Self-instructional courses and traditional teaching vs collaborative learning.

Sven Åke Bjørke. February  2014.

Many educational institutions spend huge amounts of money on developing computer-supported self-instructional courses. Various kinds of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are embraced by university administrations as  potential money-savers and maybe perceived as a potential income source. But nothing comes easy, does it? Self-instructional courses have extremely high dropout rates. Most MOOCs have discussion forums and peer interaction. Why is that? Isn’t traditional dissemination of information good enough?

What is meant by traditional forms of education?  Is collaborative learning any different?

MSc DM students collaborating in a virtual classroom. Photo: Å. Bjørke

MSc DM students collaborating in a physical as well as a virtual classroom. Photo: Å. Bjørke

When people start working in the virtual classroom, this is such a step in a new direction  that technology overshadows all other issues. Does the internet work? Electricity? Can I log in, or is the Learning Management System (LMS) in a bad mood today? What’s the difference between a “Discussion Forum” and an online “Archive”? However, you will soon get over the technology threshold, and not even think of it. There are bigger challenges ahead.

If you have ventured into an online, virtual classroom, you might have experienced that if there is little or no interaction with others, your interest in the course might drop.

Might there be a grain of truth to that interaction and dialogue with others is necessary for motivation?

Do you think it is of importance that a tutor takes a lead now and then? If so, when should the tutor intervene? How often? When should s/he wait for students to take initiative?  This does not have much to do with technology, but challenging nevertheless.

Many professors have noticed that some students do not attend lectures. They just read at home and appear for the exam. Some actually do well. It is estimated that 5-10% of all students find self-studies working fine for them.

In the 1990s many educational institutions spent huge amounts of money in developing computer-supported self-instructional courses, thinking that if some students can study all alone, why not all? The students simply received a computer programme or a CD with interactive assignments. In e.g. maths there were many auto-correcting programs, where you could repeat the tasks as many times as you wanted, with an endlessly patient machine telling you where you did wrong. You could click for a video with a “talking head” giving a lecture, a video cutting demonstrating a topic, autocorrecting quizzes, interactive maps, games etc. The courses seemed very nice, with music, graphics and animations, but these types of courses as a rule were not very successful unless they were very short and concrete. Examples are: “Teach yourself power-point” or “Teach yourself how to make web-pages”, or corporate training: “learn how to use this new machine in five steps” etc.

One of the reasons for the high interest in this mechanical way of making education might have been a hidden hope that it is cheap if you manage to achieve an economy of scale. Moreover, if you happen to perceive education as a question of transmitting “knowledge” from the teacher to the learner, self-instructional online courses should be ideal.  If learning is just a question of cramming the right information to pass an exam, there is no need for dialogue between people. You just need communication with a patient machine repeating the information you need to cram.

As these self-instructional courses were no real success, some started posing the questions: is learning really mechanical, or does learning, when it involves deeper understanding, imply something more?

The self-instructional courses are mainly based on the notion of education as transmission of information. In traditional teaching, many tend to perceive the teacher as a kind of medium for the transmission, and the idea was that a machine could do this role just as well or even better.

The traditional one-way lecture can be effective in some respects

The traditional one-way lecture can be effective in some respects. DM students at GRID-Arendal, Norway

However, as a rule a physical teacher has many additional human qualities that the machine does not have. The teacher would manage the classroom, arrange social activities, give comfort to some, encourage others and correct those who needed it. In my opinion the teacher is always crucial over longer periods to keep up motivation. The teacher can choose different pedagogical approaches, and adapt to the situation. The teacher can be instructional at times, and when s/he finds it appropriate, alternate between one-way lecturing and more modern pedagogical forms such as problem based learning, discussions, group work and various other forms of collaborative learning.  A machine can hardly do these things. It is therefore important to be consciously aware of the difference between the traditional perception of the rather rigid role of a teacher and the much more multi-faceted reality that is typical for modern pedagogy, where emphasis is on learning processes rather than on information transmission.

On this background I propose that traditional higher education has mainly been teacher- and transmission of content centred, while modern, collaborative education is learner and learning centred and more focused on interactive processes and dialogues. Whether it is on-campus or on-line.

In face-to-face (F2F) situations, traditional and collaborative forms can be mixed without thinking too much about it. In an online environment, this must be chosen much more consciously and deliberately and meticulously planned for.

Traditional Collaborative
Initiatives lie with the teacher. Learners encouraged to take initiative. Self-expression is central. Dialogue and interaction with others very important.
Learners encouraged to work individually, and compare themselves with others.If social interaction – in controlled forms like seminars. Classes regarded as social units. Individuals have to interact. Freedom to form their own social groupings, and encouraged to see each other as collaborators.
Competitive. Gainers and losers. Less competition, more collaboration.
Learners treated as undifferentiated similars. Learners seen as diverse individuals with varied interests, needs and capabilities.
Emphasis on static, positivist, “absolutist” knowledge. Teacher the depository of knowledge. Knowledge exists independently of learners. The teacher is the subject authority, and has authority on other aspects as well. Emphasis on personal construction of knowledge. Testing of ideas against relevant experience.Honesty.Drawing personal conclusions in contexts of  dialogical learning.
Considering alternative ideas, and testing ideas in action.
Emphasis on “the correct answers” Development of learners is central: personal, moral, social, ethical etc.
Surface or strategic learning dominate: learn to use the right words and phrases for the test or exam. Deeper learning: learning to learn, “learning for life”, find understanding and meaning, and negotiate meaning with others. Navigate efficiently and critically in the dynamic “ocean of information” in the information age
Courses based on syllabus, organised and defined by delivering institution and teacher.Classroom knowledge, decontextualised from the real, surrounding  world. Courses based on tasks, cases, problems, ideas, interests, needs of learners and tutors, assignments, preferably contextualised with the surrounding society and with concrete outputs (Learning outcomes) that can be used in real life.

If you regard the points in the right column as important seen from a pedagogical perspective, you might agree that these are difficult to obtain in an environment where the communication is between a machine and a human being only.

Collaborative learning can be more conducive to insight and understanding

Collaborative learning can be more conducive to insight and understanding. Ethiopian DM students collaborating with other students in virtual group rooms

In modern ICT supported education – in Distributed Open Collaborative Courses (DOCCs) as well as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), you will find that an essential part of the course is peer interaction in online classrooms or discussion forums. Interaction with other human beings is the key for motivation. Interaction with others and negotiation of meaning in learning communities of practice are key factors for good learning. To increase quality in an online course, you reduce the number of students and increase tutor presence. You work on the learning environment, where interaction between fellow students and tutors as a rule is the most important factors for learning.

Photos: Å. Bjørke

Collaborative ICT-supported learning for sustainable development

Transforming Higher Education with Distributed Open Collaborative Courses (DOCCs):Feminist Pedagogies and Networked Learning

H.O.T. / D.O.K.: Teaching Higher Order Thinking and Depth of Knowledge

On MOOCs, BOOCs, and DOCCs: Innovation in Open Courses

Bates, T. (2014) Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: philosophy and practice 

eLearning vs Classroom Training—How Different Are They?

Over to Transformative pedagogy

Reasons and Research – Why Schools Need Collaborative Learning Spaces

Additional reading:

About svenaake

University Teacher.
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1 Response to Self-instructional courses and traditional teaching vs collaborative learning.

  1. I have read this with interest, I like the part where you mention that to increase the quality of online education, you reduce the number of students and increase tutor presence. I think this is very vital, we have learners that will learn more when they know that the teacher recognises them (as if they draw the motivation from the teacher) and this is only possible if the number of learners is small. Once I tried an online course and dropped out eventually, I never knew who the tutor was, there was never feedback and worst still, the ‘class’ was so big such that even after a month of learning, no one knew anyone.
    Additionally, smaller numbers of learners will enable the tutor to know each of the learners, their learning weaknesses and strengths and at the same time be able to help them. It also becomes easy to assess the learning processes and give a timely feedback to learners. Effective learner support is only possible with smaller numbers.


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