Back to the classroom model
I was recently struck by a comment my former colleague Diana Laurillard made in a podcast for Mark Nichols’ excellent podcast series, Leaders and Legends of Online Learning. She said she thought online learning had gone backwards as a result of the pandemic.
I think I agree. Sure, the pandemic exposed many teachers and instructors to online learning for the first time, some teachers, instructors and students found that it could work for them with relatively minor adaptations, we learned a lot about the possibilities of synchronous online learning, but overall, the majority of teachers and instructors have not changed their method of teaching. It is still mainly lectures or teachers talking to students, sometimes for six hours or more consecutively, all online.
Why the lecture model is a backward step for online learning
This has led the National Council for Online Education to complain that emergency remote learning is not quality online learning. They rightly point out that in quality online learning, there is more planning and preparation. In particular it is important to re-design the teaching to take account of the different learning environment from classroom teaching. In online learning, students are not physically together in a group with other students and the instructor or teacher, at the same time, but are dispersed and working in isolation. In particular trying to replicate the classroom method for online learners fails to take advantage of the affordances or strengths of online learning, in particular the ability of students to study in their own time and anywhere and not be constrained by the need to be at the same place, at the same time, as all the other students and instructors.
Even more importantly, there was often pre-pandemic a different educational philosophy in the design of online learning from the standard lecture. Lectures are a didactic form of teaching, where the instructor decides the content, organises it, and delivers it to the student, whose main role is to understand and remember it (a more objectivist approach, for you theorists). In asynchronous online learning, the instructor is more of a guide, certainly choosing and directing students to content, but because of the isolation of online students, the design makes great efforts to create the three ‘presences’ of the Community of Inquiry model: cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence (a more constructivist approach). In other words, interaction between students and the instructor are an essential part of the design, as are directed student activities.
So going back to video lectures is at least a pedagogical step backwards for online learning.
Teaching methods fit for the future
Why does this matter? If lectures are good enough for classroom teaching, why do instructors need to change their method when teaching online? The answer is that it is not just a case of the effectiveness in teaching remote students. The lecture method does not facilitate the development of core 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, independent learning, knowledge management, and problem-solving. We need to accept that content is not the issue for 21st learners. There is more than enough content ‘out there’ on the Internet. What matters is knowing where to find it, how to evaluate it, how to apply it. This is all more easily done online than in a classroom setting (although it is possible).
What needs to be done
First, we have to recognise that there are potential educational benefits (affordances) of synchronous online teaching. The traditional asynchronous online learning design needs to accommodate this mainly technological development (cheap video-conferencing). This means identifying the specific educational affordances of synchronous learning, in particular learning contexts, such as ‘thinking-on-your feet’ in arguments, specific language teaching, or instructor moderated group student discussion, and embedding this within a broader design that includes and prioritises asynchronous learning for online learners.
At the same time, we need to retain past best practices in online learning, such as flexible delivery, clear structure and student learning activities, basing student work on overall hours per week of study, including all activities, use of specific online assessment methods such as formative and continuous assessment and the use of e-portfolios, with a focus specifically on soft skills development. Above all, the design must accommodate the three presences of the Community of Inquiry.
Next, we need to think about appropriate learning designs and contexts for blended learning. In particular, when students can do either or both, what is best done in-person and what is best done online? This will mean paying special attention to the affordances of each in specific contexts. It will also mean paying attention to how new technologies such as serious games or virtual reality can enhance or replace in-person practical work. We have to get away from the stale argument that in-person is always better than online; they both have potential value, depending on the context.
Finally, and this is the most difficult challenge, we need to find more nimble methods for developing and delivering quality blended and fully online courses than the lengthy, team-based approach of the past. This was fine when only 10% of all teaching was fully online, but it is not scalable when all instructors will be teaching either a blended or a fully online class. This will require short courses on design for instructors, on-demand resources such as how to make a good online video, and more systematic and more pervasive professional development.
Some institutions and instructors are beginning to recognise that online and blended learning need different teaching approaches, but while the majority of teachers and instructors are still basing their online teaching on the standard, in-class teaching model, then yes, we have gone backward with online learning due to the pandemic.
Once again, I would love to hear from readers of this blog their views on whether online learning is advancing or going backwards due to the pandemic. Please use the comment box at the end of this page or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org