May 29, 2017

Online learning for beginners: 1. What is online learning?

Student at computer at home 2

Getting started in online learning?

Every day, someone new either thinks about doing an online course, or is pressured into doing one. You may have quite a lot of prior knowledge about online learning (or think you do), or may have no knowledge at all. The most important thing to know though is that you probably don’t know enough about online learning, especially if you are just starting out (which defines you as wise, according to Socrates).

I have been teaching and researching online learning for nearly 30 years (yes, online learning started that long ago). Over that time, a great deal of research and evaluation of online learning has been done. Although much more could be done, and not all the work has been of high quality, nevertheless there is a great deal now known about what works and what doesn’t in online learning. Learning by experience is often a good way to learn, but it can also lead to frustration and, more importantly, students may suffer from the instructors’ lack of experience or ignorance. Thus at least knowing the basics before you start can save you not only a lot of time, but also will help you develop better courses from scratch.

I have written a 500 page, free online open textbook on Teaching in a Digital Age, which draws extensively on the latest research into online learning, and is meant as a guide for practitioners. Unfortunately, though, there are very few short guides to online learning, to help you make the decision about whether you should make the effort to do it properly.

So this is the first in a series of blog posts aimed at those new to online learning, particularly but not exclusively for those in the post-secondary education sector. I am hoping that these blogs will not only provide some of the basic knowledge you need before starting, but will also lead you to go further by digging into the parts of Teaching at a Distance that are relevant to you at any particular time.

Online learning: a definition

There is no Academie Française or Academy of Science or Technology that provides an ‘official’ definition of online learning. It is what people say it is, so I can only give you my personal definition, which is as follows:

Online learning is any form of learning conducted partly or wholly over the Internet.

The continuum of online learning

I have deliberately chosen a very broad definition of online learning, because it comes in many different varieties (there will be another blog post on the different varieties of online learning). My definition means that learners will use a computer, tablet or some other device for their learning, and it also means that at some point in their studying they have to go online – through the Internet – to access information or communicate with an instructor or other learners.

I therefore see teaching as a continuum:

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

  • at one end, there is teaching with no use of technology, which therefore is NOT online learning, but ‘pure’ face-to-face teaching. However, teaching without any technology is very rare these days, at least in formal education;
  • then there is the use of technology as a classroom aid, which may or may not be online learning. For instance an instructor using a projector and Powerpoint slides would not be using online learning, but students being directed to use a device such as a laptop, tablet or mobile phone to look at a web site during a classroom lesson would be a form of online learning, but the classroom would remain the main means of delivery. However this could be considered a sub-branch of online learning, called blended learning;
  • so, as with most continua, we get to a point where definitions become a little less precise, and this is blended learning, which again can mean a number of things, but in general means a combination of face-to-face teaching and a significant use of online learning, especially outside the classroom. This can take a number of forms:
    • a flipped classroom is one where student do preparation online before a classroom session (for instance watching a pre-recorded video lecture, and/or online reading);
    • hybrid learning is one where the whole classroom experience has been redesigned to focus on what the instructor thinks is best done online and what is best done face-to-face; in hybrid learning students may spend 50 per cent or more of their time learning on line;
  • lastly, fully online learning, where students do not come to campus at all, but study entirely online, which is one form of distance education.

Note though that online learning can include learning with or without an instructor physically present, and that a computer lab where everything is already pre-loaded on the computer would not be online learning. (This form of learning is still found in some countries with poor or no Internet access).

The important thing to remember is that online learning is primarily a mode of delivery, a way of delivering education to learners, NOT a particular method of teaching. Online learning can support a wide range of teaching methods. For instance lectures can be delivered in class (face-to-face) or over the Internet, as can experiential learning, constructivist approaches and many other teaching methods. This will be a topic of later posts.

We shall also see that online learning, like face-to-face teaching, can be done well or it can be done badly, but that too is a topic for another post.

Implications

With the increased use of online learning, every instructor now has to ask themselves two important questions:

  1. Where on the continuum of teaching should my course be, and on what basis should I make that decision?
  2. How do I decide, in any form of blended learning, what is best done online, and what is best done face-to-face?

Teaching in a Digital Age attempts to help you answer such questions, but in order to answer those questions well, you will need to read a lot of the book.

Follow-up

So in the meantime, if you want to know more about what online learning is, here is some suggested further reading (no more than an hour). Just click on the link:

  1. From the periphery to the centre: how technology is changing the way we teach, Chapter 1.7, Teaching in a Digital Age
  2. The continuum of technology-based learning, Chapter 9.1, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Up next

‘Isn’t online learning worse than face-to-face teaching?’ (to be posted in the week July 18-22, 2016)

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or just plain disagree, please let me know.

Students in small group online 2

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.

Recording of webinar on choosing modes of delivery

What makes face-to-face teaching pedagogically unique - if anything?

What makes face-to-face teaching pedagogically unique – if anything?

This morning I gave my third webinar in the Contact North series based on my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. There were 95 participants from 16 different countries.

In this webinar, which focused on Chapter 9 of Teaching in a Digital Age, I discussed with participants:

  • the continuum of technology-based learning and its conceptual and practical usefulness;
  • the key factors to consider when choosing appropriate modes of delivery;
  • how to move to blended/hybrid learning;
  • identifying the unique educational benefits of the campus compared to online learning.

A recording of the webinar, including discussion and participants’ comments, can be accessed here: https://contactnorth.webex.com/contactnorth/lsr.php?RCID=9a1a2cc8600d2c07a6426d4b15d7f9bd.

The next webinar, on quality in online and blended learning, will be at 1.00 pm EST, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. There will be a final, fifth webinar on the future impact of open educational resources on higher/post-secondary education later in 2016 (date to be announced).

For more details, and to access recordings of the two previous webinars, go to: http://teachonline.ca/teachingwebinars

Teaching assistants, adjunct faculty and online learning

Lecture to hybridI am struggling these days with the issue of who should teach online courses, in terms of qualifications and status, and in particular, the issue of how to scale up credit-based online courses while maintaining or improving quality.

These questions are coming to the forefront because, through blended learning, practices that are common in face-to-face teaching come head to head with quite different practices in online learning.

What has made this an issue for me

Recently I’ve been involved in assessing proposals for funding for large-enrollment online credit courses. Most of the proposals have focused on using several/many teaching assistants working under a professor to provide the learning support. I’m also finding this model being increasingly used where institutions are moving to a hybrid model, combining both online and face-to-face components, especially where a former very large lecture-based course is being redesigned for hybrid learning. Even including the TAs, the instructor/student ratio is often 1:100 or higher for these large enrollment courses (in other words, the same ratio more or less as when the course was delivered solely through large lectures.) In the proposals, and in the reports I am receiving, there is usually no additional training for TAs about how to teach online, although in many – but by no means all – cases, they do get some kind of training in teaching face-to-face.

This is a problem for me, because I have always worked with a model for online courses where the instructor: student ratio has been under 40 for undergraduate courses, and under 30 for graduate courses. Scaling up has been handled by hiring on contract additional part-time adjunct or associate professors, either with a doctoral degree in the subject area, or with strongly related work experience. The adjuncts would be paid to take a short online briefing course on teaching online which sets out the expectations for online teaching. This was an affordable model because the additional student tuition fees would more than cover the cost of hiring additional contract instructors, once the course was developed.

However, this has been possible because most of the online courses I have been responsible for have been aimed mainly at higher level undergraduate students or graduate students. With both blended and online courses now being targeted at large first and second year classes, new models are being developed that I fear will not have the same level of quality as the ‘best practice’ online courses I have been working with.

Why this is not an easy issue for me

This is a particularly difficult issue for me to discuss for several reasons:

  • most of my experience is with fully online courses; when I have taught face-to-face, it’s usually been me on my own, and generally with relatively small groups of between 25 to 200 maximum
  • practices both for dealing with large face-to-face classes and with online classes vary considerably within each form of delivery, and from one institution to another, so making generalizations is fraught with danger
  • decisions about whether to use teaching assistants or part-time, contract instructors, are driven more by financial considerations than by best pedagogical practice, although institutions do their best to make it as effective educationally as possible once a model for TAs and/or adjuncts has been decided on
  • there are other factors at work besides money and pedagogy in the use of teaching assistants and adjunct faculty, such as the desire to provide financial support to international and graduate students, the idea of apprenticeship in teaching, and the supply and demand effects on the employment of doctoral graduates seeking a career in university teaching and research
  • there is no golden mean for instructor/student ratios in either blended or online learning. In the mainly quantitative/STEM subjects, much higher ratios are sustainable without the loss of quality, through the use of automated marking and feedback
  • MOOCs (rightly or wrongly) are giving the impression that it is possible to scale up even credit-based online learning at lower cost.

What follows then is tentative, and I’m ready to change my views especially on the evidence of others who have grappled with this issue.

My concern

My real concern is that the over-reliance on teaching assistants for online and blended courses will have three negative consequences for both students and online learning in general:

  • As with the large face-to-face classes, the pedagogy for online or blended courses will resort more to information transmission.
  • however, for the online or hybrid courses, student drop-out and dissatisfaction will increase because, especially in first and second year teaching, they will not get the learning support they need when studying online.  As a result, faculty and students will claim that online learning is inferior to classroom-based instruction
  • faculty will see online learning and blended learning being used by administrations to cut costs and over time to reduce the employment of tenured faculty, and will therefore try to block its implementation.

Why can’t TAs provide the support needed online if they can do this for face-to-face classes? First, I’m not sure they do provide adequate support for students in large first year classes, but I’m not in a position to judge. But in online courses in subject domains where discussion is important, where qualitative judgements and decisions have to be made by students and instructors, where knowledge needs to be developed and structured, in other words in any field where the learning requires more than the transmission and repetition of information, then students need to be able to interact with an instructor that has a deep understanding of the subject area. For this reason, I am more than happy to hire adjunct faculty to teach online, but not TAs in general (although there will always be exceptions). Furthermore this kind of teaching and learning (‘the learning that matters most’) is very difficult to do with a very large instructor/student ratio, although with good design and faculty training, we could possibly push numbers higher than 1/40.

One possible solution

I’m not sure there is an easy solution to this problem. Whether online or face-to-face, large numbers of students per instructor limits what is possible pedagogically.

Furthermore, in my view online learning works better for some kinds of students than others. Students in their first year of university or college are not the best target group. They are often young, have little experience of independent learning, lack confidence or discipline in their study habits, and indeed expect to be in a face-to-face teaching environment and want the social and cultural milieu that a campus provides. What we should be doing though in their first and second year is gradually introducing them to online components so that they slowly develop the discipline and skills required for successful online learning. This still doesn’t resolve the issue though of very large classes.

So here’s my suggestion for these large introductory courses of 1,000 students or more (this is not new – see the National Center for Academic Transformation‘s course redesign):

  • create a team to design, develop and deliver the course. The team will include a senior professor, several adjunct professors, and two or three TAs, plus an instructional designer and web/multimedia designer.
  • The senior professor acts as a teaching consultant, responsible for the overall design of the course, hiring and supervising the work of the adjuncts/TAs, and the assessment strategy/questions and rubrics. This though is done in consultation with the rest of the team.
  • Most content is provided online.
  • Students work in groups of 30, and each of the adjuncts is responsible for several student groups. Students do both individual and group work (e.g. projects, problem-solving),
  • Students participate in ongoing online discussion forums, under the moderation of an adjunct or TA
  • The senior professor meets for one hour a week three times face-to-face or synchronously with  a group of 30 students; this brings the professor in face-to-face contact with just over 1,000 students a semester; adjuncts where possible meet once a week with a group on campus or synchronously.
  • Adjuncts and TAs mark assignments, and the senior professor monitors/calibrates the marking between instructors
  • Now think of what could happen if this course was shared with other universities. Savings could be made on course development, but the delivery of the course would still need instructors at the other universities. So there would be some economies of scale from sharing, but not a very large saving, because the development cost is a small proportion of the overall cost. This does not mean that institutions shouldn’t co-operate and share resources, but this will not bring the large economies of scale that are often claimed for sharing online courses.

Whatever detailed design is done, these large courses should have a clear business model to work with, which basically provides an overall budget for the course, that includes the cost of tenure track and adjunct faculty and TAs, and takes account of the students numbers (more students, more budgeted money), but allowing the senior professor to build the team as best as possible within that budget.

The two elephants in the room

The above scenario works with the current system of allocating resources to different level of courses. But there are two factors that lead to the very large class sizes in first and second year that no-one really wants to talk about:

Elephant in room

  • the starvation of first and second year students of teaching resources; senior faculty concentrate more on upper level courses, and want to keep these class sizes smaller. As a consequence first and second year students suffer
  • teaching subsidizes research: too often tuition revenues get filtered off into supporting research activities. The most obvious case is that if teachers spent more time teaching and less doing research, there would be more faculty available for teaching. Teaching loads for experienced, tenured faculty are often quite light and as stated above, focused on small upper level classes.

Do a simple calculation: divide the total number of students by the number of tenure track instructors  in your institution, and that will give you an overall average instructor/student ratio for the university as a whole. So if you have 40,000 students and 2,000 full-time instructors , you have an overall instructor/student ratio of 1:20. However, then deduct 40% of their time for research, so that equals 1,200 full time equivalent, or a ratio of one instructor for 33.3 students. Then deduct another 20% of their time for administration and public service and that leaves 800 FTEs, or a ratio of one instructor for every 50 students. Even with this fairly generous allowance of 60% of their time for other activities, and WITHOUT adjuncts or TAs, in this large university there should be enough instructors to teach without having the absurdly large first and second year classes commonly found in such large universities. Add in adjuncts and TAs, and this ratio drops even further.

So don’t expect online learning to solve this problem on its own.

Your turn

I would particularly like to hear from the relatively rare instructors who have taught large classes both face-to-face and online. Do you share my concern about using TAs for distance or hybrid courses?

I’d also like to hear in general about experiences with TAs or adjunct/contract instructors as well on this topic.

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.