May 28, 2017

Online learning for beginners: 9. How can I do online learning well?

From this to this

This is the ninth in a series of ten blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The previous eight are:

Defining quality in online learning

OK, now you’ve looked at most of the pros and cons of online learning, you’re now ready to start. But you want to make sure that if you are going to do online learning, you are going to do it well. What will that entail?

First, let me define by what I mean by ‘doing online learning well.’ I define a high quality online course in the following way:

teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age.

Now of course that could equally define a high quality face-to-face or classroom course. Chickering and Gamson (1987), based on an analysis of 50 years of research into best practices in teaching, argue that good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty.
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Encourages active learning.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

These guidelines apply just as well to online learning as to face-to-face teaching. At the end of the day, the best guarantees of quality in teaching and learning fit for a digital age are:

  • well-qualified subject experts also well trained in both teaching methods and the use of technology for teaching;
  • highly qualified and professional learning technology support staff;
  • adequate resources, including appropriate teacher/student ratios;
  • appropriate methods of working (teamwork, project management);
  • systematic evaluation leading to continuous improvement.

However, because online learning was new and hence open to concern about its quality, there have been many guidelines, best practices and quality assurance criteria created and applied specifically to online programming. All these guidelines and procedures have been derived from the experience of previously successful online programs, best practices in teaching and learning, and research and evaluation of online teaching and learning. A comprehensive list of online quality assurance standards, organizations and research on online learning can be found here.

I’m not going to duplicate these. Instead, I’m going to suggest a series of practical steps towards implementing such standards. Chapter 11 of my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age,  sets out nine steps to quality online learning. Ideally, you should read the whole of this chapter before starting out on your first online course, but in this post I will provide a brief summary of each step.

I am assuming that all the standard institutional processes towards program approval for an online course have been taken, although it might be worth thinking through my nine steps outlined below before finally submitting a proposal. This would be a good way to anticipate and address any questions and concerns that your colleagues may have about about online learning. My nine steps approach would also work when considering the redesign of an existing course.

The nine steps are as follows:

  1. Step 1: Decide how you want to teach
  2. Step 2: Decide on mode of delivery
  3. Step 3: Work in a Team
  4. Step 4: Build on existing resources
  5. Step 5: Master the technology
  6. Step 6: Set appropriate learning goals
  7. Step 7: Design course structure and learning activities
  8. Step 8: Communicate, communicate, communicate
  9. Step 9: Evaluate and innovate

I am providing below a very brief description of each step. Just click on the heading for each step to see the full section in the book.

1. Decide how you want to teach

Of all the nine steps, this is the most important, and, for most instructors, the most challenging, as it may mean changing long established patterns of behaviour.

This question asks you to consider your basic teaching philosophy. What is my role as an instructor? Do I take an objectivist view, that knowledge is finite and defined, that I am an expert in the subject matter who knows more than the students, and thus my job is to ensure that I transfer as effectively as possible that information or knowledge to the student? Or do I see learning as individual development where my role is to help learners to acquire the ability to question, analyse and apply information or knowledge?

Do I see myself more as a guide or facilitator of learning for students? Or maybe you would like to teach in the latter way, but you are faced in classroom teaching with a class of 200 students which forces you to fall back on a more didactic form of teaching. Or maybe you would like to combine both approaches but can’t because of the restrictions of timetables and curriculum.

Considering using new technologies or an alternative delivery method will give you you an opportunity to rethink your teaching, perhaps to be able to tackle some of the limitations of classroom teaching, and to renew your approach to teaching. Using technology or moving part or all of your course online opens up a range of possibilities for teaching that may not be possible in the confines of a scheduled three credit weekly semester of lectures. It may mean not doing everything online, but focusing the campus experience on what can only be done on campus. Alternatively, it may enable you to to rethink totally the curriculum, to exploit some of the benefits of online learning, such as getting students to find, analyse and apply information for themselves.

Thus if you are thinking about a new course, or redesigning one that you are not too happy with, take the opportunity before you start teaching the course or program to think about how you’d really like to be teaching, and whether this can be accommodated in a different learning environment. The important point is to be open to doing things differently.

2. What kind of course or program?

In an earlier post, it was pointed out that there is a continuum of online learning.

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

From Chapter 11.4, Teaching in a Digital Age

Where on that continuum should your course be? There are four factors or variables to take into account when deciding what ‘mix’ of face-to-face and online learning will be best for your course:

  • your preferred teaching philosophy – how you like to teach
  • the needs/backgrounds of the students (or potential students)
  • the demands of the discipline
  • the resources available to you.

You will need to read Chapter 9 of Teaching in a Digital Age for help in making that decision.

3. Work in a team

Working in a team makes life a lot easier for instructors when teaching blended or online courses. Good course design, which is the area of expertise of the instructional designer, not only enables students to learn better but also controls faculty workload. Courses look better with good graphic and web design and professional video production. Specialist technical help frees up instructors to concentrate on teaching and learning.

Working in a team of course will depend heavily on the institution providing such support through a centre of teaching and learning. Nevertheless this is an important decision that needs to be implemented before course design begins.

4. Build on existing resources

The Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web, has an immense amount of content already available. Much of it is freely available for educational use, under certain conditions (e.g. acknowledgement of the source – look for the Creative Commons license usually at the end of the web page). Top universities such as MIT, Stanford, Princeton and Yale have made available recordings of their classroom lectures , etc., while distance teaching organizations such as the UK Open University have made all their online teaching materials available for free use. There are now many other sites from prestigious universities offering open course ware. (A Google search using ‘open educational resources’ or’ OER’ plus the name of the topic will identify most of them.)

But as well as open resources designated as ‘educational’, there is a great deal of ‘raw’ content on the Internet that can be invaluable for  teaching. The main question is whether you as the instructor need to find such material, or whether it would be better to get students to search, find, select, analyze, evaluate and apply information. After all, these are key skills for a digital age that students need to have.

Most content is not unique or original. Most of the time we are standing on the shoulders of giants, that is, organizing and managing knowledge already discovered. Only in the areas where you have unique, original research that is not yet published, or where you have your own ‘spin’ on content, is it really necessary to create ‘content’ from scratch.

Chapter 10, Trends in Open Education, in Teaching in a Digital Age is essential further reading on how to make full use of already existing resources.

5. Master the technology

Taking the time to be properly trained in how to use standard learning technologies will in the long run save you a good deal of time and will enable you to achieve a much wider range of educational goals than you would otherwise have imagined. There are many different possible technologies, such as learning management systems or video recording. It is not necessary to use all or any of these tools, but if you do decide to use them, you need to know not only how to operate such such technologies well, but also their pedagogical strengths and weaknesses.

There are really two distinct but strongly related components of using technology:

  • how the technology works; and
  • what it should be used for.

These are tools built to assist you, so you have to be clear as to what you are trying to achieve with the tools. This is an instructional or pedagogical issue. Thus if you want to find ways to engage students, or to give them practice in developing skills, such as solving quadratic equations, learn what the strengths or weaknesses are of the various technologies for doing this.

6. Set appropriate learning goals

An instructor (particularly a contract instructor or adjunct) may ‘inherit’ a course where the goals are already set, either by a previous instructor or by the academic department. Nevertheless, there remain many contexts where teachers and instructors have a degree of control over the goals of a particular course or program. In particular, a new course or program – such as an online masters program aimed at working professionals – offers an opportunity to reconsider desired learning outcomes and goals. Especially where curriculum is framed mainly in terms of content to be covered rather than by skills to be developed, there may still be room for manoeuvre in setting learning goals that would also include, for instance, intellectual skills development.

What this is likely to mean in terms of course design is using the Internet increasingly as a major resource for learning, giving students more responsibility for finding and evaluating information themselves, and instructors providing criteria and guidelines for finding, evaluating, analysing and applying information within a specific knowledge domain. This will require a critical approach to online searches, online data, news or knowledge generation in specific knowledge domains – in other words the development of critical thinking about the Internet and modern media – both their potential and limitations within a specific subject domain.

It is pointless to introduce new learning goals or outcomes then not assess how well students have achieved those goals. Assessment drives student behaviour. If they are not to be assessed on the skills outlined above, they won’t make the effort to develop them. The main challenge may not be in setting appropriate goals for online learning, but ensuring that you have the tools and means to assess whether students have achieved those goals.

And even more importantly, it is necessary to communicate very clearly to students these new learning goals and how they will be assessed. This may come as a shock to many students who are used to being fed content then tested on their memory of it.

7. Design course structure and learning activities

In a strong teaching structure, students know exactly what they need to learn, what they are supposed to do to learn this, and when and where they are supposed to do it. In a loose structure, student activity is more open and less controlled by the teacher. The choice of teaching structure of course has implications for the work of teachers and instructors as well as students.

‘Strong’ teaching structure is not inherently better than a ‘loose’ structure, nor inherently associated with either face-to-face or online teaching. The choice (as so often in teaching) will depend on the specific circumstances. However, choosing the optimum or most appropriate teaching structure is critical for quality teaching and learning, and while the optimum structures for online teaching share many common features with face-to-face teaching, in other ways they differ considerably. Chapter 11 looks at several specific areas where online learning requires a different approach to structure and learning activities from face-to-face teaching. It is probably in this step that the differences between face-to-face and online learning are greatest.

8. Communicate, communicate, communicate

There is substantial research evidence to suggest that ongoing, continuing communication between teacher/instructor and students is essential in all online learning. At the same time it needs to be carefully managed in order to control the teacher/instructor’s workload. Students need to know that the instructor is following the online activities of students and that the instructor is actively participating during the delivery of the course.

Chapter 11 sets out a number of strategies for ensure good communication with online students while managing instructor workload.

9. Evaluate and innovate

The last step emphasises the importance of both evaluating how well the online course or programs actually works, with a particular emphasis on formative or ongoing evaluation, and the importance of looking constantly for ways to improve or add value to the course over time.

Chapter 11 suggests ways to conduct both the summative and formative evaluation of online courses in ways that include evaluating specifically the online components.

Building a strong foundation of course design

The nine steps are based on two foundations:

  • effective strategies resulting from learning theories tested in both classroom and online environments;
  • experience of successfully teaching both in classrooms and online (best practices).

The approach I have suggested is quite conservative, and some may wish to jump straight into what I would call second generation online learning learning, based on social media such as mobile learning, blogs and wikis, and so on. These do offer intriguing new possibilities and are worth exploring. Nevertheless, for learning leading to qualifications, it is important to remember that most students need:

  • well-defined learning goals;
  • a clear timetable of work, based on a well-structured organization of the curriculum;
  • manageable study workloads appropriate for their conditions of learning;
  • regular instructor communication and presence;
  • a social environment that draws on, and contributes to, the knowledge and experience of other students;
  • a skilled teacher or instructor;
  • other motivated learners to provide mutual support and encouragement.

There are many different ways these criteria can be met, with many different tools.

Follow-up

Despite the length of this post, it is still a brief summary. You are strongly recommended to read the following chapter in full:

Indeed, you are now at the stage where are should be reading the whole book, and in particular the early chapters on epistemology and teaching methods.

Up next

Ready to go‘. This will be the last post in this series. It provides a brief summary of the previous posts and suggests further professional development activities that will better prepare you for online learning.

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 8: Communicate, communicate, communicate

© Care2, 2012

In this post I stress the importance of ongoing, continuing communication between instructor and students in an online environment, and in particular for this to be carefully managed in order to control the instructor’s workload.

This is the ninth in a series of 10 posts on designing quality online courses. The nine steps are aimed mainly at instructors who are new to online learning, or have tried online learning without much help or success. The first eight posts (which should be read before this post) are:

Nine steps to quality online learning: Introduction

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 1: Decide how you want to teach online

Nine steps to quality online-learning: Step 2: Decide on what kind of online course

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 3: Work in a Team

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 4: Build on existing resources

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 5: Master the technology

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 6: Set appropriate learning goals

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 7: Design course structure and learning activities

A condensed version covering all the main posts in this series can be found on the Contact North web site: What you need to know about teaching online: nine key steps. (French version: Ce que le personnel enseignant doit savoir sur l’enseignment en ligne: neuf étapes clés‘)

The ten posts are also being translated into Portuguese by Professor Luis Roberto Brudna Holzle, Federal University, Brazil, available at Science Blogs: Nove passos para uma aprendizagem on-line de qualidade

Instructor presence and the loneliness of the long distance learner

Research has clearly indicated that ‘perceived instructor presence’ is a critical factor for online student success and satisfaction. Students need to know that the instructor is following the online study activities of students and is actively participating during the delivery of the course.

The reasons for this are obvious. Online students often study from home, and if they are fully online may never meet another student on the same course. They do not get the important non-verbal cues from the instructor or other students, such as the stare at a stupid question, the intensity in presentation that shows the passion of the instructor for the topic, the ‘throwaway’ comment that indicates the instructor doesn’t have much time for a particular idea, or the nodding of other students’ heads when another student makes a good point or asks a pertinent question. An online student does not have the opportunity for a spontaneous discussion by bumping into the instructor in the corridor.

However, a skilled instructor can create just as compelling a learning environment online, but it needs to be deliberately planned and designed. It also has to be done in such a way that the instructor’s workload can be controlled.

Setting students’ expectations

It is essential right at the start of a course for the instructor to  make it clear to students what is expected of them during the delivery of the online course. Most institutions have a code of behaviour for the use of computers and the Internet, but these are often lengthy documents written in a bureaucratic language, and are more concerned with spam, general online behaviour such as ‘flaming’ or bullying, or hacking. Consequently I tend to  develop a set of specific requirements for student behaviour that is related to the needs of the particular course, and deals in particular with the academic requirements of studying online. I give some examples below:

  • all students on the course are expected to read and contribute comments in the instructor-set online discussion topics within the specified timescale for each discussion
  • discussion topics are related to marked assignments; thus students who fully participate in the online discussions are more likely to be better prepared for the assignments
  • always respect other students’ contributions. If you think that someone else’s comment is dumb, politely provide an alternative view
  • when commenting, always add something new to the discussion, rather than merely agreeing or disagreeing
  • keep on topic; if you want to discuss something else, establish a new discussion topic or thread, or establish a blog or wiki. If you want to discuss topics outside the course, use Facebook or the student online ‘cafe’ that goes with the course.
  • if you have a question, post it in the appropriate discussion forum, so that other students as well as the instructor can contribute to the answer.
  • if you want to discuss something privately, send the instructor an e-mail
  • use quotations from other sources to support your point where appropriate, but always fully reference material taken from another source (with examples of how to do that, including web-based material and quoting other students’ comments). Lay out the consequences of plagiarism in terms of institutional policy and show how easy it is to detect plagiarism.
  • before posting a question, check that the answer is not already there within the course materials – you may have missed it on the first reading (and direct the student to it if they still can’t find it rather than answer the question yourself.)
  • the instructor will respond to questions and e-mails within 24 hours, except over weekends and public holidays.

I usually set a small task in the first week of a course that enables students to immediately apply these guidelines. For instance I may ask them to post their bio and respond to other students bio posts, or ask them to comment on a topic related to the course and their views on this before the course really begins, using the discussion forum facility in the LMS. I pay particular attention to this activity, because research indicates that students who do not respond to set activities in the first week are at high risk of non-completion. I always follow up with a phone call or e-mail to non-respondents in this first week, and ensure that each student is following the guidelines. I find it useful to do this, no matter how experienced students are in studying online. What I’m doing is making my presence felt. Students know that I am following what they do from the outset.

Different courses may require different guidelines. For instance a math or science course may not put so much emphasis on discussion forums, but more on self-assessed computer-marked multiple choice questions. It should be made clear whether students must do these or if they are optional, or how much time should be spent as a minimum on doing such non-graded activities, and their relationship to activities that are graded or assessed. They should get such an activity within the first week of a course, and the instructor should follow up with those that avoid the activity or have difficulties with it.

Lastly, instructors should follow their own guidelines. Your comments should be helpful and constructive, rather than negative. You should actively encourage discussion by being ‘present’ and stepping in on a discussion where necessary – for instance if the comments are getting off topic.

Teaching philosophy and online communication

Instructors who have a more objectivist approach to teaching are more likely to focus on whether students are not only covering the necessary content but are also understanding it. This often requires students going back over content, providing misunderstood or difficult content in an alternative manner (e.g. a video as well as text), and instructor or automated (computer-based) feedback. Most LMSs will provide summaries of student activities, and it is important to track each individual student’s progress. Instructors with a more constructivist approach are more likely to emphasize online discussion and argument.

Whatever your approach, students want to know where you stand on some of the topics. Thus while it is necessary often to present content objectively with an ‘on the one hand… on the other…’ approach, students usually feel more committed to a course where the instructor’s own views or approach to a topic are made clear. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as a podcast on a topic, or an intervention in a discussion, or a short video of how you would go about solving an equation. These personal interventions have to be carefully judged, but can make a big difference to student commitment and participation.

Choice of medium

There is now a wide variety of media by which instructors can communicate with online students, or students can communicate with each other. Basically, though, they fall into two categories: synchronous or asynchronous communication media. Asynchronous media would include e-mail, text or voice messages on mobile phones, podcasts or recorded video clips, online discussion forums within an LMS, Twitter, and Facebook. Synchronous media would include voice phone calls, text and audio conferencing over the web (e.g. Blackboard Collaborate), or even video-conferencing.

I much prefer asynchronous communication for two reasons. Students are often working and have busy lives; asynchronous messages are more convenient for them. They are permanent and can be accessed at any time. Also, they are much more convenient for me as an instructor. For instance I can go to a conference even in another country yet still log on to my course when I have some free time.

However, asynchronous communication can be frustrating when complex decisions need to be made within a tight timescale, such as deciding the roles and responsibilities for group work, the final draft of a group assignment, or a student’s lack of understanding that is blocking any further progress on the topic. Then synchronous communication is better. I also sometimes use Blackboard Collaborate to bring all the students together once or twice during a semester, to get a feeling of community at the start of a course, to establish my ‘presence’ as a real person with a face or voice at the start of a course, or to wrap up a course at the end, and I try to provide plenty of opportunity for questions and discussion by the students themselves. However, these synchronous ‘lectures’ are always optional as there will always be some students who cannot be present (although they can be made available in recorded format).

Managing online discussion

Whole books have been written on this topic (see the end of this post for a list of references). However, there are some basic guidelines to follow.

  • Use the threaded discussion forum facility in the LMS (in some LMSs the instructor has to choose to switch this on). I like to use the LMS forum discussion tool because I can organize the discussion by separate topics (a forum for each topic). In a threaded discussion, a student comment on someone else’s post on a topic is posted next to the post, allowing either the student making the original post or other students to respond to the comment. This way a ‘thread’ of comments linked to a specific topic can be followed. The alternative, comments posted in time order, makes it difficult to follow a thread of an argument. A well chosen topic or sub-topic will often have 10 or more threaded comments, and the instructor can tell at a glance which topics have gained ‘traction’. Also I like to keep a least some of the discussion ‘private’., i.e. just between the students on the course, as I am using the discussion forum to identify areas of misunderstanding and to develop skills such as critical thinking and clear communication.

Example of a threaded discussion topic

  • have clear goals for discussion forums. This will vary from subject to subject, but I use discussion forums to identify misunderstandings, to encourage active participation of students, to raise topical issues related to the course, to develop student communication skills, and above all to enable students to increase deep understanding or ‘knowledge construction’ through the testing of ideas and the questioning of the content, the instructor and other students. Even in numerical or science-based courses, there is often scope for discussion of experimental results, theory, or the relationship of the course topics to real events (e.g. discussions around recent research on the Higgs boson, the collapse of a mall roof in engineering).
  • choose topics that lend themselves to discussion, or which avoid a ‘yes/no’ or ‘I agree or disagree’ response. The topic should require students to draw on the course content, but also to go outside the course content and relate the topic to external events, either in their own lives or in the news. The topic should allow students to draw from their own experience as well.
  • the topic should directly relate to assignment or assessment questions for which students get a grade. I don’t assess the discussion contributions themselves; I prefer the students to see the intrinsic value to them of participating. However, many instructors do give a grade for discussion contributions.
  • don’t hog the conversation. It is a mistake for the instructor to respond immediately to every comment. This prevents other students from making their own contribution; they will wait until they see your reaction. Also it increases the workload. Encourage other students to respond and build a ‘culture’ of the students being in control, while knowing that you are there, watching and stepping in where necessary.
  • give students clear roles. For instance ask them to take it in turns to summarize a discussion. You may ask some students to moderate a discussion, but keep an eye on it in case it gets out of hand.
  • ensure that all students contribute to discussions in some way. I keep a spreadsheet of all students and when they contribute to a discussion. Some LMSs will now do this for you automatically. I use phone calls or private e-mails sometimes to prompt students or to check if there is a problem. The discussion forums are an excellent way to track whether students are ‘missing’ or not keeping up with the course.
  • I try to be ‘present’ in each discussion topic at least once a week, more often if possible. I allow at least one hour a day to track discussions.
  • you need a minimum of 20 students at graduate level to get good discussions going, and 30 at undergraduate level. Over 50 students in a group is probably too many.

Take a look particularly at Gilly Salmon’s book ‘e-Moderating’ and the Paloff and Pratt books for more guidance on handling online communication.

Cultural and other student differences

The most interesting and exciting courses that I have taught have included a wide range of international students from different countries. However, even if all the students are within one hour’s commute of the institution, they will have different learning styles and approaches to studying online. This is why it is important to be clear about the desired learning outcomes, and the goals for discussion forums. Students learn in different ways. If one of the desired learning outcomes is critical thinking, students can achieve that in different ways. Some may do a lot of reading, seeking out different viewpoints. Others may prefer to work mainly in the forums. I don’t really care how they achieve the learning outcomes so long as they do. Some students learn a lot by lurking but never contribute directly. Now if you are trying to improve international students’ language skills, then you may require them to participate in the online discussions, and will assess them on their contributions. However, I try not force students to participate. I see it as my challenge to make the topic interesting enough to draw them in.

Having said that, much can be done to facilitate or encourage students to participate. I taught one graduate course where I had about 20 of the 30 students in my class with Chinese surnames. From the student records and the short bios they posted I noted that a few students were from the Chinese mainland, several more were living in Hong Kong, and the rest had Canadian addresses. However even the latter consisted of two quite different groups: recent immigrants to Canada, and at least one student whose great grandfather had been one of the first immigrants to Canada in the 19th century. Although it is dangerous to rely on stereotypes, I noticed that the further away ‘psychologically’ or geographically the student was, the less they were inclined to participate online. This was partly a language issue but also a cultural issue. The mainland Chinese in particular were very reluctant to post comments. Fortunately we had a visiting Chinese scholar with us and she advised us to get the three mainland Chinese women on the course to develop a collective contribution to the discussion and then ask them to send it to me to check that it was ‘appropriate’ before they posted. I made a few comments then sent it back and they then posted it. Gradually by the end of the course they each had the confidence to post individually their own comments. But it was a difficult process for them. (On the other hand, I had Mexican students who commented on everything, especially the World Cup soccer tournament that was on at the time).

Conclusion

This is a big topic and difficult to cover adequately in one blog post. However, I cannot overemphasize the importance of instructor online presence in getting students to successfully complete an online course. (Incidentally I suspect that the lack of instructor online presence in the MIT and Stanford MOOCs is one reason so few students complete the certificates. It is probably not unconnected that Udemy, one of the platforms used to support MOOCs, has recently completely redesigned its web interface to allow for more interaction between the instructor and students).

There is an unlimited number of ways in which you, as an instructor, can communicate now with online students, but it is also essential at the same time to control your workload. You cannot be available 24×7, and this means designing the online delivery in such a way that your ‘presence’ is used to best effect. At the same time, I find communication with online students the most interesting and satisfying part of teaching online – but then that is a result of my philosophy of teaching.

Further reading (this is just a small sample of many publications on this topic)

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 5, No.2.

Baker, C. (2010) The Impact of Instructor Immediacy and Presence for Online Student Affective Learning, Cognition, and Motivation The Journal of Educators Online Vol. 7, No. 1

Garrison, D. R. & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 19, No. 3

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J. and Haag, B. (1995) ‘Constructivism and Computer-mediated Communication in Distance Education’, American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp 7-26.

Paloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2007) Building Online Learning Communities San Francisco: John Wiley and Co.

Salmon, G. (2000) E-moderating London/New York: Routledge

Sheridan, K. and Kelly, M.  (2010) The Indicators of Instructor Presence that are Important to Students in Online Courses MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 6, No. 4

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 6: Set appropriate learning goals

In this post I argue that you need to think about what kinds of goals could best be achieved in an online course, rather than just doing the same as in a classroom course..

This is the seventh in a series of 10 posts on designing quality online courses. The nine steps are aimed mainly at instructors who are new to online learning, or have tried online learning without much help or success. The first six posts (which should be read before this post) are:

Nine steps to quality online learning: introduction

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 1: Decide how you want to teach online

Nine steps to quality online-learning: Step 2: Decide on what kind of online course

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 3: Work in a Team

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 4: Build on existing resources

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 5: Master the technology

A condensed version covering all the posts in this series can be found on the Contact North web site: What you need to know about teaching online: nine key steps.

There is also a version in French: Ce que le personnel enseignant doit savoir sur l’enseignment en ligne: neuf étapes clés

Learning goals: the same or different?

In many cases, it will be appropriate (indeed, essential) to keep the same teaching goals for an online course as in a similar face-to-face course. Many dual-mode institutions, i.e. campus-based institutions who also offer credit courses online, such as the University of British Columbia, Penn State, University of Nebraska, offer the same courses both face-to-face and online, particularly in the fourth year of an undergraduate program. Usually the transcript of the exam grade makes no distinction as to whether the course was done online or face-to-face, since the students take the same end of course exam, and the actual content covered is usually identical in each version.

At UBC, there’s an express bus that runs every four minutes along Vancouver’s Broadway corridor to the university, each bus packed with up to 200 students. I too took the bus to work at UBC when I was Director of Distance Education – when I could get on it. Students were often sleeping on the bus, so we put the following advertisement on the buses: ‘Same instructor, same course, same exam, no bus ride: take a distance education course.’ Our numbers went up and it made it easier for me to get on the bus in the mornings!

However, it is really important before moving your face-to-face course online to do the kind of analysis recommended in Steps 1 and 2. In most humanities/arts/social science/education/business courses/computer software design, etc., there will be no problem. The learning goals will transfer easily. There will usually be an alternative way to reach the same goal online. For instance, online discussion forums, when properly designed and monitored, can achieve just as well if not better many of the learning goals of face-to-face class discussions.

However, in nursing, dentistry, medicine, science, engineering, and computer hardware design, and some aspects of education (such as teaching practice) it will very much depend on the type of course, and in particular the need for hands-on practical work. Even some of these goals can be achieved online, but it may be too difficult or expensive for it to be practical. In these cases, you may be looking to design more of a hybrid than a fully online course (see Step 2).

In some cases, some goals in the campus-based class may be sacrificed for different but equally valuable goals that can be achieved better online. These will be discussed in more detail in the next section of this post.

Lastly, it is important to remember that although it may be possible to achieve the same goals online as in class, the design of the teaching will likely have to be different in the online environment. Thus often the goals remain the same, but the method changes. This will be discussed further in Steps 7 and 8.

Different goals for online learning?

Although learning goals often transfer well from face-to-face to online, it is worth thinking about what kind of learning goals or outcomes are particularly well suited to online learning and building these into your online course, even if they are not currently in your face-to-face course. A new course or program – such as an online masters program aimed at working professionals – offers an opportunity to exploit fully the potential benefits of online learning.

21st century skills

Online learning is particularly appropriate for developing what are generically called 21st century learning skills. Because of the nature of the Internet, online learning lends itself to learning how to manage knowledge: how to find, evaluate, analyse, and apply information within a specific knowledge domain. It’s not possible these days to cover all the knowledge a student will need in a particular subject domain within a four year undergraduate program or even after another four years graduate study in a subject such as medicine. New knowledge – such as new drug treatments, new software design and products, new data – is expanding almost daily and will continue to grow long after students have graduated. The challenge then is to develop lifelong learning skills that will enable students to continue to ‘manage knowledge’ long after they have graduated.

21st century learners: a small design team contracted by Volkswagen Motors

However, as with all learning goals, the teaching needs to be designed in such a way that students have opportunities to learn and practice such skills, and in particular, such skills need to be evaluated as part of the formal assessment process. What this means in terms of online learning design is using the Internet increasingly as a major resource for learning, giving students more responsibility for finding and evaluating information themselves, and instructors providing criteria and guidelines for finding, evaluating, analysing and applying information within a specific knowledge domain. This will require a critical approach to online searches, online data, news or knowledge generation in specific knowledge domains – in other words the development of critical thinking about the Internet and modern media – both their potential and limitations within a specific subject domain.

Good communication skills

This is another key 21st century skill. Students now need to be able to communicate in a variety of ways in the 21st century. Writing and speaking skills remain critical, but increasingly the ability to communicate through modern media such as social media, YouTube, blogs and wikis are particularly important in areas such as business, journalism, health and education. Online learning offers many opportunities to develop such skills.

Independent and inter-dependent learning

The ability to learn on one’s own or increasingly as part of informal, professionally related groups is increasingly in demand. For instance, in a small, start-up company, the workers are often the ‘bosses’, or the control hierarchy is very flat, meaning each individual is responsible for their own learning related to their work. The ability to go on learning, either individually or through informal peer networks, is critical for knowledge-based organizations. Online learning, by its nature, requires students to take increasing responsibility for managing their learning. Again, this is a skill that can be taught. Students often enter post-secondary education as dependent learners. A gradual introduction to online learning, initially in a classroom setting but building eventually to hybrid or fully online courses, is a good way to develop independent and inter-dependent learning skills.

Domain-specific IT skills

In whatever subject area, students increasingly need to know how to use IT tools that are specific to their subject area. Examples may be Excel spreadsheets in accounting, geographical information systems in mining engineering or even real estate, simulations and computer aided design in engineering, etc. These IT tools are often integrated or available over or through the Internet and can be embedded within the design of an online course. Thus a key learning goal may be for every student to leave the course competent in the selection and use of relevant digital tools.

Bring in the outside world 

Figure 11.8.2 Using social media during the Arab Spring

 Using social media during the Arab Spring

Lastly, one great characteristic of teaching online is the opportunity to bring in the world to your teaching. You can direct students to online sites, students themselves can collect data or provide real world examples of concepts or issues covered in the course, through the use of cameras in mobile phones, or audio interviews of local experts. You can set up a course wiki that both you and the students contribute to, and make it open to other professors and students to contribute, depending on the topic. If you are teaching professional masters or diploma programs, the students themselves will have very relevant wold experiences that can be drawn into the program. This is a great way to enable students to evaluate and apply knowledge within their subject domain.

There are many other possible goals that are either impossible to meet without using the Internet, or would be very difficult to do in a purely classroom environment. The art of the instructor is to decide which are relevant, and which in particular are key learning goals for the course.

Assessment is the key

However, it is pointless to introduce new learning goals or outcomes then not assess how well students have achieved those goals. Assessment drives student behaviour. If they are not to be assessed on 21st century skills, they won’t make the effort to develop them. The main challenge may not be in setting appropriate goals for online learning, but ensuring that you have the tools and means to assess whether students have achieved those goals.

And even more importantly, it is necessary to communicate very clearly to students these new learning goals and how they will be assessed. This may come as a shock to many students who are used to being fed content then tested on their memory of it.

Conclusion

In some ways, with the Internet (as with other media), the medium is the message. Knowledge is not completely neutral. What we know and how we know it are affected by the medium through which we acquire knowledge. Each medium brings another way of knowing. We can either fight the medium, and try to force old content into new bottles, or we can shape the content to the form of the medium. Because the Internet is such a large force in our lives, we need to be sure that we are making the most of its potential in our teaching, even if that means changing somewhat what and how we teach.