This is the fifth of five posts on choosing modes of delivery for Chapter 10 of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.
The previous four posts were:
- Deciding on modes of delivery and the continuum of technology based learning
- Challenging the supremacy of face-to-face teaching
- Mode of delivery: Learners as a determining factor
- Desperately seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of face-to-face teaching
So now we come to the denouement! (Exciting, eh!). In this post (spoiler alert) I will suggest a methodology and a set of questions to ask in order to reach a decision for any particular course or program.
A suggested method for deciding between online and face-to-face delivery on solely pedagogic grounds
The standard work on this is by Dietmar Kennepohl, of Athabasca University (Kennepohl, 2010). I have drawn heavily on his work here, although the example given is mine.
The most pragmatic way to go about this is to trust the knowledge and experience of subject experts who are willing to approach this question in an open-minded way, especially if they are willing to work with instructional designers or media producers on an equal footing. So here is a process for determining when to go online and when not to, on purely pedagogical grounds, for a course that is being designed from scratch in a blended delivery mode.
I will choose a subject area at random: haematology (the study of blood), in which I am not an expert. But here’s what I would suggest if I was working with a subject specialist in this area:
Step 1: identify the main instructional approach.
This is discussed in some detail in Chapters 3 to 4, but here are the kinds of decision to be considered:
This should lead to a general plan or approach to teaching that identifies the teaching methods to be used in some detail. In the example of haematology, the instructor wants to take a more constructivist approach, with students developing a critical approach to the subject matter. In particular, she wants to relate the course specifically to certain issues, such as security in handling and storing blood, factors in blood contamination, and developing student skills in analysis and interpretation of blood samples.
Step 2. Identify the main content to be covered
and in particular any presentational requirements of the content, i.e. what do they need to know in this course? In haematology, this will mean understanding the chemical composition of blood, what its functions are, how it circulates through the body, what external factors may weaken its integrity or functionality, etc. In terms of presentation, dynamic activities need to be explained, and representing key concepts in colour will almost certainly be valuable. Observations of blood samples under many degrees of magnitude will be essential, i.e. the use of a microscope.
Step 3. Identify the main skills to be developed during the course
what they must be able to do with the content they are learning. This will probably include the ability to analyse the components of blood, such as the glucose and insulin levels, to interpret the results, and to present a report.
Let’s call Steps 2 and 3 the key learning objectives for the course.
Step 4: Analyse the most appropriate mode for each learning objective
Then create a table as in Figure 10.6.3
In this example, the instructor is keen to move as much as possible online, so she can spend as much time as possible with students, dealing with laboratory work and answering questions about theory and practice. She was able to find some excellent online videos of several of the key interactions between blood and other factors, and she was also able to find some suitable graphics and simple animations of the molecular structure of blood which she could adapt, as well as creating with the help of a graphics designer her own graphics. Indeed, she found she had to create relatively little new material or content herself.
The instructional designer also found some software that enabled students to design their own laboratory set-up for certain elements of blood testing which involved combining virtual equipment, entering data values and running an experiment. However, there were still some skills that needed to be done hands-on in the laboratory, such as inserting glucose and using a ‘real’ microscope to analyse the chemical components of blood. However, the online material enabled the instructor to spend more time in the lab with students.
This is a crude method of determining the balance between face-to-face teaching and online learning for a blended learning course, but it least it’s a start. A similar kind of process was used in the early days of the Open University, when science faculty worked with BBC producers and instructional designers to decide between the use of text, audio, television, home experimental kits and a compulsory residential campus-based laboratory component for the foundation science program. The desired content and skills were identified then allocated across the different media. Because the residential component was the most expensive and the least flexible for students, the aim was to move as much as possible to the other modes, in order to keep to a minimum the residential component. This resulted in a highly successful program which won high praise and awards in science teaching at the time. In fact the Open University no longer has a compulsory residential component for its science courses.
10.6.2 Analyse the resources available
There is one more consideration besides the type of learners, the overall teaching method, and making decisions based on pedagogical grounds, and that is to consider the resources available.
This will need to take place in parallel with steps 1-4 above. In particular, the key resource is the time of the instructor. Careful consideration is needed about how best to spend the limited time available to this instructor. It may be all very well to identify a series of videos as the best way to capture some of the procedures for blood testing, but if these videos do not already exist in a format that can be freely used, shooting video specially for this one course may not be justified, in terms of either the time the instructor would need to spend on video production, or the costs of making the videos with a professional crew.
The availability and skill level of learning technology support from the institution will also be a critical factor. Can the instructor get the support of an instructional designer and media producers? If not, it is likely that much more will be done face-to-face than online, unless the instructor is already very experienced in online learning.
Are there resources available to buy out the instructor for one semester to spend time on course design? Many institutions have development funds for innovative teaching and learning, and there may be external grants or creating new open educational resources, for instance. This will increase the practicality and hence the likelihood of more of the teaching moving online.
We shall see that as more and more learning material becomes available as open educational resources, teachers and instructors will be freed up from mainly content presentation to focusing on more interaction with students, both online and face to face. However, although open educational resources are becoming increasingly available, they may not exist in the topics required or they may not be of adequate quality in terms of either content or production standards.
10.6.3 Questions for consideration in choosing modes of delivery
In summary, here are some questions to consider, when designing a course from scratch:
1. What kind of learners are likely to take this course? What are their needs? Which mode(s) of delivery will be most appropriate to these kinds of learners? Could I reach more or different types of learners by choosing a particular mode of delivery?
2. What is my view of how learners can best learn on this course? What is my preferred method(s) of teaching to facilitate that kind of learning on this course?
3. What is the main content (facts, theory, data, processes) that needs to be covered on this course?
4. What are the main skills that learners will need to develop on this course? What are the ways in which they can develop/practice these skills?
5. How can technology help with the presentation of content on this course?
6. How can technology help with the development of skills on this course?
7. When I list the content and skills to be taught, which of these could be taught:
- fully online
- partly online and partly face-to-face
- can only be taught face-to-face?
8. What resources do I have available for this course in terms of:
- professional help from instructional designers and media producers
- possible sources of funding for release time and media production
- good quality open educational resources
9. In the light of the answers to all these questions, which mode of delivery makes most sense?
1. If anyone’s a haematologist out there, first forgive me, then tell me how to make it better. (I chose haematology, because I was asked when giving a presentation how would I apply this method to haematology – I had to think quickly on my feet.)
2. Would this method work for you? If not, how are decisions made in your institution about which mode to use? In particular, would you have to go to an unrealistic level of detail to do this for a whole course?
Open education and open educational resources.
Kennepohl, D. (2010) Accessible Elements: Teaching Science Online and at a Distance Athabasca AB: Athabasca University Press