January 23, 2018

Comparing online learning in k-12 and post-secondary education in Canada

Barbour, M. and LaBonte, R. (2017) State of the Nation: K-12 E-Learning in Canada 2016 Edition The Canadian eLearning Network

Why a post on online learning in the k-12 sector?

My blog, rightly or wrongly, is focused primarily on post-secondary education, for several reasons. The first is that I’ve always had a problem keeping up with developments in online learning in just the post-secondary education sector, and I decided very early on that I could not do justice to both sectors. Secondly, my experience of online learning has been almost entirely in the post-secondary sector, so it made sense to focus there. Thirdly, I did teach (face-to-face) for three years, many years ago, in the k-12 sector, so I am well aware that there are considerable differences in funding, context and approaches. My wife is also now a retired school teacher and I learned early in my marriage not to mess in her area of considerable expertise.

However, it would be foolish to deny that there are also many synergies between the two sectors, and both sectors lose by being isolated from the other. This became obvious when I was doing research on the national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education. For instance, when designing the web site (after we had collected the data) I came across the web site of  ‘State of the Nation’, a set of research reports on the Canadian k-12 sector of which, to my shame, I was totally ignorant. I deeply wished that I had read these reports before I started on the post-secondary survey.

The ‘State of the Nation’ Reports

A pan-Canadian network of K-12 online and blended learning schools and organizations – the Canadian e-Learning Network, or CANeLearn – was formed at a Montréal July 2013 Summit meeting of key stakeholders. CANeLearn’s mission is to provide leadership that champions student success in online and blended learning and provides members with networking, collaboration and research opportunities. Its initial focus is on sharing resources, professional development and research.

The 2016 edition is the ninth edition of their report, which together with brief issues papers, ‘vignettes’ and individual program surveys are all available on a new web site

The website includes a profile for each jurisdiction that is organized in the following manner:

  • a detailed description of the distance, online and blended learning programs operating in that jurisdiction;
  • a discussion of the various legislative and regulatory documents that govern how these distance, online and blended learning programs operate;
  • links to previous annual profiles;
  • an exploration of the history of e-learning in that jurisdiction; 
  • links to vignettes (i.e., stories designed to provide a more personalized perspective of those involved in K–12 e-learning) for that jurisdiction; 
  • links to any brief issues papers (i.e., more detailed discussions of specific issues related to the design, delivery and support of K–12 e-learning) in that jurisdiction;
  • the most recent responses to the individual program survey; and
  • an overview of the jurisdictions policies related to importing and exporting e-learning.

Finally, the website includes a blog that allows the research team to share relevant news and comment on issues related to K-12 distance, online and blended learning in Canada.

Key findings

As always, it is important to read the actual report, especially as the k-12 system in Canada is complex and devolved, so there are often qualifications and caveats to most of the findings, but here are my own main take-aways from this report, with comparisons with our national post-secondary education survey:

  1. Online and distance programs are available in the public k-12 sector in almost all provinces and territories: this is very similar in the post-secondary sector.
  2.  Approximately 5.7% of the 5.1 million k-12 students are enrolled in an online or distance education program. In Canadian post-secondary education, we estimate that approximately 12% of college course enrolments are online, and 16% in universities.
  3. Over the last few years, online and distance enrolments in the k-12 sector have remained steady (between 5.5% to 6% of all students), whereas there has been rapid growth over the last five years in all post-secondary sectors except for the CEGEP system in Québec.
  4. Tracking blended learning has proved equally difficult in the k-12 sector as in the post-secondary sector.
  5. Even though this report represents the ninth annual State of the Nation: K-12 E-Learning in Canada study, the lack of reliable data continues to persist in many jurisdictions. There is no requirement in either sector to track online or distance education activities, but without systematic and reliable data collection in this area, it is difficult to measure the impact of policy decisions or the extent to which Canadian education is moving to digital learning.

In addition to these national findings, the report provides a useful province-by-province breakdown of online and distance education activity

Conclusions

Although 5-6% of students enrolled in online and distance education programs may not seem like a great deal of activity compared with the 12-15% at the post-secondary level, it should be remembered that online and distance programs are often focused mainly on the older age groups in k-12, particularly grades 11 and 12. Distance and online learning also require a good deal of self-discipline and independent learning skills, which tend to develop with age.

As the report states:

Canada continues to have one of the highest per capita student enrollment in online courses and programs of any jurisdiction in the world and was one of the first countries to use the Internet to deliver distance learning courses to students.

But perhaps the most striking similarity between the two studies is the continued difficulty of obtaining reliable data and the almost grassroots, bottom-up approach to finding resources, designing the studies, and disseminating the results. This is both the strength and limitation of these two studies.

Maybe it is time for national and provincial agencies to start taking online and digital learning seriously, and find ways to fund and organise basic data collection in this area on a more systematic and consistent basis.

Five old educational technologies

Etherington, C. (2018) Five educational technologies, circa 1918 ELearning inside news, January 1

Despite rumours, I was not around in 1918, but this article is a very nice reminder of what was happening 100 years ago with educational technologies. The five technologies are:

  • magic lanterns
  • chalkboards
  • ink pens
  • abacuses
  • radio

When I started teaching, in 1965, in my school it was still compulsory for students to use ink pens (not ‘nasty Biros’, which were available then). This was a real problem for left-handed pupils, who tended to drag their hand across the wet ink when writing from left to right. I fought hard to get an exemption but my headmistress was adamant – no exceptions were allowed. We have made at least some advances since then regarding accessibility and accommodation to the needs of minorities.

As the article points out, radio was still a couple of years away from actually being used for instructional purposes, although it was increasingly available by 1918. The first BBC adult educational radio program was broadcast in 1924 and was about fleas: a talk on Insects in Relation to Man.

Nevertheless, these old technologies also illustrate how little has changed in many classrooms in terms of pedagogy. PowerPoint is nothing more than a merger of a magic lantern and a chalkboard, but the form of teaching remains the same.

It is much easier to identify technology changes then over 100 years but far less progress has been made on improving teaching methods –  or do you disagree?

What I would like to see in online learning in 2018: 1: a theory of classroom affordances

Prediction is difficult, especially about the future, so I won’t waste your time in suggesting what technologies are likely to take off in 2018. Instead, I’d rather focus on what I would like to see happen in 2018.

A research-based theory of classroom affordances

a. The challenge

With more and more teaching and learning occurring online, every instructor is now faced with the question: what is best done face-to-face and what is best done online? From a student’s point of view, what can the institution offer educationally on campus that they cannot get online? I am suggesting that we do not yet have a sufficiently powerful research-based theory that can realistically answer these questions.

b. What we know

Those of us working in online learning are well aware of the assumption made by many instructors that the classroom experience is inherently superior to any form of online learning. We are also aware of how often this assumption has proved wrong, with for instance student-student and student-instructor interactions online often being just as or more effective than in classrooms.

With the development of video, simulations, games-based learning and remote labs, even forms of experiential learning such as scientific and engineering experiments, manual operations and familiarity with tools can be developed as effectively online as in labs, workshops or classrooms. 

However, the differences between the effectiveness of online learning and face-to-face learning usually are dependent as much on the context or the circumstances of learning as on inherent qualities of what is to be taught or the medium of teaching. It is clear there are some circumstances where we now know online learning is preferable to face-to-face teaching (e.g. where learners have difficulty accessing physical classrooms, either because they are working or because it means a two hour commute) and where face-to-face teaching is more practical than online learning (e.g. where students need to handle and use heavy equipment). 

c. The need for a theory – and research questions

Nevertheless, there are other circumstances where either it doesn’t matter in terms of learning effectiveness whether it is done face-to-face or online, or where indeed there are significant differences in certain circumstances, but we don’t yet know what these are because we have not tested or challenged them.

So we need research-based evidence that can answer the following research question:

Under what conditions and for what purposes is it better to learn in a face-to-face context rather than online? And when and how should they be used to complement each other when both are readily available?

Can we produce a theory from such evidence that would enable a set of rules or criteria that instructors could use to make such a decision? What research would be needed to develop or test such a theory?

d. Is there no current theory we could use or build on?

There are plenty of theories of how learning best takes place¹, plenty of theories that are used to support best practices in face-to-face teaching², and similarly a few theories that suggest best practices in online learning and teaching³. What we don’t have is theory about the differences (if any) between face-to-face and online learning in specific circumstances or conditions, backed by reliable research evidence, when both are available in practice.

One potentially promising line of enquiry could be built around the research on the pedagogical affordances of different media: what kinds of learning can specific media support or help develop? If we treat face-to-face teaching as a medium, what are its pedagogical affordances: what can it do better than other media? (see Norman, 1988 and Chapter 7 of Teaching in a Digital Age)

However, the issue in deciding what to do online or face-to-face is usually not only pedagogical but as much to do with cost, instructor convenience, and a lack of imagination of how things could be done differently. Also the context is critically important. An effective theory will need to incorporate all these factors.

Note that most research on differences between online learning and face-to-face teaching at a meta level results in no significant differences overall. The factors or conditions that lead to differences often cancel each other out and are ‘controlled’ or eliminated from the studies to ensure ‘comparability.’ Thus – surprise, surprise – good quality online learning could be better than poor quality face-to-face teaching, and vice versa. Thus the conditions in which each is used is essential for evaluating their effectiveness. Furthermore these meta studies are looking at replacing face-to-face teaching with online learning or more recently blended learning, not at what the unique teaching characteristics of each mode may be, and in what conditions.

However it is precisely these ‘conditions’ that we should be researching to answer the research questions outlined above. When does online learning work better than face-to-face teaching and vice-versa? In other words, do not assume that it does not matter whether we teach online or face-to-face because the research shows no statistical differences, but instead let’s focus on identifying those specific conditions that actually do lead to significant differences, especially when both are equally available to instructors and students.

e. What about the SECTIONS model?

The SECTIONS model I have proposed in my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, provides a set of questions that instructors should ask before finalising decisions on the choice of a particular medium or technology for teaching, partly based on their pedagogical affordances (T for Teaching and I for Interaction) but also on other factors such as student access, costs, and security. If we think of face-to-face teaching as just another teaching medium, could not the SECTIONS model be applied to answering the research questions in 1. c above? 

This could be one starting point perhaps for such a theory, but it will need much more research to test and validate it. In Chapter 7, I looked at all media except face-to-face teaching, because I was unaware of relevant research that could identify the unique features of face-to-face teaching when online learning could also be used.

Furthermore, face-to-face teaching is not monolithic, but can vary enormously – as can other media – and also can incorporate other media, so probably more research is needed to establish the conditions where face-to-face teaching is superior. 

f. What about Teaching in a Digital Age?

If you have read my online open textbook, you might think that this provides a theoretical basis for choosing between face-to-face and online learning. Certainly it does discuss a number of different educational theories and looks at several different teaching methods. It also suggests guidelines based on research and best practices for choosing between different modes of delivery and different media (except face-to-face teaching as a medium).

But the book is not written as a particular theory of teaching and does not provide enough theory to identify what to do regarding the ‘either online or face-to-face when I can use both’ decision within a specific teaching context. It is more a set of guidelines derived from existing theory and best practice. Someone else needs to move this work further.

g. Next steps

  1. Acknowledge and have recognized the significance of the research questions. This is an extremely important issue for research in education. We know from the National Survey of Online and Distance Learning in Canadian Post-secondary Education that the move to blended and hybrid learning is growing rapidly. Every instructor will soon face the question of what should be done in class and what online, but we have few answers at the moment that go beyond beliefs or prejudice;
  2. build these research questions into doctoral programs in education, so we have a growing body of evidence on the research questions and students and supervisors thinking about the issue and developing hypotheses and research evidence to support them;
  3. develop a national program of research into this issue so that there is a significant mass of study and research that will likely lead to some practical and useful answers in different subject domains.

I should make it clear I have no intention or wish to lead this research because I am trying to reduce my work commitments as I grow older. It is my privilege to pose such questions but not my responsibility to answer them! I just hope though someone else will pick up the gauntlet I have thrown down.

Over to you

This is meant as a ‘thought piece’ to stimulate thinking around a particular issue that I think is important. However, you may have different views on this that I hope you will share, in particular:

  1. Is this really an important issue? Do we really need research on this? Why not let instructors experiment and find out what works best for them without the need for any formal research?
  2. Is the question: ‘What should be done online and what face-to-face under what conditions?’ a question suitable for research? Are there other, better questions that should be asked?
  3. What existing theories could help with this question? Do we need yet another theory – or just a few more hypotheses that can be tested within existing theoretical frameworks? If so which one(s)?

Footnotes

¹ See, for instance, Chapter 2, Teaching in a Digital Age

²See for instance, Chapter 3, Teaching in a Digital Age

³ See for instance Chapter 4, Teaching in a Digital Age

References

Norman, Donald (1988). The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic BooksISBN 978-0-465-06710-7.

A slightly longer video on how educational institutions should rethink their organization in an online world

The Open University of Catalonia has produced a slightly longer (6 minutes 17 seconds) YouTube video of me talking (in English) about how educational institutions should rethink their organization in an global world

Click here or the image above to view the video 

 

Short video on the impact of open content on teaching

The Open University of Catalonia has produced a short (3 minutes 45 seconds) YouTube video of me talking (in English) about how open content will change the role of instructors.

Click here or the image above to view the video