Part I was my first post on this blog to “escape” comment and my only one to explicitly invite comment, so I’m on my own here. It may well be that the expectation is that I should finish what I started, not leave things hanging. Very well.

My basic point in that previous post was that, contrary to one explanation for why online learning has plateaued, I don’t think the re-ignition of the growth in online and blended learning awaits some new technological innovation we don’t have. And I say that despite seeing, just yesterday, a reaffirmation of that position in the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s “Wired Campus” blog: “Online Programs: Profits Are There, Technological Innovation Is Not.” Stepping around the swamp of speculation about online learning as a cash cow (think how many ships of foundered on those shoals), I’d say what we’re really waiting on is a fuller  understanding what of we have in online teaching and learning now, at least potentially.

That understanding, I would aver, is not unlike the understanding western civilization had to move to in its last great technological revolution (using the term as it should be used, to signify real upheaval and overturning). When, in the mid-1400s, the advent of the printing press meant that, not just the putative Word of God, but the words of Aristotle (and a host of other past luminaries) could be put in the hands of the literate laity, professors were as frightened as clergy that they were being superannuated, “automated” out their jobs as mediators of truth, learning, information.

That turned out not to be the case, of course, though it took centuries of growing literacy (we’re still working on that) to get the full sense of what the change was (and was not). Books didn’t replace teachers. They enabled teachers, empowered teachers, required teachers.

Ditto technology. It has made faculty more important than ever before. Their job was never (just) information transmittal. Books would have sufficed for that. But what we’re after is not information, but knowledge. Knowledge is the fruit of interrogation, interpretation, application, criticism, synthesis. You need teachers for that. They have plenty of work to do. And technology helps. Arguably, it helps most of all by getting us past the idea that the transmission of information is the great goal.

Nobody puts this better than John Seely Brown, particularly in a keynote talk he did at the University of Colorado’s 2005 Teaching with Technology Conference. He is all over the place in the talk, making fascinating observations about how amateur astronomers are outdoing their professional counterparts, partly because they engage in more online collaboration. I might have missed the key insight at the end if I hadn’t been listening to this as a podcast (and during a long run). He suggests that we are moving from one model of education, particularly college education, to another.

The old model is a one-way exchange: people who have information give it to those who don’t have it. This is basically a packaging operation: wrapping up thought (in lectures, courses, books) and presenting it. As JSB reminds us, this is not the only model of education. He notes that the model of graduate education was always supposed to be different — not one wherein people with information give it to those who don’t, but one wherein everyone has access to information while one among them (the teacher, of course) is especially good at navigating through it, understanding the gaps and tensions, pointing out the really productive points of inquiry. Now, says JSB, there’s no good excuse not to use this model with undergraduates and not just in graduate seminars. The general and remarkable access to information — a 24/7 proposition — should free instructors to focus on the really fun parts of teaching: the invitations to critical thinking, the fruitful interventions, the point-of-need support, the re-directions of attention, the due recognition of accomplishment.

In short, it’s not the technology that needs to change, but the teaching. And the change has already begun. What technology has done is enabled the change by being a transformative medium: not old wine in new bottles (because that’s boring) but something different because done differently. Students are likely to resist the change as much as some faculty — thinking is hard work — but the problems and solutions are pedagogical, not technological.

That, at least, is one way of looking at it.

  1. Christopher Stein Says:

    I feel your post deserves a much longer response but this will have to do for now. I wholeheartedly agree that it is not about the technology. That’s always changing and if your excuse is waiting for the next lateset and greatest then you’re always waiting.

    Also agreed that online/blended learning invites a new pedagogical approach, not just a “course conversion”.

    So why the lack of technology enhanced and online courses? To put it crudely I think the idea that faculty are waiting for a tech innovation is B.S. There’s the tried and true response of lazy faculty with yellowed notes, tenure and full professorship but I don’t think that covers it as well. Although I do concede that inertia and lack of incentives plays a part.

    I think many faculty do, like you, realize that online and blended learning requires a new pedagogical approach. However they don’t really know what that approach is. They also don’t really know where to start figuring it out. So they sit on the sidelines and wait to see if someone else has figured it out.

    I might even go a step further and say that most of us (faculty) don’t really understand how people learn on a fundamental level. We know how we were taught our subject and we have ideas about how to fiddle with that model and make it better but when you present an entirely new medium that requires a new approach we don’t have a good foundational model of what learning requires that we can use to build a new approach.

  2. George Otte Says:

    You’re right to point out, Chris, that the real challenge here is not to say that it’s the teaching and not the technology that is pivotal; the challenge is to say how. I tried to get at that (via John Seely Brown) a little at the end. But, pushed by you, I will push myself further.

    A lot of people think the answer is to ask more work of teachers. (The corollary is that’s why more aren’t doing it.) To use a variant on a phrase you use, this is so much mierda del toro. Nothing written on online learning has held up as well as Bill Pelz’s piece, and his argument there is that the online environment is one in which students should teach themselves and each other more, not require more work from the teacher.

    I think he’s right. I know he is, at least in my experience. The five sections I taught for the Online Baccalaureate were the best teaching experiences of my long teaching life for a simple reason: I was able to set things up so that, if they did what I asked, they learned, and that was demonstrable. Simple as that.

    I should give an example. One assignment (this was in the Digital Info class, basically a computer literacy class) was to do a one-pager on some aspect of Internet use they found interesting. They were to do it as an article (I gave them the journalistic questions to answer), and they were to follow a simple scheme of source attribution. No more than one page, thought layout, at least one image.

    I got the best papers I’d ever gotten at that kind or level of instruction (and I’m a retooled English prof — writing teacher, basically — who’s taught at three universities). But that wasn’t anything I could attribute to the online environment. It was what else happened with those papers.

    Three things, basically:

    *First, they were supposed to be first stabs at a final research project, but that had to be a group project, so they were all reading and commenting on one another’s work, looking to choose up a team. (This was of course one reason why the papers were so good in the first place.)

    *Second, they were teaching the content of the course in the process of doing the assignment. All sorts of things that I didn’t have that much time for (identity and privacy issues, the “digital divide,” virtual worlds, multiplayer gaming, etc.) got great write-ups and advanced everyone’s knowledge, including mine.

    *Third, and this was the trick part of the assignment, I locked down the discussion board on which they published these things (so they couldn’t change what they had posted), and then, three weeks later (after a thorough treatment of plagiarism and how the Internet presumably aids and abets it), I had them go back to their one-pagers and do a self-assessment of how well they did on source attribution.

    You can guess a lot of what happened. (For one thing, NO ONE attributed the images they used — or designed their own.) Some self-assessments were egregiously self-flagellating; others were too lacking in self-scrutiny. Every single one allowed me to distill an important point (almost never the same point) about the use of sources in just a few lines of response.

    I never, in a quarter of a century of teaching writing, accomplished so much with so little effort. I still felt I was teaching. I had a role to play. But it didn’t require any high-tech bells and whistles. And it certainly didn’t require that I work hard. The online environment meant that there could be lots of cross-teaching, peer work, mutual support, competition to shine, and a very light touch from yours truly.

    This is just one example, of course, and I don’t know how generalizable it might be. I do know faculty can’t be told how to teach. But I also know the online environment allows models to be more visible, more fully exposed, more easily shared. That’s important: online pedagogy will typically move forward by models, not mandates.

  3. Jeff Gutkin Says:

    “I might even go a step further and say that most of us (faculty) don’t really understand how people learn on a fundamental level (cstein).”

    This is a great thread. This statement from cstein (Chris as George has stated) is what drove me to pursue a PhD in Ed Psych at the GC. I was asked to develop courses for a library instruction and I started wondering, how do people learn? And if I don’t know how people learn, how do I know how to teach them? Of course Bransford et al. answered that question in a landmark book, but it still didn’t answer my question and certainly said nothing about technology. So almost 4 years later and much research I find myself investigating cognitive load, multimedia learning theories, and self-regulated learning (SRL) in hope for the magic answer.
    If one investigates cognition deeply enough, one might think that the next powerful technological teaching tool will enable direct uploading of information into the brain (a concept I have been accused of supporting). In fact, at a recent book presentation Allan Collins (Northwestern) talked about learning in isolation becoming more of the norm. I don’t agree with Collins, in fact, based on social networking statistics, this generation values community and interaction with others very highly.
    So, if the above statement is correct (cstein), and I agree it is, how have faculty been able to teach anything for the last 100 years? And how many faculty actively seek help in pedagogy outside the framework of technology? I can say then; before we can move into the position of integrating technological tools into pedagogy, we have to investigate our own pedagogy. So the point, I believe, still remains, what is it that I want to do in the classroom. And then after, how can I do it better with technology?
    Well to faculty who are not versed in technology, there is no real answer to the latter part without knowing what the options are; but, there is also the increase in work that it takes to use technology. So it is not only what, but why should I do it? With some results favorable to online learning, the emphasis should be learner-centered, cognitively as well as formative assessment wise, and simply to teach better. But what I think is overlooked is teaching the students to self-regulate their learning in online environments. We can’t assume that because this generation knows how to click on Facebook that they know how to learn, or that they want to do all of their learning online. I favor the blended learning for this reason. In my opinion, placing certain content online allows for more critical discourse in the classroom. Conversely, one can lecture directly in the class and place all conversation online. Regardless of preference, the field is at a point of where do we go from here and there is no simple answer. Engaging faculty in conversation is the first step. This probably why some faculty call me the tech-therapist.

  4. Suzie Quarrell Says:

    Where Do We Go From Here?
    Perhaps what we do now is look closely at what we have, how students learn and how teachers teach online. Despite results that some have seen as muddled and inconclusive, the meta-study by the Department of Education study asks three cogent questions: a) how does the effectiveness of online learning compare with face- to-face instruction? b) What practices are associated with more effective online learning? c) What conditions influence the effectiveness of online learning?
    Online learning forces us to reevaluate student learning models and extant pedagogy. We move away from the idea of teacher centered learning towards a student centered model. Learning online is simply a more thoughtful process, and as such, it is an asset better than conventional face-to-face. Students in most instances write to learn. This activity is inherently more self–reflective because students spend more time working with the course material inculcating more thoughtful responses to the material. We use multiple technologies from blogs and wikis to iTunesU and other websites to audio/visual lectures, films and YouTube to name a few of the tools now available to us—all of which actively engage the student in a way that chalk and blackboard simply do not. Admittedly, some applications work better than others and as we progress these applications will be refined or shelved. But just look around you, our students are already so familiar with the digital world. They can download and play educational content in much the same way they may already do with music, videos and dare I say it, games. Our involvement with technology is changing the way brains function. We are not simply talking hand eye coordination here, but real cognitive changes and the way we learn. Online instructors are at the forefront of this change. To deliver course content in a method that the student is already using and comfortable with surely makes for more efficacious pedagogy. Our focus now should be on refining the ways in which course content is delivered that best suits this student and this medium.
    Data from Institutional Research at our institution shows virtually no involvement in student government or intramural activities. Students at a college such as ours have many outside obligations that impede their ability to participate in university activities. Often, they are running from classroom to job to home, and many have children. In a blended learning environment, students who take some of their courses online work together in a cooperative. In the Discussion Board (DB) area, interaction among students becomes the nexus, the very heart of learning. The teacher becomes a facilitator and sometimes mediator to keep the discussions on topic, to encourage the self-reflection and initiative that students begin to take, all of which helps to create a community of learners, which somewhat paradoxically, may not always occur as naturally in a face-to-face classroom. In the classroom, it is easy to call on the students who raise their hands, and often the quieter, perhaps shyer ones can be overlooked. In an online environment, all students are required to participate, and moreover, for many its relative anonymity provides a safe place for them to join in.
    We need to look at the disinterest by some department heads and some faculty. Those of us who have been at the forefront of teaching with technology know only too well the departmental resistance there is in some quarters to this “new fangled” approach to instruction. Usually those who think it pedagogically unsound, in my experience, tend to have limited computer skills and have formed an opinion based on no research. They simply cannot imagine pedagogy that is not teacher centered—the sage on the stage.
    What is needed now is a CUNY-wide initiative that calls for a general review of existing coverage of online courses and parity across disciplines. Those courses that are offered online are consistently filled and students want more, and yet, still, there are some departments that only offer a handful of courses each semester. Furthermore, we need to look more closely at how we are creating and implementing our course content with the technology that is out there, and not worry about the slowdown in new technology. We are at a juncture where CUNY needs to really pause and assess what kind of teaching and learning is taking place at its various institutions. Online learning is not a fad. We are at the beginning of a paradigm shift to a more complex multi-dimensional style of pedagogy.
    Susan Quarrell and Mary Carroll

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