I have been rather busy of late, so this is a rather delayed post from an interview done in June 2020 with SRCE, the Croatian National e-Learning Centre. The Interview appears under the title “Student je središte obrazovnoga procesa”, which translates as ‘The student is at the centre of the educational process’. Below is an English version of the extended interview.
SK: How does one transfer face-to-face (f2f) courses to an online environment?
Carefully! The difficulty is that the honest answer is “it depends”. It depends on several factors. Whether your institution already has a robust infrastructure to support learning online, is there already a virtual learning environment in place, and how well is it being used and supported? What are the relative skill sets of the technologists, educational technologists and academics? Has the institution already predetermined a learning and teaching strategy that defines the nature of the blend of online and face-to-face provision, or has it just been left to develop organically as the technologies have become more and more widespread?
There a strategic challenge for institutions, beyond the influence of most front line teachers. I think the challenge is that language, certainly in English, is very changeable and often misused. Managers mix up phrases like the ‘flipped classroom’ and ‘blended’, or they associate ‘online’ with ‘remote’ learning. I think it is worth investing some time at an institutional level to agree on what you mean by the terms you use. Otherwise, people can talk across each other and misunderstand both each other’s context and meaning.
Institutionally, we need to think about the human element. Recognising that the skills to design learning and teaching online, whether to overcome the short-term lack of classroom contact or for longer-term distance learning purposes, are not the same skills required of face-to-face teachers. Most online distance and flexible learning organisations (ODFL) have created many specialisms within their workforce. Many traditional institutions still expect individuals to play a range of unique roles and so moving these online is increasingly challenging. We need to confront the fact that the change of environment means a dramatic change in roles, and that won’t fit everyone’s personal or career aspirations.
SK: And for an individual teacher’s perspective, what should they be thinking about?
I would suggest that the first thing anyone should do when moving a course from face-to-face to online is to be honest with themselves. It’s an opportunity to look for quality enhancement. In the short term you may be compelled to move existing presentation material online, the resources you might have delivered in a lecture, and wrap around that some discussion forum to substitute what you might have done in a seminar. Readings are less of an issue. But in the medium term, and in the long term, we need to recognise that designing learning for online delivery is an entirely different experience from face-to-face. So I think there is a perfect opportunity to dismantle your existing course, challenge your assumptions, and go right back to the basic design elements within your courses.
I think it is also important to avoid taking a deficit mindset around online, by which I mean to think that online or distance learning is ‘worth’ less than traditional face-to-face learning. The evidence suggests the opposite but what is true is that they are significantly different experiences from a student’s perspective.
Most courses have been designed around course outcome statements. Ordinarily, these are written statements as to what the student will be able to ‘do’ once they’ve completed the course and these guide both assessment, learning activities and content. If your institution doesn’t follow this approach, it’s not too late to do it for yourself. Writing good learning outcomes provides a structure for both the learner and the tutor. If you’ve got learning outcomes already in place for your course, go right back to them and re-conceptualise your learning approach, knowing the context in which your students are now learning.
There is an assumption that when the student is on campus and sitting in the classroom, they are a captive audience, you can monopolise their time for the one or two hours that they are timetabled. In an ODFL context, students’ time is out of your reach. That means the learning itself needs a degree of motivation and structure built into it. The consequence of this is that you design learning that requires the learner to build on their own experience, to situate their learning wherever they are, and seek out authentic learning opportunities. I believe as a result, ODFL can produce much better learning than many face-to-face instances where there is the danger that given the captive nature of the student, they can be subjected to content lead learning design. So my key message is to be as honest as you can be about the quality of the learning experience rather than being overly concerned with the quality of your content. Focus on the learner experience.
SK: So what practical steps can teachers do to achieve that?
First, I think the best teachers are reflective practitioners. They are continuously asking themselves whether they are serving the best interests of the learners from a learning perspective, not from a subject content perspective. The reality is the vast majority of factual knowledge delivered through our courseware is available to students free if they know how to find it. What we do as educators is we synthesise, organise and order this knowledge into meaningful experiences. Some of our colleagues may have been teaching for 30 years in a face-to-face environment and now teach online for the first time, some of them I know feel like they’re teaching for the first time! The COVID-19 pandemic is a significant opportunity, despite unfortunate circumstances, to confront everything about what we do. Teachers need to be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. So keep a journal, reflective notes, annotate your presentations, make quick observations after each teaching encounter. Get into the habit of challenging yourself as to what you could have done differently and what you plan to try differently next time.
Second, teachers need to know that they are not expected to do everything by themselves. Indeed, I don’t think anyone can do everything. There is a reason ODFL organisations have so many interwoven specialisms. I think it’s important to recognise that learning design, course design, is neither a science nor is it a dark art. If it were a science, big organisations would’ve already found a way of making an engine where you put in your requirements and of course comes out the other end, but despite their best efforts that appears not to be on the horizon. Likewise, good course design and good teaching, with some very rare exceptions, are best done in broad daylight, and with peer review, rather than behind the closed doors of a dark lecture theatre. One of the positive effects of the expansion, or massification, of higher education in Europe and globally is that it has compelled greater transparency in learning and teaching practices. So teachers need to know enough about themselves, so they know when to ask for help.
Third, and it’s a related point, is when there is no immediate support if your institution just doesn’t have the staff to guide you in developing good online learning, reach out. Look for support from many international organisations that have provided resources to support you and your colleagues. I’m aware of resources that are shared by EDEN, ICDE, UNESCO and others. I think it’s important that teachers know that they are not alone and that regardless of the discipline, whether its undergraduate dance or postgraduate chemistry, someone, somewhere will be trying to solve the same challenges you face. I, like many others, share resources openly on blogs and institutional websites. Use them.
SK: How can teachers ensure that an online course is not simply a repository of learning materials?
Good learning design would never result in a simple repository of learning materials. It just can’t happen, that’s a contradiction. It’s the equivalent of a face-to-face teacher handing out a reading list for their and doing nothing else. Good learning design puts the learner experience at the heart of its design; resources complement the experience; they don’t replace it. I think sometimes we associate with having students physically present in our classrooms means that they are engaged. We assume that they are listening and that they’re paying attention. We may have designed in-class activities, and the students may be actively engaged with them, but a lot of our teaching is still very passive. Sometimes when teachers move recorded lectures, presentations, PowerPoints and notes online but are not being ‘present’ to facilitate any engagement with these resources, they are left wondering whether they have any value. They may wrap a discussion forum around resources and engage the student in a meaningful dialogue amongst themselves and with the tutor, but when this dialogue fails to happen that can be very frustrating. Some students engage some don’t, and there is no immediate way of resolving that I’m afraid. We would have to explore questions of motivation, discipline-fit, literacies and a range of other things which I think is a bit beyond the scope of this conversation.
However, I will say that good learning design would suggest that rather than providing a resource and attempting to get the student to engage with it, it is better to envisage the learning experience and use resources only when it is appropriate. There is nothing wrong with students spending time reflecting, looking for other sources of information to validate what is being given to them or creating online resources collegially or individually. We need to get away from this myth that we, as teachers, are the source of all wisdom. Some students will experience poor learning during this COVID-19 emergency that we all face. But it’s important to recognise that that is not implicit in the ODFL experience, it is likely to result from several assumptions and presumptions that have informed less than ideal practices. Moving courses online is challenging many personal assumptions that we have.
SK: Let’s talk a little more about assessment in an online environment. How it differs from f2f and how to do it?
Gosh, that’s a huge question. In some ways, the design approach shouldn’t be any different. Every institution should have an assessment strategy, and arguably every programme and every course needs to have a refined version of that strategy written into it. Assessments, regardless of the mode in which they run, should be valid and reliable, but they should also be authentic, durable and situated. Just to explain my language here; valid in that they assess the outcomes and not content, reliable in that you could expect to repeat the assessment with future cohorts and get comparable results. Authentic because it is appropriate for discipline and level, durable because ideally, we wouldn’t want to keep re-writing assessments each time we deliver a course, and situated in that the assessment allows the student to personalise their evidence.
If you start on that basis, and you look at whatever the learning outcomes are for your course, re-conceptualising assessment becomes less daunting. It should be less about how you adapt your existing assessments to deliver them online; rather, it should be to take an online approach to assess your outcomes. I recognise that for some colleagues, the conventions within their disciplines are incredibly rigid. They may feel uncomfortable about even suggesting that the sacred cow that is the ‘final exam’ may not even be necessary. I understand that. But, there is a strong argument to be made where assessing learning outcomes differently represents a quality enhancement opportunity.
SK: So, how does a teacher decide on the assessment method for online?
I would say first that people need to be thinking about ‘originating’ not ‘replicating’. Forget about trying to assess the same way online. The learning outcomes dictate the assessment method. Without them, I suspect it’s just about what’s realistic within your institution. If your outcomes require factual recall and memorisation, then the assessment method might be as straightforward as a multiple-choice questionnaire embedded inside the virtual learning environment. Any higher-order thinking skills, to discuss, to debate, to analyse, to evaluate or to critique, are likely to require long answer text forms. The question is how authentic that assessment can be. Many institutions still have a tendency to run exams, I think often just because they’re configured to do so rather than because it is actually assessing any defined outcomes. Unless you’re assessing someone in policy studies or journalism who is required to show an ability to write under pressure, exams risk assessing merely the ability to sit exams or memory rather than any higher cognitive functions. I think it’s important to think about what it is the students actually providing evidence of.
One of my biggest professional frustrations has always been with teachers who say they want their students to be able to identify, research and critically evaluate a range of complex sources in order to synthesis or analyse a situation, and then they set a three-hour exam based around the content in the course. Assessment is undoubtedly one of the most challenging areas of learning design but incredibly satisfying when you get it right!
Clearly, outside of the social sciences, there are other assessment challenges. In the performing arts one may have inferred, but not written into an outcome, the ability to perform in front of an audience for example. In the long run, one may need to rethink the way those outcomes are written, but in the short term, it is entirely possible for students to provide recordings of performances in their own time, in their own space. Some might object to allowing students to perform something multiple times and submit their best effort. I don’t see that as a problem unless the learning outcome suggests that the student only gets one high-pressure opportunity. Again, I think it depends on what it is you’re assessing.
I think it’s important that we try to avoid thinking about how to replicate what we do face-to-face online and go back to the fundamentals of our learning design. We can arguably make adjustments to most of our face-to-face intentions by adopting an ODFL mindset.
SK: In your view does online assessment provide an equally relevant assessment as that in f2f?
Relevant is an interesting choice of word. I suspect what you are alluding to is the fear that many colleagues have about plagiarism or academic misconduct away from the exam context. You cannot just post a ‘standard’ exam online and not expect students to go into their social media groups and exchange information, download answers from the Internet, or even buy a response. The alternative might be running online proctored exams, but I’m not in favour of that. Unless writing within strict time limits like a journalist is an outcome, I think it’s unnecessary. Instead, I think we are better to be thinking about the assessment from where the student is standing. We need to conceive of the learner, online and distant, living away from campus, and having access all the course content. They don’t live on the moon! They are part of society, so we need to design learning, and assessment, that encourages them to personalise their own context.
I want to unpack the word relevance. Whether the assessment is valid and reliable is about whether the skills you want the students to provide evidence of is captured through your assessment design, and if you repeat the assessment, the results are likely to be equivalent. So designing valid assessment determines its relevance. I think it’s important wherever possible to design assessment that is authentic and situated. Authentic means that the evidence the student is expecting to provide of their learning should be as close to real-world experiences as possible. It always surprises me that institutions go to substantial lengths to create scenarios and case studies when the real-world is just outside the students’ windows! Situated means that the learner should be required wherever practicable, to draw on experiences and realities in their own context. This means they could be asked to create a case-study based on something within their social context. What could be more relevant?
As I’ve said, I think it is arguably easier to provide situated and authentic learning to students who are studying away from the campus and away from an existing cohort. If a student has to situate their learning, and therefore their assessment, it is often easier for teachers to become familiar with an individual’s student’s pattern of learning. Where a teacher is aware of their students’ strengths and weaknesses, they will recognise evidence of academic misconduct more readily. Many institutions now teach at a scale that means individual teachers are not assessing their own students directly. I think if we design assessments to be authentic and situated; it is possible to design out plagiarism. I suspect that is the holy grail in assessment design. Ensuring that students can make the learning, and therefore also their assessment, as meaningful to their own lives as possible. Forcing students to provide context for their learning means cutting and pasting from the Internet becomes more of a chore than it is an advantage.
SK: What final words would you like to share with colleagues here in Croatia?
To say that I respect the commitment and tenacity of teachers, and I admire how they have coped under extreme pressure to do what’s best for their students. To say that I think being reflective, understanding your strengths and weaknesses, asking for help when required. Thinking from the Online Distance Flexible Learning (ODFL) position back towards the campus, rather than the other way around, is the way to tackle the personal challenges ahead. Also, if I might add I have fond memories of my visits to Zagreb and hope to visit Croatia again.