October 23, 2017

Webinar on choosing modes of delivery and the role of face-to-face teaching in an online world

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

On Tuesday I gave another in the Contact North series of webinars designed around my open, online textbook for faculty and instructors, Teaching in a Digital Age.

This focused on Chapter 9 of the book, but with a different twist from last year’s webinar on the same topic, this year’s webinar focused particularly on the move to blended learning, and the need to redefine the role of campus-based teaching when so much can now be done online.

You can download a recording of the webinar from here: https://contactnorth.webex.com/contactnorth/lsr.php?RCID=760bef531b9a8fcf59f5480dd57401ff. However, make sure you have the WebEx ARF player downloaded in order to play the recording – see the download instructions on the above web page if the ‘play’ button doesn’t load the recording.

Also note that the presentation doesn’t start until two minutes into the recording because the introduction was accidentally muted.

 

Nine questions to ask when choosing modes of delivery

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Figure 10.5.2 Can the study of haematology be done online?

Figure 10.6.1 Can the study of haematology be done online?

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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:

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Table 10.6.2 Which teaching approach?

Table 10.6.2 Which teaching approach?

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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

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Figure 10.5.4 Allocating mode of delivery

Figure 10.6.3 Allocating mode of delivery

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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?

Feedback

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.

Reference

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

 

Desperately seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of face-to-face teaching

Figure 10.5.1 The magic of the campus? Image: © Cambridge Advanced Studies Program, Cambridge University, U.K., 2015

Figure 10.5.1 The magic of the campus?
Image: © Cambridge Advanced Studies Program, Cambridge University, U.K., 2015

This is the fourth of five posts on choosing modes of delivery for my online open textbook Teaching in a Digital Age. The post questions the specific advantages of face-to-face teaching over online teaching.

Identifying the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching in a digital world

Sanjay Sarma, Director of MIT’s Office of Digital Learning, made an attempt at MIT’s LINC 2013 conference to identify the difference between campus-based and online learning, and in particular MOOCs. He made the distinction between MOOCs as open courses available to anyone, reflecting the highest level of knowledge in particular subject areas, and the ‘magic’ of the on-campus experience, which he claimed is distinctly different from the online experience. He argued that it is difficult to define or pin down the magic that takes place on-campus, but referred to ‘in-the-corridor’ conversations between faculty and staff, hands-on engineering with other students outside of lectures and scheduled labs, and the informal learning that takes place between students in close proximity to one another. Not mentioned but implicit was also the very high standard of students admitted to MIT, and the impact of continuous contact on campus between student and professor, none of which of course is available to MOOC students.

This is a useful starting point in trying to identify the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching. In doing so, it may be helpful to identify whether or not this can or has been done equally well online. Sharma makes the following claims for the uniqueness of face-to-face teaching, or what he called ‘the magic of the campus’:

  • informal, random conversations between students
  • informal, random conversations between faculty and students
  • lab work with access outside school hours

There are a couple of other characteristics that Sharma hinted at but did not mention explicitly in his presentation:

  • the very high standard of the students admitted to MIT, who ‘push’ each other to even higher standards
  • the importance of the social networks developed by students at MIT that provide opportunities later in life.

I leave it to you to judge whether these are unique features of face-to-face teaching. Those of us who have taught extensively online are aware that there are also opportunities online for informal, random conversations between students, and also between students and faculty, through online discussion forums, Facebook or other media. The issue is: are they of the same quality?

Easy and frequent access to laboratories is a much more serious contender for uniqueness, as this is difficult to provide online, although there is an increasing number of developments in remote labs and the use of simulations.

In the absence of specific research on the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching, we can look at some of the more general characteristics of media discussed in Chapter 8, and see where face-to-face teaching fits. Table 10.5.1 is my personal attempt at analysis along these dimensions.

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Table 10.2.1 Media characteristics of face-to-face teaching

Table 10.5.1 Media characteristics of face-to-face teaching

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  • This level of analysis unfortunately does not get us very far. These are not necessarily unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching. Discussion can be managed just as easily online, and social media may provide even richer means of networking, for instance. It doesn’t really get to unique pedagogical advantages in the way we have seen with text, audio, video, computing and social media.

In the end, an analysis of the unique pedagogical advantages of face-to-face teaching over the use of other media all comes down to personal experience and opinions, and even more so, personal experience strongly influenced by working within one mode rather than another. We do not have good guidelines for distinguishing between what is best done face-to-face on purely pedagogical criteria, and we certainly have no research on this. Indeed, it would be hard to design such research. For instance let’s suppose that somehow we found that face-to-face conversations are more academically challenging than online conversations between students. But if the students  who want to take this course cannot get to campus, what’s the value of this finding to them? Even more likely, we would find that under the right circumstances, either mode can work just as well. The important thing then is to ensure the right circumstances are present for each mode of delivery. In other words, student needs and the available resources are going to be much stronger discriminators in determining whether to use face-to-face teaching than pedagogical advantages – unless someone can come up with evidence-based, convincing arguments for the uniqueness of face-to-face teaching..

Nevertheless, if for other reasons the decision is made to choose blended learning as the mode of delivery, and this is likely to become more and more common, we are still left with the very practical dilemma of deciding what, in a blended learning context, is best done online and what face-to-face. I will suggest a method to do this in the next section.

Feedback

Now this is where I really need input, especially from enthusiasts for face-to-face teaching. I have found no convincing evidence-based research that points to clear advantages for face-to-face teaching over online teaching. I’ve taught quite a bit in classrooms across a relatively wide range of ages, but most of my teaching in the last twenty years has been mainly online at a post-secondary level. I really find it difficult to identify many areas outside lab and practical work where there is a clear advantage for face-to-face teaching. I’m not implying there are not any advantages; I just want them identified, and I suspect these are likely to be very subject specific.

So given what we know can be done very well online, such as online discussion, presentation of content, and many areas of intellectual skills development, what are the unique pedagogical characteristics of face-to-face teaching, what can it do much better than online learning?

Next up

A methodology for determining what to do face to face, and what to do online, in a blended learning context. So this post and the next – indeed all five on this topic – really need to be read together.

Challenging the supremacy of face-to-face teaching

What makes classroom teaching pedagogically unique?

What makes classroom teaching pedagogically unique?

This is the second of five posts on choosing appropriate modes of delivery, part of Chapter 10 of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. The first looked at the wide range of options now available to instructors, from face-to-face teaching to blended to fully online. This post looks at what we know both from best practices and research about the pedagogical differences, and suggests that no one mode of delivery is inherently better than another. What we need to know are the conditions or circumstances that are needed for the mode to succeed.

Many surveys have found that a majority of faculty still believe that online learning or distance education is inevitably inferior in quality to classroom teaching. In fact, there is no scientifically-based evidence to support this opinion. At the same time, although the technology keeps changing, we can learn a great deal from earlier developments in distance education. Fully online learning is, after all, just another version of distance education.

The influence of distance education on online learning

A great deal has been written about distance education (see, for instance, Wedemeyer, 1981; Keegan, 1990; Holmberg, 1995; Moore and Kearsley, 1996; Peters, 2002; Bates, 2005; Evans et al., 2008) but in concept, the idea is quite simple: students study in their own time, at the place of their choice (home, work or learning centre), and without face-to-face contact with a teacher. However, students are usually ‘connected’, usually today through the Internet, with an instructor, adjunct faculty or tutor who provides learner support and student assessment. (For another definition of distance education – especially relevant to economically developing countries – see Commonwealth of Learning.)

Distance education has been around a very long time. It could be argued that in the Christian religion, St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians was an early form of distance education (53-57 AD). The first distance education degree was offered by correspondence by the University of London (UK) in 1858. Students were mailed a list of readings, and took the same examination as the regular on-campus students. If students could afford it, they hired a private tutor, but the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens called it the People’s University, because it provided access to higher education to students from less affluent backgrounds. The program still continues to this day, but is now called the University of London International Programmes, with more than 50,000 students worldwide. (As an aside, the University of London was primarily established in 1838 to set a common examination system between its different colleges, thus separating teaching and assessment – perhaps the earliest example of ‘disaggregation’ in education.)

In North America, historically many of the initial land-grant universities, such as Penn State University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of New Mexico in the USA, and Memorial University, University of Saskatchewan and the University of British Columbia in Canada, had state- or province-wide responsibilities, As a result these institutions have a long history of offering distance education programs, mainly as continuing education for farmers, teachers, and health professionals scattered across the whole state or province. These programs have now been expanded to cover undergraduate and professional masters students. Australia is another country with an extensive history of both k-12 and post-secondary distance education.

Qualifications received from most of these universities carry the same recognition as degrees taken on campus. For instance, the University of British Columbia, which has been offering distance education programs since 1936, makes no distinction on student transcripts between courses taken at a distance and those taken on campus, as both kinds of students take the same examinations.

Another feature of distance education, pioneered by the British Open University in the 1970s, but later adopted and adapted by North American  universities that offered distance programs, is a course design process, based on the ADDIE model, but specially adapted to serve students learning at a distance. This places a heavy emphasis on defined learning outcomes, production of high quality multimedia learning materials, planned student activities and engagement, and strong learner support, even at a distance. As a result, universities that offered distance education programs were well placed for the move into online learning in the 1990s. These universities have found that in general, students taking the online programs do almost as well as the on-campus students (course completion rates are usually within 5-10 per cent of the on-campus students – see Ontario, 2011), which is a little surprising as the distance students often have full-time jobs and families.

It is important to acknowledge the long and distinguished pedigree of distance education from internationally recognised, high quality institutions, because commercial diploma mills, especially in the USA, have given distance education an unjustified reputation of being of lower quality. As with all teaching, distance education can be done well or badly. However, where distance education has been professionally designed and delivered by high quality public institutions, it has proved to be very successful, meeting the needs of many working adults, students in remote areas who would otherwise be unable to access education on a full-time basis, or on-campus students wanting to fit in an extra course or with part-time jobs whose schedule clashes with their lecture schedule. However, universities, colleges and even schools have been able to do this only by meeting high quality design standards.

At the same time, there has also been a small but very influential number of campus-based teachers and instructors who quite independently of distance education have been developing best practices in online or computer-supported learning. These include Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff who were experimenting with online or blended learning as early as the late 1970s at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Marlene Scardamalia and Paul Bereiter at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, and Linda Harasim at Simon Fraser University, who all focused particularly on online collaborative learning and knowledge construction within a campus or school environment.

There is also plenty of evidence that teachers and instructors in many schools, colleges and universities new to online learning have not adopted these best practices, instead merely transferring lecture-based classroom practice to blended and online learning, often with poor or even disastrous results.

 What the research tells us

There have been thousands of studies comparing face-to-face teaching to teaching with a wide range of different technologies, such as televised lectures, computer-based learning, and online learning, or comparing face-to-face teaching with distance education. With regard to online learning there have been several meta-studies, that is, studies that have combined the results of many ‘well-conducted scientific’ studies, i.e. studies that used the matched comparisons or quasi-experimental method (Means et al., 2011; Barnard et al., 2014). Nearly all such ‘well-conducted’ meta-studies find no or little significant difference in the teaching methods, in terms of the effect on student learning or performance. For instance, Means et al. (2011), in a major meta-analysis of research on blended and online learning for the U.S. Department of Education, reported:

In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches. When used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so.

Means et al. attributed the slightly better performance of blended learning to students spending more time on task. This highlights a common finding, that where differences have been found, they are often attributed to factors other than the mode of delivery. Tamim et al. (2011) identified ‘well-conducted’ comparative studies covering 40 years of research. Tamim et al. found there is a slight tendency for students who study with technology to do better than students who study without technology. However, the measured difference was quite weak, and the authors state:

it is arguable that it is aspects of the goals of instruction, pedagogy, teacher effectiveness, subject matter, age level, fidelity of technology implementation, and possibly other factors that may represent more powerful influences on effect sizes than the nature of the technology intervention.’

Research into any kind of learning is not easy; there are just so many different variables or conditions that affect learning in any context. Indeed, it is the variables we should be examining, not just the technological delivery. In other words, we should asking a question first posed by Wilbur Schramm as long ago as 1977:

What kinds of learning can different media best facilitate, and under what conditions?

In terms of making decisions then about mode of delivery, we should be asking, not which is the best method overall, but:

What are the most appropriate conditions for using face-to-face, blended or fully online learning respectively? 

Fortunately, there is a great deal of research and best practice that provides guidance on that question, at least with respect to blended and online learning (see, for instance, Anderson, 2008; Picciano et al., 2013; Halverson et al., 2013; Zawacki-Richter and Anderson, 2014.) Ironically, we shall see that what we lack is good research on the unique potential of face-to-face teaching in a digital age when so much can also be done just as well online.

Challenging the supremacy of face-to-face teaching

Although there has been a great deal of mainly inconclusive research comparing online learning with face-to-face teaching in terms of student learning, there is very little evidence or even theory to guide decisions about what is best done online and what is best done face-to-face in a blended learning context, and or about the circumstances when fully online learning is in fact a better option than classroom teaching. Generally the assumption appears to have been that face-to-face teaching is the default option by virtue of its superiority, and online learning is used only when circumstances prevent the use of face-to-face teaching, such as when students cannot get to the campus, or when classes are so large that interaction with students is at a minimum.

However, online learning has now become so prevalent and effective in so many contexts that it is time to ask:

what are the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching that make it pedagogically different from online learning?

It is possible of course that there is nothing pedagogically unique about face-to-face teaching, but given the rhetoric around ‘the magic of the campus’ (Sharma, 2013) and the hugely expensive fees associated with elite campus-based teaching, or indeed the high cost of publicly funded campus-based education, it is about time that we had some evidence-based theory about what makes face-to-face teaching so special.

As someone who has devoted a great deal of his working life in distance education and online learning, I am probably not the best person to make this particular argument, and indeed the following is based mainly on the known limitations of online learning rather than the strengths of face-to-face teaching. I therefore throw open the challenge to all those who are passionate about the benefits of face-to-face teaching to help me out with the following sections.

Feedback

For once, I am going to ask you to hold your comments (unless you are particularly incensed about something in the post) until you see the following posts.

Up next

The next post in the series is the first of three in which I propose a method of deciding between modes of delivery, based on student needs, pedagogical differences and the resources available. In the next post I will argue that student characteristics are the most important criterion for deciding on mode of delivery.

References

Anderson, A. (ed.) (2008) The Theory and Practice of Online Learning Athabasca AB: Athabasca University Press

Bates, A.W. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge

Evans, T., Haughey, M. and Murphy, D. (2008) International Handbook of Distance Education Bingley UK: Emerald Publishing

Halverson, L. R., Graham, C. R., Spring, K. J., & Drysdale, J. S. (2012). ‘An analysis of high impact scholarship and publication trends in blended learning’ Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3

Keegan, D. (ed.)  (1990) Theoretical Principles of Distance Education London/New York: Routledge

Means, B. et al. (2009) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies Washington, DC: US Department of Education

Moore, M. and Kearsley, G. (1996) Distance Education: A Systems View Belmont CA: Wadsworth

Ontario (2011) Fact Sheet Summary of Ontario eLearning Surveys of Publicly Assisted PSE Institutions Toronto: Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities

Peters, O. (2002) Distance Education in Transition: New Trends and Challenges Oldenberg FGR: Biblothecks und Informationssystemder Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenberg

Picciano, A., Dziuban, C. and & Graham, C. (eds.), Blended Learning: Research Perspectives, Volume 2. New York: Routledge, 2013

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

Sharma, S. (2013) The Magic of the Campus Boston MA: LINC 2013 conference (recorded presentation)

Tamim, R. et al. (2011) ‘What Forty Years of Research Says About the Impact of Technology on Learning: A Second-Order Meta-Analysis and Validation Study’ Review of Educational Research, Vol. 81, No. 1

Wedemeyer, C. (1981) Learning at the Back Door: Reflections on Non-traditional Learning in the Lifespan Madison: University of Wisconsin Press

Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds.) (2014) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda Athabasca AB: AU Press, pp. 508