It's Not "Us vs. Them": Tapping the Power of Diverse Approaches to Instruction

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We need to do more as a community to encourage collaboration and effectively destroy the existing silos and barriers to greater student engagement.

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Credit: Jupiterimages / Thinkstock © 2018

This past December, I was fortunate to attend the Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) Workshop [], hosted by EDUCAUSE, at American University in Washington, DC. The event offered an excellent opportunity for IT professionals, faculty, and industry vendors to discuss the future of digital education. These types of meetings have always encouraged and inspired me.

That said, I was left with the realization that there is a tremendous amount of work still left to do. While the workshop addressed many key issues — all of them important — it is clear that we need to do more as a community to bring about lasting change. We need to encourage faculty, IT professionals, technologists, and librarians to collaborate, effectively destroying the silos and barriers to greater student engagement that currently exist. This approach will help lead to a greater depth of understanding and a bridging of the digital divide.

Is Online Learning Pervasive?

Based on my experience working with 14 small residential liberal arts colleges, I have found that discussions surrounding online education often include assumptions that should be explored more deeply. For instance, during the end-of-day recap one participant suggested that all higher education institutions are teaching courses online and that the residential model was a thing of the past. Is this true?

In my experience, many small residential colleges would have a lot to say about whether online courses and programs are a foregone conclusion. I confirmed this understanding with various colleagues in the liberal arts and other consortia, while recognizing that a continuum exists. This is where definitions are important. If you assert that online learning means that more than 80 percent of the interaction takes place in the virtual environment, many colleges and universities would disagree with the notion that fully online courses or programs must be part of the college experience. However, if you are talking about blended or web-facilitated courses, the conversation may be more relevant to the broader higher education community.

The Value of Different Modes of Instruction

As someone who has taken and taught many online courses, I can attest that focusing on the distinction between different modes and methods of instruction — including the use of technology in diverse ways — is not intended as a disparagement of fully online courses. On the contrary, we too often frame discussions as "us versus them," undermining different modes of instruction to fit a narrative.

There is tremendous value in diverse approaches to instruction. We should not assume that any one mode will supplant the others. After all, residential models can include makerspaces, AR/VR/MR labs, and many other technology-focused experiences. Conversely, online education often includes deep and meaningful interactions, blending of synchronous and asynchronous approaches, and increased access to faculty.

For the sake of clarity, here are definitions of the approaches above (drawn from Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States, 2014, a report by the Online Learning Consortium):

  • Traditional: Course where no online technology is used; content is delivered in person via writing, oral lectures, or a combination.
  • Web-Facilitated: Course that uses web-based technology to facilitate what is essentially a face-to-face course. May use a course management system (CMS) or web pages to post the syllabus and assignments.
  • Blended/Hybrid: Course that blends online and face-to-face delivery — substantial proportion of the content is delivered online, typically uses online discussions, and typically has a reduced number of face-to-face meetings.
  • Online or Virtual: A course where most or all of the content is delivered online. Typically have no face-to-face meetings.

Creating a New Paradigm to Support Faculty and Students

As a community, we need to move beyond the "average learner" or "traditional vs. nontraditional" student. Instead, we need to think about creating the best learning environment for all students. Creating a new paradigm requires dismissing the idea of instructors as "sage on the stage" or "guide on the side," embracing them instead as active participants in the learning process, constantly shifting from guide to leader based on the situation.

Moving in this direction also requires difficult soul searching on the part of faculty, technologists, and IT professionals. Many assume that pedagogy drives technological decisions, and there is little doubt that tremendous progress has been made in this direction. However, with the ever-increasing overlap between technology and instruction, collaboration is essential in securing and implementing innovative technologies. Institutional leaders should communicate why new technologies are being chosen, assessing if they will enhance learning or simply replicate a current practice with a shiny new façade.

Additionally, it is crucial to recognize the gaps in knowledge and access. Faculty need development opportunities and support from technologists, library staff, and IT staff. Students need support and recognition by the academic community that the digital divide is real. Educators must find ways to mitigate this growing disparity. Although the digital divide was a topic called out early at the workshop, it was minimally explored, at least in open discussion, and there still does not seem to be a workable solution to this pervasive problem. If anything, the increased adoption of innovative technology is widening the divide even further.

Continuing the Conversation

As mentioned at the outset, I was energized and honored to have been involved in this event. EDUCAUSE serves a vital role in facilitating conversations throughout the higher education community. I look forward to participating in more events, engaging my colleagues, and exploring solutions. Understanding the range of contexts and perspectives will only enhance our effectiveness.

Ed Finn serves as Liaison for Innovation and Collaboration in Teaching and Learning for the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. Follow him on Twitter: @acmtechliaison.

© 2018 Ed Finn. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.