Introduction & Theoretical Underpinnings

granite state collegeThis book was created as a response to emerging discussions with online faculty and program directors about what is possible in teaching and learning online beyond using just text-based instructional media.

The context of these discussions has been within my collaborative work as the Rich Media Specialist and Senior Instructional Designer at Granite State College since 2011. I have worked in the design, development, and formative revision of fully online courses in undergraduate and graduate degree programs and in facilitating faculty professional development programs. I have also taught fully online courses for General Education, Program level, and Capstone undergraduate courses since 2012.

I recognized in my own teaching and in my instructional design discussions with faculty that there was an opportunity to promote a vision of what we do as online educators that separates us from the conventions of face-to-face (F2F) education. We teach differently than F2F instructors, encounter different challenges, and draw upon different skills to achieve our educational goals. Teaching online isn’t an offshoot of F2F teaching–it is an entirely different species of teaching.

Teaching online isn’t an offshoot of F2F teaching – it is an entirely different species of teaching.

Much has been written about what is possible in teaching in traditional F2F education. In contrast, the answers to the question of What is possible in teaching online? have only just begun to proliferate within the community of practice. For this discussion to grow, however, two significant obstacles need to be overcome: one is a cultural barrier; the other is a relatively large gap in the body of evidence-based practice for teaching online as a profession. Teaching online, as we understand it today, simply has not been around as long as F2F traditions.

Culturally, online education was (and to some degree, still is) perceived as a second-class outgrowth of the F2F education model–something not quite as legitimate; not quite as rigorous. F2F learning is still regarded by traditionalists as “real learning.” While I agree that online teaching is not for every instructor nor is online learning for every student, none of those factors negates the reality that learning can occur in fully online instruction with no significant difference in outcomes compared to F2F. Unfortunately, for my faculty clients, there had not been enough high profile examples of well-designed and sustainable online education to convince skeptics that an entire degree program could be offered fully online and convey the same confidence in the graduate’s credential.

steve leturing
The author presenting a workshop at NERCOMP

Perceptions have changed, however, partly out of necessity, partly out of discovery (as indicated below in the excerpt from Dr. Piña’s seminar), and partly because of the creative vision of new education leadership. (It is also worth mentioning that my two teenage children have learned many new complex skills on their own through YouTube videos with no assistance from me! Models for self-directed learning are evolving as we speak.)

At Granite State College, a cultural change began to occur around 2013. Up to that point leadership had sanctified the culture of academic freedom where online faculty were given total discretion to teach subject matter any way they wanted with no standards for the structural design of their online course, assignment development, and assessment strategies. Implicit in this approach was that subject matter expertise was the only condition that mattered in order for learning to occur–the educational experience of being connected to a subject matter expert was, in itself, a form of learning.

However, the results were chaotic. Some courses were well designed while others were difficult to comprehend. Each instructor had their own (often improvised) concept of course layout, labeling, formatting, engagement logic, and instructional communication. From the student’s perspective, no two courses were alike making the experience of progressing from course to course as frustrating as recalibrating one’s orientation, navigation, and movement strategies in a different airport every time one uses air travel.

The shift away from absolute academic freedom meant embracing a new understanding that teaching and learning online required a more systematic approach to course design, development, implementation, and teaching that reflected the fundamental communication differences between traditional F2F and online learning. It also required recognizing and validating the experiential, emotional, and motivational differences online students bring to academic commitments.

And this is where we bring to light the newness of teaching online as a profession informed by instructional design models as a science.

For example, in a seminar offered by Educause in August, 2017, one educator recounted how the process of converting a F2F course to an online course through a systematic instructional design model improved the course so well that it completely changed how all new courses were created.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript of Dr. Anthony Piña’s Educause presentation titled, “Changing Institutional Culture Using Instructional Design.”

My institution, when I arrived a little over eight years ago, was definitely stuck in an old paradigm and had a very strong established culture among the faculty. And that culture was, “I am going to put my face-to-face course online.” And so the idea is that “face-to-face drives the bus” here. It [was] very personalized to individual faculty members, and so it’s possible that different sections of the same course could be wildly different from each other.

The courses were often built in a vacuum, and the faculty member decided what was to be put into the particular online course…. The faculty member said, “This is what I think should be taught in the course so I’m going to develop it this way,” without really consulting other faculty or even the division or program level outcomes, which were a little fuzzy at the time….

We are now doing a new paradigm within our institution… Rather than having face-to face-development “drive the bus,” online is now driving the bus. One of the reasons for this is that academic leadership has realized that the online courses are built upon principles of instructional design. Bringing instructional designers in there, using ID models, using standards and rubrics, etc., resulted in online courses that were better developed than the face-to-face courses.

And so what’s happening now is that new course development, rather than developing the face-to-face course and then developing the online as an adjunct to the face-to-face, we are now developing all new courses online first [along with] hybrid courses, and [then] face-to-face courses are being developed from the online course.

So face-to-face is now adapted from online, whereas our previous culture was exactly the opposite.

Key Theoretical Underpinnings

The following understandings drive the principles presented in this book:

  • Teaching and learning in a fully asynchronous online delivery mode is fundamentally a communications challenge caused by the effects of transactional distance (Moore, M., 1993). What is gained in distance education in terms of reach is hampered by a loss of semantic richness in asynchronous communication compared to the semantic richness of face-to-face communication (Daft, R. L., Lengel, R. H., 1986).
  • Each form of communication, e.g. text, image, video, audio, interactive multimedia, has inherent strengths and weaknesses to convey information compared to other forms of communication (Kozma, 1991), though these differences are not deterministic. Context, purpose, audience, rhetorical impact, professional competency, and feasibility are considerable factors in the decision to select a certain form of communication for instructional media instead of another.
  • The design of information itself is both analog (analogous to that which it represents) and digital (symbolic)(Wilden, A., 1972) which requires cognitive effort by learners to decode and interpret. Information, as a design, is engaged with experientially (Dervin, B., 2003). This suggests that the character of information and the sensory experience of it should be a consideration in how it is conveyed as instructional media.
  • Information, conveyed through communication, is an ingredient in human sensemaking amidst continual cognitive movement toward overcoming a gap, solving a problem, or improving one’s condition (Case, 2007, Dervin, 2003). The human brain – a pattern recognition machine – processes sensory information with an urgency to make sense of it according to existing patterns of information in longterm memory and the immediate situation in which the learner encounters new information (Foreman-Wernet, 2003). Therefore, it is critical to think of the flow of information within the learner’s narrative context (past history, present moment, future goals, constraints, power structures, etc.) of solving a particular problem or overcoming a stopping point.
  • Rich media alone does not cause learning to occur. No body of information by itself in any form constitutes “instruction.” Optimally, information should be situated within a pedagogically sound context, purpose, and structure.

There are references to many familiar areas of educational research throughout this book that align with broader principles of instructional design and learning theory. The following areas, however, are brought to the forefront because of their relevance to the unique experience of teaching and learning online.

Dr. Brenda Dervin’s Sensemaking Methodology

Dervin’s decades of research into sensemaking centers around the description of human agency, emotion, communication, and behavior in situations that involve seeking information to close gaps that impede their cognitive movement toward solving a problem. Dervin’s model of humans as information seekers, sensemakers, and sensegivers, aligns well with the proposition that teaching and learning online, as a semantically thin environment, is fundamentally a communications challenge.

Readers are directed to review the most digestible historical summary of sensemaking in Naresh Kumar Agarwal’s “Making sense of sense-making: tracing the history and development of Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology” (2012). Dervin’s collected works in “Sense-Making Methodology reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin” (2003) describe the first principles of sensemaking as a metatheory and methodology.

Below are key takeaways adapted from Dervin’s work that are valuable in understanding the perspective of learners involved in fully online asynchronous learning:

  1. Humans are both orderly and chaotic; they enter into situations (such as online learning) with infinitely diverse historical, social, cultural, and cognitive understandings of the context of their needs and the means by which to fulfill them.
  2. Humans improve their condition by seeking information and overcoming gaps through communication. Dervin organizes these “verbings” into various “helps” (see figure 1 below) that describe how a particular form of help enabled them to move forward.
  3. The patterns of when users seek information/help and how they overcome stopping points is more predictive of users’ needs than what is considered important or useful according to an individual subject matter expert or an instructional systems designer.
  4. The only way to know how learners encounter, operate, fail, seek help, and succeed in the challenges of learning online is to ask them. Dervin proposes a methodology to discover patterns in these efforts which she calls the Micro-Moment Timeline.
Dervin helps
Fig. 1 – Dervin’s collection of “helps” that describe how individuals overcome stopping points in their cognitive movement.

From these and other observations proposed in Dervin’s work, I offer the following propositions about online learners that inform instructional design practice:

Degree-based online education is still so new that students come into our programs with only fragments of understanding about what online learning is, what they are supposed to do to meet expectations, how/when to get help, and what kind of help they actually need.

In situations where online students are unsure what to do or how to do it, they may improvise a solution because there is no one to interact with in the immediate moment when their sense runs out, unlike in a F2F classroom setting.

We design, develop, and teach our courses under a set of assumptions about our students that may turn out to be inaccurate, misguided, or naive. It is impossible to know and account for the infinite realities students bring to our courses. However, it is possible to rethink what we do according to the patterns that emerge when online students seek information and ask for help. We must therefore ask how students overcome their stopping points, what forms of help enabled them to do so, and then use formative instructional design to improve instruction.

Dervin’s work calls for us think from a user-based perspective similar to the way Temple Grandin describes her ability to visualize how animals experience their environment in the livestock trade. To move to a user-based approach requires relinquishing the belief that students owe us the effort to figure out how we have conceptualized learning according to our philosophies, assumptions, rules, and expectations. For students, this type of learning experience can be disorienting; at worst, cruel and indifferent to their needs.

Robert Kozma’s analysis of media

Kozma is perhaps known for his battles with Richard Clark over whether the use of any given medium in delivering information has any effect on learning.

Kozma’s position states that there is a relationship between the affordances of a given medium and its ability to convey information analogously to human sensory perception. Certain media, under certain conditions, are optimized for the formation of cognitive models of knowledge according to the character of the information itself. In a way, Kozma portrays media as a cognitive extension as described in Andy Clark and David Chalmers’ theory of “The Extended Mind.”

Neither Richard Clark nor Robert Kozma argue that media itself causes learning. Rather, Kozma changes the focus of interest in the argument to something more metaphysical about how the human brain processes information in the formation of knowledge. Media, as a symbolic, metaphoric, or isomorphic representation of real phenomena, are useful as cognitive guides.


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Teaching with Rich Media by Steve Covello is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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