Compiled from this Twitter thread (excuse the accidental triple negative in the first line!)
1. Online learning isn’t a method (e.g. recorded lectures or videoconferenced tutorials) and it isn’t a technology (e.g. discussion boards or Zoom). It’s a potentially infinite set of possibilities that *sometimes* involve online communication.
2. The thing that online learning is being compared with isn’t a specific thing either. It’s a potentially infinite set of possibilities that *sometimes* involve people being in the same room at the same time and/or accessing shared physical resources and infrastructure.
3. It might* be possible to compare a specific online learning approach with a specific on campus approach, but if the online approach were found to be inferior that would just suggest changing online approach. [*This usually wouldn’t be meaningful because…]
4. Comparisons depend on how well each approach was done, how well it suited students, how well students engaged with it, relationships between teachers & student, infrastructure & support for each approach, surrounding circumstances, what else students did and so on….
5. Comparison research mostly shows no significant difference in outcomes between modalities. It isn’t the modality that makes the difference. It’s the combination of factors: student attitudes, teacher’s ability to teach in that context, and to relate to the students, etc.
6. It’s not either/or. Much of what on campus students do is online learning (both inside and outside of scheduled classes). Most of students’ learning (e.g. reading, watching, talking & thinking outside of scheduled events) isn’t directly to do with an explicit teaching approach.
7. To rule out entire modalities is to shut down a lot of possibilities that might have worked well for some students, some teachers, some subjects, some circumstances.
Statements about what’s not possible to do online are often based on assumptions that all of the learning takes place through digital devices. Online learning still has access to the physical world, just as on campus education still has access to digital technology. There may be important limitations (e.g. nobody to physically intervene in dangerous tasks) but these are logistical challenges, not conceptual impossibilities. This distinction is important: we can think of limitations as design challenges.
We can think of all education in terms of what’s available & possible. In on campus education, both campus and online environments are available. In remote education, the constraints of not having a campus available can promote creativity, innovation and richer analytic thinking.
For some, having to attend a campus is a limitation. Online options can increase the range of possibilities & thereby improve inclusivity. Not everyone shares the nostalgia for the campus experience and an imagined ideals of finding lifelong friends, etc.
Finally, I suspect some people think “online learning isn’t as good” because the online remote teaching they’ve seen or heard about wasn’t very good. Try to keep an open mind. The best teaching I’ve seen and done has been remote and online.
Online postgraduate education is growing rapidly, as professionals around the world look to build knowledge and skills that contribute to personal and collective development. This has been recognised within higher education as a key area for economic growth, yet it remains undertheorized, and the quality of these programmes often suffers from approaches that have been developed for on-campus and undergraduate education or, alternatively, simplistic models of e-learning where learning is seen as instrumental, relatively independent of educators.
This event will showcase a diverse collection of contributions from an edited volume entitled ‘Online Postgraduate Education in a Postdigital World: Beyond Technology’ (Fawns, Aitken & Jones 2021), part of the PDSE book series. The launch will take the form of a series of panel discussions with authors and invited guests, with plenty of opportunity for questions and comments from the audience. These conversations will explore the ways in which online postgraduate programmes extend beyond digital spaces, and the implications for educational policy and practice. Themes will include:
Diverse student and teacher experiences of online postgraduate education
Assessment, feedback and learning in a networked world
Social presence and vulnerability
Shared responsibility and ecological evaluation of teaching
Teacher development, expertise and recognition in complex systems
Institutional approaches to support and decision-making in quality online education
Curriculum models for complexity and future-thinking.
Contributors include the following:
Editors: Tim Fawns, Gill Aitken and Derek Jones.
Series editor: Petar Jandrić.
Authors: Sharon Boyd, Sonia Bussey, Sarah Hayes, Dai Hounsell, Kyungmee Lee, Christine Sinclair, Cathy Stone.
Guests: Karen Gravett, Thomas Ryberg, Margaret Bearman, Maha Bali
We will gather questions as we go from the audience for each panel to discuss.
Speaker / Panel
Panel 1. Making space for the new
Tim Fawns, Margaret Bearman, Sharon Boyd, Dai Hounsell, Rachel Buchanan, Karen Gravett
Panel 2. Vulnerability, care and identity in online contexts
Gill Aitken, Maha Bali, Sonia Bussey, Charles Marley, Kyungmee Lee, Cathy Stone
Panel 3. Examining the postdigital curriculum
Derek Jones, Thomas Ryberg, Christine Sinclair, Sarah Hayes
On the opening day of the University of Edinburgh Learning and Teaching Conference 2021, I was invited to talk for 5 minutes about another blog post: Pedagogy and Technology from a Postdigital Perspective. (Am I meta-blogging right now?). This is a rough account of those thoughts. Note: some of the ideas from that earlier post are re-hashed here.
The earlier blog post was inspired by responses I heard from colleagues, worried that technology might be driving pedagogy, that the reverse should be the case: “pedagogy needs to drive technology”. I wrote the post to express why I think it’s not that simple.
As I wrote, we can’t just choose a pedagogy and then a technology. In fact, technology is part of pedagogy: “pedagogy is the thoughtful combination of methods, technologies, social and physical designs and on-the-fly interactions” to stimulate particular kinds of learning. All elements inevitably shape the ways in which the other elements are engaged with and experienced.
I explained that my worry was less that teachers first choose a technology and then think about what to do with it; and more that they often choose a method (e.g. lecture, tutorial, simulation) before thinking enough about the purpose of their teaching. Choices about technology are then shaped by what is possible and available within an already-constrained conception of teaching.
I think this was particularly problematic during last year’s emergency remote teaching as so many teachers seemed to assume that you have to record video lectures and run synchronous video classes. This was often accompanied by worries that it was difficult to tell if students were engaged (particularly if they had their cameras off). Yet by choosing methods first (e.g. recorded lectures and Zoom classes), we can miss out on teaching practices that might be more suitable to our new and diverse online contexts.
This is a bit complicated when viewed through a postdigital perspective in which nothing is strictly digital or non digital. Rather, anything digital is always tangled up in social and material activity. This view challenges various binaries like online / on campus, or virtual / face to face (see my paper on Postdigital Education in Design and Practice). Digital tech has permeated classrooms, homes and social spaces, and so on campus or classroom education is, to a significant extent, digital and online. Remote online learning, on the other hand, is social and material. It doesn’t happen inside a computer – it is embodied; students sit at desks or in buses and cafes or walk around, some lie in bed. Their bodies, and living and learning conditions, powerfully shape their experiences of learning and what it is physically possible to do.
Talking about digital technology as if it is separate from the material and social activity in which it is embedded makes us susceptible to instrumentalism and determinism. Crudely, instrumentalism is the idea that tools are neutral, and we exercise rational control over them and over the outcomes of their use. Determinism, on the other hand, is the idea that technology drives change, and that tools themselves are responsible for the outcomes of their use. Both hide the importance of the diversity of ways in which people actually interact with technologies, in situations that are also shaped by environment, culture, policy, economics, etc.
We need to look beyond binary ideas about modalities (e.g. online/digital/e-learning/virtual vs face-to-face, on-campus/in-person) and beyond methods, to the ways that students’ personal circumstances, study environments, etc., might make some activities problematic and may further increase the drive for students to subvert expectations. For me, this is most usefully thought about through the combination of design and orchestration: what we prepare in advance and what we do on the fly, responding to the somewhat unpredictable subversions and diversions of students. This needs to look beyond scheduled classes and fixed modalities, to the places that learning spills out into informal and asynchronous, holistic activity.
Sabine Rolle, in her own talk, mentioned worries about “contact time”. This is, for me, a problematic term because the value of education is actually distributed across time and across different elements, rather than primarily being about how much time the students spend in the same space as the teacher. An entangled pedagogy helps us see the relational aspects of education—that our choices of methods and technology need to be reconciled with our contexts and those of our students, and the purposes in play.
My hope is that this way of thinking can help people think more freely and creatively about the possibilities within any kind of education, but also more realistically in relation to the constraints and possibilities of their students in their particular circumstances.
Last year, pre-pandemic, I was asked for some thoughts on how we might understand teaching in a way that more clearly reflects the diverse educational activities that go on at my university. This came after some comments I made in response to the phrase “front of house teaching” that featured prominently in discourse about promotions. While it may not have been intended in this way, I worried that that phrase has connotations of a person standing in front of students, such as in a lecture or a tutorial. It is a phrase that, to me, allows too much recognition to turning up, saying interesting things to students and then disappearing. What about the many forms of teaching that are not like this? Even in the case of lectures and tutorials, what about the many activities that good teachers do outside formally scheduled sessions, that are directly about teaching students? Seeing past “front of house teaching” is more crucial than ever with the move to online, because that model simply won’t work in our current circumstances.
I would like to start with a modest framework for reconsidering the activities that make up teaching of any kind. The following diagram is an adaptation of concepts from Goodyear and Dimitriadis’ (2013) paper, in which I have made the pre-design and evaluative elements more explicit.
The simplest place to start is with breaking down a teaching session into design and orchestration.
Design is about planning tasks and configuring environments such that students are likely to engage in practices that are conducive to learning what it is we want them to learn. In the traditional model, this is the bit that happens during time allocated for preparation.
Orchestration is about responding to emergent conditions as well as what students do (i.e. their practices). There is always a gap between the design intentions and actual student practices (and teacher practices, for that matter), and orchestration is the process through which teachers guide, structure and scaffold student learning on the fly. In the traditional model, this is the bit that happens during the scheduled teaching session.
In the diagram above, design and orchestration are linked by a direct arrow, which signifies that the design configures the sorts of orchestration that are possible and probable. They are also linked through student practices, since the design structures and constrains what the students do, as does orchestration. Of course, orchestration must also do this in response to student practices (hence the two-way arrow). This means that good orchestration is achieved by knowing something about what the students are actually doing (which is not necessarily in line with the design expectations of what they will do). These ideas are explained in more depth from halfway down p. 139 to the bottom of p. 140 in Fawns (2019).
The other two boxes, fuelling and reflection / evaluation are often neglected in workload models. “Fuelling” (my term) is about the learning that needs to happen in order to do a good job of the design and orchestration (e.g. the thinking, reading, and talking that is not working directly on the teaching but is directly related to it, and is not, therefore, general faculty development or CPD). See also Anne-Marie Scott’s post on “Fueling and deprivation“. This could, perhaps, have been called “preparation”, but that word has picked up connotations from previous workload models where, for example, one multiplies the length of a teaching session by 3 for a new lecture or 1 for a lecture that has been delivered previously. That kind of preparation, because of the time allocated, comes to be mostly about working on lecture slides or in-class resources, which is actually just a small element of what I would call “design” within the model I’m presenting here. Some meaningful design work (i.e. thoughtful consideration of aims, pedagogical approaches, analysis of students, structuring of conducive learning environments, etc.) might also be possible within that allocated time if one is quick with one’s preparation of materials. But doing meaningful design well in such a short space of time is only possible if one has learned important things about the subject, the students, the context, and about educational design in relation to these elements. That is what I mean by fuelling. If design is the hands-on work of configuring specific teaching and learning tasks and environments, then fuelling is the learning that supports that design work. It might include discussing ideas with colleagues, reading literature (either about the subject or about pedagogy), or thinking about the kind of teaching that will be appropriate. I separate it out from design because it is important to allow time for this, and because it may include aspects that don’t make it into the design (good fuelling allows for blind alleys and exploration).
Reflection and evaluation are related to fuelling, and might consist of the same kinds of activities, but these are now targeted at making sense of the teaching that has just happened, rather than informing that which is about to happen or is currently happening. It might seem extravagant to separate these two categories, but they represent the actuality of a teacher’s work. We need to think and learn before we design, and we need to think and learn after seeing how our design has manifested. Both the orientation and the timing are different, and so there must be time for both.
So far, I have presented these as discrete categories, but this still reflects traditional approaches with scheduled teaching sessions as in lectures, tutorials, problem-based learning, etc. It does not capture the important things that teachers do that are not formally scheduled. Breaking down teaching into these categories, and then considering them, not as linear but as ongoing and mutually shaping, can highlight the diversity of approaches, even within the same teaching method (e.g. there are many ways to do a lecture, tutorial, PBL session, or whatever) and the continuity of teaching activity across the year.
Let’s consider some of the activities that happen in my own online postgraduate taught (PGT) programme, in order to problematise even my more inclusive model of teaching above. On the MSc Clinical Education, the following activities make up just some of my teaching. Those marked with an asterisk may be repetitive (i.e. sometimes I will use the same model as the previous year, but I will always review each activity before making that decision).
Online video tutorials.
Designing the tutorial (design)*
Setting preparation tasks for students to do beforehand (design)*
Pre-tutorial announcements (orchestration)
Entering early to configure and test the space and settings (design)
Running the tutorial (the bit that’s normally called “teaching”) (orchestration)
Uploading recordings of tutorials (admin?)
Writing up and posting summary notes and questions from the tutorial (orchestration)
Discussion board facilitation
Designing the tasks for students to do that week via the discussion board (design)*
Reading posts (orchestration – I suppose?)
Responding to posts (orchestration)
Creating new prompts (orchestration)
Each of these activities takes a varying amount of time depending on the number of students, how the course is going, and the course model – some courses involve more discussion than others. Note, too, that some of this is not related to specific teaching themes but can be to do with clinical education more broadly, or to do with relationship and community building.
Curation (reading lists, pointing to journal articles, web links, exemplars)
Something like 2/3 of this is done before the course starts (design) and may be modelled on the previous year with some updates. The rest is done in-course, in response to what ends up being discussed. While this sounds like orchestration, I would probably characterise most of the work as fuelling, because the interaction with the students is relatively fast, but the searching and processing of information to support that interaction is more onerous and time-consuming. This can also be the case with responding to posts, email responses, commenting on drafts, etc. It is possible to do all of these tasks relatively quickly without fuelling, but the quality of teaching may suffer, particularly when operating at postgraduate level.
On my programme, this has many functions, but these mainly fall under pastoral and academic. This takes up a lot of time because we are very invested in our relationships with each student and because email can be an important channel for some, particularly those who cannot attend tutorials or who do not like the open discussion setting of the discussion board. Due to the fact that we are an online PGT programme full of part-time students who are also professionals with significant responsibilities (and, being older, significant family commitments), there are many discussions of extensions, interruptions, etc., which often involves careful handling and supporting of motivation, confidence, etc. I guess this is a form of orchestration, although it often requires learning about regulations and good practices, and is supported by developing a philosophy of teaching (fuelling).
Online meetings (e.g. one-to-one)
We often have ad-hoc, one-to-one video meetings with students where there is a need (e.g. to make sure the student is ok, to handle sensitive issues, to discuss complex ideas). These may be teaching-specific or related to the overall programme. I guess this might be called orchestration?
Formative and summative assignments
Alongside the setting of these and the giving of feedback, assignments generate a huge amount of discussion via various channels. There is an obvious design component, but the marking and feedback can either be seen as a single act of orchestration (where the student does not respond to comments given by the teacher) or as a more drawn out exchange (where there is dialogue around the comments, or where I comment on pre-submission drafts). Within the marking / feedback / dialogue process though, I will often look things up or read about a concept (fuelling) in order to point students at potentially useful ideas and resources. We also often discuss the students’ work within our teaching team and how that informs our understanding of the assignment and the course. And, more generally, the activity of reading and evaluating students’ assignments is a kind of subject-specific fuelling that I can learn a lot from, provided I have the headspace.
It is possible to pay only cursory attention to any of the categories in the diagram above, but the quality of teaching and the student experience will suffer. It is easy to neglect design, for example, by simply teaching the same way over and over, according to a template. The problem is not just that content and style become stale, but that insufficient consideration is given to the specific context of this instance of learning and these students. A related problem is that teachers do not develop experience and knowledge of design. Similarly, it is easy to neglect fuelling by relying on a pre-existing ability to design and orchestrate the subject and the kind of students at hand. However, thinking, talking and reading in the service of developing those abilities for this context will improve the teaching (which, in some situations, is necessary or at least important) and the teacher. Reflection and evaluation can be left to central evaluation systems, but this only provides information (very limited information, at that). By engaging in discussion, by thinking about how things went, by informing oneself about students’ approaches and understandings, and by reading around the topics that arise through those other activities, the teacher can meaningfully judge and understand their own design and orchestration, and can inform not only how they might refine these in future, but what they might need to learn in order to do so successfully (i.e. what kind of fuelling might be important).
I think good teachers will always combine the different activities in the diagram – they are what makes good teachers good. I would like to see this combination recognised and rewarded, rather than thinking of teaching as what happens when the teacher is in front of the class.
Please let me know what you think in the comments or via @timbocop.
I’ve appropriated these clips from the University of Edinburgh hybrid teaching exchange in order to bring together the different strands of an interesting conversation with Velda that touched on lots of important issues for education during COVID-19 and more generally. Look out for some impromptu appearances from some of my children!
Designing Assessments for Hybrid Teaching (5 min) A slightly rambling account of some online assessment designs I’ve been involved with and what I think were the most important considerations for the current situation.
Preparing Assessments for Semester 1 (5 min) Some thoughts on design for online group assessment and peer learning.
Get to Know Your Students and Let Them Get to Know You (3 min) Thoughts on the importance and limitations of design, and the importance of trust, honesty, getting to know your students and letting them know you.
The Pros and Cons of Online Exams (7 min) Thoughts on the problems of remote invigilation (or “proctoring”), the limitations of exams more generally, and how we might think about changing our model of assessment.
There is much more to be said on all of these issues, and no doubt I will post more on all this over the coming academic year.
While I slowly get my act together and write the first educational post on this site, I thought I’d link out to a couple of posts I wrote elsewhere. The first is with Jen Ross on online assessments and alternatives to exams. It was motivated by discomfort with remote invigilation and wanting to help educators think about how they could do things differently.
The second is my take on technology in education, and how context and purpose should drive our choices about technology as part of an integrated pedagogy.