Friday, May 15, 2015

Practice Makes Perfect: Online Course Design and Digital Affordances


Even as it has become evident that online courses will play an increasingly prominent role in higher education (and academic administrators acknowledge this reality), faculty have continued to be skeptical of their quality and ability to support crucial skills like critical thinking (see also this article).   I have always found this skepticism odd and more a reflection of the fact that most faculty have no direct knowledge of or experience with online education in its current forms.  It is especially challenging to imagine how an online course could do the same kind of work that, at least in the minds of faculty, our small seminar-style classes do.  In addition, we overlook the fact that, in truth, most of us have little sense of what goes on in the classrooms around our campuses.

When it comes to the courses of our own departmental and institutional colleagues, however, we know very little about what or how well students are actually learning.  Our default assumption is that any classroom based course is a good course with abundant, high quality student learning; but we should probably assume that such courses are the exception rather than the rule, especially on R1 public university campuses where the majority of courses are currently taught by professors in training (aka graduate students) and contingent faculty who are badly paid, carry heavy teaching loads, and lack any kind of job security.

This prejudice against online education is one that I find interesting but also troubling.  On the one hand, faculty who know nothing about it assume that it is, by nature, inferior to a classroom-based course (much like Plato and the ancients perpetuated the view that writing inferior to speech).  On the other hand, these same faculty view online courses as effectively self-teaching.  My own sense is that, lacking any first hand knowledge of the wide variability in online course designs, most faculty assume that all online courses look like the standard MOOC: a set of talking-head lectures by a content expert followed by some machine-graded quizzes and/or exams.

In reality, online courses are highly variable, far more so than classroom courses.  I suspect that, as more faculty get down in the trenches of online course design, we will see even more variability in course design.  The online platform allows for far more innovation, variation, and creativity than does the current college/university classroom, even so-called Smart Classrooms.  The trick is for the faculty designer to recognize that the online space is a wholly different kind of space with different affordances--and to leverage those affordances.  One of the most disappointing things about MOOCs is that, in most cases, they are incredibly conservative in format.  They attempt to recreate the classroom experience, but imperfectly.  Few MOOC designers approach the task of designing the learning experience as an opportunity to invent new models of teaching and learning that maximize the strengths of the digital while minimizing its weaknesses.

Instead of lamenting the absence of face to face interaction in online classes, and the challenges that this presents, we need to look at the online medium for what it CAN offer that face to face cannot--and then maximize those affordances.  This is tough work.  It requires a lot of creativity and a willingness to, in some sense, re-learn basic skills.  It requires the course designer to understand that you can have the same basic learning outcomes for a classroom course and an online course; yet the pathways to achieving those learning outcomes are likely to look very different.  This can be intimidating to successful and experienced classroom instructors.  Yet, if one tries to build an online class that is a poor imitation of a classroom course, it is not likely to succeed.

Online Rome exploited the affordances of the digital learning environment in several crucial ways.  Two of these: the ability of digital learning activities to provide immediate feedback and opportunities for repetitive practice and self-correction; and the ability to personalize student engagement with primary source material.  I'll talk about the ways that the course highlighted student engagement with primary source material in another post.  This post focuses on the ways we exploited the digital learning environment and mastery learning in the course design.

A driving theoretical principle in the design of the Online Rome course is, essentially, that practice makes perfect.  In my previous life as a serious athlete (I played fastpitch softball at a pretty high level, as a pitcher), I learned at an early age that the key to success under pressure was practice.  A lot of practice.  As a pitcher, I practiced every day.  I had a coach who critiqued the tiniest things and made me re-do pitches over and over until I got every part right.  I watched video of myself.  I got better because I worked very hard at it--even though I am 5'3 and have short "levers."  I wasn't born with a pitcher's body, but I was smart and I worked incredibly hard to maximize the talent I had.

Online Rome follows the same basic principle that hard work can make up for a lack of natural talent--and, in fact, is far more important than natural talent.  My job, as course designer, was to create activities that focus the work and provide immediate feedback so that students can recognize their misconceptions and correct them before they take hold.  This process is much easier done in the digital environment than in a classroom, especially when dealing with larger class sizes.  In a classroom, it is very difficult to know what every single student is thinking at a given moment (though student response systems like i>clickers are of great help).  It can also be difficult to clarify misconceptions, because the nature of those misconceptions will vary from student to student.  In the long run, it is much better pedagogy to train students to recognize and correct their own misconceptions using instructor-provided feedback.  In the digital environment, that feedback can be instantaneous thanks to machine grading.

2/3 of the grade on the 10 course modules is entirely about effort.  Students earn full credit if they score 90% or higher on the in-module questions, but they can repeat the module as many times as they need to.  The theory is that, by incentivizing practice, we are actually incentivizing the type of behavior that leads to learning.  Similarly, at the end of each module we included a large number of practice quiz questions (c. 35-50).  The point of these practice questions was for students to be able to check their mastery, figure out where they needed remediation, and fill in those gaps BEFORE taking a graded quiz.  The graded quiz provided motivation to do the practice quiz but, in fact, the far more important and influential learning activity was the practice quiz.

The performances on the graded quizzes at the end of each module; the essays; and the midterm exams suggests that we were right about this.  The students practice learning the content until they master it.  They are happy because this produces high grades and I am happy because it produces high quality learning, especially in the essays (where we ask them to do analysis and application).  I use various forms of digital learning activities and automated feedback in my blended classroom-based Intro to Rome class (i<clicker questions, practice quizzes, in class quizzes).  Because I teach large numbers of students, I have to teach students to use the diagnostic information that they get from these activities to self-correct.  This process is no different online than in the classroom--except that I can do it far more thoroughly in the digital learning environment of an online course.

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