Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Where Seldom is Heard a Discouraging Word

“Where Seldom is Heard a Discouraging Word”

I suppose it may be true that out on the range where the buffalo used to roam that discouraging words were seldom heard - probably the same for encouraging words. The range where the politicians roam today is certainly quite different with discouraging and disparaging words much more common. The range of educational discourse is more like the latter than the former, unfortunately.

I suppose when there are many people gathered in relatively confined spaces pursuing a variety of goals that there are like to be conflicting views and competing interests. Many a discouraging word has occurred in the educational discourse pertaining to the quality and value of online courses in comparison with face-to-face courses. Views persist that one or the other context is preferable in terms of learning outcomes or costs or retention or almost any other measure. The evidence, however, is not nearly so conclusive. It depends. It depends on the design and implementation of the course, on the instructor, on the topic, on the institutional support, on the students, and so on. It depends … and it varies a great deal.

Interests also vary a great deal. Some students prefer the flexibility of online courses, especially those that are asynchronous. Some students believe (often mistakenly) that online courses are easier. Some teachers believe (sometimes with some justification) that their face-to-face meetings with students are critical to developing their understanding and improving their performance. Some teachers also prefer the flexibility of online courses. Some administrators prefer paying part-time online instructors and optimizing use of limited campus space, while others prefer optimizing the unique experiences that a campus experience can offer.

While the story is neither simple nor clear, there need not be such brow beating and breast thumping as is so often heard in discussions about online and face-to-face teaching and learning. There are in fact many similar concerns to be addressed in either context in pursuit of quality education. Here are four such concerns: engagement, communication, collaboration, and practical experience. While these are critical to both face-to-face and online learning, how they are implemented and supported in each context is quite different. Engagement refers to the notion that learner interest in the topic (e.g., seeing the topic as relevant and valuable to their success) and subsequent active involvement in learning activities are critical to developing understanding. Engagement is often measured in terms of time-on-task, which has historically been a reliable indicator of learning, especially with simpler learning tasks (declarative and simple procedural knowledge). Of course it is a challenge to measure time-on-task in either context – face-to-face as much occurs outside the classroom or laboratory and online as much is hidden from view for different reasons. Asking students to report time-on-task is not a completely reliable method. However, measuring motivation before, during, and after instruction does seem to provide a sense for meaningful engagement as does evidence in student-created portfolios and in follow-on decisions such as selecting a second elective in the topic area.

Developing communication skills is important for long-term success in many discipline areas. How that is accomplished in face-to-face courses is different from how it might be accomplished in an online course, and the type of communication skill to be developed might also be different. However, it is possible to have written and oral skills addressed and practiced in either context, although doing so will be carried out differently. Likewise, learning to be a productive team player and effective collaborator is a skill that is also desirable for long-term success in many areas. Again, this skill can be supported in both contexts albeit differently. The same goes for practical application of knowledge which is so critical to skill development sought after in so many task domains. While students are hardly ever passive at the cognitive level, active learning in the course of solving problems and working on meaningful tasks is necessary for productive learning to occur. Again, this can occur in both face-to-face and online settings.

What, then, is really fundamentally different? First, as already implied, the means of implementing and supporting engagement, communication, collaboration and practical problem solving are quite different. The constraints and costs are likely to differ, so that one or the other context might be preferred for reasons other than optimal learning outcomes. The targeted learners might be significantly different or unreachable by one means or the other.

What we should be doing as educators is to find the most appropriate means and methods for the targeted learning tasks and learners. There is no need to discredit or disparage other means or methods in order to pursue the best quality educational support we can provide given the constraints within which we must operate. Might not one argue that for this situation, these learners and these constraints that a reasonable approach is X, or Y, or perhaps Z? Might we not find encouraging words for all those who are or wish to support learning and instruction to the best of their abilities? Might we not recognize the value of campus life and associated experiences even if we believe that online learning is the best solution in a particular case? Might we not admit the reality that online learning and instruction works well for many even if we prefer campus-based teaching and learning for certain subjects and students? We might. We might even admit that it would be a remarkable coincidence if the world happened to coincide the limits of our imaginations.

Mike Spector


  1. I am really enjoying reading your well written articles. I think you spend numerous effort and time updating your site. I have bookmarked it and I am taking a look ahead to reading new articles.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.