Tuesday, November 18, 2008

About Online Learning Systems


I recently had the opportunity to participate in online training for certification as a faculty member at major provider of university coursework and credit; let’s call it Grande U.. I withdrew from participation at the end of the first week. I didn’t give an explanation other than to say that I had concluded that ‘”it was not a good fit for me.” Why did I decide an apparently highly successful program of adult education was not a good fit for me?

My hypothetical Grande U’s’s program is a program for adult learners in which “adult” is defined by the learners age, 23 or older; recently, the age restriction was lowered, and then eliminated. Instruction is delivered through a proprietary online system, about which I will say more later. Courses are, typically of five to six weeks duration, covering the equivalent of 14 to 16 weeks of traditional college course content.

Design of Instruction

The choice of the instructional design, collaborative learning, is based primarily upon the concepts and assumptions of Malcolm Knowles, who introduced the term andragogy to describe the teaching of adults, in contrast to pedagogy for children. His definition of “adult” is significant. Knowles “…assumes that the point at which an individual achieves a self-concept of essential self-direction is the point at which he psychologically becomes adult.”

ATHERTON J S (2005) Learning and Teaching: Knowles' andragogy: an angle on adult learning [On-line] UK: Available: http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/knowlesa.htm

For those of you who may not be familiar with the term collaborative learning, one definition can be found at the National Institute for Science Education web site: http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/archive/CL1/CL/moreinfo/MI2A.htm

Collaborative learning is an educational approach to teaching and learning that involves groups of students working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product. According to Gerlach, "Collaborative learning is based on the idea that learning is a naturally social act in which the participants talk among themselves (Gerlach, 1994). It is through the talk that learning occurs."

Gerlach, J. M. (1994). "Is this collaboration?" In Bosworth, K. and Hamilton, S. J. (Eds.), Collaborative Learning: Underlying Processes and Effective Techniques, New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 59.

There is a substantial body of research that supports the use of collaborative learning, service learning, experiential education and other similar hands-on, constructivist approaches in a face-to-face mode. The experiential urban studies program, in which I was involved, followed Knowles assumptions about adult learning with considerable success, combining direct experience from internships, with aspects of service and collaborative learning.

The program functioned seven days a week for sixteen weeks, during which I had face-to-face contact with 12 to 14 students for a minimum of 10 hours a week, plus on-the-job observation and three-way meetings with students and their internship mentors at least three times for each student, and as many as 20 hours with individuals who needed help -- 3:00 AM phone calls from the police station were not my favorite form of communication from “adults” whose self-directedness led them to make poor choices.

While collaborative learning may be an appropriate model for instruction, a disconnect between Grande U.’s age-based policy and Knowles psychologically-based definition of an “adult” is evident. The problem with a disconnect between an age-based admission policy and an instructional design on Knowles assumptions about adult learners, as I see it, is that attainment of “a self-concept of essential self-direction” may only be weakly correlated to a learner’s age. We all know numerous examples of childish adults and grown-up children. If this is true, limiting instruction solely to collaborative learning intended for Knowlesian adults may not be the most effective model of learning for an increasingly diverse student population, when no indicators of an applicant’s capacity for self-direction are available.

In my next post, I will be looking at the appropriateness of an OLS based on collaborative learning.

Comments and questions are welcome.

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