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Are we nearly there yet? Getting the basics right for effective online learning

Stephen Brown argues that although great progress have been made, there is still more to do to learn from the last twelve months and use it to build for the future
This article is more than 3 years old

Stephen Brown is emeritus professor of learning technologies at De Montfort University, a Fellow at the Centre for Distance Education, University of London, and director of the learning media design consultancy Hyperworks Ltd.

During 2020 higher education systems worldwide embarked on a journey that for many of us felt more like a roller coaster ride than a planned outing. Over those twelve months we have come a long way in terms of how we think about and practice teaching and learning. But have we travelled far enough?

In a recent Wonkhe article, Anna Jackson, head of customer insights at Pearson, reported that a recent Pearson/Wonkhe survey of higher education undergraduate and postgraduate students in England and Wales revealed that only around two thirds of respondents found their teaching intellectually stimulating; slightly more than half felt that they had had sufficient teaching and learning to adequately prepare for course assessments; and only one third said they have regular indicators about how they are performing on the course.

What is going on here? How acceptable is it for one third of students to not find their courses intellectually stimulating? Would we normally be comfortable with half our students feeling that they had not been adequately prepared for course assessments? Or two thirds not knowing how well they are performing on the course?

Online means worse

The survey, which was run during 2020, investigated the impact of the Covid-induced pivot to online and blended learning. Anna Jackson’s observation that “for the most part the basics are in place” acknowledges the challenges universities have faced in making that shift.

But there’s a problem with a double standard that is often applied to distance/online/technology enhanced learning when it is compared with traditional, face-to-face teaching. That is to say, the widely held belief that online learning is somehow not as good as “the real thing”and that lower standards are to be expected.

For example, in a survey of how US and Canadian institutions responded to the wholesale move online, nearly half the respondents said they lowered their expectations for the amount of work students would be able to do (48 per cent), made it easier for students to achieve a pass on their courses (47 per cent), and dropped some of the assignments or exams (46 per cent).

But why should this be the case? Is online learning inherently inferior? The Pearson/Wonkhe survey reaffirmed the well-established benefits of distance and online learning, with some students explicitly mentioning that they liked the flexibility of virtual learning, working at their own pace and not having to commute to campus. In fact it showed that there are very few elements of online learning and teaching that the respondents would not like to see continue after the pandemic.

In this context it is not surprising that survey respondents reported that “they particularly valued live streamed or recorded lectures that had been broken down into smaller parts, with tasks interspersed” because breaking down the presentation of content into smaller chunks and punctuating passive narrative learning with more active learning is good pedagogy, online or off. But of course this kind of good pedagogy is easier to do online than in a live lecture theatre.

Depressingly, only 41 per cent of the survey respondents agreed or somewhat agreed that their online learning activities were varied and engaging, which suggests that considerably more effort needs to be made to utilise what we already know about the basics of learning and teaching to improve pedagogy to a level students can reasonably expect.

Applying the principles of learning

So what do we already know, with a reasonable degree of confidence, about what effective learning and teaching looks like? Baume and Scanlon (2018) have described seven things that the research says need to be in place to ensure learning happens:

  1. A clear structure, and scaffolding for learning, including learning outcomes that describe what students need to be able to do to complete the course successfully surrounds, supports and informs learning.
  2. Clearly defined defined and mutually agreed expectations of learners, that set high standards, exemplified through learning outcomes and examples of learning outcomes achieved.
  3. Learners encouraged to acknowledge and use their prior learning and their particular approaches to learning.
  4. Learning constructed an active process and one that reflects real life challenges, involving actions such as data collection, analysis, exploration, critique, experimentation and synthesis.
  5. Learners spending lots of time on task, doing relevant things and practising.
  6. Learning undertaken at least in part as a collaborative activity, both among students and between students and staff.
  7. Learners receiving feedback on their work from assessments, peers, tutors and critical reflection, using feedback and also giving feedback to others to enhance their skills and understanding.

Of course, the quality of teaching matters less when learners are highly motivated and have well developed independent learning skills. Most of the Pearson/Wonkhe respondents reported that they are confident or quite confident that they are building independent learning skills (75 per cent), and only slightly less than half wanted more help with independent learning (47 per cent).

These figures would benefit from cross validation against more objective measures of actual, as opposed to self-perceived, learning skills. A recent study of University of London distance learning students suggested that learning skill levels are highly variable and ability to accurately gauge one’s own competence is by no means universal.

Further to go

So, are the basics in place for effective online learning across the English and Welsh universities surveyed for this study? The evidence of the report suggests that, while there are a lot of positive indicators, we are not quite there yet.

This study has highlighted three important aspects that need more work:

  • Accepting lower standards for online learning will not produce desirable results for students, institutions, employers or the wider national economy.
  • Perpetrating poor pedagogy will not help to raise standards to the basic level that students reasonably expect.
  • Failing to address constructively and explicitly the learning skills of students will not help them to become sufficiently independent learners.

The good news is that we already know, with some confidence, how to address these issues and as this study shows, we have learned a lot over the last year about the practicalities of online education.

Remembering what we already know about learning and adding it to what we have learned over the last twelve months about online education should help us to ensure our future practice is fit for the road ahead.

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