A place to log ideas and thoughts

George Veletsianos, PhD

Category: flexible learning Page 1 of 2

Face-to-face learning is inferior to online learning. Maybe. Sometimes. In some cases. If you ignore the nuance. 2/4

This is the second of four posts in a series that explores comparisons between in-person and online education. The first post noted how the binary we use when we discuss the two modalities is problematic. In this post, I examine the following question: What do we mean when we say that student experiences/learning are better in in-person contexts than online contexts? What criteria do we use to determine whether one kind of learning experience is better than another?

Researchers in the field of instructional design and technology typically use three criteria to evaluate learning. Was the experience effective? Was it engaging? Was it efficient? Dr. Dave Merrill summarizes this as “e to the third power”, or e3: effectiveness, efficiency, engagement (pdf).

Dr. Merrill misses a 4th and important e: equity. Unfortunately, this is an area that the field hasn’t paid as much attention to as it needs to, though (thankfully) there’s more and more of this work in the field recently, and it is gaining some momentum. To bluntly put the importance of equity in context one can ask: What is the value of a learning experience that is effective or efficient but positions some people in stereotypical roles, or presents them in dehumanizing ways, or completely ignores their lived experience? What is the value of an engaging learning experience that is at the same time sexist or racist?

To recap. Criteria to evaluate learning experiences: effectiveness, engagement, equity, and efficiency. [As an aside, educational technology companies typically sell their products on efficiency claims. And when they make effectiveness claims, if you’re in a decision-maker, I recommend asking for the third-party research supporting those claims.]

Let’s take a step back. I asked: What do people mean mean when we say that student experiences/learning are better in in-person contexts than online contexts? I asked this question in response to Hannah’s original question (see post #1) around the presumed inferiority of online learning compared to face-to-face learning. Let’s apply these same criteria to face-to-face contexts. That way, we can begin to illuminate the assumption that face-to-face is the best that we can do. Because this debate shouldn’t be about whether one modality is better than the other. It should be about how we can do the best we can do for all learners, staff, and faculty. That might lead us to ask the following questions:

  • Is face-to-face education equitable?
  • Who has access to it and who doesn’t?
  • Who does it privilege?

We know that online learning faces equity and access issues – of course it does – but let’s ask those same questions of in-person education.

That is where today’s post was going to end. But, it can’t. Because the President of Brown University wrote an op-ed in the NY Times arguing that college campuses must reopen in the Fall. Much was written about it already, such as this thread by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom. My post can’t end here because in the context that we find ourselves in today, we now also need to ask: Who does face-to-face education put at risk? Which populations are more at risk than others? The questions about equity need to be asked not just about online learning, but also about face-to-face education and institutional plans for the Fall.

New book: Learning Online and The Student Experience (now available for free)

Short version: My new book Learning Online: The Student Experience has been published ahead of schedule by Johns Hopkins University Press. The Press has made the book available online for free as part of its efforts to support COVID-19 responses. Download it here or support the press by purchasing a copy here. Disclaimer: I receive a % of the sales in royalties, but I’ll be donating them to a non-profit in my community.

Long version:The book was scheduled to be published in April/May. In the meantime, COVID-19 happened, and in early March I reached out to Johns Hopkins University Press to ask whether they would be willing to make it – or at least a portion of it – available online for free. My reasoning was that it could be of immediate benefit to faculty, administrators, and higher education leaders aiming to transition their courses from in-person to alternative formats. The press expedited the final steps of the process and I just learned that it is now available for free here. I hope you find it useful, both in these turbulent times that we find ourselves in and in future online learning efforts!

Johns Hopkins University Press must have been thinking about this much earlier than I was, as they have made thousands of their books and papers available for free in the meantime. You can support the press by purchasing a copy of my book here or by purchasing a copy of any of the books that they publish. As standard book authoring goes, I receive a percentage of book sales in royalties. I will be donating those to a non-profit in my community.

I hope people read and enjoy the book, and I will gladly talk to anyone about it. Whether you’re teaching a class on the topic or are a higher education leader trying to make decisions about online learning at your institution, I’m happy to talk with you.

Flexible learning as a value

The quote below argues that flexible learning is not a modality, as is often suggested in the literature. Rather, it is a value – a guiding principle. others have argued the same way about openness – that it is an ethos. This is a helpful way to think about flexibility. Inevitably though, it raises questions about its assumptions and outcomes: Is flexibility always “good?” For whom is it “good?” Arguing for making education “less flexible” is of course nonsensical, but the point isn’t to argue for something to be less than. It’s to ask how to think about and mobilize flexibility for education to be more equitable.

Flexible learning is a state of being in which learning and teaching is increasingly freed from the limitations of the time, place and pace of study. But this kind of flexibility does not end there. For learners, flexibility in learning may include choices in relation to entry and exit points, selection of learning activities, assessment tasks and educational resources in return for different kinds of credit and costs. And for the teachers it can involve choices in relation to the allocation of their time and the mode and methods of communication with learners as well as the educational institution. As such flexible learning, in itself, is not a mode of study. It is a value principle, like diversity or equality are in education and society more broadly. Flexibility in learning and teaching is relevant in any mode of study including campus-based face-to-face education.

Naidu, S. (2017) How flexible is flexible learning, who is to decide and what are its implications? Distance Education 38(3), 269–272. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2017.1371831

The premise of my upcoming book

I just finished reviewing the initial copy edit of of the book that I’ve been working on since before I want to admit, and I feel that it is time to let it go. There will always be the tendency to rewrite, restate, polish, add another idea, expand on an element that seems just a tad off. But, I’m ready to let it free. It’s time. And with that, here’s its premise:

In multiple conversations at multiple institutions over the years, I have heard educated, passionate, and good-willed people talk with excitement about the number of students participating in online and distance courses. More than a million students in Canada. More than 100,000 in the early massive open online courses (MOOCs), more than 20,000 in recent ones. More than 200 enrolled in a for-credit foundations course at a local university. Nearly two million online learners at one of the world’s well-known open and mega university. While such figures are impressive, an enthusiastic and all-consuming focus on the numbers can lead us to lose sight of Irma, Magda, Hassan, James, and Asma, or of the reasons that Anna failed to complete her degree, or Nick and Cassandra who were compelled to enroll in higher education while raising a family. Nor is it just our fascination with scale and numbers that leads us astray. A variety of common discourses, practices, and pressures operate in similar ways to alienate us from students and their realities—such as the adoption of business-like language to refer to students as “prospects” or financial constraints that move us to prioritize goals like “competitiveness” and “growth” over more community-oriented or people-centered goals.

Invisible learning, untrackable learning, and hidden learning environments

One of the chapters in my forthcoming book on online learners’ experiences is called The Learner Who “Listened.” It shares the story of an individual who participated in a course in a sort of solitary way, participating in the course without posting on any of the discussion boards, without being visible to the mechanisms developed to encourage participation. Let me paraphrase. She participated – by reading, thinking, watching – but this kind of participation is not typically deemed participatory. The pejorative label typically used to describe this kind of participation is “lurking.”

And even though some learning analytics companies and researchers want you to believe that “we can see everything the students do,” we can’t. In past work (pre-print here), we showed that learners engage with courses in ways that are invisible to instructors and researchers. Even if we could “see everything the students do,” that idea, and the practices that emanate from it, are dangerous and insidious.

I was reminded of this chapter this morning, while reading Clint’s post on untrackable learning in connection to conversations at ALT-C around “invisible learning environments” (Donna’s post here, Anne-Marie’s post here). There are activities that students engage in that should remain invisible – invisible to the instructor, invisible to the platforms that track them, invisible to the institution.

Speculative fiction in edtech and digital learning research

Speculative fiction

I am increasingly drawn to the writing of speculative fiction as a way to study, imagine, and critique the future of education. Jen Ross (who, incidentally and fortuitously, is developing an Education Futures pathway, and would love your feedback) recently argued for engaging speculative methods in digital education research, and that work has been very helpful.

While some may discount these approaches and view them as a far-cry from “serious” scholarship and “real science,” Plowman argues that “narrative isn’t just a shaping device: it helps us think, remember, communicate, and make sense of ourselves and the world…The role of narrative is not therefore simply aesthetic, it is central to our cognition from earliest childhood.” Importantly, many fields already engage storytelling and narrative for both pedagogical and knowledge-discovery purposes. For instance,

  • one of the most popular books in instructional design is the ID CaseBook which presents numerous case studies of individuals engaging with typical instructional design problems and issues
  • here’s a bit of work done on using story completion methods in qualitative research
  • and some work in sociological fiction, including some speculative fiction

But, what would speculative fiction concerned with the future of education or some aspect of digital learning look like? Here’s just a few examples:

What are your thoughts the use of fiction for scholarship? Have you read any other fiction set in the near-future that deals with education?

Strategies for addressing the Canadian post-secondary sector crisis

I was on a flight from Toronto to Vancouver on Saturday morning, and spent some of my time thinking about the strategies that Tony Bates believes may be helpful in addressing the coming crisis in Canadian post-secondary education.

I share Tony’s qualms concerning the future of higher education in Canada. In this post, I am going to share some thoughts in response to one question that he raised: What other suggestions would you have for making our institutions more relevant for a digital age?

People sitting on grass having a conversation
People sitting – by Ben Duchac on Unsplash

Before I go further, I should clarify two points:

I agree with Tony that we need radical curricular reform and compulsory training for every faculty member on how to teach. I also agree that we need new digital universities, which incidentally says nothing about the appetite for and/or challenges of such an endeavour. I imagine that Tony calls for new digital universities because a blank canvas offers space room for new/different ideas than revisiting henceforth established practices. While the BC government is exploring such a feat with the expansion of post-secondary opportunities on Vancouver Island’s West shore, these opportunities aren’t bountiful. So, within the existing system, what may be some strategies for current universities beyond the ones that Tony proposes?

1. A team-based approach to every course. A team-based approach invites the knowledge and expertise of multiple groups of people to the design and development of a course. For instance, this might involve every single course employing the services of an instructional designer in a meaningful way. To truly involve an instructional designer, as opposed to merely asking for input that may or may not be taken up, we need to restructure course design, development, and evaluation practices. At a fundamental level, this requires involving faculty, instructional designers, learning scientists, evaluation consultants, and media professionals in what is typically a solo approach.

What problem does this address? Improving teaching and learning. This proposal works in conjunction with Tony’s recommendation to provide compulsory training in digital learning. Such training will be invaluable in the act of teaching and facilitation, and will be helpful in having conversations with a team of professionals about course design, but we need to do more.

2. An education that is flexible to the needs of society. Our institutions are often grounded on structures that invite students to fit neatly within a template that we’ve created (e.g., courses start in September) or make drastic changes to their lives in order to fit that template (e.g., moving to a different city).

How much flexibility is there in typical degree programs? How many courses are electives? In how many courses do students select from a menu of assignments, assessments, or outcomes? This is not to satisfy mere preferences but to provide education that is responsive to needs and and realities that people face – people who have multiple and competing responsibilities.

I’ll use the practice of flexible admissions here to illustrate. Imagine someone who ended their undergraduate studies ten years ago in order to care for a family member. Or someone who holds a diploma and has been working in their chosen profession for the last 15 years. Or, someone who holds multiple diplomas and has 3 years of work experience. Now imagine these three individuals desiring further learning through an undergraduate or graduate degree. Institutions that are relevant to the needs of society should be able to offer paths to credentials that not only recognize prior coursework, but value prior experiences, learning, and knowledge. We know that universities do not have a monopoly on learning and knowledge and that a classroom of people from diverse backgrounds may provide an enriching learning experience for all. Why then exclude learners who may not have followed a typical path to learning? Flexible admissions policies address this issue by providing alternative paths to education. While some universities in Canada do this (including Royal Roads University, UOIT, and Athabasca University), flexible admissions that recognize prior learning, competence, effort, and accomplishments are not the norm.

What problem does this address? Life is complicated and many people follow non-linear paths to education either by choice or due to forces outside of their control. A relevant higher education institution is inclusionary, and flexibility is one approach to eradicating exclusionary and limiting practices.

This area requires caution: There might be a tendency here to eliminate student barriers without concomitantly providing supports that will enable students to succeed. One form of flexibility for example may be a self-designed, self-paced, and self-guided program of study that imagines students as individualistic and autonomous individuals who succeed without institutional and societal support.

3. Rapid engagement. Imagine that your institution wishes to launch a new program, perhaps an MA degree on Indigenous Knowledge or Educational Entrepreneurship or Critical Animal Studies or FinTech or Climate Emergency or any sort of programming that is new to your institution. Is it possible to go from concept to launch in matter of a few months? Probably not at present, but that’s what we should be striving for. To do so we need to eliminate bureaucracies that impede innovation both at the institutional level, but also at the provincial level (where programs are approved). This is not to say that institutions should strive to chase the next high-enrolling program or to abandon the deep critical work that universities do, but to say that innovation is a staple – a characteristic even – of universities, and we should strive to reduce the barriers facing it. Removing such barriers may also do something else: it might enable academia to set the stage for discussion rather than respond to a discussion.

What problem does this address? Slow responsiveness to changing societal needs and barriers to innovation.

There’s little in the notes above regarding research, commitment to research, affordability, social justice, and so on, which are issues that I believe are also at the core of this conversation. Over to you: What are your thoughts, recommendations, and suggestions on this topic?

In education, what can be made more flexible?

Even though flexibility and flexible learning most usually focus on enabling learners some degree of control and freedom over the location, time, and pace of their online studies (hence the terms “anytime anyplace” learning), flexibility may be applied to a wide range of pedagogical and institutional practices. Here’s some examples:

  • Flexible assessments (e.g., providing learners with “a menu” of assessment options to select from. Dr. Joan Hughes for instance allows students to complete a proportion of pre-determined set of badges in her course. This could also apply to assignment deliverables, wherein some students, for example, may produce essays while others may create videos)
  • Flexible admissions (e.g., providing multiple admission paths. For instance, at Royal Roads University students who do not hold an undergraduate degree may apply for admission under a flexible path that asks them to demonstrate how prior coursework and experience has prepared them for graduate study)
  • Flexible “attendance” (e.g., providing learners to attend class based on their emerging needs. Dr. Valerie Irvine for instance calls this multi-access learning; a situation where a face-to-face classroom is set up in a way that allows learners to choose whether they can attend in f2f or online mode, and to make that decision as needs arise/change).
  • Flexible pacing, not only with respect to activities pertaining to a course, but also with respect to program pacing (e.g., start-end dates).
  • Flexible exit pathways. While flexible admissions refers to an entry pathway, exit pathways refer to how learners choose to finalize their program (e.g., thesis vs. coursework vs. work-integrated learning project options).
  • Flexible coursework options. This is the option where students have some control about the courses they enroll in. Imagining this on a continuum, on the one end students have no option of electives and at the other end students create their own unique interdisciplinary degrees. Typically, students have electives that they select, though that option could be made more flexible through, for example, allowing learners to choose electives from institutions/organizations other than their own.
  • Flexible course duration and flexible course credits. At the typical institution, courses last for X weeks and are worth Y credits (e.g., semester-long and 3-credits, or some variation of the 3-credit system including 1-credit, 6-credits and so on). Flexibility could be applied to this form of structure as well, with course duration and credit dependent on learning needs vis-a-vis a predetermined calendar/schedule. One could imagine for example a 2-credit course, or a 1.5-credit course within a university that typically offers 3-credit courses.

While there’s benefits to flexibility, such as empowering learners through greater agency, I am not arguing for flexibility to embedded in all of these forms. There’s philosophical questions to explore. And practical concerns that need to be overcome: Student information systems for example, might prevent the creation of fractional-credit courses, as I’m certain many of of you know.

What are some other ways that institutions, courses, learning design practices, and education more broadly can be made more flexible?


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