August 16, 2018

Why is innovation in teaching in HE so difficult? 4. Integrating online and distance learning into the mainstream

Blended learning: what makes it innovative? Image: Erasmus+

This is the fourth and final post in this series. The previous three were:

Is it really so difficult?

A strong case could be made that at least in North America, higher education systems have been very successful in innovation. For instance, over the last 15 years, online learning has become widespread in most universities and colleges.

In the USA, one in three students now takes at least one distance education/online course for credit (Seaman et al., 2018). Although campus-based enrolments have been static or declining in the USA over the last few years, fully online enrolments have grown by about 5% over the last four years. 

In Canada, online learning in credit based courses has increased from around 5% of all enrolments in 2000 to around 15% of all enrolments in 2017. For the last four years, online enrolments have been increasing at a annual rate of between 12-16% in Canada, and nearly all universities and colleges in Canada now offer at least some fully online courses (Bates et al., 2017). 

However, that is one area where Canada differs from the USA. In the USA, online education is concentrated in a much smaller proportion of institutions in the USA than in Canada. In the USA, 235 institutions command 47% (2,985,347) of the student distance enrolments, but represent only 5% of all higher education enrolments in the USA (Seaman et al. 2018). Basically, some institutions, such as the University of Southern New Hampshire and Arizona State University, have become expert in scaling up online learning to a position where it has become large-scale and self-sustainable.

Then there are MOOCs. Many universities around the world are now offering MOOCs, with over 20 million enrolments a year. There may be criticism about completion rates and lack of accepted qualifications, but nevertheless, even – or especially – the elite universities have jumped on the MOOC bandwagon.

Also, Contact North’s project, Pockets of Innovation, with nearly 200 case studies, has identified that there are many individual instructors in colleges and universities adopting innovative uses of technology in their teaching, mostly independent of any institutional strategy.

However, probably the greatest impact of online learning on teaching in higher education is just getting started and that is the integration of online learning with classroom teaching, in the form of blended or hybrid learning. Bates et al. (2017) found that almost three quarters of institutions in Canada reported that this type of teaching was occurring in their institution. However, two thirds of the institutions reported that fewer than 10% of courses are in this format. In other words, integrated online learning is wide but not yet deep.

And this is where perhaps the biggest challenge of successful innovation lies: ensuring the high quality integration of online and classroom teaching. But we shall see that there are also concerns about how well campus-based institutions with no prior history of credit-based distance education have moved to fully online courses and programs as well.

The challenge of moving from a single mode to a dual mode institution

The most recent issue of the journal Distance Education, edited by Mays, Combrink and Aluko (2018) is a special edition dedicated to the theme of dual-mode provision, and in particular how previously single mode (i.e. solely campus-based) institutions are responding to the particular demands of distance education provision, and whether the quality and effectiveness of such provision is at risk. The editors of this edition believe:

such a decision will necessarily call for the revisiting of an institution’s assumptions about how people learn, how staff should work and how resources should be allocated and what policy changes are needed if quality is to be maintained or enhanced and the offerings sustained.

The articles in this special edition raise a number of questions such as:

  • is the blurring of the boundaries between on-campus and distance learning a good thing?
  • does the concept of distance education remain relevant?
  • are established models of distance education sufficient to inform the design, development and delivery of new kinds of provision, or are new models emerging (or needed)?

In particular, the editors are concerned that:

  • there is a real danger that in the convergence of modes of provision the unique quality concerns of distance provision, regarding, for example, the issues of access, success and cost, and the implications for how people learn and work, may be lost.

Interestingly, the special edition then looks at a series of case studies of the move from single to dual mode not drawn from North America or Europe, but from sub-Saharan Africa, where the motivation to move into distance learning has been driven mainly by changes in demand patterns (too many potential students; not enough institutions).

Application of an innovation adoption framework

Of these case studies, by far the most interesting is the article by Kanwar et. al, of the Commonwealth of Learning, which applies Wisdom et al.’s (2014) innovation adoption framework to provide a qualitative meta-review of barriers to adoption of open and distance learning (ODL) in conventional higher education institutes in Cameroon, Kenya and Rwanda. 

The framework has four key elements (which build on Everett Rogers’ earlier work on the diffusion of innovation):

  • external environment, e.g. national policies and funding, infrastructure/external physical environment
  • organisation of the adopting institution, e.g. institutional policies, organisational structure, leadership
  • nature of the innovation, e.g. complexity, cost, technology 
  • individuals, e.g. skills, perceptions, motivation, value systems of staff and clients affected by the innovation.

Kanwar et al. then used this framework to analyse the content of existing reviews of the adoption of ODL in the three countries. The findings are too detailed and complex to review here (the results varied between the three countries), but the study clearly identified some of the key barriers to adoption in each of the three countries. I was in fact thrilled to see an evidence-based theoretical model used to evaluate innovation.

More importantly, the study resulted in nine recommendations for successful implementation of ODL within campus-based institutions:

Government

  • develop national level policies and funding to encourage the adoption of ODL
  • establish national-level quality assurance mechanisms, equally for on-campus and distance programs
  • strengthen national-level IT infrastructure

Institutions

  • create institutional policies and clear implementation plans for promoting and supporting ODL
  • establish a centralised and autonomous ODL structure
  • develop a clear costing model for ODL and establish secure forms of funding/business models
  • build staff capacity and provide incentives to faculty to engage in ODL
  • promote research into the effectiveness and outcomes of ODL
  • ensure equivalency in the status and qualifications of ODL students

Comment

It would be a mistake to ignore this publication because the cases are drawn primarily from sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the issues addressed in these articles will resonate with many working in this field in North America and Europe.

I think the editors are right to be concerned about how well ‘conventional’ institutions are handling the adoption of distance and online learning. For many faculty, moving online is merely a question of transferring their classroom lectures to a web conference.

I was at a Canadian university recently where the design of a ‘blended’ executive MBA was being discussed. The ‘plan’ was to make one of the three weekly lectures in each course available instead by a 90 minute synchronous web conference. One professor insisted that all students had to watch the lecture at the same time so they could discuss it afterwards. No consideration was given to either the context of the students (working businessmen with a busy schedule and family) or to the pedagogy or research on video lectures. Even worse, the faculty were not listening to advice from the excellent specialists from the university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning.

At another Canadian university which has been running excellent distance education program for years through Extension Services, there is no plan or strategy for e-learning on campus, other than a proposal to distribute the specialist instructional design staff from Extension to the campus-based academic departments (which wouldn’t work as there are not enough specialists to go round each faculty). This also ignores the fact that these specialists are needed to run Extension’s own very successful non-credit programs, which bring money into the university.

So looking down the list of recommendations suggested by Kanwar et al., I can immediately think of at least a dozen Canadian universities for which most of these recommendations would be highly relevant.

I would differ on just a couple of points. There has been a long tradition of dual-mode institutions in North America, especially in universities with a state- or province-wide remit, at least in their early days. In Canada, Queen’s and Guelph Universities in Ontario, Memorial University in Newfoundland, the University of Saskatchewan, Laval University in Québec, and the University of British Columbia are all examples of mainly campus-based institutions with very successful distance programs. The distance education programs were the first to adopt online learning, and gradually, some of the best practices from distance education have been incorporated into blended and hybrid courses.

However, even in these universities, the move to more integrated online and face-to-face teaching faces challenges. UBC for instance did move its distance education staff from Continuing Studies to join a strengthened Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology that also included faculty development. Other institutions have still to make that move in a strategic and careful manner. And the big issue is how do you scale from supporting online courses for 15% of the students to supporting blended learning for all students?

The real issue lies with faculty and especially departments moving to blended or hybrid learning that do not understand the need for learning design or the needs of students who are not on campus all the time. The integration of online and campus-based learning will often highlight the inadequacy of prior campus-based teaching methods. There is much that campus-based faculty can learn from  distance education, in terms of more effective teaching.

At the same time, I don’t think distance educators have all the answers. The Pockets of Innovation have plenty of examples of campus-based faculty thinking up innovative ways to integrate online learning and new technologies into campus-based teaching. My experience in designing online courses was that the best ideas usually came from a highly expert faculty member with a truly deep understanding of the subject matter (see my previous post on VR in interactive molecular mechanics for a good example). I believe that we will need new models for designing blended and hybrid courses, even though distance education has some sound principles that can guide such design.

So in conclusion, innovation of itself is not sufficient: it has to be effective innovation that leads to better outcomes, in terms of access, flexibility, and/or learning effectiveness. Innovation is unlikely to be effective if it merely moves poor classroom teaching online, which is why innovation will remain difficult in higher education.

Over to you

Do you have examples of poor practice in moving to offer distance education courses for the first time, or attempts at integrating online and classroom teaching? 

Even better, do you have examples of where this has been done successfully? What are the lessons you have learned from this?

References

Bates, T. (ed.) (2017) Tracking Online and Distance Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges: 2017 Vancouver BC: The National Survey of Online and Distance Education in Canadian Post-Secondary Education.

Kanwar, A. et al., (2018) Opportunities and challenges for campus-based universities in Africa to translate into dual-mode delivery, Distance Education, Vol. 39. No. 2, pp. 140-158

Mays, T. et al. (2018) Deconstructing dual-mode provision in a digital era, Distance Education, Vol. 39. No. 2

Seaman, J.E., Allen, I.E., and Seaman, J. (2018) Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United StatesWellesley MA: The Babson Survey Research Group

Wisdom, J. et al. (2014) Innovation adoption: a review of theories and constructs, Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Sciences Research, Vol. 41, pp. 480-502

‘Making Digital Learning Work’: why faculty and program directors must change their approach

Completion rates for different modes of delivery at Houston Community College

Bailey, A. et al (2018) Making Digital Learning Work Boston MA:The Boston Consulting Group/Arizona State University

Getting blended learning wrong

I’ve been to several universities recently where faculty are beginning to develop blended or ‘hybrid’ courses which reduce but do not eliminate time on campus. I must confess I have mixed feelings about this. While I welcome such moves in principle, I have been alarmed by some of the approaches being taken.

The main strategy appears to be to move some of the face-to-face lectures online, without changing either the face-to-face or the online lecture format. In particular there is often a resistance to asynchronous approaches to online learning.  In one or two cases I have seen, faculty have insisted that students watch the Internet lectures live so that there can be synchronous online discussion, thus severely limiting the flexibility of ‘any time, any place’ for students.

Even more alarming, academic departments seem to be approaching the development of new blended learning programs the same way as their on-campus programs – identify faculty to teach the courses and then let them loose without any significant faculty development or learning design support. Even worse, there is no project management to ensure that courses are ready on time. Why discuss the design of the online lectures when you don’t do that for your classroom lectures? 

Trying to move classroom lectures online without adaptation is bound to fail, as we saw from the early days of fully online learning (and MOOCs). I recognise that blended or hybrid learning is different from fully online learning, but it is also different from face-to-face teaching. The challenge is to identify what the added value is of the face-to-face component, when most teaching can be done as well or better, and much more conveniently for students, online, and how to combine the two modes of delivery to deliver better learning outcomes more cost-effectively.  In particular, faculty are missing the opportunity to change their teaching method in order to get better learning outcomes, such as the development of high-level intellectual skills.

The real danger here is that poorly designed blended courses or programs will ‘fail’ and it is ‘blended learning’ that is blamed, when really it’s ignorance of best teaching practices on the part of faculty, and program directors especially. The problem is that faculty, and particularly senior faculty such as Deans and program directors, don’t know what they don’t know, which is why the report, ‘Making Digital Learning Work’ is so important. The report provides evidence that digital learning needs a complete change in culture and approaches to course and program development and delivery for most academic departments. Here’s why.

The report

The Arizona State University Foundation and Boston Consulting, funded by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, conducted a study of the return on investment (ROI) of digital learning in six different institutions. The methodology focused on six case studies of institutions that have been pioneers in post-secondary digital education:

  • Arizona State University
  • University of Central Florida
  • Georgia State University
  • Houston Community College
  • The Kentucky Community and Technical College System
  • Rio Salado Community College.

These are all large institutions (over 30,000 students each) and relatively early adopters of online learning. 

The study had three aims:

  • define what ROI means in terms of digital education, and identify appropriate metrics for measuring ROI
  • assess the impact of digital learning formats on institutions’ enrolments, student learning outcomes, and cost structures
  • examine how these institutions implemented digital learning, and identify lessons and promising practices for the field.

The study compared results from three different modes of delivery:

  • face-to-face courses
  • mixed-modality courses, offering a mix of online and face-to-face components, with the online component typically replacing some tradition face-to-face teaching (what I would call ‘hybrid learning)
  • fully online courses.

The ROI framework

The study identified three components of ROI for digital learning:

  • impact on student access to higher education
  • impact on learning and completion outcomes
  • impact on economics (the costs of teaching, administration and infrastructure, and the cost to students).

The report is particularly valuable in the way it has addressed the economic issues. Several factors were involved:

  • differences in class size between face-to-face and digital teaching and learning
  • differences in the mix of instructors (tenured and adjunct, full-time and part-time)
  • allocation of additional expenses such as faculty development and learning design support
  • impact of digital learning on classroom and other physical capacity 
  • IT costs specifically associated with digital learning.

The report summarised this framework in the following graphic:

While there are some limitations which I will discuss later, this is a sophisticated approach to looking at the return on investment in digital learning and gives me a great deal of confidence in the findings.

Results

Evidence from the six case studies resulted in the following findings, comparing digital learning with face-to-face teaching.

Digital learning resulted in:

  • equivalent or improved student learning outcomes
  • faster time to degree completion
  • improved access, particularly for disadvantaged students
  • a better return on investment (at four of the institutions): savings for online courses ranged from $12 to $66 per credit hour.

If you have problems believing or accepting these results then I recommend you read the report in full. I think you will find the results justified.

Conditions for success

This is perhaps the most valuable part of the report, because although most faculty may not be aware of this, those of us working in online learning have been aware for some time of the benefits of digital learning identified above. What this report makes clear though are the conditions that are needed for digital learning to succeed:

  • take a strategic portfolio approach to digital learning. This needs a bit of unpacking because of the terminology. The report argues that the greatest potential to improve access and outcomes while reducing costs lies in increasing the integration of digital learning into the undergraduate experience through mixed-modality (i.e. hybrid learning). This involves not just one single approach to course design but a mix, dependent on the demands of the subject and the needs of students. However, there should be somewhat standard course design templates to ensure efficiency in course design and to reduce risk.
  • build the necessary capabilities and expertise to design for quality in the digital realm. The experience of the six institutions emphasises that significant investment needs to be made in instructional design, learning sciences and digital tools and capacity (and – my sidebar – faculty need to listen to what instructional designers tell them)
  • provide adequate student support that takes account of the fact that students will often require that support away from the campus (and 24/7)
  • fully engage faculty and provide adequate faculty development and training by fostering a culture of innovation in teaching
  • tap outside vendors strategically: determine the strategic goals first for digital learning then decide where outside vendors can add value to in-house capacity
  • strengthen analytics and monitoring: the technology provides better ways to track student progress and difficulties

My comments on the report

This report should be essential reading for anyone concerned with teaching and learning in post-secondary education, but it will be particularly important for program directors. 

It emphasises that blended learning is not so much about delivery but about achieving better learning outcomes and increased access through the re-design of teaching that incorporates the best of face-to-face and online teaching. However this requires a major cultural change in the way faculty and instructors approach teaching as indicated by the following:

  • holistic program planning involving all instructors, instructional designers and probably students as well
  • careful advanced planning, and following best practices, including project management and learning design
  • focusing as much on the development of skills as delivering content
  • identifying the unique ‘affordances’ of face-to-face teaching and online learning: there is no general formula for this but it will require discussion and input from both content experts and learning designers on a course by course basis
  • systematic evaluation and monitoring of hybrid learning course designs, so best (and poor) practices can be identified

I have a few reservations about the report:

  • The case study institutions were carefully selected. They are institutions with a long history of and/or considerable experience in online learning. I would like to see more cases built on more traditional universities or colleges that have been able successfully to move into online and especially blended learning
  • the report did not really deal with the unique context of mixed-modularity. Many of the results were swamped by the much more established fully online courses. However, hybrid learning is still new so this presents a challenge in comparing results.

However, these are minor quibbles. Please print out the report and leave it on the desk of your Dean, the Provost, the AVP Teaching and Learning and your program director – after you’ve read it. You could also give them:

Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley

But that may be too much reading for the poor souls, who now have a major crisis to deal with.

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.

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?