March 24, 2017

Online learning in 2016: a personal review


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Image: © Institute for Economics and Peace. Canada is ranked seventh most peaceful. We don’t know where it ranks though in terms of online learning.

A personal review

I am not going to do a review of all the developments in online learning in 2016 (for this, see Audrey Watters’ excellent HackEducation Trends). What I am going to do instead is review what I actually wrote about in 2016 in this blog, indicating what to me was of particular interest in online learning during 2016. I have identified 38 posts I wrote in which I have explored in some detail issues that bubbled up (at least for me) in 2016.

1. Tracking online learning

Building a national survey of online learning in Canada (134 hits)

A national survey of university online and distance learning in Canada (1,529 hits)

In the USA, fully online enrollments continue to grow in 2014 (91 hits)

Are you ready for blended learning? (389 hits)

What the Conference Board of Canada thinks about online learning (200 hits)

I indulged my obsession with knowing the extent to which online learning is penetrating post-secondary education with five posts on this topic. In a field undergoing such rapid changes, it is increasingly important to be able to track exactly what is going on. Thus a large part of my professional activity in 2016 has been devoted to establishing, almost from scratch, a national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions. I would have written more about this topic, but until the survey has been successfully conducted in 2017, I have preferred to keep a low profile on this issue.

However, during 2016 it did become clear to me, partly as a result of pilot testing of the questionnaire, and partly through visits to universities, that blended learning is not only gaining ground in Canadian post-secondary education at a much faster rate than I had anticipated, but is raising critical questions about what is best done online and what face-to-face, and how to prepare institutions and instructors for what is essentially a revolution in teaching.

This can be best summarized by what I wrote about the Conference Board of Canada’s report:

What is going on is a slowly boiling and considerably variable revolution in higher education that is not easily measured or even captured in individual anecdotes or interviews.

2. Faculty development and training

Getting faculty and instructors into online learning (183 hits)

Initiating instructors to online learning: 10 fundamentals (529 hits)

Online learning for beginners: 10. Ready to go (+ nine other posts on this topic = 4,238 hits)

5 IDEAS for a pedagogy of online learning (708 hits)

This was the area to which I devoted the most space, with ten posts on ‘Online Learning for Beginners’, aimed at instructors resisting or unready for online learning. These ten posts were then edited and published by Contact North as the 10 Fundamentals of Teaching Online.

Two fundamental conclusions: we need not only better organizational strategies to ensure that faculty have the knowledge and training they will need for effective teaching and learning in a digital age, but we also need to develop new teaching strategies and approaches that can exploit the benefits and even more importantly avoid the pitfalls of blended learning and learning technologies. I have been trying to make a contribution in this area, but much more needs to be done.

3. Learning environments

Building an effective learning environment (6,173 hits)

EDEN 2016: Re-imagining Learning Environments (597 hits)

Culture and effective online learning environments (1,260 hits)

Closely linked to developing appropriate pedagogies for a digital age is the concept of designing appropriate learning environments, based on learners’ construction of knowledge and the role of instructors in guiding and fostering knowledge management, independent learning and other 21st century skills.

This approach I argued is a better ‘fit’ for learners in a digital age than thinking in terms of blended, hybrid or fully online learning, and recognizes that not only can technology to be used to design very different kinds of learning environments from school or campus based learning environments, but also that technology is just one component of a much richer learning context.
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4. Experiential learning online

A full day of experiential learning in action (188 hits)

An example of online experiential learning: Ryerson University’s Law Practice Program (383 hits)

Is networked learning experiential learning? (163 hits)

These three posts explored a number of ways in which experiential learning is being done online, as this is a key methodology for developing skills in particular.

5. Open education

Acorns to oaks? British Columbia continues its progress with OERs (185 hits)

Talking numbers about open publishing and online learning (113 hits)

Towards an open pedagogy for online learning (385 hits)

These posts also tracked the development of open publishing and open educational resources, particularly in British Columbia, leading me to conclude that the OER ‘movement’ has far too narrow a concept of open-ness and that in its place we need an open pedagogy into which open educational resources are again just one component, and perhaps not the most significant.

6. Technology applications in online learning

An excellent guide to multimedia course design (659 hits)

Is video a threat to learning management systems? (603 hits)

Some comments on synchronous online learning technologies (231 hits)

Amongst all the hype about augmented reality, learning analytics and the application of artificial intelligence, I found it more useful to look at some of the technologies that are in everyday use in online learning, and how these could best be used.

7. Technology and alienation

Technology and alienation: online learning and labour market needs (319 hits)

Technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion (512 hits)

Technology, alienation and the role of education: an introduction (375 hits)

Automation or empowerment: online learning at the crossroads (1,571 hits)

Why digital technology is not necessarily the answer to your problem (474 hits)

These were more philosophical pieces, prompted to some extent by the wider concerns of the impact of technology on jobs and how that has influenced Brexit and the Trump phenomena.

Nevertheless this issue is also very relevant to the teaching context. In particular I was challenging the ‘Silicon Valley’ assumption that computers will eventually replace the need for teachers, and in particular the danger of using algorithms in teaching without knowing who wrote the algorithms, what their philosophy of teaching is, and thus what assumptions have been built into the use of data.

Image: Applift

Image: Applift

8. Learning analytics

Learning analytics and learning design at the UK Open University (90 hits)

Examining ethical and privacy issues surrounding learning analytics (321 hits)

Continuing more or less the same theme of analysing the downside as well as the upside of technology in education, these two posts looked at how some institutions, and the UK Open University in particular, are being thoughtful about the implications of learning analytics, and building in policies for protecting privacy and gaining student ‘social license’ for the use of analytics.

9. Assessment

Developing a next generation online learning assessment system (532 hits)

This is an area where much more work needs to be done. If we are to develop new or better pedagogies for a digital age, we will also need better assessment methods. Unfortunately the focus once again appears to be more on the tools of assessment, such as online proctoring, where large gains have been made in 2016, but which still focus on proctoring traditional assessment procedures such as time-restricted exams, multiple choice tests and essay writing. What we need are new methods of assessment that focus on measuring the types of knowledge and skills that are needed in a digital age.

For instance, e-portfolios have held a lot of promise for a long time, but are still being used and evaluated at a painfully slow rate. They do offer though one method for assessment that reflects much better the needs of assessing 21st century knowledge and skills. However we need more imagination and creativity in developing new assessment methods for measuring the knowledge and skills needed for a digital age.

That was the year that was

Well, it was 2016 from the perspective of someone no longer teaching online or managing online learning:

  • How far off am I, from your perspective?
  • What were the most significant developments for you in online learning in 2016?
  • What did I miss that you think should have been included? Perhaps I can focus on this next year.

I have one more post looking at 2016 to come, but that will be more personal, looking at my whole range of online learning activities in 2016.

In the meantime have a great seasonal break and I will be back in touch some time in the new year.

A full day of experiential learning in action

Marie Bountrogianni, Dean of Chang School, opening the ChangSchoolTalks, 2016

Marie Bountrogianni, Dean of the Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson, opening the ChangSchoolTalks, 2016

On Wednesday, February 17, the Chang School of Continuing Studies, Ryerson University, Toronto, put on an impressive one day conference, called ChangSchoolTalks, focused on experiential learning.

The day was organized into the following activities:

  • opening keynote
  • main ‘stage’ talks, of 10-15 minutes in length
  • master classes of 45 minutes length
  • brain dates: one-on-one mentoring on specific topics
  • exhibition.

Opening keynote

Don Tapscott was the opening keynote speaker, who talked about rethinking learning for the networked age. For those who know Tapscott’s work, he covered familiar ground, claiming that higher education must respond to four key leadership challenges/ strategies:

  • the technology revolution, in particular the power of networks and distributed knowledge (‘global intelligence’)
  • the Net Generation, who are ‘wired to think differently’
  • the economic revolution, the move from an industrial to a knowledge-based society
  • the social revolution, including an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth.

He referred in passing to his forthcoming book, ‘The Blockchain Revolution, How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business and the World‘, but did not really tie it in to the world of higher education during his talk.

Although I don’t disagree with many of the points he was making about the need for universities to change, I didn’t really leave with anything that I didn’t know already, although others may have found it new and refreshing.

Stage talks

Stage talks were plenary sessions. For me, this was the best part of the day, in terms of what I learned. There were five excellent speakers who used their limited time (10-15 minutes) expertly:

  • Arlene Dickinson, an entrepreneur famous as one of the dragons on the TV program ‘Dragons’ Den’, who talked about leadership
  • James Paul Gee, from Arizona State University, who talked about how participants in multiplayer games collaborated and strategized to solve problems within the games. (I would like to have asked if there was evidence of these problem-solving strategies being successfully transferred outside games, into other kinds of learning environment, but I didn’t get the chance)
  • Steve Gedeon, Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at Ryerson University, who talked about the pedagogy of entrepreneurship. This talk appealed to me the most, because Gedeon argued somewhat convincingly that the pedagogy of entrepreneurship (e.g. Lean Startup approaches to learning) could be applied to many other disciplines
  • Michelle Weise, from the University of Southern New Hampshire, which is one of the fastest growing universities with one of the largest online programs in the USA. She talked about competency-based education. I have mixed feelings myself about competency-based learning, and it was interesting to hear her arguments for it.
  • Marie Bountrogianni, the Dean of the Chang School at Ryerson, was the master of ceremonies, linking all the talks together.

What I liked particularly was the wide range of approaches and topics, with each one well delivered and clearly described in a very short time.

Master Classes

These were two sets of six to seven parallel 45 minute sessions covering the following topics:

  • robot subjugation for beginners (Alex Ferworn)
  • building an effective learning environment (me)
  • building pathways through online competency-based education (Michelle Weise)
  • handling reputation and shame in the social world (Boyd Neil)
  • collaboration and creativity: a challenge in design thinking (Michael Carter)
  • data visualization: what does your business look like? (Michael Martin)
  • big data: a roadmap to be a data scientist (Ayse Bener)
  • a discussion in learning in games (James Paul Gee)
  • the 5Cs of a bustling peer-learning community (Christine Renaud)
  • gamifying learning experiences (Jeremy Friedberg)
  • introductory economics revisited (Eric Kam)
  • ethos as a brand builder and driver for business (Deb Belinsky)
  • if they build it…co-creation as education (Vincent Hui)

As always with parallel sessions, there was always a clash. Because I was giving one, I could go to only one other. However, the list of titles gives some idea of the diversity of ideas and topics covered.

I will say a little bit more about my master class in a separate blog post.

Brain dates

Software made available to the ChangSchoolTalks by the company E-180 enabled participants to book online a one-on-one face-to-face session with a personal mentor, i.e. with anyone attending the conference who had expertise that you would like to access. This was somewhat restricted by a very full agenda for the day, but turned out nevertheless to be very popular.

Exhibition

There was also a small but very interesting set of exhibitors, covering displays of virtual reality, smart materials ,an augmented reality sandbox, a 3D robot labyrinth, 3D printing, and serious gaming.

Comment

The ChangSchoolTalks was a particularly effective showcase for the interests and work being done at Ryerson University.

I came away from the day with my head absolutely buzzing. I was subjected to a torrent of fascinating ideas and developments. What I liked particularly was the diversity of topics, not all of which were specifically educational, but which nevertheless are significant for the future of education.

I would have like a little more time for informal networking, more time for questions and discussion with the ‘stage’ speakers, but there is a lot to be said for the fire hose theory of learning! I learned so much in such a short time, but really need to follow up on most of the topics.

An example of online experiential learning: Ryerson University’s Law Practice Program

Lawyers 2

Alexandris, G., Buontrogianni, M, and Djafarova, N. (2015) Ground-breaking program for Ontario Law School Graduates – Virtual Law Firms, Berlin: OEB Conference

Online, experiential learning

Experiential learning is a very popular concept in education these days, but it is not always well understood, and in particular some see experiential learning and online learning as contradictory. It’s important then to have examples of successful online experiential programs.

Ryerson University in Toronto has one such program. Although hybrid rather than fully online, the online component is both substantial and essential.

Why Ryerson?

One of the many challenges in legal training is moving new law school graduates into the real world of law practice. Although most graduates become articled to a particular law firm, they are often ill-prepared for the actual work, which is much more skills- and context-based than the more theory- and content-based approach in law school.

The Law Society of Upper Canada, which regulates the profession in Ontario, recently introduced changes to its licensing process, requiring a new ‘transition to practice’ training that focuses on skills development. Although Ryerson does not have its own law school, it does have a strong reputation for innovative approaches to skills development in higher education, and as a result in 2013 the Law Society of Upper Canada chose Ryerson to develop the transition to practice program, now called the Law Practice Program (LPP).

The challenge

Ryerson had to develop an experience-based program, drawing initially 220 participants during each of its first two years, spread across the whole province of Ontario and beyond, but also capable of expansion if necessary. The program required developing realistic cases and practices, and a teaching approach that of necessity directly involved ‘real’ law firms and busy, practising lawyers and judges as mentors. At the same time, the training must not interfere with the actual practice of law while participants were engaged in training.

The overall program strategy

Ryerson turned to two of its centres, the Chang School of Continuing Education’s Centre for Digital Education, and the Interpersonal Skills Teaching Centre, which offers simulated learning and teaching of interpersonal communications skills.

Externally Ryerson partnered with the Ontario Bar Association. This enabled Ryerson to annually engage over 250 lawyers across the province as mentors and contributors to the program, and 220 law firms and organizations for work placements. This also allowed the program to integrate technology and legal resources already used in the law profession.

The program adopts a hybrid approach, with a four month practical training period consisting of 14 weeks online and three separate weeks on campus. During these seventeen weeks, candidates work on simulated files developed by practising lawyers. This training is then followed by a four month work placement, where participants work on actual files.

Curriculum

The practical training component consists of developing skills and competency in the following areas:

  • professionalism and ethics
  • analytical skills
  • research
  • oral and written communication
  • client management
  • practice management.

using seven practice areas of law:

  • administrative law
  • business law
  • civil litigation
  • criminal law
  • family law
  • real estate law
  • wills and estates law.

Program design

This is where the program becomes unique and innovative. There are several components of the design.

a. Virtual ‘firms’

Virtual firms are created with four participants, and an external lawyer as a mentor. Each firm also has multiple clients, actors specially trained to play a specific role. There are weekly firm meetings, often in virtual, but real-time, format.

b. Specially designed learning resources

Participants have access to more than 90 pieces of simulated legal correspondence, several specialized legal applications and databases, 40 custom-made videos, and 20 learning modules.

LPP presentation 2

A number of multiple choice assessments and interactive learning objects have been designed to facilitate comprehension and understanding of legal issues and the development of skills.

There are also in-person and virtual presentations by experts in key competency and substantive legal areas, and participants also have to meet virtually and in-person with clients, other lawyers and judges.

c. Communication

A wide variety of tools are used for communication between participants, mentors and clients, including:

  • a standard learning management system
  • online communications tools used within the legal profession (Clio, Webex)

d. Assessment

Participants are assessed through their interaction with lawyers and judges during the program, including live legal presentations and argument.

Conclusion

The main success of the program, now in its second year, has been the ability of the participants ‘to hit the ground running’ when they join a law firm/legal employer. Employers’ responses to the program have been generally highly favourable (see here), although no formal evaluation of the program has yet been conducted. The strong involvement of lawyers and judges as well as law firms has ensured that the training is both relevant and practical, while the firms benefit from better prepared future employees.

The creation of virtual cases, processes and procedures, the use of simulations and virtual meetings and virtual firms, and work placements under supervision, have combined to provide a strong, experience-based approach to learning which both participants and mentors have found highly motivating.

Lastly the ability for participants and mentors to work primarily online has provided the flexibility necessary for busy, working professionals.

There are of course many other online experiential learning programs, such as the virtual reality-based program on custom border services for Canada Border Service Agents at Loyalist College, Ontario. I would welcome other contributions or examples for future blog posts.

LPP case 2

Disclaimer

Since 1st January 2016 I am a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University, but I have not been engaged in any way with the design, development or delivery of this program. I am though indebted to Gina Alexandris, the program director for the LPP, for her help and advice in preparing this post.

Is networked learning experiential learning?

Image: © Justin Grimes, The Guardian, 2013

Image: © Justin Grimes, The Guardian, 2013

Campbell, G. (2016) Networked learning as experiential learning Educause Review, Vol. 51 No. 1, January 11

This is an interesting if somewhat high level discussion by the Vice-Provost for Learning Innovation at Virginia Commonwealth University, USA, of the importance of networked learning as experiential learning:

the experience of building and participating within a digitally mediated network of discovery and collaboration is an increasingly necessary foundation for all other forms of experiential learning in a digital age. Moreover, the experience of building and participating within a digitally mediated network of discovery is itself a form of experiential learning, indeed a kind of metaexperiential learning that vividly and concretely teaches the experience of networks themselves.

This article might be useful for those who feel a need for a pedagogical or philosophical justification for networked learning. However, I have two reservations about Campbell’s argument which are closely related:

  • Campbell appears in one part of the article to be arguing students need some kind of academic training to understand the underlying nature of digital networking, but he is not too clear in the article about what that entails or indeed what that underlying nature is, beyond the purely technical;
  • second, I struggled to see what the consequences of the argument are for me as a teacher: what should I be doing to ensure that students are using networked learning as experiential learning? Does this happen automatically?

I think Campbell is arguing that instructors should move away from selecting and packaging information for students, and allow them to build knowledge through digital networks both within and outside the academy. I of course agree with this part of the argument, but the hard part is knowing the best ways to do this so that learners achieve the knowledge and skills they will need.

As with all teaching methods, networked learning and/or experiential learning can be done well or badly. I would like to see (a) a more precise description of what networked learning means to Gardner in terms of practice, and (b) some guidelines or principles to support instructors in using networked learning as a form of experiential learning. This needs to go beyond what we know about collaborative learning in online groups, although even the application of what we know about this would be a big step forward for most instructors.

Without a clear analysis of how digital networking results in learning, and how this differs from non-digital networked learning, networked learning runs the risk of being yet another overworked buzzword that really doesn’t help a great deal.

Despite my reservations I encourage you to take a look at this article and see if you can make more sense of it than I have, because I believe that this is a very important development/argument that needs further discussion and critical analysis.

For a more pragmatic take on this topic see:

LaRue, B. and Galindo, S. (2009). ‘Synthesizing Corporate and Higher Education Learning Strategies’. in Rudestam, K. and Schoenholtz-Read, J. (eds.) Handbook of Online Learning: Innovations in  Higher Education and Corporate Training Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

 

Can you do experiential learning online? Assessing design models for experiential learning

Loyalist College's virtual border crossing

Loyalist College’s virtual border crossing

One of the frustrating things about writing a book (Teaching in a Digital World) is that just when you think you’ve finished a chapter, you realise you have missed out something really important. I thought I’d covered the main learning design models when I became aware that I hadn’t covered experiential learning.

Nevertheless, I still remember at one of my presentations to faculty on online learning, a faculty member saying that you can’t do experiential learning online. I felt at the time that this was so mistaken a view, that I need to address it in my book. Indeed, experiential learning is like most design models: it is independent of the mode of delivery. What matters is how well it is done.

Now while I have had some experience of doing project-based learning in an elementary school in England many years ago, I don’t consider myself a specialist in experiential learning, especially at a post-secondary level, but I do have a bias towards embedding teaching and learning within real world contexts, where appropriate, while recognising that academic learning is about thinking in abstractions and generalisations. However, these need to be empirically based, and students need to move easily from the concrete to the abstract and back again, and done well, experiential learning should assist that process.

So here’s my stab at describing the various design models for experiential learning.

What is experiential learning?

Definition

Simon Fraser University defines experiential learning as:

the strategic, active engagement of students in opportunities to learn through doing, and reflection on those activities, which empowers them to apply their theoretical knowledge to practical endeavours in a multitude of settings inside and outside of the classroom.” 

There is a wide range of design models that aim to embed learning within real world contexts, including:

  • problem-based learning
  • case-based learning
  • project-based learning
  • inquiry-based learning
  • cooperative (work- or community-based) learning
  • apprenticeship.

I will be focusing on the first four of these design models (for a discussion of the apprenticeship model, and lab or studio work, see Chapter 4, Section 4.) The focus here is on some of the main ways in which experiential learning can be designed and delivered, with particular respect to the use of technology, and in ways that help develop the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age. (For a more detailed analysis of experiential learning, see Moon, 2004).

Core design principles

Experiential learning is a major form of teaching at the University of Waterloo. Its web site lists the conditions needed to ensure that experiential learning is effective, as identified by the Association for Experiential Education:

  • Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis.
  • Experiences are structured to require the student to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.
  • Throughout the experiential learning process, the student is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative and constructing meaning.
  • Students are engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially, soulfully and/or physically. This involvement produces a perception that the learning task is authentic.
  • The results of the learning are personal and form the basis for future experience and learning.
  • Relationships are developed and nurtured: student to self, student to others and student to the world at large.
  • The instructor and student may experience success, failure, adventure, risk-taking and uncertainty, because the outcomes of the experience cannot totally be predicted.
  • Opportunities are nurtured for students and instructors to explore and examine their own values.
  • The instructor’s primary roles include setting suitable experiences, posing problems, setting boundaries, supporting students, insuring physical and emotional safety, and facilitating the learning process.
  • The instructor recognizes and encourages spontaneous opportunities for learning.
  • Instructors strive to be aware of their biases, judgments and pre-conceptions, and how these influence the student.
  • The design of the learning experience includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes and successes.

Ryerson University in Toronto is another institution with extensive use of experiential learning, and also has an extensive web site on the topic, also directed at instructors. The next section examines different ways in which these principles have been applied.

Experiential design models

There are many different design models for experiential learning, but they also have many features in common.

Problem-based learning

The earliest form of systematised problem-based learning (PBL) was developed in 1969 by Howard Barrows and colleagues in the School of Medicine at McMaster University in Canada, from where it has spread to many other universities, colleges and schools. This approach is increasingly used in subject domains where the knowledge base is rapidly expanding and where it is impossible for students to master all the knowledge in the domain within a limited period of study. Working in groups, students identify what they already know, what they need to know, and how and where to access new information that may lead to resolution of the problem. The role of the instructor (usually called a tutor in classic PBL) is critical in facilitating and guiding the learning process.

Usually PBL follows a strongly systematised approach to solving problems, although the detailed steps and sequence tend to vary to some extent, depending on the subject domain. The following is a typical example

Figure 6. The Maastricht Seven-Jump PBL Tutorial Process (Gijeselaers, 1995)

Figure 6.10  (derived from Gijeselaers, 1995)

Traditionally, the first five steps would be done in a small face-to-face class tutorial of 20-25 students, with the sixth step requiring either individual or small group (four or five students) private study, with a the seventh step being accomplished in a full group meeting with the tutor. However, this approach also lends itself to blended learning in particular, where the research solution is done mainly online, although some instructors have managed the whole process online, using a combination of synchronous web conferencing and asynchronous online discussion.

Developing a complete problem-based learning curriculum is challenging, as problems must be carefully chosen, increasing in complexity and difficulty over the course of study, and problems must be chosen so as to cover all the required components of the curriculum. Students often find the problem-based learning approach challenging, particularly in the early stages, where their foundational knowledge base may not be sufficient to solve some of the problems. (The term ‘cognitive overload’ has been used to describe this situation.) Others argue that lectures provide a quicker and more condensed way to cover the same topics. Assessment also has to be carefully designed, especially if a final exam carries heavy weight in grading, to ensure that problem-solving skills as well as content coverage are measured.

However, research (see for instance, Strobel and van Barneveld, 2009) has found that problem-based learning is better for long-term retention of material and developing ‘replicable’ skills, as well as for improving students’ attitudes towards learning. There are now many variations on the ‘pure’ PBL approach, with problems being set after initial content has been covered in more traditional ways, such as lectures or prior reading, for instance.

Case-based learning

With case-based teaching, students develop skills in analytical thinking and reflective judgment by reading and discussing complex, real-life scenarios.

University of Michigan Centre for Research on Teaching and Learning,

Case-based learning is sometimes considered a variation of PBL, while others see it as a design model in its own right. As with PBL, case-based learning uses a guided inquiry method, but usually requires the students to have a degree of prior knowledge that can assist in analysing the case. There is usually more flexibility in the approach to case-based learning compared to PBL. Case-based learning is particularly popular in business education, law schools and clinical practice in medicine, but can be used in many other subject domains.

Herreid (2004) provides eleven basic rules for case-based learning.

  1. Tells a story.
  2. Focuses on an interest-arousing issue.
  3. Set in the past five years
  4. Creates empathy with the central characters.
  5. Includes direct quotations from the characters.
  6. Relevant to the reader.
  7. Must have pedagogic utility.
  8. Conflict provoking.
  9. Decision forcing.
  10. Has generality.
  11. Is short.

Using examples from clinical practice in medicine, Irby (1994) recommends five steps in case-based learning:

  • Anchor teaching in a (carefully chosen) case
  • Actively involve learners in discussing, analysing and making recommendations regarding the case
  • Model professional thinking and action as an instructor when discussing the case with learners
  • Provide direction and feedback to learners in their discussions
  • Create a collaborative learning environment where all views are respected

Case-based learning can be particularly valuable for dealing with complex, interdisciplinary topics or issues which have no obvious ‘right or wrong’ solutions, or where learners need to evaluate and decide on competing, alternative explanations. Case-based learning can also work well in both blended and fully online environments. Marcus, Taylor and Ellis (2004) used the following design model for a case-based blended learning project in veterinary science:

Figure 6.  Blended learning sequence involving online learning resources , Marcus, Taylor and Ellis, 2004

Figure 6.11 Blended learning sequence involving online learning resources, Marcus, Taylor and Ellis, 2004

Other configurations are of course also possible, depending on the requirements of the subject.

Project-based learning

Project-based learning is similar to case-based learning, but tends to be longer and broader in scope, and with even more student autonomy/responsibility in the sense of choosing sub-topics, organising their work, and deciding on what methods to use to conduct the project. Projects are usually based around real world problems, which give students a sense of responsibility and ownership in their learning activities.

Once again, there are several best practices or guidelines for successful project work. For instance, Larmer and Mergendoller (2010) argue that every good project should meet two criteria:

  • students must perceive the work as personally meaningful, as a task that matters and that they want to do well.
  • a meaningful project fulfills an educational purpose.

They then list seven essential elements of ‘meaningful’ projects:

  • need to know: provide students with a compelling ‘event’ (a video, news item, picture, guest lecturer) that they are asked to engage with
  • a driving question: ‘a good driving question captures the heart of the project in clear, compelling language, which gives students a sense of purpose and challenge. The question should be provocative, open-ended, complex, and linked to the core of what you want students to learn.
  • student voice and choice: students should be engaged in initial ‘brainstorming’ about the driving question, and have some choice in how they approach answering this question, both in terms of methods of inquiry, and in how the results of their study will be presented. Different sub-groups in the class then may operate in different ways.
  • 21st century skills: encourage the development of skills, particularly collaboration, team-building, role differentiation, oral, written and multimedia communication and reflection through journals or e-portfolios. Both instructor and students should be involved with assessment, which should include measurement of these skills.
  • inquiry and innovation: in order to tackle the driving question, students refine their own questions and line of inquiry, then seek out the information they need to answer their questions, then test their own ideas through discussion and further research. This may well lead to innovative suggestions for dealing with the issue under research.
  • feedback and revision: students should be encouraged to share their work with other students and be willing to give feedback and help each other. The instructor should structure more formal feedback so students are receiving help and guidance throughout the project, and encourage external forms of feedback from outside the institutional context, such as responses from relevant businesses or government agencies.
  • a publicly presented product: ideally the end product from the class should be presented to an external audience that has a major stake or interest in the issue under study, and should as far as possible offer constructive suggestions or conclusions.

The main danger with project-based learning is that the project can take a life of its own, with not only students but the instructor losing focus on the key, essential learning objectives, or important content areas may not get covered. Thus project-based learning needs careful design and monitoring by the instructor.

Inquiry-based learning

Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is similar to project-based learning, but the role of the teacher/instructor is somewhat different. In project-based learning, the instructor decides the ‘driving question’ and plays a more active role in guiding the students through the process. In inquiry-based learning, the learner explores a theme and chooses a topic for research, develops a plan of research and comes to conclusions, although an instructor is usually available to provide help and guidance when needed.

Banchi and Bell (2008) suggest that there are different levels of inquiry, and students need to begin at the first level and work through the other levels to get to ‘true’ or ‘open’ inquiry as follows:

Figure 6.x from Banchi and Bell (2008)

Figure 6.x from Banchi and Bell (2008)

It can be seen that the fourth level of inquiry describes the graduate thesis process, although proponents of inquiry-based learning have advocated its value at all levels of education.

Experiential learning in online learning environments

Advocates of experiential learning are often highly critical of online learning, because, they argue, it is impossible to embed online learning in real world examples. By its nature, online learning is not ‘real world.’ However, this is an oversimplification, and there are contexts in which online learning can be used very effectively to support or develop experiential learning, in all its variations:

  • blended or flipped learning: although group sessions to start off the process, and to bring a problem or project to a conclusion, are usually done in a classroom or lab setting, students can increasingly conduct the research and information gathering by accessing resources online, by using online multimedia resources to create reports or presentations, and by collaborating online through group project work or through critique and evaluation of each other’s work
  • fully online: increasingly, instructors are finding that experiential learning can be applied fully online, through a combination of synchronous tools such as a web conference, asynchronous tools such as discussion forums and/or social media for group work, and e-portfolios and multimedia for reporting.

Indeed, there are circumstances where it is impractical, too dangerous, or too expensive to use real world experiential learning. Online learning can be used to simulate real conditions and to reduce the time to master a skill. Flight simulators have long been used to train commercial pilots, enabling trainee pilots to spend less time mastering fundamentals on real aircraft. Commercial flight simulators are still extremely expensive to build and operate, but in recent years the costs of creating realistic simulations has dropped dramatically.

For instance, instructors at Loyalist College have created a ‘virtual’ fully functioning border crossing and a virtual car in Second Life to train Canadian Border Services Agents. Each student takes on the role of an agent, with his/her avatar interviewing the avatars of the travellers wishing to enter Canada. All communication is done by voice communications in Second Life, with the people playing the travellers in a separate room from the students. Each student interviews three or four travellers and the entire class observes the interactions and discusses the situations and the responses. A secondary site for auto searches features a virtual car that can be completely dismantled so students learn all possible places where contraband may be concealed. This learning is then reinforced with a visit to the auto shop at Loyalist College and the search of an actual car. The students in the customs and immigration track are assessed on their interviewing techniques as part of their final grades. Students participating in the first year of the Second Life border simulation achieved a grade standing that was 28 per cent higher than the previous class who did not utilize a virtual world. The next class, using Second Life, scored a further 9 per cent higher. More details can be found here.

Staff in the Emergency Management Division at the Justice Institute of British Columbia have developed a simulation tool called ExPod that helps to bring critical incidents to life by introducing real-world simulations into training and exercise programs. Because participants can access ExPod via the web, it provides the flexibility to deliver immersive, interactive and scenario-based training exercises anytime, anywhere. A typical emergency might be a major fire in a warehouse containing dangerous chemicals. ‘Trainee’ first responders, who will include fire, police and paramedical personnel, as well as city engineers and local government officials, are ‘alerted’ on their mobile phones or tablets, and have to respond in real time to a fast developing scenario, ‘managed’ by a skilled facilitator, following procedures previously taught and also available on their mobile equipment. The whole process is recorded and followed later by a face-to-face debriefing session.

Once again, design models are not in most cases dependent on any particular medium. The pedagogy transfers easily across different delivery methods.

Strengths and weaknesses of experiential learning models

How one evaluates experiential learning designs depends partly on one’s epistemological position. Constructivists strongly support experiential learning models, whereas those with a strong objectivist position are usually highly sceptical of the effectiveness of this approach. Nevertheless, problem-based learning in particular has proved to be very popular in many institutions teaching science or medicine, and project-based learning is used across many subject domains and levels of education. There is evidence that experiential learning, when properly designed, is highly engaging for students and leads to better long-term memory. Proponents also claim that it leads to deeper understanding, and develops ’21st century’ skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, improved communications skills, and knowledge management. In particular, it enables learners to manage better highly complex situations that cross disciplinary boundaries, and subject domains where the boundaries of knowledge are difficult to manage.

Critics though such as Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) argue that instruction in experiential learning is often ‘unguided’, and pointed to several ‘meta-analyses’ of the effectiveness of problem-based learning that indicated no difference in problem-solving abilities, lower basic science exam scores,  longer study hours for PBL students, and that PBL is more costly. They conclude:

In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners. Even with students with considerable prior knowledge, strong guidance when learning is most often found to be equally effective as unguided approaches.

Certainly, experiential learning approaches require considerable re-structuring of teaching and a great deal of detailed planning if the curriculum is to be fully covered. It usually means extensive re-training of faculty, and careful orientation and preparation of students. I would also agree with Kirschner et al. that just giving students tasks to do in real world situations without guidance and support is likely to be ineffective.

However, many forms of experiential learning can and do have strong guidance from instructors, and one has to be very careful when comparing matched groups that the tests of knowledge include measurement of the skills that are claimed to be developed by experiential learning, and are not just based on the same assessments as for traditional methods, which often have a heavy bias towards memorisation and comprehension.

On balance then, I would support the use of experiential learning for developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age, but as always, it needs to be done well, following best practices associated with the design models.

References

Banchi, H., and Bell, R. (2008). The Many Levels of Inquiry Science and Children, Vol. 46, No. 2

Gijselaers, W., (1995) ‘Perspectives on problem-based learning’ in Gijselaers, W, Tempelaar, D, Keizer, P, Blommaert, J, Bernard, E & Kapser, H (eds) Educational Innovation in Economics and Business Administration: The Case of Problem-Based Learning. Dordrecht, Kluwer.

Herreid, C. F. (2007). Start with a story: The case study method of teaching college science. Arlington VA: NSTA Press.

Irby, D. (1994) Three exemplary models of case-based teaching Academic Medicine, Vol. 69, No. 12

Kirshner, P., Sweller, J. amd Clark, R. (2006) Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching Educational Psychologist, Vo. 41, No.2

Larmer, J. and Mergendoller, J. (2010) Seven essentials for project-based learning Educational Leadership, Vol. 68, No. 1

Marcus, G. Taylor, R. and Ellis, R. (2004) Implications for the design of online case-based learning activities based on the student blended learning experience: Perth, Australia: Proceedings of the ACSCILITE conference, 2004

Moon, J.A. (2004). A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge Falmer.

Strobel, J. , & van Barneveld, A. (2009). When is PBL More Effective? A Meta-synthesis of Meta-analyses Comparing PBL to Conventional Classrooms. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, Vol. 3, No. 1

Comments, please

I’m really hoping to get some input from specialists in experiential learning. In particular:

1. Is what I’ve written an accurate description of the main models of experiential learning design?

2. Have I missed anything significant (given that this section is already too long)?

3. Do you agree that experiential learning can be done just as well online as in classrooms or in the field?

4. If you have had either really good or really bad experiences with experiential learning, what worked well and what didn’t?

Next

I have a final, wrap-up section on design models for learning, where I compare the different models’ strengths and weaknesses. Then the first draft of the chapter on design models will be complete and will be published.