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  • Writer's pictureTheresa Capra

Getting Remote Learning Right: Pedagogy with a Side of Technology.

Updated: Jul 25, 2020

A flaw of Internet education is its evolution as a vehicle to substitute physical classroom time without substantial attention to pedagogy in many cases. Educators must avoid this pitfall in order to get remote course design right. Learning theories such as Community of Inquiry and Problem-based learning can assist instructors with the development of meaningful and sustainable classes. #remotelearning #onlinelearning #distancelearning #technology #theresacapra #teachingtips #Covid19


Pedagogy, the art and science of teaching and learning, is a term that has become synonymous with educational methodology. Although it’s universally used to describe learning at all levels, it's rooted in principles related to children, while andragony was developed specifically for adult education.

Andragogy, popularized by Malcolm Knowles in works such as Andragogy not Pedagogy (1968), theorized that learning is unique for adults because they require more cognitive investment, autonomy, and intrinsic motivation to extract successful outcomes (as compared to extrinsic motivators such as grades or consequences). Educators have come to realize that such notions are not exclusive to adult learners but rather applicable to teaching and learning across the board.

Internet learning, in many cases, has missed the mark on both pedagogy and androgyny, even though Malcolm Knowles predicted that digital learning would liberate adult students. In far too many cases, distance education has evolved by substituting physical classroom time with Internet activities devised with limited attention to pedagogy and cognition.

We are now on the precipice of creating remote classes that are poised to replicate such mistakes while missing the opportunity to provide sustainable innovations that will benefit students and instructors.

Learning theories, coupled with smart and varied uses of technologies, can augment remote course design beyond overreliance on synchronous or recorded lectures that are used primarily as substitutes for physical classroom time. Evaluation of learning theories is a critical starting point for the design of remote instruction.

Community of Inquiry (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000)

Community of Inquiry is a learning theory adapted for application in computer-mediated learning environments by researchers at the University of Alberta. The theory is derived from the works of John Dewey who articulated that instructors must partner with students in knowledge attainment rather than profess a single belief.

In a modern sense, learning, regardless of the modality, is a shared enterprise crossing multiple disciplines rather than compartmentalized content passively dispensed by an expert. Presently, it is even more valuable considering the accessibility of information and increase of the Internet for formal education.

Community of Inquiry identifies three domains that combine to create a meaningful online learning experience: social, cognitive, and teaching. The social and teaching domains do not simply mean that students and teachers must frequent their remote or online courses with time, instead, quality interactions are key: are students engaged with the instructor and peers in the collaborative pursuit of learning?

Cognition is not just the acquisition of knowledge, it's conceptual application. This is even more important in remote or online courses because while students have become accustomed to passively sitting in physical classrooms without much application or collaboration, Internet learning is still new, and shallow tasks amplify the tedium and isolation of virtual platforms.

Applying Community of Inquiry to remote design calls for instructors to carefully select learning activities that will tap into all three domains. For example, if approximately 3 hours are allocated for a remote course the first hour could be a synchronous lecture via a virtual platform followed by teams working on problems, text analysis, research, evaluation of case studies, or debate.

Independent assignments should be constructed to permit application in meaningful ways--think about the perennial question students all over the world ask, why do I have to know this? Whether it’s poetry, mathematics, the scientific theory, or the causes of World War I, the why is an integral element for all modalities, but it requires a shared realization in remote learning.

Community of Inquiry in remote design positions the instructor as a member of the learning community, not just the leader. For example, in a history course the instructor could get into the trenches alongside students to compare and contrast modern occurrences to historical events. Events are happening in real time, outcomes are uncertain, perspectives varied, and long-term impacts debatable--therefore, the instructor is working through the evidence for conclusions in contrast to asserting established facts

Synchronous sessions could be devoted to such learning instead of topical lecture. Place students in small teams to track down and evaluate sources to facilitate these discussions. Become a member of a different team each week. This is not the dreaded current events project from history courses years ago! It’s a collaborative effort by all members to achieve meaningful learning experiences.

Problem-based learning (Savery & Duffy, 1994)

Problem-based learning is a student-centered pedagogy that emphasizes the role of the student in determining her or his learning objectives and outcomes. Rather than the passive methods of traditional education (large lectures, textbooks), content is presented as a problem necessitating resolution through research and collaboration that facilitates critical-thinking. It was originally conceived for medical education where it was understood that expertise cannot be bound to individual attainment.

In traditional settings, classroom time is divided between instructional demonstrations and collaborative inquiries. Criticism of this methodology is directed at the consumption of time because higher education and K-12 have been built on an essentialist model formalized with standards and course outlines that must be treated.

However, fully online, and now remote courses, are ideal for this pedagogical theory due to the consistent presence of technology. For example, an instructor could deliver a mini lecture using a synchronous platform and then create a problem for the class to pursue in subsets.

In mathematics, the formula can be demonstrated to the class. If using a virtual platform such as Zoom, create a step-by-step PowerPoint in advance to screen share, or go low-tech and prop up a large easel or white board to work out the problem. Another option is to pre-record the demonstration, watch it together, and pause for comprehension checks. Rather than using the entire session for the demonstration followed by individual homework, place students in small breakout groups with the goal of creating original, multi-step word problems for their peers to solve. Poll the class...which group had the most challenging problem?

For a composition or literature class, the instructor could record a brief video providing some background about the text and cues for critical reflection. Meanwhile, synchronous sessions could be utilized for teams to create open-ended discussion board prompts related to the text that require identification of outside sources for further analysis. A scheduled instructional period can be utilized for a discussion board where students select a prompt, track down the sources, respond, and engage with peers with instructional support and feedback.

Naturally, some educational experiences require a physical presence. You can only learn to drive a car, fly an airplane, or fill cavities hands-on. However, there are many foundational courses in all disciplines that can be achieved in meaningful ways in remote settings.

Community of Inquiry and Problem-based learning are two theories that can help educators design meaningful remote courses not simply intended to fill time, or serve as placeholders until students can pack into classrooms shoulder to shoulder for lectures once again. Institutional efforts should encourage and support this deep design with a focus on long-term sustainability.


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