Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Pedagogical Issues

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 29, 1998

Posted to WWWDEV on 30 Mar 1998

[ Apologies for bad quotes below - Pegasus email software clips messages sent from your client. Also apologies to Rik for the length, though he should know by now that I work over an issue from all sides before sending it as a post. ;) ]

Christie Mason writes,
I'm in danger of having the shortest subscription in listserv history. I'm a newbie to the list and I'm very, very sorry...

First of all, I don't think anyone will boot you off the list for raising these questions. We are all I think deeply interested in effective learning, and I think we as a group understand the importance of both pedagogy and technology.

Addressing the technological questions first: a great deal of discussion has occurred on this list and elsewhere about effective interface design. I refer in part to my own efforts, but also to the submissions made on behalf of the East-West Group and other standards bodies which have emerged.

As well, I think many of us are familiar with authors and sites which discuss good design methodology in general. For those of you unfamiliar with the resources, let me recommend in particular Glenn Davis's "Project Cool" site ( and David Siegal's resources (, among others.

I try to be silent, but doesn't anyone read your own thesis on what is/will be learning by 2008?

These are tough questions. There is no clear consensus on what will be required in 2008. I think there are certain standard elements of knowledge which will not be out of date, but in the more specialized disciplines, especially at higher educational levels, technological and social development will probably outpace pedagogy.

In my own mind, the best approach to a rapidly changing learning environment is to build adaptive systems. By adaptive systems, what I mean are systems which can, by making use of existing resources, be adapted to the changing educational climate.

Equally significant are questions concerning the where and how of distance learning. Here is where technology and pedagogy merge. Web-based educators understand that there will be increased demand for training at home and in the workplace. They also understand that there will be increased demand for customized educational offerings, both by corporate clients who wish to provide on-the-job training, and by individuals, who wish to pursue a specialized course of study.

Advantages/disadvantages of the academic "teaching" mode info from the 1930's and 1960's and now?

This discussion has been conducted more on DEOS-L (to which many of us subscribe) than here (and no doubt Rik will send a "gentle reminder" asking us to keep it there *grin*). In my mind, however, this subject again merges with technological issues. A case in point:

In the early days of on-line education (like, last year ;)) many institutions adapted asynchronous conferencing programs such as First Class or Lotus Notes, or synchronous conferencing programs, such as MUDs, MOOs or IRC, to deliver online learning. These educators - in my mind - were attempting to employ technology to emulate the typical classroom environment, the one many of us experienced in our own education.

In my mind, this approach was inappropriate. Not because conferencing is bad - indeed, I would argue that conferencing is essential - but because such systems are strongly teacher-centred. In my opionion, especially given the power and flexibility of the technology before us, it was a mistake to centre all responsibility for course design and delivery on the instructor. And my own experience shows that, due to the increased demands of the technology, this approach also leads to significant teacher burn-out.

The point here is that the pedagogy developed for the classroom is not going to migrate directly to online learning. This is a lesson distance educators learned directly through their years of work with teleconferencing and other methodologies. But when you change teaching methodology, there is a significant concern about the quality of instruction that results. This is why many educators attempted to quantify the results. The result was the "No Significant Difference" phenomenon - a series of studies which show that learning in distance mode was as effective as learning in the traditional academic mode See for the studies.

Who's paying/investing for what? Who's your client? Corporate America? Gen X? Better investigate what THEY think are the DISadvantages of the present educational/presentation systems.

This is a sensitive area, especially for educators, and I would like to tread carefully here. But that said, I can't afford not to be blunt.

Typically, the people who are paying for the educational system have no idea what constitutes good pedagogy. It is therefore with extreme caution that we must follow their recommendations.

As a previous respondant to your post noted, people without experience in the field often propose simple solutions to complex issues. This is not unique to the field of education - it occurs in just about every discipline. And I have argued on this list in previous posts *why* wimple solutions are not to be trusted. To summarize: educators deal with a varied client base, in varied circumstances, with varied desired outcomes. Given such variation in the task, it should not be surprising that methodology and pedagogy would be complex, to accommodate such variability.

Moreover, we ought to question the right of the person paying for the education to determine the outcome of that education. Quite often, the person paying and the person learning are two different people. For example, in Canada, the government pays (for the most part), and the student learns. The government has certain social objectives it would like to meet. But satisfying these social objectives cannot be the sole criterion for success. It is important that the needs and wants of the student also be considered in the equation. Often, these are at odds with each other.

And this tension only increases when corporations become involved in educational funding. Corporations have even more clearly defined objectives, and often attempt to incorporate them into the learning process. An example of this is Coca Cola's recent sponsoring of a contest in Georgia schools. Schools and students were asked to help devise a means of distributing promotional materials. This sounds harmless enough, however, one student was suspended for wearing a Pepsi t-shirt. And I have to ask, were the corporation's objectives so important in this matter that it warranted imposing an academic penalty on the student? Is the purpose of an educational system to produce product loyalty in its students? I don't think so - and to the extent that it is not, is the extent to which we must carefully weigh corporate and other funders' objectives when judging pedagogy.

THEY don' care about leanred references. They want proven, quantifiable results and skill/reality/paycheque enhancements.

I think that the first comment which ought to be made here is that the "learned references" *are* the proof. But that said:

I am sympathetic with the tenor of this comment. There is a presumption in academia that only certain types of presentations constitute effective research, and specifically, only reviewed papers in accredited journals constitute research. In my opinion, this assumption is wrong-headed because it places the discussion of learning into a closed system, one in which, for the most part, only those with the right papers need apply.

This places academics at a disadvantage. The research-publication system is slow to respond to change. It is narrow in it's point of view. And it dismisses as frivolous much quality work in this and other fields. As a case in point, *this* article will not likely be considered or cited by researchers in online education. I have been asked many times where my posts are published, the presumption being, only if they are published will they be relevant.

In a similar manner, treatises on this or that subject in academia tend to be dismissed if they do not contain the appropriate number of citations themselves. Part of this is the requirement of giving credit where credit is due for previously described ideas. But most of it has to do with giving an otherwise unremarkable document the weight of authority. In my own work, I cite only those works to which I am directly responding. I trust the reader to determine whether I have read and considered other material relevant in the field. Where otherwise I refer, I refer only because I feel the information in the citations is useful or important to the reader. I do not cite works in order to lend authority to my own. My work stands or falls on its own, however small, merit.

But all of that said: it would be foolish to dismiss work simply because it is published in an academic format. And I think that at least some of the two-hundred odd studies stand on their own merits. If there is a systematic fault with these studies, it is not identified merely by pointing to the academic nature of the papers.

skill/reality/paycheque enhancements

This list proposes three goals of a pedagogy. We need to ask two questions: first, is this list complete and exhaustive? And second, how do we measure these goals?

At the very beginning of such an analysis, I think we would have to recognize that the three stated goals are not conjunctive, that it, it is not necessary, for a given individual, that *all* three goals be satisfied in order for education to have met its objectives. For some students, the purpose of an education is only to improve one's paycheque, and while this is often realized by means of increased skills, the product of increased skills is a means, not an ends. I think for example of a focus group workshop I attended a few years ago. I had no desire to learn how to conduct a focus group, since I consider focus groups to be an inappropriate research methodology, however, I did value the eventual pay increase which would be the outcome of such training.

If these goals are thus disjunctive (that is, we can satisfy one *or* another *or* another), then clearly a fourth criterion must be added: some methodology for choosing between goals. Do you think it was inappropriate for me to disregard the skills developed in the focus group workshop? If so, then on what grounds would you criticize my educational objective as a student. It is not enough simply to point out that you paid for my class. You need to show how *your* interests in this matter outweigh *mine*.

As we turn to the question of measuring such results, things get muddier still. For example, it would seem at first blush to be easy to measure increased paycheques. But paycheques are not in a clear way proportional to education. As it turns out, I did receive a pay increase after my focus group workshop. But my pay increase was the result of a union settlement, not my attendance at the workshop. It is necessary to demonstrate a cause-effect relationship between education and paycheque; simple correlation will not do. But this is difficult. This is why we rely on academic studies. The same sort of methodology which shows a relation between smoking and cancer we think should show a relation, if any exists, between specific educational practises and pay increases.

And that's the easy one. How could we possibly measure one's improved understanding of reality?

And Rik is now asking: what the $%#%$# does this have to do with WWWDEV (well, he wouldn't word it that way, because Rik is a very polite and respectful man). My answer:


Rob Helmick's defense of RealEducation, quoted below, is a defense against accustaions that RealEducation uses a cookie-cutter methodology in course design and delivery. This charge is at least prima facie warranted because of the volume and speed with which RealEducation produces educational resources. It is a reasonable charge. There is much more to designing on-line education than designing a set of standard course-building routines.

This is a challenge which faces other course builders. The designers of WebCT, Vurtual U and TopClass all face exactly these same problems. I remember sitting in on a Virtual U development workshop at Simon Fraser. The question was, how do you develop learning materials (in this case, case-study generators) without assuming one or another paryicular pedagogy or methodology. The short answer, in my mind, is that you don't. This is the really big serious problem I have with the three products just described.

Most people who subscribe to this list have followed the other approach: individualized course design. This is what they do at Maryland, where dozens of courses have been designed on a course-by-course basis by individual instructors. But this approach has its flaws as well. The courses often heavily depend on a particular individual, such that, should that individual become incapacitated, the course is no longer usable. Additionally, such courses, while having a very short shelf life (as everything does online), are very difficult to revise. And they take a long time to construct, since each component must be build from scratch.

In my mind, *THE* big issue in online course development is this: how do we speed up the process of course design and developement, in order to keep costs and other resource use down, and to produce courses in a timely manner, without sacrificing the very important individual contributions of the instructor and the varied needs of students and other client groups? It is exactly this question which led to the formulation of my own Assiniboine Model; we launch our first courses using the model Monday and I'll let list members know how it turned out in the months ahead.

As for RealEducation: I too would like to see the White Papers they mention. I would also like to see the system itself. But I am not prepared to spend mega-bucks to do it (in fact, I'm not prepared to spend anything to do it). The perception of members on this list, I think, is that RealEducation has talked a lot over the last year or so (correction: they have talked a LOT), but they have not shown any tangible results, anecdotal or otherwise, to prove that their methodology solves the problem just described. I think this is a fair criticism. And it is not a criticism based on a preference for a certain type of study, or an academic snobbiness, but rather, something more earthy: we want to see the pudding.

And that, don't you think, is a fair request.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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