7 ways humans are critical to online learning

Blended learning done right is the ‘gold standard,’ say experts

online-learning-humansOnline courses that are credit-bearing hold incredible promise for high school and college students eager for flexible schedules and a cheaper education alternative; but as one study shows, it’s the skilled human element part of blended learning that offers the maximum benefits.

The study, “Innovating Toward Equity with Online Courses: Testing the optimal ‘blend’ of in-person human supports with low-income youth and teachers in California,” conducted by the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence at the University of California, San Diego, aimed to understand whether or not humans played a critical role to credited online learning—and if so, in what capacity?

“In California, online self-education is key to one definition of ‘equity,’ particularly for low-income youth…Many scholars celebrate moments when youth teach themselves using computers, seemingly making a teacher or even physical schools seem unnecessary,” explained the report’s authors. “What should human instructors still be paid to do?”

According to the results of the 2013 study, researchers found seven varieties of in-person human supports that were frequent in successful online learning credited courses—creating the “gold standard for online learning.”

(Next page: 7 ways human are necessary)

During the 2013 summer, researchers examined the “in-person roles” adult instructors played in eight classrooms affecting 200 students total. More about the methodology and study’s design can be found in the report.

Across all four institutions and eight classrooms surveyed, there were distinct “patterns of behavior and interaction that generally cut across the classrooms, as well as the range and types of interactions that were distinct site to site.

Researchers found seven varieties of in-person human support:

1. Humans as techies: Help make the online course accessible and internet-based links functional. Especially critical during the first week, as unforeseen glitches with school firewalls or tech incompatibility often occurs.

2. Humans as organizers of content: Though online courses typically lend themselves to easily-digested short text, image and animations, human teachers still often organized the material in ways that helped student’s conceptualization of the course. Organization came from preparing study guides and other summaries of information.

3. Humans as explainers: Teachers often explain content beyond what’s listed in an online course, and the explanations often occur one-on-one, in small peer groups, or during main discussions. Particularly helpful in this scenario is when teachers help to personalize a student’s understanding of a concept by adding creative examples to better present the information. “Students felt that this type of extension of the course materials was often essential to deepening their understanding of the materials,” notes the report.

4. Humans as expanders: Adults in the room often provide ad hoc opportunities for students to contemplate, extend or share their learning by asking them to write reflective prompts or different assignments, creating labs, or leading small group discussions. Unique to this role, teachers as extenders often encourage students to make connections to the “real world” with a focus on application.

(Next page: 5-7)

5. Humans as feedback: Frequent feedback on learning, as well as giving formative assessments were critical to student success, found researchers. Not only was this important for students’ re-writing of short assignments, but for mathematics as well, where continual checking for understanding was essential to good student performance. Teachers also worked to create, score and review additional student materials (new problems, quizzes, or assignments) to ascertain gaps in knowledge.

6. Humans as regulators: Most instructors urge students to go at the designated pace of the course, not going further than one lesson ahead each day. Whether or not this kind of regulation is a positive or negative for online learners remains to be seen, said the report.

7. Humans as supporters: As many other new studies have shown, online learning is most successful with the effective implementation of community and peer support. “Whether students were digesting curriculum on a shared computer screen, collaborating on an assignment, or discussing a concept that they collectively needed to understand more deeply, students leaned regularly on their peers as essential human support,” explained researchers.

Overall, the report concludes by saying the most critical of human roles in online learning was the “human as innovator of content and pedagogy, shifting teaching in response to students’ ongoing needs.”

“We saw the importance of human creative innovation in taking learning deeper through in-the-moment discussion, explanation, extension, and application, and through ongoing verification of student comprehension,” said researchers. “We also note that face-to-face humans encourage students to go deeper in their learning experience than what the computer accepted.”

What online course providers must remember, however, is that not just any human will do—the instructor must be “highly skilled at supplementing the course with human-based learning experiences, such as making connections to ideas not programmed into the text, explaining material in ways not programmed into the explanation, or discussing  and debating concepts.”

For much more in-depth coverage of these human roles in online learning, read the full report.