January 23, 2018

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.

What I learned at Drexel University in National Distance Learning Week

A street protester in Philadelphia on election day

A street artist in Philadelphia on election day

Fear and loathing in Philadelphia

On Tuesday and Wednesday last week, I found myself in Philadelphia on U.S. Presidential Election day, and even more importantly, the day after, as the results became known. I was there, not to ‘rig’ the election, as some have rumoured, but to visit one of the leaders in online learning in the USA, Drexel University.

I’m not going to say much more about the election, except to note that as in the rest of the country, Pennsylvania was deeply split, with cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburg voting strongly for Clinton, and suburban areas, smaller towns and rural areas voting in sufficiently large enough numbers for Trump to just about win the state and its electoral votes. So the election results have caused a certain amount of fear and loathing in Philadelphia, particularly among the university community.

Why Drexel?

Drexel University is a private, nonprofit university ranked among the top 100 universities in the USA. In 2016 it was ranked the 8th most innovative university in the USA by US News and World Report. It has about 26,000 students.

Drexel University was founded in 1891 as the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry, by Philadelphia financier and philanthropist Anthony J. Drexel. The original mission of the institution was to provide educational opportunities in the “practical arts and sciences” for women and men of all backgrounds. It is famed for its co-op education program and its close links to local industry and businesses, and in the past for its acceptance and encouragement of low income students. However in recent years its focus has changed, partly driven by the perceived need to increase its ranking. Today it has very high student tuition fees and a highly selective admission process.

I was there to visit Drexel University Online (DUO), an internal division within the university that serves those students at Drexel taking online courses and programs.

Drexel Online

Drexel University has more than 7,000 online students from all 50 states and more than 20 countries. It offers 140 fully accredited master’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees and certificate programs in a wide range of disciplines. Nursing in particular has a very strong set of online programs. Drexel was an early pioneer of online learning, offering its first fully online master’s degree in 1996.

Drexel University founded National Distance Learning Week, in conjunction with the United States Distance Learning Association, in 2007, and has won several national awards for institution-wide excellence in online education.

As part of Drexel’s contribution to National Distance Learning Week, I was invited as a guest speaker, to talk about ’21st century knowledge and online learning: re-designing teaching for a digital age.’ While at Drexel, I also took the opportunity to see what Drexel is doing with advanced learning technologies.

Advanced use of technologies at Drexel Online

DUO offers faculty a technology lending library, where faculty can try out new devices and evaluate their potential for teaching. This includes an augmented reality headset that combines a cheap ($10-$15), easily assembled cardboard frame into which a mobile phone can be inserted in front of the eyes, enabling augmented reality programs to be delivered at very low cost to the student (provided they already have a mobile phone).

DUO has also developed a very interesting web site, called VirtuallyInspired.org, which showcases a number of innovations in online learning from institutions across North America and around the world.

Here I will describe briefly just a few of Drexel’s own innovative projects, which I hope will inspire you to look in more detail at the VirtuallyInspired web site.

Tina the Avatar

Tina the Avatar

Tina the Avatar

Tina is an avatar of a 28 year old woman in a virtual world who not only responds to questions asked by students but can also be physically examined and will respond according to how she is being treated. The teaching around Tina is broken down into 10 modules, each of which correlate with a body system that students learn about in class. The program serves not only as reinforcement for the principles taught in the course, but also to develop interpersonal skills needed by clinical professionals. Professors are able to view the type of questions asked by the student and how the student reacts to Tina’s responses. They are then able to give the student advice and make recommendations for interpersonal skill improvement.

Synchronous online teaching

Drexel is experimenting with the use of low-cost (US$450) robots (Kubi) combined with iPads to improve the ‘telepresence’ of students in online webinars. In the classroom where the instructor is located, there is an iPad for each remote student locked into a robot that each student can remotely move around the instructor’s classroom. Using Skype and the camera on the student’s computer, the student’s face appears on the iPad. In this way the instructor can see the faces and hear each individual student via the iPad, and the students at home can also see on their screen not only the instructor but also the iPad images of all the other students in the class. This system is already in use at the Michigan State University.

Using Kubi for telepresence at Michigan State University

Using Kubi for telepresence at Michigan State University

Forensic investigation

Students taking a course on forensic investigation can use a branching video sequence to search for clues at a crime scene. Students can do a virtual walk around and inside a house and are asked to observe and interpret what they see, followed by a debriefing afterwards.

These are just a few of the several innovations that Drexel is experimenting with. Others include the use of video simulations in law and nursing, dealing with critical incidents in practice.

Innovation and operations

Drexel University is to be congratulated for two reasons: it has an extensive, ongoing online program that delivers a wide range of courses on a daily basis to over 7,000 students. For most of these courses, the challenges are common to all online post-secondary programs: ensuring that the programs are of high quality and that students succeed. This means applying well known best practices and procedures, using standard tools such as a learning management system, and ensuring that students are well supported by instructors.

At the same time, DUO is investing some of its energy and resources to investigating new ways of designing and delivering online teaching. This means finding like-minded faculty partners who can see the potential of new technologies and who are willing to put in the time and effort to do something different. The challenge here is to evaluate each innovation, to integrate such innovations into regular teaching, and then to ensure the diffusion of successful innovations into a wider range of courses and programs.

Getting the right balance between on-going operations and innovation is a challenge but one that Drexel Online seems more than able to handle.

And lastly, I cannot express enough my appreciation for the kindness and attention paid to me by Susan Aldridge, the Director of DUO, and all her staff during my visit. Elections may come and go, but American hospitality continues for ever.

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.