Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Apples and Oranges? Virtual and Traditional Learning Environments

According to a study conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group (formerly Sloan Online Survey) in November, 2011, approximately 6.1 million college students in the United States enrolled in an online course in the fall of 2010. That translates to a 63 percent increase in online learning enrolment in just three years. As a graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan’s Educational Technology and Design (ETAD) program, I have completed the bulk of my Master’s work in an online, or virtual, classroom. Apparently, adults, like me, comprise the majority of distance education learners today (Simonson, p. 39).
A great deal of research has been done in the area of distance education, with various studies pointing to flexibility and convenience as the number one reason adults choose to enroll in online courses (Daymont, 2011). This was also true for me. The online option allowed me to continue working full-time throughout my program, spending evenings and weekends immersed in graduate work. In order to be successful as a distance student, and to achieve some level of balance among home, work, and study, time must be managed. The online option offered me an opportunity to extend my learning which would not have been possible if face-to-face has been the only alternative.
So, it was to my surprise (and disappointment), that I discovered this same report also revealed that some “academic leaders” still view online learning with caution, believing that the quality of education is lower in online courses than in traditional face-to-face classrooms.
Some wonder if comparing face-to-face and online  environments is a bit like comparing ‘apples and oranges’, that the two learning environments are just too different from each other.

But wait a second? What about quality? Surely the two environments can be compared on similar "quality" criteria. Some researchers agree and suggest that instead of looking at the medium, which clearly is different, we should focus on the instructional strategies that support learning (Wray, 2008).
 Now that's something we can all bite into!
Richard Clark’s 1983 study revealed “that media used to deliver instruction had no significant impact on learning” (Simonson, p. 7). Instead, effectiveness, or rigorousness,  is determined by carefully designed courses, appropriate instructional strategies, instructor and student interaction, and adequate support systems for learners (Simonson, p. 8).
These factors do allow some comparisons to be made between the traditional and virtual classrooms.
ETAD 804, Distance Education, allowed me to explore the many facets of both managing and organizing a distance education program, as well as the elements of design that contribute to a successful distance course. During my reading, I came across some work done by Scott Johnson and Steve Aragon around developing instructional strategies that support online learning. Their research reveals that there are some general principles for online course design that are essential for adult online learning (Johnson and Aragon, 2005).
·         Address individual differences
·         Motivate the student
·         Avoid information overload
·         Create a real-life context
·         Encourage social interaction
·         Provide hands-on activities
·         Encourage student reflection
 My own online experiences reflected of these critical design strategies. From the opening day of my courses, conversation flowed steadily - between my instructors and I, among my classmates. And in any virtual classroom, no one dominates the conversation because you, the learner, control the flow of information. If you don’t want to “hear” what a person is saying, you don’t need to read those posts. Simple enough.
My instructors were my guides, facilitating my self-discovery. Certainly, we learned specific content as per requirements of any course (learning goals, objective, tasks), but we did it in a way that was engaging, challenging, personal, and often, inspiring.
Take, for instance, Dirk Morrison’s courses where collaborative and cooperative learning opportunities allowed me to not only dive deeply into learning about instructional design, but where I was able to apply my learning in a real-world setting. And I was able to work collaboratively and cooperatively with a global classroom, including a classmate from Egypt and one from Columbia!
Or, how about Jay Wilson’s authentic learning experience in Advanced Video Production? He is a master facilitator, and he challenged me to discover my own answers, thus fostering the love of learning for the sake of learning. Not because it was “on the test”.
And what about the impish delight Rick Schwier took in tossing thought-provoking statements into the opening discussion? The kind of ideas that would send me to the deck, watching the evening sunset, just thinking. How wonderful! (And I am still trying to wrap my head around a particular conversation about jazz and educational technology ...)
These strategies, however, should not be not exclusive to the virtual classroom. Face to face classrooms need to promote the same level of motivation and interaction that was present in my online experience. Instructional strategies such as lecture-delivery are outdated given the advanced of technology; nor are they engaging, authentic, reflective, or motivating.
Perhaps these academic "leaders" needs to entertain the idea that the quality of instruction may be lower in traditional face-to-face classrooms ... Just a thought. 
Nonetheless, all courses, whether online or face-to-face, whether at a grade one level or for the graduate student, need to be built upon solid instructional design strategies. They need to be delivered by instructors who are passionate about learning.
This should be the heart of every classroom, of every course.
This is the heart of ETAD.

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