How can an online course be superior to a traditional face-to-face course?

I’ve gotten into the habit of posting nearly completely thought out ideas, with the result  that I’ve largely stopped blogging, or more precisely, I have a stack of half written posts in draft none of which I’ve managed to publish.  Alan pointed this out to me some weeks ago, and reminded me that I should just do it.  Shannon’s recent postings also gave me a push.  But it was Jim’s post the other day that made me act.  So what I have to say here is provisional and I am definitely looking for feedback.

One of the goals of the UMW Online Learning Initiative is to identify models of online learning that provide a superior learning experience to that which can be done in a traditional face-to-face classroom.  Lest you think that’s crazy, we have identified two such models to date (out of the seven online courses developed in the initiative last year.  The first model is the DS106-version of a Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC), which many of you are familiar with.  The second model is Donald Rallis’ Regional Geography course, which deserves its own blog post.  One of my tasks now is to figure out how to generalize those models beyond the specific courses.  That is, what are the essential features of those models and how can we use them to enhance the learning experiences in other courses?  After all, not all of us are Jim Groom or Donald Rallis!

This summer, as part of the Online Learning Initiative, I’m developing a course that I will teach fully online this Fall.  Principles of Macroeconomics is a standard course in the economics curriculum and one I’ve taught for more than three decades.  Modifying it to teach online has been a fascinating experience, one of the most interesting aspects of which is that it has made me rethink fundamental aspects of my face-to-face teaching.   [Could this be a hidden agenda of the OLI?  But I digress.]  A large part of the work has been thinking about how to do what I typically do in class but in an online environment (e.g. What does the online teacher do with what used to be one’s lectures?  Hint of an Answer: Only a part of my class sessions are spent distributing content.)  But, I’ve also pondered the question of what could be done online to improve the learning experience over a traditional face-to-face course.  The answer I’ve come up with is to use the power of the internet, the ability to connect to resources and voices outside of our institution and bring those resources and voices into my course.   I take no credit for this, since it derives from the community of educational thinkers and practitioners that I’ve managed to surround myself with.

Option #1 The Open Online Course Resource (a MOOC-like device)

I’ve decided to join the MOOC-bandwagon, but not exactly.  The term “MOOC” has grown a little ambiguous with at least two models now, what I call the “Corporate Model” (e.g. Udacity, Coursera, MITx) & the “Original Model” (e.g. CCK11, DS106).  What I’m planning is closer to DS106, but it’s not a whole course; rather, it’s going to be one piece of my course, one piece of content and interaction, somewhat like a class discussion is.

What I’m imagining is a standalone web space where participants (students, faculty, interested others) can explore specific questions about macroeconomics.  By “standalone,” I mean independent of anyone’s course.  Instructors can use this space however they like for their courses, so we want it to be flexible—Just a forum for exploring, discussing and developing tentative answers to interesting current questions in macroeconomics.

The basic model could be “modules,” each organized around a single main question.  The model might be described as:

  • Pose a question/problem,
  • Solicit initial responses,
  • Submit evidence,
  • Develop conclusions,
  • Move on to next the question/problem.

I’d like to solicit some seed questions (each defining a module) from faculty participants in advance, the exploration of which will help students in their courses, but the discussion on the web space would be open to anyone interested.

I could see a number of questions being explored simultaneously, but if too much is happening at the same time, we spread the participants too thin to benefit from the group.

We would need to develop some basic ground rules, not to limit discussion but to keep it focused on the module questions.  We probably also need the behavioral expectations spelled out.

What’s the Point?

I think this could be a useful experience by bringing more voices into a course than just that of the instructor.  I am recruiting colleagues from Canada and the UK as well as different regions of the US to participate in this experiment.  Since many of the issues I can imagine discussing have subjective /political components, I think it would be a plus to have our students experience diverse views, both among experts and students.  In a recent post, Cathy Derecki described this more generally as “the notion of connecting people and ideas as the goal, with technology as a way to do that.”  Justin Reich (as EdTech Researcher) explains:

These courses are designed to bring people together for learning experiences, rather than to deliver a discrete set of learning objectives to be mastered. Stephen Downes goes so far to say that the “content is a MacGuffin”, the thing that brings people together so that the real learning can happen through dialogue, interaction, and exploration.

An Example:

One question that I would like to organize a module around is “Which US Presidential candidate’s economic platform makes the most sense?”  I can imagine different responses from people from the US Northeast or say Ohio, people from the US south, Canadians, British, or participants from other parts of the world.  I would want to solicit participation from folks of all political and economic persuasions so students get the full breadth of views.  While I try to be balanced in my presentation of perspectives different from my own, it’s not the same as hearing it from a proponent.  This isn’t primarily intended to be place for people to just emote.  Rather, I want the site to generate an analysis of the underlying economic theories, as well as allowing for subjective conclusions.  It would be interested to unpack the assumptions behind people’s views.  I know my first year students often have strong opinions but aren’t clear on why they hold them.  I think this resource could help.

Option #2 It’s not an e-Portfolio.

This idea is less further developed than Option #1.

Our school has been exploring the concept and uses of an e-Portfolio.  I could explain our findings in detail, but for now let me just say we’ve decided that a commercial product is not for us, that we would like to explore what we understand might be the benefits of an ePortfolio with a new project we’re developing for next fall called a “Domain of One’s Own.”  (Note: By “we” I mean UMW, not me.  I’m just hoping to be a free-rider.)

My thought (and this is not original) is to ask students to create something that narrates, illustrates, and summarizes their learning in my course.  My hope is that this would provide students with a tangible sense of what they’ve accomplished over the semester, something they can literally take with them when they complete the course.

I can imagine using a domain of their own to help students build their understanding of the course topics, archive their thinking, and possibly link it all together (perhaps using a mother-blog).  One question: Could we somehow build a collaborative understanding of the material?  A “network of thought and interaction” perhaps?  My concern is that my course enrolls mostly first and second year students who may not be cognitively ready for that.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these ideas.

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7 Responses to How can an online course be superior to a traditional face-to-face course?

  1. Steve, this sounds very interesting. As you know, I’m not an educator, but I am a proponent of using the web to open up a network of ideas and inspirations. I can tell you that DS106 daily creates, for me, have helped to pull me out of my reliance on writing (I, too, have many unpublished drafts) into other media, which then is enabling me to shake out of my pedantic tendencies and just write. Don’t know why it works that way. Short way of saying, as a non-expert in your field (as I would suspect students are at this level), I would enjoy answering these questions using imagery, sound, video, metaphor, story telling, fables, etc. to get at the larger ideas before beginning to formulate an essay. Also, that kind of stuff tweets and blogs well, encouraging feedback more, getting the dialogue going. The Economics website should light up with this kinda of stuff! Not that I have an agenda… 🙂 You da man!

  2. sgreenla says:

    @saracup This is going to make me sound clueless, but I hadn’t thought about the forms in which participants would respond to the questions. Great ideas for using different formats. Of course, now I’ll have to figure out how to motivate/teach those types of responses. Wonder if we know anyone who could help? 😉 It’s to get feedback like this that I put my half-baked ideas out there. Thanks much!

  3. Wendy Drexler says:

    Thought provoking post. Your comment about the impact of online design on your F2F teaching practice is universal in my experience. F2F learning could be greatly enhanced if professors put as much effort into instructional design in the F2F classroom.

    I think it’s critical to identify what it is within the models you’ve chosen that makes them superior. There are theoretical frameworks for online learning. The CCK courses are based on connectivism. I would argue they also meet the criteria for a community of inquiry (Garrison & Vaughan). I try to design my online courses with a balance of learning experiences that create social, cognitive, and teaching presence. If I were in your shoes, I’d take the following steps:
    1. Identify target audience – Chris Sessums and I offered an open online course on PLEs in which we truly tried to target teachers in the subject areas. Unfortunately, this group is not necessarily comfortable with technology and/or learning online. It turned out to be a difficult group to reach. We ended up with educational technologists and grad students from our UF program. Lesson learned – Design may be different when you’re trying to reach the whole world than it is for a narrow audience.
    2. Identify the aspects of CCK11 and DS106 that are particularly compelling. What components of those course designs make them effective learning experiences? I’d actually make a list.
    3. Create active learning objectives. What should your students be able to DO as a result of your course as opposed to what you think they should know.
    4. Develop a design to meet those objectives that addresses cognitive and social presence. Determine ahead of time how you will manage interactions with students. How will they interact with each other? How will you facilitate social and cognitive presence? How will you create a perception of teaching presence without wearing yourself out? How will you prepare students for the learning experience you design?

    I’m intrigued by your modular approach to essential questions. This fits well in an inquiry model of learning. Side note: Have you seen DebateGraph? Not sure it is exactly what you’re trying to accomplish, but you may get some ideas from the application.

    This sounds like an exciting project. I’ll keep thinking about it. Keep us posted.

  4. Jim says:

    I think you should really take ds106 this Summer, it will be huge for figuring out how an online community like this operates.

  5. Robert S Rycroft says:

    Regarding Option #1, my recommendation is that the questions have a more academic and less political focus to them. Your question about which candidate has a better economic strategy seems to assume that either candidate has a strategy based on some version of economic theory. My view is that their platforms are hodge-podges of ideas, some of which have some basis in economic theory and some which seem to come out of nowhere and often are inconsistent with other parts of their platforms. It is tough to argue intelligently about something when the thing lacks internal consistency. I think a more academic focus would be questions like 1) What is the size of the multiplier in the United States? 2) Did fiscal policy end the Great Depression, 3) What is the zero-bound problem and what is its significance, and 4) does the Keynesian or Hayekian or Monetarist or Rational Expectations or Whatever model better explain what has taken place in the U. S. economy since 2008?. For each of these questions there are competing models and evidence and would seem to be less likely to be contaminated by the ranting that inevitably results from “political” questions.

    Another way to put it is that the questions should stem from particular policies and not political philosophies. Should the U. S. fully commit to free trade? Is outsourcing good for us? Should we be concerned about the rise in inequality? Should the repeal of Glass-Steagall be allowed to stand? Etc.

  6. Pingback: Interaction in a Content-Based Online Course | Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching

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