The Learning Paradigm in Online Courses

In their 1995 Change magazine article, “From Teaching to Learning—a New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” Robert B. Barr and John Tagg described the Learning Paradigm, which emphasizes learning over teaching and student discovery and construction of knowledge over transfer of knowledge from instructor to student.

They wrote: “A paradigm shift is taking hold in American higher education. In its briefest form, the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to a new paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning. This shift changes everything. It is both needed and wanted.”

The Learning Paradigm (as opposed to the Instruction Paradigm), emphasizes the students’ active role in learning and the purpose of that learning, which can be strong motivators for students. The challenge for instructors is to cede some control of learning to the students.

“A lot of instructors still go by the ‘If I don’t say it, they won’t learn it’ philosophy and try to push that into the online environment. It’s really hard for students to learn that way when they’re having gobs and gobs of information just pushed at them,” says Edward McGee, coordinator of instructional technology and distance learning at Central Virginia Community College.

In courses that embrace the Learning Paradigm, the instructor’s role is to guide students in the right direction rather than simply delivering the content. And with the wealth of resources available online, the instructor is no longer the only source of knowledge. “Rather than feeling responsible for delivering material, instructors need to be responsible for monitoring the students’ progress, giving feedback, and intervening when the students have problems,” McGee says.

In addition to giving students control of their own learning, the Learning Paradigm puts learning in a broader context than a single course does, helping students understand the purpose of the learning beyond the course itself and how they might be able to apply their knowledge to the learning at hand.

Introducing students to the Learning Paradigm
Because students are often accustomed to the Instruction Paradigm, it’s important for instructors to set expectations and take measures to prepare them to learn in courses that embrace the Learning Paradigm.

A good way to introduce students to the Learning Paradigm is to ask them about their goals and expectations. “I really love it when an instructor asks, ‘What do you expect to get from this course?’” McGee says.

McGee recommends engaging students in the course from the start. “Put in some low-stakes icebreaker-type assignment, and get them communicating with the instructor and with each other right away. It can be as simple as asking them to introduce themselves on the discussion board. It’s a chance for them to do something in the course and get some feedback. Students also must understand their role in the process, which needs to occur early in the online course,” McGee says.

Cooperative learning
McGee recommends using cooperative learning as a way to implement the Learning Paradigm. “Cooperative learning is when the students work together toward a common goal. They learn from each other. It’s different from group learning. In a cooperative learning environment, students are actually teaching each other,” he says.

Cooperative learning involves more than simply assigning group projects. The following principles distinguish it from group work:

  • Positive interdependence—Students need each other to complete the assignment. “They either succeed or fail together as a group rather than the situation that typically happens in group learning where one or two people end up doing all the work. In a cooperative environment, students are actually teaching each other,” McGee says.Having students work together on a paper that each student could more easily do individually is not an effective way to do cooperative learning. McGee offers the following example of an effective way to foster positive interdependence: Have a group of three create a collaborative wiki in which each student contributes a section that he or she then needs to link to the other two students’ contributions. Such an assignment requires each student to teach the other group members his or her content and learn their content.
  • Individual accountability—Every student has to be responsible, or the project falls apart. Instructors can hold student responsible and/or student can hold one another responsible. Individual contributions carry weight in the evaluation process.
    McGee recommends that instructors use group processing after students finish a cooperative learning experience. This is a conversation about what the group did well and what could be improved next time. “It’s a great opportunity for groups to revisit the material, reinforce what they did, and also learn how to be a better group,” McGee says.

Feedback and assessment
Frequent assessment is an important feature of the Learning Paradigm. “I recommend that instructors break down assignments into smaller chunks and try to have a couple of assessments—small quizzes, assignments, or pieces of assignments—every week if possible,” McGee says. “You have to respond to the students right away on those assessments, particularly early on.”

McGee is critical of infrequent, high-stakes assessments. He says that having two or three weeks of instruction in the Instruction Paradigm followed by a high-stakes type of assignment can make it difficult for students who perform poorly to recover. By contrast, low-stakes assessments provide opportunities for students to learn how to be more effective in the course.

Barr, R.B., & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning—a new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change, 27(6),13-25.

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 14.5 (2014): 1,6. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.