In 1993 I led a team that created the world’s first fully online MBA at Athabasca University. We launched in 1994 at the same time Jeff Bezos launched Amazon and it was hugely successful. What we did not do was try to replicate what professors did in classrooms and “move” teaching online. We chose the path of creating a community of inquiry for our learners focused on engaged and involved learning.
We were ahead of our time. We partnered with our students on design and development. We learned that content is less important than understanding and authentic learning – students have content and can find it, what they seek is understanding of what it means and how to apply meaning to the real world. We learned that learning from each other – what we now refer to as peer to peer learning – is as important as a presentation from faculty. We learned that working anytime, anywhere rather than having to log into a real-time class was seen as more desirable: we had no lectures or zoom-like activities.
We challenged our students to work in groups to solve cases, including cases from their own workplaces. We challenged our students to solve “live” challenges – using information supplied by corporations or non-profit organizations eager for the “free” consulting advice our students would provide. We used project-based learning to engage students in applying their knowledge, skills and understanding to problems in their place of work.
Now they benefit from virtual co-operatives powered by artificial intelligence and supported by quality teachers able to coach for improved performance. They co-create new knowledge through small teams challenged to solve components of wicked problems. They work in partnership with others on issues that matter: mental health in the workplace, food security, community safety, loneliness.
Around the world in the period since 1994 some remarkable innovations in online learning have occurred, which show themselves in high levels of student engagement and outstanding courses which push students to connect to communities around the world.
Yet here we are in 2020 hearing that faculty are struggling to “move their courses from the classroom online” and that students are experiencing everything from outstanding learning to simply being given a list of readings and dates for handing in assignments. As Professor Martin Weller from the Open University (UK) has observed, it is like groundhog day for those of us who pioneered online learning. The concerns raised in 1994-1999 are being repeated again, as if no research and evaluation or innovations had occurred since.
What the current move to online shows us how little many faculty members know about how adults learn, about the nature of instructional design, about the power of collaboration and student engaged learning. It is exposing the myth that a Masters of PhD degree is a sound preparation for teaching in a college or university. It is exposing the consequences of not requiring all who teach in higher education to possess a teaching qualification, however minimal.
It is also exposing the soft underbelly of “academic freedom” which, for students, means the right of faculty to teach what they want to teach in the way they want to teach it on the platform they prefer, no matter where their students are and what access to technology they possess. The lack of pedagogical leadership aimed at ensuring that students in a program all use the same platform for learning, share an understanding of equitable access to learning resources, materials and activity and have a quality experience is noticeable.
Faculty especially struggle with re-imagining assessment – moving from mid-term and end of term examinations to more authentic and engaged forms of assessment based on knowledge, capabilities and competencies. Concerns over plagiarism and cheating – as if these were new concerns (the poet Milton was rusticated for cheating in an exam at Cambridge in 1626 as was the poet John Betjeman in 1928) – inhibit thinking about creative and challenging assessment, peer assessment and project-based evaluations.
We will soon hear voices that “we tried online learning and it didn’t work”. One article compared student reaction to face-to-face lectures versus the same lectures streamed online and showed students prefer the real thing. Who wouldn’t. But streaming a lecture is about as far away from the effective design of online learning as one can imagine. At least, that is what we realized as a team in 1994.