We Need an Eco-Smart Model for Online Learning

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Two articles that appeared in my Google alerts today (7.17.10) grabbed my attention. Both were out of California. One was a San Francisco Chronicle editorial blasting the University of California’s vision of an internet-delivered bachelor’s degree program.

The other was an op-ed by James Fay and Jane Sjogren, sharing their vision of a hypothetical Golden State Online, or GSO, a “stand-alone online community college campus.”

On the surface, the visions seem to be quite different, and the viewpoints are obviously different. However, below the surface, both visions share a common flaw — they’re based on models of online learning that are, in my opinion, simply not sustainable.

This got me thinking about an alternative model that would be infinitely sustainable. After a few starts and stops, I came up with an eco-smart model for online learning, or E-SMOL.

In nature, form follows function, and evolution favors the simplest, most elegant and sustainable forms.

If we apply this law to the development of online courses, then we need to set up some ground rules to avoid forms that run counter to function. Here are a few for starters:

  1. Don’t over-spend: Don’t use a 6- or 7-figure service when a low-cost, free, or open alternative is available. [Text in blue added on 7.18.10.]
  2. Don’t over-hire: Don’t hire more than one person to do a job that one person can do. When outside expertise is needed, hiring should be temporary for brief periods and specific tasks. [Text in blue added on 7.18.10.]
  3. Don’t over-construct: Don’t construct buildings, offices, labs, studios, and classrooms to house technology staff who provide the multimillion dollar services.

If the purpose or function is to deliver an online course, the simplest, most elegant design would only require a faculty member who is already teaching the course F2F (face-to-face) or hybrid. S/he is released into the real environment of her community or the world armed only with a laptop computer and broadband (at home) and wi-fi (away from home) connection.

She logs in to Blogger or WordPress and sets up a free blog for her class. She organizes and posts her course information, lessons, schedules, and study resources in a way that facilitates learning.

She logs in to the simple free discussion forum at MyFreeForum (or another similar alternative), which is based on the open source phpBB, to set up the forums for the first class project.

She logs into her free Gmail or AOL email account to send an announcement to her students a few days prior to the first day of instruction. In her greetings, she provides the URLs for the class blog and discussion forum. She also asks her students to set up free personal blogs to share their class projects and papers as well as bios.

Live chats are optional, and students can set them up with any number of free services.

The vast majority of discussions are via asynchronous messaging in the blogs, email, and forums. However, if the need arises, free Skype calls can be arranged.

Both the students and instructor have the option to use videos shot on their iPhones, laptop cams, or Flip-type cams. These are uploaded to the free YouTube video service and embedded in the students’ and instructor’s blogs.

Students don’t need to purchase a course textbook. The instructor refers them to an open e-text that’s supplemented by other sources that she’s selected. The instructor makes liberal use of videos and other instructional material at open courseware sites such as MIT OpenCourseWare, OpenLearn at The Open University, Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon, Tufts OpenCourseWare, Stanford on iTunes U, Webcast.berkeley, Utah State OpenCourseWare, University of Southern Queensland’s OpenCourseWare, and University of California Irvine OpenCourseWare.

Students receive feedback and suggestions for improvement from classmates on their projects and papers via replies in their blogs. The blogs are private, and access is limited to classmates and the instructor. The criteria for these peer evaluations are clearly and simply spelled out by the instructor. The instructor returns her evaluations (scores, comments, grades) to each student via email.

Thus far, the instructor is living “off the land,” that is, using few or none of the resources available at her college. She doesn’t have an office on campus. She and her students don’t use any of the classrooms or labs for this course, and they don’t take up parking stalls to attend her class. They also don’t use any of the wi-fi bandwidth on campus, and they don’t use the electricity needed for cooling and lighting classrooms.

She uses almost none of the campus’s IT services and resources and doesn’t rely on IT staff for assistance. She’s learned to use blogs and forums through the old trial and error method, and she realizes that it is actually quite easy.

At the end of the semester, she submits grades through the campus’s secure network.

If this single example could be multiplied to include instructors in all the courses that are required for a bachelor’s degree in a given field, we’d have a completely online BA program at no additional cost. With more instructors and fields, the online degree programs could be expanded indefinitely until all fields are covered.

This entire process didn’t require the wasteful construction of a separate campus for online offerings, extremely expensive bullet-proof courses designed by techs and tech-savvy subject area experts, or the overwhelming cost of campus tech support services. It relies on what is already there, available at low or no additional cost. [Text in blue added on 7.18.10.]

In fact, bullet-proof is really just another way of saying teacher-proof, and any course that’s designed for anyone to teach isn’t going to be very successful. Teaching, by its very nature, is an expressive, dynamic, organic, open, and free activity that’s unique for every individual. If it’s teacher-proof, then it may as well be run by a trained tech.

The simple do’s to begin an E-SMOL are:

  1. Ask teachers who are already on staff for F2F or hybrid classes to teach online classes.
  2. Ask them to use online resources that are already available at little or no cost.
  3. Ask them to set up an informal discussion forum to provide technical help. Colleagues who know will help those who don’t.
  4. Ask them to set up a forum to discuss the strengths and weakness of the different approaches they’re using. Issues such as accessibility, compliance with regulations, security, and copyright could be discussed here. [Text in blue added on 7.18.10.]
  5. Ask them to develop teaching methods that take advantage of the virtual learning environment rather than methods that rely on F2F classrooms.
  6. Ask them to develop an evaluation system for student feedback on instructor performance that’s based on online rather than F2F practices and realities.
  7. Ask them to develop an evaluation system for peer feedback on instructor performance that’s based on online rather than F2F practices and realities.
  8. Make it clear that they can conduct classes from anywhere on this planet where they have access to the internet and that they will never be required to show up on campus.
  9. Make it clear that the college will not require in-person attendance at meetings or workshops. Instead, these will, as much as possible, be designed for asynch online participation.
  10. Make it clear that the college will not require the acquisition or submission of any hardcopy forms. All forms will be electronically managed.
  11. Make it clear that the college will compensate the teacher for a new notebook once every two years. In case of breakdowns or repairs, all online faculty will be required to maintain a standby notebook at their own expense.
  12. Make it clear that the college will compensate the instructor for high-speed broadband internet service in the home.
  13. Make it clear that the college will provide vast amounts of online free storage for each instructor, to be used to store text as well as multimedia files.

I’ve stopped at 13, but I’m sure others can come up with more.

The point is that we’ve latched on to a model for onlining instruction that is so costly that it will never work. As many have already said, change is not in the technology but in the way we use technology. Many practical, cost-effective visions of E-SMOLs are still out there, and this is just one of them.

11 Responses

  1. I agree with you in general – I am a great “for free” stuff user when it allows me to by-pass red tape – but with some qualifications:

    • – Make sure that signing up for a “for free” online tool you mean to use won’t expose your students to harassment / privacy invasion / “inappropriate stuff” if they are under age, lest you end up in the same kind of trouble as Julie Amero
    • – Make sure that the “for free” online tools you intend to use can be used by students with disabilities (see e-Book Readers: Attempting to Bugger the Blind is Bad for Business: what obtains for e-book readers also obtains for online apps)
    • – Make sure that your use of a “for free” online tool won’t limit the content you want to add for copyright reasons, or expose you to having all your content deleted for copyright violation.
    • – Make sure that the content generated by you / your students with “for free” online tools you mean to use can be backed up simply, in case the provider suddenly decides to scrap the “for free” offer (see End of Free Ning Networks: Live Online Discussion: Apr. 20th – on the other hand, when Mojiti went poof because Eric Feng sold it to Hulu, the embedded, captioned-with-Mojiti videos done by the students in http://micusif.wikispaces.com/Jeudi+3 disappeared, but they had saved the captioning files that are copied in the same page, so now they could reuse these files with another captioning tool, should they wish to).

    So, going back to the tools you mention: you can indeed back up WordPress and Blogger blogs, but a blogger.com ID might be problematic for under age students, as it might also work for other Google apps, including gmail and Google buzz.

    Moreover, many Web 2.0 tools have accessibility issues for active use, so better check with the person in charge of accessibility at your institution first.

    Finally, blog + discussion board could be replaced by a wiki, where each page has its discussion sub-page, and which is more suited to collaborative writing as might be required in an online class.

  2. Claude makes a good point. “Free” often has many strings attached.

    Yes, you can create a course using only free online tools, but that approach has some pitfalls. Given the tuition costs of schools, putting in some low-cost alternatives might be reasonable.

    Still, as you suggest, schools are spending way too much money on physical plant and IT staff for their online courses. The IT department has a built-in conflict. Like any department, their goal is to grow larger, not to diminish and disappear. Purchasing complex, high-priced tools such as Blackboard, helps them to cement their position on the campus.

    You should be seeking out inexpensive, possibly free, tools that support your course goals cleanly and that are based on a feasible business model. What’s wrong with a tool that costs $10 per student but provides the features of more than one free tool and shows a sustainable future?

    I can give you one example from my business. For several years, we did online demonstrations using VNC, a free computer-sharing tool. We had a number of problems using that tool, but usually were able to work them out. Then, we lost a large sale because my partner had to do a demo from a hotel room on his cell phone. The prospective client considered us too unprofessional.

    Now, for just $200 per year, we use Elluminate. No one accuses us of not being professional anymore. Sometimes “free” just isn’t worth the savings and can cost you lots more than you save.

    I’ll finally add that some courses aren’t just talking. Science, in particular, requires more than just text and communication. How about drama? I can imagine a virtual stage, but each participant would require some fairly sophisticated gear to “be” there. Online truly interactive real science labs also are not yet free and are not likely to be soon.

  3. Claude, thank you very much for these thoughtful suggestions and ideas. I appreciate the opportunity to expand the discussion.

    Yes, the online faculty would definitely need to work with their college’s accessibility officer to make sure that their sites meet all requirements.

    Re copyright issues: yes, definitely, faculty would need to be aware of these.

    Re age — this example is for college students so I’m assuming that they meet the minimum. But for K-12, yes, definitely an issue.

    Re wikis — yes, these are definitely alternatives.

    In attempts to be as eco-smart as possible, the hiring of technical specialists is still an option. However, they would be brought in on a contract basis for specific periods of time to address specific problems.

    Also, for K-12, if eco-smart means a system-wide buy in to an acceptable web 2.0 provider, then this is an option. But the buy-in would not be permanent ownership. Instead, it would take the form of low group or individual fees for services that the faculty can manage on their own.

    Eco-smart doesn’t necessarily mean free, although my example gives this impression. If the learning environment (not just the school but the community, society, nation, etc.) requires the purchase of services or temporary hiring of necessary technical staff, then this ought to be done. But the ultimate goal is to empower the faculty to take control of their own online classes.

    Faculty could work with free web 2.0 service providers to incorporate the kinds of features that you mention. These services are constantly evolving, too, so they may welcome suggested improvements. If providers of essential services say they need to charge a fee for special features, then this, too, could be worked into the budget, with clear limits on the amounts to be spent.

    Finally, we need to stop using fear as a way to control faculty use of free or low cost online services. Indeed, the very fear of being sued or reprimanded is what keeps many from going online. As the numbers of online faculty grow, these issues will gradually be worked out.

    Yes, faculty and administrators will have to take these issues on to create an eco-smart model for online learning, but this is as it should be for a profession that needs to become comfortable in the evolving web 2.0 world. As a group, educators need to step outside the unsustainable fortresses they’ve built and begin to build sustainable presences in the technology-rich environment that the world has become.

    What’s to become of the technology specialists? This, too, is an evolving field. Those who will survive and thrive will develop services and expertise geared to empowering faculty in eco-smart environments. For full-time positions, if they don’t already have subject area expertise, then they would develop one to remain in colleges as faculty in academic departments.

    This movement toward eco-smart faculty will occur regardless of what we do now. It may take years, but faculty turnovers will bring increasingly tech-wise teachers into colleges, and they will bring with them web 2.0 skills, knowledge, and expectations that they’ve grown up with.

    -Jim S

  4. Harry, looks as though you posted while I was composing my reply to Claude. Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments and the opportunity to continue the dialogue.

    Yes, I’ve placed a lot of emphasis on “free” in my example, but the intent was to describe the leanest sustainable model. This may not be the best model for everyone so low cost services are definitely not excluded from E-SMOLs. But these cost decisions would be made by faculty in the course of their practice and not require the creation, once again, of budget-busting tech departments or positions.

    As I mention in my reply above to Claude, tech specialists could learn to thrive in this eco-smart milieu by using their expertise to meet needs that aren’t being met. And this is where many doors and windows will open for small businesses that are flexible enough and close enough to the ground to work with individual or small groups of teachers to provide low cost learning modules that enhance the learning experience.

    Re performance activities that require more than text — thanks for this problem. This is where cheap personal video cams (iPod, Flip, cams built into notebooks) could play a part. Students could demonstrate certain physical skills via video, upload them to YouTube, embed them in their blogs, and make them available to the class.

    For drama, if they live close by, they could get together in small groups to video their rehearsals and performances for critique by the class. If some students are geographically isolated, they could enlist the help of friends and family in their video.

    Thanks for mentioning platforms such as Elluminate for live interactive presentations. (That’s a very funny story, BTW, about the cell phone demo from a hotel room. From a business perspective, though, I’m sure there wasn’t much to laugh about.) At $200 a year, it’s an extremely smart move if a faculty member can use it.

    -Jim S

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  6. Maybe I misread, but it seems to me that the model described at first calls for truly self-directed learners who study on their own, discuss things freely, etc. It is teacher-proof because the teacher seems to be pretty much absent. Just put a bunch of eager students together online with an eBook, access to other learning resources, and a chance to talk to each other, and learning will happen magically. Teacher unnecessary. I would love to live in a world like that, but in my 15 years of online education, I have never seen anything remotely like it.

    In the list of 13 things to do, I notice number 5: “Ask them to develop teaching methods that take advantage of the virtual learning environment rather than methods that rely on F2F classrooms.”

    Since in my experience as a staff developer I saw that most teachers still haven’t developed teaching methods that work in the FTF classroom in the first place, it is a stretch to think they will on their own develop methods that will work in the virtual learning environment.

    When I was the Director of Curriculum for a major online learning company, we used to hire course developers we thought had the best head start in this sort of thing, give them extensive training in the teaching methods best suited to the virtual environment, and then watch in despair as they ignored that training and reverted to what they knew best.

    Let’s look at all those opportunities for discussions mentioned. My daughter-in-law took a large number of online courses while completing her B.S. from a major University. She complained about the group projects and discussions and how useless they were. I looked at them and saw that the teacher who had set them up had no idea whatsoever how to set up a project or discussion in an online setting so that it would actually work. Unless a skilled teacher sets up discussions well, they don’t happen.

    Back when computers were first being introduced heavily into the classroom, I did an extended research project on their effectiveness. I found that when schools invested in technology, they invested solely in technology, putting little or no money into training teachers how to use them. This meant that many teachers, having no idea what to do with those computers, simply ignored them. This was the best case scenario. The worst case was when the teachers tried to use them. Without training, they would use them as a teacher substitute for the same instructional strategies they used as teachers, and the computer became a poor substitute for weak instruction. Student achievement dropped. When computers were properly used to support good instructional technique, achievement soared, but since few teachers knew how to do that, it was a rare occasion.

    IMO, telling teachers to develop teaching methods that take advantage of the virtual learning environment rather than methods that rely on F2F classrooms is the equivalent of telling the science department to develop a process for creating cold fusion.

  7. John, you raise some excellent issues. And I agree with all of your views.

    Teachers need to know how to use technology for online instruction to work.

    The question is, How do they learn?

    The point of my article is that current approaches don’t work. For me, the current approach is similar to Desert Storm’s Shock ‘n’ Awe. Throw big bucks at the problem and that should solve it.

    Sticking with the analogy for a moment — once the conventional war is over, the guerrilla war begins, and in this fight, the guerrilla wins.

    The reason is sustainability.

    What I’m describing is an eco-smart model for online learning that could be described as the guerrilla approach. It relies on teachers in the field who are able to “live off the land” as it were.

    But the issues that you’ve raised don’t disappear just because we’ve gone guerrilla. They’re still there.

    Thus, teachers will still need to wrestle with the question of how to make their online practices effective. And the forums that are suggested will serve as a means for them to explore, discuss, develop, assess, revise, etc. these practices.

    I also haven’t discounted course designers and ed techs. They can definitely be brought in on an as needed basis, but only temporarily to empower teachers and not to relieve them of the tasks. Power remains with the teachers.

    Success won’t happen overnight, but it will arrive, gradually, as teachers learn what works and what doesn’t.

    In e-smol models, the teacher doesn’t disappear, and the models aren’t teacher proof. The teacher’s task is not to get up in front of students and lead/guide them toward learning. Instead, given the virtual environment, s/he needs to design or set up the environment so the student can quickly, intuitively, understand how to navigate and learn within it.

    Thus, course design and refinement is an ongoing process, and the instructor learns to make adjustments based on the students’ performance.

    For the teacher, a major difference between F2F and online learning is that she doesn’t teach. Instead, she prepares and controls the environment to maximize learning.

    For the student, a major difference is that she can’t sit back and expect to be taught. She has to actively navigate the virtual environment to learn.

    Thus, in e-smols, both teachers and students need to change to adjust to the new way of learning.

    I’m not sure if I’ve addressed all the issues you’ve raised. If not, please let me know.


    -Jim S

  8. “For the student, a major difference is that she can’t sit back and expect to be taught. She has to actively navigate the virtual environment to learn.”

    In my experience, therein lies the problem.

    You describe a “guide on the side” ideal of learning, a style I endorse. When I first started an online school, we set up all our courses like this from the start, and immediately ran into significant problems with student failure. It led me to do a presentation at a national conference I called “The Trap of Best Practice.”

    For students, the norm has been passive education. “Feed me the facts and give me a test on those facts.” In this very journal last year we had an article that held up the lecture halls of Harvard as the very pinnacle of great education. I would wager that the vast majority of professors have that opinion.

    Give students constructivist educational processes without proper preparation, and they are immediately lost in such an unfamiliar environment. Our students, we realized, were skimming through class materials looking for simple answers to simple questions, and they were downright angry that they were finding neither. “The course is too confusing–I can’t find the answers!” they shouted.

    Online discussions that were carefully designed to lead students to construct meaning were very problematic. The vast majority of students have rarely, if ever, participated in a real discussion in a classroom. In a typical class discussion, only a fraction of the class participates, and many students have learned that there is never a need for them to take part. Most of those discussions are not true discussions, for the teacher is usually asking questions for which he or she has a specific answer in mind. Put these students in a position in an online class in which they MUST participate in a meaningful discussion where the QUALITY of their discussion (not the QUANTITY of responses) counts, and they don’t know what to do.

    I think back to my own classroom experiences, and I remember how long it took me each year and each class to teach students how to be active learners. A quality online class MUST begin with an expectation that students will not know how to learn in this environment, and it MUST therefore begin by teaching the student how to be an active and engaged learner.

    Before that can happen, though, the teachers/course designers MUST know what it means as well.

    A close friend of mine is a dean in a major university. When he started teaching at the school years ago, he was a little embarrassed because he had only taken two education theory courses in his life. He then learned that he had taken two more education theory classes than the rest of his department combined. Within a couple of years he was pulled aside and said that it was beginning to look like he was going to be voted teacher of the year. He was warned that he should do all he could to prevent that, since that would be taken as a sign that he was not devoting sufficient time to research. He is doing what he can as dean to change that attitude, but he said it is still very much the norm.

    I may sound more than a bit pessimistic, but I once had the very challenging, close to impossible job, of teaching high school teachers how to do this sort of thing. These teachers all had such training when they got their certifications. They were all required by law to update that training regularly. They were all being evaluated on their ability to make these changes, and it was still the hardest job I have ever had to do. The resistance to these changes was stunning.

    I find it hard to believe that professors who have had no real training and who have no such requirements will make such sweeping changes just because they are asked to do so.

    • John, my email to you a few minutes ago returned as an error so I’ll contact you this way. This comment is fabulous! It really pushes the discussion to higher levels. Can I have your permission to publish it as an article, too? This way, it’ll have more exposure to generate greater discussion. Best, Jim

  9. John, we’ll have it up within the next hour. Thanks! -Jim S

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