March 11th, 2015

Three Questions to Reframe the Online Learning Conversation

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Is it time to change the online learning conversation? The debate about whether online courses are a good idea continues with most people still on one side or the other. Who’s right or wrong is overshadowed by what the flexibility and convenience of online education has offered institutions and students. Those features opened the door, and online learning has come inside and is making itself at home in most of our institutions. No doubt the debate over the value of online learning will continue, but perhaps it’s being judged by the wrong criteria.

Online learning and face-to-face instruction are routinely compared, in research and conversation. “Face-to-face and distance learning are more like pomegranates and tomatoes than easily comparable learning strategies whose shortcomings delegitimate one or the other for innovation and incorporation,” writes theology professor Lisa M. Hess in an article that explores the role of online instruction in theology curricula. She makes a valid point. Face-to-face instruction has features that online learning can’t have, but then online learning has advantages not possible in face-to-face instruction. What do we gain by continuing to compare things that are distinctly different?

I also think that there are three questions about online learning that should be more front and center in the research and our discussions.

1. What courses should be offered in the online format?

Whatever the students want and will take online—has that become the default answer? Shouldn’t the decision-making be started by consideration of whether the course learning objectives can be successfully accomplished in an online environment? Decisions about course delivery mode, face-to-face, blended, or online, can be made in very systematic ways. Brinthaupt, Clayton, Draube and Calahan (Journal of Online Teaching and Learning) have proposed a detailed course decision-making model. I’m not terribly optimistic about academic leaders or faculty having time for such deliberate decision-making, but the model makes clear how many course-related issues are relevant when we consider delivery mode.

Sometimes it seems the course content makes the answer easy and obvious. When certain skills are involved (starting an IV or conducting a chorus, for example), and when feedback is necessary for skill development, an online environment does not work … or does it? I recently read an article by two faculty members who developed and taught a pastoral care course online, something they were initially convinced could not possibly be done with course objectives preserved. Their creative design demonstrates that courses with unlikely content can be taught online, but only if they are entirely recreated versions of face-to-face courses.

2. Who should be teaching online courses?

What instructional strengths and weaknesses make a faculty a good or not so good choice for online courses? Is this an issue anyone is talking about or trying to address? We don’t have much history with these kinds of conversations or particularly commendable criteria. For example, tradition has ruled that capstones and senior seminars belong to the most experienced among us and that new teachers earn their stripes in large introductory courses.

I’d say we ought to be looking for faculty who realize the importance of instructional design (or who have access to professionals who do). Online courses need strong coherent structures. They must stand on their own more than face-to-face courses. Course materials matter more in an online environment. Online teachers should have the ability to convey their presence and create a sense of community without being physically present. Good written communication skills are more important than oral ones in online environments. What else would you add?

3. Who should be taking online courses?

Here we are getting some research answers. The most successful online learners are typically adults who are taking the course for a specific career path, are self-directed learners, and are often paying for the course themselves. That makes online courses a much riskier proposition for beginning students who don’t have clear educational goals and possess marginal abilities as learners. We can’t prevent students from taking online courses, but are we telling them what we know about students who succeed in those courses?

Sometimes our discussion of instructional issues gets mired in ruts where the conversation spins the wheels but we don’t end up going any place. I have that feeling about discussions of online learning, do you?


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  • Mary M.

    Would you post the sources for the articles references? I would like to read them. Thanks

  • Connie M

    I would love the articles references too. I especially loved the quote by Lisa Hass and would love a source for that if possible. Thanks!

  • Bob Adkinson

    "Online courses [are] a much riskier proposition for beginning students who don’t have clear educational goals and possess marginal abilities as learners."

    Online courses do not stand by themselves. They are part of the larger learning experience that, much of the time, fails to create skilled learners who then could take full advantage of learning opportunities. Teaching at the 2-yr college level, I find the lack of learning ability, or interest for that matter, to be so great that I spend much of my time on learning and thinking skills. The focus on lifelong learning should begin early in the primary grades before creativity is replaced by rote skills.

    For instance, the life situation of an adult taught only job skills does improve, but just slightly, and may define that person's self-view for the remainder of their life. However, if that individual is, or becomes, a lifelong learner, they can continue to advance.

    This article presents excellent points for further discussion. However, that discussion should span the entire learning experience – childhood through adulthood – so these online opportunities can be a part of every student's education.

  • Shane K

    I agree that the references need to be provided with the article. This article provides a good illustration of that need, not only so readers can pursue the references, but also because it would allow references to be checked. In this case, there is a mistake in the reference. The quotation comes not from Lisa M. Hass but from Lisa M. Hess, in an article entitled "A Begrudging, Recalcitrant Academic Observes What She's Learning: Distance Learning in Leadership Formation," published in the journal Teaching Theology and Religion, 17.3 (July 2014):264-71; the quoted material is found on page 267.

    • Hi Shane. Thanks for pointing that out. We've corrected the author's name in the above article.

      Mary Bart
      Editor, Faculty Focus

  • This was an excellent read with great ideas for discussion. Here are some initial thoughts on items 2 and 3 based on my personal experience teaching in higher education for about 15 years now (face, blended, and online) with teaching full online courses since 2005.

    Question #2. One characteristic I would add is that the faculty member must realize that you simply can't replicate instruction from the face-to-face (f2f) classroom to the online environment. Even with specified instructional goals/objectives/standards, these are two different learning environments. Specific types of instructional strategies can be implemented in both face-to-face and online, but how and with what tools to implement these strategies are different. Collaboration is a great example of this. In F2F, is quite easy to engage students with in-class collaborative synchronous real-time activities. For online, we are now dealing with asynchronous instruction and we have to rely on the technologies (LMS, discussion boards, web/video conferencing, web 2.0 applications, etc.) to facilitate collaboration that doesn't necessarily occur in real time. This is where it is important for faculty to collaborate with experienced faculty who've taught online and support staff (i.e. instructional designers, faculty developers, etc.) that have, ideally, also taught in similar contexts. I would also add that faculty members need to be willing to take risks; especially with the technology. For the online environment, we have to rely on the technology to facilitate both the teaching and learning processes. Given the nature of technology, faculty have to expect hiccups as the technology will occasionally not function as intended. So a faculty that can have backup plans should the technology not function accordingly is a must in my opinion.

    Question #3. I would argue that some assessment for students be in place to help determine (but not be a final decision maker) if their learning style is suited for the online environment. Many institutions have this in place but many more don't. From my observations, I believe one of the contributors of dropout rates from online courses is the fact that you have tend to need to be an independent highly-motivated and self-paced learner as you no longer have an instructor in a physical space telling you what you need to do. Students must realize they have to take more ownership and responsibility for their learning. Simply taking a course for convenience does not imply success in a course necessarily.

  • Thanks to all who requested that we include the references for this article. That was an oversight on my part. I'm including them here with my apologies.

    Sharp, M. M. and Morris, M. A., (2014). Virtual empathy, anxieties and connections teaching and learning pastoral care online. Teaching Theology and Religion, 17 (3), 247-263.

    Hess, L. M. (2014). A begrudging, recalcitrant academic observes what she’s learning: Distance learning in leadership formation. Teaching Theology and Religion, 17 (3), 264-271.

    Brinthaupt, T. , Clayton, M., Draude, B., and Calahan, P., (2014). How Should I Offer This Course? The Course Delivery Model (CDDM). MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10 (2). http://jolt.merlot.org/vol10no2/brinthaupt_0614.p

    Mary Bart
    Editor, Faculty Focus

  • Zeppo

    I think it's kinda funny that people (faculty especially) are so concerned about question #1 (which courses should be taught online). Everyone agrees that only well-designed courses should be taught online, but what about f2f courses? Many faculty give very little thought to the design of their f2f classes: they lecture, they assign readings, and they do all of the things they've always done, whether or not these practices actually improve student learning. Then the same faculty get their knickers in a twist whenever someone gets creative in an online course. A wise professor of ed once told me, "Online courses are criticized for not being as 'good' as f2f courses, but remember: that's a pretty low bar to begin with." Absolutely right! Let's subject f2f courses to the same level of rigor as online courses, and see who meets the learning objectives.

    • lizhud

      I interpreted this point to be that, just as we go through some kind of approval process to add a new course to our curriculum, we should also have some kind of vetting process to determine which courses become online courses; should a developmental course be online, for example, or a first year, first term gen ed course, or a specialized clinical course? Taking the time to determine whether a particular course would be a good candidate to be offered online is, I think, what's being stated here. Too often, it seems that the decision is based on whether we have enough classrooms to offer a particular class; if not, let's teach it online, as opposed to asking if it should be offered online from a pedagogical standpoint. It may be that by showing how much quality can be imbedded in an online course, initial concerns about a particular type of course being offered online can be overcome, but this is not primarily about vetting courses for quality. Beyond that, we may want to hold all courses to certain quality guidelines, but that is a different subject and one that should be, as you note, an equal concern of both f2f and online.

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