How Course Design Puts the Focus on Learning Not Teaching

This is the second post in a series of four on instructional design for online courses. The goal of this series is to introduce a fresh, innovative approach to course design.

1197947341_89d0ff8676Instructional design, also known as learning design, appears to be making a comeback, which is most fortunate given that I am writing a series on this very topic. Massive open online courses [MOOCs] that mimic the classroom model where the learner is passive and the instructor is not, highlights the need for fresh, new approach to course design. And it’s not just MOOCs that need help, but numerous courses currently offered online; many are in need an overhaul to create an environment focused on learning, rather than one that focuses on instruction. My aim here is to provide readers with a course design framework, information and tools for designing online courses. These tools and skills appear to be in demand by educators that are trying to adapt their courses and teaching methods to an online or blended format.  Some educators also find when entering into the MOOC world of instruction, they are in need of a different skill set from what is required for face-to-face teaching.

In the first post of this series, Why Online Courses [Really] Need Instructional Design I wrote about the dire need for instructional design: how it is needed to guide the process of learning for students, and guide the teaching of the course as well. A courses’ structure is a reflection of the design teams’ [or designer] belief in how people learn. The teams’ learning perspective translates into the choices made for instructional tools, the delivery methods, application activities and assessment methods for the course. We can see this in traditional higher education, which for the most part ascribes to the cognitive theory of learning, a theory that rests on the assumptions that learning is an internal process; a function of the learners memory. It’s an instructor-focused paradigm, where the teacher describes concepts for the learner via instruction, and in some cases relies upon visual representations for reinforcement. (Roblyer & Doering, 2010). This model still is the primary model in colleges and universities—professors lecturing to a class of [passive] students. Even though considerable research proves that students learn better when active in the learning process [in keeping with the constructivist theory], the cognitive theory prevails. George Siemens, co-founder of the first MOOC noted in a recent blog post:

The current MOOC providers have adopted a regressive pedagogy: small-scale learning chunks reminiscent of the heady days of cognitivism and military training. Ah, the 1960′s. What a great time to be a learner.” gsiemens, March 10, 2013

Before I move on and provide further examples, I’ll review four learning orientations—beliefs in how people learn. I wrote about each theory in-depth in a previous post, A Tale of Two MOOCs: Divided by Pedagogy, though here I’ve put together an image that summarizes the core principles of each.

When examining the image [above], one can see how learning theories influence the methods of instruction for a course. This diagram is not meant to be an implementation tool for course design, but an information source. In subsequent posts of the series I’ll review how learning theory is incorporated into the design of a course during the initial phase, the analysis phase [following the analysis is the development phase and then implementation].

Image depicts four perspective on learning based upon theoretical principles [inside quadrants]. Instructional methods associated with each are adjacent to respective quadrant. Orange quadrants represent a student focused learning model and blue represents instructor focused.
Image shows four perspectives on learning based upon theoretical principles. Instructional methods associated with each, adjacent to respective quadrant. Orange quadrants represent a student-focused learning approach, blue instructor-focused.
In another article published recently, The Pedagogy of MOOCs, the author suggests that xMOOCs offered through platforms such as Udacity, are a step backward for education. Rather than leveraging the technology and the thousands of students to advance learning, where students become contributors to the course, the MOOC applies instructor-centered teaching and assumes the learner is passive – an empty vessel.

Closing Thoughts
The crux of my post, the point I would like to leave with readers, is that a fresh, new perspective is needed for teaching and course design—course design is about creating environments to help students learn. As new courses are developed or transformed from face-to-face to an online format, the focus should not be on the technology, the platform, the video lectures, the forums, the instructor, but on the students —what methods will facilitate their learning? How will they learn? Stay tuned for my next post in this series.


A Tale of Two MOOCs @ Coursera: Divided by Pedagogy

The Web as a classroom is transforming how people learn, is driving the need for new pedagogy; two recently launched courses at Coursera highlight what happens when pedagogical methods fail to adapt.

Divided pedagogy

I wrote recently about the Fundamentals of Online: Education [FOE] the Coursera course that was suspended after its first week and is now in MOOC hibernation mode. Over thirty thousands students signed up for the course hoping to learn how to develop an online course. It was a technical malfunction when students were directed to sign-up for groups through a Google Doc that shuttered the course, along with hundreds of student complaints about lack of clear instructions, and poor lecture quality. The course was suspended on February 2, and there has been no word yet as to when it will resume :(.

On the other hand there is the e-Learning and Digital Cultures course also offered on Coursera’s platform that began on the same day as FOE, yet the Digital Cultures course appears to be a smashing success if we use the engagement levels of students on social media platforms as a gauge. I enrolled in both courses, and the experience in Digital Cultures has been outstanding; the course content is challenging, thought-provoking and the instructors involvement appropriately on–the-side. Several colleagues within my network also taking the course appear to feel the same way.

The Tale of the Two
What made e-Learning and Digital Cultures successful and FOE not? There were variables common to each—the platform, the start date and length of course. The topics where somewhat similar, enough so that there was an overlap of enrolled students. However, at the root of the differences were the instructors’ divergent perspectives on how people learn. FOE ascribed to the learning model that most of higher education institutions follow—instructors direct the learning, learning is linear and constructed through prescribed course content featuring the instructor. In contrast, Digital Cultures put the learner in control, with choices of how to participate, and access to open resources on the Web for content. The evaluation method for the final assessment also provided learners with options; a peer-assessed, multimedia project created on a Web application of choice, based on a theme of interest covered within the course.

How People Learn: Four Viewpoints
In this post I’ll examine four orientations to learning approaches, the processes and  pedagogical principles that emerge from each viewpoint. To support the overall theme of this post is a chart that compares the two courses on four factors reflective of the learning orientations: pedagogy, content, and assessment and course interactions. The table gives readers a snapshot view of how the courses created divergent learning experiences, with the aim of highlighting how the Web as a platform for open, online and even massive learning creates a different context for learning—one that requires different pedagogical methods.

Orientations of Learning: Four perspective on how people learn with a selection of learning theorists aligned with one of the four based upon the principles of the given theory.

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 2.35.39 PM
Four orientations to learning; each embodies a belief of how people learn including the processes that bring about learning.  Sources: Smith, M.K.(2003), Siemens, (2005) and Roblyer & Doering (2010).

Our current higher education system is grounded in behaviorist and cognitive theories. The behavioral approach suggests that in absence of knowing the internal processes of the learner, the focus is on the external—the behavior of the learner. The behaviorist learning model follows the pattern,  A → B  → C, where the environment presents the antecedent (A), that prompts a behavior (B), that is followed by a consequence (C). Characteristics of this approach include passivity of the learner, rote learning and methods of reinforcement.

The cognitive orientation goes beyond the external environment, and focuses on the internal where learning is a process managed within the learner’s long and short-term memory. The instructor controls and directs learning through planned instruction, selection of content, and teaches the learner through the building of knowledge [or skills] using a hierarchical approach going from the simple to complex (Roblyer & Doering, 2010).

Constructivism and the idea of social learning, or social constructivism is an approach that gained credibility in late 1990’s at which time numerous research studies suggested students learn more effectively when engaged with their world, build on what they already know, and construct knowledge as active participants. In support of the emerging research on active learning, the National Research Council published a volume by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) How People Learn that synthesized the evidence. Bransford and colleagues emphasize three conditions for effective learning: engaging prior understandings, integrating factual knowledge with conceptual frameworks, and taking active control over the learning process (Cummins, 2006).  

Most Recent Learning Orientation for a Digital World: Connectivism
The three orientations mentioned, have serious shortfalls in context of our current social and digital culture. The focus has shifted to the individual, where the learner is in control. Furthermore, with access to information, social networks and tools that allow learners to consume, share and construct knowledge, the paradigm for learning has changed. In response to these changes, Siemens advanced the theory of Connectivism, which integrates principles from theories of chaos, network, complexity and self-organization all of which drive the need for a new pedagogy (Siemens, 2005).


Pedagogies Exposed
It’s the learning orientations, the belief system the instructors ascribe to that determines the pedagogical methods selected for instruction. Numerous higher education institutions and its instructors have incorporated active learning methods in keeping with the social constructivist orientation, yet methods that align with the cognitive and behaviorist model such as the lecture and traditional assessment methods [i.e. multiple choice assessments] are still going strong. In the traditional classroom, these latter methods can still be effective, yet in the context of open and online learning, these pedagogies don’t work, evidenced by the FOE course suspension, and the more recent situation where a professor dropped out of his own Coursera course mid-way through due to disagreements over how to best to teach the course. How people learn in the open, has changed, and institutions would benefit by adapting accordingly when offering courses in an open, online and massive format (xMOOCs).

Now that technology has allowed institutions to broadcast their courses to the world through xMOOCs, the world thus has a window into the methods and learning orientations of instructors of various institutions (granted, some views may not reflect the values of the institution represented, but the instructors’). We are able to see through this open platform the deficiencies and shortfalls of the pedagogical methods.

Two Pedagogical Methods Examined
The pedagogical methods, the content choices, the interaction methods of instructors, and the assessment methods of each course are summarized in the chart below.

Comparison of Pedagogical Methods of Two Courses on Coursera

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 7.02.38 PM
Comparisons of pedagogical methods of two xMOOCs based on my experience as student with both courses [2013]. The methods for the Digital Cultures course created conditions for vibrant learning communities with high levels of student engagement.

The two MOOCs at Coursera discussed here are representative of the clashes between the views on how people learn. And people do want to learn, are motivated; are eager to take charge of their learning, make connections, expand their network and construct knowledge. The Web as a classroom creates opportunities for learning and teaching like never before. As the learner’s needs change, so does the role of the instructor, and if he or she implements appropriate pedagogical methods for the learning context, both will have opportunities to expand knowledge consistent with their own learning goals and needs.


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.

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

What do Curators, e-Educators and Constructivists all have in common?

“A curator (from Latin: cura meaning “care”) is a manager or overseer [educator] of a collection [e-resources], traditionally a museum or gallery and is a content specialist responsible for an institution’s collections [educational resources] and involved with the interpretation [constructivist] of material.”

I’ve inserted my own words into Wikipedia’s definition of curator, as I’ve been exploring the term ‘educator as curator’, an emerging concept I’ve noted based on blog discussions and social learning tools developed within the past twelve months. Scoop-it and Curatr both describe learning with the adjective ‘curate’ and discuss educator as ‘curator’.

I’ll admit, I was stretched to see the connection between real learning and ‘curating’ in this context, though after viewing Corinne Weisgerber’s (St. Edward’s University) slideshare presentation  (below), I [finally] could see the connection — in essence, curating is a dimension of social learning, and with the expansion of web 2.0 tools, has tremendous potential for engaging students. However….

Educator as curator, is about social learning, and has great potential with the explosion of social learning tools – yet, I predict, will face acute resistance in higher education circles.  Adoption of ‘social learning’ will face barriers, as the concept collides with traditional teaching methods.  (onlinelearninginsights)

Corinne Weisgerber  (Associate Prof. of Communication at St. Edward’s University, presentation at SXSWedu, March 6, 2012.

Social learning is Constructivist Approach
I found this slideshare intriguing – the focus is on students’ creating, collaborating and learning through sharing. This approach emphasizes social, using web 2.0 applications and tools to create knowledge, with a byproduct being student engagement. This smacks of the constructivist learning theory, of which many higher education educators are wary. Though as mentioned in my post, sage-on-the-side, there is a clash between the objectivist (behavioral) theorists where learning believed to be transmitted from teacher to learner, is passive,  with the inquiry based learning or constructivist approach where the learner is thought to construct knowledge through inquiry, discovery and experience.

The future for Social Learning?  Resistance by Higher Education….
Why am I pessimistic about the adoption of the constructivist approach any time soon? It’s the divergent philosophies about knowledge acquisition held by traditionalist and progressives in higher education institutions. Post-secondary  institutions (in the USA – at least), are objectivist theorist, and though there is progress, change is slow. For example growth in online learning stalled in 2010, in part due to slow adoption (and continued resistance) of higher education institutions and faculty (I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, 2011).

Author and researcher C. Payne puts it this way in her book Information Technology and Constructivism in Higher Education, “The problem of the unwilling students seems to be fading away [using web 2.0 applications] while the hostile colleagues and the land of rigid institutions are likely to become the most important obstacles to deal with“. Ouch! To be fair, not all post secondary institutions fall into this resistant category, in fact there are several progressive higher-ed institutions which embrace and embody the student center approach for undergraduate and graduate programs. These schools discussed in-depth by Payne, however are outnumbered, and the ‘outliers’ in higher ed.

How to make Social Learning Effective
Jerome Bruner is considered one of the founding fathers of the  constructivist theory, influenced by Jean Piaget, a psychologist, founder of the developmental stage theory which describes the nature of knowledge and how humans construct it. E-learning and online educators would do well to review the concepts and principles of the constructivist model —  it provides a foundation for sound and complete instruction for putting the learner in the center, and for creating a framework that allows the learner to construct their own knowledge. I would like to emphasize, that the teacher is not absent from this model, in fact it is only through careful course design and with thoughtful selection of learning activities, can learning be effective and focused.

Principles for effective E-learning design using the Constructivist Theory
A successful e e-learning course is most effective when developed using a course design model, and with consideration of principles of a given learning theory, such as the constructivist theory (core principles below).

  • Emphasize the affective domain, make instruction relevant to the learner, help learners develop attitudes and beliefs that will support both present learning and lifelong learning, and balance teacher-control with personal autonomy in the learning environment.
  • Provide contexts for both autonomous learning and learning within relationships to other students. Group discussion, projects, collaboration as well as independent.
  • Provide reasons for learning within the learning activities themselves. Have students identify relevance and purpose.
  • Use the strategic exploration of errors to strengthen the learners involvement with intentional learning processes and self-feedback.

I look forward to the evolution of ‘educator as curator’, and constructivist – I am sure there will be more to come.  Keep Learning 🙂


Image representing Curatr as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

Curatr: Create rich and active social e-learning Business and Economics: E-learning and Blended Learning

I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman. Going the distance – Online education in the United States, 2011. (2011), Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC.