Sunday, December 18, 2016

Online education still in the shadows

CC0 Public domain on Pixabay
Almost every week I meet colleagues who are skeptical about online education. Online is often considered a poor and limited alternative to the "rich experience" of classroom teaching and many point to lower completion rates, lack of human contact and complicated technology as reasons. The facts, however, point in the opposite direction as an article in Inside Higher Ed discusses, Why Faculty Still Don’t Want to Teach Online. The reluctance to get involved in online education is mostly due to low awareness of the issues involved, lack of practical experience as well as a lack of support and incentives within the institution.

Extensive research has shown that, when well designed, online courses can be as as effective or better than campus courses in terms of student results (see for example the review of research findings in The Effectiveness of Online and Blended Learning: A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature, Means et al, 2013). The key words are well designed and this must be the focus of all courses whether online of face to face. The poor reputation of online education stems from the large number of poorly designed and under-supported online courses that have been produced over the years, often by institutions who have not fully understood the principles and simply focused on content delivery and then left the students to self-study. Such courses have suffered further from the fact that many teachers are assigned to online teaching with little or no training or support and the results should hardly be surprising.

The case against online education is not, in fact, without merit. In the hands of underfunded and poorly managed public and private institutions, online learning often delivers mediocre education at best. If those failures represent the sum of online education, then faculty members who reject it have every reason not only to be suspicious of it but also to discredit it.

The most important barriers to mainstream acceptance of online education are based on attitudes and practice.
  • Those most opposed to online learning generally have little practical experience of the field and are unaware of the opportunities available in today's digital media.
  • Online teaching is seen as a threat to the traditional model, challenging the massive investments in campus facilities and weakening universities' control.
  • Online teaching has very low status in universities and getting too involved can even have a negative effect on career development.
  • Successful online learning demands a rethink of traditional classroom pedagogy. The concept of the teacher being in sole charge of a course behind closed doors is threatened when the course goes online. Online courses require teamwork (as all courses should).
Teaching online is indeed demanding and requires careful planning as well as close cooperation with support staff such as educational technologists and librarians. Many are wary of getting involved because it involves a time-consuming and demanding rethink of existing practices. Considering the pressure many teachers are under in today's cash-strapped institutions this wariness is fully understandable. A new online course needs to be designed from scratch rather than simply uploading campus material to an online platform. As the article points out:

Going online is like moving to a foreign country, where you must learn a new language and assimilate a new culture.

The move to online teaching involves a major effort but if that responsibility is shared by working in course design teams that effort is shared and the work can be a major learning experience for all. The main point here is that delivery form (on-site versus online) is not the real issue. Successful courses in any environment have exactly the same success factors. The best classroom teachers are generally also best in an online environment. Whatever the delivery form enthusiasm, empathy, a genuine interest in students and good planning are absolutely crucial to student engagement and success. I wish we could soon stop comparing delivery forms and focus on what makes a course successful, namely professional course design, clearly stated pre-course information and requirements, creating a sense of community, teacher engagement, a supportive environment, formative assessment, frequent feedback and meaningful examination methods.

Whatever the delivery form, on-site, online or a blended format, the success factors are the same.

In the long run, neither the guardians of the campus nor the champions of the digital revolution will claim victory. Already, the educational battleground is populated by faculty members who accept that neither physical nor virtual education will triumph but rather the best pedagogical practices that support active student learning.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Recycling webinars 2

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about how we could recycle webinar recordings and use them for other purposes (Recycling webinars). Not long after that post was published I got an e-mail from a colleague at Karolinska Institute, one of Sweden's leading medical universities, with a film they had made to help teachers think about webinar methodology. The film reuses a webinar I had helped to produce as part of their EdX MOOC, Introduction to urology, in the autumn of 2015. The cooperation was part of a Nordic project on making more effective webinars (see the project site Effective webinars for lots of articles, toolkit and ideas) and the idea of running a webinar as part of a MOOC was one of our most challenging activities.

Karolinska Institute have now used excerpts from the webinar to demonstrate how you can make your webinars more interactive, using different layouts, polls, chat and presenters-only area as well as tips on methodology. The original recording is probably of little interest today but parts of it will now live on in the form of a new product. An excellent example to recycling educational material

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Double-edged sword

The pen is indeed mightier than the sword but in today’s media landscape that pen has become a sword - a double-edged one serving both good and evil. The proliferation of extremist propaganda and fake news are making me reconsider my views on the social media I work with and have promoted so enthusiastically. The ability to build a global professional network, share ideas and learn from others has transformed my life and I spend a lot of my time helping others to use social media to create new opportunities. The net offers us platforms and tools for collaboration, creation, sharing and learning that were simply not possible 15 years ago. However we have rather naively assumed that these opportunities would be used to spread knowledge, learn from each other, build greater understanding, overcome barriers and foster a new spirit of enlightenment. We assume that human civilization has a positive linear development but right now we seem to have encountered some very worrying turbulence.

The tools that enable us to publish our ideas in a polished and professional format and make them accessible to a global audience can also be used to spread extremist ideologies, prejudiced propaganda, hatred and subversion. Lies can be presented as convincingly as the truth and fake news is as slick as the traditional news media. In your Facebook feed it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s fantasy and even checking sources can be difficult since many propaganda sites are disguised under banners like “independent” or “alternative” that can mean just about anything. Quite simply if an article confirms our own world view we will tend to believe it. Some people are good at creating fake stories that will provoke a certain volatile target group and they then sit back to enjoy seeing the chain reaction of anger that their fake article causes while at the same time earning considerable income from their on-site advertising as the click rate goes viral. There have always been extremists and conspiracy theorists but in the past they only reached a very limited audience, often using extremely poor quality pamphlets sent to like-minded people. Today a lone eccentric has a global voice and there are plenty free tools to help him/her create highly professional websites, podcasts, video channels, publications and social media presence. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort you can seem like a whole organisation rather than an individual.

Our basic trust in the development of democracy and increasing transparency has so far lead us to reap the benefits of the internet. We happily embrace the net giants like Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft because although we are concerned about security we trust that these companies are basically benevolent and our governments will make sure that our data is not misused. But what happens as more countries turn to authoritarian populism with less transparency, less accountability and mass surveillance? The media that have helped us foster greater openness and global collaboration are also being used in the opposite direction. Repressive regimes all over the world are becoming very creative at manipulating social media to target dissidents.

How does education meet this harsh new reality where fiction and fact are so hard to tell apart and where monologue is replacing dialoge? Is it wise to continue advocating openness and instead teach how to cover our digital tracks? Are privacy and security the new key digital literacies? If there is a risk that the data will fall into the wrong hands we need to get smart and quickly. Learning analytics offers enormous benefits for education but in the wrong hands the prospects can be frightening. Schools and universities need to put source criticism at the forefront of the curriculum but even that is a double-edged sword. If you are convinced that there is an establishment conspiracy then your source criticism will treat all traditional news sources as suspect.

I have no answers to all this. It's rather complicated at the moment. Where is Gandalf when you need him?