A place to log ideas and thoughts

George Veletsianos, PhD

Category: learner experience Page 1 of 3

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.

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.

Lola Olufemi and student/faculty social media harassment

Below is a short interview with Lola Olufemi. The description from the BBC reads “Lola Olufemi is 21 years old and Cambridge University Students’ Union Women’s Officer. She found herself on the front page of a national newspaper, the face of a campaign to “decolonise” the English curriculum at Cambridge University. She discusses with Jenni Murray how she feels she’s been scapegoated by the media and her fears for the impact this could have on other young, black women wanting to speak out.”

I was watching this unfold yesterday, and witnessed the racist and misogynistic tweets fly by. One of which came from a professor at a well-known unversity, and as I responded at the time, what sort of academic responds in such a vile way to a person, let alone a student. As was shared on Twitter the institution has policies processes to deal with the harassing faculty member, but the questions that have been preoccupying my thinking over the last few months is the following: In what ways should our universities respond to the harassment that their students and faculty receive online, and on social media in particular? What are the institutional and individual responsibilities when we encourage students and faculty to be present on social media?

Learning Design at Pearson

Last week, a reporter from EdSurge reached out to me to shed some light on what Pearson called their Learning Design Principles. The EdSurge article is here, but below is a more detailed rough draft of the points that I made to share. I am posting them here for a fuller picture of some of my thoughts.

  1. Nothing proprietary (yet, perhaps). I saw a number of sources note that Pearson released their proprietary learning design principles. There’s not much proprietary in the principles. All of these ideas are well-documented in the literature pertaining to educational technology found in cognitive psychology, learning sciences, instructional design, and education literature.
  2. It’s good to see that Pearson is using findings from the education literature to guide its design and development. Some of these principles should be standard practice. If you are creating educational technology products without considering concepts like instructional alignment, feedback, and scaffolding, authentic learning, student-centered learning environments, and inquiry-based learning, you are likely creating more educational harm than good. The point is that using research to guide educational technology should be applauded and emulated. More educational technology companies should be using research to inform their designs and product iterations.
  3. BUT, since around 2011, the educational technology industry has promoted the narrative that education has not changed since the dawn of time. With a few exceptions, the industry has ignored the history, theory, and research of the academic fields associated with improving education with technology. The industry has ignored this at its own peril because we have a decent – not perfect, but decent – understanding of how people learn and how we can help improve the ways that people learn. But, the industry has developed products and services starting from scratch, making the same mistakes that other have done in the past, while claiming that their products and services will disrupt education.
  4. Not all of the items released are principles. For example, “pedagogical agents” is on the list but that’s not a principle. Having studied the implementation of pedagogical agents for more than 7 years, it’s clear that what Pearson is attempting to do is figure our how to better design pedagogical agents for learning. Forgive me while I link to some pdfs of my past work here, but, should amagent’s representation match the content area that they are supporting (should a doctor look like a doctor or should she have a blue mohawk?). Table 1 in this paper provides more on principles for designing pedagogical agents (e.g., agents should establish their role so that learners have a clear anticipation of what the agent can and cannot do: Does the agent purport to know everything or is the agent intended to ask questions but provide no answers?)
  5. As you can tell from the above, I firmly believe that industry needs research/researchers in developing, evaluating, and refining innovations.

But more importantly, happy, merry, just, and peaceful holidays to everyone!

Listening to learners to improve access, equity, their experiences, and education overall

Over the last year or so, we’ve interviewed more than 200 individuals who have participated in a number of open courses. We are working on a project in which we are using learner narratives and vignettes from these interviews to help administrators, faculty, researchers, and learning designers understand learners and improve their learning experience. Though there are many ways that are used to understand learners (e.g., dashboards) we believe that in-depth vignettes of typical experiences may allow for greater sensitivity of the learners’ lifeworld and realities. We will be using these stories to problematize various aspects of digital learning. Each story will be followed by a longer analysis of the issues raised in the story. For now, below is one such (DRAFT!) story. What do you think? Is there anything else that you’d like to see in this narrative? Is it interesting? If you are an administrator, faculty, researcher, or learning designer, does this story add anything valuable?

 

Title: Why not?

Theme:  Open learning opportunities are oftentimes costless and relatively risk-free.

Mary and her demanding Pomeranian, Kylie, live deep in the heart of Texas. “I have a passion for the law!” the thirty-year-old exclaimed when we called her on her landline. She had seriously considered going to law school and had even passed her LSATS, the law school entrance exams used for US Universities. But having just finished four intense years of a bachelor’s degree, she decided to wait a bit. “Law school just didn’t seem like a good choice at the time,” she reflected. Five years later, Mary has settled into her work as a business consultant. Her interest in the law is still keen, and she’s never completely given up the dream of law school, but it’s been tempered with a bit of realism. “I don’t know if I can afford to spend another three years in the classroom,” she confided to us, “I don’t know if I still have the same passion for the legal industry as I did five years ago.”

During an afternoon enjoying frozen mango margaritas with a friend, trying to cope with the scorching sun, Mary learned about MOOCs. Shortly thereafter, she signed up for a number of courses, dabbling in some and promptly forgetting about others. One day, ContractsX, a course on contract law taught by a Harvard professor, popped up on her screen and she decided to “give it a shot”. What had she got to lose? “It’s a free class, taught at one of the more well-respected institutions. Why not?!” she laughed.

The course was flexible and fit into her busy life. On Saturday mornings she would sit in her office, with Kylie by her side and a warm cup of dark roast coffee in her hand, and use her trusted iPad to watch Harvard Law lectures. These weren’t just any lectures. Professor Fried was a masterful storyteller, a king of his trade. It was through these short, interesting, and memorable stories that Professor Fried taught concepts relating to contract law. “I can’t believe that I’m sitting here, I’m learning this material from Harvard law!” The fast pace and cramped content made the course challenging, Mary acknowledged, and she didn’t always do as well as she would have liked on the course tests. But, as she was able to go back to review the answers and re-watch the videos, this didn’t stress her too much, and she ended up passing the course with flying colours. Proud of her certificate of accomplishment, Mary enthused, “It makes me want to keep coming back for more!”

Even though it was a personal interest in the law that led her to sign up for this course, Mary has found what she learned in ContractsX helpful when she has to deal with contracts in her own job. She has enthusiastically recommended the course to co-workers and friends. She’s currently taking a number of other open courses and is anxiously awaiting the second version of the Contracts course. While Mary’s dream of attending law school, may not have changed, her confidence in herself has: “I never thought of applying to Harvard. There was no way I would be getting in. But then, five years later, I’m taking a course from Harvard. I wouldn’t say that I’m a Harvard law student, but at least now I could sit across from a Harvard law student and have a clear conversation with them. It’s very rewarding to know that.”

 

Compassion, Kindness, and Care in Digital Learning Contexts

Bear with me. This work-in-progress is a bit raw. I’d love any feedback that you might have.

Back in 2008, my colleagues and I wrote a short paper arguing that social justice is a core element of good instructional design. Good designs were, and still are, predominantly judged upon their effectiveness, efficiency, and engagement (e3 instruction). Critical and anti-opressive educators and theorists have laid the foundations of extending educational practice beyond effectiveness a long time ago.

I’m not convinced that edtech, learning design, instructional design, digital learning, or any other label that one wants to apply to the “practice of improving digital teaching and learning” is there yet.

I’ve been thinking more and more about compassion with respect to digital learning. More specifically, I’ve been reflecting on the following question:

What does compassion look like in digital learning contexts?

I’m blogging about this now, because my paper journal is limiting and there is an increasing recognition within various circles in the field that are coalescing around similar themes. For instance,

  • The CFP for Learning with MOOCs III asks: What does it mean to be human in the digital age?
  • Our research questions reductionist agendas embedded in some approaches to evaluating and enhancing learning online. Similar arguments are made by Jen Ross, Amy Collier, and Jon Becker.
  • Kate Bowles says “we have a capacity to listen to each other, and to honour what is particular in the experience of another person.”
  • Lumen Learning’s personalized pathways recognize learner agency (as opposed to dominant personalization paradigms that focus on system control)

Compassion is one commonality that these initiatives, calls to action, and observations have in common (and, empowerment, but that’s a different post).

This is not a call for teaching compassion or empathy to the learner. That’s a different topic. I’m more concerned here with how to embed compassion in our practice – in our teaching, in our learning design processes, the technologies that we create, in the research methods that we use. At this point I have a lot of questions and some answers. Some of my questions are:

  • What does compassionate digital pedagogy look like?
    • What are the theories of learning that underpin compassionate practice?
    • What does a pedagogy of care look like? [Noddings’s work is seminal here. Some thoughts from a talk I gave. thoughts from Lee Skallerup Bessette and a paper describing how caring is experienced in online learning contexts.]
  • What are the purported and actual relationships between compassion and various innovations such as flexible learning environments, competency-based learning, and open education?
    • What are the narratives surrounding innovations [The work of Neil Selwyn, Audrey Watters, and David Noble is helpful here]
  • What does compassionate technology look like?
    • Can technologies express empathy and sympathy? Do students perceive technologies expressing empathy? [Relevant to this: research on pedagogical agents, chatbots, and affective computing]
    • What does compassion look like in the design of algorithms for new technologies?
  • What does compassionate learning design look like?
    • Does a commitment to anti-oppressive education lead to compassionate design?
    • Are there any learning design models that explicitly account for compassion and care? Is that perhaps implicit in the general aim to improve learning & teaching?
    • In what ways is compassion embedded in design thinking?
  • What do compassionate digital learning research methods look like?
    • What are their aims and goals?
    • Does this question even make sense? Does this question have to do with the paradigm or does it have to do with the perspective employed in the research? Arguing that research methods informed by critical theory are compassionate is easy. Can positivist research methods be compassionate? Researchers may have compassionate goals and use positivist approaches (e.g., “I want to evaluate the efficacy of testing regimes because I believe that they might be harmful to students”).
  • What does compassionate digital learning advocacy look like?
    • Advocating for widespread adoption of tools/practices/etc without addressing social, political, economic, and cultural contexts is potentially harmful (e.g., Social media might be beneficial but advocating for everyone to use social media ignores the fact that certain populations may face more risks when doing so)

There’s many other topics here (e.g., adjunctification, pedagogies of hope, public scholarship, commercialization….) but there’s more than enough in this post alone!

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