What does ‘online learning’ really mean?

By WittyKnitter

It’s been a long time since the idea that people could learn while interacting with a computer (or other electronic device) was new. People in our Engineering faculty talk about testing students using computers in the 1980s, and claim that as ‘online learning’. At the Uni where I work there’s been a group of people paid to look after this side of the University’s operations for about ten years now – and they’ve always operated from a basis of matching the learning requirements of the students, as expressed by the academic staff, to the technology provisions. In the last seven years this support has been increased, and formalised as part of the central structure of the University. We now have around 20 people who work on the policy and practice of eLearning at the university. And, although many of us are highly skilled techies, that’s not what we’re primarily paid to do: we’re paid to support the teaching staff and the students in their use of the eLearning infrastructures. That includes a small proportion of quite innovative stuff, but essentially we work with the average, hard-working academic, who can see a pedagogical advantage in getting their students to interact online, or to do a series of graded self-assessments to supplement the formal classes, or to do research online and learn to distinguish useful sources from inadequate ones.

Although I find his article a bit too focused on ‘consumption’ than on ‘learning’, Rick Wilson discusses the content delivery fallacy – the idea that teaching online means simply moving all your teaching material into some kind of digital format – here. He points out that academics need to think about content differently: where they once thought it was their responsibility to provide the content that students needed to learn, now content is all over the place and accessible all the time, and what students need is to be guided through it, and taught to discriminate – good old-fashioned IT literacy skills, if you like.

In times of dramatic change, like now, the shift occurring from the digital disruption introduced by mobile technology demands nothing short of a transformative strategy in what we are doing with content.

It’s hard to predict exactly what skills people will need to live and work in Western societies in the future. But, whatever they are, you can bet your boots that being able to interact and work effectively online will be paramount among them. In the same ways that in the second half of the 20thC, accountants needed to be very proficient with adding machines (my father’s fingers were like lightning on his), receptionists and sales people needed to be able to charm people over the phone, secretaries needed to be able to take shorthand and type 120 wpm accurately, in the 21st century people will need to be comfortable thinking and producing on screen – and not only in their working lives.

When I was interviewed for my first job in the unit in which I’m now a manager, in 2004, I was asked “What do you say to an academic who rings the helpdesk and says ‘I want to put my course online?'” My answer (which was, luckily for me, the correct one): “I’d ask him why he wanted to do that – what benefit would that bring to his students.” Teaching online isn’t about ‘putting stuff up’; it’s about using your teaching skills in a different way. It doesn’t have to be a huge imposition on staff; if it’s done right – with support and training – it should add to their skills and deepen their disciplinary and educational understanding.

But the way our unit functions, as an adjunct to existing faculty teaching structures that are based on disciplinary epistemologies and priorities, didn’t happen by accident. It is the result of a long line of carefully-made decisions, within the aegis of a senior executive whose primary concern is student learning. We’re not based in a technology or infrastructure unit, and we don’t run the servers. Our budget is granted on the basis of what we do with faculties – with teaching staff – in direct response to their requests. Sure, we have to service the Learning Management System (a enormous and clunky piece of software that, despite its shortcomings, does suit most people most of the time). Sure, we run a helpdesk that is largely concerned with people’s technical problems with the LMS and administrative glitches. But we’ve also conducted training and academic development for nearly 800 people in the last 12 months, all of which was focussed on getting staff to think about what they want students to learn. And every year we spend about 12,000 hours of our time working directly with staff to create resources for their teaching.

Perhaps I have a rosy view of how online learning works at my institution. David Jones takes a light-hearted view of the situation in many universities, but there is an underlying serious message, and he made me think about how much we fall into the trap of being ‘quality nazis’. Certainly, it’s an easy trap to fall into: box-ticking is a much less challenging way to work than entering into real engagement with issues of pedagogy and ‘fitness for purpose’ of eLearning resources. And, if you’re into abuse of power, I suppose it can be very satisfying to tell an academic that what they are offering students isn’t of high enough quality – especially if they come across like one of Jones’s ‘idiot academics’. But I’d like to think that our project management isn’t too ‘rah rah’ – we are all on permanent staff, and we accept that a certain number of projects each year will fail or will produce an outcome that isn’t the expected one, and that’s OK. We aren’t expected to massage the outcomes to match some outside measure of ‘success’. On the whole I think we do a pretty good job, and I’m always grateful that we’re well-supported at very high levels in the institution.

But some institutions are slow learners, so much so that you would despair. You realise how behind the US is in digital learning when you read in the Chronicle of Higher Education that students are still expected to pay for books of course readings (31.5.2011) – mainly, it seems, due to copyright restrictions that were negotiated out of existence in Australia and New Zealand nearly 20 years ago –  or that students complain that not enough content is available online (14.4.2011) and you discover that some Universities have virtually nothing available digitally. Articles regularly discuss a University’s decision to ‘go online’ in economic terms – despite evidence over many years that teaching online is not a way to cut costs. Even if you do it badly it is expensive if you calculate the price correctly; for example the Chronicle reported on 11.4.2011 that the U of California is to borrow US$4-7million to ‘build online programs’, reversing an earlier decision not to (and their university is $500 million in debt in the present tough economic times).

Locally, the University of New England (one of the main distance education providers of Australian Higher Education) has recently trumpeted its decision to pay a commercial company to ‘put content online’ – discussed by Sarah Thorneycroft here. There’s no discussion in the press release linked from her post about how staff will be supported to actually teach this content online; apparently ‘putting the content up’ absolves academics of all responsibility for that content, which will be devoured by eager students – and thus they will have learned – what exactly? There’s heaps of literature about how much support distance students need; making material available digitally won’t make that need disappear. And I happen to know that the university has recently moved all its online content out of the commercial system that Pearson uses, and is presumably planning to move it back into. This is beginning to look like a poorly-researched decision.

Students coming to university from school in 2012 have been the recipients of the Federal Government’s Computers in Schools scheme for four years. They have been learning online throughout most of their time in high school. University staff who believe that students only learn in the classroom, preferably when they are standing at the front of it, are about to get a shock. These students don’t need information; they know how to get that. What they need to a structure within which to integrate that information into what they already know and develop their understanding into knowledge. Knowledge can‘t be taught; like wisdom it’s a personal thing that each person grows from their environment.

I recently heard a story about a new lecturer to our institution, who’d come from a smaller, gentler place. After giving her first lecture she reeled into the staff room, wild-eyed “They argued with me!” she cried. “They looked things up on their laptops while I was talking and said that I was wrong! I didn’t even know what they were talking about – why are they allowed to use their laptops in class? Can’t we ban them?” It was pointed out to her that they can be banned, but of course it won’t help; the students will only make a note and look it up afterward and email you with their corrections and questions. And that’s what we want them to do: we want them to be independent learners. Your job, gentle lecturer, isn’t to be the font of all knowledge any more; your job it to guide students through the mass of information that’s out there and assist them in making sense of it.

Which, of course, is all you ever did; it just wasn’t as obvious to you before, when you could believe that you were in charge of their learning.

42 Comments

  1. Posted June 22, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Great post! Agree completely (speaking as someone who is hired to provide engaging, interactive historical content).

  2. Posted June 22, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Hmmmmm….. as a recent returnee to the academy, I have Opinions about this.

    I’m team teaching in a course, taught extramurally, and internally on three campuses, with a large total enrolment. We have a web site for each version of the course. So far, so good. But our head of school has told us (no discussion!) that we are to put quizzes on our sites, because it’s a great learning tool. Right…. sure…. if the students use them. More to the point, in order to put quizzes on there, we have to write the damned things, in addition to writing assignments and tests and exam questions in a highly technical and ever-changing area (taxation). That’s a huge amount of extra work for all of us, if the quizzes are to be at all meaningful.

    And that’s exactly the rub that you have talked about. It’s not worth doing this type of stuff on-line unless it actually contributes to learning. Yet making it contribute to learning involves a heap of extra work.

    I can see me having a full and frank exchange of views with our head of school very soon…

    As for marking on-line…. I refuse to do it. I value my eyes and my headache-free nights far too much.

    /grumble grumble grumble

    PS. Great post, M-H.

  3. Mum on the Brink
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Great post, esp when read in conjunction with the referenced piece- http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/701/learning-content-is-not-your-job-any-more-the-effect-of-convergence.

    The key is to create new paradigm, i.e. not just migrate the old way of doing things online, but do things differently.

    The most important skill people (esp students) need to learn is critical assessment of information sources and analysis of information derived from the plethora of sources.

    Re Deborah’s comment- is it time to go full circle and return to assessment by viva? (Saving online marking for tests, which then can be marked by computers)

  4. Posted June 22, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Deborah, Maybe your HoS doesn’t realise that writing multiple choice questions requires great skill. I’m not saying you don’t have that in your teaching team, but it does require a lot of time to write, test, edit etc.and I wonder if that time mightn’t be better spent getting the students to interact in more interesting ways. Most people who use them don’t write them themselves, BTW; they use banks of published questions.

    Mum on the brink, I like the idea of oral presentations, and they cut down on plagiarism too, because students have to be able to answer questions on the ideas they present. But in very large classes (at our institution some first-year subjects have over 2,000 enrolments each semester) they aren’t practical. They’re good for higher-level students in smaller classes, though.

  5. Posted June 22, 2011 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Like everything, this can be done well or badly, and some people have no intuitive feel for it. I’m one of those, and were I teaching I’d need to be compelled to put course content online. I’m very traditional in my teaching methods (chalk-and-talk, no powerpoint, using textbooks, assigned readings, coupled with closed-book 100% examinations).

    My experience with the Oxford method has given me a soft spot for the viva, however, and I have a sneaking feeling we may finish up with a version of that, if only to get around the endless difficulties posed by students getting others to do their work for them, which I wrote about here: http://skepticlawyer.com.au/2010/11/18/when-there-is-demand/ (coupled, of course, with just straight plagiarism).

    [Updated to add: WK, is there any overlap between the e-learning group at your university and what I’m going to call (probably wrongly) ‘technical administration’? My experience of the latter has not been good: papers getting lost, results getting lost, medical certificates getting lost, people having to manually enter results into ‘MyEd’ (what Edinburgh Uni and the Faculty of Advocates uses, and which seems to produce a great many transcription errors), rather than just printing them and posting them out the old fashioned way.

    People who studied here and graduated prior to 2006 tell me that the University was uniformly well-administered when it was paper-based — without the roll-call of disasters above — and like many lawyers they’re now making the standard ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ type comments. I sometimes wonder if online administration really is unsuitable for university administration. Of course, it may just be that the e-learning people are competent, while the e-administration people are not, but that seems too glib].

  6. Posted June 22, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Most people who use them don’t write them themselves, BTW; they use banks of published questions.

    They’re just totally non-existent when it comes to NZ taxation law. So we’re doing it all from scratch. Not.Much.Fun.

    I have to admit that part of the problem is that I had wanted to use quizzes in quite a low-level way, getting students to go look at the IRD (tax department) website, and getting them used to using it. Not examinable, but very, very useful as a skill when they get out into the workforce. But I am not the course controller (‘though I should be able to fix that problem in a year or two), so I don’t get much say. It’s… frustrating.

  7. Posted June 22, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    I support a move towards online learning because I think it can provide a more effective and efficient method of learning. Of course it only does that when it’s implemented properly, and isn’t applicable for all types of learning.

    However, my experience in automating previously manual tasks (which is essentially what we’re talking once we go beyond simple uploading of documents) involves an order of magnitude or two greater effort than the task itself. So it only becomes an efficient method where there’s some combination of large classes, static content or technologically adept teaching staff. I suspect though that a significant portion of university level content could be covered if multi-institutional efforts were involved.

    University staff who believe that students only learn in the classroom, preferably when they are standing at the front of it, are about to get a shock.

    It’s amused me that this semester, that although all the lectures were put up for online viewing, each and every lecturer insisted we would miss out on something of value should we chose to skip the lecture on view it online. I’ve found the tutorials beneficial, but haven’t learned all that much from the lectures beyond what I’ve learned from reading the text and going to tutorials.

  8. Posted June 22, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    WK on multi choice difficulty, yes. Multichoice (or worse, true/false) are hard to write properly.

    Once gave up an off campus course, psych, because the first assignment questions were wrong, the question about information always travelling from the axon to the dendrite. Unfortunately, knowing third year neuropharmacol, neurophysiol, and neuroanatomy, I knew the answer they wanted, what had been in the course notes, and that it was wrong (dendro-dendritic junctions exist, for example, and are important).

    Besides – chance for a great story. A guy wrote “boring” on the physics exam question about figuring out the height of a building using a “really good barometer” (you can imagine calculating pressure differences). On being called in, the student said “It’d be more accurate to drop the barometer and time how long it takes to hit the ground. But that’s a waste of a good barometer. I’d rather use it by saying to the caretaker ‘I’ll give you a really good barometer if you tell me how tall your building is'”. The question did NOT, even with multi-choice versions of the equation, allow for the best answer. Oh….The physics student? N. Bohr.

  9. Posted June 22, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    SL, we have a mutually respectful relationship with the techie people. They share our floor of the building, and they have staff dedicated to supporting us. Generally the relationship works well, and that’s helped by the fact that they are much better resourced than they used to be.

    Desipis, lecturing by itself is a very old-fashioned technology. Capturing it on video or sound file is helpful because it allows students to go over and over the bits they didn’t hear or don’t understand. But it’s still premised on one person telling everyone else what they should know. It’s great when lecturers use the lecture time to involve the students more, but again this is difficult with huge classes.

  10. Posted June 22, 2011 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    [email protected], since books are also an old-fashioned technology, what advantage does lecturing have, if it’s not interactive? It seems to me that technology is seen as a way of gaining back some of the quality lost in the process of super-sizing classes.

  11. Patrick
    Posted June 23, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    I would have thought that the biggest thing about video is that for most subjects you are lecturing on (sorry Deborah not applicable to you!) have already been lectured by someone better than you – so you can (most often) put their lectures online, and interact with your students around their content – you can critique it, expand on it, explain it, night well whatever you please!!

    That would seem to me to be a better use of technology, for starters.

    KP at clubtroppo has recently blogged on a similar theme:

    However, at least as I see it, the logical organisations to produce “lecture” presentations are not individual universities at all but rather the large academic publishers. With the media “convergence” that the Internet has ushered in, there really isn’t any necessary or clear-cut distinction between textbooks, lectures and any other didactic teaching resource.

    Although in many areas there are already free lectures from eg MIT, or TEDx talks, etc…!

  12. Patrick
    Posted June 23, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    LE, you should read Ken’s post, and think how much time could be freed up at Melbourne in particular where about four different people each teach Property, Contracts, Con&Admin, Crim, Torts, the old HPL, etc…most of them, frankly, not that well!! (would you like a bit of feminist crap with your HPL? Some bizarre leftoid nonsense that bears little or no relation to prevailing Australian judicial trends with your contracts? Some wishing-I-was-in-a-sophisticated-and-completely-bullshit-jurisdiction-like-Canada with your equity? – I certainly didn’t!).

  13. Posted June 23, 2011 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    In our university, we’ve stopped putting lectures online because basically people stopped turning up to lectures at all.

    Which is a problem, why? It seems to me that less people showing up would enable lectures to be more interactive and beneficial for those that do show up.

    It also led to this phenomenon of people listening to them repeatedly, and then quoting your own words back at you like they were the gospel in the exam.

    The other side of that coin is students getting marked down because they don’t answer the way the marker expects them to.

    The other thing I hate is the limitations of powerpoint slides.

    I don’t think powerpoint is limited so much as peoples ability to use powerpoint is limited. Most, if not all, information can be displayed visually. Many people are able to learn much more effectively from visual material than from words (especially aurally).

    Multichoice (or worse, true/false) are hard to write properly.

    I think it depends on what you’re trying to achieve. One subject I was doing this semester had regular (fortnightly) online quizzes. Not a particularly good way of demonstrating understanding of the material, but it helped me with the rope learning aspects of the course (such as knowing the meaning of particular terms) and also identifying areas I hadn’t learnt as well as I should.

  14. Jacques Chester
    Posted June 23, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    I’m one of the “techies” at a different university. As it so happens, our teaching and learning bloke has just gone to USyd. Small world.

    Now to business. It is my tradition these days to trot out the same selection of links each time education is raised.

    First is Phillip Greenspun, that chatty iconoclast. Never mind the internet, is Greenspun’s argument, what about everything else invented since the university?:

    Teaching technologies developed since 1088:

    movable type
    cheap paper made from trees
    telephone
    photocopier
    email
    Web

    He goes on to suggest a number of changes, most of which don’t necessarily involve “put it all online”. This is a guy who teaches computer science at MIT.

    Next is a bit by Robert Morrison on the “Gutenberg Method” — every lecture is actually a tutorial. No lecturing takes place whatsoever. Of students he says:

    They come to college expecting lectures and, come what may, they’re going to take notes. Well, it beats thinking, doesn’t it? … I’ve had to pry pencils out of hot little hands.

    It’s an amusing read.

    Of course, that’s not really a new method. I think US law schools call it the Socratic Method — read the cases, come to class prepared to discuss and argue. That’s also one of the teaching pillars for St John’s College — the other being the Great Books curriculum. Read the chapters, papers or the whole book and turn up for two seminars per week to discuss it. Mind you, other kinds of classes take place — labs, music classes, language classes — but no lectures per se.

    Finally Olin College and Neumont University, both of whom rely on intensive project-based study, rather than subject-by-subject learning. Olin caused a stir by going from nothing to having its students beating MIT students at various competitions in just a few years. Meanwhile, Neumont provides a fast (2.5 years) intensive course — students work office hours.

    I think these all provide food for thought.

  15. Posted June 23, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    LE, if students stopp0ed turning up something else is going on. Studies have repeatedly shown that students come to lectures at around 75% of the previous attendance if the lectures are made available online. And it’s the more engaged students who turn up, making the lecture a better experience for everybody. I hadn’t heard that students were quoting people’s words back at them, though… silly buggers! And if you don’t like powerpoint, try prezi Lots of people are using that now; it’s much more interactive than pp.

    desipis @10, books are also old-fashioned, but, like lectures, they have their uses. Old-fashioned doesn’t have to mean by-passed or useless, just that its use needs to be considered rather than taken for granted as the best or only way to engage students. A good lecturer will engage students in many different ways, even in a huge and crowded lecture theatre, but I’m sure we’ve all suffered from the obverse of that statement.

  16. Posted June 23, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Really interesting, Jacques, Thanks. One of our staff used the Socratic method online – in nursing, a discipline in which the postgraduate students are always part-time and working shifts so it’s difficult to schedule face-to-face classes. It was a masters course with specialist nurses from many different specialties, so lots of different views on treatments, patient care etc. She divided the students into mixed groups and gave each group a question. They had to come up with the questions that the original question raised, and pass them on to another group, who had to think of the further questions raised by those questions, and pass them back to the first group to write a report on all the issues raised by the original question. The most difficult thing for the students was not to answer the questions, just acknowledge that they were things that had to be considered.

    One student in the evaluation said that the unit had taught him how to think. Another said it was the best unit she’d ever done. And they had only met together as a class once for two days.

  17. Posted June 23, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    jc – a friend of mine went to st johns. No degree, but he was what I’d call well educated and a good thinker, able to adapt.

    On the just-putting-it-online thing: it could be VERY useful or damning if the notes prepared by staff were richly linked, not just to external stuff, but internally. Yep, this is basically a wiki, and, to my mind, is the direct equivalent of the lost pre-gutenberg gloss (and gloss on gloss). This, with categorization, would show, and give to the student, proof that the faculty actually understood its own course as something integrated, not just a stream of factoids. IT provides means of representing knowledge and information that lectures and books don’t.

    It’s the “how it all hangs together” that is incredibly useful. Way-back-when, biochem was incredibly fragmented, difficult to grok, unless you’d lucked upon a map (from Boehringer, free for cost of postage), that was like a melways, with everything joined up, and an index booklet to find which compound was at what grid reference. Yet while all lecturers and grad students had one on their lab walls, we students were NEVER told about it (unless a grad student lived in your college).

    There are quite a few exploratory visualization tools for concepts too – models that let you see clustering of concepts, zoom in, the click on one to jump to detailed text (i suppose tag clouds with different sized fonts are weak forms of this). While modelling tools can assist by automagically laying things out, the humans need to do the grunt of saying “this and that are related”. This is the insight and guidance that faculty staff cann do that reference books or lectures cant – and it allows a school to demonstrate its perspective compared to other schools.

    There are some things tech-based stuff can do that lectures cannot – exploring a 3d model of active sites of proteins, for example. (see my notes on such a tool and dare to tell me it aint fun even for non-mol-biol types, or it’s not a brilliant tool for students).

    I’m guessing that in law, there are philosophical tensions on any given problem, and that it would be possible to have a series of cases where the opposing perspectives were illustrated (or judged) to different degrees, allowing cases to be arranged in a geometrically meaningful way, (in 1, 2, or even moore dimensions), capable of being explored by students. Who could (and /should/ be able to) assign weightings of tensions between individual cases but faculty staff with experience,? (and would disgreements between individual staff highlight, again possibly with IT-assisted layout, the most interesting cases)? Just a thought – wondering if you proper legal types think this concept is valid).

    But experimenting on virtual rats and virtual dissection? Bah! Humbug. You lose half the perspective, that every organism is slightly different, that the best laid plans need to be adapted. It’s a bit like plastic bones replacing real skeletons – you learnt more by checking the bones your mates had – the variations give a better understanding than seeing the ideal.

    I suppose a lot of my thoughts here relate to the purpose of schools versus unguided factoid assimilation by learners. As Frank Zappa noted in /Joe’s Garage/ “Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, music is the best.” IT /can/ allow the school to teach the “music” of its speciality (there is a music in all subjects, from maths to physiology to, i’m sure, law) … But then, misuse can make this harder.

  18. Posted June 23, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    What is this “HPL”?

    LE:

    I draw big diagrams on the whiteboard, I provide flowcharts, I show pictures of places where cases happened or photos of litigants if available.

    That’s exactly what should be in Powerpoint presentations!

  19. Posted June 23, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    You can make a slide of everything you want to show, and move from one to the other. Or, use the board. It keeps people’s attention if you’re moving round as you talk.

  20. Posted June 23, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    In all the lecture rooms I’ve had this semester, there has been a camera/projector thing (like an overhead projector) that the lecturer could write/draw on paper, or put text books on and would display on the screen. I believe it was also captured (with everything else that went on the screen) in the lecture recordings. It’s not a bad approach for technophobes or ad hoc lecturing.

    HPL sounds a bit like our “Law and Society” subject. I found it an interesting subject, although I can see much of the detail getting buried under all the learning about the law that comes after it.

  21. Posted June 23, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I need to think about tthe issues raised in this post and the discussion. A few brief points.

    One reason why the initial UNE external courses were so good is that they combined distance with face to face.

    As a trainer, on-line is reasonably good for absorption of information, not so good for skills.

    A lot of the discussion on higher education ignores parallel discussions in training, including a great sense of failure. Why does so much training fail?

    This is relevant because higher ed and education in general has moved towards the training model.

    There are good teachers and bad teachers, good techniques and bad techniques. It all comes back to purpose.

    The original university model placed primary responsibility on the student.

    If the purpose of a university education is the acquisition of knowledge and the capacity to think, then some of the most effective educators are very bad teachers.

    Ifd the purpose of a university education is the acquistion of specific competencies, then why bother with university? Why not just move to a free marketplace?

  22. maelorin
    Posted June 24, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I have taught classes using all three combinations of face-to-face, online, and both. I also use PowerPoint from time to time. I teach various topics across ICT and business (as a ‘casual academic’ and postgrad student).

    Many lecturers use PowerPoint slidedecks as if they were their lecture notes: screens of densely-packed text. As a result, they tend to deliver tired, monotone presentations. Students come to rely upon these being made available before the lecture, bringing copies in for annotation.

    My approach is different. I use PowerPoint slidedecks to illustrate and structure my presentations. I talk *to* them, rather than *from* them. I encourage interaction, participation, discussion. Although, that can take the better part of the first hour to draw out of a class.

    I use quotations, diagrams, and so on to illustrate my key points. But the detail is in what is said. I prefer to talk ‘off the cuff’, rather than deliver a prepared statement. (And I did so long before I ventured into a law school.)

    I suspect that a great many of the difficulties in the ‘online delivery’ world arise from expecting it to solve problems that it does not, and perhaps cannot address. The student still has to actually *learn* – and by this we expect something more than storing and recalling facts. A process that is neither innate, nor automatic.

    To my mind, we are getting caught up in some kind of revolution that isn’t actually happening. We have changed *means* by which a teaching relationship might be developed, but that relationship still involves people. And those people are not so much different to their immediate forebears that they learn to learn, or learn to teach, any differently than by *doing* them.

    An iPad will not, of itself, radically improve the ‘learning’ of a cohort of students. But if it is embedded into a relationship in appropriate ways, it can alter the dimensions through which the relationship develops. Methinks we tend to confuse the toy with the relationship the toy is embedded within.

  23. maelorin
    Posted June 24, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    One way I use PowerPoint, to be more interactive, is to draw over the top of the projected image.

    Many of our lecture theatres have been retrofitted with projectors. So behind the pull-down screen is a whiteboard (or blackboard). I put the screen up and draw over the projected image.

    Of course, this doesn’t work where the screen is metres above my head. I adapt my approach to the room, and draw on whiteboards using strongly-coloured markers. (I bring my own, the one’s provided by the Schools are cheap and pointless)

  24. Posted June 24, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Thinking on LE’s stories about pretending to ride a horse to illustrate a point. Would love to see that in a vodcast, but, perhaps the very act of putting a camera there would prevent such lovely spontaneity.

    While I went to lectures and tutes with blackboards, I never taught using them – only used ultra-large scribblepads on easels, or whiteboards. I’m wondering what the online equivalent of the problems with whiteboards would be, problems never on paper sheets or blackboards:

    (1) Who the bleep put a bleepy PERMANENT marker here? (Usually when you weren’t running a course from your home base)

    (2) Is there ONE of these bleepy markers with ink in them? (I suppose chalk never has that problem).

    I suppose the thing is that when you are teaching, it is a performance, and just as in a play, you tweak things to the audience and how they respond – the arms might gesticulate more, you can see puzzled looks and tackle things from a different angle, you can see you’ve got a good bunch and can cover more ground, or you can do LE’s pretend-riding-horses. You can’t do that for a camera vodcasting a lecture or tute.

  25. kvd
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    WK, Jim Belshaw has just put up a very good base-post following upon your own. It’s well worth a .

  26. kvd
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    Sorry, mucked that up somehow.

    Try http://belshaw.blogspot.com/2011/06/saturday-morning-musings-education.html

  27. Posted June 25, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    KVD has actually beaten me to this one! My comment @26 was really an aide memoire to myself. I have now bought up a post that KVD referred to – http://belshaw.blogspot.com/2011/06/saturday-morning-musings-education.html.

    I found both WK’s post and the comments interesting because they dealt with issues that are much on my mind at present.

  28. Davo
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Um, these days i just look at ‘heading’ , first paragraph, summation.

  29. Davo
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    and no, am not an “academic” nor “trained” into the “deep research” that those who have to cope with “the law” .. but there are some common grounds.

  30. Davo
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    It’s hard to predict exactly what skills people will need to live and work in Western societies in the future. Wot??

    OK, am picking and choosing.

    “Western societies” ?

  31. Davo
    Posted June 25, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    at this point, have wondered for quite some long years – why there was no local emphasis, understanding, of the chinese history – and how they operate “under law”.

    NOT, mind you, something that I would subscribe to – different discussion.

  32. Harbans Singh
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Is this discussion is same as we used to discuss ” electric toaster ” in terms of never betters,the better nevers and everwasers?

  33. Marie
    Posted June 30, 2011 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    For many of the non-traditional adult learners (both civilian and military), online is the only way for them to pursue their bachelor degree due to time constraints or distance. We started working with a company which offers ebooks for most of our courses. The only problem is the learner must still pay a fee for those books, but it is quite a bit less than purchasing the actual text. A bigger concern for me is how to engage the learners to really think before posting in discussions. I attempt to ask more questions in response to their posts, but many do not follow up. Does anyone have suggestions?

  34. Posted June 30, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    I thought this article was fascinating. I was an opponent to online teaching in my earlier career 10 years ago. Then, there was a mother of four, a wife of a farmer, who desperately needed an online public speaking class to finish her pre-reqs. I was in a department with only two tenure-track faculty, and my colleague had been burned by an online public speaking class attempt already. I developed the class, took many lumps, but then ended up with an award-winning product that is replicated by colleagues all over the U.S.

    I loved the statement that faculty need to guide students through the learning process in an online course. One way that I have strengthened my courses is by following Quality Matters standards for best practices in online learning. Quality Matters was originated by a FIPSE grant, but now is self-supporting as an organization that peer reviews online courses for quality standards. QM focuses on alignment of course objectives all the way through assessment and review teams examine the 40 standards from a student-centered approach.

    My work with QM, both as a master reviewer of online courses, and as a reviewee whose course was reviewed in 2009, has helped me reframe and strengthen my pedagogy in the transformative way that this article suggests. Many of the principles apply to face-to-face courses, as well.

    Thank you for this insightful piece. Ellen Bremen, M.A. @chattyprof http://chattyprof.blogspot.com

  35. Posted June 30, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    On a tangent, but the real academics here might be interested: Nature Publishing Group will be releasing e-textbooks with a perpetual update licence, so you buy your biochem (or perhaps case law) book once, and it gets updated with more recent discoveries. Details http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2011/06/textbooks-of-the-future-will-be-born-digital-and-accessible.ars

    Well…. That would completely ruin the business model for most of the IT textbooks apart from the REAL eternal ones (Knuth, Dragon Book…), and screw up quite a lot of schools that rely on refreshers for the latest versionnof whatever.

    It might actually mean the best-written textbooks which are likely to run to a zillion ediitions (like Gray’s Anatomy) could be, if recognized early, a bargain (textbook futures trading? Anyone?)

  36. Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Sorry, I’ve been offline for a few days, due to a 60th birthday celebration -my own!

    Eileen, thanks for your appreciation. I find that many academics are struggling to find a framework for teaching online, and I’m glad you’ve found one that works for you.

    Marie, there is quite a lot of academic writing about how to engage students in online discussions. Gilly Salmon was an early writer in this area, and using scholar google to look for ‘online moderation’ and similar terms should help you. I think you shouldn’t be afraid to structure the discussions, rather than letting them be free-for-all: maybe they have to post at least once and also to respond to at least two other posts, for example. Or set a question for discussion, and model critical responses to the replies (very timeconsuming though!). Or, write very short responses to the ones who haven’t bothered to engage brain before putting fingers to keyboard and only respond thoughtfully to well-thought-out posts.

    Or, set the students up in teams to write pieces and respond to each other, raising questions and answering them. All you have to do is read to assess the levels of understanding they’re reaching.

    Like a classroom discussion, an online discussion needs framing. continuing oversight and occasional injection of common sense!

    Hope this helps.

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