The Hype of E-Learning?

I recently listened to a refreshing session with Steve Weiland presenting for an Athabasca University’s CIDER session. Steve addressed the hype of e-learning from a unique perspective. Like many of us, he has watched the evolution of technology use in education and has embraced it to a degree in his teaching of university courses. Steve named his session “The Case of the Self-Paced Course”. He spoke in a compelling way that was intelligent and thoughtful, and used only 9 presentation slides. Great orator.

As the premise to his presentation, he questioned the overuse of technology in learning and shared his journey through the evolution of e-learning and the theories that followed them. In turn, he tends to use technology less than more in his courses yet attempts to leverage its best qualities for his purposes. For instance, he makes a commitment to put his thoughts into words and develops something similar to an e-book. His writes chapters, similar to online modules, of comments and ideas, which are embedded with links and artwork – he then posts this for students to review. As well, we responds to each student with as many typed words as they provide in their work.

In his use of technology, he is thoughtful of where he places links to external sources so not to disrupt the learners’ engagement with the content, placing most at the bottom of the webpage. Online discussions are voluntary to allow students to work at their own page and the opportunity to post is more apt to attract social learners with some courses have postings and some very few. However, he argues there is interaction between himself and the learner in his lengthy responses. For Steve the conditions of self-paced online learning include the mind at work, the use of alone time, student characteristics, the role of interaction, and student preference. In essence, Steve is more interested in students reading and writing as an exercise. 

For me, he brought back the roots of learning in a refreshing way that did not address technology in a diminutive way. In turn, he uses technology to support his vision of teaching and learning, which he pondered for years. I found this refreshing and almost a relief as I wonder through the erratic world of e-learning and its sexy appeal of movement, interaction, visuals, copious sources, and expansive networks. Like Steve, I try to keep the learning in mind when I design online and blended courses. His style of teaching involves the instructor heavily but for Steve this is his style. Good on him.

Steve ended his session with the following quote:

“He who permits himself to be propelled simply by the momentum of his attained right habits, loses alertness;
he ceases to be on the lookout. With that loss, his goodness drops away from him.”

John Dewey, The Theory of the Moral Life


Instructional design strategies for blended and online learning

At the link below are slides for a recent workshop at the Community Access Symposium in Edmonton, Alberta.

In the slides, I outline some main theoretical frameworks and approaches I follow to design learning using technology. These frameworks and approaches inform and support the design strategies I use to create engaging blended or online learning. I also provide some basic e-learning tools and instructional design tools courtesy of Grainne Conole.

Workshop Slides


Note: the Excel tool for determining course e-learning elements by Conole and revised by Edmonds is here:  Course Dimensions E-Learning Design Tool

Using technology to assess 21st century skills

Recently the US Department of Education shared their recommendations for improved learning through the use of technology in their report, Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology. One section of the report I found interesting was on assessing learning.

Fueled by a statement from President Obama in 2009, the Office of Educational Technology took to task the need to assess 21st century skills in diagnostic and summative ways using technology. Note, they intentionally  moved away from computerized adaptive testing to have students learn, perform and be assessed on more complex skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking, entrepreneurship, and creativity.

Here are some of their suggestions:

  1. Using simulated environments to assess problem solving, understanding sequence of events, and modelling complex reasoning skills (author’s note: while highly desirable, finding copyright-free products is difficult, and creating or buying such simulations is quite expensive; however, more is being developed in this area).
  2. Use virtual environments to present student designs, graphing of results, running of tests, and recording data.
  3. Assess and reward learning outside of class. The report gives an example of a competition where students must collect and synthesize information and apply knowledge all the while assessed through feedback delivered through technology.
  4. Diagnose learning often during a course through survey questions, response devices, and then peer instruction. As well, have groups add handwritten notes or illustrations from tablets to a e-whiteboard and explain about their work. Another interesting technology idea is an assessment tool that provides support through hints and tutoring where the amount of support used shows areas of difficulty for the student. Last collecting student’s results, activities and how they learn can be compiled into a ‘playlist’ of customized learning activities
  5. Valuable feedback on student understanding and ideas can be provided through social networks and online learning communities. Posting their work online, such as poems or videos, could solicit feedback from viewers and experts. A rubric would be needed to outline to reviewers what criteria are important.
  6. Develop an assessment framework that assesses the following learning outcomes across collective work by students: collaboration, critical thinking, oral and written communication, technology use, and citizenship. E-portfolios and self-assessments could provide works to assess on this broader scale.
  7. Last, gather the assessment data into aggregated and accessible forms by all, including the student. As well, link assessment data to needed teaching and learning resources.
Author’s note: this report helped me determine ways to use technology to assess higher learning skills. While some can be performed without technology, using tools can provide more complex learning environments as well as connections to a larger learning community and allow more diverse presentations, thus catering to different learning styles.
I usually develop curriculum to ask students to perform more complex skills. I am known to deter from creating quizzes and tests as I find them less effective to assess learning, but I do see the value of self-assessment of concepts and problem solving.
Rather I develop curriculum to include assignments and projects that show student’s thinking, development and new ideas. However, the marking of  essays, blogs, e-portfolios, presentations etc. is laborious for teachers and instructors. One suggestion given above is to assess 21st century skills across a diversity of student work rather than one piece at a time. This is something to consider.
Any input from my readers would be appreciated. How do you assess higher order thinking skills in efficient and effective ways?

Jumping the LMS wall

I was relieved to find someone else creating course work and activities outside of an institution’s learning management system (LMS).  Jon Mott and David Wiley (2010 ?) in their article, Open for Learning: The CMS and the Open Learning Network,  make the argument that current LMS designs hinder student-created learning and instead cater to, and are used for, administrative efficiency – not learning effectiveness. Studies show that LMS are least used for learner-centred activities such as virtual classrooms and discussion boards. They also are time restricted, thus disconnecting the student from their learning community and created content when the course ends.

From my point of view, I find the LMS lacking in the tools and spaces necessary to implement my type of instructional design, outlined here.  In my design approach, I tend to create student-led learning sprinkled with active, constructivist, collaborative, self-assessing, and experiential learning. A big order that requires me to use new web tools to help students find, analyze, and interpret information, manage data, communicate with others in various ways, work collaboratively, create meaningful presentations, and self-publish.

Mott and Wiley go on to propose an open learning network (OLN) design that lies somewhere between a LMS and a personal learning environment (PLE) – see their diagram below. They describe it as a move “toward a more open, flexible, modular, and interoperable learning infrastructure.” Also, they determine some information is still required to be private and inaccessible such as student information, assessments, etc., but beyond that instructors and students should openly engage with and share wikis, blogs etc. to the extent the applications are mashed-up with the existing LMS/OLN.

Diagram by Mott and Wiley (2010)

I don’t have the privilege at the moment to mash-up/import useful external applications with current LMS as the leading brands are limited in that way. However, the village drums are indicating this may change in time. The LMS developers should make this shift as more and more educators use outside tools. It would be more advantageous to have all resources, activities, communications, etc. located in one area or portal. And this portal should remain accessible to students during their education and afterwards. If we are teaching them content and providing them learning experiences that is presumably transferable to the workplace, then we must allow them access to these invaluable resources over their lifetime. Create a big learning circle.

Community of Inquiry model revisited

Drs. Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, and Walter Archer reunite to address the impact and development of their conceptual model of Communities of Inquiry(CoI) as it relates to online learning (recently published in The Internet and Higher Education, Volume 13, Issues 1-2). It is great to see these scholars come together again, and to see the ongoing work of their model.

I didn’t realize until now that I was a student of the Faculty of Extension at the University of Alberta where all three worked while researching and developing their model. I was pursuing an undergrad degree in adult education via distance at the time. Now I understand why this degree was delivered so well back in the dawning age of online learning in 1999.

While I didn’t use the CoI model to analyze my data from my doctoral study on the needs and perceptions of graduate students, I did discover the importance of social and teaching presence. Surprising to me, the latter became more important for my participants. I was surprised as my participants were motivated, middle-aged professionals who were focused and determined to pursue an online graduate degree regardless of their work and life responsibilities and overall lack of time and sleep. They seemed to be self starters and independent. And, I was surprise as much of the literature promotes social learning as key to education, whereas some of my participants seemed less interested in this mode of learning.

However, the presence of their instructor became paramount to their successful engagement in an online course. In order of importance, participants wanted instructors to provide student support, student guidance, and feedback. For instance, they wanted encouragement from the online instructor, and to connect with them. Specifically, they wanted answers to their questions, and guidance on working online and with electronic resources. As well, they were quite concerned about the expectations of instructors and needed clarity. They also wanted daily responses and feedback from instructors, whereas having a personal connection with the instructor made feedback more meaningful and less like terse judgment.

If I were to use the CoI model as framework in my analysis, I might have examined the interconnection of social and teacher presence (I didn’t study cognitive presence). As such, I probably would have counted, reviewed (?) the extent to which participants needed either presence and the correlation between the two. That is, did those who remarked about the need for instructors to be more present online also enjoy learning with others through online discussions and group work? Or were those who needed more instructor guidance independent learners? I would have to follow the work of those who are developing the use of a CoI framework to determine the best approach. But I agree that analyzing the effects of online learning through the interconnection of the presences better explains the personal and learning experience of online students as complex beings in complex environments.

More educated do well online

Brian Donavant in his article from 2009, titled “The New, Modern Practice of Adult Education: Online Instruction in a Continuing Professional Education Setting”, shared some intriguing results from a study on police officers attending professional training in either a traditional f2f setting or online.

He determined, of all the demographic information studied, the level of education of participants seemed to correlate more positively with their liking the online learning setting. He recommends that when employers have highly educated staff they should consider delivering professional development online.

However, I hope this is not taken as a general statement about the preferences or abilities of those less educated – I wouldn’t  stand behind a claim that such groups could not or would not want to learn virtually, though they do have more barriers such as access to technology and the Internet.

Yet, this study does seem to support the latest barrage of postings of how online learning is growing both in delivery and in popularity at postsecondary institutions worldwide, more specifically in the US. Of course, us onliners always knew this would be true. Smile.