January 22, 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.

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 

That was 2017 in online learning

 

A workshop in St. George’s College, Windsor Castle, where Shakespeare’s first production of the Merry Wives of Windsor was performed before Queen Elisabeth 1

My experience of online learning in 2017

2017 was a very interesting year for me, if not for online learning as a whole. I have a very different interface with online learning these days from most people, more that of an observer than as a participant, which has both advantages and disadvantages, but it does give me a somewhat wider perspective, so first, here’s what I did, then second what I learned from my experience.

What I did in 2017

I had three main avenues into online learning in 2017:

  • my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. Although published in 2015, it is still going strong and has generated several activities. The English version has been downloaded over 60,000 times since it was published in April, 2015, and is now translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese and the first half into Turkish (the second half should be completed soon), with further translations into Farsi, Arabic, Hebrew and Japanese under way, all by volunteer translators. The book continues to result in keynotes and workshops. This year I gave ‘physical’ keynotes in Barcelona, Toronto, Halifax, Pennsylvania, Windsor Castle (UK), and a webinar to South Australia. I also did several Contact North webinars on topics from the book. These activities allowed me to interact directly with instructors and course designers engaged in online learning;
  • Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation gave me the privilege of personally interviewing instructors doing innovative teaching using learning technologies in universities and colleges in British Columbia, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. In all I interviewed 23 instructors in 16 different institutions. More importantly I could see exactly what they were doing in context. However, this was still a small proportion of the more than 180 cases reported to date by Contact North;
  • leading the research team for the national survey of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions allowed me to get the ‘big picture’ of online developments in Canadian universities and colleges. Also having to raise the funding for this project ($165,000 in total) brought me into contact with  government agencies engaged with online learning (eCampuses mainly), but also national organisations such as CICAN and Universities Canada, and commercial sponsors such as Pearson and D2L, giving me yet another perspective on agencies engaged with online learning.

Using a mobile phone and QR tags for a video of the anatomy of a dog’s heart: Sue Dawson UPEI

So what did I learn from all this in 2017?

A big leap forward for online learning in Canada in 2017

Complacency is dangerous, but Canada did pretty well in online learning in 2017:

  • most universities and colleges in Canada do at least some fully online and distance courses, enabling wider access in almost every province and territory;
  • enrolments in fully online learning or distance courses are increasing at a rate of 10%-15% per annum (although with considerable provincial variation);
  • probably about 15% of all post-secondary teaching in Canada is now fully online;
  • more and more instructors are integrating online learning into their classroom or campus-based teaching;
  • most Canadian post-secondary institutions see online learning as critically important for their future; 
  • a good deal of innovation in teaching is going on at the individual instructor level;
  • a few provincial governments are solidly supporting online learning and their policies are directly resulting in more digital learning.

Innovation ain’t what you think it is

Innovation in teaching is much more than just using advanced technologies for the first time – and sometimes much less. I was struck in particular about several things from the Pockets of Innovation interviews:

  • most instructors are using new technology (or at least technology new to them) to help with a particular teaching problem or challenge, whether it’s because students don’t come to lectures because of bad weather, or because there are not enough models or samples for every student in the class to spend enough time with, or because students are dropping out of a program because the courses are not properly sequenced or coherent. Technology is best used when it helps solve an actual teaching problem;
  • often though the technology is not enough on its own; it has to be combined with an appropriate change in teaching method or policy that the technology supports or enhances;
  • successful innovation is happening mainly from the bottom up; this is because individual instructors are in the best position to judge the learning context, the learning needs, and which of the zillion new apps and technologies available is the one most likely to fit the situation;
  • the corollary is that institutional or government policies can encourage innovation but cannot predict what it will be: innovation strategy should focus on encouraging risk-taking and rewarding instructors who innovate successfully (i.e. by getting better learning outcomes) rather than privileging particular technologies or even teaching approaches (such as competency-based or experiential learning, for instance, no matter how worthy they are in their own right);
  • most successful teaching innovations are based on easily available and somewhat familiar technologies, such as mobile phones and web conferencing, rather than on ‘state-of-the art’ technologies such as virtual reality or AI;
  • government policy and funding (or lack of it) does make a difference; money talks as can be seen by the impact of government funding for online course development in Ontario and for open educational resources and open text books in British Columbia;
  • few institutions or even provincial governments have a meaningful strategy for supporting innovation in teaching, especially for diffusing innovation throughout an institution or system; as a result innovative teaching still remains in pockets rather than transforming institutions or systems.

There’s a long way to go with open educational resources

OER continue to be a hard sell for most Canadian instructors, despite strong commitment from at least two governments of large provinces. This was evident from both the Pockets of Innovation and the national survey.

This is a topic on its own, but having talked to instructors and seen how they think about teaching, here are my two cents’ worth of thoughts on why OER continue to develop much more slowly than they should:

  • when OER are being promoted, it often comes across as a cult or an ideology rather than a solution to an instructor’s teaching problem. Show instructors how OER can save them time or money. Show them how OER can best be integrated into teaching specific subjects or topics and show the teaching benefits over using commercial products (unfortunately most instructors care less about saving money for students than making their own lives easier – strange that, isn’t it?);
  • the main advantage of expensive commercial textbooks is all the supplementary materials they come with that make life easier for an instructor and students, such as worked examples or solutions, test questions and answers, and automated marking; just publishing an open textbook without linking it to supporting OER doesn’t cut it, but at the moment OER and open textbooks are often developed independently – they need to be better integrated;
  • stop thinking of OER as something different from everything else on the Internet; all open content has value, whether it is specifically designed for educational purposes or not; this means coming up with course design models that exploit open content for the purpose of developing 21st century skills such as knowledge management, analysis of source reliability, etc.
  • at the same time, if an object is meant to be educational, design it better – too many OER are poorly designed in media terms and are not clearly linked to specific learning outcomes; this means scaling up OER production so that it is more easily shareable. Instead of funding individual instructors to create subject-specific OER,  bring all the statistics instructors together, for instance, with instructional designers and media producers, first to check what’s already available and what its limitations are, then to produce better, high quality OER for statistics that everyone can use.
  • try to get experienced faculty who are nearing the end of their careers to write an open textbook as a legacy project, pulling together all their knowledge and experience over their whole career; this is likely to result in innovative, ‘breakthrough’ open textbooks rather than just providing an open version of existing textbooks, and may lead more importantly to revised and more appropriate curricula.

Instructor training in teaching remains a huge problem

One of the findings from my Pocket of Innovation interviews was that less than half the instructors based their innovation on a theory of learning or a change of teaching method to produce different outcomes, such as skills development. Without a grounding in pedagogy and a knowledge of the research into how people learn, it is impossible for most instructors to see the real potential of digital technology for improving their teaching. We still rely too much on instructional designers backstopping faculty who don’t know how to teach effectively.

Is the instructional design support model scalable for blended learning?

Even when fully online learning is only 15% of all teaching, it has been difficult to provide adequate instructional design support. When 80-90% of instructors have the potential to integrate technology into their classroom teaching the current model of faculty support will not be feasible.

One solution to this is to provide instructors with ‘on-demand’ online resources when they need them. For instance:

However useful though such on-demand tools may be, they do not replace the need for some basic grounding in pedagogical principles, which is now absolutely essential if technology is to be used well in teaching.

What next?

Well, looking into 2018 is another blog post, but of one thing I am certain: I won’t be working as hard next year as I did in 2017.

I really enjoyed everything I did, but I cannot go on doing the long-distance travel, which exhausts me.

So I wish you all a great holiday season, so that you can come back refreshed for another interesting year in what surely is one of the most exciting and satisfying areas to be working in these days.

How to keep up with new technology in online learning

I was recently asked if I would answer a couple of questions from students in Royal Roads University’s course ‘Leveraging Technology in Higher Education’ in their MA in Higher Education Administration and Leadership.

With the permission of their instructor, Irwin de Vries, and the students, I am sharing my response to the two questions they raised.

Question 1

1. How can an institution make sense of all the new developments, such as what the NMC highlights every year, and incorporate that successfully into their institutional planning?

What a good question! It’s a question I personally struggle with. One could spend every waking moment these days trying to keep up with the latest apps, devices, and waves of tech innovation. Indeed, the fear of not being able to do this forced me into premature retirement – how could I keep up with everything and still play golf whenever I wanted?  (Golf won.)

However, it turns out that while the technology is forever changing, there are a number of ‘coping’ strategies, based on more fundamental principles or theories that do not change so rapidly.

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future

First, the New Media Consortium has a poor track record in accurately predicting technology trends in higher education, mainly in terms of timelines (far too optimistic regarding the application of a particularly technology) but also often in terms of whether a technology in fact turns out to be useful for teaching or learning. Go back for instance to their 2008 report: grassroots video (iTunes, Möbius, etc.), the collaborative web (Google Docs), data mashups, within one or two years, etc.

These tools are often very useful outside of the teaching/learning process but don’t necessarily adapt easily for teaching and learning. More often these tools might have been useful but were not used or were ignored by instructors because they did not meet the immediate needs of the instructors (or the perceived needs of the students).

Institutional vs individual choice

Second, institutional decision-making is based mainly around IT network technology, classroom equipment, and ‘universally used’ commercially licensed software or technology such as word processing (which is one reason why LMSs and webinar technology are so heavily used – the institution pays for and maintains them), but emerging technologies these days are more end-user focused and low cost, so technologies are now being adopted and decided by individual instructors and especially by students, rather than the institution. These low cost technologies tend to be based on mobile phones or tablets and free or low-cost apps. It is only when a technology really takes off in teaching does it make sense for the institution to ‘block buy’ a license if it is a commercial product.

More importantly, it doesn’t make sense for institutions to make institution-wide decisions for most teaching technologies, partly because of wide variations in subject discipline needs, but mainly because with constantly emerging technologies, it’s better for the grassroots instructors and students to adopt as appropriate, hence ensuring more innovation in teaching and learning.

For instructors, usually technology adoption enables them to solve a teaching problem, such as not enough interaction with students, students not attending in bad weather or with long commutes, difficult concepts to teach abstractly, etc. Since the teaching problems often vary from instructor to instructor, it is best to leave such decisions to them. However, instructors can be ‘nudged’ by instructional designers/learning technology support staff, who should be constantly looking for potential new applications of technology, and for faculty who may be interested in trying them.

Lastly, for instructors or instructional designers who want to make a fully considered decision about the best choice or mix of educational media, there is my own SECTIONS model which attempts to identify key factors that should influence choice of media. However, even if this approach is used, in most cases it will be influenced by an instructor’s gut feeling or intuition about what will work best within a particular context -which is more likely to be right than wrong.

The SECTIONS model

The one exception I would make to the decentralization approach to technology selection is where an institution has a strong strategy or plan for digital learning. In this case, part of the strategy might be to combine the choice of a technology (such as tablets) with a plan for faculty development in how to use the technology, based on a clear pedagogical approach. This allows a large step forward to be made. The Justice Institute of BC’s digital learning strategy for the University of Guadalajara in Mexico is a good example. This helps the majority of faculty with the adoption of technology in a consistent and high quality manner. In this case the strategy depended on a clear pedagogical basis for the choice of technology made at an institutional level. However, this is the exception rather than the rule.

Conclusion

As with most educational decisions, context is all important. Instructors and to some extent students are closest to the action and hence are usually in a better position to make an appropriate choice than an institution trying to cover all possible positions.

However, there are guidelines that can be adopted to avoid being swayed by the media hype over the latest technology. Does it solve a problem I’m having? Will it help students to develop the knowledge and skills they will need in the future? Is it easy to use? Is it cheap or free for students? Not rocket science, by any means, but it is surprising how little such obvious questions are asked, especially by the media, when a new technology appears on the horizon.

My response to the second question will follow.

What I wanted to say to the Minister about online learning

A faculty development workshop: a broken system?

The opportunity

I don’t mix with politicians or high level decision-makers, so when I was offered a seat next to Deb Matthews, Ontario’s Minister of Advanced Education, at the ICDE conference in Toronto two week’s ago, I thought about what I wanted to say to her. What could I say that might make a difference?

The pitch

After considerable thought, and realising I would probably have about two minutes max – a true elevator pitch, more than a tweet but less than a blog post – I came up with the following before the morning of the meeting:

Minister, do you want to ensure that Ontario’s universities prepare students appropriately for developing the knowledge and skills they will need in a digital age? If so, as a condition of provincial funding, you need to require every university in the province to put in place a systematic and mandatory program for training all instructors in how to teach and how best to integrate technology into their teaching. Without such comprehensive and mandatory programs, nothing will fundamentally change.

Here’s my card: ask one of your staff to call me on why this is necessary, why it is difficult, and how it might be done.

How did I do?

Not well, I’m afraid. By the time Ms. Matthews sat down next to me, the first announcements about the conference were being made. We did shake hands, then she went up and made a very good welcoming speech for the delegates, laying out what Ontario has done and is doing to support access and online learning. The current Ontario government has been a big supporter of online learning, creating eCampus Ontario and putting several million dollars into online course development and OER. It was a scoop for the conference organisers to get her to come, and she was genuinely interested in the conference and its theme (‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’)

She ended her speech, and then she left, surrounded by her minions. I literally had no chance to say anything to her other than ‘hi.’

So I missed my chance. It was no-one’s fault. That is just the nature of Ministerial appearances at big conferences – in and out. Maybe next time I should have made a preliminary pitch or got someone to have set something up, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure I would even get the chance to meet with her, and I have no standing in Ontario other than being a retired academic administrator.

Why what I wanted to say is important

Regular readers of this blog will know why I wanted to say what I set out above. Faculty in universities are trained in research, not in teaching. If lucky they may get a short introductory course when appointed, mainly focused on lecturing effectively and classroom management. Thereafter any form of faculty ‘development’ for teaching is purely voluntary.

This may or may not have been fine when all teaching was face-to-face and focused on knowledge acquisition. It is not fine when we need to develop high level intellectual skills. Teaching students high level intellectual skills needs a different approach from teaching abstract concepts and principles. 

Furthermore, the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired is changing. Students need to acquire the skills of lifelong and independent learning, because what they learn today is likely to be obsolete or redundant in ten years’ time. Students need to know where they can find content, how to verify its validity and reliability, how to analyse it and how to apply it. These are skills that need practice, and they also require nowadays the use of digital technology.

Very few instructors are formally trained in how to do this. It is not rocket science, but it is not always obvious, either. Indeed, teaching in a digital age requires a different mindset. Some instructors will come by this naturally, but most won’t. Therefore formal training for all instructors becomes essential.

Why it’s difficult

Ideally the best way to teach instructional skills is pre-service, with regular opportunities for refreshing and updating while in service. However, this would mean building into post-graduate programs time for learning about teaching and learning, at least for those who want to go on to teach in a university. Neither students, nor especially supervising faculty, would welcome this. However it is much cheaper and more effective to do this training before faculty become tenured – or more importantly before they become set in their ways.

Second, preparation for teaching in universities has to be mandatory and not voluntary. Teaching is a professional activity with its own knowledge base and skills. It is not something to dabble in when you feel like it. Who would want to fly in a plane where the pilot’s training in how to fly the plane was voluntary (even if their knowledge of aerodynamics was superb)? Evidence (see Christensen-Hughes and Mighty, 2010) suggests that fewer than ten per cent of faculty participate in voluntary faculty development programs each year and these are often those who need it the least. It is a broken system.

Furthermore it is a systemic problem. One institution cannot go it alone for the fear it will lose its most promising academic talent and  its best graduate students to those institutions where they do not have to spend time in learning how to teach well.

The big problem then is that universities will not solve this problem themselves, because research is the primary factor that influences tenure and promotion, and anything that takes away from research time – such as time spent learning how to teach well – is unacceptable.

How to solve the problem

In most professions, you are not allowed to practice unless you have met standards approved by a professional body that is recognised by the appropriate government. For instance, you cannot operate as a professional engineer in Ontario unless you are accredited by the Professional Engineers of Ontario, which is the professional accreditation body recognised by the government.

Instructors who wish to teach in universities should meet similar requirements. There is no equivalent professional body for university teaching though. A Ph.D. is a research, not a teaching, qualification.

One thing a government could require is that the universities within its jurisdiction that receive government funding must establish a professional body that requires certification of instructors and requires all new instructors to be accredited. (Some college systems have a somewhat similar requirement, such as the Provincial Instructor Diploma in British Columbia, although it is not mandatory). 

The advantage here is that it would be up to the universities to establish such a program, but the government would not fund institutions unless such programs are in place and required. This would require negotiation between universities and government about content, standards and process for establishing the training requirement, but this is not an impossible task.

Of course, the universities will hate this and faculty would see it as government interference or an attack on academic freedom. What is increasingly unacceptable though is throwing untrained instructors into the classroom without any preparation for teaching, especially given the challenges of teaching in a digital age. If we don’t prepare our instructors better, students won’t get the knowledge and skills that they will need to survive in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous digital age.

Minister, please act. If you do, Ontario will lead the world. And I will try to do better next time I meet you.

Reference

Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (eds.) (2010) Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Montreal QC and Kingston ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 350 pp