Vicarious learning

If we think that tutorials and seminars are an important part of the campus based learning experience, then how to we replace these when we are designing and delivering online courses? One way might be to use virtual classroom software such as BigBlueButton or Adobe Connect, or  to organise a Google Hangout, but this sort of solution is far from ideal if what you are trying to do is to mimic the F2F experience.  Before opting for something like this, educational designers need to think about:

  1. Scheduling. Is the course going to attract international learners? If so, then what time zones are participants going to be coming from? A recent MOOC I participated in had all of its synchronous activities at midnight in my time zone. I know that some folk will choose to stay up late/get up in the middle of the night to participate, but is it reasonable to expect participants to do this? How would you feel if you were paying for a distance course and part of the activities were at times when it was inconvenient/impossible to attend? What will you do if there is no time that all participants can be expected to be available?  What if the best time for participants is the middle of the night for your educators?
  2. Technology. How are you going to ensure that all participants have access to computers that are able to access the technology you are expecting them to use? How are you going to help them to troubleshoot when they have problems accessing the software? What about participants who have problems with bandwidth or firewalls? You can try to stipulate about minimum requirements, but how will you support learners who do not take heed of your advice?
  3. Scale. How many learners are you anticipating? If this is going to be more than about 10-15 (and in the age of the MOOC it could be a lot more than that) then are you going to be able to offer synchronous tutorials or seminars for everyone? This could turn into a logistical nightmare.

There will be other issues as well, but I see these as the main ones.  You might think at this point that it is going to be, if not impossible, then incredibly difficult to incorporate a tutorial or seminar type activity into your course design.  Well, maybe – but if you look to the educational literature you might find a way.

I think that the vital questions to ask when designing online/distance learning experiences are things like:

Should we be trying to translate learning experiences for online and distance learning, or is the ambition to transform learning?

And a related question that might help us to think about how to do this would be something like:

What are we trying to mimic and why?

Yesterday I read a paper by Micky Chi that rocked my world. Steve Draper’s referred to it many, many times, so I was familiar with the rough findings of her research – but I had not appreciated the detail. The conclusion is that pairs of students who collaborate with each other and watch a recording of a F2F tutorial of a tutor and tutee learn just as much as the tutee in the F2F tutorial. 

I’d recommend you read the whole paper which, as Steve says,  is long and contains a lot of important stuff. But here’s what she did in brief.

She noted that learning from F2F tutoring is the most beneficial learning design for students, followed by learning by peer collaboration. Because “human tutoring” is costly to scale up, she designed research in order to gain a better understanding of why F2F tutoring is so beneficial and try to identify an alternative (scaleable) learning environment. Could learning by observing be optimised in some way? (The active/constructive/interactive learning hypothesis.)

She took a group of 70 undergraduate physics students who were educated to roughly the same education and grades and allocated them to different groups:

  • 10 Tutees: these received 1-1 F2F tutoring to solve a set of problems.
  • 20 Collaborative Observers: these watched  recordings of the F2F tutorials and worked together to solve the same problems as the tutees.
  • 20 Collaborators: these did not watch the recordings, but collaborated on the same problems together.
  • 10 Lone Observers: these watched the recordings and tried to solve the problems alone.
  • 10 Solo Solvers: these did not watch the recordings, but tried to solve the problems alone.

The same tutor was used for all the tutorials. Chi spends some time talking about her hypotheses, the research design and the analysis of the effectiveness of each design which I will not go into here.

The findings were surprising. Not only did the Collaborative Observers learn better that the collaborators, the lone observers and the solo solvers, but:

Collaborative Observers could learn as well as the Tutees who participated in tutoring suggest[ing] that this can be accounted for by the interactions of the Collaborative Observers per se, without interacting directly with a tutor. (Chi 2008 p336)

So here’s a thing. If you want to replicate the benefits of 1-1 F2F tutoring for online learners, you can do this just as effectively by getting them to watch recordings together and collaborate on solving the problems as by giving them individual tutorials. You don’t need to use virtual classroom software, with all the challenges that brings, all you need is to host the recordings of the tutorials in a place that students can access them, and some collaborative authoring software such as Google Docs (with maybe a phone line or a Skype account) in order for students to work as Collaborative Observers.

Not only will this solve a lot of the issues that I raised above, but the learning will be more effective. That has to be worth exploring.

For a related point, see Niall’s post on evaluating an online conference system

flickr photo by Bill Gracey shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

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