Rethinking Online Education

As I explained in my post on our instructional design, quality content is merely the starting point of the the online learning process. 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 Online 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 Online 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 online 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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E-learning has been around now for two decades. In this time, it hasn’t earned a great reputation. When I tell people that I work in the online learning space, the reaction is rarely one of excitement. People who work in the corporate world usually tell me about the most recent compliance training they had to suffer through. “28 Clicks on “Next”, a few multiple choice questions, and that’s it.” The problem here is that working through content in isolation and without real challenges gives little cause for excitement. We need a new kind of instructional design for effective online learning!

The traditional approach to instructional design: elarning course = content

The iversity Approach to Instructional Design

Unlike other learning solutions that merely provide content, we at iversity understand learning as an active, social process. Education thought leader David A. Wiley summarised this point very well: „If high quality reusable content were all that were required to support learning, libraries would never have evolved into universities. That is to say, interaction with other human beings always has been and always will be an integral part of the learning process. This is especially true when learning of higher-order skills.”

Our fresh approach to instructional design: iversity course = learning process „If high quality reusable content were all that were required to support learning, libraries would never have evolved into universities. That is to say, interaction with other human beings always has been and always will be an integral part of the learning process. This is especially true when learning of higher-order skills.” David A. Wiley

That’s why iversity courses feature more than just content. As well as high-quality multimedia learning materials, all our instructional design combines challenging, open-ended assignments with a variety of ways for students to interact and learn with and from each other, such as the learning journal, a discussion forum and messaging feature. Students acquire knowledge in order to understand a certain topic, but must then apply it in different contexts, actively creating their own pieces of work while analysing and evaluating the work of others.

This kind of instructional design covers all steps of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, allowing learners to reach learning outcomes they would not be able to reach with traditional corporate e-learning formats such as web-based trainings (WBTs). How exactly the approaches differ in this respect is something I will explain in a future post.

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2017 is off to a fresh start and so is the iversity blog. After quite a long break we decided that we should give it a new focus. A focus that will be the same as our new motto: « Love to learn. Online. » Surprise, surprise – it’s all about online learning you will love.

iversity - Love to Learn. Online.In the past, our posts have covered a broad variety of aspects of online learning as well as course topics. As a consequence, the blog had something for everyone, but wasn’t geared towards anyone in particular. We want to take a more focused approach, true to our new motto «Love to Learn. Online.» Going forward, this blog will investigate what makes online courses an experience you love.

In the last five years, I have travelled all over the world attending scores of conferences in over a dozen countries on three different continents in order to learn about the future of learning. I will draw on the knowledge and connections I have gained during this time, as well as on the book “The University in the 21st Century” that I co-authored with Yehuda Elkana. It was published originally in 2012 in German and as a revised edition in English in 2016.

The following presentation that I gave at the TEGEP Summit in Istanbul in November 2016 gives you a glimpse of much of the material that I will cover in significantly more depth over the coming weeks:

You can download the slides of the presentation here.

If You Love to Learn: Join the Conversation!

Post topics will range from the conceptual thinking behind our instructional design to course production techniques; from platform features and our UX-philosophy to course case studies; from expert guest contributions to interviews with instructors and other iversity team members.

We want to engage in a reciprocal and mutually beneficial conversation with learners, instructors, corporate L&D experts, bloggers, journalists, learning psychologists, and other learning researchers. Whether you already use (and hopefully love) our courses, or you just stumbled upon this page, we would like your input to help us create online courses you love. Please leave a comment or send us an email if you have something you would like to share!
In short: we want to make this blog one of the best and most useful resources out there on fun and effective online learning.

Oh, and since I just mentioned sharing: of course we would be delighted if you decide to share our posts and the insights you have gained reading them with your network by email, in online social networks (yes, LinkedIn counts!) or even by the coffee machine.

Feel free to reach out to us to suggest topics for future posts: blog@iversity.org

We look forward to hearing from you!
Hannes Klöpper & the iversity Team

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Distance Learning iversity and Langenscheidt

Believe it or not: The roots of online learning actually date back almost 160 years in Germany. Of course there was no internet, there were no computers and university professors wore black bow-ties to class. Their teaching materials were usually nothing more than a piece of chalk and a blackboard. And yet there were a few outstanding individuals who made it possible to study anywhere – even back in the mid-19th-century.

The German book publisher Gustav Langenscheidt and French language teacher Charles Toussaint made the best of the scarce media resources that the time provided: In 1856 they invented the “Teaching Letters for the French Language”, probably the first method of distance learning. The programme was intended to help people learn language skills they could use in their professional life.

Langenscheidt Toussaint Diploma -

Langenscheidt Toussaint Diploma

Anyone interested could order a series of letters for 27 to 36 Deutsche Mark. If you were one of the learners, you received a new envelope in your mailbox every two weeks. Every letter contained texts in the language you wanted to learn with line-by-line translations and exercises that were supposed to make learners speak as much as possible. This way the letters’ recipients could learn a foreign language in an efficient way that was easy to incorporate in their daily schedule. When the learners had completed a set of Teaching Letters, which usually took about a year and a half, they could complete a final exam. If they succeeded, they were rewarded with a colourful certificate drawn by an artist.

No doubt distance learning has come a long way since those first steps. Think video lectures, interactive quizzes and learning journals! But who knows, if all this had evolved without the first courageous steps that Gustav Langenscheidt and Charles Toussaint took into the direction of a self-paced, innovative way of learning from wherever you want?

Florian Langenscheidt - iversity

Florian Langenscheidt

As Florian Langenscheidt, Gustav Langenscheidt’s great-grandson, said recently: “In the Founder Epoch of the 19th century my great-grandfather invented a first method of distance learning – by letter. In the Founder Epoch of the 21st century iversity invented a new method of interactive distance learning – by internet.”

We are glad your great-grandfather started this, Florian Langenscheidt. And we promise to keep the wheel of innovation spinning. So that anyone can enjoy to study anywhere in the most modern and effective way.

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by Tim Vogelsang

Sparked by recent humanitarian catastrophes in the Mediterranean Sea, media attention around the topics of refugees and asylum is possibly strong enough to force the European Union to introduce quotas between member states, lower the barrier of legal immigration and accept higher amounts of asylum seekers. But how can we as a society embrace asylum as a massive chance rather than a problem? Can smart, unconventional approaches be born under the roofs of small startup offices in Berlin? Can an online education platform such as iversity.org even help?

The airdome in Berlin-Wedding is a three-day home for up to 294 refugees in Berlin from all over the world. It is operated by over-pressure, which cannot be sensed by humans. I walk into this massive tent in order to join a so-called hold-up, organised by the young and sexy non-profit organisation MakeSense. A hold-up is explained to me as a very effective and fun form of brainstorming in order to solve very specific challenges. In this case: „How can we help new-to-the-neighbourhood refugee families find and use local playgrounds?“ To be honest, brainstorming with flipcharts and yellow sticky notes inside a refugee shelter feels inappropriate at first. But soon our ideas start flowing and a lot of the shelter’s guests join us and enjoy the entrepreneurial atmosphere.

Inspired by the creativity that originates from all these different cultures, I invite Mozamel and Guglielmo, two design thinkers from MakeSense, to the iversity office and ask them to facilitate a similar hold-up along with an open Facebook invitation for interested participants. Our challenge this time: „How can volunteers use iversity.org in order to create learning experiences together with refugees?“

20150615-refugees-iversity-1Brainstorming and presenting ideas. Images courtesy: Nezihe Birgul Ozdemir

Wow! It is amazing how many unconventional and unexpected ideas a bunch of creative people that barely know each other can generate from a well-structured brainstorming process. We pick the four best ideas and finally pitch complete concepts – all this in two hours! Here are the four winning ideas:

1. German MOOC: Create a massive open online course (MOOC) on learning German held by refugees, and using dances of the world to build connections and learn verbs and nouns around the human body.

2. Buddy System: Connect a refugee with a local buddy to take an (iversity) online course together.

3. Video Clips: Create short shareable video clips of mixed groups of refugees and locals interacting with (iversity) online courses in order to inspire other refugees to also benefit from free courses.

4. Study Groups: Start medium-sized local events, bringing together locals and refugees for activities like games or dances. The starting point is a new (iversity) online course.

The atmosphere after our final presentations is upbeat. We are all excited about the ideas we came up with. Unfortunately, we don’t have the capacity to realise all of them, but we would still love to see our ideas come to fruition. Maybe YOU want to jump on them and start a local project?

20150612-blogpost-refugees-iversity1Idea canvas of Idea 1. Image courtesy: Julia Hein.

Looking forward, online learning can easily be imagined as an opportunity to embrace asylum and perceive it as a massive chance instead of a problem. And when talking to some of the participants of our hold-up, I see that new ideas beyond iversity.org are already in the making. As a reaction to the two-hour-long hold-up, I was introduced to a whole Berlin ecosystem of companies and organisations that are developing very smart and agile approaches connected to the topic of refugees. In addition to MakeSense, there are Wings University (a university for refugees), Flüchtlinge Willkommen (a flat-share platform), Cucula (a working possibility), Serve the City (a volunteer event initiative) and „Über den Tellerrand kochen“ (a cooking initiative). And I am confident that many more will follow.

Do you want to know more about the ideas from our hold-up? Do you have your own ideas about collaborations with refugees in Berlin and want to get involved? Do you know other initiatives from other cities? Share this post and tell us your ideas! Or learn more about the related topic of „Worker’s’ Rights in a Global Economy” in our online course!


About the author

Tim Vogelsang is iversity’s director of business intelligence. He studied mathematics in Bonn and is now focussing on data analysis, algorithms and research in the context of online learning. His favourite research topics are group creation and peer grading. Follow Tim on Twitter: @timvogelsang

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