Wednesday, July 8

The Great COVID-Forced Migration to Online Learning: Using Learning Theory to Inform Optimal Enculturation

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By Steve Joordens

This article addresses the side-effects of the great COVID-forced migration to online learning in terms of its potential impact on educational innovation.  I argue that prior to COVID-19 those faculty engaged in online learning also tended to be those who had the greatest knowledge of, and interest in using, educational pedagogies.  Within a very short period of time though, these professors are now joined by many more who, until very recently, aligned themselves more with traditional approaches to education.

If these newcomers are encultured well, we could see a wider embrace of innovation, much to the benefit of our students.  However, if we do it wrong, innovation could backslide.  With this context I channel the ideas of Carol Dweck and Igor Vygotsky to help guide us towards successful enculturation.

This article addresses the following:

  • We have quickly moved from a time when 35% of students had taken one online course and 44% of faculty had taught at least one, to a time when almost all learning is happening online.
  • Previous to COVID those who taught online tended to be those with a more innovative mindset around pedagogy and educational technologies.
  • COVID has brought a very large group of new faculty in this space in a hurry.
  • If the newcomers can be encultured well, the net result could be an overall enhancement of educational innovation.
  • However, if they are not encultured well, our online learning offerings could become watered down, and those previous inhabitants who were so innovation oriented could become demotivated.  This could result in a reduction in overall innovation.
  • Institutions can maximize the positive effects of the mass migration by following the advice of two learning theorists:
    1. Following Dweck, our leaders must embody a growth mindset around online teaching in all of their communications and interactions with faculty.  This should become the culture of our campus, continual growth in pedagogy.
    2. Following Vygotsky, we must provide faculty with the kind of sensitive human support they need to move further into the land of innovation at a rate they keeps them motivated.

The Great Migration

Anyone that pays attention to history or politics is aware that immigration can be a tricky issue, especially when it happens en masse.  Those who already occupy some region have established cultural ways of being, and often the new immigrants do not seem to respect that way of being.  They already have a way of being consistent with their previous location, and they often prefer to bring the homeland culture with them rather than jettison it for a new way of being.

As a result of COVID-19, we have experienced what may well be the greatest educational migration that has, and may ever, occur.  It’s a migration of the platform of learning from brick and mortar to online learning.  Data reported by Inside Higher Ed in December 2019 (i.e., pre-COVID) suggested that 35% of students had taken at least one online learning course as part of their studies.  Since the coronavirus pandemic, virtually every student has now taken multiple courses online, all in the space of months.  The ability of universities and faculties to move online so quickly is truly impressive!  However, at this point, it is important to note that what is true of geopolitical translocation will likely be just as true for educational migration. As my postdoctoral student Irameet Kaur said:

“Is it the case that the movement to online learning represents a movement towards embracing educational innovation more generally, or are many faculty members simply continuing to teach traditionally, just on a new platform?”

That is, the faculty that performed online teaching previous to COVID tended to be those who embraced innovative methods for engaging students, and for deepening their learning through evidence-based active learning experiences.  Typically, there were types who interacted closely with our Centres for Teaching and Learning, and who were well versed in the research around effective teaching practices.  They were often the source of new innovations as well as being the primary consumers of existing ones.  That was their custom.

In another article published by Inside Higher Ed in 2019, it was reported that 46% of instructors had taught at least one online course, which was up from 44% from the previous year.  It also suggested that 39% fully support the increased use of educational technologies. These 39% are likely the same faculty members as those who were willing to teach online, at least for the most part.  Thanks to the great COVID migration, that number is again around 100% with many instructors doing all their teaching online at this time.  So, we now have an interesting mix of faculty in the online space.  A minority are “pre-existing residents” who had a rich culture around proven pedagogical practices and the role technology might play in delivering them, as well as a new group of online immigrants who most likely favored — or at least engaged in — more traditional approaches to learning.

Opportunities and Challenges of the Move to Online Learning

This is a time of both opportunity and danger.  In general, one of the following outcomes could occur.  The immigrants, upon arriving in this world previously held by innovators, might begin interacting more deeply with the existing inhabitants and, as a result, may experience an increased appreciation for what is pedagogically possible.  That is, they might accept the existing culture and “melt” into it, resulting in an overall increase of innovative teaching as we all hope.

However, it’s just as possible or perhaps even likely that these mew arrivals only enculture to the extent they must in order to essentially recreate their traditional approach on an online platform.  For example, they may continue to create one or two hour videos without embedding assessments, and they may assess using primarily multiple-choice assessments.  While that requires some learning of the technologies needed to do these two things, that could be seen as enough, and the enculturation may stop there.  Of course, in reality any given faculty will land somewhere on a continuum of innovation, so we’ll ultimately end up with the inevitable multi-culturalism.

The opportunity then is that, with some concerted effort, we might convince those who make those initial investments to continue investing.  That is, if we can convince them that they’re efforts have taken them to this new cool space that they should learn more about, maybe they will invest further.  Maybe as they gain a better understanding of technologies for lecture delivery and formal assessment, and as they interact with other current residents of the space, they will also be open to learning about other technologies that support powerful new pedagogies.  If that were to happen, then this migration could result in our entire faculty essentially shifting their position more to the right of the innovation curve, thereby resulting in a significant enhancement in how we prepare our students for the uncertain world that awaits.

However, the danger is that these new immigrants only alter their practices to the extent they absolutely must to meet the needs of the post-COVID world. Given their sheer numbers, the result would be the watering down of that part of our institutions where innovation has traditionally been the strongest.  Said another way, many of the pre-COVID practitioners of online learning were energized by their like-minded colleagues and this synergy, this feeling that they were pushing the bounds of pedagogy, may have been part of the fuel that drove them.  However if most of these newcomers are minimally innovative then the innovation vibe that had been the pride of online learners may become watered down.  The net effect could be demotivation of our existing innovators and a reduction in overall innovation.  This could actually hinder student success at a time when they must need to be prepared.

How can Higher Ed Leaders Address This?

What can be done to maximize the opportunity and minimize the danger?  In a previous article I argued that many faculty had fallen into a habit of focusing their innovative thoughts on research and not on teaching.  One great silver lining of COVID is that we are, in some sense, starting fresh, and previous habits may have less hold than they once did.  The time is ripe for new habits if we can support their development well.

The key to supporting the development of new innovative habits may lie in us now seeing our faculty members themselves as students of online learning.  Doing so allows us to consider how learning theorists have tackled this same issue of helping students reach their maximum potential.  In the remainder of this article then I will channel the advice of Carol Dweck and Igor Vygotsky.

Carol Dweck: The power of believing that you can improve

Carol Dweck argues that for students to reach their true potential, they must first believe that they are capable of learning things that will bring value to their lives.  They must escape an “I can’t do this” sort of fixed mindset, and instead embrace the notion that they are capable of great growth as a person.  The goal then is to entrench this mindset more deeply to allow it to have its maximum impact.

To this end Dweck highlights the importance of how language is used within the context of learning which, for our faculty, is our institutions themselves.  Specifically, if we want the maximum number of faculty to hold a growth mindset around online learning, we must create a context in which growth is assumed.  That is, all of our communications should echo our institutions perspective that we are on our way to providing a highly innovative form of online teaching.  Our leaders must speak this way, our e-mails on this issue should reflect it, and virtually all interactions with faculty should be conducted in a manner that assumes they are on a growth path.

Igor Vygotsky: The zone of proximal development

This is where Igor Vygotsky comes in.  Vygotsky believed that educators needed to target learning specifically at a student’s “zone of proximal development,” which was defined as a zone that begins at the student’s current level of competency and extends to the higher level they are capable of reaching with help from a great teacher.  Aiming further than this will lead to failure of learning and, possibly, demotivation.

But if we hit that zone, growth is achieved, and a growth mindset is reinforced.  As this notion implies, we thus need sensitive teachers — those currently versed in the processes and tools of innovative pedagogy — that will assist faculty, but who can do so with wisdom; gauging where a particular faculty member is on their learning journey and bringing them along those next few steps.  This implies a very human interaction, one where our Centres of Teaching and Learning may play a critical role.

Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

The Critical Moment

Taken together then, we are a critical moment of both opportunity and danger: The opportunity to see a widespread embrace of educational innovation, but the danger of sliding backwards on the innovation curve if we don’t do things well.  Which result will be obtained will depend critically on whether faculty who are forced to learn certain aspects of teaching online (i.e., posting lectures and assessing concept learning) would be willing to stretch that learning further to include a deeper understanding of the theories and tools of innovative pedagogies.

As institutions, we should be doing all we can to motivate such a movement towards innovation, which means we must talk and act as though we assume that this is the path we are all on.  That is, we need to hold a growth mindset around our online learning offerings and our education in general.  In addition, we must provide the support faculty need to make the steps from where they are now to the level of innovation they are capable of reaching.  If we get the right combination of a growth mindset and support, we can create new habits of innovative learning that will serve our students well when they perhaps need us most!


About the author

Professor Steve Joordens in the Director of the Advanced Learning Technologies Lab at the University of Toronto Scarborough.   He teaches a very large Introduction to Psychology class at his institution, and also on Coursera.org.  His research focuses primarily on the creation and assessment of educational technologies, especially those focused on formal approaches to skill development.  His teaching and research have won him a number of institutional, provincial and national awards recognize a sustained and significant impact on higher education in Canada.

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