DEFINITIONS AND CLASSIFICATIONS OF ONLINE INSTRUCTION
Cyberspace itself contains a variety of products, examples and rather interesting experiments deemed ‘online courses’ or ‘online learning’. What exactly constitutes online learning? The term ‘distance learning’ is certainly associated with teaching and learning at a geographical distance, and tutors may or may not be present in the learning environment. Besides the appeal of not having to cross long distances, access time may be a determining factor for learners holding down full-time jobs.
Many refer to ‘open learning’ as being synonymous with distance learning except that open learning may be a little more flexible or less rigid in nature. This 'openness' may reflect in more freedom in regards to location, timing, costs and access as well as in methods of study and assessment.
The term ‘distributed learning’ seems to represent a continuum (Bates, 2000). At one end is a supplement to face-to-face teaching and at the other end it is fully off campus (distance learning). In regards to international terms, Canada seems to favor distributed learning, the U.K. networked and open learning, and Australia flexible learning.
There are many options available for instructors and institutions to deliver instruction on the World Wide Web, and I estimate that there are well over 60 courseware packages commercially available today. As previously discussed, before tools are established and training programs are carried out, an understanding of what the institution is trying to accomplish, and what the medium can accomplish, is needed. Teachers and other staff will want to know why specific decisions were made in creating policies and purchasing systems. Administration and management should be ready to justify every move in order to illustrate careful planning and concern for staff and students. The findings from diligently appointed committees should be concise enough to eliminate any confusion among staff as to which online mode of learning is being propagated. Considering which ‘mode’ of online activity the institution is thinking of adopting would be one of the first steps for any institution considering policies or purchases with far reaching effects.
Simplistically, there appears to be three main modes or genres that more specifically describe the intensity of online activity (Harasim et al., 1997):
1) Supplemental or Adjunct
As the designation suggests, using online technology ‘part-time’ to enhance face to face instruction can be considered adjunct. There are many software programs available that can enhance classroom teaching. The ability of the computer to construct models in mathematics, chemistry, architecture and other domains offers new and exciting ways to learn. The Internet provides current, up-to-date information, which can be readily accessed, months before a book or article is available in the library. Various tasks can be assigned to students online, such as those developed with the popular ‘WebQuest’ template (2000). Students may participate in an online activity to produce collaborative work or in other assignments in or out of the classroom. Remote learning communities, and associations and relationships with a variety of external parties can also be established.
This is the type of online activity that most institutions that are not involved with distance learning may choose to implement. In fact, it is somewhat typical of the modern classroom, and I believe a good place to start introducing new concepts to faculties, staff and students.
In mixed mode, a large percentage of instruction may be carried out online. In addition to the activities in adjunct mode, more customized material can be delivered online, and interaction can take place through threaded asynchronous discussion and email. Classes may only meet traditionally on occasion to review material and discuss difficulties. Discovering a sufficient amount of tools and resources in the adjunct mode may lead to an evolution to the mixed mode of instruction. In this case, the quality of instruction would be assured due to the design in practice and authentic practice factors carried out and proven over time in the adjunct mode.
3) Totally Online
Courses and programs delivered totally online become increasingly complex at this stage, and are of the greatest pedagogical concern. It is much easier to monitor and moderate student motivation, satisfaction and active participation in the lower levels. Courses that are totally delivered online require meticulous attention to detail, and therefore, the most thought towards integrating learning theory and technology.
Taking this gradation even further, a ten level web integration continuum
has been suggested by the staff and faculty of Indiana University, (Bonk,
Cummings et al., 1999). Here we see a continuum starting with basic textual
and informational uses of the Web and progressing beyond distance learning
to a larger programmatic Web initiative. At this highest level, consortiums
of accredited universities share resources and students. Once again, the
level of complexity is directly proportional to the level of delivery,
with increased concern and focus on the learner.
Adapted by Michael Shaw from "A Ten Level Web Integration Continuum for Higher Education: New Resources, Partners, Courses and Markets" (Bonk, Cummings et al., 1998)
The above continuum may suggest to some a quality gradation. While it is true that adjunct mode may evolve to mixed mode, it should not suggest that better quality of instruction is achieved as one moves up the continuum. It merely suggests that the online activity is more frequent, and if planned and implemented correctly, may potentially be more effective.
Perhaps not as clear-cut and defined as it once was
and although rather blurry at times, we can see that there is a distinct
difference between online education and distance learning. The selection
and use of technology and/or tools must be based upon the ability to support
pre-determined educational and institutional goals, and determining the
range in which a class or institution fits on the continuum is an essential
first step. This paper deals mainly with totally online learning, but the
principles discussed can also be applied to other modes.
GOOD TEACHING IS GOOD TEACHING – ISN’T IT?
Once the distinction between totally online education and technologically supported education is realized, and it is determined what the contextual parameters are for implementation, the examination of applying good teaching practice to the technology selected should be examined. With so many varied traditional styles of teaching and learning, and so many different types of learners, it would be virtually impossible to isolate a single unified theory or approach for transferring good practice to online domains. Are we trying to simulate face to face teaching with technology or develop entirely new paradigms?
There is always a tendency to look to research for answers. Browsing through the massive amounts of data on the Internet alone reveals that all of our questions have not been answered and therefore, we appear to be entering into the ‘research on the research’ stage. At times it is difficult to interpret whether the data collected is based on casual relationships, incidental correlations, speculation or even through experiments with ‘wacky’ technology. In other words, there is caution for discernment here. It is often left to the perceptions and personal views of the reader, as there is enough hard data available to prove or disprove just about any theory if you look carefully enough.
Much of the research, which focuses on the technology instead of the learning issues, becomes quickly antiquated. Computer processor speed doubles about every 14 - 18 months (Moore’s law – Intel, 1965/95), perpetually opening up new possibilities for CMC and CMI. A computer and/or software and bandwidth prior to 1995 is virtually useless today for running high-end applications and delivering media rich content. If we are, in fact, speaking about instructional quality and associated theories of learning and instruction being dependent upon new technology, the exponential growth and usage of the Internet alone would indicate that anything written more then 5 years ago needs to be seriously reconsidered. However, articles on the findings and improvements of teaching and learning outcomes have existed for over 50 years. Even early man must have attended community schools of knowledge to learn skills, and discovered what worked and what did not. I contend it would be wise to assume that this has lead to an evolution of understanding regarding teaching and learning.
Are we in fact developing technology based on learner needs or merely responding to the latest modalities? I know that in the last year or so my department has dropped the whole notion of CD-ROM and other multimedia based applications, and placed focus and financial commitment on Internet delivered education. The new business paradigm with its explosion of e-commerce based business is growing at an alarming exponential rate, and I contend that education is simply following suit. Realistically, delivering pedagogically sound education over the Internet is what everyone is really talking about these days, even though other modalities exist, and still may be used as adjuncts.
In his article, Timothy Koschmann of Southern Illinois University (1996) actually argues that the shifts in information technology are driven by shifts in theories of learning and instruction. It may have begun in the 1960’s with the realization of the computer as a practical teaching tool for mass education, but I find it difficult to agree with this today, given the nature of our consumer based society. It very well may be a bit of both, but for the most part, the majority of educators seem to be responding more to the technology than actually creating it. It would be so much simpler if new and better ways of learning actually drove the technology in a significant way, which would eliminate the many unanswered questions we have today concerning networked learning.
Koschmann also examines whether present paradigm shifts in instructional technology are based on past research, discoveries and applications or whether new emerging technologies prompt new theories and ideas. In concluding he states that, "In no case did a newly emerging paradigm appear to be the synthesis of ideas drawn from previous paradigms". Dills and Romiszowski (1994) ask whether to replicate previously proven instructional strategies, or innovate and apply new and perhaps novel ones based on the medium itself.
Much of the present research is focussed on textual delivery modes (and occasionally modes that are not the norm). I believe that the future integration of broadband multimedia in online delivery will narrow many of the gaps and concerns associated with totally online learning pedagogy. In the distant future, even kinesthetic touch will be available in virtual settings, such as in the ‘holodeck’ in the television series, Star Trek the Next Generation.
Technology is a tool that helps us do things better. Increased perception on how we do things will always lead to enlightenment and advancement. So I would lean towards the premise that new tools give mankind more understanding about himself and the universe which leads to better conceptualizations and perceptions about everything, including how to teach and learn. Have all of these tools themselves not evolved from existing paradigms? Even virtual universities use visual metaphors suggestive of traditional learning environments.
In the continued search for answers and practical solutions, faculty involved in distance learning from three campuses at Pennsylvania State University took on an initiative to develop a set of guiding principles for the design and development of distance education (Ragan 1998). With student centered interactive learning and the integration of technology and collaborative activities in mind, they developed categories to address components of an educational event and determined the support and technology issues related to conducting the event. These should sound familiar to anyone involved in established instructional design or theory:
Personally, I believe that the exponential growth in information and communication technology is the impetus behind the wake up call to re-examine old ways, not only in education, but also in everything we do as a society. Being exposed to vast amounts of current and readily available information, our children are already learning how to actively seek out knowledge and rely on the Internet. Doctors I know have left family medicine, as they are frustrated at always being second-guessed by patients with the latest relevant treatments and information via the Internet. Tutors should also be prepared to be second-guessed, thanks to the democratization of information on the Web. As we progressed from writing, the printing press, the telegraph and telephone to the television, we must remember that the Internet is yet another step in the evolution of information transfer, and will continue to progress and improve regardless of how hard we research, push, pull or react.
Are new paradigms required to work with new technology? I would concur that for the most part, good teaching is good teaching, and if the tutor does not always have a physical presence in an environment, there are going to be greater concerns about ‘getting it right’. This translates into more attention to theory and detail. Also, there are certain social and other motivational factors in regards to totally online modes that I believe require closer attention. Younger students attend university for much more than the acquisition of knowledge. Educational institutions build character, confidence and personality. Older or continuing education students may have a different set of needs. Determining who is doing the learning and in which context creates even more questions in regards to pedagogy. Can we ensure that each person in an online group will learn equally well?