ‘PADDIE’, where planning and/or preparation are added at the start). The model is mainly applied on an iterative basis, with evaluation leading to re-analysis and further design and development modifications.

One reason for the widespread use of the ADDIE model is that it is extremely valuable for large and complex teaching designs. ADDIE ‘s roots go back to the Second World War and derive from system design, which was developed to manage the hugely complex Normandy landings.

The Open University in the United Kingdom heavily uses ADDIE to manage the design of complex multi-media distance education courses. When the OU opened in 1971 with an initial intake of 20,000, it used radio, television, specially designed printed modules, text books, reproduced research articles in the form of selected readings that were mailed to students, and regional study groups, with teams of often 20 academics, media producers and technology support staff developing courses, and with delivery and learner support provided by an army of regional tutors and senior counsellors. Creating and delivering its first courses without systematic instructional design model would have been impossible, and in 2014, with over 200,000 students, the OU still employs a strong instructional design model based on ADDIE.

Although ADDIE and instructional design in general originated in the USA, the Open University’s success in developing high quality learning materials influenced many more institutions that were offering distance education on a much smaller scale to adopt the ADDIE model, if on a more modest scale. As distance education courses became increasingly developed as online courses, the ADDIE model continued, and is now being used by instructional designers in many institutions for the re-design of large lecture classes, hybrid learning, and for fully online courses.

What are the benefits of ADDIE?

One reason it has been so successful is that it is heavily associated with good quality design, with clear learning objectives, carefully structured content, controlled workloads for faculty and students, integrated media, relevant student activities, and assessment strongly tied to desired learning outcomes. Although these good design principles can be applied with or without the ADDIE model, it is a model that allows these design principles to be identified and implemented on a systematic and thorough basis. It is also a very useful management tool, allowing for the design and development of large numbers of courses to a standard high quality.

What are the limitations of ADDIE?

The ADDIE approach can be used with any size of teaching project, but works best with large and complex projects. Applied to courses with small student numbers and a deliberately simple or traditional classroom design, it becomes expensive and possibly redundant, although there is nothing to stop an individual teacher following this strategy when designing and delivering a course.

A second criticism is that the ADDIE model is what might be called ‘front-end loaded’ in that it focuses heavily on content design and development, but does not pay as much attention to the interaction between instructors and students during course delivery. It has been criticised by constructivists for not paying enough attention to learner-instructor interaction, and for privileging more behaviourist approaches to teaching.

Another criticism is that while the five stages are reasonably well described in most descriptions of the model, it does not provide guidance on how to make decisions within that framework. For instance, it does not provide guidelines or procedures for deciding how to choose between different technologies, or what assessment strategies to use. Instructors have to go beyond the ADDIE framework to make these decisions.

The over-enthusiastic application of the ADDIE model can and has resulted in overly complex design stages, with many different categories of workers (faculty, instructional designers, editors, web designers) and consequently a strong division of labour, resulting in courses taking up to two years from initial approval to actual delivery. The more complex the design and management infrastructure, the more opportunities there are for cost over-runs and very expensive programming.

My main criticism though is that the model is too inflexible for the digital age. Adamson (2012) states:

The systems under which the world operates and the ways that individual businesses operate are vast and complex – interconnected to the point of confusion and uncertainty. The linear process of cause and effect becomes increasingly irrelevant, and it is necessary for knowledge workers to begin thinking in new ways and exploring new solutions.

In particular knowledge workers must deal with situations and contexts that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (what Adamson calls a VUCA environment). This certainly applies to teachers working with ever changing technologies, very diverse students, a rapidly changing external world that puts pressure on institutions to change.

If we look at course design, how does a teacher respond to rapidly developing new content, new technologies or apps being launched on a daily basis, to a constantly changing student base? For instance, even setting prior learning outcomes is fraught in a VUCA environment, unless you set them at an abstract ‘skill’ level such as thinking flexibly, networking, and information retrieval and analysis. Students need to develop the key knowledge management skills of knowing where to find relevant information, how to assess, evaluate and appropriately apply such information. This means exposing them to less than certain knowledge and providing them with the skills, practice and feedback to assess and evaluate such knowledge then apply that to solving real world problems.

This means designing learning environments that are rich and constantly changing, but enable students to develop and practice the skills and acquire the knowledge they will need in a VUCA world. I would argue that while the ADDIE model has served us well in the past, it is too pre-determined, linear and inflexible to handle this type of learning. I will discuss more flexible models later in this chapter.

Over to you

1. Have I given enough information about what ADDIE is, by using the infographic, or do I need to cover this more fully in the text? Do I need to say something about rapid course development here?

2. What are your views on the ADDIE model? Is it a useful model for designing teaching in a digital age? Do you agree with my criticisms of the model?

3. Any suggestions about other, more flexible models that could be used?

What’s next

So far I have done drafts of the following (as blogs)

  • What is a design model?
  • The classroom model
  • Classroom models in online learning
    • LMSs
    • lecture capture
  • ADDIE

Still to come:

  • Competency-based learning,
  • Connectivist models, including Communities of practice and cMOOCs
  • Flexible design models
  • PLEs
  • AI approaches.
  • Conclusion

My next post in this series then will be on the appropriateness of competency-based learning for teaching in a digital age.

References

Adamson, C. (2012) Learning in a VUCA world, Online Educa Berlin News Portal, November 13

Dick, W., and Carey, L. (2004). The Systematic Design of Instruction. Allyn & Bacon; 6 edition Allyn & Bacon

Morrison, Gary R. (2010) Designing Effective Instruction, 6th Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons 

Why learner support is an important component in the design of teaching and learning

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Learner support 2

The story so far

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ is about the design of teaching and learning, which I am currently writing and publishing as I go.

I started Chapter 5 by suggesting that instructors should think about design through the lens of constructing a comprehensive learning environment in which teaching and learning will take place. I have started to work through the various components of a learning environment, focusing particularly on how the digital age affects the way we need to look at some of these components.

I started by looking at how the characteristics of our learners are changing, and followed that by examining how our perspectives on content are being influenced by the digital age. In my last post, I look at how both intellectual and practical skills can be developed to meet the needs of a digital age. In this post, I discuss the importance of learner support within the learning environment. In subsequent posts, I will cover resources and assessment respectively.

This will then lead to a discussion of different models for designing teaching and learning. These models aim to provide a structure for and integration of these various components of a learning environment.

Learner support

Learner support is another critical component of an effective learning environment. It focuses on what the teacher or instructor can or should do to help learners beyond the formal delivery of content, or skills development.

Learner support covers a wide range of functions, and is a topic that will be dealt with in more depth elsewhere. Here my focus is on indicating why it is an essential component of an effective learning environment, and to describe briefly some of the main activities associated with learner support.

Scaffolding

helping hand 2

I use the term scaffolding to cover the many functions of an instructor in diagnosing learners’ difficulties, helping students when they struggle with new concepts or ideas, helping students to gain deep understanding of a topic or subject, helping students to evaluate a range of different ideas or practices, helping students to understand the limits of knowledge, and above all challenging students to go beyond their current level of thinking or practice to acquire deeper understanding or a higher level of competency.

These activities normally take the form of personal interventions and communication between an instructor and an individual or a group of students, in face-to-face contexts or online. They tend not to be pre-planned. They are usually a means of individualising the learning, enabling student differences in learning to be better accommodated as they occur.

Feedback

This could be seen as a sub-category of scaffolding, but it covers the role of providing feedback on student performance of activities such as writing assignments, project work, creative activities, and other student activities that are beyond the current and perhaps future scope of automated computer feedback. Again, the instructor’s role here is to provide more individualisation of feedback to deal with more qualitatively assessed student activities, and may or may not be associated with formal assessment or grading.

Counselling

As well as direct support within their academic studying, learners often need help and guidance on administrative or personal issues, such as whether to repeat a course, delay an assignment because of sickness in the family, or cancel enrollment in a course and postpone it to another date. This potential source of help needs to be included in the design of an effective learning environment, with the aim of doing all that can be done to ensure that students succeed while meeting the academic standards of a program.

Other students

Other students can be a great support for learners. Much of this will happen informally, through students talking after class, through social media, or helping each other with assignments. However, instructors can make more formal use of other students by designing collaborative learning activities, group work, and designing online discussions so that students need to work together rather than individually.

Why learner support is so important

We shall see in Chapter 6 that good design can reduce substantially demand for learner support, by ensuring clarity and building in appropriate learning activities. Students also vary enormously in their need for support in learning. Many lifelong learners, who have already been through a post-secondary education, have families, careers and a great deal of life experience, can be self-managed, autonomous learners, identifying what they need to learn and how best to do this. At the other extreme, there are students for whom the formal school system was a disaster, who lack basic learning skills or foundations, such as reading, writing and mathematical skills, and therefore lack confidence in learning. These will need a lot of support to succeed.

However the vast majority of learners are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, occasionally, no matter how good the course design, running into problems, unsure what standards are expected, and needing to know how they are doing. Indeed, there is a good deal of research that indicates that ‘instructor presence’ is associated with student success or failure in a course, at least in online learning (Anderson et al, 2001; Richardson and Swan, 2003; Garrison and Cleveland-Innes, 2005; Baker, 2010; Sheridan and Kelly, 2010). Where students feel the instructor is not present, both learner performance and completion rates decline. For such students, good, timely learner support is the difference between success and failure.

It should be noted that the need for good learner support, and the ability to provide it, is not dependent on the medium of instruction. The kind of credit online courses that have been designed and delivered long before MOOCs came along often provided high levels of learner support, through having a strong instructor presence and careful design to ensure students were supported. At the same time, although computer programs can go some way to providing learner support, many of the most important functions of learner support associated with high-level conceptual learning and skills development still need to be provided by an expert teacher or instructor, whether present or at a distance. Furthermore, this kind of learner support is difficult to scale up, as it tends to be relatively labour intensive and requires instructors with a deep level of knowledge within the subject area to provide the high-level support often needed. Thus, the need to provide adequate levels of learner support cannot just be wished away, if we are to achieve successful learning on a large scale..

This may seem obvious to teachers, but the importance of learner support for student success is not always recognised or appreciated, as can be seen from the design of many MOOCs, and the reaction of politicians and the media to the cost savings promised by MOOCs, which are entirely a function of eliminating learner support. There are also different attitudes from instructors and institutions towards the need for learner support. Some faculty may believe that ‘It’s my job to instruct and yours to learn’; in other words, once students are presented with the necessary content through lectures or reading, the rest is up to them.

Nevertheless, the reality is that in any system with a wide diversity of students, as is so common today, teachers and instructors will have to deal with students with a wide range of needs in terms of learner support, unless we are willing to sacrifice the future of many thousands of learners. This means thinking about and planning how the support can best be provided, within the constraints of the resources available, which leads us to our next topic.

Over to you

Your views, comments and criticisms are always welcome. In particular:

  • do you think it is possible to design an effective course or program without the need for high levels of learner support? If so, what would it look like? A development of MOOCs or something completely different?
  • do you share my views about the limitations of computers for providing the kind of high-level learner support needed for conceptual learning in a digital age? What do they do well in terms of supporting learners?
  • is ‘scaffolding’ the best term to describe the kind of learning support I described in that section? If not is there a better term for this?

Or any other comments on learner support as a critical component of a learning environment, please!

Next up

How resources (or lack of them) can shape a learning environment.

References

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 5, No.2.

Baker, C. (2010) The Impact of Instructor Immediacy and Presence for Online Student Affective Learning, Cognition, and Motivation The Journal of Educators Online Vol. 7, No. 1

Garrison, D. R. & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 19, No. 3

Richardson, J. C., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7 (1), 68-8 8.

Sheridan, K. and Kelly, M.  (2010) The Indicators of Instructor Presence that are Important to Students in Online Courses MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 6, No. 4

 

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.