3 Ways Online Education Advances Residential Learning

Developing and refining the message.

April 20, 2016

OLC Innovate is now in full swing in New Orleans.  Unfortunately, I am not able to attend the Online Learning Consortium gathering this year (physically or virtually), so I’ll be relying on all of you to share what you are learning.

If I had been able to participate in OLC Innovate, the questions I would be asking are not about pedagogy or technology.

My questions are all about communications.

Where I need help is to learn how to more effectively communicate the value of online programs for improving face-to-face learning.

The sort of people likely to attend OLC Innovate are, however, not the audience that I need to persuade. Anyone involved in creating and teaching online courses understands the value of distance education for improving face-to-face learning. The educators that I need to reach are those who have never taught online.

The argument that investing in online programs is the best route to improve residential learning can be tough sell.

Card carrying members of the edtech-industrial-complex (such as myself) have consistently oversold the benefits of technology for learning, and underdelivered on our promises to support educators.

The communications strategy that I think would be effective to persuade skeptical faculty (as well as institutional leadership and other stakeholders) on why investing in online teaching benefits residential learning would hit on the 3 talking points below.

If I were at OLC Innovate I’d be listening for better arguments, as well as floating these points (elevator rides etc.), hoping to get constructive criticism.

First, The Imperative To First Listen To Faculty:

Any discussion of the potential for online teaching to improve residential learning needs to start with the ideas, thoughts, and needs of those faculty that teach face-to-face.  Advocates of online educational programs will never make any headway (at least at traditional residential campuses) unless we have the trust and support of all the faculty.

We need to spend more time listening to educators, and then committing to do whatever we can to increase their resources, status, and security.  The goal of creating online programs should not only be to create online programs - rather the goal should be to improve the educational ecosystem for all faculty.

Second, The Potential Of Online Programs To Develop Institutional Capacities, Drive Innovation, and Bring In New Resources:

Standing up new online programs is an excellent way for a traditional residential institution to: a) develop new capacities, b) experiment and innovate, and c) bring in new resources.

The capacities that a school develops in creating online / low-residency degree (or non-degree) programs are not technical.  Every institution now has the infrastructure needed to teach online - as the learning management system (LMS) has become ubiquitous.  Rather, the institutional capacities that online learning builds most directly are pedagogical.  The core instructional design concepts that go into every good online course (backwards course design, formative assessment, active learning) apply equally as well to residential teaching.

Opportunities to experiment and innovate are two terrific outcomes of online learning programs.  Online courses never stay the same for very long, as the technologies that enable the courses are in a constant state of evolution.

Online programs, be they traditional distance learning programs or open online learning initiatives, are also freer to innovate than the core campus residential programs because there are fewer reasons to maintain the status quo.  Without a long history of success, online programs can take some risks.

The new resources that online programs can bring back to campus are not always financial.  Yes, the economics of online programs can be very favorable - and the online programs that I have been involved with in my career have brought back substantial dollars.  Other resources that online programs can bring include greater support and investment for faculty development, the availability of non-faculty educators (such as instructional designers) to collaborate with faculty, and greater levels of status for teaching innovation.

Third, Online Learning Is Raising the Bar for Residential Education:

The most important higher ed story of the last 15 years is the story that is the least well known.  That is the story of how much teaching and learning has improved on our campuses. 

This is not to diminish the story of rising postsecondary costs, persistent issues with access and completion, and the variation in quality within and across schools.  These challenges are real, but they don’t alter the story that we are in the middle of a mostly unrecognized and unremarked upon renaissance in postsecondary learning.

Why have improvements in teaching and learning been so deep, and so pervasive, across a large variety of schools? 

There are many reasons underlying this trend (competitive pushes, pushes from payers, etc.), but one important factor is the development and diffusion of online education.  Online education has been a vector to introduce theory and research on learning into our campuses.  The people putting together online programs have backgrounds in instructional design  - and they have been successful across many schools in creating space for new discussions about learning.

Open online education (MOOCs) have also raised the bar for residential classes.  The big movement away from courses built on an information-transfer model, and towards more active and experiential learning, is related to the fact that information transfer has become commoditized.  No school that is basing its teaching model around large lecture classes, passive learning, and high stakes tests will survive long in a world of free online courses and low-cost credentialing.

What do you think?

Would these arguments about the relationship between online and residential learning resonate with skeptical faculty?  Do they resonate with you?

How can this message be refined and improved?

Do you hear this message on your campus?  Are you the one trying to tell this story?

How do you see online education aligning (or not) with the mission and practices of traditional residential colleges and universities?

How can we online learning people get better at communicating?

How are you leveraging online teaching to improve residential learning on your campus?



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