Online Learning Design

I learned to “design” online as an instructor. I had already spent about a year in a face to face classroom with high school students. High schools tend to require more evidence of planning your practice than colleges, so I already had design in mind before I was met with the challenge of designing for an online class. I also had been an online student for some of my master’s degree, so I had also been exposed to some different versions of online classroom environments. Finally, I learned from failure. My first two terms online, I included in part of my class to get feedback on some of the set up. I tried to create a space where students felt free to comment on how the class was going online. When students made requests for adjustments, I made them. A specific example of that is the layout of class notes. At the time, “lecture” was delivered in the form of teacher notes. I would often take the notes I would use for class and adapt them for students. What I didn’t do was give any emphasis to ideas in the notes. So, per student request, I adapted my notes to include headings and bullet points and more breaks between information to help disseminate the information for students. Ultimately, that process made me a more organized instructor and refined my writing.

So far, I think my best experiences as an instructor and a student were times where there was an online community present within the class. I know building a community can be difficult, but those experiences were the more rounded learning experiences as well as more memorable that I’ve had. As a student, I had an instructor who read our discussion forum posts and keep notes of them. At the end of each week, she would then have an instructor response that would discuss students by name with specific details from their work. She would talk about strengths and the good questions we were asking. She would also highlight areas for expansion and point out students by name who had work worthy of imitation for those who needed extra help. Looking back, I think her process of synthesizing our work and using our name helped build a sense that she was really listening to what we had to say, and that we as a class had things in common. When she used our names, I also brought forward a reminder that there were actually people in the class, not just names on the page. This is a constant challenge for designing an online class where you create a community.

I think designing for community is connected to social learning theory and community of inquiry theory. These theories help shape how discussion is used and created. They influence the value of utilizing peer to peer connections as well as teacher to student interaction since building a community requires interaction and communication. Social learning theory will drive assignment design to incorporate more collaborative opportunities that require teamwork. When I design, these things matter to me. They influence decisions I make. In fact, without incorporating opportunities for students to connect, communicate, and work with each other, I get bored as an instructor because the feel of the class is less engaging.

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The Boring Old LMS

Using LMS programs for a structured learning space has so many benefits. First and foremost, it allows an instructor to create a course including assignments, activities, and resources all in one place. After the first set up, the only real maintenance is updates like due dates and adjustments for the current class needs. Content updates don’t really have to happen that often, maybe every five years or so. This stability in content provides the same foundation for all students regardless of instructor. This also reduces the impact of paper copies made for every cycle of the course. Further, having a class in an LMS program provides a record of instructor and student contributions in group discussions as well as a digital record of assignments. No dog can eat that homework, and faculty cannot misplace an online copy of student work. Having this kind of pseudo-permanence also allows instructors to focus on improving teaching methods rather than just updating content. In a face to face class, often equal time is given to preparing for the class with  materials and preparing to present content. There isn’t as much other time for perfecting the methods used to present and teach that content.  Using an LMS would allow for more time on really teaching rather than just preparing because the foundations are already laid out. You don’t have to relay them every cycle like you do for a face to face class.

However, a structure learning space like LMS programs create barriers for social learning. This is probably one of my biggest complaints about current LMS programs. The majority only offer discussion threads as a means to interact. As an instructor this makes it difficult to get a feel for your students or anticipate student needs. So, it makes it far easier to disconnect to the course work and the students. Student struggle as well. Without more social interaction, it is easy to disconnect from the class. Learning becomes just a check list of things to do and class is just an appointment you have. If you have questions, the time it takes to get it answered from an instructor could be long enough to be irrelevant. If you have no way of connecting with classmates then the chance of feeling lost or confused with no support is increased. So, online classes are a threat to social learning.

 

If I could build my own learning environment, I would create an LMS that allows for instructors and students to easily make face to face contact online or at minimum, audio that doesn’t feel like a complicated burden to use. I think there is a time and place for asynchronous only learning environments, but to incorporate social learning theory into LMS design, synchronous meetings need to happen. I don’t think they have to happen all the time, but some kind of regular meeting would enhance the opportunity for social learning. During asynchronous learning, I could imagine using tools like VoiceThread or Recap where students can create together and share together online in different spaces, different times, but also still feel connected because of the voice and audio aspects. Limiting our social interaction to threaded forums is just that: limiting. More importantly, it is boring. Also, incorporating more video on the instructor’s part, would also help increase the teaching environment of an online class. When you meet only online, “instruction” take the form of written notes. Creating theses notes eliminates the art of teaching that would typically include tone, inflection, impromptu tangents, and personality. There needs to be more opportunity for the human experience in online courses if online learning is going to surpass the success rates of face to face learning. Without it, online learning will feel like it is missing “something” and typically that results in the loss of rigor since student and instructor investment has a “missing” component.

Topic of Inquiry

Research main topic of inquiry

How is social presence perceived by students in online classes? What does social presence look like in online classes for undergraduate students? What is the relationship of the perceptions of social presence and student satisfaction in online classes?

Subtopic(s) of inquiry

  • What does social presence mean to students?
  • Is the value of social presence in classes different for students versus faculty?
  • How important is social presence to undergraduate students in online classes?

Peer Review

Some of the feedback didn’t make sense to me. I think that the purpose of the assignment is not the same for all students in the class. So, some of the feedback had me wondering how that was related to the assignment. This also makes me think the assignment purpose is not clear to me as well. It’s like coaching a hockey team when you only know the rules for soccer. There is some cross over but generally there a sense of confusion between the two parties. For example, I said multiple times that I wanted to know if the current definitions of social presence are the same for students today. Then I had feedback saying there was no clear research topic. That is literally what I am researching. There was someone else that said they wanted to see more of the Lit Review, but I thought that was the next stage of this. I was under the impression that we were just really focusing on our learning theory and how that informs or shapes the research and where we are headed. So, it isn’t a matter of agree or disagree for me; this is just confusion.
My opinion really hasn’t changed on my theory. I don’t have any enhancements to fix since I haven’t completed the work. What has changed is that I thought I understood the assignment and where we are going with it, but now I know that I don’t know what the purpose of this work is. Is this a Lit Review or an understanding of how we view learning and the theory that is out there to support it? I don’t understand how this paper is any different from a proposal. What is a lit review? Is it an actual paper or more like an annotated bibliography?  I don’t know how this all goes together. Surely these are not separate assignments that are unrelated. The terminology we are using is unclear. I come from a different academic background, and so I am still confused it seems on what all of these terms mean which leads me to a lot of doubt on what I am doing.

 

There were some good questions to think about when planning my research methods. That was super useful.

#LearningIsSocial

Generally, my personal theory of learning is that learning is social. Learning is a complex process that requires both knowledge and social interaction to help break it down, evaluate the pieces, then put it back together. At the heart of it, we need social interactions to emotionally support what is shaping in our mind. If we limit ourselves to content only, we actually close ourselves off to other perspectives and different interpretations. Without outside contact, we are sometimes left uncertain of achievement, disconnected from course goals, and ultimately self-reliant to a fault.

 

This perception of learning is definitely connected to the current research in distance learning. According to Kang and Im (2013), “learners who felt they had a higher degree of interaction with their instructors and other peer learners had higher satisfaction and higher perceived learning outcomes than learners to felt they experienced a lower degree of interaction.” While this isn’t speaking directly to actual course outcomes, the perceptions of students regarding their success in class matters as a selling point at minimum for online learning. If students get an ‘A’ but are not happy about how they earned it or are dissatisfied by the experience, then it is less likely they will continue with online classes. Similarly, Gutman (2001) lists as her number five barrier of “Six Barriers Causing Educators to Resist Teaching Online,” as “Interpersonal Relations” (pg. 54).  Gutman states that “for some [teachers], the lack of direct interpersonal contact with both students and faculty is an issue” (pg. 54). The role of social interaction is not just important for the student experience; it is important for instructors as well.

 

The idea that the social interaction/interpersonal connection is the missing piece for online learning is a repeated idea, article after article. Not only is this a topic of ongoing research, but it resonates with my own experience as an online student as well as an online instructor. The combination of these things provides a solid foundation for my own personal theory of learning (PLT). As I continue to research, I expect that my PLT will evolve into a more strongly founded and articulated representation of both theory and practice.

 

As I move forward with research, I will continue to refine my search terms. I have already adjusted my focus from “social learning” to “social presence” in the online classroom. My next steps are to finish compiling relevant studies on the influence of social presence in online learning and to follow that with peer reviewed articles defining  how to incorporate or build social presence in online classes. I intend on using the references from class assignments to help guide my choices. So far, many of the class readings have been relevant to this topic, namely: Stodel, Thompson, and MacDonald’s (2006) article,  “Learners’ Perspectives on What is Missing from Online Learning: Interpretations through the Community of Inquiry Framework;” Lowenthal and Snelson’s (2017) article, “In search of a better understanding of social presence: an investigation into how researchers define social presence;” and Gutman’s (2001) article, “Six Barriers Causing Educators to Resist Teaching Online, and How Institutions Can Break them.” I have created a new folder in Mendeley for this research.

 

References

Gutman, D. (2001). Six Barriers Causing Teaching Online, Can Break Them. Distance      Learning, 9(3).

 

Kang, M., & Im, T. (2013). Factors of learner-instructor interaction which predict perceived learning outcomes in online learning environment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 29(3), 292–301.

 

Lowenthal, P. R., & Snelson, C. (2017). In search of a better understanding of social presence: an investigation into how researchers define social presence. Distance Education, 38(2), 141–159.

 

Stodel, E. J., & Thompson, T. L. (2006). Interpretations through the Community of Inquiry Framework. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 7(3), 1–15.

 

To Be or Not To Be?

Since I feel that generally I am an open person, I think I would be willing to try to accept different theoretical models used for instructional design, especially ones that have similarities to my own model. I know I have a lot to learn about teaching and learning, so I think that would help me at least be willing to try.

 

But I also know that I often think that I am right about most things. I have been trained to think independently of others and one side effect is the secret knowledge that I’m always right lingers regardless of the outcome of decisions made. This ultimately might sabotage whatever research I would be analyzing.

 

So, I guess my way to approach is to talk about it. If I am the support person, then I would be willing to have continual conversations to sort of, recalibrate my way of thinking to the theoretical model we are using. While I tend to think I am often right, I also feel like I am willing to change my mind given logical reasons or new information to reshape what I already know. So, while I typically think on the day to day that I have it figured out, I am still willing to grow and change based on new knowledge.

 

It’s because of this that I would be willing to figure out new paradigms to work under. If I really think about it, I am pretty good at playing the devil’s advocate in other environments. I could use those compartmentalization skills combined with my imagination to wear the hat of a different theoretical model.

No Better, No Worse

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s findings from the “Evaluation of Evidence Based Practices,” there is no real difference between the online learning success rate and the traditional face-to-face success rate. The article specifically says that K-12 students “in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction” (pg. xiv). Initial response? WHHHHAAAATTTTT??? Surely this cannot be! If this is true, then why is there a big push to move online in K-12?

 

As a high school teacher and a bit of a technophile, I am shocked and concerned by this data. The key findings from this article stated over and over that online learning provided either no better or only moderately better results than face to face learning (pgs. xiv-xvii). The only positive was that blended environments seems to produce the best outcomes than strictly face to face or online (xiv). While Erick Fredericksen echoes this idea when he says, “converting a traditional classroom course to an online course doesn’t necessarily make it better or worse” in his blog “Is Online Education Good or Bad? And Is This Really the Right Question?” Fredericksen’s tone implies that online is ultimately better than face-to-face. He emphasizes that discussion forums enable better quality discussion and that online courses are “developed through the systematic design of instruction with emphasis on the achievement of course learning objectives.” Both of these aspects, according to Frederickson, make online education a better choice. But, honestly do they? Are not face-to-face classroom lessons based on a “systematic design” as well?

 

In K-12, curriculum is designed by professionals then sent to teachers. Teachers do have a say in how and when to implement the curriculum to students. However, as a college instructor, very little design was required for my courses. I was told to pick a textbook and given course outcomes. The rest was up to me. So, maybe Fredericksen is speaking about college and university professors when he implies that “systematic design” isn’t happening for face to face classes.

 

I also challenge the idea that discussion forums provide an “increased interaction, both in quantity and quality, with and among students”. I am interested in the evidence that backs that up. Having the time to formulate and write out a response to a discussion question does not necessarily mean that this leads to increased interaction. The element that provides better quality is more likely the time students are given to create a response. But, I doubt that posting it online increases interaction. Discussion forums are often hard to navigate once the threads really build. Over time, it sometimes it is not much time, discussion forums become a pool of ideas that is very difficult to wade through much less assess as an instructor. Also, in face to face classrooms, it is possible and often the standard to have students formulate their ideas to prepare for a discussion. This has become an anecdotal best practice shared by many teachers.

 

Fredericksen’s acknowledgement that online is no better or worse reiterates the Department of Education’s findings, but it seems strange to me that he still shows some bias toward online learning.  He most likely represents the mentality of many to read the research but to still go with the gut even when it doesn’t represent the research. This isn’t a question of good or bad, though. I think he’s right about that. The question in is why is there no real notable difference between online learning and face-to-face learning? I think it might have something to do with our methods. If we are simply using Learning Management Systems as a substitute for a face-to-face classroom, then it makes total sense that there isn’t much difference in learning outcomes even if there is more convenience and flexible time. If we look to Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model, we might be able to find another way to utilize tools and online access to increase learning effectiveness in online classrooms. In Puentedura’s theory, ultimately the goal with online access and tools is to move away from simply substituting an online environment for the face to face and grow towards redefining education as we know it. If online learning is currently no better or worse than face to face classes, then we aren’t doing it right.

 

The SAMR model is not the end all be all of theories to follow. There are many to choose from. The point is maybe it is time to research the effectiveness of these models so that we stop limiting the power of technology on our online classes.

 

Fredericksen, Erik. “Is online education good or bad? And is this really the right question?” Retrieved February 03, 2018, from https://theconversation.com/is-online-education-good-or-bad-and-is-this-really-the-right-question-35949

Puendetura, Ruben R. Learning, Technology, and the SAMR Model: Goals … – Hippasus. (n.d.). Retrieved February 3, 2018, from http://www.hippasus.com/rrpweblog/archives/2014/06/29/LearningTechnologySAMRModel.pdf

U.S. Department of Education. “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning.” (n.d.). Retrieved February 3, 2018, https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf

 

 

Work

I spent two days this week in diversity training. It seems so commonplace and insignificant calling it “diversity training” when what I experienced was so much more. In fact, it seems almost disrespectful of the issues offered to me to attempt to sum it up here. So, I won’t. Instead, I will focus on one revelation of the seminar that stood out: what seems to be normal life to me, could also be oppressive to my students. While this is a loaded topic, the topic of race and racism, it has been one that clearly demonstrates for me what can happen when we do research on humans without really thinking through all the consequences, positive and negative, of the research on those humans.

The seminar got me thinking, how many times have I expected my students to meet inequitable standards to be successful? Further, for those who don’t meet the standards what damage have I done? And for those who have found success, what damage have I done?  This has kept me up a few nights this week. Despite ten years of teaching, when it comes to teaching minorities, I feel like a kid, playing with a light-saber, who does not have the Force for guidance.

The existential crisis I find myself in magnifies, in 3-D, how good intentions (or just a good idea) in research is not enough. Our own ignorance, our limited world view, our own arrogance can lead us into irreversible damage, potentially psychological, rather than provide solutions to real world problems similarly to the psychological damage caused by systemic racism. So, what can we do?  What can I do?

I think evaluating my expectations for the work ahead is the starting point for combating the dangerous minefield of both social science research as well as the subtle racism that is still embedded in our culture. Specifically, what I mean by “evaluating my expectations” is to turn my eyes first to the purpose of the research: to discover knowledge then to share it. Then challenge my intentions of the work I am doing. If we start research (for education) with any other purpose, ethical conflicts will arise. Those conflicts will blind me to all the possibilities of what I do, especially the negative.

However, I cannot do it alone. There are so many considerations before doing research that I am definitely going to need help. Building a thought community around the research is needed but a difficult task for me. I am a teacher. I get to create my own world for a living. With that control, comes the teacher version of a God complex. I think when we were kids, we were called know-it-alls, but the result is that we are not and I am not always the easiest to work with.

So, what’s it going to take to do the work? More work. More thinking. More talking. More listening. I’m still at the beginning.

 

This Isn’t a Cage Match

I think, on the surface, more and more classes have moved online because it seems to meets the needs of the student. Moving online is ideal for individual’s time management as well as expands the accessibility of the coursework when students are absent for one reason or another. It also potentially limits the interference of class time and work time because the schedules typically are flexible. There’s no weather, sickness, or holidays that can really prevent student access to coursework other than Armageddon or a storm that kills the internet. Moving classes online is also hip. It’s a trend. If you have online courses available then you are progressive and seem open to innovation as an educational institution. But do these things matter? Does moving classes online really address learning needs? Are learning needs the priority of education? If moving online doesn’t actually address learning needs, then what does moving courses online really do?

Similarly to face to face courses, the quality of online classes depends heavily on the teacher. At every level, the quality of the teacher matters. When I am paying for a doctoral program, I am really paying for my professor’s expertise, not how well an online course is organized. Organization matters. Accessibility matters. Flexible class meetings matter. Ultimately however, it is the quality of the instructor that matters most. So, the real question is, does moving a course online empower a quality educator or does it prevent those instructors from being at their best? What it really comes down to is the instructor’s expertise in online instruction, and their ability to navigate a digital world and system. So is moving courses online really about meeting the learner’s needs?

But then I wonder if face to face (F2F) meetings meet the learners needs? So what is the difference between F2F and online classes anyway? As a student, online classes are so convenient. I can get to my classwork on my time, and usually when I feel like it. I can set my own schedule, turn my interactions online into a checklist of things to do, and I can meet deadlines at midnight instead of class time. I can stay in my tiny little bubble in my tiny little office, and feel certain I have figured it all out on my own. In F2F, I have to show up on the school’s schedule, I gotta talk to people in class whether I feel like it or not, and I really have to be prepared for class when I walk in the door even if I just left work and have no time to review. F2F classes seem so inconvenient. However, the process of learning isn’t always convenient, and I wonder if it even should be. Learning can be fun, but learning is work. Getting an education cannot be just about convenience, yet many of the decisions for shifting to online courses seem to be about convenience. Getting an education takes more than showing up and checking off your list of things to do. It requires engagement: engagement with the texts, engagement with the instructor, and most importantly, engagement with your classmates. This is where the great divide shows its gaping mouth in the battle between F2F and online courses: engagement. This is not a matter of which is better. This is a matter of how engaging is each format, and further, which is most appropriate for the content, situation, and student.

This is not an argument for shifting back to F2F classes. I love online classes because of the convenience and because I am lazy. However, if I am really honest with myself, I know in my gut I not only enjoy F2F classes better, I get more out of it both as a student and an instructor. What it all boils down to is the engagement. Through engagement, we discover that learning is social. Through engagement, we discover what we know and what others know and where our meeting places are. Through engagement, we become whole people because we need to be challenged to expand ourselves. It is through engagement that we evolve what we thought before into something more encompassing, more full, more informed.

So, what is my purpose here? I think this is a call to solve a problem: the problem of engagement in online courses. Should we start with how to create engagement in F2F classes then attempt to recreate that in online spaces? Or should we evaluate the tools available and redefine engagement for specifically online spaces? There is work to be done on this front. This isn’t about polarizing tradition and progress. This is about utilizing what we have now in technology to enhance education to its fullest. Surely we can do more now than we could do before and better. So, how do we do it?