E-Learn 2011: day 1 keynote

I’m sitting here listening to Barbara Means giving the keynote on blended learning in K-12 in the US at E-Learn 2011. The audience is a little thin on the ground this morning as the conference is in Waikiki this year. The people on the beach missed a wonderful traditional chant and greeting – wonderful.

Barbara is telling us that, in meta-studies and in quasi-experimental studies, blended learning is equally or (often) more successful than face to face equivalents. And, the second point, as she observes, is that course completion rates are lower, of course (so the ones that survive are better). For the latter insight it is reasonable to consider the ‘e’ element of it – one absolutely distinctive feature of online learning is that it is much easier to ignore, so less motivated or well-organised students or those who have not learned online learning skills are at a disadvantage (something Barbera rightly observes). For the former, it is not at all.

The problem with these kinds of studies is a failure to understand and cater for the nature of the technologies they are examining. If we are looking at outcomes, it is almost nothing to do with whether people use online teaching or not, it’s about how the technologies (notably including pedagogies as well as organisational systems and the physical and virtual systems) fit together and how it all relates to things like motivation, time on task and the passion of the teacher, which together account for a good 80% of the reason for success or failure in most educational interventions. 

It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. A bad teacher is a bad teacher no matter what model is used (though good technologies such as sensible pedagogies, amongst others, can reduce the harm), while a good teacher, as long as the physical and organisational constraints are not too limiting, is good no matter what model is used. Technics matter, but caring, art, sensitivity and skill matter more. Good teachers can and often do use bad pedagogies and other bad technologies and yet they still succeed. Similarly, teaching things that people want to learn, when they want to learn them is more useful than almost any other factor. 

Some interesting insights into what happens when technologies are incompatible – like insane state legislation requiring students to sit in class when there is nothing for them to do there because they are working online, or when students learn to learn using one technology but no one notices that the same approach doesn’t work when you use another. Inevitably, she is talking about flipping the classroom (a trendy name for what good face-to-face teachers have done for millenia) with some encouraging stats to suggest that an approach of teaching rather than telling is becoming more fashionable as a result.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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