Thursday, May 30, 2013

tipping points: 12 ideas for moving from correspondence to relevance in distributed learning

Today I came across an intriguing blog post called Tipping Point by Doug Smith at He highlights the issue of students ditching regular school to get higher grades through distance education via online courses (also called Distributed Learning or DL). After chatting with Janet Steffenhagen about this topic and putting voice to some ideas that have been floating around in my brain for some time, I thought I'd respond to Doug's post with a post of my own. With the BC Edplan pushing more online learning, I think it is important that we give this subject critical attention and not put the cart before the horse, so to speak -- let's get our online learning to meet ambitious goals and quality checks before we push it on students.

I would echo some of Doug Smith's concerns as I've seen them play out in Northern BC. Alongside my "normal" teaching job I've also marked correspondence for the Central Interior Distance Education School and have designed some Distributed Learning (DL) materials and an online course. While DL programs vary dramatically across our province in terms of quality and style, I can only speak about the one I know, and then only with the particular courses with which I've been involved. Students up here enrol for a variety of reasons, although I'd rank "because it was a better fit" and "because I'd exhausted conventional avenues" above the grade fixing motives mentioned in Doug Smith's post. We get many DL students who have failed at school and need the credit, have worn out their welcome in mainstream or alternate programs, live in a rural communities or attend small schools where a particular course is not offered, want extra credits to graduate early, are avoiding regular school for personal, health, or philosophic reasons (e.g. homeschoolers), use distance education to compliment a special program (like our PacificSport elite athlete school), or are adult learners looking to upgrade. And yes, we get a few who see DL as a quicker, sometimes better way to get a course grade that might be unobtainable at their default school.

Our success rates for students who register are not great, far lower than brick-and-mortar schools, somewhere in the 20% range according to the last info I got (anyone who knows, feel free to correct me), but higher for electives and higher for students who complete the first quarter of the course (they tend to keep on to the end). Having marked thousands of Social Studies correspondence papers over the years, there are definitely two camps -- students for whom DL is remedial (for both behavioural and academic reasons), and students who need the DL because they've designed an alternate path towards graduation. Camp A generally struggles, and finds the material boring or tricky to navigate. Camp B generally takes whatever we throw at them and finds a way to make it meaningful. There is probably a third camp of students who apply for any of the reasons above, try the registration assignment and maybe one or two more, and decide is is not their cup of tea -- this is likely the biggest factor influencing success rates.

The problem as I've seen it in my context is that many of our courses are out of date and lack pedagogical integrity. Most of the coursework is still delivered as stacks of paper -- volumes of hand-delivered reading and practice activities (that most students do not read or complete), and very thin assignments that are designed to be assessed in a few minutes by a contract marker (like myself), then couriered back to the DL school for checking, then couriered back to students. The marked assignments contain so many "freebies" -- fill-in-the-blanks, matching, closed questions -- that it is hard to fail, even when the work is incomplete. Most students skip right past the practice sections and rip through the send-in portions in a fraction of the time intended by the course designers. I routinely mark paper after paper where students have not really done anything other than complete worksheets and yet get full credit (high marks) for meeting learning outcomes. There is no differentiation in the marked work between tasks that sets the stage for deeper learning, and meaningful performances by students to demonstrate proficiency with learning intentions. These assignments are punctuated with tests that focus on recall and repeat many of the questions from the reading packages. Online courses, often set up on a "Moodle" platform, fall into the same trap, but now adding layers of logins, inboxes, file management, and self-marking tests to the basic idea of “correspondence, ” although they do allow the possibility of analytics and updating the course material (something done maybe once every 10 years with the paper packages). These courses nominally address prescribed learning outcomes, that is, they "cover" them, but would not pass any reasonable audit that looked at educational design, student experience, or a matching of learning intentions to assessed outcomes. In short, we've filled a gap, namely the need for some DL courses for special students, but we're not doing our best work.

The result? Too many of our DL courses fast-track the learning process, offering easy paths to completion, and have built-in barriers that prevent a fluid assessment of deep understanding. We’ve taken the worst part of “brick-and-mortar” education -- batch processing, piles of worksheets and textbook questions, transmission -- and made this the mode of DL delivery. We’ve taken the best of classroom learning -- interaction, give-and-take on the daily work, humour and personality -- and replaced them with dry digital tools or just dropped them altogether. The DL experience for most students is disembodied, impersonal, and unchallenging. This is not a criticism of our DL or Alt school staff, for I know and respect many of them and the work they do with students, many of whom are at-risk and marginal, and they often have intense caseloads with no allotted time for course revisions. Rather,  this is an analysis of our default approach to DL design, at least 30 years in the making. It is difficult to get the attention of everyone needed to make needed changes, and virtually no budgets exist for new course construction or project development. The teachers who have tried to make their courses more dynamic and interactive have done so largely off the sides of their desks. I believe the current paper and digital models are cost-neutral or even profitable (funding exceeds costs), so that will also hold up change. It seems we need a perfect storm at times to break the status quo. It should be noted that every teacher I have met at our local DL school would love to sink more time into course improvement, but the structure (time, money, mandate to wipe the slate clean where needed) is not there.

I think there has been wide recognition in BC that blended learning and certain kinds of flipped classrooms can take the best of online learning and face-to-face learning and create great learning environments. The problems is that there is still a need for distance-based DL coursework. Some schools and districts have even made these a requirement, e.g. offering the mandatory Planning 10 only as a DL course (thus easily bumping up their reported numbers of DL students). What we need in BC are new positive models for taking DL out of the correspondence paradigm and unleashing hands-on, personalized, embodied, inquiry and project-based learning. These are approaches that are difficult in regular classrooms where we are trying to "manage" 24-30 kids at a time, but they are naturals for students who have freedom of time, movement, and resource selection. We need to leverage the fact that students are not bound by classroom walls and teacher with very specific tasks at hand.

What would this take?
  1. Design
  2. - to start, it wouldn't hurt for our DL schools to actually read and assess the DL design documents the Ministry of Education recommends for course development. I've got reservations about some of the underlying assumptions, but they are an improvement over the design principles at play in most correspondence courses I've ever seen.  Naturally, if a DL school wanted to act on these design guidelines, they need time to sort this out and co-create new approaches.
  3. Initiative - DL teachers could start replacing module packages with inquiry projects involving student design for field study, interviews, multimodal expression, and self-assessment. Our papers reflect the "transmission" paradigm, transfer of knowledge, and pre-judge that our students have limited ability to ask questions on their own or can structure research plan. This isn't for every DL student, but it should at least be one of the course paths they can take. 
  4. Choice - students should not have "practice work" and "send-in work," they should have guided choices to make about how they want to explore learning outcomes and everything they do towards this end should either be placed in a portfolio or represented in some way for interaction with an audience (parent, teacher, marker, other students, etc.). We can certainly make suggestions, but the students should be picking the apps to see this through, if they want to go digital at all. Many do not want more technology -- they are already saturated. 
  5. Interaction - we need more practice and support with safe and appropriate social media and collaborative Web 2.0 tools to better provide interaction for both students and educators, going beyond webquests and virtual field trips to actually explore what "voice" looks like in synchronous and asynchronous settings. Having a loaner program to compliment a BYOD policy also helps. 
  6. Go Global - use TED, iTunes U, MOOCs, learning repositories, digital learning commons, and external online courses as a casual backdrop to more personal and focused connection with a local DL school could keep student-teacher ratios down and place the student in a learning space that acknowledges that knowledge is not confined to schools. Move from canned, text-based courses to learning plans that blend student inquiry, teacher oversight/formative intervention, and completely open resources. When online learning replaces real connection, the result is superficiality (just google Khan Academy criticism to find out why), but digital spaces are undeniably powerful and need to play a role... I'm using one now!
  7. Orientation - we should be setting up face-to-face bootcamps for self-regulation and DL-appropriate study skills. The root cause of failure for most DL students is the inability to handle the isolation and unguided nature of the coursework. If we're going to turn the teacher into a case manager, the least we can do is shore up student skills at independent learning.
  8. Multiple Paths - students should be able to cut straight to the critical thinking, to the embodied learning, to the application of skills, and skip past busywork if they show they are ready (we currently have no way of determining this in a DL course). Instead of students completing 4 modules out of 4 and writing 4 tests, maybe students should do 3 modules out of 6 and then move into comprehensive project-based learning or portfolio development.
  9. Social/Cohort Learning - we should see more experimenting with staggered intakes and DL cohorts; maybe students take core curriculum in a class or online course, and then complete the rest of the course in a group that uses a DL structure to guide inquiry and provide virtual meeting spaces (this would technically be blended learning, but could accommodate strictly "distance" students).
  10. Direct Experience - students should be able to skip the technology (or use different kinds of technology than we typically supply or recommend) and just try stuff out or learn by doing. I know the word "voucher" will make many readers clench up, but what's the harm in imagining a few learning spaces the way Christopher Alexander et al did in A Pattern Language. A DL teacher is perfectly poised to guide this process, vet the opportunities, and, alongside parents, ensure safety.
  11. Scaled Spaces - this leads to the need for school sites that are in-between what we see now: DL hubs (that many DL students will not visit) and classroom factories (that still meet the needs of most students and especially parents -- it is an efficient model, after all). I'm thinking about guild-like spaces that allow or require students to drop in for regular check-ins with a caring teacher, formative assessments, guest speakers or itinerant teachers, and portfolio presentations. This might be a way to dial up or down the "blended" aspect of distance and online learning, and could be a school-saving model for small and rural populations that are forced to look at DL education systems due to our provincial funding model and their demographics.
  12. Community focus - we need to rethink roles for parental involvement -- DL does allow parents to be more involved with students' work at home, but they don't get to celebrate the same way "schooled" parents to with recitals and open presentations. Getting teachers to blog about student success is also needed in the DL world... very tough when there is so little sustained contact. Students are already dialed in (often detrimentally) to a community that includes family, friends, and an entire community that peers in on their learning. Let's make that less dysfunctional and redeem real and digital spaces by wedging in family and community celebration -- turn some of students' angst-ridden energy into meaningful identity work.
  13. Decentralize - we also need to see that DL courses need not be the purview of stand-alone DL schools. The best way to experiment with blended, flipped class, and online/distance learning reform is not to force a DL school to "get with the 21st century," it is to support teachers and administrators wherever they are and whenever they express an interest in trying out new ideas. You can't put a system price on that commodity -- willing educators' unique skills, expertise, and enthusiasm fed by real student needs in real contexts. This trumps all the top-down reform models I've ever seen. Giving a classroom teacher (or a small group of teachers) the chance to run one or two DL courses ensures sanity and keeps the experience fresh -- our DL teachers often suffer from the isolation and large caseloads that come with the present model. Spreading DL across a district means that the best pedagogy follows the passion, and that the leadership is distributed.
This last point reminds us that DL reform should not be done to save money or increase student-teacher ratios, unless the goal is sabotage.  It is also worth noting that most of these recommendations are not new -- our district, for example, had a working group on this topic from 2003-05.

Anyways, there are hundreds of ideas out there for making DL work, we just need to permission to try some out, a willingness to make mistakes (couldn't be much worse than what we are dong now), and some protocols around reviewing success so that it doesn't end up a gong show. We need to get better at celebrating and replicating practices that makes sense; I suppose I paint a gloomy picture but there are certainly some local and many provincial exceptions to the old-school "correspondence" rules. A few years ago I designed a whole DL course around the "unbound student" (interviews, field research, multimodality, portfolios, student design and choice, embedded inquiry, etc.), but having turned it over to other DL schools to administer, I have no idea how it is being used, if at all. I'm taking a second stab at it with a blended learning program next year, so I can test some of my theories with real students.

I would encourage our DL schools, local and provincial, to communicate more about what they are doing that is working and beef up the kinds of collaborations that are necessary for DL to step out of the "correspondence" shadows. I believe that DL (along with Alternate Ed programs) is one of the best places to experiment with 21st Century Learning. I'd love to hear from other DL teachers and administrators about their ideas and success stories for making DL engaging, challenging, and not an escape hatch for students looking for easy credit. Feel free to comment or email me about it. If nothing else I can pass on your insight to our local DL school principal.

I found another interesting post on this topic by BC teacher Brad Wilson at The article, DL Credentialism, describes how DL "pulls students out of an engaging and challenging learning environment into one that is perceived by the student as easier and less challenging." An unsettling and provocative read.

Through a great twitter conversation with the folks mentioned in my blog post, the topic also came up of auditing Distributed Learning schools and courses. Whether this is a BC-wide review or a series of local program evaluations, what would the focus be? To start, we should be inquiring about student experience (e.g. opportunities for interaction with other students and the teacher), teacher caseload & contract contexts, fidelity to curriculum (including ratio of higher-level and inclusion of domains), benchmarks (whether "pure" or related to face-to-face learning), basic questions about the goals, purpose, methods (and seeking stakeholder input on how these are being met), and finally, perhaps most importantly, do students get actual value in what they are learning & the assessment they receive?

I have also been made aware that there is, in fact, some ways for DL schools to be accountable for the quality of the course they offer. The BC Ministry of Education requires DL schools to adhere to a number of guidelines and makes quality reviews available. If these were applied to my local context, it would make a very positive difference. I'm guessing that at some point the Ministry signed off on what happens here, but I'm also guessing that was a long time ago and did not include a quality review.  Educators Michael Barbour and Bonnie Jeansonne are good resources on this topic.


Education Advocacy in and out of School said...

You make good suggestions to make DL better. However to implement them would take commitment and resources plus on-going auditing to make sure the quality we need is there. BCED has a track record of announcing impressive projects and then under funding them to the point that they become ineffective at best or liabilities to real education at worst.

We have the technology to do all these things plus the people. But it seems the nature of the bureaucratic and political system we live in now is flawed to the point that success is far from guaranteed.

I think this flaw is world wide and part of the human condition now. We have the technology to make pipelines safe, yet they seem to break all the time. The Japanese had the technology to make Fukushima safe, but to cut costs they did not. I think the managers of BCED are no wiser than the executives at Enbridge or Tokyo Electric.

Brad Wilson

Anonymous said...

I continue to be struck by the remarkably reductive binary that is positioned and thickening between DL and traditional learning, when there is more convergence than not as time moves on. Comments would make it appear that DL and campus-based learning is fundamentally different; or else that each bastion is doing the same thing within their distinct iron walled realm. NOT! There are innovative campus schools who blend, flip and de-school (just as there are innovative teachers). By the same token, there are DL schools doing things much differently than one another, including day-school, campus-based learning; I suspect there is a wider standard deviation in DL than is observed in the press as well, both in terms of course writing (approaches to learning) and grade distributions.

My point is that we appear to be employing the usual (historical) antipathy tactics against something we do not really understand very well, which hardly speaks to the aggregate of BC teachers being very progressive at all. This culture war in learning, if anything, does not promote confidence in BC's teachers, but makes them appear backward, fearful, fundamentalist and naive. Let's find a way to work together and take lead as a jurisdiction, rather than peddling these half-truths and hunches that only expose the lack of insight and innovation within our otherwise exciting profession. There is much good going on in today's learning. Let's celebrate it. If we have concerns, let's have healthy discourse and stop politicizing what we fear (usually out of self interest and not that of learning). Learning is changing. Are we? I fear this greater issue exposes BC teachers as not being lifelong learners, but complainers. The press (and such blogs) have an underlying negative, suspicious tone. Where is the hope? Our kids have it. Maybe they should be teaching us?

Thielmann said...

Thanks for your comment. I think you'll see the binary dissolves when blended learning hits it's stride. There is no reason why BC shouldn't see a full spectrum of practices from F2F to fully online, but we can't shy away from basic questions about whether they are working, including F2F. I see the culture war you refer to, but I don't think it is because either side is naïve, although there are definitely agendas at work, including a corporate agenda that has influenced (and not entirely negatively) the foundation of the BC Edplan. There is plenty of insight throughout the spectrum, because educational philosophy is not an application of single theories, it is an integrated process full of compromises, almost as complicated as society itself.

I'm a bit confused, does my blog come across as lacking insight or peddling hunches and half-truths? Or do you mean something else (examples would be helpful)? My "insights" are based on 14 years of marking Distance Ed coursework and building online learning objects, devloping an entire online course from start to finish, consulting with the local DL school, mentoring SFU students in a Teaching/Learning with technology program, part of blended learning pilot, etc. These are not hunches, but expert observations, and ones I wish I did not have to make because I wish it was all good.

I agree that there is lots to celebrate in BC learning. I had a chance to see some if this at the 2012 BCED leadership conference. This does not erase problems that stare us in the face, especially, for me, problems that I have continuously noted and discussed locally for 11 years). I try to focus more on local concerns than provincial ones (less generalizations that way), and I set a high priority on offering solutions to match critiques. Please let me know if I'm missing something, or if there is a good news story about DL that I should read.