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  • Writer's pictureTheresa Capra

Treatise on Online and Remote Learning

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

Remote learning has suddenly become a household name alongside terms such as social distancing. However, its history is extensive and entwined with online education. Comparing and contrasting practices and beliefs about various instructional modalities can help guide the design of remote courses and afford sustained implementation of 21st century teaching and learning. #remotelearning #onlinelearning #Covid19 #distancelearning #technology #theresacapra #research


Distance learning is nothing new, so why the frenzied mishmash?

Covid-19 may be a new virus, but distance education has a storied past beyond its recent ascent to household nomenclature. Conceptually, it’s even older. People have always sought alternatives to traditional, face-to-face instruction. For example, the University of Chicago offered correspondence courses via mail in the 1890s, which were especially attractive to women who were discouraged from higher education. In the 20th century, radio became the shiny new penny allowing instructors to present content over the airwaves--FDR’s fireside chats meets English 101.

When television became popular, people applauded the idea of students tuning in for instructional programs from the comfort of their homes. I actually taught one of these bygone courses. Students were required to watch a series of VHS tapes while sitting in the library (they couldn’t rent them out), or, if they were lucky enough to have cable, they could catch midnight airings on the local channel. After each video a superficial, multiple-guess quiz awaited them in the Testing Center and for the final, they stuffed their poorly typed papers into my adjunct faculty mailbox (if they had a typewriter). Television courses ended up buried in the backyard alongside departed family pets.

Then came the Information Superhighway or Internet, whichever term Al Gore prefers, and once a browser to navigate the World Wide Web was unveiled in the1990s, higher education exploded with Internet courses adorned with media and soon after, all sorts of bells and whistles. This form of distance learning had what its predecessors did not--two-way, asynchronous interaction.

Now, 20 years after the advent of Internet courses, educators at all levels are being called upon in rapid order to plan and deliver synchronous, distance learning, presently termed remote.

It begs the question, why the frenzied mishmash when it’s nothing new? Well, public education has clung to an exploitation of labour model (get every second you can out of teachers) for decades with unions and administrators exchanging physical seconds for paltry raises. Additionally, K-12 schools provide childcare for a 9-5 society, and this, coupled with limited resources, has stifled implementation of creative teaching modalities that can provide feasible alternatives to traditional instruction.

Some K-12 districts do utilize Google Classroom, but many do not. Higher education has relied on either fully online or fully in person instruction with only sporadic attempts to augment innovative modalities resembling remote. For example, hybrid classes replace some physical meetings with asynchronous and synchronous elements. It’s a smart approach because it incorporates technology with traditional methods affording flexibility while freeing up classroom space.

Ironically, college administrators have resisted such models even labeling hybrids as fully online based on their desire to force faculty into physical classrooms as much as possible. With such attitudes it’s no surprise that educational institutions across the board were unprepared for the emergency move to remote instruction.

Distance learning is here to stay, so now what?

I’ve been following the research and opinions about the rapid shift to remote due to Covid-19 and it’s plain to see that although some people realize benefits (flexibility, self-paced, working in your pajamas), others perceive it as useless because it contradicts personal beliefs about education and presently lacks organization and accountability. Moreover, criticism is usually sharp when you go from obscurity to stalked by paparazzi overnight.

Regardless of societal and administrative attitudes, we are all being forced to innovate, and getting it right is critical because it’s not a question of if we'll need to do this again, it's a question of when. Therefore, a blended face-to-face/remote approach might be more sustainable.

After teaching fully online and in hybrid formats for many years, in addition to conducting research and leading professional development, I’ve assembled some key considerations as well as pitfalls to avoid for distance learning.

More isn’t always better.

Online courses began their existence with bare bones. As Learning Management Systems (LMSs) became more robust, instructors were able to add a variety of assignments and assessments to create more complex courses. However, just because you have a million toys in front you doesn’t mean you have to play with all of them--even toddlers prefer the box the toy came packaged in. When it comes to online and remote learning, a less is more approach should be employed.

Online course design usually begins with a textbook. Learning objectives are bulleted and modules proceed chapter by chapter with overlapping activities such as quizzes generated by test banks, closed-ended discussion questions, and writing prompts from chapter summaries, which all combine to create perfunctory, dry, cognitively dull learning experiences. The objective for students becomes managing the workload instead of extracting meaning.

For example, if the goal is to assess whether students have read a chapter why have a discussion board? Unless your questions are carefully crafted to facilitate application, discussion boards should be reserved for eureka moments, questions for the instructor and peers, sharing of sources, and collaboration.

It’s hard to blame instructors for this repetition because training and professional development for online instruction typically pivots on best practices such as timely responses, a smooth course design, and providing substantial feedback.

Instead, learning theories should guide design, delivery, and professional development for Internet learning. Theories such as problem-based learning, engaged learning, and constructivism should supersede the textbook.

I always remind my education students to start with the simple question, what do you want your students to be able to do after a lesson? Don’t think about the breadth of content, or potential activities before you consider the student learning outcomes.

Same is true for remote. If your objective is for students to demonstrate their abilities to synthesize a text, then a synchronous session is logical (create a rubric if you plan to grade it). Conversely, if your goal is to conduct a lecture, record it using technology that allows you to edit (SCREENCASTOMATIC, for example) and upload/share. Then offer remote check-ins to gauge comprehension.

If your objective is for your students to demonstrate their individual learning and progress, use a tool such as FlipGrid, which allows individualized feedback. If you’d like students to work on a complex math problem, create a discussion board where posts are not visible until after everyone has responded.

If you want students to work on a group project or in teams, create groups in Google Drive, use breakout rooms in Zoom, and allow each group to present virtually on the selected day. Make sure the tools and technology you select are in line with the objectives; avoid repetitive, overlapping activities, and refrain from using a tool just because you have it. But do experiment with new tools to diversify your teaching--there's something out there for everyone.

Leave the cookie-cutter for baking.

Many fully online courses have become generic, one-size-fits-all shells that can be rolled over to anyone, anytime—prototypes with imperceptible differences. Franchises and chains have built gigantic brands on this premise--no matter which Starbucks you enter, a grande frappuccino has the same dose of added sugar. It’s a business model that works.

Should we transfer business practices to online education, or any education for that matter? For-profit institutions, which sparked the online craze in the first place, think so. Courses are predesigned and consequently, instructors become managers because they are immediately disconnected from the material, even if they have experience and expertise in multiple disciplines. Engagement, which is intangible, is packaged and sterilized with expectations laid out for both instructors and students on a rubric built on compliance.

These days it’s not just the for-profits, a lot of public and private institutions see the benefit of this business approach, but fail to acknowledge that it contradicts important aspects of teaching and learning that call for intrinsic motivation for both students and teachers.

Textbook companies have aided and abetted by offering fully developed online courses to accompany the book. No need for an instructor to actually "design" a course, simply plug and play with any LMS.

Instead, institutions should invest in faculty and instructional designers to create unique, customized courses that will serve student needs while inspiring instructors.

How can this translate to remote instruction? Well, if institutions expect educators to develop remote courses that are deep, tailored to the subject and student needs, do not pull the rug out from under their feet when it’s all over. Incentivize this work and immediately implement a plan to sustain the approach. Support their experimentation with varied tools and sources with the expectation that it will carry forward.

Stop the, why can’t you be more like your sister??

Is distance education different from traditional learning? Yes. It's time to stop the insistence on comparing it to sitting in a physical classroom. Instead, let’s consider questions that tackle what we have in front of us right now--questions such as: how can we develop deep learning experiences, can students become more thoughtful, diligent learners who feel empowered, can we infuse more opportunities for critical-thinking, can it lead to increased accountability in the future? I posit that these questions are even more important for at-risk students because these are precisely the skills needed to penetrate upper-levels of employment, which more affluent students are already on track for.

In my lecture classes I ask my students open-ended questions during developmental lessons and they look at me as if I asked them to strip naked and breakdance. The chatty ones volunteer, while the countless reticent ones clam up. I even give out stickers and random items from my purse as if I were a host of a game show like Let's Make a Deal.

Students sitting in lecture halls across the country are generally scared to speak, embarrassed to answer for fear of being wrong in front of peers, and intimidated by their instructors. And that’s in the case of lecturers who have the time or luxury to engage students in the material (25 students as opposed to 200). In many instances, students sit idle scribing notes, memorizing content for an exam, waiting for class to end even when they enjoy the content and professor.

I’m not suggesting that online or remote learning is a panacea for what’s wrong with traditional instruction, nor am I suggesting that social interactions are not important (although it's a function schools have ended up supplying even though it’s beyond the scope of academics).

However, I am saying that technological learning requires a unique lens that we need to use when considering the pedagogy and design. Like anything else, research must guide this-- more research on cognition, efficacy, and changes in learning habits during and after high quality online and remote courses is needed.


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