Friday, 26 June 2009

You can't do that in a classroom!

I’ve often noticed a perception amongst colleagues and students that eLearning can only ever be a poor substitute for what they consider ‘real’ learning environments which are, necessarily, face-to-face. While there is considerable evidence to suggest that eLearning should avoid simply replicating face-to-face teaching and learning strategies, too often that is precisely how eLearning is judged: on its capacity (or lack thereof) to support what can be done in a face-to-face setting. What we see here is that ‘traditional’ or ‘face-to-face’ learning operates as a kind of normative discourse: a set of shared assumptions about how teaching and learning ought to happen.

Experienced users of eLearning (whether in stand-alone or hybrid/blended situations) will agree that there are many, many things you can do in an online learning environment that you simply can’t do in the rigidly synchronous environment of a face-to-face classroom. What this tells us is that rather than being an ideal against which other types of learning environments should be measured, the face-to-face learning environment, like all learning environments, has both strengths and limitations. It’s become the norm or standard against which other environments are measured simply because for so long it was the only environment available.

I think it’s time we shifted our thinking away from what eLearning can do to what traditional teaching environments can’t do. The simple fact is, however, that such thinking is deeply iconoclastic. The simple suggestion that traditional, face-to-face learning environments have limitations and *gasp* may even be found wanting is unthinkable to many teachers and learners who have never experienced anything else. But that’s precisely the point. It’s vital that we be able to evaluate different teaching and learning environments on their objective relative merits in order to best harness their distinct potentials. As such, it’s vital that we move away from old-fashioned hierarchical thinking that positions face-to-face learning environments at the top of the heap.

To that end, here is a list of 5 things that can’t be (easily) done in a rigidly synchronous learning space (a time-limited physical face-to-face classroom):

1 It is difficult or impossible for everyone to make a valuable and useful contribution – particularly in large groups.
- Face-to face classrooms offer little in the way of ‘democracy’ of learning. If you’re shy, find speaking in public hard, have a first language other than that being used for discussion, and/or live with a speaking or hearing difficulty then a face-to-face discussion can be incredibly alienating and difficult to participate in. While participation in a discussion or face-to-face activity isn’t essential for effective learning, being consistently excluded from them can be demoralising and limiting for students.

2 It’s impossible to provide learning at a time and place where all students are ready and prepared to learn it.
- We know students learn at different paces and build on different sets of prior understanding. Assuming that they’re ready to learn what they need to learn at, say, 10.30am on a particular Thursday morning is anathema to this. If a student is not ready at that designated point in time, once the class has finished, they’ve missed their chance and can only achieve the learning on their own. If, for instance, they listen to a 50 minute lecture which they simply don’t understand, even if they go away afterwards and do further reading/research to deepen their understanding, they can’t revisit the lecture as it’s been and gone. They’re also unlikely to have useful notes to which they can refer.
- students who have to miss face-to-face classes (because of illness, caring and/or work responsibilities etc) will always have a significantly impaired learning experience when face-to-face environments prevail.
- face-to-face classes make it hard to tap into the zeitgeist that can make learning authentic. In other words, when something happens in the cultural, social and/or political sphere (such as a scientific breakthrough being reported in the media or a crisis emerging on a reality television show) which is relevant to what the students are learning, they can’t discuss it with each other immediately or as it’s developing but must wait until the next scheduled class which could be up to a fortnight away.

3 It’s difficult or impossible for students to break away to reflect on their understanding or conduct more research to better inform their engagement with the subject at hand.
- In the rigidly limited time of a synchronous class there’s simply no time for students to stop and have a think about their understanding or do any further reading or research to inform their understanding. This impedes students who learn at a slower pace, or those who need more time to digest, reflect and ‘fine-tune’ their thinking and understanding before contributing. If these students achieve learning breakthroughs after the class time has expired, they’re unlikely to be able to make a contribution as there will necessarily be a significant break before the next class which will, more often than not, be moving on to a new topic and offer little opportunity for revisiting previous discussions.
- In face-to-face learning environments students are often disconnected from tools which they can use to search for resources (such as web-enabled computers and smartphones) and if they are connected, teachers often discourage students from using them in a classroom (for example by asking them to turn off their phones).

4 It’s difficult to have students practice and develop their writing skills, to write collaboratively or learn vicariously in a face-to-face classroom.
- While seminars offer a valuable peer-learning opportunity, the vast majority of collaboration in a seminar happens through oral communication even though the vast majority of their assessment is undertaken through written communication; this immediately presents a significant misalignment between teaching and assessment strategies. There simply isn’t enough time for all students to practice their writing and share it with each other in a standard face-to-face classroom or to assess all students by viva-voce.
- In face-to-face classes students almost never have an opportunity to work collaboratively with their peers in the construction of written materials. Face-to-face classes therefore offer no peer-learning opportunities that students can use to develop their written communication skills.
- It’s difficult for students in a face-to-face classroom to undertake vicarious learning – in other words to watch other students learn - by reading their scholarly writing.

5 It’s difficult or impossible to give all students regular, targeted and personalised feedback on their informal learning achievements.
- most students only get personal, targeted feedback on their formal assessment submissions which can be as few as two times per module. Offering regular, written feedback and feedforward to all students on their participation and contribution to face-to-face classes is both difficult and rare.

With thanks to Sue Folley for her advice and comments.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Ten Commandments of eLearning

Frequently when I talk to colleagues about eLearning they say something like 'I set up a bulletin board/blog/wiki etc but the students didn't use it'. My response to them is always the same: that the problem is more likely to be with their design rather than with their students. Over the years I've learned a lot of things about what good design really means and I've grouped them all together into a Ten Commandents of eLearning. This is not intended to be blasphemous or disrespectful but rather is inspired by the Christian commandments in that all they're doing is presenting a set of basic principles to work to. Like the original ten commandments, with these the first is the most important. I hope you find them useful.

1 Put the pedagogy (not the technology) first
Think about what students need to learn then think about how it is best for them to learn it. Only then think about which technology is best used to accomplish this.
Don’t be too ambitious. Start out small (eg. just a discussion board or a group blog) and build on this in subsequent years.

2 Be aware of workloads and work patterns (yours and theirs)
Replace (don’t augment) other teaching and learning activities with eLearning
Consider how much reading and writing they are required to do each week. Use groups to limit/manage this.
Consider how much reading and writing you’ll be required to do each week to moderate their activity. Design and structure the activities to manage this. Develop/harness peer learning opportunities - these should strengthen over the duration of the module and your workload should decrease accordingly as students take on more of the load.
Avoid activities where students rely on colleagues to complete work before they can complete theirs so that students who meet deadlines or want to work ahead aren’t penalised or held back by those who don’t.
Limit the number of synchronous activities or make them voluntary. Record them so that those unable to attend can access them at a later date.
Remember: lurking (reading without contributing) can be a valuable learning activity.

3 Balance risks with safety
We want students to take intellectual risks but they need to feel safe in order to do so. The eLearning environment needs to be a safe place to be. Going online can feel very ‘risky’ in itself to many people – so make the first few activities ‘familiar’ and ‘safe’ such as introductions, reflection etc. In other words, bear in mind ‘social’ risks as well as intellectual ‘risks’. Make sure there is a welcome for students ready for them when they first log on and that the first thing they need to do or place they need to go to is clearly marked at the outset.

4 Balance obligations with rewards
By all means use compulsory elements to oblige students to participate (assessed elements, attendance requirements, deadlines etc).
But make sure these are balanced with elements that make participation worthwhile and beneficial for them in terms of their learning needs. Carrots are much more effective in eLearning than sticks.

5 Make ethics a priority
Don’t give anyone access to the site who doesn’t have to be there. Inform students about who has access, why they are there and what they have access to. Let them know if/how they are being surveilled. Never display or reuse student contributions or work without their consent and release.

6 Model good practice
Write your contributions in a way that you would like your students to write them (i.e. concise, well paragraphed, proof read, formal/informal etc)
Be online when you say you’ll be and do what you’ll say you’ll do (no more no less)
Keep and use your sense of humour. Always observe appropriate netiquette and make sure that students do also.

7 Make expectations clear
Establish clearly what are the minimum expectations you have of them.
Establish clearly what are the maximum expectations they can have of you.
Ensure the module works in the space between these two.

8 Establish patterns and stick to them
Build spaces and use them consistently (always put the same sorts of things in the same places so they are easy to find, use colour coding to differentiate different types of documents etc). Don’t move things around unless you have to. If you form students into groups don’t alter them for the duration of the module unless you have to.
Establish learning patterns or cycles (eg Explore, Describe, Apply) that students work through routinely (eg weekly or fortnightly).

9 Keep spaces available for students to use and shape to their own needs
Allowing students to control and customise the learning environment is a useful and important way of empowering them and allowing them to take ownership of it the space. This can be something as simple as a ‘notes’ or ‘general discussion’ forum on the discussion board or as complicated as a wiki space where students can collaborate on writing documents or set up URLs to share.

10 Use/develop protocols
Protocols are helpful for all students, not just those with low experience or confidence using online spaces. Use protocols for such things as for saving and uploading documents, assessment etc., for using a chat space, for formatting reader-friendly posts, for using blogs. Don’t reinvent the wheel – someone else may have already created and tested one.

This post is available in a Spanish translation (with thanks to Natalia Martínez Díaz) at:

Este se encuentra disponible en una traducción en español (gracias a Natalia Martínez Díaz)

See other blog posts which have responded to these commandments or developed their own:

Clive Shepherd:

Abjikit Kadle

Robert Kennedy (and his followers)