Next Generation Online Learning

Five forms.

November 19, 2014

“Online education” takes many different forms.  It can be synchronous or asynchronous, self-paced or scheduled, video- or activity-based, free or for-fee, modularized or unchunked, and instructor- or learner-centered. An online class can be the size of a standard course, massive in scale, or somewhere in between.

At one end of the spectrum of innovation are the online courses that are simply digitized versions of traditional lecture courses, sometimes supplemented with a discussion forum and various assessments, or real-time online seminars. Offerings from the University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, and even from some of the so-called disruptive MOOC providers such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity, may take this video-at-the-back-of-the-classroom approach in an effort to replicate what goes on in face-to-face settings. While this approach may not break new ground pedagogically, simply having digital materials available -- for blending or flipping or as supplemental materials -- has real value for both instructors and students.

At the other end of the spectrum of innovation are a wide variety of richer approaches. As many blog posters in this series attest, it isn’t so much MOOCs and social media that are propelling changes in instruction, but the increased attention and time being paid to teaching and learning.  MOOC providers like edX and Coursera are not merely distribution channels; in the best cases, these platforms empower faculty to experiment and innovate. 

The critical difference between replication (with enhancements) of the classroom experience and the potential for the transformation of the classroom experience lies not necessarily in technology, but in four aspirations: A learner focus, an emphasis on interactivity, scalability, and a quest to reduce costs while maintaining quality. We see transformation happen when faculty members don’t see themselves as mere instructors, but as designers, coaches, and members of a learning development team with particular goals in mind. 

Let’s look at five contrasting ways to achieve these next generation goals, and then let me offer yet another, more radical, way we might think of the educational experience.

1.  Instructional Courseware

In this modality, a student interacts individually with instructional software: with practice problems, learning exercises, and instructional activities.  Though sometimes dismissed as a digital version of “drill and kill,” in its most sophisticated form, computer-based learning is adaptive, presenting content and activities tailored to students’ level of competence, with embedded diagnostics triggering just-in time remediation, e-tutoring, and corrective feedback.

In this form of online learning, instructional software largely replaces an instructor, and generates real-time data based on a continuous assessment of a student’s understanding.  These assessment and engagement data, in turn, can drive continuous improvement of the learning experience.  An obvious advantage of this approach is that courses do not need to accommodate to a single start date and can be completed on the student’s own schedule.

2.  Social by Design

To combat the loneliness of distance education, these online courses emphasize virtual interaction and participatory learning.  Forms of interaction typically range from hangouts with classmates to chatrooms, whiteboarding sessions, webinars, peer mentoring, and synchronous or asynchronous collaborative projects.

An exciting and innovative social approach involves challenge learning.  Students receive a series of problems to solve. Teams seek to crack these problems, through brainstorming, collaborative research, and dialogue.

3.  Discovery Learning

Modeled on a scavenger hunt, students undertake an exploration through which they are to achieve proficiency within a particular area of study. The syllabus lays out a series of tasks to undertake, activities to complete, investigations to pursue, and skills to master, followed by a variety of mastery assessments. Under this approach, an instructor is an instructional designer, a coach, and a mentor; the students themselves undertake the learning journey independently.

4.  Education at the Scale of the World

Despite harsh criticism of MOOCs rigor, pedagogy, and low completion rates, massive online courses have been a powerful catalyst for innovation and experimentation.  MOOCs have provoked widespread discussion of teaching, learning, and the role that online, technologically-enhanced education can play in the student experience.  MOOCs have stimulated efforts to integrate the science of learning into course design, to produce courses collaboratively, and to scale education through the development of auto-graders, virtual tutors, crowd-sourced feedback, and interactive simulations.

To be sure, many current MOOCs feature a “transmission” and standardized “one-size-fits-all” model of pedagogy, in which information flows one way from an instructor to a student.  Too many are about content transfer rather than reflexive learning and a student’s creation of knowledge.  But a growing number of MOOCs emphasize active learning, through interactive laboratories, serious gaming, and virtual reality environments, and embrace connectivist and constructivist pedagogies that make students active participants in the learning process. There can be little doubt that MOOCs have accelerated the development of fine-grained learning analytics, immediate feedback tools, and innovative forms of credentialing that emphasize mastery of competencies rather than seat time.

4.  Curriculum as a Plug-and-Play Endeavor

A growing number of universities have begun to outsource course development to third parties, which use standardized course “shells” which incorporate previously prepared PowerPoint slides, test banks along with feedback, and pre-packaged animations and instructional videos.  To “white label” the courses and make them seem unique, vendors showcase the institution’s own faculty in video clips.

While this may fill many with fear that the professor is being outsourced, another way to look at this approach is that it frees professors from a set number of texts or course packs, and allow them instead to use “best in breed” resources and create what works best for them and their students. This is often referred to as unbundling, and it is not necessarily disempowering. It also can save time, resources, and money, and eliminate needless redundancies.

A variant on this approach is for individual instructors to create a customized course drawing on open educational resource repositories that allow a teacher to assemble a course out of a variety of publicly available teaching tools and learning resources.

5.  Instructional Modules and Just-in-Time Learning

Modules break traditional courses into discrete units of study that can be selected and sequenced in a variety of ways, depending on a learner’s goals.  A module has clearly defined learning goals, objectives, and expectations, with activities intentionally designed to help the learner meet those aims.  This “learning by design” approach regards nested activities as an optimal way for students to achieve mastery of particular concepts, skills, and processes.

Modules can be the building blocks of a course, a specialization, or a degree.  Or, alternatively, modules can offer focused, just-in-time instruction on a need-to-know basis.

The most radical forms of online learning, like the most revolutionary forms of in-class and hybrid education, treat the student as a knowledge creator: as a fellow researcher, investigator, and problem-solver.  Education, from this perspective, is not simply training.  It goes beyond instruction or tutelage to give students opportunities to think like a practitioner, to undertake authentic projects rooted in a particular field of study, and to cultivate a professional identity.

To be sure, upper-division undergraduate courses generally embrace these goals to a limited extent. Advanced students are asked to write research papers rooted in primary sources or to conduct original experiments that they have themselves devised. Seminar students might introduce a class session or lead a discussion.

But if we are to truly move beyond the notion of students as consumers of a body of knowledge or information gatherers or amateur imitators or junior and naïve practitioners of a discipline, we must radically rethink the educational experience.  This involves making students co-architects of a class, who bear some shared responsibility for defining course objectives and rubrics, for instruction, and for creating learning resources. It means dissolving the divide between learning and researching, even at the lower-division level.  It requires an instructor to reimagine the classroom as a community of practice. It entails having students participate actively in the process of meaning making: of constructing, critiquing, and applying knowledge.  It may also mean more teaching on a “need-to-know” basis as students undertake project-based learning activities, and a greater emphasis on communication skills, as students are asked to disseminate information and findings to various audiences.

Currently, much of the concern about MOOCs and online learning has emphasized what potential disruptions might mean for faculty and for traditional campuses.  But one of the potential blessings of disruptive innovation is that it holds out the prospect of placing students front and center, and thereby making attending college and earning a degree far more valuable.

Rather than being seen as “customers” (which is problematic for a variety of reasons) students might be seen as empowered learners.  If learners have more choices, this might, in turn, lead to continued innovation and higher quality, much as it has in the smart phone arena.

Steven Mintz is the Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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