June 18, 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.

Identifying the unique educational characteristics of a medium for online learning

Writing can sometimes be painfully slow. I’m trying to get to the unique characteristics of different media for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, but there are concepts to be discussed first, and this is not a topic on which there is a great deal of agreement. So here’s my introduction to the topic

Figure 9. Is slow motion a unique characteristic of video? Image: Poring mercury into liquid nitrogen: University of Nottingham Image:

Figure 9. Is slow motion a unique characteristic of video?
Image: Pouring mercury into liquid nitrogen: University of Nottingham
Click on image to see video

Identifying the unique educational characteristics of a medium

Most teachers and instructors would put the effectiveness of a medium for teaching and learning as the first criterion. If the technology is not educationally effective, why would you use it? However, if a student cannot access or use a technology, there will be no learning from that technology, no matter how it is designed. Furthermore, motivated teachers will overcome weaknesses in a particular technology, or conversely teachers inexperienced in using media will often under-exploit the potential of a technology. Design decisions are critical in influencing the effectiveness of a particular technology. Thus well-designed lectures will teach better than a poorly designed online course, and vice versa. Similarly, students will respond differently to different technologies due to preferred learning styles or differences in motivation. Students who work hard can overcome poor use of learning technologies.

It is not surprising then that with so many variables involved, teaching and learning is a difficult discriminator for selecting and using technologies. Access (and ease of use) are stronger discriminators than teaching effectiveness in selecting media. Nevertheless, different media have different potential or ‘affordances’ for different types of learning. One of the arts of teaching is often finding the best match between media and learning objectives. We explore this relationship in this section, but first, a little theory, based on a substantial amount of excellent past research on this topic (see, for instance, Trenaman, 1967; Olson and Bruner, 1974; Schramm, 1977; Salomon, 1979, 1981; Clark, 1983; Bates, 1985; Koumi, 2006; Berk, 2009; Mayer, 2009).

Embedded within any decision about the use of technology in education and training will be assumptions about the learning process. We have already seen earlier in this book how different epistemological positions and theories of learning affect the design of teaching, and these influences will also determine a teacher’s or an instructor’s choice of appropriate media.

There are four critical questions that need to be asked about teaching and learning in order to select and use appropriate media/technologies:

  • what are the desired learning outcomes from the teaching?
  • what instructional strategies will be employed to facilitate the learning outcomes?
  • what are the unique educational characteristics of each medium/technology, and how well do these match the learning and teaching requirements?
  • what resources are available?

These are not questions best asked sequentially, but in a cyclical manner, as media affordances may suggest alternative instructional strategies or even the possibility of learning outcomes that had not been initially considered (see Figure 9.6 below)

Figure 9. The four steps for media selection

Figure 9. The four steps for media selection

9.5.2 Content and skills

When preparing for decisions about technology use, it is useful to make a distinction between content and skills. Olson and Bruner (1974) argue that learning involves two distinct aspects: acquiring knowledge of facts, principles, ideas, concepts, events, relationships, rules and laws; and using or working on that knowledge to develop skills. Again, this is not necessarily a sequential process. Identifying skills then working back to identify the concepts and principles needed to underpin the skills may be another valid way of working. In reality, learning content and skills development will often be integrated in any learning process.

9.5.2.1 The representation of content

Media differ in the extent to which they can represent different kinds of content, because they vary in the symbol systems (text, sound, still pictures, moving images, etc.) that they use to encode information (Salomon, 1979). Different media are capable of combining different symbol systems. Books can represent content through text and still pictures, but not through sound or moving pictures. In this respect, computers in the past have been similar to books, although now they can also incorporate sound and moving pictures (i.e. multimedia). Television and film in the past have been the richest media symbolically. They were the only media which could encompass text, still and moving pictures, natural language, natural movement, music and other sounds, and full colour. Computer-based technology now surpasses television, film and video in this respect, because not only can computer-based technologies such as the Internet represent the same rich media as television, film and video, it can also include animation and simulation, virtual worlds and computerized control of learning.

Differences between media in the way they combine symbol systems influence the way in which different media represent content. Thus there is a difference between a direct experience, a written description, a televised recording, and a computer simulation of the same scientific experiment. Different symbol systems are being used, conveying different kinds of information about the same experiment. For instance, our concept of heat can be derived from touch, mathematical symbols (800 celsius), words (random movement of particles), animation, or observance of experiments. Our ‘knowledge’ of heat is as a result not static, but developmental. A large part of learning requires the mental integration of content acquired through different media and symbol systems. For this reason, deeper understanding of a concept or an idea is often the result of the integration of content derived from a variety of sources (Mayer, 2009).

Media also differ in their ability to handle concrete or abstract knowledge. Abstract knowledge is handled primarily through language. While all media can handle language, either in written or spoken form, media vary in their ability to represent concrete knowledge. For instance, television can show concrete examples of abstract concepts, the video showing the concrete ‘event’, and the sound track analyzing the event in abstract terms. Well-designed media can help learners move from the concrete to the abstract and back again, once more leading to deeper understanding.

9.5.2.2 Content structure

Media also differ in the way they structure content. Books, the telephone, radio, podcasts and face-to-face teaching all tend to present content linearly or sequentially. While parallel activities can be represented through these media (for example, different chapters dealing with different events occurring simultaneously) these activities still have to be presented sequentially through these media. Computers and television are more able to present or simulate the inter-relationship of multiple variables simultaneously occurring. Computers can also handle branching or alternative routes through information, but usually within closely defined limits.

Subject matter varies a great deal in the way in which information needs to be structured. Subject areas (for example, natural sciences, history) structure content in particular ways determined by the internal logic of the subject matter. This structure may be very tight or logical, requiring particular sequences or relationships between different concepts, or very open or loose, requiring learners to deal with highly complex material in an open-ended or intuitive way.

If media then vary both in the way they present information symbolically and in the way they handle the structures required within different subject areas, media which best match the required mode of presentation and the dominant structure of the subject matter need to be selected. Consequently, different subject areas will require a different balance of media. This means that subject experts should be deeply involved in decisions about the choice and use of media, to ensure that the chosen media appropriately match the presentational and structural requirements of the subject matter.

 9.5.2.3 The development of skills

Media also differ in the extent to which they can help develop different skills. Skills can range from intellectual to psychomotor to affective (emotions, feelings). Koumi (2015) has used Krathwohl’s (2002) revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Objectives (1956) to assign affordances of text and video to learning objectives using Krathwold’s classification of learning objectives.

Comprehension is likely to be the minimal level of intellectual learning outcome for most education courses. Some researchers (for example, Marton and Säljö, 1976) make a distinction between surface and deep comprehension. At the highest level of skills comes the application of what one has comprehended to new situations. Here it becomes necessary to develop skills of analysis, evaluation, and problem solving.

Thus a first step is to identify learning objectives or outcomes, while being aware that the use of some media may result in new possibilities in terms of learning outcomes.

9.5.3 Pedagogical affordances – or unique media characteristics?

‘Affordances’ is a term originally developed by the psychologist James Gibson (1977) to describe the perceived possibilities of an object in relation to its environment (e.g. a door knob suggests to a user that it should be turned or pulled, while a flat plate on a door suggests that it should be pushed.). The term has been appropriated by a number of fields, including instructional design and human-machine interaction.

Thus the pedagogical affordances of a medium relate to the possibilities of using that medium for specific teaching purposes. It should be noted that an affordance depends on the subjective interpretation of the user (in this case a teacher or instructor), and it is often possible to use a medium in ways that are not unique to that medium. For instance video can be used for recording and delivering a lecture. In that sense there is a similarity in at least one affordance for a lecture and a video. Also students may choose not to use a medium in the way intended by the instructor. For instance, Bates and Gallagher (1977) found that some social science students objected to documentary-style television programs requiring application of knowledge or analysis rather than presentation of concepts.

Others (such as myself) have used the term ‘unique characteristics’ of a medium rather than affordances, since ‘unique characteristics’ suggest that there are particular uses of a medium that are less easily replicated by other media, and hence act as a better discriminator in selecting and using media. For instance, using video to demonstrate in slow motion a mechanical process is much more difficult (but not impossible) to replicate in other media. In what follows, my focus is more on unique or particular rather than general affordances of each medium, although the subjective and flexible nature of media interpretation makes it difficult to come to any hard and fast conclusions.

I will now attempt in the next sections to identify some of the unique pedagogical characteristics of the following media:

  • text
  • audio
  • video
  • computing
  • social media
  • face-to-face teaching

Feedback

I’ve always found media selection a difficult topic. It should be relatively simple to say that text is better for this and audio is better for that, but in practice it’s much more complicated. There is so much overlap and so many other factors that can influence the value of a particular media application other than the ‘pure’ educational affordances.

I struggled particularly with the concept of pedagogical affordances of media. It’s the term that is now commonly used, but it doesn’t work for me as a differentiator of media, for the reasons I put in the extract.

At the same time, it seems to me that there are important differences between media, and that these are as much to do with the nature of knowledge as they are to do with teaching effectiveness. In other words, there are many different ways of knowing something, and there isn’t necessarily one right way. So if I understand what happens when mercury is added to liquid nitrogen from watching a slow motion video, but don’t understand the chemical equations behind it, what is the nature of what I know? This just strengthens my belief that knowledge is dynamic, not static, and multiple ways to present knowledge is necessary for true understanding. And that academic knowledge is somehow different, and this impacts on what media are ‘valid’ in teaching.

But what are your views on this?

In particular, am I going down a very long and dark alley leading to nowhere in this chapter?

References

Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables

Bates, A. and Gallagher, M. (1977) Improving the Effectiveness of Open University Television Case-Studies and Documentaries Milton Keynes: The Open University (I.E.T. Papers on Broadcasting, No. 77)

Berk, R.A. (2009) Multimedia teaching with video clips: TV, movies, YouTube and mtvU in the college classroom, International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, Vol. 91, No. 5

Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.

Clark, R. (1983) Reconsidering research on learning from media Review of Educational Research, Vol. 53. No. 4

Gibson, J.J.  (1979) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Koumi, J. (2006) Designing video and multimedia for open and flexible learning. London: Routledge.

Koumi, J. (2015) Learning outcomes afforded by self-assessed, segmented video-print combinations Academia.edu (unpublished to date)

Krathwohl, D.R. (2002) A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview. In Theory into Practice, Vol. 41, No. 4  College of Education, The Ohio State University. Retrieved from http://www.unco.edu/cetl/sir/stating_outcome/documents/Krathwohl.pdf

Marton, F. and Säljö, R. (1997) Approaches to learning, in Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N. (eds.) The experience of learning: Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press (out of press, but available online)

Mayer, R. E. (2009) Multimedia learning (2nd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press

Olson, D. and Bruner, J. (1974) ‘Learning through experience and learning through media’, in Olson, D. (ed.) Media and Symbols: the Forms of Expression Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Salomon, G. (1979) Interaction of Media, Cognition and Learning San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Salomon, G. (1981) Communication and Education Beverley Hills CA/London: Sage

Schramm, W. (1977) Big Media, Little Media Beverley Hills CA/London: Sage

Trenaman, J. (1967) Communication and Comprehension London: Longmans

Exploiting the affordances of the iPad at Lynn University

Students at Lynn University

Tilsley, A. (2013) iPadU Inside Higher Education, January 15

This is a report about Lynn University, a private nonprofit university based in Boca Raton, Florida, moving its core curriculum  to the iPad. The significant point is that the university’s unique core curriculum is delivered through ‘challenged-based learning‘, a method developed by Apple ‘that focuses on using technology to apply course content to real-world problems‘, through the use of iPads.

In a pilot earlier this year students in a section using the iPads learned more than students who received the same curriculum content in more traditional methods – and were happier.

In fall 2013, all incoming students will be required to purchase an iPad mini, which will come loaded with the student’s summer reading and core curriculum texts, created by Lynn faculty. The iPad mini, at $495, will cost half as much as students were paying for print versions of their course readers, and they will get to keep the device.The iPad will be used across all classes.

All faculty have been given iPads and are receiving training on how to use them for teaching within the core curriculum. About 50% of the content will be common to courses, with faculty adding the remaining 50% themselves. Although there is a common framework for applications, faculty have considerable freedom to adapt their teaching as they (and the students) become more experienced in using the iPad.

The university had to spend approximately $1 million in upgrading its network and software (somewhat helped by the media requirements for the televised Presidential debate between Obama and Romney that was hosted at the university in October 2012.)

Other universities that have launched iPad initiatives include:

  • Seton Hill University
  • Dartmouth College School of Medicine
  • Ohio State University (biology)
  • University of Oklahoma (teacher education)
  • University of Western Sydney, Australia

The article contains more details and comments on the plan and is well worth reading in full.

Comment

Although over 125 universities are using materials from I Tunes U, the significant point here is that this is a purpose-built application aimed at exploiting the educational advantages or ‘affordances’ of the technology.

The second significant point is that the university is allowing a fair degree of flexibility for faculty to experiment and adapt as their experience with the technology grows.

The third significant point is that all faculty are receiving extensive training in how to use the technology in advance of the launch of the program.

Although I have some concerns about tying teaching to a single technology supplier and tool, Lynn University is to be applauded for taking such a bold step. I hope it succeeds and that it is carefully evaluated to identify the conditions that will enable the innovation to be migrated successfully to other learning contexts.

 

Mobile learning devices, and some Canadian players

 

© Adam Selwood, Flikr, 2009

Kim, J. (2011) A mobile learning platform matrix Inside Higher Education, June 13

A simple matrix that compares the pros and cons of full laptops, tablets, smart phones and ‘ultra books’, mainly in terms of how well they work with an LMS. Mainly technical rather than educational criteria.

Woodhill, G. (2011) Mobile learning in Canada The Mobile Learning Edge, February 10

A useful compendium of Canadian mobile learning web sites, vendors, consultants and researchers, by the author of:

Woodhill, G. (2010) The Mobile Learning Edge: Tools and Technologies for Developing Your Teams Columbus OH