Friday, October 31, 2014

Beyond edtech skepticism

Online learning has still not come of age in terms of faculty acceptance and the concerns of 10 years ago live on; completion rates, absence of human contact, academic depth etc. Old truths or half-truths die hard in the academic world and this is brought home by an article in Inside Higher Ed Online Ed Skepticism and Self-Sufficiency: Survey of Faculty Views on Technology, which summarises the views of around 3,000 university teachers and educational technologists around the USA. Despite the advances in online learning and the MOOC explosion of recent years, the majority of faculty still believe that online courses are inferior to classroom teaching. Not surprisingly the most negative attitudes to online education came from teachers with little or no experience of the field. The more experienced they were the more positive attitudes prevailed, but even among the experienced teachers there was a deep concern about the lack of meaningful interaction.

Virtually all faculty members and technology administrators say meaningful student-teacher interaction is a hallmark of a quality online education, and that it is missing from most online courses.

Here is a curious paradox in the use of technology in education. There are hundreds of tools and services available that directly facilitate increased interaction and collaboration, both synchronously and asynchronously, yet most online courses fail to exploit these and continue to be largely text-based, content delivery with little space for interaction. Even if there is a wealth of research and practice showing that they keys to student retention are creating a sense of community, fostering multimodal collaboration and interaction and providing timely support, many choose to continue with basic e-learning 1.0. Indeed over 90% of the respondents say high-quality online courses provide meaningful interaction between instructors and students, so why do so few measure up to that? The bad reputation of the past is still used as an excuse not to get involved or not to fully explore the potential of today's online education. In the article Ronald Legon, executive director of the Quality Matters Program, says:

..  My general reaction is that the data show that the more exposure a faculty member has had to online or blended learning, the more positive their view ... But, clearly, not all faculty have seen the potential of online learning to match and even exceed the effectiveness of face-to-face learning, because they have not had the opportunity to become familiar with best practices and research-driven course design and delivery.

We also need to look more carefully at what actually goes on in the classroom and whether the interaction there is as good as we imagine. How many students actively contribute to a class discussion and how many say nothing? How interactive and challenging are our classes and lectures and could some discussions be more interactive online, especially if we make use of video and audio to supplement text communication? So many online environments are completely text-based and this one-dimensionality puts many students at a disadvantage. More opportunities for using video and audio in discussion rooms gives everyone a voice and makes the communication more personal.

I sometimes feel that many conveniently dismiss online education as second-rate due to outdated information and without really investigating current research and best practice. Once again I must stress the need to stop making unnecessary comparisons and really look at how technology can be used to enhance all learning, wherever it takes place.

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