The Faculty of Education at Ontario Tech University has been offering fully-online synchronous programs since 2009. Over the years, we have learned quite a bit about successful and unsuccessful online learning experiences. While we are still learning, we are excited to share our guidelines, strategies, insights, activities, and wisdom in Thriving Online – A Guide for Busy Educators.
There are many good books on Online Teaching and Learning (refer to the end of this chapter for an annotated list). Many focus predominantly on asynchronous learning (Bonk & Zhang, 2008; Conrad & Donaldson, 2004; Lehman & Conceição, 2014; Means et al., 2014; Pallot & Pratt, 2009; Stein & Graham, 2014). Others concentrate on practical suggestions and strategies (Boetrxher & Conrad, 2021; Fisher et al., 2020; Nilson & Goodson, 2018; Schank, 2001). A few online learning books target more specific topics, such as problem-based learning (Savin-Badin, 2007; Savin-Baden & Wilkie, 2006), small group instruction (Darby & Lang, 2019) and student perceptions of the online learning experience (Veletsianos, 2020). Some books target research and the science of online learning (Dabbagh et al., 2018; Kosslyn, 2020; Rudestamd et al., 2021; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2021). Finally, several books combine extensive research on online learning with concrete suggestions for success (Boetrxher & Conrad, 2021; Hockenbary, 2021; Lemov, 2021; Nilson & Goodson, 2018).
Our book is different. While founded on evidence-based practice and solid theory, we have deliberately written and designed each chapter for the busy educator. Chapters are concise, typically eight to ten pages, so that they can be used and digested in a relatively short time. Each chapter consists of a brief introduction, general guidelines, online activities, and general resources. Suggested activities are not theoretical – they have been tested and revised over many years. Finally, we have also relied on the real-world experience of over 25 professionals who have taught and experienced numerous synchronous online courses for thousands of students for over a decade. We are grateful that eCampus Ontario provided us with this extraordinary opportunity to develop this comprehensive guide for secondary school and higher education instructors.
COVID Outbreak and a Paradigm Shift In Teaching and Learning
For many teachers and professors who suddenly found themselves required to teach online due to COVID-driven school, college and university closures, it indeed seemed as if their professional world had changed overnight. Skills developed in university and honed through years of classroom experience were challenging to transfer to environments that separated learners and teachers and relied on a different set of technical and interpersonal skills. In reality, though, those technologies and skills emerged over several decades as some instructors moved to online work voluntarily.
The development of technologies to support computer-to-computer and networked communication over the last 60 years (e.g., Leiner et al., 1997) led to those technologies being used by some educators for the delivery of courses in the 1980s and expanding to others with the emergence of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. At the beginning of the new millennium, Harasim (2000) described the nascent shift to online educational delivery and identified three modes of delivery: the adjunct mode (in which networks were used to enhance face-to-face or distant education, a mixed-mode (in which networking constitutes a significant portion of learning) and the totally online mode. Today, the first two modes have combined, and we talk about blended and fully online learning. Before COVID, there was steady growth in online technologies to support teaching and learning until recently.
Exact figures on participation in online courses vary by jurisdiction, level of schooling, and various demographic characteristics (e.g., Reimers et al., 2020). In that report, Reimers et al. (2020) focus on adult training, but its recommendations are telling:
- develop basic digital skills to support lower-skilled adults in accessing online learning;
- motivate online learners to improve retention and completion rates;
- develop effective testing methods and certificates to ensure that online learning is valuable in the labour market;
- broaden the range of online courses to include more blue-collar occupations;
- train online teachers to raise the quality of online courses;
- establish quality assurance mechanisms for online learning to ensure that online courses provide participants value for money/time; and
- strengthen the digital infrastructure and use teaching methods that minimize infrastructure needs.
However, it is useful to note that Statistics Canada (2022) reported that between 2018 and 2020, the percentage of people 15 plus years who engaged in some formal online rose from 15 to 25. The informal online educational experience percentage declined slightly from 26% to 24% for the same time.
In early 2021, the COVID pandemic thrust thousands of high school teachers and post-secondary instructors worldwide into an unanticipated immersion in online teaching methods and practices for which most were either unprepared or ill-prepared (Trust et al., 2020). The term Remote Emergency Teaching (Hodges et al., 2020) was coined to capture the difference between this teaching environment and the more considered practices of faculty who had experience with online teaching before the pandemic. For many teachers and students, the transition was challenging. Indeed, the adaptation consisted primarily of posting readings online and preparing video lectures that students could view in a browser or a learning management system (LMS). The scope and nature of these early changes to education were extensive (Li & Lelani, 2020). Some of the biggest challenges in this sudden and unanticipated transition have been:
- inadequate network connections–especially true in developing nations but also an issue in parts of Canada (VanNuland et al., 2020);
- insufficient home conditions (e.g., only one device for family and that device needed by parents working from home); and
- lack of experience or training in the use of technology.
For a fuller perspective, Gallagher-McKay et al. (2021) have reported on a wide range of COVID effects in the context of Ontario K-12 schools. Some examples are long and short-term school closures, imposed virtual learning, spacing and capacity limits.
Teacher educators and faculty development specialists quickly responded to the need for support and advice. For example:
- Learn at Home [Doc.] — resources prepared by Dr. Diana Petrarca and Ontario Tech B.Ed. students in early April of 2020;
- Global Partnership for Education — practical advice for teachers in trying circumstances internationally; and
- International Baccalaureate [PDF] — advice for system adaptation and teaching support.
- Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [PDF] — annotated resources for online teaching.
However, after two years of experience with COVID, it seems to us that it is crucial to recognize that online teaching skills are likely to remain an essential part of the teachers’ toolkit, at least for secondary and post-secondary teachers. The next big challenge may or may not be a disease, but the teaching workforce should be prepared to move online when circumstances demand it. We need to replace remote emergency teaching with something like skilled alternative teaching. And if the next crisis turns out to be many years in the future, we hope to show that online methods have significant value even when schools are fully open for in-classroom teaching.
The chapters in this work provide practical guidance that will assist classroom teachers, and post-secondary instructors develop the online skills that will enable them to conduct truly engaging online activities. Each chapter will provide a general introduction to the issues it will deal with and provide concrete examples of activities that illustrate how to approach online teaching for the purposes and the content dealt with in the chapter.
This chapter will present a brief overview of the research and theory that have guided our work overall. Specifically, we will address:
- The Community of Inquiry (CoI) model developed by Randy Garrison and his colleagues (Garrison, 2011)
- Michael Fullan’s Deep Learning (DL) approach to more engaged learning (Fullan, 2013).
- Collaborative Learning (CL)
Community of Inquiry
The CoI was defined and developed based on the idea of Communities of Practice (Wenger, 1999)–working groups in which learning was a fundamental purpose and function. The Community of Inquiry model extended the Communities of Practice model by focusing on groups in which teaching and learning were the primary functions and objectives of the group. The critical components of the CoI are:
- Social Presence (SP) consists of communications that convey the participant’s personhood (e.g., humour, courteous) and which contribute to the social development of the group by stressing affective concerns.
- Cognitive Presence (CP) is characterized by critical inquiry and reflection of the type associated with academic thinking or writing. Some examples are questions regarding data analysis, research methods, questions of logic, and the nature of evidence (e.g., Garrison et al. (, 2001). They regarded CP as a key to learning in the CoI, and it has since been the focus of extensive research on what exactly CP is, how it is promoted in online learning, and how it is assessed.
- Teaching Presence (TP) pertains to the instructional component of online learning. Garrison et al. defined three elements of TP: instructional management, building understanding, and direct instruction. Instructional leadership includes matters like “setting curriculum, designing methods and assessment, establishing time parameters, and utilizing the medium” (Garrison et al., 2000, p. 1010). Simply put, it is what the instructor does to build the learning environment. Building understanding “is concerned with productive and valid knowledge acquisition” (p. 101) and includes contributions by both instructors and learners that are designed to support collaborative meaning construction. Direct instruction is concerned with feedback that critically assesses learner contributions and promotes elaboration and dialogue.
It is essential to note the technological limitations when the CoI was developed. Although video conferencing technologies existed, they were expensive, hardware-intensive, and cumbersome to use. Consequently, the kind of classroom interactions that the CoI described and analyzed (and the model’s dimensions) was shaped by the available technologies. The focus was mainly on asynchronous text-based discussion forums of the type frequently found in learning management systems like Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, and Desire2Learn. Such systems are still widely used, and the lessons learned from the CoI model are still of great value, but we hope to move beyond that in at least some of what this book presents. Valverde-Berrocoso et al.’s (2020) recent systematic review of literature on online learning concluded that the “Community of Inquiry (CoI) emerges as the most relevant theoretical framework…” (p.6) in the studies they examined.
One particular example of moving beyond CoI is the Fully Online Learning Community (FOLC) model, developed by Roland van Oostveen and colleagues at Ontario Tech University (e.g., van Oostveen et al., 2016). As the name implies, FOLC focuses on fully online (as opposed to blended) learning communities. Still, it is also noteworthy that it includes a strong emphasis on problem-based collaborative learning and the use of video. One consequence of these foci is that FOLC does not have a teaching presence component since the method stresses a more egalitarian approach in which all participants are both teachers and learners.
The concept of deep learning has its origins in artificial intelligence and neural network research on pattern recognition in things like speech recognition and handwriting recognition. That is, deep learning is an element of some machine learning algorithms. It seeks to improve the performance of algorithms by using data from the algorithm’s performance to make adjustments to variables in the algorithms. Hence, it is like feedback for performance improvement in human learning terms. The idea emerged from work on gradient-based learning, as illustrated in an article by some deep learning pioneers (LeCun et al., 1998).
At roughly the same time, the concept of Deep Learning was also emerging in the education literature. Warburton (2003) provided a good overview of the idea and traced it back to Entwistle et al. (1981). In Warburton’s model, the critical elements in learning are motivation to understand and engagement with the topic, shaped by the learning environment, the course content, and individual factors like prior knowledge and metacognitive abilities. High levels of motivation and engagement accompanied by instructional focuses on either holistic comprehension or serialist methodical learning (see Pask, 1976) defined the conditions in which deep learning could occur.
Warburton (2003) discussed deep learning in the context of sustainability and environmental education. Yet, the work is a rich source of practical advice on promoting interest and engagement, two vital elements of deep learning as Warburton saw it.
As described in Warburton (2003), deep learning involves a complex and nuanced combination of learning principles; for example, he advocated a blending of mastery learning and discovery learning (often thought to be opposing concepts):
Discovery learning emphasizes self-directed learning by students, with the teacher as a facilitator (Bruner, 1960; Rogers, 1969). The curriculum should facilitate mastery learning (through considerations of planned sequence, essential content, learning materials and format) while providing opportunities to benefit from discovery learning through curiosity, independence and enhanced personal meaning. (p. 48)
In addition, he recognized the value of advance organizers as a way of getting learners to connect prior learning to new lessons:
Since knowledge and understanding are both essential for educational progress, the curriculum should be based on firmly established anchoring ideas that relate to personal experience as far as possible– advance organizers (Ausubel et al., 1978). It is essential to provide a clear structure, logical progression, and unifying themes and indicate these at the outset. However, surprises, problems, and variety should also be built in to appeal to intuitive holistic and serialists (Entwistle, 1981). (p. 48)
Other principles in Warburton’s (2003) description of deep learning included focusing on principles and conceptual analysis in the learning process. The Warburton paper concluded:
Deep learning strategies cannot be externally imposed and must be interest-led. Interest can be stimulated by placing less emphasis on curriculum content and more on contextual interpretation… students must be allowed adequate time. The challenge for educational institutions is not simply to teach concrete facts… but to create an active, transformative process of learning… These activities are not well served by packed timetables or large class sizes. They are enhanced through small group discussions, with tutors or lecturers providing guidance and encouragement as needed. (p. 54. Ellipses used to remove text specifically targeting sustainability education)
More recently, Fullan et al. (2013) depicted the current state of education as a crisis and extended the deep learning concept to provide a kind of road map for re-envisioning education in the light of the demands of the 21st century. In particular, Fullan and his colleagues have focused on connectivity and the importance of engagement (Fullan et al., 2017), concepts that are also critical in what we mean by thriving online. This view of DL seeks to improve education through a focus on six global competencies (Fullan et al., 2019, p. 17):
- Character education
- Learning to learn.
- Grit, tenacity, perseverance and resilience.
- Self-regulation, responsibility, and integrity.
- Thinking like global citizens.
- Considering global issues based on a deep understanding of diverse values and worldviews.
- Genuine interest and ability to solve ambiguous and complex real-world problems that impact. human and environmental sustainability.
- Working interdependently and synergistically in teams.
- Interpersonal and team-related skills.
- Social, emotional, and intercultural skills.
- Managing team dynamics and challenges.
- Learning from and contributing to the learning of others.
- Communicating effectively with various styles, modes, and tools, including digital.
- Communication is designed for different audiences.
- Reflection on and use of the process of learning to improve communication.
- Having an entrepreneurial eye for economic and social opportunities.
- Asking the right inquiry questions.
- Considering and pursuing novel ideas and solutions.
- Leadership to turn ideas into action.
- Critical thinking
- Evaluating information and arguments.
- Making connections and identifying patterns.
- Constructing meaningful knowledge.
- Experimenting, reflecting, and taking action on ideas in the real world.
In this view of deep learning, the task is to build a system that enables learners to acquire and act on these six competencies (referred to in the model as the 6 Cs). This view is a big ask of global educational systems, but it is worth noting that the deep learning literature that has emerged over the last decade has even more demanding expectations regarding the nature of the changes needed in education. Given these demands, it is also important to stress that the subtitle of the Fullan et al. (2017) book is: Engage the World Change the World. The work is filled with anecdotes about schools from seven countries with ongoing deep learning projects. The New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (NDPL) website indicates seven more countries with ongoing projects.
Educators could be forgiven for confusing the ideas of cooperative learning and collaborative learning. Loes et al. (2017) indicate that:
Although these phrases are often used synonymously in the teaching and learning literature, many scholars studying these techniques have suggested that cooperative learning and collaborative learning are indeed distinct instructional approaches. Specifically, it has been argued that cooperative learning is a more structured instructional approach that requires a greater level of facilitation by the instructor than collaborative learning. (p. 3)
This observation helps to explain why cooperative learning tends to be used more often in K-12 settings, and collaborative learning tends to be used in post-secondary contexts (Loes et al., 2017). That difference might also have to do with the earlier focus on these methods based on a landmark meta-analysis (Johnson & Johnson, 1989) which found that instruction involving cooperative or collaborative methods resulted in significantly better student achievement than instruction focused on individual performance and competition. While that work is often cited as a starting point for collaborative and cooperative learning, the studies included in the meta-analysis went back about a century and earlier work from Johnson et al. (2017). They began by pointing to historical precedents from early Christianity, Roman philosophy, and the Talmud and tracing allusions through the Renaissance to the modern age. That work also contains this concise statement of the value of cooperative methods:
Cooperation is working together to accomplish shared goals. Individuals seek beneficial outcomes for themselves and all other group members within cooperative activities. Cooperative learning is the instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each other’s learning. In cooperative learning situations, there is a positive interdependence among students’ goal attainments; students perceive that they can reach their learning goals if and only if the other students in the learning group also reach their goals. (p. 3)
Activity 1: A Community of Inquiry Example:
The lesson uses an asynchronous online discussion forum to engage students in examining instructional models based on cognitive psychology.
Students are given a link to the Hurontario College [Doc.] case study, which asks them to design a program for establishing expert learning and metacognition as the modus operandi for a new college.
Small groups within the class are asked to prepare short proposals to address the problem formulated in the case study and to post these proposals to the class discussion forum (in this case, in the Canvas learning management system). All class members are encouraged to provide feedback to the other groups about the proposals they have posted.
The formation of working groups can be a challenge. When a class is accustomed to the method, choosing their groups usually works well. In our experience with graduate students, most class members see the value of working with a different group for each new problem. Still, novices may fall into bad habits like 1) always working with the same people 2) seeking to form groups with only the smart people in them. In such instances, instructors may assign group membership randomly or according to strategies designed to ensure diversity (which adds value to the discourse).
Not everyone knows how to respond to the work of others constructively. To address this problem, instructors might want to prepare some recommendations regarding writing discussion posts, like this tip sheet [Doc.].
Instructors new to online learning or asynchronous discussions may be tempted to either 1) avoid participating in the process for fear they will dominate the discussion and thus reduce the potential for cooperative learning or 2) respond to every post in hopes of promoting engagement. In our experience, neither of these approaches is productive. Novice instructors would do well to read the above discussion tips and to try to
- Respond to posts that genuinely engage your thinking by expanding on what the student (or group) has said. For example, they might pose a question for further thought, point out an example of something that would be a challenge in the group’s plan, or provide a link to a reading that came to mind as they read the group’s post.
- Let students know that they will NOT respond to every post, but they will comment if requested.
- Look for ways to respond to multiple posts with a single reply, e.g., “I noticed that several groups mentioned Johnson & Johnson (1989) and the value of cooperative learning methods. You might also find value in their 2017 book [PDF], which both provides some interesting historical context and updates their earlier work.”
Activity 2: United Nations Sustainability Lesson
Grade 12 students in an Ontario school were encouraged to find ways to inform people about the UN Sustainability Goals.
The students chose the goal they would focus on and their methods to spread the news and encourage others. They developed plans to share information, raise funds and implement those plans. They used social media to inform others about the work they were doing and to solicit further support. Fullan et al. (2017) indicate there was ample evidence of the 6Cs in how students collaborated, in their excitement and engagement about what they were doing, and the real-life impact of their work.
Instructors interested in engaging students in projects intended to promote and support social change will need to do substantial groundwork to ensure that they support their school administration and, for younger learners, the support of parents. It is also likely that the instructor will need to have prior experience with at least some of the agencies the students are likely to encounter as they carry out their projects.
Local community agencies like food banks, museums, and even schools themselves may be the best place to get started with small projects. Other social agencies like the Canadian Mental Health Association or the John Howard Society may also be good partners. Another option might be to get involved with one of the 150 or so ongoing projects that constitute iEARN, a program that affects thousands of teachers and millions of students worldwide.
Other Useful Online Teaching and Learning Books
- Creating Online Learning Experiences – Open textbook (2018): A guide to online courses ranging from small to massive and open.
- Distance Learning Playbook, Grades K-12 (2020): A wide range of evidence-based, concrete strategies for online learning with videos.
- Empowering Online Learning: 100+ Activities (2008): A good place to find meaningful and engaging asynchronous activities.
- Learning Online: the Student Experience (2020): A helpful lens into online learning from students’ perspectives.
- New Virtual Classroom: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Synchronous E-Learning (2007): A bit older, but the evidence and strategies stand the test of time. Dives deeply into learning science
- Online Learning Idea Book (2011): A wide range of practical strategies for teaching and learning online actually tested by teachers.
- Online Teaching at Its Best: Merging Instructional Design With Teaching and Learning Research (2021): An in-depth, research-focused look at online teaching and learning
- Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2021): Provides an ideal mix of theory, evidence and concrete suggestions for online teaching
- Teaching in a Digital Age – Second Edition – Open textbook (2019): A foundational look at the underlying principles for educators teaching with technology.
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