The Hard Part of Online Teaching is not the “Online” Part

James Genone
April 23, 2020

This article was originally published by EdTechX.

Due to campus closures prompted by the coronavirus, college teachers and students all over the world have experienced firsthand the challenges involved in creating high quality online learning experiences. Of course, taking a class that was intended to be delivered in-person and transitioning it to a virtual platform in a matter of days — often with minimal training or support, if any — bears no resemblance to online courses that have been intentionally designed. The instructors who have bravely navigated this challenge, along with the students who have had to adjust how they learn, are to be commended for their efforts. They have had to rapidly adopt new technologies and use them to recreate interactions for which they were not originally designed. Nevertheless, one of the most important lessons of the forced adoption of remote instruction may turn out to be the realization that pedagogy, rather than technology, is the key ingredient for delivering effective education online.

In most colleges, lectures remain the primary mode of teaching, despite considerable evidence that they are ineffective ways of learning. While declining attendance at lectures has received a lot of attention, particularly with the rise in availability of recorded videos, students who do attend lecture classes are a captive audience for instructors, prompting the illusion that students are paying attention and learning. When lecture courses are moved to a video-conference platform, however, the illusion is much harder to maintain. With students turning off their videos while the instructor is lecturing, it is more difficult for the instructor to register non-verbal cues regarding student engagement, or even know if the students are actually there. Thanks to audio latency, interjecting questions into a lecture is more awkward, and the temptations of online distractions are only a short click away when attention drifts. As a result, the move to online teaching has shined a spotlight on the ineffectiveness of lectures as a mode of instruction. In absence of a campus and its amenities, as well as the social opportunities residential college life provides, students and their families are increasingly asking whether the educational value of costly college tuition is less than they might have hoped.

Some may blame the available technologies for the awkwardness of video-conference based online courses. Most video-conferencing platforms were designed for business meetings and webinars, not teaching and learning. While these technologies can and should be improved in many ways — more on this shortly — technology alone cannot provide a solution for ineffective teaching. The first step in creating high quality online learning experiences is the same one that is required for creating high-quality in-person classes: adopting pedagogy that is based on the principles that research has shown to promote learning.

Research on learning has progressed considerably over the past several decades, demonstrating that active processing of information — as opposed to the passive style of learning involved in taking notes on a lecture or highlighting a text — is necessary for new knowledge to stick in memory and be available for later use. Active processing involves reasoning about information, connecting it to other knowledge one already possesses, and putting it to use to solve novel problems. The pedagogical approach known as active learning codifies the findings from learning science in instructional techniques designed to prompt students to deeply process what they are learning and to solidify their understanding through repeated practical application and feedback. Instead of learning a new concept, such as the concept of a logical fallacy, by reading or hearing an instructor lecture about it, active learning involves applying the concept by completing tasks such as identifying and categorizing examples of logical fallacies and debating how to avoid them.

At Minerva Schools at KGI, active learning is one of the core pillars of the educational experience we designed. By adopting this pedagogical philosophy, as well as complementary approaches to curriculum design and assessment, we created a student-centered framework that is based on science and the best practices in teaching and learning. Through academic partnerships, we are helping to spread this approach to students at educational institutions across the globe.

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Once instructors have adopted active learning, the resources and technology available become increasingly relevant. While students can use clickers to vote on polls and turn to nearby students to collaboratively solve a problem during an in-person class, recreating these kinds of interactions online requires built-for-purpose technology. While some video-conference platforms have rudimentary tools for polls and breakouts, these were never designed with teaching in mind. As a result, some have recently called for more asynchronous online learning as a response to the challenges posed by the limitations of video-based platforms. While asynchronous online courses can in some cases promote equity for students who lack adequate access to computers or internet service and can involve active learning by prompting students to solve problems and providing them with timely feedback, they lack the social engagement and peer learning benefits of synchronous courses, not to mention the chance to interact directly with an instructor. Ultimately colleges should find ways to make synchronous virtual learning accessible by building the need for adequate hardware and internet access into an affordable cost structure for their programs.

Educational platforms that use live-video need to include features that support a wide variety of active learning techniques. In some cases, such technology can exceed what is possible in a physical classroom, by allowing for individualized feedback on student participation during class. Faculty then need opportunities to be trained and supported to use these tools effectively, which is typically not part of their formal education. But although professional development for teachers and advanced technology for delivering active learning will make a tremendous difference for students, the critical first step is faculty members and institutions deciding to adopt these educational practices in the first place.

James Genone is the Managing Director of Higher Education Innovation at Minerva Project.

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