Five Stages of Online Learning?

As an online educator (and someone who researches online education), I’m always coming across new model to describe the online learning process. Personally, I gravitate to the Community of Inquiry framework because I see the need to foster social presence in online learning environments. A colleague shared another framework recently and I’m still working through its applicability.

In her 2013 book E-tivities: The Key to Active Online Learning, Gilly Salmon offers a five-stage model of e-moderation that scaffolds students through increasingly complex technological ability and interactivity. Salmon’s stage model is relatively new to me but I can see that, in many ways, it reflects how I create my online courses. To dig deeper into the model, I thought I’d outline each stage and discuss a little about the ways I meet (or don’t meet) each stage in my online classes.

Stage 1: Access and Motivation
This stage focuses on helping students understand the learning environment and how to technically engage with the different tools. In all of my online classes, I offer short online orientation that help students develop basic proficiency with the learning management system and understand how I plan to use.

Stage 2: On-line Socialization
Stage 2 targets developing a social space for students to interact with their peers and with the course instructor. In my online classes, I always include some sort of icebreaker to get the students sharing short introductions with one another.

Stage 3: Information Exchange
This stage has students interacting with course content and reflecting on what they’ve learned. To make this process a little more transparent in my online classes, I have students post short reading summaries before they begin discussing what they’ve learned with their peers (Stage 4).

Stage 4: Knowledge Construction
If Stage 3 is about accessing information, Stage 4 focuses on building knowledge through social collaboration. This stage is highly interactive with students sharing their ideas with one another. In my online classes, I usually post a few open-ended discussion board questions to foster conversations with the hopes that the class will use the content as a springboard for sharing additional ideas and content.

Stage 5: Development
If there’s a stage that I haven’t done a great job meeting, it’s Stage 5. This stage focuses on the students’ reflecting on and evaluating their own learning. The goal with this stage is to foster more independent learning and increased self-regulation. In a way, Stage 5 reminds me a little of Level 6 of Dee Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning. In Fink’s taxonomy, Level 6 has students focus on the metacognitive process of “learning how to learn.” Across my online and face-to-face classes, I don’t feel like I offer enough opportunities for students to do this.  It definitely provides some opportunities for growth.

Regular readers know that I subscribe to the Community of Inquiry (COI) framework when I build and facilitate my online classes.  While I don’t necessarily see Salmon’s stage model replacing my use of the COI, I do see its applicability. I really like how the model focuses on students learning to navigate the technical aspects of their online classes before they gradually engage in more interactive processes in the class. This scaffolded approach is critical to online student success and reflects research I shared a few years ago about online orientations. For this reason alone, I feel like the Salmon’s stage model deserves a little more attention.


The Introverted Student Online

I’m teaching an online class over the winter semester and I’ve been particularly impressed with the level of engagement and involvement from my students. The class is a graduate course on Designing Online Learning Environments and we’ve spent a great deal of time discussing the needs of students and how best to support their learning online. One of the students in the class remarked that she really enjoys online classes because she’s an introvert and that the structure and organization plays to her strengths. While I try to create my online classes following principles of Universal Design for Learning, I hadn’t really thought about how online classes could specifically benefit introverted students. After doing some digging and reading, however, I came away with a few critical thoughts that educators should keep in mind when working with students in online and face-to-face learning environments.

1. Introverts aren’t “shy students.” Psychology Today published an article identifying some behavioral signs of introversion. Across the signs, it’s clear that introverts aren’t people who have social anxiety or dislike other people.  Instead, introverts are drained by social encounters and energized by more solitary pursuits. Introverts are also the last ones to share their opinions in social settings. “Whether it’s a family discussion around the kitchen table or a staff meeting to decide how to market new products, people high in introversion will keep their views to themselves and let the noisy extraverts take control.” Instructors may see this play out in online and face-to-face learning environments with introverted students often being the last ones to raise their hands or post to discussion boards.

2. An introvert offline is an introvert online.  In another article from Psychology Today, Sophia Dembling discusses her use of social media. As a self-identified introvert, Dembling writes, some people are surprised that she uses Facebook and Twitter and even blogs.  While the tools give introverts “control of our airspace, and time to think before we respond,” Dembling also talks about her limits. With technology, she’s able to shut down when she gets “the same kind of tiredhead I get at a party.” Computer-mediated communication isn’t going to instantly make an introverted student more extraverted.

3. Introverts prefer online classes. After hearing from my graduate student, I wondered whether any research had been conducted to examine introverts and learning environments. I found a 2010 study reported in The Internet and Higher Education. In the study, Harrington and Lafredo examined 166 collegiate students and compared their responses on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and their “preferred teaching modality.” Results revealed that a statistically significant majority of introverts preferred online classes and extraverts preferred face-to-face classes.

4. Online classes offer introverts an ideal learning environment to be successful. After reading that introverts need “the opportunity to reflect quietly on a problem,” it’s clear why introverts (like my graduate student) enjoy online classes, especially asynchronous ones.  As Tony Baldasaro writes on Edutopia, “The asynchronous environments found on the Internet can provide introverted students with the ideal space needed for them to learn. The freedom to explore their passions, the ability to connect with similar learners, and the time to participate at their personal pace and depth, all with the solitude needed by the introvert, can make these communities the ideal space for learning and creativity to blossom in the introvert.” By offering the time to process information and craft responses, online classes provide introverted students with an environment that is better suited for the personality.  They can still interact with their classmates to socially construct their understanding of content but the environment gives them the time and space to be successful.



Seeing through my students’ eyes

I’m teaching a winter graduate course called Online Learning Environments where students examine the different features and strategies that support effective online instruction. After examining different rubrics for quality online design, I have the students select one of the rubrics and use it to assess an online class they have created or taken. Since many of these students have taken a handful of online classes with me, many choose to assess one of the classes I’ve created. To complete the assignment, the students have to create a short video showing the areas that meet their chosen rubric’s standard for quality (and which areas could be improved). While this process can be humbling, I also find it to be tremendously instructive. Seeing how students view my online classes provides a wealth of information for me to improve my classes.  Here are a few things I’ve learned.

  1. Students value organization and structure. While this is a standard in many rubrics for effective online course design, the students commented about how they really enjoy seeing courses that are predictable and easy to follow. I’ve worked to develop standardized templates for content pages and to organize the learning materials the same way each week.  In their video reviews, it was clear that students value this and find it critical to their success as online learners.
  2. Some courses have a shelf life. Some students asked to review courses that they took with me two or three years ago. Our learning management system went through a major upgrade last summer that changed how pages would be formatted and displayed. While these upgrades forced me to retool and redesign the courses I’ve taught since then, the older courses that the students reviewed didn’t reflect these changes. Although the content and modes of interaction would still be effective, the upgrade changed how the learning objects were displayed and where they could be found. This impacted how students reviewed these older courses. In my comments to student reviews, I explained that online courses evolved with time and were impacted by outside factors (like LMS upgrades).
  3. Students enjoy variety. As students completed their reviews, many commented on the variety of learning objects and assessments that are incorporated into my online classes. Since I’m a firm believer of Universal Design for Learning, I try to provide multiple means of representation; action and expression; and engagement into my online classes. While this is an area represented on the different rubrics that students could use to evaluate the online courses, it was clear that students enjoy when online instructors vary the instructional methods and assessment techniques they use.
  4. I still need to work on online course accessibility. Across students’ reviews of my online classes, it was clear that accessibility is still an area for growth for me. While I structure my content pages to make them friendlier for screen readers and I supply captioning for the videos I create or assign, there are still areas that need to be improved. For instance, students found a few PDFs that I had assigned where the text hadn’t been extracted. This meant that a student with a visual impairment wouldn’t have been able to access the scanned document at all. Hearing my students comment about the need to include these elements in online classes has motivated me to take a more critical eye for the online classes I design for the spring.

Going Synchronous

On our campus recently, there has been a lot of discussion about synchronous interactions online. Some of our general education classes require that students engage in oral interactions where they are placed in active speaking and listening roles with an audience of their peers.  In face-to-face classes, this is usually accomplished through presentations, debates or oral exams. But what do these oral interactions look like in an online class, especially when curricular policies require that interactions be reciprocal? The conversation has led to promoting more synchronous modes of interactions in our online classes. Since some online teachers have more experience with asynchronous interactions then synchronous ones, I thought I’d offer some advice for people venturing into the synchronous world.

  1. Recognize the strengths. Asynchronous and synchronous online interactions are different but it’s important to remember than neither is better than the other. Hrastinski (2008) writes that synchronous online interactions afford more personal participation through “increased arousal, motivation and convergence on meaning” while asynchronous interactions support more cognitive participation through “increased reflection and ability to process information” (p. 54). Used together, they can provide a more comprehensive online experience for students where cognitive and personal aspects are supported.
  2. Don’t get hung up on tools. There are a lot of synchronous tools to use. Adobe Connect. Blackboard Collaborate. Zoom. Google Hangouts. Skype. Each of the tools has their limitations but are becoming increasingly easier to use. Rather than focus on the tool, think about how you plan to engage the students and what features can support your teaching style. For instance, I’m a big fan of using breakout rooms in my synchronous lessons mainly because it’s a teaching strategy I would use in my face-to-face classes, too. As I support teachers who move online, I work with them to consider how they can design their online classes to reflect their teaching style. Most synchronous tools have enough features to support a wide variety of teaching styles.
  3. Examine your learning objectives. Before you jump into a synchronous environment, think about what you want students to learn from the interaction. Whether you want students to debate an issue or give a formal presentation on a topic, you’ll need to figure out the pedagogical and technological supports to scaffold students to your goals. For example, I’ve recorded short online tutorials for students when I’ve wanted them to lead their own synchronous discussion with their peers.
  4. Provide clear expectations. Since many students may have different experiences in online environments, it’s important that you outline your expectations for students. You should detail what types of interaction you’re expecting and what aspects will be graded and how. You should also spell out the norms of interaction and your classroom “netiquette.”
  5. Consider the artifacts of learning! I have a colleague who says, “learning leaves a trail.” Regardless of whether it’s the written notes from a lecture or the poster paper stuck to classroom walls, the process of learning usually leaves behind some product. In online spaces, the “trail” includes asynchronous discussion forums or the recordings from a synchronous lesson. These artifacts are great for assessing the interactions and can also provide exemplars for future classes.
  6. Put the students in charge. I think some instructors’ resistance with synchronous learning involves scheduling sessions with online students. While there are certainly greater time constraints involved with synchronous interactions than asynchronous ones, they’re not insurmountable. In some activities, I’ve asked students to schedule their own sessions with classmates. Setting up a discussion board where people can share times they’re available or using a site like SignUpGenius or Doodle can help make the process run more smoothly. You can even let them choose the synchronous tools with which they’re most comfortable and just require that they submit some recording of their interaction.

Hrastinski, S. (2008). Asynchronous and synchronous e-learning. Educause quarterly, 31(4), 51-55.

Principal-Agent Online?

A few weeks ago, I referenced a research study that examined retention and performance of students in online and onsite collegiate classes. While I discussed some of the main findings in another blog post, I’ve been really contemplating a quote the authors shared at the end of the paper. The authors write:

online courses change the constraints and expectations on academic interactions. Professors and students do not interact face-to-face; they interact only by asynchronous written communication. Thus, students likely feel less oversight from their professors and less pressure to respond to professors’ questions. In the standard principal-agent problem, effort by the agent (student) falls as it becomes less observable to the principal (professor).” (Bettinger, Fox, Loeb & Taylor, 2017, p. 2873)

The authors identify that online students may feel less pressure and less motivation to participate because the professor isn’t physically present. As economists, the researchers connect this decrease in effort to the “principal-agent problem.” To be honest, prior to reading the study, I hadn’t heard of the principal-agent problem, so I looked it up. The Economics Times says the problem “arises when one party (agent) agrees to work in favor of another party (principal) in return for some incentives.” Economic comparisons like this are pretty common in higher education. We’re told to view our syllabi as “contracts” and we use student evaluations almost like businesses that survey their customers. Students even refer to a college degree as an investment in their future. With the pervasiveness of this economic verbiage in education, it’s not really that much of a stretch that these researchers would view grades as “incentives” and schooling as “work.” It’s the larger connection that the Bettinger and his colleagues make that has me thinking.

In their explanation, a student’s effort is “less observable” in online education but I don’t know if that’s really the case. When I teach face-to-face classes, my students physically attend the class but I don’t really know whether they’ve read the material to prepare for class. Sure, I can do some sort of assessment of their learning but I’ve witnessed many students who try to fake their way through these. I’ve also witnessed my share of students who were significantly contributing to face-to-face discussions without really knowing anything about the content at hand.

And that’s my point. Effort is only observable by monitoring students’ participation. As teachers, we observe students’ contributions in classroom discussions and through assessments and monitor their learning. But this can be done in online and face-to-face environments. I would also argue that, in some ways, effort and participation may be more observable online. When I teach an online class, I know when a student hasn’t logged into the course for several days or hasn’t accessed assigned content. I can also see whether students have read or contributed posts to a discussion forum. Students’ participation is observable in the data that the learning management system collects.

That’s the other big takeaway from this research study. Bettinger and his colleagues argue that students need to feel “oversight from their professors” in their classes. Online instructors typically refer to this as “teaching presence” (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000). Personally, I work hard to establish a presence in my online classes so students know that I’m there to monitor their participation, assess their learning and provide feedback for their growth. While the researchers identify this a potential reason for the negative impact that the online classes in their study had on student performance and retention, I think other forces may be at play. While the principal-agent problem aligns with the larger incentive system that education represents, our classrooms are still social spaces where learning is fostered through interaction between students and instructors. Interestingly, these are not areas that Bettinger and his colleagues identify as factors in their work.

Bettinger, E., Fox, L., Loeb, S., & Taylor, E. S. (2017). Virtual Classrooms: How Online College Courses Affect Student Success. American Economic Review, 107(9), 2855-2875.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

The Failures of Online Education?

A research paper has been circulating around my institution recently.  Published in the September 2017 issue of American Economic Review, the research examined students who had taken online and face-to-face classes at a for-profit institution. Comparing the grades and retention rates of students enrolled in both formats, the authors write:

“We find that taking a course online, instead of in-person, reduces student success and progress in college. Grades are lower both for the course taken online and in future courses. Students are less likely to remain enrolled at the university.

This is pretty compelling stuff.  Especially considering that the study involved four years of data with over 230,000 students enrolled in 168,000 sections of more than 750 different online classes. That’s a lot of data. The other part that’s novel is that the university offers almost identical coursework in face-to-face and online formats.  The classes use the same syllabus, use the same assessments and assignments and have similar class sizes. The big difference is that online participation is mostly through recorded lessons and asynchronous discussion forums while face-to-face involves real time student-student and student-instructor interactions.

Looking at the study from a methodological or analytical perspective, it’s hard to critique it. The study involves thousands of students who self-enrolled in similar face-to-face and online classes. The study is also longitudinal in that it tracks students’ future performance and success over a four-year span. The researchers also wisely remove students from the participant pool who may not have been able to enroll in the face-to-face classes due to distance from the physical locations. The only real criticism that some of my colleagues had was that the research focused on a large for-profit university that some inferred was a predatory institution. Otherwise, it’s a solid study.

I guess what I’m saying is that the findings can’t be easily dismissed from applying a critical perspective. We might be able to question its generalizability to other student populations but we can’t dismiss the big takeaway. This study shows convincingly that online classes negatively impacted student learning and their future success for the student enrolled in this institution.

So, what do we do with this information? Some of my colleagues are seeing this research as evidence that we should do away with online classes. For a lot of financial and cultural reasons, I don’t see this as likely. Rather than dismissing online education outright, the study offers a road map for our institutions to do some self-study. The type of data collected for this study can be easily obtained by almost any institution. But, how many of our campuses have? From my perspective, those are the real questions each of us needs to ask on our respective campuses:

  • How are online classes serving our students’ learning needs?
  • How can we be doing it better?

It’s easy to answer these in the abstract. Instead, we should use this study to start a larger, evidence-based conversation on our campuses about how we can close any performance gaps that our online students may be experiencing and work institutionally to provide the best online learning environments for them.

Communicating Online

Author’s note: I’m taking a few weeks off to do some traveling with my family. In my absence, I’m going to run a series of older posts that I’ve written on online teaching.  This week’s post originally appeared in May 2014.  Enjoy!

In past posts, I’ve discussed the Community of Inquiry framework  and how it relates to our work in online classes.  The framework, developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000), identifies the need for instructors to attend to three different domains in an online class:  a social presence, a cognitive presence and a teaching presence.  As instructors build and manage online classes, they need to thoughtfully and purposefully build these presences into the learning environment and consider how they will be present to instruct students, challenge them cognitively and interact and communicate with them.  I think most online instructors find the cognitive and teaching presences easier to visualize and foster than the social presence.  In response to this, I wrote a post last year where I offered some suggestions to build social presence in online classes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about social presence online in response to research I shared a few weeks ago.  In work conducted by Chambliss and Takacs, they found that undergraduates were more likely to major in a field if they had an inspiring and caring faculty member in an introductory course.  Students were also equally likely to write off an entire field if they had a single negative experience with a professor.  With communication mediated through electronic means in an online class, I worry that negative experiences may occur at a greater frequency.  I’m not saying that online instructors are treating their students poorly or demonstrate less compassion than instructors in face-to-face classrooms.  I just worry that the means of communication may undermine how students perceive a message.  I think we’ve all sent or received an email whose tone was misread.  That’s why communicating and interacting online requires great care and attention.  And sometimes some creative thinking.

Let me provide a scenario.  Last week, I started a new online class and one student did not log in for the first two days of the course.  Although the class was being offered asynchronously, I was worried that the student would not be able to meet the first due dates of the course and would be a potential problem through the remainder of the class.  My initial reaction was to send an email saying something like:

“Student,  Our online class started two days ago and you have yet to log into the course or complete any of the first modules.  Without consistent attention to the course, you are likely to fail the class.  Please log in and start working.  The first modules are due tomorrow.

As I thought about the reasons a student may not have logged in, I started creating fictional scenarios in my head.  Maybe there was a death in the family.  Or maybe the student was having technical difficulties.  Or maybe…  There were a bunch of possible scenarios that didn’t necessarily fit the email I was planning to send.  In light of these, I sent this email instead.

Student, I see that you have not contributed in our online class yet.  The first modules are due on Thursday by noon.  Are you having any technical challenges of which I should be aware?  Just checking in.   I hope all is well.

It turned out that the student was having some serious medical issues and appreciated that I reached out through email.  We discussed whether she would be able to complete the class and what accommodations could be made to help her be successful.  I’m happy to report that she is now feeling better and is actively participating in the class.   I wonder whether the original email would have been received as positively or had the same impact.

I understand that communication is a two-way street and that the student should have taken some responsibility in contacting me about her situation.  The student and I discussed this responsibility in our email exchange.  As instructors, however, we have to remember the power we have in establishing the social presence in our courses.  In some ways, it conjures up images of Old Fezziwig in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up.

In online communication, the power lies in carefully crafted words, which should never be considered slight or insignificant.