I am always interested in the relationship between online education and substandard quality. It was good to read, therefore, a comment piece by Jason Lodge in today’s Conversation. In the article, titled ‘Higher Ed changes will lead to higher fees, more online delivery’, he writes:
To design and effectively deliver high-quality online degree programs, knowledge of the content, the technology, and teaching itself is necessary. It isn’t effective to just bolt new technologies and innovations onto existing pedagogical approaches. Using new tools often requires a complete redesign of learning activities, assessment and the broader curriculum. As new ways of communicating online become available, it is necessary to constantly revisit how to make the most of them.
While I could argue that the headline suggests that online delivery is a bad thing, I won’t go there in this post. The two points I want to make are that online delivery is not necessarily cheaper, and that I agree with Lodge that technology is only one aspect of high quality online delivery. The critical point here is the redesign of learning activities and assessment.
In my experience, technology for the sake of technology is problematic in online delivery. Just because we know that people are starting to grasp the world in ‘fragments’ doesn’t mean that delivering a course in fragments – click here, click there, watch this, comment in this forum, go here to complete this activity – is a satisfactory experience. I recently studied a distance education course and was frustrated by the requirement to be online all the time – all content was web-page only, and all assessment was by wiki/forum post/online interaction. It seemed to be ‘for the sake of being interesting and different’ rather than ‘this will help you meet your learning outcomes’. As an educator in media and journalism, I require students to complete assessment via blogging/Twitter/Storify/SoundCloud/YourListen, so they have to engage with technology. I’ve experimented over the years with different approaches to content delivery – all information on a live web page, information on a word document, information via CD/DVD, information via PDF. As noted in an earlier post, I experimented with Prezi to deliver a staged assessment task, I’ve used video lectures to deliver content, and even contacted students individually to talk through issues.
Ultimately, however, students seem to be happy with the basics. Distance students are by nature motivated and busy. They’ve enrolled in this mode for a reason, generally, and in my experience they want things to be simple. I have reverted to PDF files which are easily downloadable/readable on mobile devices; I’ve stopped doing routine weekly lectures because students might say they want them but our analytics suggest that very few actually watch them and they are extremely time-consuming to develop and deliver (rather, I focus on specific points of issue that require explanation); and I’ve opted for putting the majority of my effort into great assessment design. This, however, is also time consuming. Designing assessment that is scaffolded, allows opportunity for feedback (in some cases on more that one occasion), authentic, and engaging employs significant resources by a team of staff.
A recent example was a news writing course, whereby we redesigned the course so 80% of assessment was writing based, and students needed to write a news story every fortnight based on real events (court/council/local issue). In class, you can ask students to write a story after attending court, for example, and mark it on the day, working through it with students. In this case, I employed an industry mentor who was responsible for advising/supporting/marking half the class so we could turn around assignments within a week. It was the only course I’ve taught by distance which had a 100% completion and pass rate. A great result, but asking for marking assistance for a course with only 15 students in it would be questioned at higher levels.
It’s an example, though, of how those who are great distance educators live in the ‘problem-based teaching’ world. It’s not a case of just delivering mass education via technology to students ‘out there’. It’s a case of developing a learning environment and support structures that so students achieve good outcomes. All my news writing students were writing professional, publishable work by the end of term. It wasn’t cheap, it wasn’t easy, but it was effective and I can be confident that in moving to the next level of their program they’ll be employable before they graduate.
I consider distance education students to be a ‘class’. I set aside contact hours (which would be the same as being in class with students) whereby I am online/available by phone to talk to students. The number of contact hours increases based on the number of students I have, so it’s generally 20 students per two hour contact blocks. This forthcoming term I’ll be responsible for 60 – 80 students across two courses, so that will be three to four contact blocks.
Whether I’m a good educator is not for me to judge – it’s for my students and peers to do this. The point I need to make that those of us passionate about distance education put time and effort into the process. Distance/online education shouldn’t be equated with poor quality. I don’t think the MOOC rush has done us any favours because it’s promoted the idea that education can be ‘massified’ and devalued the assessment process (in my view), but it would be nice to see some empirical data to support the fact that learning can be as valuable/engaging when managed from afar. I’m on a mission to find some.
Simonson, M., Schlosser, C., & Hanson, D. (1999). Theory and Distance Education: A New Discussion. The American Journal of Distance Education. 13(1), 60-75.
This article provides an older perspective on distance education, and is specifically situated in the American experience. It specifically proposes the theory that the distance education should be equivalent to that of the local educational experience. The authors review literature on the development of distance education and arguments about the lack of theoretical support for this development. The article pays particular attention to theories of distance education (theories of independence and autonomy, theories of industrialization of teaching, and theories of interaction and communication) as raised in Keegan’s 1986 book, Growth and structure of distance education, and summarises these from American and European perspectives. The authors argue that instructional designers should aim for equivalent learning experiences for all students, this equivalency being based on value for the student, even if the way it is delivered or how that experience looks is different. They ultimately argue that aiming for equivalency in learner experience would unify learning and teaching as acts.
I loved this article and felt that it was ‘speaking to me’ in a way. It provided theoretical underpinning to a point of view I already hold, in a number of areas. I suspect technology makes it easier to apply equivalency theory in practice today than it was when this paper was written.
This week (Week 9) of the course, we’re looking at course design, and one of the diagrams poses the design cycle as:
- Link the Course Outcomes
- with the Core Content
- to create Effective Learning Experiences
- that link to Assessment Tasks
- through Effective Assessment Tool
I, however, design differently because I prioritise assessment which is said to drive or motivate student learning (see Boud, 1988). When teaching in an online environment, considering how a student will be assessed needs to drive the design process because there are obviously a range of technical and logistical issues that may arise. Students with the online cohort are also traditionally mature age, already working, and have different demands on their time. So the assumption is made that students will only do that which is assessed (and lots of research supports this notion). I therefore need to consider very carefully what the student needs to be able to do, and work back from there.
So my steps would be:
- Establish the Course Outcomes that
- link with Assessment Tasks
- and Effective Assessment Tools
- to create Effective Learning Experiences
- informed by Relevant Core Content
In more simple terms, I think about what I want the student to be able to do or demonstrate, and then think about how this can be done in a way that is going to be engaging. Some might argue that in designing a course this way, you may miss important content, but there are ways to ensure that all relevant content is covered. There are a number of ways to do this:
- ask students to answer weekly activities, and then submit those that they think were most relevant to their learning with a justification of why they thought this;
- ask students to complete all required activities in the form of a reflective blog, or through a portfolio, whereby they have to present a case for their learning; and most importantly
- ensure that all content is relevant to the final assessment task, which is summative, and ask students to reflect back on the content as part of that final task (this provides some useful feedback to me as well).
A potential issue here is ‘time on task’, but if you’re asking the students simply to engage with the materials and you’re assessing all aspects of their engagement with the course, that becomes justified. That being said, most of my courses have a workbook/blog/journal component of close to 50 per cent. These include practical activities, drafts of final pieces, reading summaries, and so on. They’re always the first assessment submission piece, because they are the initial scaffolding for the final piece, which in my courses are usually authentic tasks and/or practical submissions. Any quiz would be included in the workbook or journal, and I have never set an examination to this day.
An interesting reading about the need to consider assessment includes James Gee’s ‘Assessment Drives Learning: How to Drive to a New Place’. While recognising the very diverse range of approaches to assessment and content across disciplines, I actually find it interesting that the need for the argument is still current.
Boud, D. (1988). Developing student autonomy in learning. London: Kogan Page.
I’ve been working on my teaching philosophy, and came up with some principles for good practice of my own, all starting with R [forgive me, for I am a former editor and fan of alliteration as being an extremely useful and effective rhetorical device]. You’ll note that I don’t really talk or consider anything specific to ‘online’ education here, because I have difficulty in categorising ‘online’ as a defined and different mode of delivery. I have as many deep and rewarding experiences with students I have never (and will never) meet as I do with on-campus students. Students in my classes are the same in that they’re all different, and we’re all working together for the same thing – to have a rewarding experience that leads us to new places.
So my ‘Seven Rs’ are as follows:
Respect: Mutual respect between students and teaching staff should underpin the way in which we interact and view one another at all times. This is demonstrated by having empathy for one another, being polite, and demonstrating a high level of regard for how comments and critique may be viewed by the recipient and others ‘in the room’.
Relationships: A learning environment is one where positive and beneficial relationships must be maintained and sustained. This is underpinned by respect. It’s a fundamental element of many good teaching practice models (eg Chickering & Gamson, 1987). It also requires teaching staff to remain engaged at all stages of the learning process for the student (see MCracken, Cho, Sharif, Wilson, & Miller, 2011).
Relevance: Content must be relevant, or presented in a way that students can come to see the relevance from their perspective. In this, I draw on sense-making theory because it’s a theory that recognises the user as the driver of making meaning from information. In this context, sense-making is “the process by which individuals create an understanding so that they can act in a principled and informed manner” (http://it.toolbox.com/wiki/index.php/Sensemaking), and this appeals to me because being principled and informed are great aims in education. As a theory, sense-making is most commonly used within information systems and technology, but its relevance in contemporary education environments is now being considered more widely (see for example Butcher & Sumner, 2011).
Reflection: Students and educators must reflect on their practice, and be given the opportunities to do so, at every opportunity. They need to be encouraged to reflect critically, and this must be embedded in aspects of learning design and teaching practice. There is a strong link between reflective practice, learning, and being an effective teacher (Kane, Sandretto, & Heath, 2004).
Repetition: Students should, where possible, be given the chance to do something again and build on their knowledge and improve their understanding. This requires drafting and feedback to be integral to course design. This is known to be effective, particularly in writing courses (Romova & Andrew, 2011).
Rigor: High expectations are required of students and educators, and assessment must be challenging. I believe that learning is through the doing and internalising, so it’s the assessment design that is the most important part of the learning journey. I don’t believe that content should be difficult to understand; rather, it’s my role to help interpret, define, and clarify concepts. At the same time, I expect students seek and engage with quality content outside that which is ‘delivered’.
Recognition: I believe that all students must be recognised and rewarded for effort and for what they do well.
Butcher, K. R., & Sumner, T. (2011). Self-directed learning and the sensemaking paradox. Human Computer Interaction, 26(1), 123-159. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07370024.2011.556552. Published, 01/2011.
Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. American Association of Higher Education Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7
Kane, R., Sandretto, S., & Heath, C. (2004). An investigation into excellent tertiary teaching: Emphasising reflective practice. Higher Education, 47(3), 283-310.
McCracken, J., Cho, S., Sharif, A., Wilson, B., & Miller, J. (2012). Principled assessment strategy design for online courses and programs. Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 10(1), 107-110.
Romova, Z., & Andrew, M. (2011). Teaching and assessing academic writing via the portfolio: Benefits for learners of English as an additional language. Assessing Writing, 16(2), 111-122. doi: 10.1016/j.asw.2011.02.005
Chickering and Gamson’s ‘Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education‘ (1987) are printed on my coffee cup. For the uninitiated, they stipulate that good practice in education:
- encourages student-faculty contact
- encourages cooperation among students
- encourages active learning
- gives prompt feedback
- emphasises time on task
- communicates high expectations
- respects diverse talents and ways of learning
I know some colleagues are a little dismissive of the type of this type of rhetoric, but I’m actually quite comfortable with these, because they are principles and accordingly, are quite timeless. The question posed to me this week is whether they are relevant to postgraduate students as well as undergraduate, and whether they can be applied across modes. My response is ‘yes’, and ‘yes’. The reasons are as follows.
The first two principles relate to relationship building and maintenance. Principles 3 and 7 recognise the need to be student focused. Principles 4 and 5 are based on respect for the student as worthy of attention and respect for the student’s time as being valuable. Finally, Principle 6 establishes a standard required, but is countered and balanced by the other principles, which are learner/student oriented. This is particularly important in the context of postgraduate study, which can be a very difficult experience for students because of the supervisor/student power balance, be it perceived or real. Too many students work with supervisors who are difficult to contact, have high standards that they don’t clearly articulate until the student hasn’t done what was expected, don’t give prompt feedback, don’t take into account different ways of learning…the list goes on. However, a good supervisor incorporates most of these principles within their practice. We can clearly see consistency with Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles and ‘The Eleven Practices of Effective Postgraduate Supervisors’ by Richard James and Gabrielle Baldwin (1999).
As for being applied across modes, my response here is that mode is increasingly irrelevant, and that all education, regardless of how it is delivered, is effective if it remains based on human-experience, recognising the desire for relationship, recognition, and achievement. The Seven Principles are a few decades old now, but remain influential because they’re simple and oriented to respect for the learner who as we know, vote with their feet, have high expectations themselves, and value their time. As they should.
I’ve been asked to consider the benefit of stimulating multiple senses simultaneously, but I don’t know that this is a path I would want to take. Certainly, stimulating multiple senses is worthwhile in an education setting because different learners have different preferences: some respond better to visual prompts, while others prefer an aural approach, such as through storytelling. In a course I developed this past term, I used Prezi to guide students through a series of tasks on which they were assessed. The presentation included video as well as written support, and podcast. It was very time-consuming to create, and I had developed a simple one-page guide as an alternative for those students who had difficulty with internet access. I asked students about their preference through a simple poll on my Moodle site because I wanted to know the worth of creating a Prezi if in fact a written overview would work. Most responded that they wanted the written guide, and half said they also wanted the Prezi. Only two students indicated that they would be happy with the Prezi only.
This course was a speech course, and I had the opportunity to reflect this term on how much easier it is to explore interesting concepts, and illustrate examples of good and bad practice for students, courtesy of YouTube, YourListen, and SoundCloud. So in this particular context, stimulating multiple senses is important, but whether it’s effective simultaneously is debatable. More thought needed on this one…