Online Learning Has Its Advantages

learning online in cafe
    Image: pxhere

It is unfortunate that the emergency move to online classes in March 2020 is often being seen as the definition of online learning. This is especially true for administrators, faculty, students. parents and the general public who had no experience with it previously. I would say that what is being offered this fall should be of a higher quality if schools used the spring experience and a summer of planning to prepare for the possibility of being fully online again. perhaps the perceptions of spring will be improved.

In a journal article that I am working on now, I say something that may not be supported by research but is supported by every faculty member I have talked to for the article: It is easier to move a good online course to a face-to-face (F2F) format than it is is to take a good F2F course and put it online. Many articles have appeared this year saying that the elements of a good online course are essentially the same as a good F2F course.

For example, if I am designing a brand new online course, I will be including all the "handouts" I would use in-person but also ones I wouldn't have included in creating a new F2F course. For example, in-person I might take 15 minutes to explain to students an upcoming assignment. For the online version, I will need that explanation in a document or as an audio/video file. If my online course is ever used to teach F2F having that explanatory document or video available for students who want to review it again after class and especially for students who missed the class session would be very useful. For the online version, I will need to create "lectures" that are chunked into smaller segments. For he F2F class, I might use those mini-lectures to flip the classroom as before class "reading" assignments. For the online course, might even rethink my entire approach to lectures.

One thing we learned from the rise of MOOCs was that there were a lot of people who wanted to learn but had no interest in credits or a degree. They took courses to learn what they wanted to learn and most of the time were not even interested in using all of the course or "finishing" the course as we would expect in traditional courses or training. This was initially the biggest criticism of MOOCs - students did not complete the course - but we came to see that completion was not an objective for most of these learners.

Skills and career advancement are the primary motives for many nontraditional learners, and online courses allowed that with a number of advantages. While in some jobs an additional degree or a certificate can mean advancement in salary and position, you can also "move up" by acquiring new skills. Online courses, degrees and certificates allow learners to continue working while they study.

Pre-pandemic, Santa Clara University surveyed hundreds of distance learners about how online learning impacted them and more than 50% of respondents recognized and appreciated the benefits of online classes.

Traditional and non-traditional learners can take online classes and the advantages apply to all. Some of the most often mentioned advantages are:
- flexibility in scheduling (most of my online graduate students have been working full- or part-time)
- lower costs
- options for preferred learning spaces
- options to take courses from other campuses or institutions
- self-paced learning
- technology and other skills learned by being an online learner

Flexibilty includes MOOCs and other offerings that allow those seeking a degree, credit, a certificate or skills advancement to start a course immediately. Even traditional programs with a 16-week structure might also offer accelerated eight-week courses. This accelerated course should have the same academic requirements and only works well for learners with no significant work or family obligations. They are sometimes offered in "intersessions" between semesters when students may be taking only one or two courses.

Some terms that have become much more familiar this year in the online learning experience are asynchronous, synchronous, hybrid, and HyFlex. Asynchronous refers to a fully-online course that does not hold scheduled meetings and students complete work at convenient times but must still have assignment deadlines. Synchronous courses, like on-campus courses, have set meeting times where the instructor conduct classes using a video conferencing service. Hybrid courses offer a combination. A course might meet once a week synchronously (on-campus or online) and the rest of the time asynchronously online. A fully HyFlex course (AKA converged learning) offers the option of F2F attendance as well as a synchronous offering of that live class session and a recorded version that can be used asynchronously. 

Although most online courses run asynchronously in order to provide maximum scheduling flexibility, some also offer or require learners to participate synchronously at set times or meet with an instructor during virtual office hours. This year, I am seeing more schools offer the options of hybrid or HyFlex courses that combine online and F2F which can increase or decrease the flexibility of being fully online.

There can be cost advantages with taking online classes. The caveat to this is that in most of higher education, online learners pay the same per-credit tuition rate as on-campus learners. There are exceptions with MOOCs, certificates, and a few fully-online degree programs. An overlooked cost advantage is that the fully online student saves on not needing campus housing or meal plans and on commuting and parking costs.

Students can also save money by using cheaper digital textbooks. But the real saving there occurs when faculty embrace using Open Textbooks (generally available for free) and other open resources. I have found that faculty in designing online courses are much more likely to consider those resources than F2F instructors.

The learning space for the online student can be their dining room table, home office, work office during lunch, a local library, a coffee shop, or a park on a nice day. "Learning styles" may have fallen out of favor but clearly each of us have ways of learning and settings where we learn best. I write notes, drafts, and final versions directly on my laptop. My wife likes to spread out paper notes and references on a big table and work on her tablet.

One of the big attractions to MOOCs was that it allowed you to take courses from anywhere in the world. A student at a small community college could take a course in artificial intelligence offered by Stanford - an opportunity never available before. I took about a dozen free courses online back in 2012 when the MOOC was a hot topic even though I have no need or desire to acquire additional certifications or degrees. I took them from elite universities in the U.S. and beyond that I never had the opportunity to even consider for my own degrees.

Not having to be restricted by geographic location means attending an elite school or finding the best professor for a subject doesn't require relocating and possibly (in the MOOC option) not paying any tuition.

Anyone who has taught or learned online has probably discovered that they have learned technical skills that were not part of the formal course curriculum. Many of these skills will be needed in jobs, such as learning new software suites, doing research online, communicating by using discussion boards, and teleconferencing. 

The advantages of online learning are real. They are best appreciated when the instructor learner has made the choice to learn online. That was not the situation in March of this year, but hopefully, it has led schools, faculty, and students to learn by necessity how to learn more effectively in the online world.

Will education after 2020 be "forever changed"? I doubt it. The pandemic may have been a seismic event, but moving the tectonic plates of education is very difficult.

Useful Free Tools for Back to School From the Internet Archive

As students around the world resume their education - perhaps in a physical classroom - probably online - there is still a lot of uncertainty.

The nonprofit Internet Archive is dedicated to Universal Access to All Knowledge. They provide a number of free resources for parents, students, teachers, and librarians around the world—check out these tools for remote learning!

Over the past several months, the Internet Archive has collaborated with a number of educational specialists to determine how our collections can best serve teachers. You can leverage the Open Library to get new material or find lesson plans to make curriculum preparation easier.

oregon trail screenStudents can also access the Open Library books. For younger students, there are Kid-Friendly resources. For homework help, The Internet Archive has a huge array of textbooks and study guides. If you’re looking for primary sources to cite in your History assignments, our 26 million historical books and texts are a great place to start; if you’re trying to get through English class we also have thousands of works of literature from around the world.

There is even a huge collection of educational (and some less-educational) software and computer games if you need a study break.

The American Libraries collection includes material contributed from across the United States including the Library of Congress, many local public libraries, including material in the public domainand materials sponsored by Microsoft, Yahoo!, The Sloan Foundation, and others.

Might Your Fall 2020 Courses Be HyFlex?

The HyFlex model is one that is being considered by schools for this fall semester. In this model, teachers teach simultaneously to students in their classroom and other students connect synchronously to the class. It can be labeled in other ways - hybrid, flex, blended - but all of them provide options for students who can’t come to class for health or logistical reasons. For this fall semester, this can also allow for socially distant classrooms because students can rotate through classroom spaces on alternating days.

At my university, NJIT, one model is called converged learning and offers a third option for students to view a class recording asynchronously later. By reducing the number of in-classroom students, they plan to use large spaces to socially distance students in courses that require face-to-face teaching, such as labs and studio courses. For a science and technology university, using physical spaces is essential for many courses.

Some faculty feel it will be very difficult to engage students in multiple locations. HyFlex also pushes faculty back to the "sage on the stage" lecture format that we have been trying to move away from the past two decades in order to increase engagement. many faculty at all grade levels still do not feel comfortable with the online technology even after the emergency switch over to it this past spring.

As an instructional designer, I feel that you need to design a course as a fully online one and consider the in-person portion (if it does occur this fall) as the enhancement. Don't expect the in-person portion to carry more than half of the teaching and learning.

Some things are better done in the classroom. Lecture probably isn't one of those things. Teachers and designers need to consider the differences based on the course, the space, and the instructor. In a FLEXible course, group might be best in-person or easier with more time put online. You wouldn't want to waste any lab or studio time lecturing.

In "Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms," Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, posted about using the technology. He suggests that you might forego classroom discussion and have students respond to questions using live polling and web conferencing platforms.

For any of the flex models to work, all the class materials, assignments, group work, and other activities need to be ina a learning-management system so that they can be accessed no matter where they are learning. Bruff thinks it's a misconception that flex courses require two versions of a course for the classroom and for online.

If you want to know more about HyFlex, look into Brian Beatty's open-source book, Hybrid-Flexible Course Design.  

Kevin Kelly wrote a guest post, "COVID-19 Planning for Fall 2020: A Closer Look at Hybrid-Flexible Course Design" with examples of how a HyFlex class session might work. 

Wikis in a Pandemic

wiki code

The code behind the Wikipedia article on the history of wikis

The first wiki was created in 1995 by Oregon programmer Ward Cunningham who named it after the "Wiki-Wiki" (meaning "quick") shuttle buses at the Honolulu Airport. They were meant to be web sites on which anyone could post material without knowing programming languages or HTML.

The most famous wiki is still Wikipedia which officially began with its first edit in January 2001, two days after the domain was registered by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. This fact comes from, of course, an article on Wikipedia about the history of Wikipedia

Wikipedia didn't get huge numbers of visitors immediately and it certainly didn't gain acceptance in academia for at least a decade. (Some might argue that it still isn't accepted by faculty for student use, especially when it is used in a copy/paste manner - but that's a different topic.)

I've been writing about wikis on and off since this blog started and a search on here shows 100+ mentions of "wiki" with about a third of those being actual posts about wikis. Most of that writing was in the first 15 years of this century, but I have seen some reemergence in wiki use among educators lately.

Back in 2005, I started getting into using wikis. Tim Kellers and I made one in order to teach about the use of wikis - particularly the use of open-source wiki software. It was what some would call a metawiki - a wiki about wikis.

Wikis were part of the Web 2.0 movement. when we started to think about the Internet as a place where we could build and contribute our own content rather than just read and consume.

In 2005, we were mixing wikis in with the somewhat sexier 2.0 tools like podcasting, blogging, and the photo and video sharing sites that were popping up. Then came social media and everything changed again.

That metawiki that Tim and I made 15 years ago no longer exists since neither of us is still at NJIT where it was hosted. It served its purpose which was to demonstrate to others how wikis are built, grow, get damaged and heal. It looked a lot like Wikipedia because we used the same software - Mediawiki - that was used to build Wikipedia. [Note: The wonderful archive.org did crawl our pages and you can see an archived version of our Wiki35 there.]

Brother Tim and I were doing workshops on blogs, podcasts and wikis which were three things we were sure were going to change corporations and education. Blogs and podcasts are still powerful and still growing. Wikis? Not so much.  

People often described wikis as "collaborative web sites" and they were being used for things like project management, knowledge sharing and proposal writing. The benefits of this collaborative approach include reducing daily phone calls, e-mails and meeting time as well as encouraging collaboration. The Internet research firm, the Gartner Group, predicted in 2006 that Wikis would become mainstream collaboration tools in at least 50% of companies by 2009.

Midway between that prediction, I wrote in 2007 that by my calculation technology generally moves into the world of education in dog years because it seems to take about 7 years for widespread acceptance and usage. This is in comparison to the world outside education, especially if the business world.

It's not that you can (or should) use the application of new technologies in the commercial world as a gauge for what we should be doing in education, but schools certainly lag behind industry and home users in adopting and adapting technology.  

By 2015, I was writing more about the disappearance of wikis and the devolution of Web 2.0.  My own use of wikis as tools in my teaching was also winding down.

I had been using Wikispaces with students as a collaborative tool. I assigned students to work in a class wiki and also had students create their own wikis using that software. But Wikispaces started to shut down and was gone by 2018. Now you can only read about it on Wikipedia.

It has been five years since that post and I don't think I have written anything significant in the interim about wikis. Some people are still using wikis and Wikipedia is in the top ten most visited websites on the Web, but I don't see people building wikis for education (and perhaps not in corporations either).

Blogs like WordPress and DIY website services overtook wikis as free or low-cost ways to put content online in pretty packages, though few of those are collaborative in the sense of wiki collaboration.

I no longer work on any wikis other than editing Wikipedia and I don't think Tim does either. But just recently, amidst all the scrambling to get courses online due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic, I saw a few examples of wikis in education that make me think that we haven't completely hit the DELETE key on wikis.

One example is at coursehero.com with a Comparative Anatomy and Physiology course in which Dr. Glené Mynhardt has students create a wiki page on one specific animal phylum. In an article about the course, Explore More in a Survey Course with a Build-a-Wiki Project, Mynhardt explains how she uses Moodle which allows for page creation using easy cut-and-paste and drag-and-drop commands.

One missing wiki element in Moodle is that it does not allow public access which is key to the original intent of wikis. Mynhardt says “Students can view each other’s wikis, but I can’t share them with colleagues or [the public], and the students can’t share them outside the course,” so educators who want to make the work public may want to use other web page–building options. It's not Mediawiki but using these wiki tools that are in a learning management system like Blackboard or that tool in Moodle or in collaborative software such as Sharepoint or simply creating a content page in Canvas and allowing students to edit the page is a way to bring the collaborative wiki experience to students. And in this time of students sheltering at home and working online more than ever, collaboration is an important element of learning.