Thursday, February 28, 2013

Online learning less effective?

Recent studies suggest that online post-secondary courses may have a negative effect, especially for some learners within some subjects, when compared to on-campus courses.  However, decision-makers should not interpret the findings to indicate that online delivery is generally less effective, only that the predominant models for online delivery currently used by the institutions in the study are less effective than currently used on-campus delivery models.

These studies may only confirm, for example, that video lectures 'broadcasted' online can be less effective than in-person lectures in which the lecturer can see the audience and gauge engagement/understanding.  The studies generally analyze data sets about students enrolled in online classes without differentiating online delivery models.  The online delivery model, especially for MOOC-style courses, is too often a less interactive substitute for a lecture series with homework and non-formative assessments.  There is one advantage of a streaming video lecture over the physical lecture hall experience, the learner can pause and review the material again.  However, the streaming video by itself does not have a feedback mechanism to gauge the learner’s understanding and adjust instruction accordingly.  Effective online learning processes, like effective tutors, track individual learner competency and continuously optimize the learning experience.  

The recent studies tend to compare the “place” in which learning takes place, i.e. online vs. in-class, rather than the models of teaching and learning used in the online and physical environments.  The findings raise legitimate concerns about the currently used online models and the implementation of those models at a time when societal and financial pressures are pushing universities more toward online delivery.  So rather than categorically discount online delivery, we should now ask “why” the models are less effective, and “what” are the characteristics of online models that are more effective. 

Decision-makers and practitioners need new research that focuses on the learning model rather than the delivery mode.  Online technology allows for interactive models of online learning that continuously monitor understanding and skills, provide timely feedback, continuously adjust the learning experience within the zone of proximal development, facilitate relationships for learning, and address motivational aspects of learning.  I suspect that the less effective online models are the ones that overlook the individualized feedback, relationships, and motivational aspects of learning.  I also suspect that, in many cases, the online models that address these aspects and leverage technology to overcome time/space/pace constraints will prove to be more effective than traditional fixed place/time course delivery models. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Next Generation Learning Roles and Human Behavior

Moving to a learner-centric, competency-based, system of learning requires changed attitudes and behaviors. It is not enough to layer innovative models or tools on top of existing behaviors, people must change what they do. One of the most interesting challenges we face in the next few years has to do with the adoption of new roles, professional practices, and learner behaviors required by next generation learning models. We are at the beginning of the learning curve on figuring out what new roles and practices are needed.  The greater challenge will be scaled adoption of these new roles and practices.

This is a good time of year to ponder the topic behavioral change as many of us are trying to better our lives by keeping New Year’s resolutions. Knowing what to do is not enough, habits of practice are difficult to change.  Some observations about the knowing-doing gap:
1.       A change in behavior often requires a change in belief.  Habits of behavior are captive to habits of belief. A new behavior is constrained by what people believe about the problem, themselves, and their ability to overcome the problem. 
A first step is to provide a path and conditions leading to “aha moments” in which people to learn, often by experience, that:
  • It is in my best interest to change what I’m doing.
  • I have the ability to change what I’m doing.
  • If I do this differently, my life will be better, more meaningful, and/or I will better fulfill my calling. 
2.       A change in behavior often requires multiple points of motivation.  It usually takes more than one “aha moment” to adopt new habits of belief and behavior.  It takes a change in priorities over time.  Something needs to become more important and/or less important.  Each person may have a different set of motivators that drive the behavioral change.

Motivational factors include:
  •  Purpose, Meaning, Calling
  • Accomplishment
  • Ownership & Possession
  • Feedback / Course Corrections
  • Social Pressure
  • Scarcity 
  • Impatience
  • Curiosity
  • Avoidance of Loss
Simulations and online game based learning experiences may be designed to include all of these motivational factors.  However, some motivations may be more effective if sources from the real world, e.g. social pressure leveraging a person’s real social network may be more effective than from a simulated peer group. 

3.       Feedback loops are critical for learning and adopting new behaviors.  It is easy to slip back into old habits without long-term, ongoing supports.  Even painful habits are “comfortable” because they are familiar and people will slip back into a destructive habit without continuous feedback loops.  The most effective feedback will be just-in-time, provide the right level of challenge (within the zone of proximal development), and key into the individual’s interests and motivational “hot buttons.”  For example, an automated reminder to exercise may not be as effective as a friend waiting for you at the gym or even sending a private message via Facebook to ask if you exercised today.  Even more effective may be a social network of 20 people working on a goal of 1000 hours of exercise due to the peer pressure for each participant to contribute to the collective goal.

Bringing next generation learning models to scale can be supported by scaled infrastructure, the right economic conditions, technology, and policy enablers.  However, more is needed to help educators and learners to change what they do.  A path to new roles and practices is paved in part with redesigned professional training and development programs for specialized educator roles that develop proficiencies and practices optimized for new learning models.  Effective programs will likely take advantage of digital learning and social networking technologies, and designed to incorporate individualized motivational feedback loops.