A place to log ideas and thoughts

George Veletsianos, PhD

Tag: covid19

A pan-Canadian effort in online education? PD not content.

Alex Usher writes that “the only way forward [i.e the Fall semester] for [Canadian] institutions is to do something which does not come naturally to them, and that is to create a national online curriculum collaboration.” I’d like to explore this a little bit here.

I agree with Alex on a number of areas: The likelihood of a “typical” face-to-face fall semester is slim; institutions need to improve their online learning offerings; and institutions don’t currently have as much instructional/learning design capacity as is likely needed to offer the kinds of online learning experiences that we know are exemplar and imaginative. To address these problems, he argues for collaboration. In my last blog post, I argued that in their longer-term efforts/strategies Canadian institutions (especially universities) need to collaborate more, use evidence-informed practices to guide online learning designs, and pay greater attention to pedagogy, OER, and equity. As Rick Schwier wrote a long while ago competition is corrosive – let’s collaborate more.

Alex’s proposed solution however is where him and I begin to veer atowards different paths. He argues for “creating, in common, a large basket of very good online resources which each institution could then incorporate into its own learning platforms.” He continues: “It would need to be done in concert with some first-class training for how to teach online.”

Content is not the problem in online teaching and learning. Content is abundant, and even when it is not, it is relatively easy to produce (caveat: institutions’ ideas about branding and what counts as “professional” content aside).

To design and develop good* online teaching and learning – the kind that many do, including us at Royal Roads University – institutions need to (1) to prepare faculty to teach online, and (2) offer excellent student support. In other words, institutions need to focus on the second part of Alex’s recommendation (first-class training on how to teach online) and expand the kinds of student supports they currently offer. I’ll focus on #1 here.

Preparing faculty to teach online is not something that we typically do at the pan-Canadian level. It should be no surprise to readers that most universities don’t even do that at the local level. And perhaps it’s time to think beyond our individual institutions. Here’s how we could potentially do a large-scale online teaching and learning professional development event in Canada in preparation for the Fall:

  1. Assemble a group of stakeholders that includes online learning experts, IDs, directors of centers of teaching and learning, and people from existing groups that are vested in educational technology collaboration (e.g., BCcampus, eCampusOntario, etc) to develop a teaching and learning online curriculum. Typical elements included here may be modules on interactions, assessment, student success, social presence, teacher presence, a/synchronous teaching and learning, facilitating discussions, etc. There’s no need to develop this from scratch either. There’s plenty of guidance online, including in Use Tony Bates’ Teaching in the Digital Age book.
  2. Using this curriculum, create a 4-week common online course. The course should be online not just because we’re in a pandemic. The course needs to be online so that participants (i.e. faculty) experience what good online teaching looks like first-hand.
  3. What should the design of course look like? The course should include some independent work (e.g., short lectures on basics) but also collaborative work with people at one’s institution, but also with people across institutions. Remember: an advsantage of online learning is its collapsing of classroom boundaries, and so faculty teaching Engineering 201 across Canada can meet up for a real-time chat to discuss whatever matters and worries them the most. While “online assessment” or “facilitating online learning” share commonalities, there are disciplinary differences that impact how both of these things are done online. Simply put: Assessment in Sociology 101 may look different than assessment in Calculus II and those may look different than assessment in Early Childhood Practicum… and so on.
  4. In other words, while there may be some centralization in the design of the course, this needs to encompasses smaller-scale work and collaboration. Faculty need to experience both what it may look like for students to work independently but also what opportunities/challenges exist for small-group collaboration.
  5. This is a good time to remind everyone: People need to be paid to take the course (or otherwise supported). Don’t mandate something like this, especially for sessional faculty without compensating them.
  6. One this is done, provide ID support to each individual faculty to create their own online course. Clint Lalonde puts it nicely when he argues for flattening the education curve. Yes, I know this is expensive and it’s not as easy as it sounds, but that’s a post for a different day.

I’ll end this with a bit of a warning because I am beginning to worry about something else entirely. You may hear similar-sounding arguments from MOOC providers and the like. They’ll say: Hey, we have this course, and you don’t need to pay us that much or waste so much time. Send your faculty to us and we’ll even give you a discount or offer it for free. That strategy – the capitalize-on-a-disaster strategy – is how these providers will seep into your institution, embed themselves in your practices for now and for good. In politely Canadian terms, I’d advice against it.

This isn’t a magic bullet. And it likely faces some challenges. But it’s now here, so if you like it and can improve it, by all means, please take it apart and let’s improve it together.

*I use the word “good” to refer to effective, engaging, and equitable online learning.

Tiny Tips #2: COVID-19 and Online Learning

Today’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Coronavirus and the Great Online-Learning Experiment, argues that researchers should use the natural experiment afforded to them by COVID-19 to examine comparative outcomes between online and in-person courses.

This is bad advice, for the following reasons:

  • A large body of literature has already examined outcome differences between in-person and online courses, and the findings have typically been “no significant differences.” In the cases that researchers found differences, those are typically the result of factors other than the mode of teaching (e.g., extra time to study, better design in one of the two modes, etc). I cover this in the very first chapter in my book Learning Online: The Student Experience which arrives next month.
  • The online classes produced under emergency situations aren’t going to be comparative to the in-person courses. I wish I was optimistic enough to imagine a course designed under stressful conditions within the span of a week to be be as good as the courses which one had months – even years – to create and iterate.

There’s nothing “natural” about the state that we are in. This is not a “natural” experiment of the kind of research that we need. The kind of research that we need asks:

  • What made some faculty, students, and institutions successful in achieving the outcomes they defined?
  • What institutional supports proved to be helpful to students and faculty in times of crises, and in what ways?
  • What roles did instructional designers play in this transition, and what made some more successful than others?
  • What vulnerabilities did this shock reveal and how may we address them?
  • What are the positive and negative externalities of using emergency online teaching/learning?
  • In what ways is this crisis being exploited, to what means, and by whom?

The kind of research that we need also inquires into the stories of people (students, faculty, administrators) to reveal our humanity: How did we come together during this time of crisis? How did we support and care and love one another to do what we could for education at a time of urgent and pressing need?

Tiny Tips #1: COVID-19 and Online Learning

The kind of online learning that many of us aspire to requires careful thought and planning. But what do you do when you don’t have time to carefully orchestrate a well-crafted online learning experience, such as when COVID-19 requires you to abruptly abandon your in-person teaching and switch to an online solution?

Here’s a few tiny tips:

  1. Recognize that you are now in a new environment. You’ll find yourself wanting to replicate your face-to-face course. That’s a losing battle. You have neither the time, and if you’ve never taught online, neither the expertise to do that. And that’s OK. Let me reassure you once again. It’s OK that you aren’t an online learning expert. It’s OK that your new course isn’t dealing with the intricacies of everything that you planned but are now unable to do.
  2. Reach out to colleagues on your campus who have either taught online or whose job is to help others teach online. You probably have an office on campus that’s called The Center for Teaching and Learning or The Center for Teaching Excellence or something similar. There’s people with expertise there, and they can help. But do keep in mind that those colleagues also probably already overwhelmed, so be patient.
  3. Reach out to colleagues online. Over the last 3 days I saw many more threads that I can count on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and individual blogs. There are some great ideas/tips/approaches being shared there, including this post by Tannis Morgan on teaching with one of the most basic tools that we all use on a day-to-day basis – email.

For some of us, online and digital learning is our bread and butter, the world we live in and the world we are experts in. Doctors, and nurses, and epidemiologists respond to COVID-19 in the ways that they were trained to keep the rest of us healthy. At times like these, we can lend a helping hand to each other in the ways that we are familiar with.

(but, beware of vendors that appear our of nowhere promising to put your courses online or offering free software to help you through the crisis, and heed Ayebi-Arthur’s recommendation, who in writing about educational technology responses to the 2011 earthquake in New Zealand, notes that such free gifts “set in motion long-term expectations that need to be managed.”)

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