Teaching and Learning Online Running head: Teaching and Learning Online


An Examination of Teaching and Learning Online Cindy Seibel December 3, 2008

An Examination of Teaching and Learning Online This paper examines the potential of teaching and learning online and the design considerations to support it. While I will begin with a broad discussion of the topic, I have selected two views to compare and contrast in the body of the paper: a teaching view and a learning view. These views are explored from two different sets of authors and contrast the benefits with the potential risks for learners that online teaching and learning strategies afford. Introduction The potential for teaching and learning online can be considered in three areas: improved learning outcomes, greater access, and a safer learning environment. Improved learning outcomes can be conceived as better retention of material, deeper thinking and understanding , and ability to apply learning across multiple disciplines and subject areas. Greater access has been described as anytime-anywhere learning , room for more learners, the potential for more teachers and the access to other learners for collaboration . Safety is encountered in the ability to explore virtually that which is dangerous in real life, such as chemistry experiments and field trips to high-risk locations . Access and safety represent the immediate benefits of teaching and learning online. The greatest long-term potential for teaching and learning online may lie in the improved achievement of learning objectives. The greatest risk may be to promote teaching practices that counter that focus. Online learning “may be used to duplicate a mundane educational model of information transfer or an exciting model that stresses students’ collective construction of knowledge as they interact with other students, the content, and the faculty” . Dalsgaard and Siemens agreed and argued this to be the difference between managing students’ and learning empowering them to be life-long learners in their own right.

Teaching and Learning Online


To frame this examination of benefit and risk I have selected three papers to review. Two papers are from a group of authors who discuss the ‘School for All’ initiative in Taiwan and the third paper is from a different author, Elizabeth J. Burge, who discussed the potential of learning online from a constructivist perspective . The different authors approach the online learning environment from different perspectives: the School for All project was developed and is described from the teacher perspective and Burge speaks from the learner perspective. Approaching the development and evaluation of online learning from a teaching perspective presents a risk that traditional models of teaching by delivering content will be not only perpetuated but designed into the technologies that support it. By contrast, a learning view acknowledges that learners enter the space with different styles and talents, that deep learning occurs in a social context where learners create meaning through a reflective endeavour, and that content is a building block of learning rather than the end goal. The Teaching View: The School for All Project In 1998 the Taiwan government funded a national initiative to promote academic excellence in universities. One of the funded projects – Learning Technology: Active Social Learning and Its Applications from Taiwan to the World – examined learning through four lenses. The work considered in this paper examines the research conducted in one lens, community-based learning, through a program called School for All. School for All was delivered on the Educities platform which provided a web-based educational environment accessible to all members of society. The hypothesis in the School for All project was that the provision of supporting technologies would allow non-accredited teachers to be successful online instructors.

Teaching and Learning Online The School for All project identified outstanding teachers on the basis of the quality of the course material, the instructional processes used including “assignment, class management, [and] interactions between teachers and learners” and “the overall performance in reference to [the] instructors age group” (p. 212). Each of the criteria represented 20 percent of the total evaluation. While student materials were used to support the evaluation, student feedback was


not solicited for the instructor evaluation. These courses were offered for free and not accredited, so there were no measures of student achievement associated with the research. Specifically Young et al argued to challenge the frame of conventional education in that “only teachers teach and students learn” . The authors believed their work confirms the possibility that “those who educate on the Internet will return education to more convivial and less authoritarian practices” . The Learning View: Elizabeth J. Burge In 1999 Elizabeth Burge published an article compiling her learnings as an educational technologist and Professor of Adult Education . Much of what she wrote remains relevant today. In addition to sharing her advice about choosing and using learning technologies, she asked and answered the key question “What can the learners do to acquire, organize, elaborate, and integrate new and old, tacit and explicit, experiential and theoretical information?” : After learners have studied this new information [outside of class], they come to class prepared to work with it at higher cognitive levels, i.e., to analyze, apply, synthesize, and evaluate it, using their own tacit knowledge and real-world problems as contexts and resources. Small-group activity can be planned for higher-order thinking, but it needs well-designed monitoring. Loss of academic rigor is not an issue here. Class activity includes the use of learning (as distinct from teaching) objectives, structured activities before and during interaction with peers, certain teacher tasks and responsible selfdirection. Burge approached her work as a constructivist facilitator. Learning objectives were defined and achieved through strategies that included purposeful group discussions, checking for

Teaching and Learning Online


new learning and correcting errors, helping learners to think at higher levels and build upon their existing knowledge, and supporting learners through expected dissonance. The Theory Learning theories have evolved from behaviorism (the learner as an empty vessel) to cognitivism (processing occurs within the brain based on inputs) to constructivism (the learner creates his or her own meaning) . Constructivism further evolved with the concept of social context, that meaning is created in the presence of the learner’s frame of reference of people, places and things. Ally suggested that all three theories can be used in designing online learning: “[b]ehaviorists' strategies can be used to teach the “what” (facts), cognitive strategies can be used to teach the “how” (processes and principles), and constructivist strategies can be used to teach the “why” (higher level thinking that promotes personal meaning and situated and contextual learning)” . The five different pedagogical models identified by Lin et al in School for All for delivering online learning are models of organizing the teachers, not the learners. These are teaching models premised on a behavioural approach. School for All’s overall approach is predominantly behavioural. The platform includes discussion forums but the supporting assessment tools were based on quantity rather than quality. In contrast, placing the learner at the centre is one hallmark of the social constructivist approach . One example of Burge’s focus on the learner was her posing of the question “will they become knowledge photocopiers (of the delivered information) or information architects (builders of sturdy mental frameworks)?” (p. 46). A constructivist strategy will place the learner at the centre and focus on success being learners’ development as architects of their own learning.

Teaching and Learning Online The Technology Technologies used in web-based courses typically deliver three kinds of tools or


functions: authoring/publishing tools, conferencing tools, and data management tools . These are either bundled in a course management system or delivered as a loosely coupled set of technologies available on the World Wide Web and accessed through a common web page . For purposes of this paper, only course management systems that are accessible through the World Wide Web are considered to be part of online teaching and learning. In School for All, Lin et al hypothesized that “[w]eb-based learning systems, if designed appropriately, offer many advantages over the traditional learning environments” . They created a learning management system with set functions and features that would guide t the most novice instructor, a mechanistic environment through which novice instructors would pass their content. For experienced teachers the risk is that “teachers are taking a technology that could help reinvent their teaching style and making it fit into their old lecture-based teaching styles” . This environment may be better suited to training (skills) rather than learning (concepts and application of those concepts). The tools in School for All constrained learning and controlled the learner rather than creating opportunities for learners to explore concepts and create meaning for them. The project aimed to provide adaptive tools for teachers but these were primarily aimed at organizing and managing course content and access, such as role definition, available functions and rubrics. The authors equated using a function to its ability to “practically and flexibly support online teaching” . Teacher as controller was identified as an important role. Burge realized that learning technologies can help to “set up the conditions to promote self-confidence and connection” but used inappropriately could also “block those drives” (p. 47).

Teaching and Learning Online She recognized that design is critical to achieving stated objectives. Dalsgaard agreed, stating that “[s]elf-governed, problem-based and collaborative activities call for tools which support construction, presentation, reflection, collaboration, and tools for finding people and other resources of relevance to their problem” .


Both approaches state that the learning platform (that is, the technologies used to support online learning) need to combine usability, aesthetics and adaptability to benefit both teachers and learners . But the implementation when taken from either a teacher o learner view is decidedly different. School for All built a learning management system. Burge (1999) promoted using the right tool for the job at hand – “A hammer is not the best tool for embedding a screw” (p. 47). The Instructional Design While the technology has the potential for both positive and negative consequences, the role of instructional practice is more clear. Meyer’s analysis suggested that “the impact online learning will have on students’ writing skills has more to do with how the course and learning objectives are designed than the web in and of itself” (p.4). School for All took a structured approach to instructional design, in essence a formula for instructors to follow. This was most apparent in the Information Technology courses that were quite linear. In School for All, adaptation was built into the instructional design in the form of function choices for the instructor rather than creating adaptive exploration in the technology for the learner. One of the design choices available in School for All was to keep the discussion forum closed to class participants or open it to non-participants. There are risks in such a decision related to social presence. Anderson described social presence as the environment established to

Teaching and Learning Online provide learners with the comfort to express their opinions, both positive and negative, with others. The anonymity of School for All participants created some safety but it would also make


it difficult to ever reach a level of trust that is a cornerstone of community. Social presence needs to be cultivated by learners in an online forum in order to build community . Another decision choice in School for All was to allow anonymous class participation. A discussion forum can be a place for reflection and deeper thinking. Opening the discussion up too soon may have the opposite effect. Some learners need a more intimate learning environment where trust is developed before learners feel comfortable in posting either original thoughts or contentious responses . An adaptive design supports different learner styles. Learning how to learn is a desired attribute of the 21st century learner. This necessitates support from the facilitator to explore learner style and/or respond to learner style. The anonymity in School for All would make it difficult for the instructor to understand the learner’s needs. Burge promoted a more flexible approach that is adaptive for the learner. Her blended design included online content review, face to face discussion, and online reflection and discussion. This design reflected the changing role of teacher to “Learning Concierge, Modeler, Learning Architect, Connected Learning Incubator, Network Sherpa, Synthesizer and Change Agent” . The instructional design needs specific pedagogical strategies to engage learners. A paradox is occurring in some blended environments where learners eschew the face to face communication in favour of online content delivery . Burge’s design necessitated communication because online content delivery is insufficient to create deep learning. Meyer questioned whether online communication could

Teaching and Learning Online foster the communication necessary for learners to collectively build understanding and individually create meaning. She concluded that “social presence may turn out to be talking’s best online analogue” (p. 5). A Final Note: Teacher Preparation Nason conducted a qualitative phenomenological study at a community college implementing a blended learning program. The institution leadership (executive and


instructional) relied on the literature to choose a blended approach as the optimal design to create a rich learning experience. However, the teachers were not trained in either using the online tools or considering a design change to their face-to-face instructional model in order to leverage the tools. Consequently students only used online tools and failed to have the richer learning experience expected. The teachers lacked the knowledge and skills to create and deliver the optimal design. So what are the skills that teachers need to develop online learning programs? Should teachers be expected to “go it alone”? Burge suggested that it takes an array of specialties to develop online programs from instructional designers to technologists to IT specialists. Ma proposed that teachers could begin by using Flash conversion programs to convert their PowerPoint slides into animated learning objects. This may be particularly useful for language instruction where students can hear and see the language. Teachers cannot be expected to come to the table with all these skills, but chunking the work and starting in small ways and working in teams or communities of practice will ease teachers into the online environment . Rather than supporting its hypothesis that anyone can teach, the School for All project demonstrated that are likely three elements critical to teaching and learning online: subject matter expertise, teaching/instructional skill, and comfort in working in an online environment.

Teaching and Learning Online The results suggested that with a strong supporting technical environment that the most


successful classes as measured by the project are taught by instructors that demonstrate comfort in working online and exhibit either subject matter expertise or teaching/instructional skill. In School for All the outstanding teachers fell into two categories: accredited teachers and current students. Accredited teachers brought an understanding of learning theory, learning styles, and instructional strategies to the work. Students performed well, I contend, because they are currently learners and have a better appreciation of learner needs. Juxtapose this with an adult (neither learner nor teacher) that did not perform well, but rather had a single-minded view of passing knowledge to the learner with neither a studied sense nor experiential sense of what learners need. Not everyone can teach. Professional development for even accredited teachers is critical in the new online learning spaces, and action research provides one such avenue. Evidence-based practice is a topdown approach which relies on knowledge gathered research data that is valid and reliable . Action research, in contrast, is a bottom-up approach that directly impacts personal practice with the potential of replication elsewhere. Every teacher can create an action research investigation. The role of educator as both a qualitative and quantitative researcher is described by Rinaldo as an important function to improving both student outcomes and personal practice. Where this learning is not provided in a pre-service model, an online professional development opportunity could well serve the teacher in gaining this knowledge and skill. Teachers could be supported through an action research process such as described in the Alberta Teacher’s Association Action Research Guide . An online community could also support an action research model, as teachers share practice, reflect on their own learning, and seek support from other teachers engaged in action

Teaching and Learning Online research . Teachers pursuing similar questions in similar settings could be grouped together within a community that was then shared out, or work closely in the same community.


Are face to face skills sufficient for teachers to be successful in an online or even blended environment? The success of students as teachers in School for All would suggest that teachers will be better online teachers if they have first been online learners. Jones suggested that in order for the online experience to be valuable adults need “technical skills, social maturity, emotional stability, self-control, professionalism, empathy, critical thinking ability, and common sense”. Technical skills can be mediated, but Jones cautions that support and feedback are required to mediate the remaining attributes. To be supportive for our teachers we need to create accessible environments in our school districts that differentiate both the content and tools of adult learning from that of student learning and design professional development to be an interactive, collaborative and reflective experience. Conclusion My bias for social constructivist strategies is evident in this paper. Finding one’s personal epistemology is an important step in one’s own development as an educational technologist . The selection of these two views is not an accident. Burge’s work resonated with me, like the striking of a gong. School for All came to me as a mechanistic approach to teaching and learning. Automation perpetuates the factory model of learning. Adaptive approaches reflect the organic nature of deep learning. Learning technologies have the negative potential to perpetuate the factory model but the positive potential if designed to adapt to the learner and if teachers are supported in their personal development to change practice. Therein lies the great potential of teaching and learning online.

Teaching and Learning Online Page 12 References

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