November 17, 2017

That was the year, that was: main trends in 2015

Image: http://goodbye2015welcome2016.com/

Image: http://goodbye2015welcome2016.com/

Well, here we are at the end of another year. Doesn’t time fly! So here is my look back on 2015. I’ll do this in three separate posts. This one focuses on what I saw as the main trends in online learning in 2015.

Gradual disengagement

It was April, 2014, when I decided to stop (nearly) all professional activities, in order to complete my book, Teaching in a Digital Age, which came out in April this year. A year and eight months later, though, I haven’t stopped completely, as you will see. However, most of my activities this year were related to the publication or follow-up from the book. As a result I have reduced considerably my professional activities and this reduction will continue into 2016. Because I was less engaged this year with other institutions, I don’t have a good grip on all the things that happened during 2015 in the world of online learning. For a thorough review, see Audrey Watters excellent Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015.

Nevertheless I’m not dead yet, I have been doing some work with universities (see next post), and I have been following the literature and talking to colleagues, so here’s what I took away from 2015.

1. The move to hybrid learning

This is clearly the biggest and most significant development of 2015. More and more faculty are now almost routinely integrating online learning into their campus-based classes. The most common way this is being done (apart from using an LMS to support classroom teaching) still remains ‘flipped’ classrooms, where students watch a lecture online then come to class for discussion.

There are lots of problems with this approach, in particular the failure to make better pedagogical use of video and the failure of many students to view the lecture before coming to class, but for many faculty it is an obvious and important first step towards blended learning, and more importantly it has the potential for more active engagement from learners.

As instructors get more experience of this, though, they start looking at better ways to combine the video and classroom experiences. The big challenge then becomes how best to use the student time on campus, which is by no means always obvious. The predominant model of hybrid learning though is still the (recorded) lecture model, but adapted somewhat to allow for more discussion in large classes.

In most flipped classroom teaching, the initiative tends to come from the individual instructor, but some institutions, such as the University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa, are putting in campus-wide initiatives to redesign completely the large lecture class, involving teams of faculty, teaching assistants and instructional and web designers. I believe this to be the ‘true’ hybrid approach, because it looks from scratch at the affordances of online and face-to-face teaching and designs around those, rather than picking a particular design such as a flipped lecture. I anticipate that university or at least program-wide initiatives for the redesign of large first and second year classes will grow even more in 2016.

UBC's flexible learning initiative focuses on re-design to integrate online and classroom learing

UBC’s flexible learning initiative focuses on re-design to integrate online and classroom learing

2. Fully online undergraduate courses

Until fairly recently, the only institutions offering whole undergraduate programs fully online were either the for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix, or specialist open universities, such as the U.K Open University or Athabasca University in Canada.

Most for-credit online programs in conventional universities were at the graduate level, and even then, apart from online MBAs, fully online master programs were relatively rare. At an undergraduate level, online courses were mainly offered in third or more likely the fourth year, and more on an individual rather than a program basis, enabling regular, on-campus students to take extra courses or catch up so they could finish their bachelor degree within four years.

However, this year I noticed some quite distinguished Canadian universities building up to full undergraduate degrees available fully online. For instance, McMaster University is offering an online B.Tech (mainly software engineering) in partnership with Mohawk College. Students can take a diploma program from Mohawk then take the third and fourth year fully online from McMaster. Similarly Queens University, in partnership with the Northern College Haileybury School of Mines, is developing a fully online B.Tech in Mining Engineering. Queens is also developing a fully online ePre-Health Honours Bachelor of Science, using competency-based learning.

Fully online undergraduate programs will not be appropriate for all students, particularly those coming straight from high school. But the programs from Queens and McMaster recognise the growing market for people with two-year college diplomas, who are often already working and want to go on to a full undergraduate degree without giving up their jobs.

3. The automation of learning

Another trend I have noticed growing particularly strong in 2015, and one that I don’t like, is the tendency, particularly but not exclusively in the USA, to move to the automation of learning through behaviourist applications of computer technology. This can be seen in the use of computer-marked assignments in xMOOCs, the use of learning analytics to identify learners ‘at risk’, and adaptive learning that controls the way learners can work through materials. There are some elements of competency-based learning that also fit this paradigm.

This is a big topic which I will discuss in more detail in the new year in my discussion of the future of learning, but it definitely increased during 2015.

4. The growing importance of open source social media in online learning design

I noticed more and more instructors and instructional designers are incorporating social media into the design of online learning in 2015. In particular, more instructors are moving away from learning management systems and using open source social media such as blogs, wikis, and mobile apps, to provide flexibility and more learner engagement.

One important reason for this is to move away from commercially owned software and services, partly to protect student (and instructor) privacy. In a sense, this also a reaction to the automation and commercialization of learning, reflecting a difference in fundamental philosophy as well as in technology. Again, the increased use of social media in online learning is discussed in much more detail by Audrey Watters (see Social Media, Campus Activism and Free Speech).

5. More open educational materials – but not enough use

For me, the leader in OER in 2015 was the BCcampus open textbook project, and not just because I published my own book this way. This is proving to be a very successful program, already saving post-secondary students over $1 million from a total post-secondary student population of under 250,000. The only surprise is that many BC instructors are still resisting the move to open textbooks and that more jurisdictions outside Western Canada are not moving aggressively into open textbooks.

The general adoption of OER indeed still seems to be struggling. I noticed that some institutions in Ontario are beginning to develop OER that can be shared across different courses within the same institution (e.g. statistics). However, it would be much more useful if provincial or state articulation committees came together and agreed on the production of core OER that could be used throughout the same system within a particular discipline (and also, of course, made available to anyone outside). This way instructors would know the resources have been peer validated. Other ways to encourage faculty to use OER – in particular, ensuring the OER are of high quality both academically and in production terms – need to be researched and applied. It doesn’t make sense for online learning to be a cottage industry with every instructor doing everything themselves.

Is that it?

Yup. As I said, mine is a much narrower view of online learning trends than I have done in the past. You will note that I have not included MOOCs in my key trends for 2015. They are still there and still growing, but a lot of the hype has died down, and they are gradually easing into a more specialist niche or role in the wider higher education market. My strategy with MOOCs is if you can’t beat them, ignore them. They will eventually go away.

Next

The next two posts will:

  1. provide a summary of my activities in 2015
  2. provide a statistical analysis of the most popular posts on my blog in 2015

In the new year I will write a more general post on the future of online learning. In the meantime, have a great holiday season and see you in 2016.

Is the classroom model appropriate for teaching in a digital age?

© University of Science and Arts Oklahoma

© University of Science and Arts Oklahoma

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, is now published. In Chapter 5, I developed the concept of a learning environment.

I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’

What is to be covered in Chapter 6

This may change as I get into the writing but my plan at the moment is to cover the following topics:

  • What is a design model?
  • The classroom model
  • Classroom models in online learning
    • LMSs
    • lecture capture
  • ADDIE
  • Competency-based learning,
  • Communities of practice (inc. cMOOCs)
  • Flexible design models
  • PLEs
  • AI approaches.
  • Conclusion

In this post I introduce the concept of a design model and discuss the appropriateness of the classroom design model for a digital age. My next post, which follows almost immediately, does the same for the ADDIE model.

Purpose of the chapter

At the end of this chapter the reader should be able to:

  1. Describe key models or approaches to the design of teaching and learning
  2. Analyse each model in terms of its value for teaching in a digital age
  3. Decide which model or combination of models will fit best with their own teaching
  4. Use the model as a basis for designing their own teaching

What is a design model?

By a design model, I mean the organized steps taken to convert a desired learning environment into teaching and learning activities. Project management is a typical example of a design model, in that it presents a framework for taking a plan or goal and turning it into action. In project management, there are certain steps to be followed which are relatively independent of whatever project is being implemented.

However, there are many different kinds of approaches to design implementation besides project management. I intend to examine several of the most common design models that can be used in teaching, and in particular to examine them for their suitability for teaching in a digital age.

The classroom design model

Classroom old 2

Some design models are so embedded in tradition and convention that we are often like fish in water – we just accept that this is the environment in which we have to live and breath. The classroom model is a very good example of this. In a classroom based model, learners are organised in classes that meet on a regular basis at the same place at certain times of the day for a given length of time over a given period (a term or semester).

This is a design decision that was taken more than 150 years ago. It was embedded in the social, economic and political context of the 19th century. This context included:

  • the industrialization of society which provided ‘models’ for organizing both work and labour, such as factories and mass production
  • the movement of people from rural to urban occupations and communities, with increased density resulting in larger institutions
  • the move to mass education to meet the needs of industrial employers and an increasingly large and complex range of state-managed activities, such as government, health and education
  • voter enfranchisement and hence the need for a better educated voting public
  • over time, demand for more equality, resulting in universal access to education.

The large urban school, college or university, organized by age stratification, learners in groups, and regulated units of time was an excellent fit for such a society. In effect, we still have a predominantly factory model of educational design, which in large part remains our default design model even today.

However, over the span of 150 years, our society has slowly changed. Many of these factors or conditions no longer exist, while others persist, but often in a less dominant way than in the past. Thus we still have factories and large industries, but we also have many more small companies, greater social and geographical mobility, and above all a massive development of new technologies that allow both work and education to be organized in different ways. This is not to say that the classroom design model is inflexible. Teachers for many years have used a wide variety of teaching approaches within this overall model.

I don’t want to devote much space to the classroom design model, as we are all so familiar with it, and there is so much invested in the ‘default’ model that it is impractical to rip everything up and start with something completely different. Nevertheless, we have at least the seeds of change already showing. ‘Flipped’ classrooms where students get lectures on video and come to class for discussion and the re-design of large lecture classes are moves to modify the default model, while fully online programs and MOOCs are a manifestation of more radical change by offering education at any time and any place.

The real danger though is that we fail to grasp the opportunities that are now available to us, because we are so comfortable and familiar with the classroom design model. Even worse is trying to force the old default model on to new developments, when what is needed is a totally different approach if we are to meet the needs of a digital age. I give two examples below of forcing new technologies into the old classroom design model.

Old wine in new bottles: classroom-type online learning

When commercial movies were first produced, they were basically a transfer of previous music hall and vaudeville acts to the movie screen. Then along came D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’, which transformed the design of movies, by introducing techniques that were unique to cinema at the time, such as panoramic long shots, panning shots, realistic battle scenes, and what are now known as special effects.

Learning management systems

Most learning management systems, such as Blackboard, Desire2Learn and Moodle, are in fact a replication of a classroom design model. They have weekly units or modules, the instructor selects and presents the material to all students in the class at the same time, a large class enrollment can be organized into smaller sections with their own instructors, there are opportunities for (online) discussion, students work through the materials at roughly the same pace, and assessment is by end-of-course tests or essays.

The main design differences are that the content is primarily text based rather than oral, the online discussion is asynchronous rather than synchronous, and the course content is available at any time from anywhere with an Internet connection. These are important differences, and skilled teachers and instructors can modify or adapt LMSs to meet different teaching or learning requirements (as they can in physical classrooms), but the basic organizing framework of the LMS remains the same as for a physical classroom.

Nevertheless, the LMS is still an advance over online designs that merely put lectures on the Internet or load up pdf copies of Powerpoint lecture notes, as is still the case unfortunately in many online programs. Good online design should take account of the special requirements of online learners, so the design needs to be different from that of a classroom model.

Lecture capture

This technology, which automatically records a classroom lecture, was originally designed to enhance the classroom model by making lectures available for repeat viewings online at any time for students regularly attending classes – in other words, a form of homework. Flipped classrooms are an attempt to exploit more fully this potential, but the biggest impact has been the use of lecture capture for ‘instructionist’ massive open online courses (MOOCs), such as those offered by Coursera, Udacity and edX. However, even this type of MOOC is really a basic classroom design model. The main differences are that the classroom is open to anyone (but then in principle so are many university lectures), and MOOCs are available to unlimited numbers at a distance. These are important differences again, but the design of the teaching – lectures delivered in chunks – has not changed markedly.

‘Instructionist’ MOOCs have resulted in some important design changes to the classroom model, such as using computer-marked assignments to test students or give feedback, and the use of peer review (both often used also in physical classroom design of course), but the predominant design model of instructionist MOOCs is that of an admittedly massive classroom.

The limitations of the classroom design model

Old wine can still be good wine, whether the bottle is new or not. What matters is whether classroom design meets the changing needs of a digital age. Just adding technology to the mix, or delivering the same design online, does not automatically result in meeting changing needs. It is important then to look at the design that makes the most of the educational affordances of new technologies, because unless the design changes significantly to take full advantage of the potential of the technology, the outcome is likely to be inferior to that of the physical classroom model which it is attempting to imitate.

The second danger of just adding new technology to the classroom design is that we may just be increasing cost, both in terms of technology and the time of instructors, without changing outcomes. Thus even if the new technology, such as lecture capture and computer-based multiple-choice questions organised in a MOOC, result in helping more students memorise better or learn more content, for example, this may not be sufficient to meet the higher level skills needed in a digital age.

Education is no exception to the phenomenon of new technologies being used at first merely to reproduce earlier design models before they find their unique potential. However, changes to the basic design model are needed if the demands of a digital age and the full potential of new technology are to be exploited in education.

Over to you

1. Do I manage to make clear what I mean by design ‘models’? If not, how can this be made clearer – or is the concept not helpful in the first place?

2. Do you agree that the classroom design model is a product of the 19th century and needs to changed for teaching in a digital age? Or is there still enough flexibility in the classroom model for our times?

3. To what extent do you feel you have to teach in a certain way because of the classroom model – or are you able to work flexibly within this model?

4. Do you agree that LMSs are basically a classroom model delivered online, or are they a unique design model in themselves. If so, what makes them unique?

What’s next?

My next post looks at the appropriateness of the ADDIE model for teaching in a digital age.

Thinking about the design of the ‘flipped’ classroom

Image: © University of Washington CTL

Image: © University of Washington CTL

Barnett, P. (2014) Let’s scramble, not flip, the classroom, Inside Higher Education, February 14

University of Washington (undated) Flipping the classroom, Seattle: University of Washington Center for teaching and Learning

This blog post by Pamela Barnett, the Director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Temple University (USA), looks at a number of ways to re-design teaching to incorporate both online and classroom teaching that goes way beyond the ‘standard’ flipped classroom model (if such a thing exists – see the U of Washington post for excellent resources on the flipped classroom).

Dr. Bartlett’s post is well worth reading for ideas on how to make the most out of hybrid learning. I think we will see more and more papers and posts on this topic as more and more instructors move to hybrid learning.

But while I agree with the spirit and the intent of Pamela Barnett’s post, there is still the assumption that all such decisions will be taken by the instructor working in isolation, on a case-by-case basis. I’m wondering how long it will take to move:

(a) away from every individual instructor making their own decisions about the right mix of online and face-to-face learning, on a course-by-course or just a lesson-by-lesson basis, to a program approach of looking at the needs of a program – and its students – as a whole, in deciding the right mix of online and campus-based teaching

(b) to a team approach, involving an individual instructor working with an instructional designer, to determine the right mix of online and face-to-face teaching within a particular course or program

(c) to developing clear guidelines or principles on what is best done online and what on campus. (What? A theory in educational technology? What was I thinking?)

Until now the argument has been: ‘Online learning OR classroom instruction’. Now we need to look at the best ways to combine them. I will be very surprised if the flipped model as practiced today survives once we have that knowledge. But we lack the science or experience to guide us on the ‘what’s best done online and what face-to-face’ discussion. We are still very much in the cottage industry stage of higher education teaching – all craft and no science. We need both theory, and evidence from practice to support or challenge the theory. Until then, anything goes with hybrid learning, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. It allows for innovation and challenges to our existing ideas in this area.

Discussing design models for hybrid/blended learning and the impact on the campus

 A couple of weeks ago I had an interesting meeting with about 25 instructional designers from UBC, where we discussed design models for hybrid learning, defined as a deliberate attempt to combine the best of both face-to-face and online learning.

Hybrid learning: the next big change in online learning?

Despite all the hype about MOOCs, hybrid learning is probably the most significant development in e-learning – or indeed in teaching generally – in post-secondary education, at least here in Canada. I am seeing many universities (13 in six months so far) developing plans or strategies to increase the amount of hybrid learning. The University of Ottawa for instance is aiming for 20% of all sections to be hybrid within five years (which its Board feared was ‘too timid’ a target.) UBC has just started a major development called its flexible learning initiative which aims to radically transform first and second year undergraduate teaching and reach out to new markets. Hybrid learning is a cornerstone of its strategy.

Why is this happening?

The reasons for the move vary a good deal but are often connected:

  • a desire to improve the quality of very large first and second year undergraduate teaching in large research universities, which is often delivered mainly through lectures, with relatively little meaningful or ‘deep’ interaction between instructor and at least the majority of students
  • lecture capture and ‘flipped’ classes: once a lecture is recorded, the question arises as to why students need to see it live. Flipped classes require the students to watch the recorded lecture first then come to class for discussion or other related activities
  • as instructors have increasingly used learning management systems to support their classroom teaching, there is a growing awareness among instructors that students can learn ‘some things’ just as well or better online as in class; thus instructors are more ready for a more systematic move towards hybrid learning
  • the need for more flexibility for even young, full-time students, who usually have part-time jobs and hence often have difficulties making a class when it clashes with their work.

Current hybrid models

  • flipped classrooms: this is the predominant hybrid model to date. This in fact may not mean any reduction in class time, but class time is spent differently, perhaps in discussion with either the instructor or more often with teaching assistants, reviewing content from the video lectures, or even in some cases working on problem based learning. Online activities include watching recorded video lectures (increasingly in smaller chunks than a continuous 50 minute lecture), chat or formal discusion forums, and online assessment or quizzes. This model is not without its problems. Students sometimes don’t do the online work before coming to class so are not properly prepared. There is a danger of overloading students if the online activities are merely added to their regular activities such as attending class, doing the necessary reading, etc.
  • ‘intense’ residency: this can come in a number of forms:
    • the Royal Roads University model of one semester being spent on campus (usually in the summer) while the remaining semesters are fully online
    • one week or weekend/evening face-to-face sessions for practical hands-on work, such as using labs, while the majority of the course is studied online
  • in a very few cases – but where the trend is heading – classroom time is reduced from say three ‘credit’ hours a week of lectures to one or two hours thus allowing more time both for the students to study online and perhaps equally importantly, more time for the instructors to devote to the online teaching and support
  • lastly, it is essential to mention the work of the National Center for Academic Transformation, which for nearly 15 years, under the leadership of Carol Twigg, has been working with universities and colleges in the USA to redesign large first and second year classes, to make them more cost-effective. This requires a thorough re-design of the teaching, and has shown encouraging results from the more than 120 redesigns so far undertaken. Much can be learned from this earlier work.

What’s the problem, then?

The main challenge is how to decide what is best done in class, and what online. There is a clear set of best practices and design models for fully online learning, but, other than the NCAT studies, we don’t have good models or at least well-tested models for hybrid learning.

In reviews of the literature, I could find almost no published research on the comparative ‘affordances’ of face-to-face versus online learning. In fact, I received yesterday a copy of a brand new book, called ‘Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age’, by Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe, that contains many excellent chapters on the design of teaching and learning with technology, but there’s nothing on how to decide what should be done face-to-face rather than online.

In fact there is so little written about this that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a stupid question. But then I think of the students I used to see on my way to work on the 99B express bus to UBC, lolling about and falling asleep, or desperately trying to catch up on their reading on the bus, and the question has to be asked: ‘What is the university offering these students on campus that they couldn’t get from studying online?’

I’m sure there are many good answers to this question, but I’m not hearing the discussion. The assumption has generally been, ‘Campus is best,’, but is it, and if so, for what? And what models or design principles can guide us in answering those questions? This was the issue I raised at the UBC instructional design workshop a couple of weeks ago.

Brainstorming

So we did a little brainstorming. Here are some of things that were suggested in the very short time available (10 minutes or so):

Online

  • foundational knowledge (facts, principles, concepts, ideas, vocabulary, etc.)
  • certain kinds of skills such as knowledge management, knowledge navigation, independent learning, creative writing
  • some elements of clinical practice (e.g. correct procedures, video demonstrations of equipment being used, patient symptoms)

Face-to-face

  • public speaking and facilitation skills
  • consensus-building
  • decision-making
  • problem solving
  • building a closer relationship with/’humanising’ the instructor
  • body language cues from the instructor about what is really important to him/her in the course
  • practical lab skills/operating equipment

Brainstorming at UBC: (Photo: Gabriel Lascu)

I am sure with more time we would have added substantially to the list, but one thing was apparent. Many things that seem at first sight more appropriate in a face-to-face context can often be done just as well if not better online, e.g. developing critical thinking skills.

Another conclusion was that it was hard to find any general principles that would identify clear differences, and decisions needed to be embedded in the needs of specific subject domains, although there was an acceptance that you have to work harder online to make teaching more personal.

If any readers want to add their own thoughts on this, please do so

An instructional design strategy

There is an instructional design strategy that was used very successfully at the British Open University for designing for the first science courses in the early 1970s, and I also saw a similar strategy more recently being used at the Colorado Community College System to decide on what experiments should be done using remote labs and which by home kits.

The challenge in both cases is to decide which skills that are essential in a subject domain require access to ‘real’ equipment, and which can be developed through reading, observing videos, using simulations or animations, or home kits, so that the time actually spent in a lab (in the case of the Open University, in real labs at other universities in summer schools) is reduced to a minimum, whilst still achieving high academic standards in the subject area.

This means defining in advance the desired learning objectives or outcomes and then working back, using the most effective media at the least cost. What became clear early on is that foundational knowledge or content can usually be handled equally well if not better through text, video or other media, and thus these days online. It is developing skills that presents more challenges. One approach is to break down the learning outcomes as follows (the subject is hematology – the study of blood):

This requires the subject expert (possibly working with an instructional designer) having a deep understanding of the nature of the subject matter and making relatively intuitive decisions based on experience about what is best done online and what in an actual lab. However, without an instructional designer or more exposure to what is already available online (e.g. simulations), the tendency is to underestimate what can be done online. It can also be seen that the mix of face-to-face and online is likely to differ considerably between (and also within) different subject domains, because the required content and skills will be also different.

The principle of equal substitution

Even after a short time in exploring this issue, it becomes clear that many learning outcomes, from an academic perspective, can be equally well achieved either in a face-to-face or online environment. This means that other factors, such as cost, convenience, or the skills and knowledge of the instructor about online learning, the type of students, or the context of the campus, will be stronger determinants of choice than the academic demands of the subject matter.

At the same time, there are likely to be some critical areas where there is a strong academic rationale for students to learn in a face-to-face or hands-on context. This area needs to be researched more carefully, or at least be more theory-based than at present.

What about the campus?

If we accept the principle of equal substitution for many academic purposes, then this brings us back to the student on the bus question. If students can learn most things equally well (and more conveniently) online, what can we offer them on campus that will make the bus journey worthwhile? I believe that this is the real challenge that online learning presents.

It is not just a question of what teaching activities need to be done in a face-to-face class or lab, but the whole cultural and social purpose of a university. Students in many of our large, urban universities have become commuters, coming in just for their lectures, maybe using the learning commons between lectures, getting a bite to eat, then heading home. As we have ‘massified’ our universities, the broader cultural aspects have been lost.

Fall at UBC with the old library at the back (Photo: Tony Bates)

Online and hybrid learning provides a chance to re-think the role and purpose of the whole university campus, as well as what we should be doing in classrooms when students have online learning available any time and anywhere. Of course we could just close up shop and move everything online (and save a great deal of money), but we should at least explore what would be lost before doing that.

Your homework (to be done online)

I’d really be interested in your thoughts on the following questions:

  1. What academic activities really need to be done face-to-face/on campus – and why?
  2. Are there underlying principles or theory that could help us make such a distinction?
  3. Do we need to re-think the campus experience? If so how? Or should we just get rid of the campus for most academic areas?

References

Beetham, H. and Sharpe, R. (2013) Rethinking Pedagogy for Digital Age: Designing for 21st century learning, 2nd edition London/New York: Routledge