Is Blended Learning the Best of Both Worlds?

Research has found that blended courses have the potential to increase student learning outcomes while lowering attrition rates in comparison with equivalent fully online courses.Blended Learning’, EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research

globe_mouseBlended learning is a method that has proven to be not only effective in terms of learning outcomes, but ranks high on ratings of satisfaction with students and instructors (Dzuiban, Hartman & Moskal, 2004). Yet there has been little coverage of blended learning in higher education news in recent months. It seems we’ve gone from zero to one hundred without passing GO and collecting $200—where ‘0’ is traditional classroom learning, and ‘100’ is 100% online courses. There has been little consideration of the blended approach, which falls somewhere along the continuum of learning modalities.

Blended learning, also referred to as hybrid learning is a combination of learning modalities involving face-to-face instruction and Web-based learning delivery, and is carefully designed using a customized instructional strategy that leverages the strengths of each. When implemented effectively, a blended learning program can make better use of instructional resources and facilities, and increase class availability thus speeding up the pathway to graduation for students (Dzuiban et al, 2004). This kind of program could be at least part of the solution to California’s current crisis in its public higher education institutions.

With the impressive results and options of blended learning, and in light of the current crisis within several state universities, it appears that this modality deserves further exploration. Over the next few posts, I’ll be focusing on this hybrid approach from an instructional design point-of-view, and will share with readers the latest research on blended learning models, design principles and the pedagogical principles that underpin successful programs. My aim is to also share the best practices in blended programs by examining institutions that have been successful with their own programs.

Definitions of Blended Learning
Definitions of blended learning vary. Below is table presented in Blending In: The Extent and Promise of Blended Learning in the United States (2007), where the definition relies upon a ratio of web to traditional instruction.

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The Sloan Consortium defines blended learning as a course where 30% to 70% of the instruction is delivered online. While this is a useful guideline, it may not be sufficient to define fully an institution’s blended program.

The ratio definition should be viewed as a guide, I prefer the descriptions by University of Central Florida (UCF), which approaches blended learning somewhat differently.  UCF describes mixed-mode or blended learning as a modality that “combines the effectiveness and socialization opportunities of the classroom with the self-directed and active learning opportunities that the online environment offers” (Dziuban, et al, 2004). At UCF blended learning is offered in two out of the five modalities available through the school’s Center for Distributed Learning.  Both options, use different formats, 1) video streaming lecture content, labs, web activities and select face-to-face interactions including proctored exams, and 2) instruction that has both required classroom attendance and online interaction, activities and content delivery.

Purpose of Blended Learning
A critical element to the blended learning concept is reduced seat time. Reduction of time that students spend in a face-to-face, traditional classroom format serves several purposes that offers several benefits including:

1) Institutions have the potential to manage instructional and facility resources more efficiently, teaching more students within a semester.
2) This approach is beneficial for students, providing the convenience and flexibility associated with online learning, freeing up time for work, family obligations or extra-curricular activities.
3) Blended learning develops a skill set for students that otherwise would not be possible in exclusive face-to-face instruction. Skills include digital citizenship, information management skills, self-directed learning, and web research and collaboration skills.

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Blended Learning’ by giulia.forsythe, Flickr

Implications of Blended Learning on Institutions
Implementing a blended learning initiative is a significant undertaking, more so than beginning an online initiative. Institutions that have implemented successful blended programs are explicit about the implications and the work and collaboration required among departments, administration and faculty.  This excerpt from the Blended Learning report highlights this:

The transformational nature of blended courses creates complicated interactions among many components of the university similar to those found in the literature regarding complex and social systems theories. Forrester offered insights about interventions in complex systems (such as universities), suggesting they have the following common characteristics:

  • Predicting the way interventions will impact the institution is virtually impossible.
  • Final outcomes are often counter-intuitive.
  • Unanticipated side-effects, both positive and negative, must be confronted. At times, those effects have more impact than the originally planned outcomes. (Dziuban, et al, 2004).

Conclusion
A blended program can be the best of both worlds, and though a significant undertaking, once implemented successfully, such a program has significant benefits for the institution and students. Students embrace flexibility, embrace being in a connected world that the web provides, it’s no wonder that blended programs rank high in learning outcomes and  satisfaction.  UCF also discovered that faculty give high marks to their instructional experience with a hybrid model. Blended learning programs truly are the best of both worlds for students, instructors and the institution. My next posts will delve into the instructional design models for blended programs.

Resources

How-to Encourage Online Learners to take Responsibility for their Own Learning

“To single out the institution as being solely responsible for student departure, as do many critics, is to deny an essential principle of effective education, namely that students must themselves become responsible for their own learning”. (Tinto, 1994)

Author Vincent Tinto could have been writing about distance education when he wrote his book Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition, but he was writing about the drop-out phenomenon in traditional colleges. Yet this quote is relevant to distance education today, perhaps even more so as educators wrestle with the high drop out rates of some online courses, specifically MOOCs. In recent posts I’ve written about how course instructors can support online learners, how to consider the needs of the learner and guide them through phases of dependency to independence. Yet what is the responsibility of the learner? What role does the online student play in his or her learning? And how can this be communicated to him or her? In this post I discuss learning models that assign responsibility to the learner, how these principles can be applied to online learning, and finally describe how instructors and institutions can hand over responsibility to the student.

Which Learning Theory Applies to Online Learning?
Of the numerous learning theories that have emerged in the past there are assumptions made about the characteristics of the learner. Distance learning has often been associated with adult learners. Adult learning theories – for instance Malcolm Knowles’ Andragogy Theory or K.P. Cross’ Adult Learning Theory, both suggest that the adult learner requires motivation, a drive to learn, life experience to apply to the learning situation and a sense of self-directedness. And, more recently the Connectivism Theory, similar to J. Bruner’s Constructivist theory, is associated with networked learning and Massive Open Online Courses. This theory suggests that learners come to a course already motivated, seek to engage with the content, other learners and construct new knowledge. We can apply some of these principles to online learning credit courses, and go one step further by communicating to the learner what they are responsible for.

Behaviours of Successful Online Learners
There is much we can extract from these theories as mentioned, and apply to online learners. We can identify behaviours that students need to demonstrate to be successful in an online learning community. Some behaviours:

  • Time management and organization skills where the learner is able to complete assignments within due dates, manage course materials and content effectively.
  • Motivation and drive to learn demonstrated through participation in forums and/or group work.
  • The drive to ask questions and seek instructor support.
  • Strong writing skills where the learner can create discussion posts and interact with classmates.

Not to be overlooked are the technical skills learners must possess coming into the course. Learners need to have basic computer skills, such that they can send and receive emails, upload and download files, navigate the Web, source and evaluate digital content. Proficiency in Word and Power Point software is also strongly recommended.

One tactic numerous institutions use to reinforce the required skills, is to offer a self-assessment on the school’s website. A ‘quiz’ that will assess whether the learner is ready to learn online.

How the Institution can Communicate Learner Responsibilities
The first step is for the institution to identify what the learner must know, or the skills that are needed. Next, the learner responsibilities must be articulated, recorded and then made accessible to potential learners. Our institution does a fairly good job outlining expectations within the course, but we are lacking in this area (posting on our website for example the skills required). I’ve included several links to schools that do a good job in communicating upfront what is expected of learners.

Metropolitan Community College outlines a comprehensive list of Student’s Responsibilities for Online Courses on a web page and divides each into categories, computer skills, communication and participation, computer skills, time management etc.

How Course Instructors can Assign Responsibility
We’ve discussed how the institution can outline responsibilities that stipulate for its potential students what is required, yet what can course instructors do? instructors can help the learner by outlining in the course syllabus or within the course home page, what he or she as the instructor expects from students.  We are working on the assumption that the learner is responsible, has a specific skill set and is ready to learn. Yet further clarifying actually helps the learner learn. Examples of expectations might include:

  • Learners are responsible for completing reading and watching lectures as assigned with module each week.
  • Learners take an active role in discussion forums by posting thoughtful responses, responding to classmates.
  • Assignments must be submitted on time, late work will not be accepted unless student contacts the instructor prior to the due date.

These are just a few examples – instructors can customize student expectations to fit the course’s uniqueness. Including these responsibilities upfront, at the beginning of the course is necessary. It calls attention to the responsibilities – gives the learner the chance to  be successful.

Instructors don’t need to shoulder the entire burden of the online student’s success. The learner is responsible for his or her own learning, yet institutions and instructors can ‘give’ the responsibility to the learner by outlining what it ‘looks’ like.

Resources:
Student Responsibilities for Online Learning, Hostos College
Adult Learner Characteristics, R.I.T. Online Learning
Student Responsibilities in Online Learning, Metropolitan Community College

Strategies for Online Instruction: How-to support the Dependent Learner

This is the second post in a four-part series outlining teaching strategies for online instructors that address the unique needs of online students. This post describes how to meet the needs of the dependent learner.

Welcome weeks are in full swing at college campuses across the country, Join us for the many activities during Welcome Week 2012! Celebrate your first night on campus with free food, laser tag …” – reads an  email message to full-time college students at a well known university. This is typical of welcome week events planned for new [and returning] students. Orientation weeks are key to students’ success – familiarizing students with campus resources, creating a sense of belonging – these are just a few of the intended outcomes.

Yet how does this translate to the online environment? How can course instructors and their institutions cross the virtual divide and prepare students for the online learning experience? In this post I’ll address how educators can provide the right level of academic and relational support to online students during the first phase of the course. I’ll also include strategies for educators to encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning.

Online Learner Support Framework
In part one of this series, I introduced the Online Learner Support model which is based upon the PARS model, Providing Academic and Relational Support (Lowe, 2005). This model suggests how to support the online learner in three distinct phases. There are  two dimensions to the model, 1) the learner level of dependence (descriptive) and 2) the behaviours required by the institution and instructor to support the learner through each (prescriptive). The first dimension is illustrated in the diagram below. Learner ‘self-directedness’ is derived from the concept of Self Directed Learning (SDL).
Phase I: The Dependent Learner
Why is the learner so dependent in phase I? Two primary variables affect the learner’s level of self direction:

1) The online environment. This learning context [place of learning] requires a unique skill set: technical skills, knowledge of the learning management platform and time management skills. Not to mention the cognitive overload – the amount of information the student must digest and make sense of.

2) Unfamiliarity with subject matter/area of study. Research done by scholars on self directed learning suggests that learners have high levels of self-direction in course topics in which they already have familiarity with (Song & Hill, 2007). For example, a learner who has studied Spanish previously, will have a higher level of self-direction when enrolled in a beginner Italian course, than a learner without previous exposure to the language. We can infer then, that learners without a level of familiarity with the subject matter will be more dependent.

Important Note: A class of students will likely be at different levels of self-direction within phase one. This model assumes that learners are new to the online environment. Realistically, instructors will have classes with learners at various points within phase one – as shown in the image below (students represented by red ‘x’s).

How can the Instructor support the Learner in Phase I? Guide and Clarify
Now we get to the heart of the matter – how can educators support students in phase one?  There are two types of support required, academic and relational support. At the beginning of phase I, academic support is needed at higher levels than relational support. Learners need guidance and direction with materials, technical support for the course home page, etc. Students also are sorting through due dates, instructions for assignments, etc.

According to Lowe “the relationship at this stage is more like a trail guide [the instructor] who is not so much concerned about establishing a relationship [with the student] as he/she is in getting someone safely through rough terrain. The guide does a lot of pointing and directing but very little time is spent getting close to and emotionally engaged with those being led” (2005).

As the diagram above right shows, the need for academic support declines in phase one. The focus moves from the need to provide new information to the learner, and instead needs to shift to help the learner understand and make use of the information he or she already has. Relational support on the other hand, needs to be emphasized towards the end of phase one as the student becomes more independent and takes charge of his or her learning. Below are specific action steps for educators that will help to move learners from a state of dependency to one of independence.

What Institutions can DO in Phase One

  • Provide a learner readiness self-assessment tool for the online learner.  This may help the learner to identify areas of weakness and skill gap, thus placing the student in the position to seek resources and guidance.
  • Outline the expectations of the learner – for the learner. An important step. The institution would do well to outline for the student what his or her role is in the learning process.
  • Provide technical and academic support (a 24 hour response time). Also consider dividing the support into categories. In our program we have 3 categories of support, 1) academic/course help, 2) technical support and 3) administrative support, with separate contact information for each.
  • Create an online Orientation program for learners to complete before the course begins. At my workplace we open our online courses five days prior to the official start date of the session during which time the students work on the orientation activities. The orientation program consists of: student introductions through discussion forum, syllabus review, viewing of introduction video and a brief self assessment quiz on the orientation material.
  • Offer study skills resources and/or programs tailored to online students.

What Instructors can DO

  • Consider that learners need both academic and relational support. Send an introductory welcome note [email] before the course begins to all students. Include course details that are not overwhelming, but informative.
  • Provide prompt responses to student questions – delayed responses (over 24 hours) can discourage students, even provide increased levels of stress for some.
  • Extend support to students by demonstrating willingness to answer questions students may have by offering multiple contact options : email, SKYPE, Google chat, Google Hangout etc.
  • Record a motivational video message. Consider recording a short 2-minute welcome message for students. We have implemented this in our programs – students love it.
  • Keep in mind – relational needs are not high in phase one. In depth and challenging personal interaction is not needed until the end of phase one and the beginning of phase two.

Next in the Series
As we’ve seen this model is both dynamic and relevant. My next post will explore phase two of this model in depth and include tactics and strategies for course instructors and institutions that will support online students as they progress from a state of dependence to independence. Check back next week for my next post in the Strategies for Online Instruction series.

Resources:
Strategies for Online Learning, Online Learning Insights
Lowe, S.D. Responding to the needs in distance education providing academic and relational support (PARS), (2005). PDF
Song, L. & Hill, J. A conceptual model for understanding self-directed learning in online environments, (2007). Journal of Interactive Online Learning, v 6 (1).

Pearls of the Week: Perspectives on Education from the US, UK and Canada

Pearl nl: Parels de: Perlen

In this post I’ll share a selection of pearls [bookmarks] of thought-provoking articles I collected this week about current issues in higher education and K12 in United States, UK and Canada. What makes this collection interesting is the contrast in perspectives on education between the three countries. Though the articles present a position taken by the given author on an educational issue, and are not necessarily representative of all issues within the nation, I found the contrast and perspectives most interesting in light of the challenges in education that the US is dealing with. A summary of each article/resource with the corresponding link to each follows.

Note on ‘Pearls': My pearls [bookmarks] are the best of articles, posts or learning opportunities on the Web that I’ve encountered. I use the [Beta] Pearltrees application. In a previous post I described how I use Pearltrees for cataloguing and archiving digital information for my work and personal projects, click here to read the post.

1) The Wall Street Journal: The ‘crisis’ in Higher Ed continues, in the US at least…

We’ve been hearing much about the rising cost of higher education – in this article readers are given hard data that reveals the financial impact of college costs for the upper middle class. According to the Federal Reserve, upper income households experienced the most significant increase of student loan debt load to household income from 2007 to 2010. Though a concern, my feeling is that parents in this echelon will continue to shell out for the ‘name brand’ universities — for the short-term at least. Time will tell. Read more in College Debt Hits Well-Off, by Ruth Simon and Rob Barry.

2) The New York Times: The ‘crisis’ is not only in Higher Ed —  K12 education is not immune…

Thomas Friedman author and columnist of the NYT writes why the US should be [very] concerned about the state of elementary education as it stands today. Friedman is frank, and discusses how America is losing its competitive edge – is becoming ‘average’ in the International realm of [elementary and high school] academic performance.

The US scores very poorly on International test scores in comparison to other developed nations.  From my own experience, when I speak with parents about the International test scores, most are unaware of that the US fairs so poorly in comparison to other countries, and are shocked that we are average if not below average in comparison. Read more in Average is Over, Part II, by Thomas Friedman. To view International results of K12 performance, click here.

3) The Globe and Mail, Canada.  Canada does not face a financial crisis in higher ed as the US does – university costs are far lower than in the United States. The priority for the  Government [Ontario Government in this article] contrasts a great deal with the educational emphases of the US and even the UK.

This article focuses on reforms needed in higher education as emphasized in a government paper on post secondary education reform. What where the top three issues?  “A system transformation;” 1) a move in some programs to three-year degrees; 2) greater use of “technology-enabled” learning; and 3) a much simpler mechanism for transferring course credits between college and university.  Read more in Changing postsecondary education must be a collective process, by Daniel Woolf.

4) The Globe and Mail, Canada.  I can’t seem to get away from the barrage of articles about MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses from American sources, yet the media coverage and conversation is tame in Canada in comparison.

I read this article in the Globe while on holidays in Canada [my home country] this past week, and realized how the discussion of MOOCs and their role (or NOT) in higher ed is so not on the radar in Canada. The article illustrates how the idea of a MOOCs is so very new, it is neutral, a non issue. The journalist, Margaret Wente methodically educates the reader on this novel concept of Online University for the Masses.Read more in Online University for the Masses, by Margaret Wente.

5) The Guardian, United Kingdom: Meanwhile, across the Atlantic….

I enjoyed this article immensely. I like the position this author presents on higher education – he emphasizes research, change, and the need for higher education to collaborate with businesses. Written by chemistry professor Stephen Caddik at the University College of London, the article is realistic, positive and optimistic. Caddik highlights the value of people, the need for continued innovation, and an investment in Universities. Caddik closes with “we have the opportunity of a generation to build a sustainable economy for the 21st century – but we need to open our eyes and seize the opportunity.” Hear, hear – this is applicable to all nations.

Going for broke: how universities can deliver on their economic potential. by Professor Stephen Caddik.

Image representing Pearltrees as depicted in C...

Image via CrunchBase

My Pearltrees are work in progress, though if you’d like to view my collection, please click here.Thanks for reading.

How [not] to Design an Online Course

Moving a face-to-face credit course to an online environment is far more challenging than one might expect – as numerous experienced and esteemed professors have discovered. In this post learn vicariously through one professor’s experience of ‘what not to do’.

I’d like to introduce you to Professor Harding a history professor who is transitioning his face-to-face undergraduate history course to a twelve-week, 3-credit online course.  Professor Harding, though fictitious embodies the typical errors made by most course instructors with little or no experience in online learning when moving their face-to-face course to the online environment.

The purpose of this post is to highlight common errors that I’ve observed and experienced as an instructional designer when assisting professors with their course transition to the online format. I also aim to provide guidance for educators involved in a similar course transition process along with resources for further support. My goal is to assist ‘Professor Harding’ [who represents all educators in this circumstance] with moving his course online, to ensure it is of high academic quality, rigorous and applicable to the realm of online learning. Below are five actions planned by Harding phrased as ‘what not to do’ followed with constructive recommendations.

[Please note that the recommendations should be considered a starting point for the transition process. A comprehensive strategy is needed for the design of any online course - what I’m covering here scratches the surface. I plan to follow this post with more in-depth design strategies in the following weeks].

  1. What not to do: Use the same face-to-face course syllabus: Professor Harding has a detailed syllabus he has perfected over years of teaching his face-to-face class and with a few minor modifications, he plans to use this syllabus for the online course.

Recommendations: This is a common error when transitioning a class to the online format, which is understandable considering the time, energy and effort invested in the face-to-face class. However, though the objectives and content for the course is already determined for the most part, creating a revised instructional strategy for the class in the online format is necessary. An instructional strategy for online learning involves unique pedagogical principles applicable to the delivery method, revised teaching methods, learning activities and assessments. For further resources on instructional strategy and course design consult the resources section at the end of this post.

  • Create a new syllabus with the online student and the virtual environment in mind.
  • Include course instructor contact information that will be accessible to online students: email, text number, Skype address, Google + contact info, etc.
  • Consider recording and posting a brief video clip with course instructor reviewing the syllabus, just as he or she would in a face-to-face class.
  • Post the syllabus in a PDF format for easy download, or use web pages within the course Learning Management System.
  • Provide a list of Web resources that relate to and supplement the course content for deeper learning opportunities.

2. What not to do: Implement Course grading that relies heavily on exam assessments. Harding’s face-to-face course is heavily test based with 70% of course grade allocated to exams and tests, 25% to assignments and 5% to participation. Given the significant test and exam weight, Harding plans to mandate that students complete all exams and tests in a proctored setting to ensure academic integrity.

Recommendations: I recommend Prof Harding revise his grading structure. A heavily test based course [as this one] in the online environment is less than ideal for several reasons: 1) opportunity for cheating is increased,  2) student engagement is significantly lower, 3) ‘testing’ assesses recall of facts and lower level knowledge, providing less opportunity for development of critical thinking skills. Harding may want to consider test/exam weight of 40%, participation and contribution 10% and the remaining 50% consisting of a variety of assignments spread throughout the course. Furthermore, I suggest that Harding have only one proctored exam requirement (perhaps worth 20%), and one or two open-note tests with a time limit [all adding up to the 40% recommended grading weight].

Cheating, a concern in online courses can be minimized if not avoided by using a variety of assessment methods. Methods that might include participation and contribution activities (graded), through discussion boards or chat sessions which will establish a student’s individual ‘voice’, demonstrating his or her involvement in the course. Student participation also gives opportunity for the instructor to get to know the student that may help the instructor identify non-authentic work submitted for grading, work that may not be consistent with the student ‘voice’.  Another assessment method might be a group assignment which if well designed, encourages collaboration and prompts students to engage with course content and construct new knowledge collectively. Including a peer review or peer-grading component is another strategy to authenticate student work.

3. What not to do: Assignments that lack detailed instructions: There are two assignments for this History course with descriptions of each in the course syllabus. Assignment details are outlined in two paragraphs within the syllabus, though professor Harding usually gives his face-to-face students enhanced instructions during his classroom lectures.

Recommendations:
Keeping students on task, motivated and engaged in an online course requires a careful balance between graded student activities that require interaction [i.e. discussion forums] and individual assignments. It is more effective to have smaller assignments due throughout the course, with one cumulative assignment due at the end of the course than just one significant assignment required.

However, students are sensitive to ‘busy work’, assessment activities need to be clearly linked to the stated learning outcomes for the course. In our courses I suggest including a purpose statement, which highlights how the particular assignment benefits the student, furthers critical thinking and deep learning, and brings him or her closer to the course objectives.

  • Provide clear, detailed instructions. Quality work from students is guided by clear, well-defined instructions.
  • Consider using rubrics, which are excellent tools for outlining expectations and standards.
  • Outline the purpose of the assignment – the why. Adult learners even more so than younger students want to know how the assignments and learning activities contribute to the big picture, the learning objectives of the course.

4. What not to do: Utilize the same course materials as used in F2F class. The course materials for the history class consist of a textbook, several handouts, and power point slides, all of which (except for textbook) the professor plans to post to the course home page.

Recommendations: Utilizing existing course resources is acceptable and encouraged though I suggest some modifications to the materials as listed below. Harding would also do well to take advantage of the rich resources available on the Web to supplement his existing course content.

  • Ensure all course documents are in accessible formats. Adobe’s PDF format is universal, meaning students can download PDF course file regardless of which version of Microsoft Word they use, or Apple software.
  • Limit file formats which use color for contrast (i.e. maps).
  • Use Power Point files sparingly, if at all – usually such files are costly for students to print (as many students like to print all course materials) and usually convey minimal value in terms of course content given the medium.

Consider the following questions:

  • What course content sources exist on the Web? What is already available in the form of e-books, association resources, scholarly resources, e-libraries, government sources etc.?
  • What Web resources are available through your institution?
  • What are your colleagues doing online with respect to using digital resources?

5. What not to do: Underestimate the amount of time needed for course transition. This is one of the most common mistakes of all, underestimating how much time is needed to bring a course to the online format.

Recommendations: Professor Harding is an experienced and esteemed professor at his institution with the ‘bones’ for a dynamic online history course. Harding would do well to approach the design process by enlisting support of available resources, either colleagues with experience in online teaching, instructional design support, books on online course design, and/or online resources available on the Web.  Transitioning an existing course from a face-to-face format to the online learning environment requires an investment of time that is akin to developing a course from the ground-up.

Closing Comments
I am confident Professor Harding’s course will be an engaging, rigorous, and interactive online course if he follows the recommendations. Though before the course can become a  quality learning experience, there is much work to be done; time needed to develop an instructional strategy. I’ve selected a variety of resources  for educators planning a course transition from F2F to the online format, or for those interested in learning more. One article, Teaching College Courses Online, is a gem, though it dates back to 2001, it is still applicable and relevant today, though this in itself is the topic for another post. In the following weeks I’ll be writing more posts on instructional design.

Note: If are are interested in upgrading a current online course, you may be interested in another post,  How-to Retrofit an Online Course,

Resources (click on title to activate link):

Online Learning is not Simple or ‘Sinister’

Online education is neither simple nor sinister. John Thelin (July, 2012).

An astute [and amusing] observation by Professor Thelin in his essay Professors and Online Learning featured recently in Inside Higher Ed; more for his choice of the word ‘sinister’ in his description of online learning, which is how numerous faculty view online learning in higher education – bad, threatening, dark, even frightening. I am not exaggerating. The word ‘fear’ was used in the latest report on online learning, Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education 2012, conducted by Babson Research which reported 58% of faculty [4,564 respondents] had more fear than excitement when asked the question “Does the growth of online education fill you more with excitement or with fear?”  In all fairness, faculty had a choice of only two responses to the question; the purpose of the question was to identify the level of optimism among faculty members. However it does provide a benchmark for the mood of faculty in regards to online learning, which Thelin addresses in his article.

Dr. Thelin, a professor at University of Kentucky describes in detail his own experience with the process of developing a 100% online course, including the arduous review procedure he went through for its approval. Interesting, is that the delays were caught in a bottleneck, at the top, barriers put forth by the higher level members of the board who Thelin aptly describes as obstinate luddites. Often the case in higher education circles, barriers to online education are not usually about the quality of the instructional strategy, but is the obstinacy of faculty opposed to the idea of an innovative form of education that differs from the traditional method.

What makes this article so relevant and noteworthy is the perspective that Thelin brings to this ‘new’ way of teaching, not only as PhD professor but also as a historian of higher education. In this post I’ll share the highlights of the essay and results from the report Conflicted, which complement each other beautifully, though I encourage readers to read both works.

The report Conflicted provides a snapshot of how faculty view online learning, which unfortunately as already mentioned, is with pessimism. Skepticism reigns not only about the learning outcomes, which 2/3 of faculty surveyed view as inferior to face-to-face learning, but also have doubts about online programs currently offered at the faculty’s respective institutions. The collective outlook is not good. However, we could attribute this ‘fear’ and pessimism to a fear of change, resistance to something different that challenges the status quo. Dr. Thiel gives a historic example from his archives that mirrors the current situation, a series of letters from 1891 between two prominent scholars:

“To discover that Ely [an influential scholar and professor of Economics] found time to teach in a new format and took seriously the evaluation of student correspondence courses was a revelation. It showed that more than a century ago, a famous professor took the plunge to participate enthusiastically in an innovative format for college level teaching and learning.  It would be comparable today to having the Nobel laureate and Princeton professor Paul Krugman responding individually to an undergraduate’s e-mails as part of Krugman’s online course.” (Thelin, 2012)

Online learning is the modern day correspondence courses of the late 19th century. Yet how much richer the experience is today, how much closer a well-designed online course is (and in some cases superior to) the face-to-face experience. Thelin highlights another crucial point about online education that is often misconstrued, which is the cost of online education. It is not less of a financial commitment or less time intensive, in fact the investments are equal to or exceed traditional education. However, what online education brings into the equation is efficiency – more students can be reached with high quality education than with the traditional classroom in a brick-and-mortar school. Thelin ‘gets’ online education, as do many excellent professors and instructors of higher education. It’s up to these educators and administrators to break down the barriers that stand in the way of online education and educate others to discard the notion that learning online is something to be afraid of. It’s time to break down the walls.

Resources:
Thelin, John. (July, 2012). Professors and Online Learning. Inside Higher Ed. Views

Kolowich, Steven. (June, 2012). Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education, 2012. Inside Higher Ed, Surveys

John Thelin, professor at the University of Kentucky, is the author ofA History of American Higher Education’ (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).

Seeing is believing…what does online learning ‘look’ like?

Seeing is believing – after reading the essay, No Back Row which describes how a long-time professor of higher-ed  had an ‘aha’ moment when he observed first-hand how an online MBA program actually worked, I also had my own ‘aha’ moment… perhaps one of the key barriers to educators’ resistance to online education is the lack of visualization, in other words, not being able to ‘see’ what an online program actually ‘looks’ like?  Perhaps. Below are some thoughts based upon the essay in which the author acknowledged [after visualizing an online program]  that online learning is a legitimate and viable alternative to face-to-face instruction.

“And I’m now convinced that what Apple’s Mac did for the personal computer, the “MBA@UNC” is about to do for higher education.” (Cohen, 2012)

The Visual Barrier
When I speak with educators about online learning [online courses for credit, MOOCs such as Coursera etc] who are not familiar with online learning either as a participant or instructor, I am likely to hear comments such as,  ‘I just don’t see how it’s better than face-to-face’ or ‘how can a computer teach’. Given that the majority of us, when considering a concept or idea draw upon previous experience or images to make sense of an idea  – it’s likely that those not familiar with online learning will visualize something similar to the images below…

And wonder how this [images above] can replace education done like this…

Making ‘Sense’ of Something New

This seems reasonable to me  – we make sense of new concepts or ideas by comparing to, or drawing upon, what we already know –  so it’s no surprise that those who have not ‘seen’ or experienced online learning find it challenging to see how learning can happen on a computer. It is an abstract concept until one ‘sees’ it.

Seeing is Believing but Quality counts
I encourage anyone who is unsure about the viability of online learning to read Mr. Cohen’s article [and/or to actually participate in an online course]. I appreciate his honesty, and his willingness to write about online education which he was pessimistic about until viewing the program MBA@UNC. Though, a key factor to this program’s appeal no doubt is its quality. It must be well designed, incorporating appropriate pedagogical methods to make such a positive impression on Mr Cohen. As I’ve written about in prior posts, online education is most successful when it is designed for the online format, when pedagogy is customized to a learner-centered approach, and when instructors establish a sense of presence in the course and interact with students.

Comment on Mr. Cohen’s essay…
I wrote the following comment in response to Cohen’s essay posted on Inside Higher Ed. I have shortened the full comment, [spared you reading the rather long winded comment] giving you the highlights.

An encouraging read – an essay any educator that is pessimistic about the future of education should read……When institutions try and mimic the face-to-face class experience online — use the same tools, the same assignments and the same lecture [recording of a live lecture], the results are usually poor. Online education is not about the computer, or the technology but is a tool [method] that delivers the education, and as Mr. Cohen observed, can be used effectively to create an intimate and thoughtful experience [in his example the small group discussion]….

From my experience as an educator and student, the key to successful online education is, 1) the course platform that uses the technology to effectively, 2) course design that creates rigorous and challenging  learning and leverages the online environment (discussion forums, Skype, Google Docs etc. as collaboration tools), and 3) the course instructor that adapts his or her teaching to the online environment, and creates a sense of presence and community in the virtual classroom.Thanks Mr. Cohen for the thoughtful essay.
Resources:
No Back Row, Steven Cohen, Inside Higher Ed

The tangled Web of Online Learning….explained

Oh… the tangled web we weave…literally. With all the courses and options available for online learning – i.e. fully online courses taken for credit, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), open source videos through Kahn Academy and the likes, and though enriching [and beautiful in visual terms as per images in this post], the potential to get caught and entangled is great. In this post I’ll discuss the various ‘strands’ of online learning, in an attempt to clarify where each fit into the evolving and dynamic web we call ‘online education’.

The purpose for writing this post is to clarify ‘online learning’ [for my own benefit as much as for others], as I’ve found myself clarifying in discussions at my workplace the various types of online learning that are readily available on the Web in the context of our own online program. As I’ve written about previously, education is no longer a static model, but fluid and almost organic in nature, and being able to define goals, purposes and assessment is ongoing.

Though several bloggers I follow have already created excellent posts about this very topic, [with detailed, descriptive charts - please refer to the resources section for links], I’ve outlined a [less complex] version below where I’ve categorized online learning into four areas. By doing so, I hope to help educators select and use a learning ‘strand’ more effectively, as it is the characteristics of the online learning [program/tool] that dictate how the learning will be applied by the student, and be of most benefit. The criteria I used for categorizing the types of learning are as follows…

1) The overall goal/purpose of the learning

2) How the learning is assessed or measured

3) learner motivation

Criteria  – explained
I chose the three criteria [above] after much deliberation – each provides a viewpoint for differentiating and comparing online learning. For instance, #1 the goal of learning determines how the learning will be used and applied, i.e. towards a degree, for personal growth or for learning a concept to support a skill set. Next, #2 the assessment or measurement component differs greatly within online learning, which helps in the classification and it often dictates how the learning is designed and structured – for example does the learner assess the value of the learning or is it the instructor‘s role to measure student learning? Does it count towards an accreditation, or provide a knowledge for the learner to master a skill or concept? Finally, #3 learner motivation, which is indicative of how a student approaches and participates in the online learning – the student’s level of motivation to engage and take charge of his or her learning. An example is a student participating in a MOOC [Massive Open Online Course] who is highly motivated to learn for the sake of personal development or growth, versus a student taking a required course for credit which he or she has to take (motivation is potentially low). The four categories below:

‘Social’ (title text center of image) and ‘Learning’ are soon to be interchangeable terms

I. Online Courses for credit - Courses which are a means to an end, the goal being earn credit towards a degree, students are extrinsically motivated. Assessment is usually formalized, traditional (professor or course instructor evaluating student learning). Examples: Penn State World Campus, Liberty University, Straighter Line, Minerva Project [in development].

II. Online Courses – not for Credit / MOOCs -
Students participate and choose to learn about a topic, usually defining their own goals and objectives for the course. Learning is for personal development and/or improvement, in other words the student is highly motivated, driven by intrinsic factors. Assessment is non-traditional, either self or peer-reviewed. Examples: Cousera, MIT Opencourseware, Udacity.

III. Online courses/resources for Professional Development – Courses which are for a specific skill set, vocational in nature and for professional development in the workplace (purpose). In this case students are intrinsically motivated, seeking learning as a lifelong learner. Examples: P2P University, Stanford Center for Professional Development, Code Academy, Harvard Business [online courses in specific skills for managerial roles], iTunesU [university].

IV. Open source: online video resources where ‘learning’ is really tools to supplement face-to-face or online courses at all levels  K-12 through to college, in the form of videos or vodcasts. The purpose for this type of online learning is not to provide a complete learning experience, but to be part of the instructional strategy, an instructional tool. Examples: Kahn Academy, TedED, Academic Earth, Lecture Fox.

Online learning takes many forms, serves many purposes and goals. ‘Change’ is now synonymous with education, and for educators keeping abreast of developments and new programs is a challenge. Though I view this challenge as a positive, it’s exciting. I am sure the content of this post will be outdated within 6 to 12 months, however no doubt I’ll then be discussing, debating and writing about it, along with my fellow educators and bloggers.

Resources:
Online education catalogue [beta], Wisdemy [includes several  descriptive, detailed charts comparing non-profit, for-profit and other providers of online learning].

Online Education – a snapshot, CatherineCronin [downloadable table of online learning providers, though some information requires updating it is a useful tool].

The Language of MOOCs, Hack Education

Related Post: MOOC Mythbuster, Onlinelearninginsights

Photo Credits: Social Web, Matthew Burpee’s Photo Stream, Flickr