Sunday, August 29, 2021

Online versus campus - comparing apples and pears

Photo by Melanie Dijkstra on Unsplash

My last post reflected on why we should stop trying to prove that online teaching is more or less effective than campus teaching. A more detailed discussion on this theme is provided in an excellent review of recent comparative studies by Tony BatesResearch showing that virtual learning is less effective than classroom teaching – right? He lists 14 recent studies comparing student performance in online and in-person courses, some of which were carried out during the pandemic period. Most show that students' test results were lower in online courses and especially so for students from less academically prepared students. However the differences were not substantial, often 5-10% lower in online courses and most importantly there is little attention paid to the sort of online teaching that was offered. 

Most studies describe online courses that mirror the campus version with a predominance of recorded lectures and asynchronous discussion forum interaction. However, there are so many more variables to consider in both delivery modes: expectations management, scaffolding, community building, group work, social interaction, teacher presence, course structure, clear objectives, feedback methods, assessment, use of media, accessibility etc. Poor course design and lack of timely feedback and support can damage both online and in-person learning. It's not about a face-off between one delivery mode and another to see which is best.

These papers looked at many different variables, such as type of student, differences between subject areas, even how far from the campus students lived, but none of them looked at the most important variable: the method of teaching. How were the online courses designed? What teaching method was used in the classroom? Are we comparing online video lectures with the same on-campus lectures or are we comparing asynchronous online courses with synchronous classroom lectures? 

The cited studies are all serious research and will no doubt be cited by many especially when assessing the results of the emergency online teaching during the pandemic. However, Bates advises caution on reading too much into the findings since the studies omit so many important factors in the quality of online education. 

The studies clearly suggest that if you just move traditional classroom teaching online, many students, especially the most disadvantaged, will do less well than if they were in class. The results overall are not disastrous, though. Performance or retention is about 5%-10% poorer in most cases, although somewhat higher for some disadvantaged students.

During the past year the choice has been between online education or no teaching at all and the results should be seen in that light. Given that the online teaching on offer was not always fully designed for online delivery and that both teachers and students were unprepared for the challenges of such a transition, there results were actually rather impressive. We also have to remember that online education opens the door to higher education to millions of people who are unable to move to a campus city. For them there is no choice. We must make sure that the online education we offer is fit for purpose and designed professionally. 

But read Tony Bates' article for more insight.


Friday, August 20, 2021

Instruction or inquiry-based learning - it's not a choice

Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash

Why do we keep believing in simple solutions to complex problems or that there is one best way to do something? This is sadly true in education where we should really know better by now. What is the best method/platform/tool for learning? Is online better or worse than classroom? Is group work better than self study? The answer is nearly always "it depends" but the comparisons and competition go on anyway. 

One of these debates is about the value of collaborative learning compared to the more traditional individual approach. Genuine collaboration, where a group works together to solve a problem by sharing knowledge, peer reviewing and discussing issues, is a powerful learning experience. But at the same time there are many pitfalls with many groups failing to reach the required level of mutual trust and respect to collaborate effectively. Groups who lack the critical level of knowledge and experience will often fumble, argue and fail or arrive at completely false conclusions. Learning to collaborate effectively is a lengthy process and needs to be guided and scaffolded by examples and feedback. Far too much group work in education can be seen as ineffective "busy work" that may look creative and engaging but does not really foster learning. 

There's an interesting critique of collaborative learning in a post by Zach GroshellDo We Learn Best Collaboratively or Individually? He examines in particular a study from 2017, Can collaborative learning improve the effectiveness of worked examples in learning mathematics?, comparing students' performance in maths using traditional worked examples with individual study to collaborative problem-solving. Here the traditional approach was found to be more effective though collaborative work was sometimes effective for low complexity problems. 

Once again it's not a competition between two approaches; it's about when and how to use them. Collaboration requires experience and knowledge and is probably not going to work in an introductory course unless very clearly guided. Once the students have learned the basics and know how and where to search for more information as well as how to critically assess the quality of the search results, then collaborative learning can work very well. However they also need to be guided through the skills of team building and group dynamics so that they can establish the trust and common purpose that is necessary to collaborate.

Providing students with examples is effective, withholding examples from students when they could benefit from them is bizarre and irresponsible, and if teachers want students to have a shot at making sense of the examples they’re provided, it’s probably best that they study them individually, away from the attentional competition and extraneous noise that is the group dynamic.

Another problem with criticism of collaborative or inquiry-based learning is the idea that the students are simply left to their own devices and the teacher takes a more or less passive role (guide on the side). Collaborative work is described several times as unguided and this is surprising since most research into collaborative learning emphasizes the need for careful management, scaffolding and feedback from the teacher. Collaboration is a skill to be learned, not a spontaneous activity and this means careful guidance.

There's a good summary of the advantages and the pitfalls of inquiry-based learning in a couple of posts by Kath MurdochInquiry learning: Pitfalls and perspectives part 1 and part 2. She recognizes the arguments in favour of a traditional approach but also demonstrates the strengths of inquiry when it is well-supported and scaffolded by the teacher. 

When understood well, inquiry learning actually demands careful design of authentic learning experiences, attention to existing schema, deft questioning, ongoing assessment, the cultivation of curiosity and the ability to plan and teach through concepts. The teacher’s role is critical.
The key once again is that learning is a complex process with so many variables and there is never only one "best" method no matter how much we wish for one. Teaching involves being able to choose the right mix of methods and tools for each learning situation, often offering alternative paths. Traditional instruction might work very well in certain situations and with some students, but will certainly not work for everyone, neither will any other method. This is well expressed in an article by Alan Reid (University of South Australia) in The Conversation, Teachers use many teaching approaches to impart knowledge. Pitting one against another harms education.

There’s a variety of useful teaching models — and this includes explicit instruction — which have been designed for different purposes. It is the educator’s task to select the most appropriate given the context.

Creating simplistic binaries in a field as complex and nuanced as education impoverishes the debate.

We need more discussion about the art of designing courses using a broad template of methods and tools and less needless comparisons between A and B.