When Professors John Hoberman and Daniel Bonevac sat down with a small development team in January to create two new online courses, the possibilities of “what if” and “could we” electrified the room.
The goal: to deliver 72 hours of traditional coursework in an engaging and interactive format via the Web. Five months later, as the heat of summer and deadline approached and the realities of limited time, resources, and the ever-changing landscape of technology started to set in, someone uttered: “It’s the World Wild West.”
These are digital pioneers of the university’s newest development in a long tradition of technology- enhanced learning. They are moving forward into uncharted territory: an online course that will seek to instruct more than 30,000 students at once from all over the world. Moreover, this MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) is just one of the many directions that the university is heading, including flipped classrooms and SMOCs (Synchronous Massive Online Courses). They are all designed to enhance online and blended learning, often using methods that combine digital with face-to-face interaction.
We can look to the past for models, but it is clear that the time and place for learning is changing. Many faculty members are leading mixed teams of staff and student assistants to experiment with e-learning and explore what will work best with their students both on and off campus.
While online learning isn’t new, it has had a relatively low profile on campus to date. Rapid change is being driven by a convergence of external and internal factors, including advances in streaming video and Web technology, access to mobile devices and the diverse learning styles and expectations of students.
One could argue that educational technology started with papyrus and slates, and that blended learning has been around since the days of educational films and correspondence courses.
“The early days of online education were a bit like the early days of movies where studios essentially filmed a play,” says Sam Gosling, professor of psychology. “Then filmmakers realized, wait a minute, if we don’t have to be in a theater any more, there are all kinds of things we can now do, like set up the cameras at new angles, put the camera on a car, introduce special effects.”
We now live in a world where technology is permeating our everyday lives. Many people cannot spend a day without checking their email or surfing the Internet. New devices, like smart phones and tablets, allow people to use the Internet in new places and ways. Increasingly, students and faculty alike expect constant availability of certain information and transactions online.
For instance, the faculty has been using Blackboard for many years to share course materials and collaborate with students. But even this staple learning management system is about to change. The university has moved to adopt the Canvas system, which offers ways for faculty and students to leverage many different kinds of learning tools such as TEDTalks, Adobe Connect and Piazza, a robust online learning discussion forum. It also allows both students and teachers to record, upload and securely submit video and audio assignments right from their devices. Customizing Canvas is as easy as adding an app to your phone.
It’s becoming clear that one tool is not going to fit all teachers, subjects or students. A variety of approaches will be needed for Web-based and hybrid types of learning.
“Online learning does not have to be expensive or complicated,” says Wen-Hua Teng, a senior lecturer who is developing an online pilot course in Chinese. “If online courses can be designed to be parallel to traditional courses, they would offer a great deal of flexibility to students, especially for those classes of high demand.
“It can help students graduate on time,” Teng adds. “But the challenges and promises go hand in hand; how to deliver the same curriculum and assessment in a traditional classroom and in an online environment needs careful planning and perhaps trial and error.”
The College of Liberal Arts is embarking on offering a new set of online courses, each with a different set of tools and delivery mechanisms best suited for their subjects. Some of these Gateway and Introductory Foreign Language courses have already started, and some will be released over the next few years.
“We have to be innovative, constantly trying new things,” says Jamie Pennebaker, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology who, with Gosling, teaches the online course Psychology 301. “If something doesn’t work, throw it out. The college is working with faculty to rethink models of online learning.”
One way that the college has been providing for this change is through smart classrooms with Internet access and high-quality video projection systems. Classroom consoles have been widely adopted by faculty for enriching course content with visual presentations, videos, and engaging real-time activities such as interactive Web polls—where the results can be displayed immediately to all participants—and lecture capture systems that automatically record classes for students to review outside of class.
Jennifer Ebbeler, an associate professor who teaches Introduction to Ancient Rome, says her best experience is with what she calls a “modified flipped” class model. In the flipped model, teachers record lectures and offer an online forum for students to use outside of class, to leave more time for discussion and in-class activities.
Ebbler used lecture capture tools available in several classrooms that allow faculty to record and share courses with students, who in turn use the recordings for study review. But in the flipped classroom, students are expected to watch all the video outside of regular course meeting hours. The lectures become the homework.
“It was important not to overload students with assigned readings and pre-recorded lectures,” Ebbeler says. “The difficulty was finding a balance between shifting content out of class in order to free up class time for more active learning, and not inciting a rebellion from students who felt that they were being asked to do an excessive amount of work for a non-major class.”
Getting the right balance is a theme that rings throughout technology-enhanced learning. It means redefining the expectations between teacher, student and content, and building new relationships across a variety of face-to-face and digital teaching methods.
“The difficulty was finding a balance between shifting content out of class in order to free up class time for more active learning, and not inciting a rebellion from students who felt that they were being asked to do an excessive amount of work for a non-major class.” — JENNIFER EBBELER, associate professor of classics
Few will dispute the value of face time for student learning, but perhaps one of the biggest benefits of the Internet is the long-distance delivery it provides for those who cannot study on campus.
“Many students do not have access to the diverse array of high-quality courses available at a university like UT Austin,” says Marc Musick, senior associate dean for student affairs in the College of Liberal Arts. “The promise of the online effort is that it will reach Texans and others who currently do not have access to those courses but want it.”
TOWER (Texas Online World of Educational Research) is an online learning methodology that combines a real-time, physical classroom with live video broadcasting that was developed for Psychology 301, an introductory course. While the idea predates the rise of the MOOCs, it can be useful to think of it as a SMOC—a synchronous massive online course. Pennebaker and Gosling taught Psychology 301 as a traditional course together for about seven years before converting it into a SMOC in the fall of 2010.
With the aid of customized technology, the majority of students watch the live class streamed to their computer wherever they are located. They all take benchmark quizzes at the same time, but at places as different as a dorm room or a coffee shop.
The TOWER method is now being repeated in a section of the required American Government 310 course. The preliminary findings are very encouraging, including increased student performance, attendance and a student preference to the system over the use of traditional textbooks and traditional testing strategies. Most interestingly, the TOWER method has reportedly resulted in a leveling effect on student performance across different ethnicities and social classes.
Although still considered a pilot teaching strategy, other promising aspects include an open response tool that analyzes student essays using sophisticated psychometric software, giving students immediate and personalized feedback on their work. It also helps faculty study and understand what kinds of online teaching methodologies really work.
“We are particularly excited about the forthcoming integration of learning with mobile technologies, which can help students monitor their learning habits and track their progress,” Gosling says. “These developments will provide unprecedented access to the behaviors that promote and hinder learning. Again, it’s another example of the value of integrating teaching and research.
“What’s exciting about the approach we are taking is saying okay, now we’re not stuck in a lecture hall, what can we do with technology and the latest findings from the science of learning to improve the effectiveness and reach of education?” he adds. “Our teams are using technology to help build classroom communities, even in very large classes. They are integrating multi-media sources of information. They are using online interaction to allow students to monitor their own progress carefully so they can adjust and build their learning skills appropriately.”
The venerable but worn “sage on the stage” method goes back to the Middle Ages. A professor today, however, is being re-envisioned as a “guide on the side.” But again the question of balance appears: Who is leading the drive toward knowledge? What happens to the role of research in higher education? And what about the critical role of teaching in providing individualized attention to our students?
The answer may lie at the intersection of expertise and adaptive learning technologies. Through collecting student data and looking for patterns, faculty can adopt an evidence-driven instructional practice. Researchers can begin to see what works in learning not only across large groups, but also for individual student progress. Just as Amazon makes suggestions for our books, music and movie selections, learning technologies can help analyze interventions that can help students succeed. Instead of waiting to the end of a course for a test and a grade, the assessment can be built into the course throughout.
“As a language instructor, I have enjoyed the increased interaction with students by using online tools,” says Teng—who has the challenge of teaching a foreign language with very different rules than English—to students of many backgrounds. “The individual attention each student has received would have been impossible in a traditional learning setting. I am of the opinion that technology has great potential in promoting effective language learning.”
Some faculty are already convinced about the value of data-driven teaching.
“As we learn more about how learning works in these different environments, we will be able to better direct students to the model of course delivery (lecture, blended, online) that best suits their learning style and other needs,” Ebbeler says. “The key, though, is rigorous assessment at the course level, and then having ‘big data’ people who can assimilate the data from multiple courses.”
“We cannot afford to treat teaching and educational research as separate entities,” Gosling says. “Instead, they have to be tightly integrated with one another. Just as the new technologies allow students to monitor their progress and improve their learning skills, they also allow educators to monitor the effectiveness of new methods and technologies themselves. That information provides unprecedented data to inform the science of teaching and learning.”
One of the other fronts in online learning is access to quality digital educational materials. Faculty including Carl Blyth, director of the Center for Open Educational Resources in Language Learning (COERLL), have been spearheading the creation of “open educational resources.” They are making, sharing and using community-developed content for teaching both online and in the classroom. The desire for open resources is two-fold: it lowers costs, and it gives faculty more control over their content when compared to teaching from outdated or mass-produced textbooks.
Along these lines, the university has joined with edX, a consortium led by Harvard and MIT, to offer MOOCs to a global audience. Two MOOCs currently being presented by Bonevac and Hoberman, Ideas of the 20th Century and Age of Globalization respectively, are reaching a combined 60,000 students worldwide. Students self-report various reasons for joining, including a basic thirst for learning and knowledge, and access to some of the best education available in the world. The courses are free to anyone with Internet access. After completion they will live on as enhanced e-books, available from major online retailers for a cost of less than $10. The proceeds from these sales are intended to support continued free access to massive online courses.
“There are a number of existing online efforts in Texas and elsewhere,” Musick says. “Many of these efforts will be lower in cost than what we can provide, but we also expect that our quality will be much higher than these low-cost alternatives.
“Given these existing forces, we must be realistic about our chances of succeeding in this environment,” he adds. “With enough time, energy and other resources we can be successful in delivering a wide array of high-quality courses.”
As the university continues to develop strategies to adapt and shape the future, individual professors will continue to pilot innovative technology to enhanced learning methods.
“The most important thing to keep in mind about online learning is that it is not homogenous,” Ebbeler says. “There is no one model of online learning. Online learning isn’t bad or good. It’s simply a different learning environment, with different challenges than the campus classroom. The important thing is that we understand how to design and deliver high-quality online courses for our students.”