Quality online learning requires a system change

I’ve been reading a lot about quality online learning lately, both for a literature review I had to write, and for course readings. There are a lot of factors that influence online learning effectiveness, and a lot of small (and large) tweaks an instructor could make to improve their courses.

Out of everything I’ve read, the community of inquiry model has resonated with me the most as a way to look at quality online learning holistically. The community of inquiry model talks about the importance of three difference presences in online learning: teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence.

  • Teaching presence: Teaching presence involves all aspects of the course the instructor is involved in, and includes the organization and presentation of course content, the development of learning activities and assessment practices, course facilitation, and instructor communication and engagement.
  • Social presence: Social presence refers to the ability of learners to participate in the learning community as themselves, sharing their thoughts, feelings and experiences with others.
  • Cognitive presence: Cognitive presence is the intellectual and mental effort and processes required for learning.

There are so many small factors that can influence each of the three presences, and in each of these areas, we know so much about what helps create quality online learning. And yet, sometimes individual instructors aren’t able to implement the strategies that they know would work best because they are limited by the constraints of the system they work in. In my view, there’s nothing more frustrating than this.

Teacher workload

Research shows that teacher presence is the most important factor in quality online learning; teacher presence can have an impact on both social and cognitive presence. This means that teacher workload, including the number of different online courses taught simultaneously, as well as the number of students in a course, is important. And yet, popular convention is often that online courses can register many more students than an equivalent in-person course. The entire concept of MOOCs is, in a way, predicated on this notion. Many higher education and K-12 courses are as well.

The learning management system

Most online courses are hosted within some sort of learning management system (LMS). If you’ve ever worked within an LMS, you’re likely well aware of just how many constraints that imposes. There’s a limit to the types of different activities the system will easily let you create. There’s only a few different types of assessment you can realistically do. Want to design a visually appealing page? Good luck with that. While some LMSs do have capability beyond the basics, many instructors aren’t aware of them or don’t know how to implement them, so their courses become structured based on the main functions of the LMS. I’m pretty sure the structure of the LMS is a huge reason why discussion boards are so prevalent in online learning, despite the fact that their not particularly well-received by learners most of the time.

Pace of content

While the pace at which content is delivered and learning is expected is always important, course pace can be particularly important when designing an online course. In the classroom, all students are generally learning the same content at the same time, which allows them to learn with their peers; to have conversations about the content, get help from their friends, etc. In online learning, this isn’t always the case. For programs where the online format has been adopted for convenience, courses are sometimes set up where there are no deadlines along the way, so long as everything is finished by the end of the course. We know that cramming is not good for learning; we know that students have a better social experience within a course when they are learning the same content at the same time. Yet, we still set up courses that don’t capitalize on this knowledge.

Synchronous learning

Online learning is often assumed to be asynchronous. However, adding in synchronous learning times can increase teacher, social AND cognitive presence. In many ways, it seems like a no-brainer. But more often than not, our systems aren’t set up for synchronous learning to be an easy option.

In higher education

In higher education, course registration systems often aren’t set up so that online courses can have set times. It can be difficult to offer an online course with synchronous learning when you’re prevented from being upfront with your learners from the beginning. How are they supposed to know they should have kept time open in their schedule for your synchronous class time? I’ve taken online courses before that weren’t upfront about their expectations around synchronous class time- and I’ve missed a lot of class because of that!

In the K-12 system

Arguments against offering synchronous learning in online K-12 courses came up in our class discussions as well. Often, students are taking online courses out of convenience. It might be in addition to courses they are taking in-person during the regular school day. It might be so that they can fit school in around a rigourous dance practice schedule, or regular on-the-road travel with their hockey team. When would you schedule your synchronous time so that all your students could attend? This brings up two things for me.

First, why is online education done by the district, and not province-wide? In a district, you’re probably only able to offer a few different sections of a course, meaning you would only be able to offer a few different timeslots for synchronous learning. If online courses were offered province-wide, they would be pulling from a much wider pool of students, have more students enrolled, and therefore be able to offer a much wider range of synchronous learning times. All students are learning the same BC curriculum, and are even in the same time zone (mostly). The nature of online learning means learners don’t have to be in the same place- so why are we making our offerings so place-based?

Second, how do we balance convenience and the needs of our learners with good learning? While I can understand the potential difficulty students may have in finding time to attend a synchronous learning session amidst all their other commitments… shouldn’t we also be encouraging them to prioritize their education?

As we learn more about effective online learning, we have to be willing to change not only our practice, but also our systems. We’re doing our students a disservice if we don’t.

Featured image by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

Nicole Crozier

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top