Rethinking Online Education

I am often asked: “So, how are you different?” For a long time, I didn’t find that question easy to answer. There are, of course, many online learning platforms out there, each offering different courses. But from the outside it is difficult to tell them apart. So my answer would usually evolve into a short briefing on the education technology market, which, to be honest, few people care to hear. Today, my response to that question is simple: “We focus on what we call greyscale learning.”

This means that our effective instructional design places a strong emphasis on topics where there is no simple right or wrong answer. Learning on iversity is not about reproducing the “correct” response. It’s not about 0 or 1, yes or no. It’s about the many shades of grey in between. It’s about the “I would do it like this, because…” and “I would do it like that, because…”. Our courses are designed to create an open and explorative social learning environment. A safe space for people to come together in order to negotiate truth, stating not just their position, but also the facts and arguments that let them arrive at a particular conclusion.

Greyscale learning: The spectrum of learning features many shades of grey

What does this mean in practice? Our courses go beyond teaching you the basics. We want you to learn more than what you need to learn in order to be able to answer multiple-choice questions (although you may well encounter them as part of a course). Greyscale learning makes you look at an issue from multiple perspectives. It makes you realise that there is not just one correct solution. There may be an almost infinite number of solutions. And whether or not something is “correct” very often depends on the context. It’s about collectively contemplating the true meaning of “doing the right things, right.”

What Professional Learning Can Learn From the Humanities

To people who studied humanities or certain social sciences, all of this will not only seem familiar, but in fact appears to be the essence of teaching and learning in higher education. Now, I would like to argue (and have done so before in a publication on the university in the 21st century) that this approach to learning applies not only to theoretical learning in the humanities. I am convinced that it also lies at the core of eminently practical professional learning. Take programming education as an example. To many people, this seems about as far removed as can be imagined from the discursive uncertainty of a seminar in the humanities. But, beyond the basics, the two have more in common than one may think.

Greyscale Learning: Reality Comes in Many Shades of Grey

Of course, it is important to learn basic syntax. And as far as this is concerned, there clearly are answers that are either right or wrong. But as you move into architecture or usability, the picture becomes a lot more blurry. Do you want to optimise for security, ease of use, or speed? Different priorities lead to different setups, which will yield different results. As soon as you face trade-offs between different priorities, an optimal solution will often not exist. People will argue about the ideal solution. They will argue one way or another, citing certain specifics of the case or problem to solve. Suddenly, context matters, and it becomes clear that there will not be one correct answer, but many alternative solutions – each with its own merits and shortcomings.

What this example illustrates is that even for a discipline that is quintessentially all about 1s and 0s, unambiguous clarity soon yields to messy complexity as we move from theoretical basics to practical application. This is not just one odd case. It is true of all domains of knowledge.

Ultimately succeeding in business is not about solving theoretical exercises, but about finding workable solutions to complex practical problems. Therefore, I believe that greyscale learning – which does not stop at the former, but focuses on the latter –  is the future of professional education.

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Today I want to take a closer look at the mode of instruction in traditional professional development and compare it to effective online learning and blended formats. Elearning was all too often seen as a cheap alternative to classroom instruction. The in-person seminar is supposedly the gold standard of teaching and learning. However, there is little evidence to justify this view. Given all the innovation we are seeing in information and communication technology as well as the many advantages flexible online learning has to offer, I would like to argue that it is simply implausible to assume that this age old format cannot be eclipsed. We are only beginning to glimpse the power of flexible online learning that makes use of new opportunities, blending them with established formats where appropriate.

Traditional Professional Development vs. Effective Professional Development

Where “Classroom Only” Learning Falls Short

The most common mode of instruction in traditional professional development was the block seminar. Ten to twenty people in a room with one or two instructors for a day or two. While there may be some preparatory reading, almost all of the learning had to take place in this short period of time. Learners had little time to digest the input, reflect on it, or discuss it with each other. Learning was synchronous. Everyone had to come at the same time to the same place: the classroom.

The Case for Flexible Online Learning

Flexible online learning, on the other hand, allows for a much more effective professional development experience. Learners work through online material at their own pace. Whenever there is room in their calendar and no matter where they are. Courses consist of a great variety of different learning formats in the form of assignments and multimedia content  (video, text, etc). This form of learning follows that recommendations of neuroscientific research on learning. Because it gives learners plenty of time to digest, engage with each other, practice, or do their own research. This is not to say that coming together in a group cannot serve as a powerful tool for learning. But it should be seen as just that: a tool in the toolbox rather than the be all and end all of teaching and learning.

Given all the advantages of flexible online learning and the logical implausibility of the assumption that there is no room for improvement, I strongly believe that the burden of proof lies with those who seek to maintain the status quo. For everyone else, experimenting with new formats is the order of the day. Life punishes those who delay. Make sure you and your organisation do not find yourselves on the wrong side of history.

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In previous posts, I talked about learning as a process, the elements of the learning process, and our formula for online student engagement. Particularly student engagement (or the lack thereof) as measured by completion rates is often seen as key metric. And to some extent this makes sense. If you are disengaged you won’t learn. But engagement is just the necessary condition for learning. It is what learners do while they are engaged that determines the actual outcome of learning. Therefore, including all three elements of learning in the learning process is the sufficient condition for effective online learning.

High-quality content and storytelling ensure engagement. Active and social learning ensure that learners gain a comprehensive and deep understanding. An understanding that goes beyond the ability to regurgitate facts and answer basic questions.

How do we know this? Because instructional designs that include all three elements (content, context and community) cover all steps of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning (2001 revised edition, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives was originally published in 1956). Ok, let me put this in normal words and less jargon.

Bloom’s Taxonomy Explained

The reason why fun, active, and social learning is effective is that different activities build on each other. These learning activities progressively lead the learner to a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter at hand. At first, after watching a video or reading a text, learners know that a given fact, phenomenon or theory exists. They may also understand it well enough to answer basic questions about it.

But only when they take this new knowledge and apply it in a different context – for example by working on a case study – do they gain a deeper understanding. By analysing and evaluating other people’s work, learners have to confront alternative perspectives and approaches grappling with the same topic. Creating their own work – reflecting on the subject, solving a word problem, drafting a presentation or plan – ultimately demonstrates whether they have mastered the subject at hand. If an online course includes all of these activities, learners will not only know more. They will also be able to apply their knowledge and, most importantly, act differently in practice. THAT is what we mean by effective online learning.

elearning May Be Cheap, But It’s Not Effective Online Learning

Traditional elearning (e.g. in the form of web-based trainings or WBTs) is not much more than an interactive textbook. It’s essentially broadcast learning, where learners passively consume content in isolation. This works well if the objective is to provide them with basic knowledge. They can familiarise themselves with a topic and gain a basic understanding. But this will do relatively little to affect their performance on the job. To change attitudes and behaviour, learning activities have to cover more – ideally all – steps of Bloom’s taxonomy.  

Bloom's Taxonomy - traditional elearning vs effective online Learning

In other words, to achieve the learning outcomes in corporate training and professional development, we need a L&D format that does not just simulate learning. We cannot speak of effective online learning unless it affects the learners’ performance on the job. We design iversity PRO courses on the basis of this understanding of learning and with this objective in mind. The feature set of the iversity platform not only supports a broad range of effective online learning activities. It also provides a variety of ways for users to interact. Organisations can also use the iversity platform in order to host courses that follow these design principles by setting up a branded academy.

Learners reach advanced learning outcomes because we cover all steps of Bloom’s taxonomy and embed content and assignments in a social context. This new form of effective online learning makes it possible to learn topics online that were previously thought impossible to learn effectively in a digital environment. Prime examples of such topics are leadership, communication, and change management.

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As I explained in my post on our instructional design, quality content is merely the starting point of the learning journey. An effective instructional design also requires an active engagement with challenging assignments embedded in a community of peers. Only by combining these three elements can we ensure that learners reach their destination: advanced learning outcomes.

The Elements of the Learning Process: Content, Context, Community

At iversity, we call the elements that work together to create an effective learning process the three Cs: content, context, community.

Three Elements Make Up the Learning Process

Content: A great online course comprises the full range of multimedia content from video and audio, to text, photographs, infographics, illustrations or even comics. Quality is key. But this doesn’t mean that everything necessarily has to be polished. Sometimes, something that’s a bit rough around the edges but authentic can work just as well or better (like a page from a notebook or a few snapshots taken in the street to illustrate a point with real world examples). What’s most important is that elements work well together and tell a story. More about this in another post on storytelling in online education.

Context: The second C refers to context. This often causes some confusion, because it is not quite as self-evident as the other two. Context refers to assignments. Why context? Because assignments require learners to apply their knowledge in different contexts. For example, in order to solve a case study, I have to take what I have learned – the knowledge I have gained from working through the content – and use it to solve a real or fictitious problem.

Community: While a few autodidacts are very good at teaching themselves, most of us find it a lot easier to learn together with others. That’s why iversity puts social learning front, right and center. Both the platform and the course design aim at fostering meaningful interactions between learners. The community provides the information, inspiration, feedback and motivation that are often key for effective learning to take place.

The Intersections = Traditional Learning Formats

The intersections of these elements represent the learning formats traditionally found on campus: self-study with a textbook, for example, which offers content and assignments; the lab section or tutorial where students come together to work on assignments in a group; and the seminar where they discuss the learning material amongst each other.

Taking this comprehensive approach to instructional design, which combines online all three core elements of the learning process, allows our courses to cover the full range of Bloom’s taxonomy. (What this means exactly and why it is important for learning, comprehension and ROI, I will explain in my next post.)

P.s. This model is very much indebted to William Rankin who has mapped out this idea in a lot more detail in his overview on Dimensions of Productive Formal Learning.

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