Remote Learning Is Not Necessarily Online Learning

remote learnersThe COVID-19 pandemic forced schools and corporate trainers to move their content online. Teaching and training went remote. But are remote and online learning the same thing? I see the terms used almost interchangeably.

Remote teaching, training, or learning has been done before there was an Internet to get online. Correspondence models and instructional TV/video predate the Internet. Today, we are using Skype and Zoom lectures, apps and tools but remote learning is still considered different from online learning.

I have taken classes and done training remotely that don't have many of the elements of a classroom experience. Things like reading assignments and writing assignments, assessments, collaboration on work, or full discussion boards are not used. For example, I have watched a series of history lectures that were mostly one-way experiences. I watched and although there was an opportunity to ask questions in chat or a Q&A time if you were watching live, this is not online learning.

Online learning should be more robust. It resembles more of what we consider to be "education" and would include interactive modules, assessments based on real-world scenarios, discussion forums designed to discuss and solve problems, synchronous learning sessions that involve discussions and problem-solving. There may still be live or recorded lectures, but that is not the only component.

Remote learning certainly has a place, especially in corporate and training situations. This can be pre-recorded content that can be used as needed, has a shelf life, and can be viewed again by users if necessary. Training on using software is a good example of content that works as remote learning. "But it's all online," you might say, "Why isn't it online learning?" Well, it is and it isn't.

Educators have long been trying to elevate engagement in online learning. It is not training. It requires a teacher or facilitator. Some elements are synchronous. Progress is monitored.

I hedged on my title for this post - "Remote Learning Is Not Necessarily Online Learning" - because fortunately, some training uses the elements that we consider to be integral to online learning. And, unfortunately, some online learning seems to be more like just remote training. And training and education have both been experimenting with hybrid models where learners and instructors can be in the same classroom working together but be extending the classroom online.

Remote learning is not inferior to online learning. It has its place in the broader "learning" experience. Remote learners sitting on their couch at home with a laptop may look the same as students taking an online course, but what is being provided to them, what they are expected to do with that content and what is the final expectations for that learning should be different. Putting a label on learning platforms is tricky, but it is important to know the differences.

 

Supporting Faculty for the Fall 2021 Semester

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Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

 

I recently read the teaching newsletter at chronicle.com/newsletter/teaching/ that covered several topics around the question of what support faculty members will most need this fall. Without reading the newsletter, I would have guessed that much of the support needed in fall 2020 due to the pandemic will still be needed this fall. The news this summer is full of stories about how we are returning to some version of "normal." I would also predict that schools K-20 are expecting to not need some of that support. We expect to see students back in classrooms. We expect that there will be fewer online versions of courses.   

The author, Beckie Supiano, reached out to some directors of teaching centers and other faculty developers and asked that question about instructor support. Here are a few takeaways in brief.

We can expect that faculty will now be more likely to mix modalities in their teaching. This is more complex than just teaching in-person versus online. We also have asynchronous versus synchronous formats and hybrid settings. This is due to some teachers having been introduced to new modalities and technologies and discovering that some of it is good and applicable. I would also factor in students who were learning online for the first time who found some positives to learning in that way.

I know of teachers who used threaded discussions, video conferencing (Zoom et al) and simple tools such as polls and breakout room for group work for the first time and plan to continue using them even though they will be back in a physical classroom.

Some courses will not be officially labeled as hybrid or blended in the course catalog, but they will be a blend of in-person and online more than in the past.

The technology that allows this to happen will need IT support and, hopefully, pedagogical support towards its best application. Supiano quotes the director for teaching excellence at George Mason University who says that "We’ve been working this summer to support faculty through our Mixed Modalities Course Design project, but we need ways to reach more faculty with that kind of learning opportunity.”

This question seems to ignore what support students will need this fall. Teachers are often the "first responders" to questions students have about using course technology. The article suggests that instructors will need "a grounding in trauma-informed pedagogy." At apu.edu, a Trauma Informed Pedagogy Series was created this summer to educate and equip professors.

One director suggests that faculty will need opportunities for more conversations about what is happening in other classrooms and online, including "fewer readings and speakers and just more workshops with each other."

I do like the idea presented that faculty who have gone beyond the normal in this beyond-normal period need to be rewarded for their efforts. Presidents, provosts, deans, chairs, and teaching and promotion and tenure committees are most likely not equipped to consider some of the changes and efforts that were made in 2020 and so far in 2021. And full-time, non-tenure-track faculty and adjuncts also made extraordinary efforts that may have been assumed or overlooked. Moving an in-person course online even with a semester to prepare is difficult to do well. Doing it almost overnight in spring 2020 was a big ask.

I would say that the support need for fall 2021 is much the same that was needed for fall 2019, but the biggest change is the increased number of faculty and students who will need that support.

Read the article and if you want to share your own preparations or missing support, email the author at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.

The Subtle Art of Persuasive Design

child smartphone

Image by Andi Graf from Pixabay

Tech companies use “persuasive design” to get us hooked. Some psychologists say it’s unethical. Children are particularly susceptible to "hidden manipulation techniques," but lots of adults are also taken in by its use, especially in social media and advertising on the Internet. by companies like Facebook and Twitter. 

It is in front of our faces when we are getting notifications on our phone and even when that next episode or video on Netflix or YouTube loads itself as soon as we finish one.

Back in the 1970s, there were plenty of articles and theses written about the dangers of too much television affecting children. Kids have 10 times the amount of screen time now compared to just 2011. Of course, now we are talking about more screens than just the family TV set. They spend an average of 400 minutes using technology, according to Common Sense Media.

Media companies have been using behavioral science for decades to create products that we want to use more and more. Remember how the tobacco companies were sued for the ways they hooked people on cigarettes? Big tech uses persuasive technology which is a fairly new field of research based on studying how technology changes the way humans think and act.

Using persuasive design techniques, companies incorporate this research into games and apps. As soon as a child begins to move on to Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft apps, they have been pre-conditioned for specific behaviors. 

Apple CEO, Tim Cook, has warned that algorithms pushing us to catastrophic results, though critics will say that Apple itself is not free from using persuasive design.

Social media companies are being targeted for deliberately addicting users to their products for financial gain. Some design features, such as infinite scroll, are features that are seen as highly habit-forming. Along with features that may appear as a "plus", like notifications, they keep us on our devices and looking at advertising and clicking longer. They encourage the "fear of missing out" (FOMO).

The infinite scroll was a feature designed by Aza Raskin when he was working for Humanized - a computer user-interface consultancy. He now questions its use.

He is not alone. Leah Pearlman, co-inventor of Facebook's Like button, said she had become hooked on Facebook because she had begun basing her sense of self-worth on the number of "likes" she had. But Ms Pearlman said she had not intended the Like button to be addictive, and she also believes that social media use has many benefits for lots of people.

Defenders of persuasive tech say it can have positive effects. There are apps that remind/train people to take medicine on time or develop weight loss habits. But critics are concerned with persuasive design that is not intended to improve lifestyles but to keep people on their devices in order to sell.

A letter signed by 50 psychologists was sent to the American Psychological Association accusing psychologists working at tech companies of using “hidden manipulation techniques” and asks the APA to take an ethical stand on behalf of kids.

Will Your Instructional Designer Be AI?

cyborgRecently, I read an article about using artificial intelligence (AI) for the instructional design of courses. Initially, that frightened me. First of all, it might mean less work for instructional designers – which I have both been and run a department working with them. Second, it’s hard for me to imagine AI making decisions on pedagogy better than a designer and faculty member.

Of course, using AI for that kind of design is probably limited (at least at first) to automating some tasks like uploading documents and updating calendars rather than creating lessons. Then again, I know that AI is being used to write articles for online and print publications, so it is certainly possible.

I read another article asking “Is Artificial Intelligence the Next Stepping Stone for Web Designers?” and, of course, my concerns are the same – lost jobs and bad design.

Certainly, we are already using AI in websites, particularly in e-commerce applications. But using AI to actually design a website is very different.

Some companies have started to use AI for web design. A user answers some questions to start a design: pick an industry or category (portfolio, restaurant, etc.), enter a business name, add a subtitle/slogan/brand, upload a logo, enter an address, hours of operation, and so on. The AI may offer you a choice of templates and then in a few clicks, the basics of the site are created.

This is an extension of the shift 20 years to template-driven web design. Now, it is based on machine learning techniques with human intervention at the initial stage by providing their desired information and probably again after the site is created to fine-tune.

In my own instructional design work over the years, we have used templates for course shells. Standardizing the way courses look is a good thing in many ways. It makes it easier to do rapid development. That was certainly the situation in spring 2020 as school scrambled to move all their face to face courses online. A standard look also makes it easier for students to move from course to course. 

Though every course should not be the same, the structure and components can generally be the same. This is also useful if you are trying to have courses comply with standards such as Quality Matters or ADA accessibility standards

I do a lot of web design these days and many popular companies, such as Squarespace, are using AI and machine learning to get ordinary users started. Does design still require some human intervention? Absolutely. Does the human need to be a “designer”?  Clearly, the goal is to allow anyone to do a good job of creating a website without a designer.

I think there is an overlap between web design and course design. Add AI to either and the process can be made more efficient. I also think that you need people involved. For web design, it's a client and designer. For course design, it's a faculty member(s) and an ID. In my own work, I still find many people need someone with experience and training to create the website, but they can oftentimes maintain it on their own if the updates are simple. For courses, most faculty need help to create but generally not only can "maintain" the course but have to because the IDs can't always be there during a semester.

AI will change many industries and web and instructional design are certainly on the list of those industries. 

The Limits of Memory

7There is definitely some psychology to design. And UX design is definitely about organization.

There is a principle of organization that comes psychology that I have seen written about in terms of product and service design. It is Miller’s Law.

It was put forward in 1956 - long before UX and web design was a thing - in a paper by cognitive psychologist George A. Miller. In his well-known paper (at least in psych circles), titled "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information" he proposed a limit to memory which is now called Miller's Law.

Miller proposed that the number of perceptual ‘chunks’ an average human can hold in working memory (a component of short-term memory) is 7. He found that memory performance is great five or six different stimuli but declines aft so let's say 5-9. If the mind can handle ~7 bits of information when completing a task that requires cognitive effort, then designers need to keep that in mind when designing. That would apply to completing forms and surveys. It applies to lists in menus and lots of other tasks that might be presented to users. What happens when a catalog page shows 15 items?

Miller believed that all of us "chunk" information and that if the information is organized in categories no larger than 9, but preferably ~5 chunks, memory is best served.

A related find - which I learned in a writing course - is about primacy, and recency effect (also known as the serial position effect). These two terms describe how we remember items placed at the beginning and end of an experience, and if we forget some it's likely they will be in the middle. Combining this with Miller's Law and you would say that the bigger the number of items, the more middle to be forgotten.

Originally posted on RonkowitzLLC.com 

Lateral Thinking

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Thinking by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

With all the concern about the pandemic this year, moving courses online and making plans for reopening, I'm afraid that what has been set aside is pedagogy. I did graduate work on a doctorate in pedagogy that I never completed, but it exposed me to a lot of ideas on how we might improve our teaching.

One of the things I learned about some decades ago is lateral thinking developed by Edward de Bono in the 1960s. Lateral thinking fosters unexpected solutions to problems. De Bono believed that we tend to go for the straightforward, and obvious solutions to problems. He encouraged seeking out more oblique, innovative answers.

Lateral thinking is sometimes called “horizontal thinking” as contrasted with vertical thinking. The latter might be defined as going for the first good solution that comes to mind and launch into the details.

Lateral thinking encourages a longer brainstorming session in order to enhance creativity and come up with the most innovative solutions.

There are several lateral thinking techniques: awareness, random stimulation, alternatives, and alteration.

For de Bono, we need to cultivate an awareness of how our minds process information. That is a skill that is very rarely part of any curriculum, and yet moving away from established patterns leads to greater innovation.

Random stimulation is something I have been employing during this pandemic year - and I suspect many readers of this have also - probably unconsciously - done it. Normally, we try to shut out all distractions in order to focus on a task. In lateral thinking, problem-solving improves with some "random" input which often includes information - taking a walk, talking with a colleague or stranger, listening to a podcast, journaling.

At the heart of de Bono's approach is to deliberately consider alternative solutions. That has been described is many ways, including "thinking out of the box." Doing this is not easy for many people. His term, "alteration," can mean using several techniques. You might reverse the relationship between parts of a problem. You might deliberately go in the opposite direction of what’s implied as the correct approach. Sometimes breaking a problem or obvious solution into smaller parts can lead to an alternate mindset about individual parts.

It didn't help the spread of de Bono's theories in academia that he was not a fan of extensive research. He had called research “artificial.” For example, he claimed that “nobody has been able to prove that literature, history or mathematics classes have prepared people for society” - though I think we all believe that they have helped prepare people.

Lateral thinking has its critics, but the basics are sound and I have always thought that incorporating them into classroom activities is a good thing. I have never "taught" de Bono to students, preferring to embed it in activities.