When teaching online doesn’t mean ‘at a distance’

I was introduced to the study of education through an online masters degree. My masters was an excellent program, and as such, it has set my context for what good Masters level online education should look like.

When I have had the opportunity to design and teach online courses, I took many of the lessons from my masters and applied them to the online classes I have designed and taught. I found that these lessons worked well, however, this last semester there were some things that didn’t go as well as they should have. I had failed to account for the fact the university I was teaching at, and the program I was teaching in, was predominantly face-to-face. For the most part, my students were not taking the course ‘at a distance’ (3 of 30 were not in the city). My previous experiences with online courses, both as an instructor and as a learner, had been in the context of completely online programs. Learners come to the course from various locations. Learners choose to study online, they choose online as their primary means of study, and they were committed to the processes involved with studying online. Even though the course I taught last semester was completely online, the face-to-face culture of the university, and the lack of ‘distance’ for most of my students, had a large impact on how the student studied. It is also important to note that the course was only offered online, so if students wanted to take a technology course as part of their masters, the only option they had was in an online format.

The part of the course that was particularly at issue was the group work. In online courses, group work provides an opportunity for students to learn how to collaborate online, but also helps online students build connections with their peers. If you don’t have group work, you don’t have a chance to work with each other beyond discussions in the online forums. Group work helps cohorts become more cohesive learning communities.

I added a group work component to my online course, in part because I wanted my students to experience online collaboration. Rather than talking about online collaboration tools (e.g. Skype, Google Docs, Hangout, Prezi, …), a group project provides them with the opportunity to actually work with online collaborative tools. According to best practices in online learning, I randomly assigned my students to groups. Several of my students thanked me for this, others critiqued the group assignment for having groups that were too large (they were groups of 5). I was looking forward to hearing how my students would be transformed from hating group work to loving group work. Unfortunately, for most of my students, that did not happen. I had not accounted for the overwhelming influence of the face-to-face culture and the lack of distance.

My first mistake was that we did the initial group activities too early in the course. Because both sections of the course had wait lists, within the first two weeks students were dropping and being added to the course. So, when we did a group forming, storming, norming activity in the second week, group membership was still changing. The group assignment wasn’t due for another four weeks, which meant that any norming that did happen in the second week, was forgotten by the time the students actually started performing.

I had also failed to provide adequate scaffolding. I had expected that students taking an online class, whose topic was emerging technologies, would have been keen to use online technologies to approach group work. In addition, I had failed to appreciate the effect of not having a proper online collaboration orientation. At most online universities, these core skills are usually developed within the first semester during some form of orientation to online learning course. In my masters program, we had a six-week course dedicated specifically to what it meant to learn in an online environment. This involved activities that allowed us to learn how to do online group work effectively (which looked a lot different before Internet-based audio was an option). In a predominantly face-to-face university, there is no orientation to online learning. Most of my students had not taken an online class before. When given the challenge of group work in the online course, they drew upon the skills they had developed in their other classes. They used online collaboration tools (e.g. Doodle) to schedule face-to-face meetings!

Unfortunately, the groups that did most of their group work face-to-face did not have the transformative experience which I was hoping for. Worse, the groups that worked together in a hybrid format (with some face-to-face and some at a distance) experience conflict relating to students at a distance feeling like their contributions were not being heard. Many of my students only learned of the challenges in group work, and interpreted it as challenges in online group work. Most concluded that online group work is better if you can meet face-to-face first. They lost sight of the ‘process’ of group forming and performing, and how this could be done online. Of the six groups in my course, only one group did their group project at a distance. This turned out to be the group that did the best on their presentation. What they produced showed a deeper level of thought regarding the topic, and a more cohesive overall presentation. This group also reported having enjoyed the group work experience (so it wasn’t a complete failure).

What I have learned from this is that we cannot simply take practices that work well in the predominantly online distance education university and expect them to just work in the predominantly face-to-face universities. Many of the best practices in online learning make the assumption that learners are ‘at a distance’ and that the opportunity to meet and work together face-to-face is rare or not possible at all. When students choose to meet face-to-face, and the opportunity exists throughout the course, the dynamic of the online classroom is different.

I’d love to hear more from those of you who have experience teaching online both ‘at a distance’ and online in a non-distant setting? With the move to see more online classes offered at traditional universities, where students are physically on campus, different best practices must be emerging where online doesn’t mean ‘at a distance’. What are the best practices for non-distant online education?

4 Comments on When teaching online doesn’t mean ‘at a distance’

  1. Just to pick up one one point – the expectations we have of our student’s digital literacy, and the amount of scaffolding we provide with those assumptions in mind.

    It’s a key and interesting point. It often gets lost in the edtech disruption narrative, and a number of edtech advocates also seem to gloss over it.

    There’s lots of data, information and literature out there that is indicating that our students, in a very general sense, are not as au fait with the pedagogical applications and techniques for using technology in learning as we might think they are. Tech use in learning amongst students is often, in the literature, fairly conservative, and a lot of it is passive consumption, and not active seeking, creation or construction.

    Pearson’;s study last year (can dig out the ref if you are interested) noted that amonsgt their nearly 10’000 respondents – all educators – , the most prolific users of social media in class were the 36-45 year olds, the nxct were the 46-55 year olds, and the millenials came in third. A recent British metastudy shows simnilar conservative tech tendencoes amongst students, and there are Finnish and American studeis amongst preservice teachers showing conservative, passive, and limited use of technology amongst millenials ij learning may be the norm,

    My own experience, as a student, has been that any scaffolding in terms of technology use ( and I mean technical and pedagogical scaffolding, here’s how to use the tech, here’s how to use the tech to learn, collaborate, etc) has been minimal or absent. At times because of resources, at times becasue the instructors themselves don;t have the confidence, or expertise to deliver that scaffolding,. at times becasue a program designed by someone else has not left sufficient time to design in the supports necessary to acheicbve the outcomes required. Instructors may be too committed by their institution to tight schedules, or playing catchup themselves on coursework, the VLE, or other techs to provide the scaffolding.

    Reading Udacity’s report in San Jose last year (lack of previous experience of online learning possibly leads to worse outcomes for students in online learning than in face to face contexts), Ecars report last year (students value, and most often use, quite a narrow range of technologies) and lots of the empirical work done on digital natives is leading me to a place where the necessity of scaffolding is probably the assumption we need to make in most cases.

    I’m curious as to how the experience with regard to scaffolding and the assumptions you made is going to inform your next iteration – largely because I’m trying, myself, to get to grips with several similar things. I ran a short mini mooc recently that focused on scaffolding as a way to get around possible cognitive load and prior knolwedge issues for participants who were unfamiliar with social media tech, and the nature, type, effect and variety of scaffolding necessary is preoccupying me at present.

    Apologies for thinking out loud here (I’m mulling over my research and project as I type). OIt strikes me there are lots of variables to consider, and design for in setting up scaffolding.

    The level of prior knowl;edge of the target or similar techs participants have.

    Students general sense of their own digital literacy, versus their level of digital literacy as expressed i their learning (these may not be symmetrical)

    The variety of expertise and enthusiasm levels. Are some participmnats eager, some intimidated, and some bored as a consequence of their expertise.
    Is it asking novices too much to learn a radically new tool (if that;s the context) while, or shortly before deploying that tool in work. I;m thinkjing herer, for example, of social media, where it’s easy to graduate to where you can use the tools, but it’s a much longer journey to get to the stage where you can see thier worth, creatively, and use them to generate learning. Learning to tweet is easy. Learning to build a PLN, and manage the output of the network you create to make the stream meaningful, pertinent and proiductive is not so easy. So, how do we balance the potentially competing needs of getting to meaningful grips we the tool we wnat people ti use while foicusing on the content we need to cover in time sensitive learning envuironments.

    The utility of the target tech, and how to demonstrate, model and express that convincingly.

    Achieving buy in – there can be a degree of unwillingness amongst some participants when it comes to learning new tech in a learning context.

    The amount of resources the instructor has to develop scaffolding resources, and the level of their own expertise.

    Teaching a subject requires one set of skils, teaching a technology (or scaffolding it) may require a substantially different approach. Especially if your participnats are comfident in their subject area, and not confident in their tech use. It;s a big ask to get students to switch roles from expert to neophyte.

    The degree to which standalone institutional respources that can be brought to bear can be well integrated – do you provide the scfalloding personally, or put your effort into adapting the support mechanisms the instiotution has in place.

    Institutional resistanne to tech implementation. Either through an innovaiton averse culture, or due to budgetary, resource or time constraints.

    I’m also womdering, in your context, where students are using technilogy to arrange face to face meetings, is this not surprising. I enjopy collaborative tech – I;m an especial fan of collaborative blogs for project work, backed up by a twitter backchannel – but for individuals who have the opportunity to schedule face to face collaboration with their groups, and where they are success oriented, or highgly motivated, the pressures to meet face to face are going to be sig ificant. Online collaboration is, often, more difficult. Not just for novices, but for those experienced with online tools. And for those who have not mastered the tells, techniques and modes of online collaboration, the efficiency cost of meeting online might be quite a big ask.

    If I know that I am more efficient ion face to face coillaboration, and I cna meet most of my team, and I’;m working on a project that;s going to be graded, I’m likely to bow to that efficiency pressure and go with face to face. Additionally, groups which are not functioning as well as they might, or are dysfunctional, may see the technology as the issue, especially iof they are unfamiliar with the etiquette and techniques for online collaboration. A mode of engagem,net which is perceived to be undermining efficiency, or causing group disharmony, amongst people who are randomly assigned together may, perhaps, accentuate the difficulties, resentments, and dysfunctional dynamics that build up. If I;m in a group thatls underperfoming on a project, and I;m motivated to do well, and I perceive that the technology is a contributor, I’ll resent the technology hugely, and, potentially avoid it.

    It goes against the grain, but it does make me consider building in the use of the collaboration tool, and a demonstration of that use, into both the rubric and the grading and assessment.

    Wow. Sorry about the essay. Thanks for posting such an hinest, fortright and clear account of your experience.

    • One of the thing you mention is:

      If I know that I am more efficient ion face to face coillaboration, and I cna meet most of my team, and I’;m working on a project that;s going to be graded, I’m likely to bow to that efficiency pressure and go with face to face

      One interesting aspect of this is that when account for travel time, the online meetings might actually be more efficient. But one thing I noticed is that my students are not good at “equivalent” time. Screen time is hard, and therefore, time moves slower in front of a screen. With that perception, things appear to take a lot longer when done online. I saw this directly with my question regarding how much time they were spending on the course. I asked them to compare to their other classes. Many reported spending 4-6 hours / week on the course and they felt that this load was much heavier than their other courses. However, there other courses involved a 3-hour face-to-face class plus required readings (and sometime written reflections) – so if they counted the 3 hour class, they would be spending at least 4-6 hours / week on their other courses as well. But face-to-face passes faster than screen time – and it isn’t given the same “weight” – especially to non-tech students who are sometimes biased against technology (or have a perception that screen time is evil).

      • That’s interesting…that discrepancy in perception. For all sorts of reasons.

        Re efficiency, I meant something slightly different, but related. There is the real possibility that for some, the amount that can be achieved, and the quality of those achievements might be greater in face to face meetings than in online collaboration. Specifically, if the burden of learning the tools, and learning the etiquettes and techniques is greater than the benefits ( becasue of the increased learning burden, because of the possibility that even with scaffolding their ability to collaborate online, during the project lifetoime, may not match their offline colaboration abilities, and because the transaction cvost – the cognbitive costs involved in transacting online, imncreased by the relative novelty – may detract from the resources available for the other learning, thinking and processing that needs to be done.)

        The discrepancy you describe is really interesting to me – that gap in perception. It also reminds me of something similar, an effect wherein students devote less effort, time and persistance to media that they presume are going to be easier, and more effort and persistance – to a pojt, to media they figure are going to be difficult. Part of the effect involves those with experience with a particular media devoting less effort when they switch to a new medium. In the study, students with experience of online learning ( and who conceived of it;s difficulties realistiucally) devoted less time, and effort, to book based learning as they felt it would be easier.

        The students who had more experience with book based learning, devoted less time and effort to computer based learning,as they felt it would be easier.

        The study concluded that the right approach to maximise persistance and difficulty was, within reason, to give students materials in the medium they subjectively felt would be more difficult ( with the caveat from the authors other work that the material and mediu must feel and be achieveable). I think the resality is more complex than that – even in that study, student worked harder in media in which they had more experience, and percptions of difficulty and their mortivational effects are more nuanced perhaps…less answers here from me than questions!

        In your case, do you think it was just that students were discounting that class time for some reason, or that they focused on subjective feelings and experiences, or were they reflevcting a bias ( I don;t have experience with online learning, therefore online learning is more difficult for me, theerfore it required more effort, therefore I had to work harder and longer) or was it simply an absence of objective reference pints, planning or timetabling?

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