January 20, 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.

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.

DIY online courses on Facebook

Hughes, M. (2017) Facebook is letting Groups create online learning courses – what could possibly go wrong?  The Next Web, 1 June

It has been a depressing week for me, with terrorist bombings, Trump’s environmental blunder, trade wars and political uncertainty in British Columbia. We are currently without an effective government but that seems not to be a problem for anyone.

However, I did have one good laugh this week that I want to share with you. This came from Matthew Hughes blog (Matthew is at the University of Roehampton, in the UK). He is reporting on news (fake news?) that Facebook is enabling anyone running a Facebook Group to create their own online courses. As he says, tongue in cheek: what could possibly go wrong from an organization with such high standards of credibility?

  • Well, we might begin by looking at the problems that collaborative MOOCs have been facing, especially moderating discussions. Who and how will that moderation be done?
  • Then there’s the likely make-up of the participants  – will this just be more opinion swapping between people with the same world view? 
  • Who will accredit or validate the knowledge in such courses? The learners themselves, probably – and look again at the problems with that in many MOOCs.
  • how will the data that Facebook collects through such Groups be used? You will never know.

This is not to argue that good quality online courses will be impossible through Facebook Group – but once the necessary quality standards are applied, how will it then look different from any other online course delivered on other platforms? What’s the added value?

My point here is that technology alone is never a solution to an educational issue. Do the benefits of the technology (the added value) outweigh the negatives – in this case Big Brother watching you?

One last point while I’m on about Facebook. A Facebook account is a true zombie. You cannot kill it. I ‘signed out’ of Facebook within six months of joining it in 2007, for privacy reasons primarily, and have never used it since, but I still get e-mail messages from them asking me to look at someone I know who has just posted something on Facebook, and I keep getting messages from Facebook to log back in. GO AWAY, FACEBOOK!!!! You are not wanted here.

Webinar on choosing modes of delivery and the role of face-to-face teaching in an online world

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

On Tuesday I gave another in the Contact North series of webinars designed around my open, online textbook for faculty and instructors, Teaching in a Digital Age.

This focused on Chapter 9 of the book, but with a different twist from last year’s webinar on the same topic, this year’s webinar focused particularly on the move to blended learning, and the need to redefine the role of campus-based teaching when so much can now be done online.

You can download a recording of the webinar from here: https://contactnorth.webex.com/contactnorth/lsr.php?RCID=760bef531b9a8fcf59f5480dd57401ff. However, make sure you have the WebEx ARF player downloaded in order to play the recording – see the download instructions on the above web page if the ‘play’ button doesn’t load the recording.

Also note that the presentation doesn’t start until two minutes into the recording because the introduction was accidentally muted.

 

Are you ready for blended learning?

changing-teaching-methods-2

I’ve just come back from visiting two universities in central Canada and I have also been getting feedback from pilot institutions on the questionnaire we are developing for a survey of online learning in Canada. Although I do not want to anticipate the results of the survey, some things are already becoming clear, especially about blended learning.

Definition

First of course there is the question of definition. What actually is blended learning? It clearly means different things to different people. I have tried to describe it as on a continuum of educational delivery (see graphic below):

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

Blended learning can be seen as

  • nothing more than Powerpoint slides in a classroom lecture,
  • extra homework online after a face-to-face class,
  • a ‘flipped’ classroom where the lecture is recorded and available online, and the class time is used for discussion and questions about the video
  • a totally re-designed course, where careful choices have been made about what is done online and what in class (hybrid).

When there are so many different meanings for the same phrase, it becomes somewhat meaningless. For this reason, one recommendation made to us most strongly was that in our survey blended should be counted only when there is a deliberate replacement of face-to-face time with online learning. At least that should be measurable. But what if, in a flipped class, the lecture time is merely replaced with a face-to-face seminar, with the lecture online? Same amount of face-to-face teaching but an increased workload for the student.

It’s not about quantity; it’s about quality

If we take the broad definition to include all or most of the points above, we can certainly make one fairly confident prediction. Nearly all post-secondary teaching, at least in North America, will be blended. In other words, almost all teaching will be either fully online, or a mix of classroom and online activities, if it is not already. Even in the most traditional lecture-based physics courses, for instance, students are likely to have online exercises to do associated with the course set book.

In fact we’ve been told in some of the feedback on the survey questionnaire that blended learning is already the norm in most Canadian post-secondary institutions. This may or may not be true – hopefully the survey will reject or confirm this assumption – but that seems to be the perception of many of those closest to the action. The issue then is not will blended learning become the norm, but how quickly, and my guess is that nearly all courses in Canadian post-secondary institutions will be online or blended within the next five years.

The key question then is not whether or not blended learning will be the norm, but will it be done well or badly? It is this question that keeps me awake at night, because there is no guarantee that classroom instructors drifting into blended learning know anything about the best practices for online teaching, or indeed whether these best practices will migrate successfully to the many different forms of blended learning that will emerge.

What do we do on campus when students can learn most things online?

One reason I lie awake at night is because we have no evidence-based research or theory that can guide instructors on this question. We certainly have a lot of opinions about what can best be taught online and what face-to-face, and we certainly have a lot of good research and theory, and best practice, about how to teach effectively fully online.

Indeed, it is the on-campus activities that are less well defined when students can study online. Or to put it more bluntly, what can we offer students on campus that makes it worth their time to get out of bed and on the bus on a cold and frosty morning that they can’t get by staying home and studying online? What is the added value of the campus or the classroom?

The answer to this question of course will vary from subject to subject. An experienced instructor will maybe intuitively work this out for herself, but there is a lot of scope for getting it wrong as well. I don’t want to under-rate instructor intuition, but theory and research on this question is desperately needed, at least to offset guessing and ‘I know best’ attitudes. Indeed, for far too long, many on-campus instructors have incorrectly assumed that certain teaching or learning activities can only be done well on campus when in fact we have found they can be done just as well or better online. In the future, if not at present, even laboratory work may be done as well online through the use of remote labs, online simulations and/or augmented reality.

So what guidelines or framework can we offer instructors in making these decisions? I have suggested in Chapter 9 of Teaching in a Digital Age four criteria and a simple process for making a decision about the mode of delivery but I am more aware than anybody how fragile and tentative this is without it being backed by theory and research. It is also one thing to decide to do a blended class rather than a face-to-face class, but quite another to decide what should best be done in each of the different modes of delivery.

Why get on the bus when you can study online?

Why get on the bus when you can study online?

Organizational issues

Another factor which unfortunately is often the first issue that institutions try to determine when moving to blended learning is the organizational structure for the learning support units, such as those housing instructional designers, web and media developers, and technical support for LMSs, etc. For many institutions, it is recognized that mainline, on-campus faculty will need substantial learning technology and instructional design support if they are to move to blended learning, but the problem is perceived as having the support in the wrong places.

In many North American universities, this support is often concentrated in Continuing Studies, because, historically, this is the unit that has supported distance and fully online learning. Now that support is needed for on-campus activities. However, the units supporting fully online courses and programs are usually themselves over-stretched, just managing the fully online courses.

Although it is important eventually to align support to where it is most needed, the problem should not be seen as an organizational issue but as a resource issue: there is just not enough existing resources going into academic support to cope with an expansion into blended learning.

The scaling issue

This is the main reason for my lying awake at night. Institutions are already spending a good deal to support just the fully online courses or programs. We have good models here based on instructional designers and media specialists working in a team with instructors in developing fully online courses. This way, the special design requirements for students studying off campus can be met.

However, at the moment, fully online courses constitute somewhere around 10-15% of all the credit-based teaching in North American universities. What happens when we go to 85% or more of the teaching being blended? The current learning technology support model just won’t be able to handle this expansion, certainly not at the rate that it is being predicted. However, without a design strategy for blended learning, and adequate support for faculty and instructors, it is almost certain that the quality will be poor, and it is certain that all the potential benefits of blended learning for transforming the quality of teaching will not be achieved.

Trying to extend the support system from fully online to blended courses and programs will ultimately be unsustainable. Although support units will be essential to get blended learning successfully started, teaching activities must be economically sustainable, which means faculty and instructors will eventually need to become able to design and manage blended learning effectively without continuous and ongoing support from instructional designers and media producers. This will require a huge training and retraining effort for instructors.

Possible solutions

As always, identifying a challenge is much easier than resolving it. But here are some suggestions (please suggest others):

  • Develop an institutional strategy for teaching and learning. Give priority in terms of resources and support to those academic areas ready and wanting to move into innovative teaching, in whatever mode it takes.
  • Identify additional resources for a move to innovative teaching, in the form of extra instructional designers, media producers and release time for faculty for initial course design and development. (This is a good indicator of just how serious the institution is about changing teaching). This will provide a core of support to get things going in an effective manner.
  • Give priority to supporting innovative blended learning designs, where the course is re-designed with a clear rationale for what is being done online and what face-to-face.
  • In particular give priority to supporting academic programs that have a clear strategy for blended and online learning and how it will be delivered across the program
  • Encourage innovation in blended learning design, but ensure that it is properly evaluated and that there is a strategy, if the innovation is successful, for ensuring the design is more widely applied.
  • Don’t mess with successfully operating support units that already exist. If they were needed before for what they do, they are still needed for that. Set up new units to support the move to blended learning and locate them close to the academic departments where they will be needed. Build an institutional community of practice so that the different support units can learn from each other.
  • The most important suggestion of all: overhaul completely your faculty development and training. Start with an online or blended course on how to teach online or in a blended format. Make it mandatory for instructors getting institutional support for blended or online learning. Provide a teaching track for appointments, promotion and tenure to reward innovative teaching. Redesign the post-graduate experience to ensure that teaching methods and pedagogy are also covered as well as research expertise, and ensure a direct link between such courses and teaching appointments. Provide badges, certificates or post-graduate diplomas or degrees for instructors who can demonstrate they have taken courses on teaching in post-secondary education.
  • Give research into blended learning a high priority in the SSHRC; this is going to be the norm and we need to know what works and what doesn’t. In particular we need some good theory on the pedagogical differences between online and classroom teaching – not comparative research about which is best, but what each is uniquely suitable for within a particular subject discipline and teaching context.

Then you will be ready for blended learning.

Over to you

Do you share my concerns or am I just a nervous Nellie? Should we just leave everyone to work it out for themselves?

Alternatively, what do you think needs to be done to ensure that blended learning is introduced sustainably and with high quality?

Does your institution have a plan for dealing with the move to blended learning? Is it a good plan?