Wednesday, August 26, 2009

C. Distance (and campus) learning reconceived (10 things I believe)

My conception of ‘distance learning’ has changed over the last thirty years. My old vision, still held by many folks, was explained in the previous post. To explain why and how I’ve changed my mind, let me tell you about five programs I’ve seen over the years.

As you think about each story, consider that a large fraction of your “distance learning” students may well also take courses on your campus. They’re actually not ‘distant.’ But online learning offers them flexibility to have a part-time or full-time job to cover educational costs, to study when and where they want, to carry heavier loads, and to graduate sooner.

1. Bridging distance to include new students, and teachers: About twenty years ago, my friend Prof Nick Eastmond of Utah State taught an educational technology course to distant learners using audioconferencing. Nick invited me to be a guest lecturer for an upcoming session. “You want me to come to Logan?” I asked. “No, just call this phone number at the beginning of the class hour,” he responded, “and talk with my students about evaluation.” I was startled by what I found when I ‘arrived.’ If the students had all been in a room on campus, listening to my disembodied voice coming from a speaker, I probably would have felt distant. But the students, Nick, and I were just talking together on the phone. It was quite intimate. He invited a different expert from around the country to talk with his students by phone every week.

2. Reaching different kinds of students so all students can learn better:
In the early 1990s, Leslie Harris was teaching a composition course at a small college. Students would read articles and then write an essay, summarizing evidence and arguing their own points of view about an issue. His students were reading about family and cultures. But they knew relatively little about families or cultures outside their own small world. In addition, the students shared too many beliefs and preferences. In short, there was little room for a real exchange of facts and views.

So, with a friend teaching a similar course at a dissimilar college, Leslie scheduled a series of online chats. At designated times each week, students from the two colleges would enter the same chat room in order to discuss a topic drawn from shared course readings. The students would also collectively contribute to a listserv discussion between the two classes. These conversations could easily grow impassioned. I recall one student writing in the chat room, “I am punching you in the nose!” That provided plenty of energy and direction to the essays students wrote later.

Although difficult to implement, the idea worked well enough that Harris organized several such pairs of composition courses in the early 1990s. Differences among students can be an asset when those differences can lead to productive dialogue, helping students become more self-aware. Bridging distance can help faculty increase such differences by design.

3. Slowing down the conversation in order to improve learning: During that same period, Karen Smith tried a new technique in foreign language learning at the University of Arizona. About forty students in Spanish IV spent some course time using a computer discussion board instead of going to a language laboratory. They wrote to each other in Spanish about many topics, including some issues they chose for themselves (e.g., planning a class party; advising a fellow student who was depressed). Initially these students used the bulletin board by going to a computer lab at scheduled class times. Soon they realized that they could add entries whenever they had access to a computer and a modem. Their contributions to the online conversation were graded on their fluency, not their grammar.

Meanwhile, many other students were assigned to use word processing to write in Spanish instead. And a third large group continued to use the language laboratory. In other respects, all three groups were taught in the same way.

Outcomes of Karen’s experiment: I visited the course that semester, and it was the most enthusiastic group of students I’ve ever met, before or since. Several said, “This is the first time I’ve actually used Spanish!” Second, they liked the deliberate pace of conversation. They pointed out that face-to-face exchange allows little time for silent thought. However, when using the discussion board, these students had plenty of time to interpret what had just been ‘said,’ and then to thoughtfully compose their replies. Third, they could focus on what to say in Spanish without being distracted by worries about pronunciation.

Amazingly, oral examination revealed these students had learned to converse in Spanish better than students who had trained in the language laboratory. The ‘discussion board’ students had become already adept at thinking in Spanish so that was no problem for them during the oral exam; instead they could focus on pronunciation and speed, and they did well. Karen concluded that these students were attracted to invest more time and energy on the course, which would also help explain their superior performance.

Even for undergraduates, joining any discipline is akin to learning a second language and culture. It’s about learning to communicate with a community, learning its language and adopting its values. How do you teach your students to ‘speak’ math, political science, or art? How do they learn to talk together as they do the work of the discipline? Is face-to-face always ideal? Or, sometimes, would a slower tempo and a little distance help them learn new conversational skills? Could you use those technologies to give each student different conversational partners, such as more advanced students or experts? Do participants in such conversations also need specialized tools? For example, should a participant be able to call up a painting, X-ray, or clip of news footage, and then point to elements of that image or video as they discuss it?

4. Global diversity can be a defining strength for a program: My first three stories were from decades past – their lessons do not depend on glitzy new technology. My fourth story is from today, but it’s still not high tech: five leading institutions on four continents collaborate in offering an executive MBA in global management. The US partner in “OneMBA” is the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Students enroll at one of the five institutions and come to campus monthly for meetings of half their courses. Meanwhile, the other half of the curriculum is taught online, each course led by a faculty team from the participating universities. Students from the five institutions work together in virtual teams. In addition, four times during their program, OneMBA students gather to learn and do research together. Significantly, when they meet in the US, they do not come to Chapel Hill; instead, they work together in Washington DC. The world is the laboratory for the students and faculty in OneMBA. By bridging time and space, they’ve created a program that could never have been offered on campus.

5. Including new learners and more diverse resources while saving money: Several institutions have recently developed laboratory equipment that can be used by undergraduates from a distance. Students can plan and carry out their experiments over the Web, and then download their data for analysis. They are running real, physical experiments, not simulations. Zhejiang University in China has pioneered the use of such online laboratories for distance learning in engineering.

MIT’s iLabs software enables institutions to network their online laboratory equipment together, supporting a multi-institution constellation of laboratories with shared tools for scheduling equipment use, storing student data, and other logistics.

However, iLabs has implications beyond reaching ‘distant learners.’ When using a traditional undergraduate laboratory, twenty or thirty students might share ten experimental stations, equipment used intensively for the hour or two of the laboratory session and then lying idle most of the week. That idle, costly, aging equipment has been one reason why undergraduate laboratories are so rare. In contrast, with iLabs, only one experimental station may be needed for a large group because students can take turns using that station, day and night. In fact, a single iLab may have so much capacity that students from other institutions can use the equipment as well. In fact, students in Africa have been using MIT laboratory, and vice versa, at hours when the host institution makes little use of its own equipment.

MIT’s reorganization of the concept of laboratory learning has implications:
• for access (learners half way around the world; learners on campus doing research at night),
• for the character and quality of education (with iLabs as with the web, the more institutions create iLabs, the greater the variety of laboratory equipment available to all participating institutions), and
• for costs (each station and its laboratory space can be used far more cost-effectively because they are used 24x7; even if institutions share the costs of expensive laboratory equipment, paying part of the cost is less than paying the full cost).

Summing up this essay: the terms “distance learning” and “online learning” suggest to many people that a) all the students are far away, b) the goal is to offer courses that are ‘comparable’ with campus-bound offerings.

But these stories all contradict that stereotype.
They each improve upon what was previously possible when campus students were either in a classroom, or studying alone, and using only campus resources.

Second, in each case, the improvements in content, access (who can learn), and methods all resulted from the same technology-supported strategy. Eastmond’s use of audioconferencing enabled experts to bring in updated content, access for distant or busy learners, and tighter community, for example. Smith’s use of online discussion made education more accessible and also powered a far better, more engaging approach to learning Spanish.

Third, all but one of the stories involved hybrid strategy: distance and time were used to improve learning, but those elements were complemented with some kind of face-to-face interaction, sometimes nontraditional (e.g., OneMBA faculty and students doing field research together).

Your institution probably offers at least some online learning courses. It is certainly using technology in some ways to enrich education on campus. I suggest bringing those two efforts closer together. Faculty and support services should work together, using available technology, to help improve courses and programs in all three of these dimensions, simultaneously:
What: How can we update and improve course content, even just a little?
Who: How can we help even just a few additional people learn (including people whose differences might be assets for our program)? and
How can each of these people learn a little more effectively than before?

Be pragmatic. When designing a program or improving a course, start with where you need to start (e.g. we want to serve this group of learners, or we want to make this change in content, or we want to make teaching and learning more effective). But then immediately consider how to use technology so that one change can achieve not only your initial aim but also net gains in the other two dimensions as well.

Things I hope you’ll comment about, below; to the right of 'posted by Steve Ehrmann,' click the word "Comments":
1. Does your institution already have any courses or academic programs whose technology-enabled design improves “what, who, and how” simultaneously?
2. If you're a leader at your institution, what kinds of changes in support services could make such a comprehensive approach work? What roles can evaluative feedback play in guiding such academic improvement so that it does succeed in all three dimensions?

PS If you like this series of posts, 'Ten Things I (no longer) Believe About Transforming Teaching and Learning with Technology' and think others should be debating their value and implications, please spread the word. If you got the word by Twitter, please retweet. Thanks!


  1. Hi Steve,

    Sneaking ahead to your overall list, well, nice work! I am enjoying the contrasts between the enthusiasm and the evidence, the shift from an optimistic to a realistic paradigm. We’re similar thinkers! Part of me wonders how far e-learning may have gotten without the unbridled enthusiasm that characterized early ‘e’vangelists – and another part wonders the extent to which we are just being cynical as we look back. I still cringe as I look at numbers 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9… ok, I admit it. It’s not cynicism. It’s an honest look back into not-so-distant reality!

  2. To be honest, I'm wondering whether blogs have had their day... most of the subscriptions I have rarely post as often as they used to. Discussion in professional communities works better than that through blogs IMHO.


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