March 18, 2018

What I would like to see in online learning in 2018: 1: a theory of classroom affordances

Prediction is difficult, especially about the future, so I won’t waste your time in suggesting what technologies are likely to take off in 2018. Instead, I’d rather focus on what I would like to see happen in 2018.

A research-based theory of classroom affordances

a. The challenge

With more and more teaching and learning occurring online, every instructor is now faced with the question: what is best done face-to-face and what is best done online? From a student’s point of view, what can the institution offer educationally on campus that they cannot get online? I am suggesting that we do not yet have a sufficiently powerful research-based theory that can realistically answer these questions.

b. What we know

Those of us working in online learning are well aware of the assumption made by many instructors that the classroom experience is inherently superior to any form of online learning. We are also aware of how often this assumption has proved wrong, with for instance student-student and student-instructor interactions online often being just as or more effective than in classrooms.

With the development of video, simulations, games-based learning and remote labs, even forms of experiential learning such as scientific and engineering experiments, manual operations and familiarity with tools can be developed as effectively online as in labs, workshops or classrooms. 

However, the differences between the effectiveness of online learning and face-to-face learning usually are dependent as much on the context or the circumstances of learning as on inherent qualities of what is to be taught or the medium of teaching. It is clear there are some circumstances where we now know online learning is preferable to face-to-face teaching (e.g. where learners have difficulty accessing physical classrooms, either because they are working or because it means a two hour commute) and where face-to-face teaching is more practical than online learning (e.g. where students need to handle and use heavy equipment). 

c. The need for a theory – and research questions

Nevertheless, there are other circumstances where either it doesn’t matter in terms of learning effectiveness whether it is done face-to-face or online, or where indeed there are significant differences in certain circumstances, but we don’t yet know what these are because we have not tested or challenged them.

So we need research-based evidence that can answer the following research question:

Under what conditions and for what purposes is it better to learn in a face-to-face context rather than online? And when and how should they be used to complement each other when both are readily available?

Can we produce a theory from such evidence that would enable a set of rules or criteria that instructors could use to make such a decision? What research would be needed to develop or test such a theory?

d. Is there no current theory we could use or build on?

There are plenty of theories of how learning best takes place¹, plenty of theories that are used to support best practices in face-to-face teaching², and similarly a few theories that suggest best practices in online learning and teaching³. What we don’t have is theory about the differences (if any) between face-to-face and online learning in specific circumstances or conditions, backed by reliable research evidence, when both are available in practice.

One potentially promising line of enquiry could be built around the research on the pedagogical affordances of different media: what kinds of learning can specific media support or help develop? If we treat face-to-face teaching as a medium, what are its pedagogical affordances: what can it do better than other media? (see Norman, 1988 and Chapter 7 of Teaching in a Digital Age)

However, the issue in deciding what to do online or face-to-face is usually not only pedagogical but as much to do with cost, instructor convenience, and a lack of imagination of how things could be done differently. Also the context is critically important. An effective theory will need to incorporate all these factors.

Note that most research on differences between online learning and face-to-face teaching at a meta level results in no significant differences overall. The factors or conditions that lead to differences often cancel each other out and are ‘controlled’ or eliminated from the studies to ensure ‘comparability.’ Thus – surprise, surprise – good quality online learning could be better than poor quality face-to-face teaching, and vice versa. Thus the conditions in which each is used is essential for evaluating their effectiveness. Furthermore these meta studies are looking at replacing face-to-face teaching with online learning or more recently blended learning, not at what the unique teaching characteristics of each mode may be, and in what conditions.

However it is precisely these ‘conditions’ that we should be researching to answer the research questions outlined above. When does online learning work better than face-to-face teaching and vice-versa? In other words, do not assume that it does not matter whether we teach online or face-to-face because the research shows no statistical differences, but instead let’s focus on identifying those specific conditions that actually do lead to significant differences, especially when both are equally available to instructors and students.

e. What about the SECTIONS model?

The SECTIONS model I have proposed in my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, provides a set of questions that instructors should ask before finalising decisions on the choice of a particular medium or technology for teaching, partly based on their pedagogical affordances (T for Teaching and I for Interaction) but also on other factors such as student access, costs, and security. If we think of face-to-face teaching as just another teaching medium, could not the SECTIONS model be applied to answering the research questions in 1. c above? 

This could be one starting point perhaps for such a theory, but it will need much more research to test and validate it. In Chapter 7, I looked at all media except face-to-face teaching, because I was unaware of relevant research that could identify the unique features of face-to-face teaching when online learning could also be used.

Furthermore, face-to-face teaching is not monolithic, but can vary enormously – as can other media – and also can incorporate other media, so probably more research is needed to establish the conditions where face-to-face teaching is superior. 

f. What about Teaching in a Digital Age?

If you have read my online open textbook, you might think that this provides a theoretical basis for choosing between face-to-face and online learning. Certainly it does discuss a number of different educational theories and looks at several different teaching methods. It also suggests guidelines based on research and best practices for choosing between different modes of delivery and different media (except face-to-face teaching as a medium).

But the book is not written as a particular theory of teaching and does not provide enough theory to identify what to do regarding the ‘either online or face-to-face when I can use both’ decision within a specific teaching context. It is more a set of guidelines derived from existing theory and best practice. Someone else needs to move this work further.

g. Next steps

  1. Acknowledge and have recognized the significance of the research questions. This is an extremely important issue for research in education. We know from the National Survey of Online and Distance Learning in Canadian Post-secondary Education that the move to blended and hybrid learning is growing rapidly. Every instructor will soon face the question of what should be done in class and what online, but we have few answers at the moment that go beyond beliefs or prejudice;
  2. build these research questions into doctoral programs in education, so we have a growing body of evidence on the research questions and students and supervisors thinking about the issue and developing hypotheses and research evidence to support them;
  3. develop a national program of research into this issue so that there is a significant mass of study and research that will likely lead to some practical and useful answers in different subject domains.

I should make it clear I have no intention or wish to lead this research because I am trying to reduce my work commitments as I grow older. It is my privilege to pose such questions but not my responsibility to answer them! I just hope though someone else will pick up the gauntlet I have thrown down.

Over to you

This is meant as a ‘thought piece’ to stimulate thinking around a particular issue that I think is important. However, you may have different views on this that I hope you will share, in particular:

  1. Is this really an important issue? Do we really need research on this? Why not let instructors experiment and find out what works best for them without the need for any formal research?
  2. Is the question: ‘What should be done online and what face-to-face under what conditions?’ a question suitable for research? Are there other, better questions that should be asked?
  3. What existing theories could help with this question? Do we need yet another theory – or just a few more hypotheses that can be tested within existing theoretical frameworks? If so which one(s)?


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


Norman, Donald (1988). The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic BooksISBN 978-0-465-06710-7.

How to keep up with new technology in online learning

I was recently asked if I would answer a couple of questions from students in Royal Roads University’s course ‘Leveraging Technology in Higher Education’ in their MA in Higher Education Administration and Leadership.

With the permission of their instructor, Irwin de Vries, and the students, I am sharing my response to the two questions they raised.

Question 1

1. How can an institution make sense of all the new developments, such as what the NMC highlights every year, and incorporate that successfully into their institutional planning?

What a good question! It’s a question I personally struggle with. One could spend every waking moment these days trying to keep up with the latest apps, devices, and waves of tech innovation. Indeed, the fear of not being able to do this forced me into premature retirement – how could I keep up with everything and still play golf whenever I wanted?  (Golf won.)

However, it turns out that while the technology is forever changing, there are a number of ‘coping’ strategies, based on more fundamental principles or theories that do not change so rapidly.

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future

First, the New Media Consortium has a poor track record in accurately predicting technology trends in higher education, mainly in terms of timelines (far too optimistic regarding the application of a particularly technology) but also often in terms of whether a technology in fact turns out to be useful for teaching or learning. Go back for instance to their 2008 report: grassroots video (iTunes, Möbius, etc.), the collaborative web (Google Docs), data mashups, within one or two years, etc.

These tools are often very useful outside of the teaching/learning process but don’t necessarily adapt easily for teaching and learning. More often these tools might have been useful but were not used or were ignored by instructors because they did not meet the immediate needs of the instructors (or the perceived needs of the students).

Institutional vs individual choice

Second, institutional decision-making is based mainly around IT network technology, classroom equipment, and ‘universally used’ commercially licensed software or technology such as word processing (which is one reason why LMSs and webinar technology are so heavily used – the institution pays for and maintains them), but emerging technologies these days are more end-user focused and low cost, so technologies are now being adopted and decided by individual instructors and especially by students, rather than the institution. These low cost technologies tend to be based on mobile phones or tablets and free or low-cost apps. It is only when a technology really takes off in teaching does it make sense for the institution to ‘block buy’ a license if it is a commercial product.

More importantly, it doesn’t make sense for institutions to make institution-wide decisions for most teaching technologies, partly because of wide variations in subject discipline needs, but mainly because with constantly emerging technologies, it’s better for the grassroots instructors and students to adopt as appropriate, hence ensuring more innovation in teaching and learning.

For instructors, usually technology adoption enables them to solve a teaching problem, such as not enough interaction with students, students not attending in bad weather or with long commutes, difficult concepts to teach abstractly, etc. Since the teaching problems often vary from instructor to instructor, it is best to leave such decisions to them. However, instructors can be ‘nudged’ by instructional designers/learning technology support staff, who should be constantly looking for potential new applications of technology, and for faculty who may be interested in trying them.

Lastly, for instructors or instructional designers who want to make a fully considered decision about the best choice or mix of educational media, there is my own SECTIONS model which attempts to identify key factors that should influence choice of media. However, even if this approach is used, in most cases it will be influenced by an instructor’s gut feeling or intuition about what will work best within a particular context -which is more likely to be right than wrong.

The SECTIONS model

The one exception I would make to the decentralization approach to technology selection is where an institution has a strong strategy or plan for digital learning. In this case, part of the strategy might be to combine the choice of a technology (such as tablets) with a plan for faculty development in how to use the technology, based on a clear pedagogical approach. This allows a large step forward to be made. The Justice Institute of BC’s digital learning strategy for the University of Guadalajara in Mexico is a good example. This helps the majority of faculty with the adoption of technology in a consistent and high quality manner. In this case the strategy depended on a clear pedagogical basis for the choice of technology made at an institutional level. However, this is the exception rather than the rule.


As with most educational decisions, context is all important. Instructors and to some extent students are closest to the action and hence are usually in a better position to make an appropriate choice than an institution trying to cover all possible positions.

However, there are guidelines that can be adopted to avoid being swayed by the media hype over the latest technology. Does it solve a problem I’m having? Will it help students to develop the knowledge and skills they will need in the future? Is it easy to use? Is it cheap or free for students? Not rocket science, by any means, but it is surprising how little such obvious questions are asked, especially by the media, when a new technology appears on the horizon.

My response to the second question will follow.

Recorded webinar on use of media in higher education

The SECTIONS model for choosing media

The SECTIONS model for choosing media

The second of four webinars on my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, was ‘broadcast’ last Tuesday (3 November 2015) by Contact North. In this webinar, I discussed the issues covered in Chapters 6 and 7 on Understanding Technology in Education and Pedagogical Differences between Media‘.

The webinar was recorded and is now available for downloading from here.

As well as a brief summary of the main topics, the webinar also provides my personal views on these topics, as well as answers to a range of challenging questions from the 45 participants, including participants from Argentina, Australia, Nigeria, South Africa, the U.K. and the USA. If you have been reading these two chapters, the webinar is a very useful extra resource.

The recording of the first webinar in the series, Teaching with Technology – How to Use the Best Practice Models and Options’, mainly discusses the main issues raised in the first five chapters in the book, in particular different teaching methods for teaching in a digital age. That webinar is also available for downloading from here.

The third webinar in the series, Making the Choice – How to Choose between Online, Blended or Campus-Based Delivery for Effective Learning, covering chapters 9 and 10 of the book, will be on Monday, November 23, 2015 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time, North America (same time as Toronto/New York). To register, click here.

The final webinar will be on December 3, discussing how to ensure quality in teaching in a digital age. After that I will be resolving the crises in the Middle East and Afghanistan, which are simpler in camparison.

Nine questions to ask when choosing modes of delivery


Figure 10.5.2 Can the study of haematology be done online?

Figure 10.6.1 Can the study of haematology be done online?


This is the fifth of five posts on choosing modes of delivery for Chapter 10 of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

The previous four posts were:

So now we come to the denouement! (Exciting, eh!). In this post (spoiler alert) I will suggest a methodology and a set of questions to ask in order to reach a decision for any particular course or program.

A suggested method for deciding between online and face-to-face delivery on solely pedagogic grounds

The standard work on this is by Dietmar Kennepohl, of Athabasca University (Kennepohl, 2010). I have drawn heavily on his work here, although the example given is mine.

The most pragmatic way to go about this is to trust the knowledge and experience of subject experts who are willing to approach this question in an open-minded way, especially if they are willing to work with instructional designers or media producers on an equal footing. So here is a process for determining when to go online and when not to, on purely pedagogical grounds, for a course that is being designed from scratch in a blended delivery mode.

I will choose a subject area at random: haematology (the study of blood), in which I am not an expert. But here’s what I would suggest if I was working with a subject specialist in this area:

Step 1: identify the main instructional approach.

This is discussed in some detail in Chapters 3 to 4, but here are the kinds of decision to be considered:


Table 10.6.2 Which teaching approach?

Table 10.6.2 Which teaching approach?


This should lead to a general plan or approach to teaching that identifies the teaching methods to be used in some detail. In the example of haematology, the instructor wants to take a more constructivist approach, with students developing a critical approach to the subject matter. In particular, she wants to relate the course specifically to certain issues, such as security in handling and storing blood, factors in blood contamination, and developing student skills in analysis and interpretation of blood samples.

Step 2. Identify the main content to be covered

and in particular any presentational requirements of the content, i.e. what do they need to know in this course? In haematology, this will mean understanding the chemical composition of blood, what its functions are, how it circulates through the body, what external factors may weaken its integrity or functionality, etc. In terms of presentation, dynamic activities need to be explained, and representing key concepts in colour will almost certainly be valuable. Observations of blood samples under many degrees of magnitude will be essential, i.e. the use of a microscope.

Step 3. Identify the main skills to be developed during the course

what they must be able to do with the content they are learning. This will probably include the ability to analyse the components of blood, such as the glucose and insulin levels, to interpret the results, and to present a report.

Let’s call Steps 2 and 3 the key learning objectives for the course.

Step 4: Analyse the most appropriate mode for each learning objective

Then create a table as in Figure 10.6.3


Figure 10.5.4 Allocating mode of delivery

Figure 10.6.3 Allocating mode of delivery


In this example, the instructor is keen to move as much as possible online, so she can spend as much time as possible with students, dealing with laboratory work and answering questions about theory and practice. She was able to find some excellent online videos of several of the key interactions between blood and other factors, and she was also able to find some suitable graphics and simple animations of the molecular structure of blood which she could adapt, as well as creating with the help of a graphics designer her own graphics. Indeed, she found she had to create relatively little new material or content herself.

The instructional designer also found some software that enabled students to design their own laboratory set-up for certain elements of blood testing which involved combining virtual equipment, entering data values and running an experiment.  However, there were still some skills that needed to be done hands-on in the laboratory, such as inserting glucose and using a ‘real’ microscope to analyse the chemical components of blood. However, the online material enabled the instructor to spend more time in the lab with students.

This is a crude method of determining the balance between face-to-face teaching and online learning for a blended learning course, but it least it’s a start. A similar kind of process was used in the early days of the Open University, when science faculty worked with BBC producers and instructional designers to decide between the use of text, audio, television, home experimental kits and a compulsory residential campus-based laboratory component for the foundation science program. The desired content and skills were identified then allocated across the different media. Because the residential component was the most expensive and the least flexible for students, the aim was to move as much as possible to the other modes, in order to keep to a minimum the residential component. This resulted in a highly successful program which won high praise and awards in science teaching at the time. In fact the Open University no longer has a compulsory residential component for its science courses.

10.6.2 Analyse the resources available

There is one more consideration besides the type of learners, the overall teaching method, and making decisions based on pedagogical grounds, and that is to consider the resources available.

This will need to take place in parallel with steps 1-4 above. In particular, the key resource is the time of the instructor. Careful consideration is needed about how best to spend the limited time available to this instructor. It may be all very well to identify a series of videos as the best way to capture some of the procedures for blood testing, but if these videos do not already exist in a format that can be freely used, shooting video specially for this one course may not be justified, in terms of either the time the instructor would need to spend on video production, or the costs of making the videos with a professional crew.

The availability and skill level of learning technology support from the institution will also be a critical factor. Can the instructor get the support of an instructional designer and media producers? If not, it is likely that much more will be done face-to-face than online, unless the instructor is already very experienced in online learning.

Are there resources available to buy out the instructor for one semester to spend time on course design? Many institutions have development funds for innovative teaching and learning, and there may be external grants or creating new open educational resources, for instance. This will increase the practicality and hence the likelihood of more of the teaching moving online.

We shall see that as more and more learning material becomes available as open educational resources, teachers and instructors will be freed up from mainly content presentation to focusing on more interaction with students, both online and face to face. However, although open educational resources are becoming increasingly available, they may not exist in the topics required or they may not be of adequate quality in terms of either content or production standards.

10.6.3 Questions for consideration in choosing modes of delivery

In summary, here are some questions to consider, when designing a course from scratch:

1. What kind of learners are likely to take this course? What are their needs? Which mode(s) of delivery will be most appropriate to these kinds of learners? Could I reach more or different types of learners by choosing a particular mode of delivery?

2. What is my view of how learners can best learn on this course? What is my preferred method(s) of teaching to facilitate that kind of learning on this course?

3. What is the main content (facts, theory, data, processes) that needs to be covered on this course?

4. What are the main skills that learners will need to develop on this course? What are the ways in which they can develop/practice these skills?

5. How can technology help with the presentation of content on this course?

6. How can technology help with the development of skills on this course?

7. When I list the content and skills to be taught, which of these could be taught:

  • fully online
  • partly online and partly face-to-face
  • can only be taught face-to-face?

8. What resources do I have available for this course in terms of:

  • professional help from instructional designers and media producers
  • possible sources of funding for release time and media production
  • good quality open educational resources

9. In the light of the answers to all these questions, which mode of delivery makes most sense?


1. If anyone’s a haematologist out there, first forgive me, then tell me how to make it better. (I chose haematology, because I was asked when giving a presentation how would I apply this method to haematology – I had to think quickly on my feet.)

2. Would this method work for you? If not, how are decisions made in your institution about which mode to use? In particular, would you have to go to an unrealistic level of detail to do this for a whole course?

Next up

Open education and open educational resources.


Kennepohl, D. (2010) Accessible Elements: Teaching Science Online and at a Distance Athabasca AB: Athabasca University Press


Deciding on modes of delivery

This is the first of a series of five posts that look at the following:

  • deciding whether a whole course or program should be offered wholly face-to-face, as a blended course,  or wholly online
  • if a course is to be offered in a blended mode, how to decide on what’s done face-to-face, and what online.

This will form part of Chapter 10 on modes of delivery for my online textbook Teaching in a Digital Age.

Today I start by looking at the decisions instructors are now facing regarding what kind of course to offer. The following post will look at the problems in comparing delivery modes, then there will be three more posts on making decisions.

In Chapters 8 and 9, the use of media incorporated into a particular course or program was explored. In this chapter, the focus is on deciding whether a whole course or program should be offered partly or wholly online, and to what extent the course or program should be restricted to registered students or open to anyone.

Decisions, decisions

Online learning, blended learning, hybrid learning, flexible learning, open learning and distance learning are all terms that are often used inter-changeably, but there are significant differences in meaning. More importantly, these forms of education, once considered somewhat esoteric and out of the mainstream of conventional education, are increasingly taking on greater significance and in some cases becoming mainstream themselves.

We saw in Chapter 1, Section 7 that in recent years there has been:

  • major growth in the number of fully online course enrolments, now constituting almost one third of post-secondary enrolments in the USA;
  • a move towards blended learning, where on-campus students combine classroom or lab teaching with online work;
  • the development of the flipped classroom, where students study a video recorded lecture online then come to class for interaction with instructors and teaching assistants.
  • growing interest in developing and delivering MOOCs, which are open to anyone but do not directly lead to specific qualifications other than a badge or certificate
  • growing availability of open educational resources and open textbooks.

These developments open up a whole new range of decisions for instructors. Every instructor now needs to decide:

  • what kind of course or program should I be offering?
  • what factors should influence this decision?
  • what is the role of classroom teaching when students can now increasingly study most things online?
  • if content is increasingly open and free, how does that affect my role as an instructor?
  • when should I create my own material and when should I use open resources?
  • should I open up my teaching to anyone, and if so, under what circumstances?

Each of these questions will be addressed in this chapter.

The continuum of technology-based learning

We saw in Chapter 1, Section 7 that there is a variety of ways in which online learning is being used in education, and as teachers and instructors become more familiar and confident with online learning and new technologies, we will see more innovative methods developing all the time. At the time of writing though it is possible to identify at least the following modes of delivery:

  • classroom teaching with no technology at all (which is very rare these days).
  • blended learning, which encompasses a wide variety of designs, including:
    • technology-enhanced learning, or technology used as classroom aids; a typical example would be the use of Powerpoint slides and/or clickers
    • the use of a learning management system to support classroom teaching, for storing learning materials, set readings and perhaps online discussion
    • the use of lecture capture for flipped classrooms
    • one semester on a residential-type campus and two semesters online (the Royal Roads University model)
    • a shortened time on campus spent on campus hands-on experience or training preceded or followed by a concentrated time spent studying online (an example is apprenticeship training for mature students at Vancouver Community College, or what UBC calls the compressed classroom experience)
    • hybrid or flexible learning requiring the redesign of teaching so that students can do the majority of their learning online, coming to campus only for very specific face-to-face teaching, such as lab or hands-on practical work, that cannot be done satisfactorily online (for examples, see below.)
  • fully online learning with no classroom or on-campus teaching, which is one form of distance education, including:
    • courses for credit, which will usually cover the same content, skills and assessment as a campus-based version,
    • non-credit courses offered only online, such as courses for continuing professional education.
    • fully open courses, such as MOOCs
    • open educational resources, which either instructors or students can access to support teaching and learning

There is an important development within blended learning that deserves special mention, and that is the total re-design of campus-based classes that takes greater advantage of the potential of technology, which I call hybrid learning, with online learning combined with focused small group face-to-face interactions or mixing online and physical lab experiences. In such designs, the amount of face-to-face contact time is usually reduced, for instance from three classes a week to one, to allow more time for students to study online.

In hybrid learning the whole learning experience is re-designed, with a transformation of teaching on campus built around the use of technology. For instance:

  • Carol Twigg at the National Center for Academic Transformation has for many years worked with universities and colleges to redesign usually large lecture courses programs to improve learning and reduce costs through the use technology. This program has been running successfully since 1999.
  • Virginia Tech many years ago created a successful program for first and second year math teaching built around 24 x 7 computer-assisted learning supported by ‘roving’ instructors and teaching assistants (Robinson and Moore, 2006).
  • The University of British Columbia launched in 2013 what it calls a flexible learning initiative focused on developing, delivering, and evaluating learning experiences that promote effective and dramatic improvements in student achievement. Flexible learning enables pedagogical and logistical flexibility so that students have more choice in their learning opportunities, including when, where, and what they want to learn.

Thus there is a continuum of technology-based learning:


Figure 10.1.2 The continuum of technology-based teaching

Figure 10.2 The continuum of technology-based teaching


 (adapted from Bates and Poole, 2003)

Thus ‘blended learning’ can mean minimal rethinking or redesign of classroom teaching, such as the use of classroom aids, or complete redesign as in flexibly designed courses, which aim to identify the unique pedagogical characteristics of face-to-face teaching, with online learning providing flexible access for the rest of the learning.

Over to you

Other than recognising the increasingly significant choices that instructors now need to make regarding the design of courses, and particularly the range of blended learning designs that are emerging, there is nothing particularly new or challenging in this section, but it is necessary as preparation for what comes. However:

1. Is this classification of different modes of delivery helpful? If not how would you do it?

2. How is it decided in your institution whether a course is to be blended or online? Is this the personal choice of the instructor, is it a program decision or does the institution decide? What are the guidelines or criteria for making this decision?

3. I know the U of Ottawa and UBC have institutional plans for ‘flexible’ learning/blended learning. Any others? How are they going?

Next up

A real beauty: comparing delivery modes.