The Issue of Self-Motivation in F2F and Online Learning

Tom PreskettBy Tom Preskett

I was struck by this header in Sarah Kessler’s “The Case for the Virtual Classroom” (Mashable, 1.3.11): “The Internet Empowers Self-Motivated Learners.” This is a good way of putting something that is blindingly obvious. But is it therefore not good for learners who are not so self-motivated?

The internet is well suited to learners who are completely self-regulated, aggregating learning resources from a variety of sources, seeking out their own channels of support and collaboration. There has never been a better time to manage your own learning experience.

However, where you have learners who are not motivated, the management of the learning experience is done by someone else. In formal education this is always what happens. All learners have to be catered for and, even where teachers want to give free rein, they find it’s easier to set a strict agenda.

This is probably why there are so many tensions with online learning. For better or for worse, learning is synonymous with formal education in 2011 (happy new year!), and with formal education more time is spent on managing the learning experience than anything else. This is the way it’s always been online or offline.

From the learners’ perspective, I also believe that the habit of active learning is sorely lacking. Self-regulation and control is something closely guarded by educators. As a result, when given the opportunity to take control, many students don’t know what to do. They neither want it nor expect it. This is a rejection of the ethos of managing their own learning rather than a rejection of technology. Unfortunately, things are often interpreted incorrectly.

16 Responses

  1. Tom makes a great concluding point here. Too many equate online with self-regulated. However, doing homework requires you to do much the same thing: manage your time to get it done.

    The larger issue here transcends technology. Are we educating our students to become lifelong learners? More precisely, are we teaching students how to learn on their own?

    I’ve seen some do this but not many. Mostly, it’s all about channeling students narrowly toward some high-stakes test, whether created outside of the school or inside (e.g. a final exam). With little opportunity to explore on their own and active discouragement to do so, few students learn how to learn.

    I believe that online learning has the opportunity to break out of the channel and expand learners’ horizons. In working with many online schools, some very well-regarded, I see very little of this sort of effort. Sadly, it’s all about the bottom line (in profit-making schools) or about the budget (in the public-supported ones).

    And so our country continues its downward spiral in education where one generation of teachers was not taught well enough and teaches the next even less well. It’s not their fault, but they and all of us as well could put a little extra effort and, for us, money into moving in the opposite direction.

  2. I see two points here that need to be addressed, and I assure you that in my past work with online education they may be the two most important points.

    I assure you that at the K-12 level, an online course that relies on student self-motivation for success is a course destined for unacceptably high failure rates. In our curriculum design we emphasized frequent assessment points to make sure students stayed on track. We emphasized highly engaging activities. In our instructional practice, we had frequent progress reports and drove teachers to “go after” non-performing students. More than one teacher who used the lack of self-motivation on the part of students to explain high failure rates was fired in mid course.

    The second problem is even greater. As I described in a presentation I once made that I called “The Trap of Best Practice,” I showed how students come to online courses expecting a pure rote instructional process. They skip instructional materials and look for ways to make a quick transfer of facts from their reading to a multiple choice test, hopefully without having to actually read what was there. Those highly engaging constructivist activities fall flat when the students don’t even know they are there and complain about not being able to find the answers to the test questions in the course.

    The real problem comes when you put the two problems together and have a highly motivated, constructivist course being taught by a teacher who lacks self-motivation. Project based earning and other such activities require the skilled guidance of knowledgeable teachers. Teachers who stay out of the course process and fail to provide that guidance leave the students hopelessly confused.

  3. These are really interesting point. The issue of self-regulation and motivation is intrinsically tied up with e-learning. A common scenario is designing an online course by carefully reading all the books and research on suitable pedagogy. The result is a constructivist stance. Then the course gets rolled out and taught by teachers who aren’t used to teaching this way and taken by students who aren’t used to learning this way. This is where the problems arise because for it to be a success the learners need to be able to be in the mindset of self-regulation rather than being spoonfed.

    I think my point is that because using technology for learning “lends itself” to collaborative pedagogical stances it can act as a transformational force for changes how we teach. Unfortunately, to do this we have to ruffles some feathers – of both the learners and the educators.

    • It is hard to believe we can be more on the same page on this issue. I made my first online education course in 1995, when my primary job responsibility was staff development–teaching teachers how to use project based learning, constructivism, etc. I immediately saw the potential for online education to “act as a transformational force for changes in how we teach.” I tried to convince my superiors, but I was met with what some of us called the Gardol shield effect–a reference to old Colgate commercials that spoke of an invisible shield to protect teeth from decay. In this case, an invisible shield came up as soon as online education was mentioned. Once you saw an administrator’s eyes glaze over, you knew nothing was getting through.

      When I was in charge of curriculum development, the hardest job I had was finding course writers who understood this. They all seemed to assume from the start that the only way an online course can be designed is as a straightforward transfer of factual material from the course to the student, with the teacher playing little or no role in the process.

      It is not just ruffling feathers, though. The greatest pressure to design courses that are straightforward transfers of information are financial. The more a course is designed with constructivist principles, the more time a teacher must devote to it. The more time a teacher must devote to it, the fewer students the teacher can supervise. The fewer the students the teacher can supervise, the more expensive the course is to implement.

      About a decade ago a Connecticut school district was unsuccessfully sued because it was using online course material from Plato, courses that did not need a teacher at all. The courses were “taught” by an aide who simply transferred the students’ final grades (from multiple choice quizzes) to their report card. Today many thousands of students are taking online courses that are assessed 100% by multiple choice tests, with no teacher interaction whatsoever. This even includes English classes that supposedly meet the writing requirements for state content standards! Yes, I have not only seen those courses, in my previous work I fought pressure to create them.

      • John, you paint a picture of “worst online practices” that’s only possible if educators are totally ignorant of even the most fundamental and superficial principles of online instruction and learning. I don’t doubt that there are such isolated pockets of professionals, but in all the years that I’ve been involved in online education, I’ve never encountered them.

        The vast and overwhelming majority of educators, from preschool through graduate school, are well aware of the vital role that interaction plays in learning. Furthermore, I haven’t met or heard of a single online educator who advocates or practices the no-teacher-in-the-class (NTIC) model that you’ve described in your last paragraph.

        You say that “The more a course is designed with constructivist principles, the more time a teacher must devote to it.” This is simply not true. Downes’s experiments with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are demonstrations of constructivist principles, which place the responsibility for learning on the student. The teacher’s role is that of guide, using pull rather than push strategies. Thus, Downes and a handful of colleagues can facilitate a “class” of thousands.

        The rest of your generalization — “The more time a teacher must devote to it, the fewer students the teacher can supervise. The fewer the students the teacher can supervise, the more expensive the course is to implement.” — is equally bewildering.

        My guess is that you’re imposing a course development template designed for a teacher-centered, teacher-proof F2F learning environment on online instruction. Obviously, this doesn’t make sense. The online environment is simply different, and instructors for the last 10-20 years have been discovering, inventing, developing, applying, and refining virtual interaction and constructivist strategies that are highly sustainable.

        Tom’s point is a simple one — anyone stepping into a virtual learning environment expecting to be taught via F2F methods will be lost. Students cannot simply park their bodies at a desk and expect to be taught. They need to initiate or activate the learning process by logging in, clicking, navigating, reading, etc. This is the basic concept of self-motivation in elearning. Without it, nothing happens.

        The notion of self-motivation as a primary impetus for learning pervades the entire spectrum of education, P-16 and beyond in both F2F and online classes. The online learning environment, in particular, demands it at the gate, and to enter, everyone must pay the price. -Jim S

  4. Remember that I am in the K-12 world and you are in the college world.

    Today, high schools across America are using the following programs that do not require teacher interaction: Plato, NovaNet, and e20/20. A school I know that used for its entire classroom curriculum had one online teacher teaching all subjects–none of which required any expertise on the part of the “teacher.” These programs account for millions of dollars in sales annually.

    These programs are selling so well that the company for which I worked two years ago pushed me hard to OK teacherless courses so that they could compete with them in the market. In fact, without my approval they created an English composition course that was 100% multiple choice simply by removing all the interactive elements in an existing course. My refusal to go along with this is the primary reason I no longer work for them.

    I have the connections to assure you that in one of the largest private online schools in the nation, there are indeed many courses that are 100% multiple choice. In all course creation for that company, courses designers are instructed to design the courses so that total teacher/student interaction, including everything from grading to answering questions, will average 1/2 hour per student per semester.

    As I said before, I totally agree with Tom’s points about students and teachers not being prepared for a properly designed course. I am just pointing out that there is another model out there that leads to such expectations.

  5. What John said is true. I’ve seen it too. The primary goal of some highly commercial online schools appears to be a combination of make as little per-pupil work for the teacher as possible (in order to load up the teacher with hundreds of students) and pay the teacher as little as possible.

    I see this formula as opening the door to outsourcing of online schools to overseas operations.

    Imagine a soon-to-come U.S. history course being taught by someone in Bangladesh whose English is imperfect and who really doesn’t understand U.S. history at all. There are those who would argue that those words define some of our U.S. history teachers, but I’d like to be more serious about this potential.

    As soon as you eliminate the necessity for teacher-pupil communication at a high level, you denigrate the entire education process. You only have to have a human to oversee the system and handle the exceptions.

    This future does not describe the brave new world of education that I envision as coming from the technology revolution.

    Many of the standards that we rail against are all that’s holding back the deluge. I’d like to see our education standards for K-12 be intelligent, not arbitrary. I’ve already discussed the problems with the UCOP a-g requirements with regard to science labs. Yet, parts of that requirement are very good. It’s too bad that an overreaction to virtual labs in the 1980s has given rise an obstructionist policy that persists into the second decade of the 21st century.

  6. You cannot blame online schools, per se, for simply mirroring the bad practices of F2F schools (e.g., too large classes taught by instructors who are difficult to understand). Bad educational practices abound in both F2F and online endeavors. Doesn’t make it right in either case but don’t point the finger at only online programs.

    On a related matter, online Credit Recovery “instruction” in high schools is a scam of epic proportions but no one’s researching and writing about it. Why are teacher unions permitting its use, in many cases in lieu of bonafide live teachers? So who’s to blame for rise of online CR — schools for going cheap and selling high school credits to lowest bidder, teachers and teacher unions for not resisting, parents who think their kids can learn something on their own in a few weeks that they couldn’t learn with a teacher in a semester or year, or whomever else? But the online CR scam is not the fault of online learning. The cause for the bastardization of an educational learning platform lies not in platform itself but in those who would contort its use for inappropriate means.

    • This is absolutely true. The problem starts with the nature of typical credit recovery programs long before the Internet even existed. Here are some examples from my experience.

      While in graduate school, I earned some money as a substitute teacher. One day IN MAY I substituted in a physical education class in an alternative school program designed for this purpose. The students were whacking tennis balls around the tennis courts in an activity resembling tennis. I stopped to show one boy how to grip the racket properly. He got a look of dismay on his face, and a friend laughed and told me I had just cost the boy $10. It seems that at the beginning of the year he had bet $10 that he would not learn anything at all in school that year, and he got all the way to May before a substitute teacher ruined it by teaching him how to hold a tennis racket.

      One day I heard a teacher who taught an alternative program called ACE that the students were so rowdy that day that he told them that if they didn’t settle down he was going to get out some books and give them an assignment.

      In its second year of my online program’s existence, the school district got the idea that their alternative school students could expand their possibilities by taking some of the classes online through our program. It didn’t go well, and we soon saw why. In their normal alternative program, they could complete graduation credit by completing projects. In a typical project, a student could get 1/4 credit for completing what amounted to about a single week’s assignment in one of our online courses. They were not used to courses that actually required them to do something, as our online courses did.

      School districts across the nation grant credit recovery using a correspondence program from Pennsylvania that is so ridiculously easy that it would be an embarrassment for any of that material to be shown to the public for their review.

      The main problem is that state legislatures impose penalties on school for failing to graduate students on time but generally don’t require any level of quality for that graduation.

      So, if on online program is to compete in that world, it can’t do it by promising to give students an actual education. School districts are looking for the cheapest and easiest ways to give these students diplomas. That’s all that matters. There are only two criteria by which these programs are judged–cost and failure rate.

      Oh, and by the way, in every one of the for-profit credit recovery programs I know, the teachers make a little more than minimum wage.

    • Teachers unions allow this in part because they have little choice.

      I mentioned in a previous post that nearly a decade ago a teacher’s union in Connecticut sued the school district because it was using Plato for courses with no teacher. They lost.

      But what about the newer requirement that courses must have highly qualified teachers? I investigated this with one of the more popular teacherless programs, e2020, and as far as I could tell, they claimed that having occasional videos of a teacher lecturing met that qualification, since the teacher in the video was highly qualified.

      Other violations of law baffle me. How can a school district official keep a straight face when certifying that the multiple choice writing course students are completing satisfies the state writing standards? The fact that they can do that is simply beyond my comprehension.

  7. John A and Harry — unfortunately, the uninformed and those predisposed to oppose online learning will probably read your comments and use them as reasons for staying with F2F instruction. They don’t or won’t realize that you’re not condemning online education per se but a few examples of bad practices.

    As John T says, there are worst practices in both F2F and online learning.

    The “climate of fear” accompanies all changes, and failing to qualify sweeping generalizations is tantamount to yelling “Fire!” in a crowded auditorium. Yes, there are a few practices that ought to be avoided, but we need to be careful about creating the impression that all or most online classes are poor.

    Finally, some of us are writers as well as private consultants and entrepreneurs, and we, as a group, want to avoid any suspicion that we’re using ETCJ to further our business ends at the expense of objectivity. Some readers may buy into the dire image of online education as a come-on to seek the commercial services some of us provide. -Jim S

    • Jim, I look at the same situation and draw the opposite conclusion.

      People are going to form their opinions on the quality of online education by the evidence they have, and, as in all things, they will quickly assume that what they have experienced is characteristic of the industry. They will take a meager experience and project to everything they have not experienced. I know this because I have been advocating online education since 1995, and I have encountered the same arguments for 15 years now. The opponents point to a clear failure and say, “See, look how bad that is. That’s why we shouldn’t do that.”

      Back in those first years a well-meaning administrator in our school district brought in one of the programs I mentioned above for a demonstration to the district curriculum coordinators. They were so thoroughly disgusted that it set us back 5 years. I had a heard time convincing them that our program was not going to be like that.

      When I was the Executive Director of the Colorado Cyberschool Association, our biggest enemy was the way poor programs like that were presented to the general public as the face of online education. Those who were struggling to do better despaired as those weak programs were held up for ridicule.

      And it’s not just at the K-12 level. I looked closely at the online BS program a friend’s daughter was taking from a major university, and it was very poorly designed.

      I have always had my best success by saying right up front that there are many poor examples of online education, and we are attempting to build something different from those poor examples. I don’t think we do any good by pretending that poor programs don’t exist and everything is hunk-dory.

      • John, I stand by my earlier comments. You allude to or cite a few examples and generalize that online programs — K-12 and college level — are poor. Again, I’ve been observing online programs at the college level as well as K-12 for many years and I disagree with your generalization.

        The vast majority of online educators are very aware of best practices. I see little evidence to contradict this. They may not always agree with your or my views on what constitutes best practice, but this doesn’t mean they’re ignorant or opposed to improvement.

        I’ve never claimed that all is “hunky-dory” in online education. I don’t think I ever will even when it’s highly successful. In fact, I go out of my way to look for and write about specific areas in current approaches that could be improved. It’s in the nature of educators, including you and me, to always seek improvement. The status quo is never acceptable. -Jim S

  8. I am clearly having a communication problem.

    I did not say that online education is generally poor–I said there are some very poor examples out there that are giving it a bad name. They are chiefly in the credit recovery area, and I cited many examples of exactly the same problem for exactly the same reason in the F2F arena.

    You should also check the annual sales figures for the programs I named. Saying that they represent “some” of the online credit recovery programs is like saying GM and Ford represent some of the American car companies.

    But there are in contrast outstanding online education programs and teachers out there. I have been saying so for years. I just think we need to deal openly with the fact that we have to keep arguing the point because people keep seeing something else and drawing conclusions from what they see.

    • John, my apologies for adding to the noise and confusion. When our nonlinear minds try to meet in the confines of discussion threads, keeping track of exactly what we’re responding to quickly becomes a problem.

      Your messages are clear, as always, so there’s no need for apologies.

      Our differences on the validity of generalizations are just that — differences. You have your basis, and I have mine. We differ, but respectfully.

      Tom’s article hit a nerve. For me, the underlying issue is critical. It marks the divide between those who favor more independence and responsibility for the learner and those who don’t.

      This divide is as old as the hills. Some will enter cold water gradually, immersing the toe, first, then gradually the foot, the ankle, knee, etc. Others will simply jump in.

      The arguments on both sides are strong, and each can point to definite problems with the opposing method.


      Jim S

  9. What an interesting debate! I went on holiday the day after I posted a comment here and have just caught up with things.

    A couple of things that occurred to me:

    – Bad teaching is bad teaching. Shifting the mode to online will change nothing. Whatever mode you choose, the essence will be the same and reflect the culture of the organisation. Some of the problem described point to a climate where the priorities are everywhere except the learning.

    – E-learning is often high up on the strategic planning documents of educational institutions. This is often held aloft as being a big plus for people with our priorities. However, organisations are interested in the bottom line and have a drive to cut costs through technology and it’s from this standpoint that e-learning becomes a strategic goal. In many ways, it’s a sin to put terms like “e-learning” and “online learning” alongside such a outlook. Worse still when in the same breath they mention issues of collaborative pedagogy alongside drive for mass market production through technology. Certainly, it sounds like this is the priority of the educational institutions in the examples described.

    Anyway, an interesting discussion which I’m happy to have sparked.

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