Two approaches in online education
In the context of technology-mediated education, we can discern two clearly distinct approaches. On one hand, possibly due to the human tendency to exhaustively classify its surroundings, we find a variety of experiences, such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), NOOCs (Nano Online Courses), SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses), among others. This phenomenon of redefinition and renaming in online education, often with a marked inclination towards the adoption of English terms, has been a constant throughout the last decade. The challenge lies in the difficulty of establishing a standard that allows for clear differentiation between them, especially when the observed variables focuses on technological components or the structure of the content. Conversely, it is more likely to identify a common pattern from this perspective.
On the other hand, there is a movement advocating for stripping technology-backed education or training of categorisations, normalising its existence, and shifting the focus towards its pedagogical aspects. This approach seeks to demystify the idea that technology is the crucial element, instead recognizing that technology serves as a valuable means to improve the learning experience, even if it is not considered an essential element.
In general, credit for being the first researchers to design, implement and document an online education or training experience is given to Dave Cormier, George Siemens and Steven Downes from the University of Manitoba (Connectivism and Connected Knowledge, 2008). These researchers gave way to the renowned MOOCs, but with a constructivist approach. In other words, MOOCs are designed with an instructional design approach that focuses on the collaborative creation of knowledge, promoting an active methodology that gives an essential role to the individual in their educational development process. This kind of experience falls within the first of the previously mentioned movements.
On the other hand, there is an opposing movement, represented by the “other” MOOCs, which generally employ behaviourist methodological models. These MOOCs follow a didactic sequence that resembles the stimulus-response paradigm. The dynamics of these courses involve the presentation of content followed by a series of questions designed to assess students’ comprehension levels. The Artificial Intelligence course (CS221) launched in 2011 by Sebastian Thrun at Stanford University is often cited as a pioneering example of this approach.
As stated in the beginning, the technological perspective and the organisation of content do not provide sufficient observational variables in order to distinguish one approach from the other. In this case, the only factor capable of providing a significantly distinct view would be the analysis of their instructional designs.
Instructional design refers to a planned and systematic approach to the development of effective learning experiences. Robert M. Gagné defines it as a process that involves:
- Identifying learning goals.
- Selecting and organising content.
- Establishing appropriate learning strategies.
- Assessing learning outcomes.
- Conducting continuous reviews of the process to improve learning effectiveness.
On the other hand, David Merrill argues that instructional design is a systematic approach to the creation of learning experiences based on theoretical and practical principles. This implies:
- Identifying desired learning outcomes.
- Selecting and organising educational resources.
- Implementing appropriate learning strategies.
- Assessing students’ learning.
Both Merrill and Gagné provide models that cover a series of pedagogical stages designed to facilitate a meaningful learning experience.
Merrill’s model is based on five learning principles that integrate holistically:
- Task centrality: This first principle seeks to generate interest progressively throughout the learning sequence to engage the student in the challenges of the learning process.
- Activation: The second principle encourages the student to explore and use their prior knowledge as a starting point for the new learning experience.
- Demonstration: The third principle refers to the stages in which the learner demonstrates their mastery of what they have learnt through exercises.
- Application: The fourth principle aims for the student to apply their acquired knowledge to real-life situations, allowing them to put into practice what they have learnt in authentic contexts.
- Integration: Finally, the fifth principle aims for the student to integrate the new knowledge into their daily life, applying it to common situations or problems that they encounter in their environment.
On the other hand, Gagné’s model includes nine instructional elements in which the teacher takes on the responsibility of designing a series of stimuli with the goal of creating a meaningful learning proposal:
- Capture attention: The goal is to capture students’ attention through stimuli that encourage reflection about the content of the learning proposal.
- Communicate goals: Next, the learners are informed about the goals of the training proposal, the expected results and the evaluation criteria that will be taken into account.
- Evaluate prior knowledge: It is important to determine the prior knowledge that students possess in order to be able to reflect on it and establish connections with their new learning.
- Present content: Then, the content and the materials that make up the learning experience are presented.
- Guidance and orientation: During the development of the learning proposal, the teacher must guide and support the students to help them overcome the various challenges they encounter.
- Verify learning: The teacher verifies that the student has acquired the knowledge and is able to apply it in practice.
- Interaction: Interaction with learners is essential to provide feedback during the teaching and learning process.
- Performance evaluation: Student performance is assessed, determining to what extent they have achieved the goals set in the learning experience.
- Promote retention: Finally, learning retention is promoted by verifying that the student has understood and acquired the necessary skills for its application.
Instructional design in digital environments
In the end, as highlighted by Charles Reigeluth, when we address instructional design, we come upon the discipline that prescribes the optimal instruction approaches and methods that enable the desired changes in students’ knowledge and skills. Assessing the instructional design stages of a technology-mediated training experience is probably the most objective indicator to determine its pedagogical value. Undoubtedly, this indicator allows us to conclude that, in the case we have addressed in this publication, the constructivist MOOC from the University of Manitoba provides, in our opinion, a considerably superior technopedagogic experience compared to behaviourist MOOCs, such as those from Stanford University.
In conclusion: when setting up online training, especially for teacher training, we must ask ourselves the following questions:
- What does the underlying instructional design of your training proposal entail?
- What are the central elements that shape the proposal? Do they match those indicated by Merrill and/or Gagné?
- Is the desired change in the instructional proposal a competency change or is it connected to the acquisition of knowledge that can be traditionally assessed?
- How should a constructivist-designed training experience be assessed?
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