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Online and Blended Instruction: Thoughts about Where We are (or are we?)

As we move into the new year I want to address a topic that has been on the radar of teaching and learning for years:  online and blended instructional design.  This is the first of a two-part series in which I first address some of the generalities of online teaching and learning and then in the second part address the specific benefits and challenges of online instructional design.  In no way do I see this as a comprehensive introduction to the topic of online and blended instructional design, but more as a review of what has been going on within the campus sessions I have participated in and facilitated on the topic.   And my hope is that these observations will be built upon as we continue to move forward on the integration of online and blended instructional design into education.

Over the last two years I have been facilitating various workshops focused on online and blended instructional design questions that have been circulating on campus.  What has been particularly interesting coming out of these sessions is the overarching discussions we have had about the topic.  The topic of online instruction has been receiving plenty of press and discussion over the last decade from sources as varying as The NY Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and USA Today.   Some of this coverage is focused on the short-term and some on the longer-term. For example, within The Chronicle of Higher Ed we have pieces ranging from:

Technology Is at Least 3 Years Away From Improving Student Success

7 Community Colleges Open an Online Doorway to Better Grades and Graduation Rates

Screen shot of NY Times website featuring Death Knell for the Lecture: Technology as a Passport to Personalized Education essayArguments are also still being made for wholesale ‘sea change’ in education happening because of the technology catalyst, such as this dramatically titled NY Times essay by Daphne Koller “Death Knell for the Lecture: Technology as a Passport to Personalized Education.”

Given this coverage, I have been interested in the increasing focus on certain traits of online education, especially fully and/or blended online instruction.   Many familiar concerns about teaching fully online (or moving sections of face-to-face units to an online format (blended)) are still with us when discussing the pros and cons of online education.   Indeed, as Bates and Poole stated back in 2003:

A substantial increase in mixed-mode teaching also raises much broader questions about the potential impact on the campus.  Will students come to campus less often?  What kind of learning spaces are required for students who do come on campus?  What impact will this type of teaching have on the quality of student (and academic) life?” (p. 121)

What are some areas of focus addressed recently that are of particular interest?

In both the discussions found in the press (and the comments responding to these stories) and my own discussions with instructors on campus, one area that I find to be of particular interest revolves around the question about student and instructor responsibilities.  More specifically, where does the instructional support stop and the student responsibility pick up?  Some find themselves tending towards the idea of it being very important to meet the students where they are and produce multilayer and multimedia units; others are more of the idea that the online format is perfect for challenging students to read and write in a student-focused manner.  What is of interest here is two-fold:  first is that this split of ideas goes back to discussions, debates, and questions we have had about online education from the very beginning; and second is that when one looks at the advantages of online instructional design both approaches can be highlighted.

Another area I have found of interest in the discussions about online instructional design is the focus on a specific application or media.  The ongoing idea centers around technology fixes to solve larger pedagogical questions such as how to get students “more” engaged with the content.  From the discussions about this idea there again becomes a division between approaches.  One idea is that technology, say for instance social media, is an active way to engage students where they are at.  Another idea is that the technology does the opposite and just gets in the way of teacher to student and student to student interactions.

These discussions revolving around application and the pedagogical questions lack that overlapping quality both practice and theory can display when they work together.  Another longstanding example of the divisions between technology as central versus technology as distracting is the idea of digital literacy.   What is the role of the instructor in terms of “teaching” students how to utilize specific new media in practical or critical ways?   Does the technology become part of the critical/theoretical or the practical learning environment?  An example would be do you teach a student how to create and read cinematic language when you require them to post to YouTube?  Or is the technology in the background of the learning process, serving as a tool for delivering content or facilitating discussion?   Again, the historical context is important here, with the challenge embedded in these questions being rooted in arguments surrounding the utilization of any technology within a learning environment.  It’s just that, currently, these concerns have been questioned much more so within our increasingly online, linked world.  

The other side of this digital literacy is the comfort level of the instructor using certain technologies.  I have found in my specific workshop discussions that there are a wide range of thoughts about where individuals fall into the comfort zone.  For me the conversations and dialogue we have had about online teaching and learning still breaks down a bit too much into a dichotomy of technology as an entity outside the learning process, or as a discussion about which comes first: technology tools or the teaching/learning strategies.  However, I wonder if this isn’t something that can be addressed a bit more concretely and simply.  As Bates and Poole in 2003 argued, “if that is the case, though, and different approaches to learning need to be used in different contexts, we have to be careful to identify relevant approaches for specific learning tasks and groups of students, and then analyze how technology could be used to meet those needs” (p. 35).

In concluding this first part of exploring the current discussion surrounding online and blended instruction, I want to segue into the second part focused on specific benefits and challenges.  In this writing I have mused about the ways in which the general questions and concerns about online education have not changed much over the years.  As such, this leads into other, yet similar discussions happening around specific benefits and challenges of online instructional design, which we will address next time.

Bates, A.W. & Poole, G.  (2003).  Effective teaching with technology in higher education: Foundations for success.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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