A place to log ideas and thoughts

George Veletsianos, PhD

Category: online learning Page 1 of 12

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.

So you want to publish your #edtech or digital learning book in an open access format?

Every now and then someone asks me whether I know of any non-commercial publishers that don’t charge thousands of dollars in OA fees to publish open access books in the field. In this post, I’ll share two such efforts that I support:

  1. A new venue for your open access book publishing in our area is EdTechBooks.org Not only is this project ingenious, I believe it will quickly scale and grow into something extraordinary. I have a long personal and professional connection to the people running this project, so take that prediction with a grain of salt. If you’re interested in publishing with them, contact them at admin@edtechbooks.org
  2. Athabasca University Press publishes the award-winning Issues in Distance Education book series. Partly because AU Press is one of the few university presses that publish books in open access formats in our field and partly because I’d like to help expand the conversations that we are having in our field I recently agreed to co-edit this series with Dr. Terry Anderson. If you’re interested in publishing with AU Press feel free to contact me. As far as my personal interests go, I am keen to support and see more books from:
  • Under-represented authors, such as women and people of color, whose perspectives and research on topics pertaining to digital education challenge the dominant ways of thinking.
  • Authors who are interrogating various aspects of the history of the field.
  • Authors who are conducting rich ethnographic work (e.g., What’s life like as an instructional designer? What’s it like at an online program management company?)
  • Authors who are conducting critical investigations of various aspects of the field, such as for example, interrogating discourses pertaining to online learning, or interrogating issues relating to power and privilege.
  • Authors whose work provides practical recommendations for addressing the significant challenges and tensions that our community is facing.


Are there any other non-commercial open access publishers in the area that you would recommend?

Searchable directories relevant to educational technology

Contact North | Contact Nord keeps a number of non-exhaustive searchable directories relevant to educational technology leaders, practitioners, and researchers that are really useful, especially because they can be downloaded in csv format. Below are links to the ones I could find on their website:

AI is coming for your instructional and learning design jobs, apparently

For the most part, the early morning is my favorite time of the day. I like having a cup of coffee or tea, running, reading, writing, and just pretty much doing anything at 6am, than at 10am. This is not a productivity tip. You do what works for you.

What would have worked better for my productivity this morning was to have waited until later in the day to read Donald Clark’s predictions of AI radically transforming instructional design* jobs and replacing instructional designers (“adapt or die” he says). I don’t disagree with everything that he writes. We agree that in a largely interdisciplinary and complex endeavor as online learning designers need to make sense of AI/machine learning/etc, and developers need to make sense of how learning works. We also agree that most of online learning offerings could be amazing, but are often unexciting. And I really like some of his writing, such as his critique of the hole in the wall experiments.

 

That’s not where the problem lies. The problem is within this snippet:

 

AI is here. Few argue that is will change the very nature of employment and therefore it will change what you learn, how you learn and even why you learn. We are, at last, emerging from a 30 year paradigm of media production and multiple choice questions, in largely flat and unintelligent learning experiences, towards smart, intelligent online learning, that behaves more like a good teacher, where you are taught as an individual with a personalised experience, challenged and, rather than endlessly choosing from lists, engage in effortful learning, using dialogue, even voice. As a Learning designer, Interactive designer, project Manager, Producer, whatever, this is the most exciting thing to have happened in the last 30 years of learning. Make the leap!

The talk about AI “behav[ing] more like a good teacher” offering “typical cost reductions of 85-90%” is incompatible with the claims that AI isn’t aiming to replace teachers or designers (a claim that Clark also makes in 2016 here, even though he later notes that the time may not be 2018, but soon). If you develop software to do the job that a designer does, you are, to a degree, working toward substituting people with software. There may very well be good reasons to do that, but don’t call upon designers to “adapt or die.” The message sounds more like this: We have developed software to change the functions of your job and we want you to develop a different skill set. If you don’t, we’ll replace you.

We haven’t yet reached the point where an independent AI decided to take on the job of the instructional designer.

I work with instructional designers, and train them. Are there parts of their job that would be better automated? Yes. But here’s the issue: That sort of work is not really instructional design work. That sort of work rarely involves the conceptualization and design of empowering, equitable, engaging, and rich learning environments. If Clark’s notion of the work that the instructional designer does envisions a person who enters text into pre-determined templates, and does similar work, then we aren’t talking about the same professional

Finally, I agree with Clark that it’s prime time for instructional design to undergo a process of transformation. Not for the reason Clark sees (AI), but because instructional designers are now, more than ever, necessary to support the design and development of rich and equitable learning environments. To do so, they need to be empowered more, not relayed to conduct the work that machines could do more efficiently. The preparation of instructional designers needs re-envisioning to support this goal, and that requires not only an understanding of technical phenomena (similar to what Clark calls for), but also a truly critical engagement with what ID is and what it should do. To that end, I am increasingly turning to feminist practices, which is a topic that probably deserves it’s own post.

Now, I’m going to go back to enjoying my coffee.

* Clark calls it learning design, I call it instructional design. The nomenclature varies between the UK (where he is) and North America (where I am), even if there are more similarities than differences between what learning and instructional designers to. For the purposes of this post, the differences are insignificant.

An important lesson from an external evaluation

Two colleagues and I just finished an external evaluation of a universityʼs online MA in education and MEd programs. The programs are stellar, the students are engaged, and the faculty are thoughtful. Their graduation rates are above 90% and their students do important work, evidenced in part by the number of theses that are subsequently published and the number of projects that seek to make meaningful contributions to practice. The programs do many things right.

You have to look inside to get a clear view of what is happening
The photo is of Georgetown University, and has no relationship to the program evaluated

 

Their outcomes contradict the opinion that online learning is solitary and lacks inclusion. Rather – and despite the fact that these programs are thriving – they face institutional obstacles that prevent them from doing better, that preclude them from further expanding equity and quality. We have a few recommendations for improvement, including suggestions for course design, evaluation, assessment, and enrolment, and Iʼm looking forward to following their work in the future. Being able to examine degree programs in depth and interview faculty, staff, administrators, and students is a worthwhile experience in its own right.

This program is a single case, and by no means an accurate reflection of online programs in general. However, the more I do these evaluations the more I see online learning curtailed not just by forces external to the institution, but also by recurring internal barriers that staff, faculty, and administrators can address.

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