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"Deep" thoughts
do mandatory online activities help students leave surface-learning behind?

By Mark Notess, Lisa Neal / May 2006

TYPE: OPINION
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One of us (Lisa) was just in Montreal where many restaurants have mandatory coat checks because of the weather. Montreal's main attraction was a conference, CHI 2006, which had assigned student volunteers the task of blogging conference sessions. Mandatory coat checks and blogging arguably benefit the coat owner/writer, as well as others, but both are usually self-motivated, not mandated, activities. These policies left us thinking about when, why, and how to oblige student participation in online course activities and how this may impact learning.

In an online course, participation may take the form of a blog, discussion forum, or other medium. Such participation may be entirely optional, encouraged, or required. Instructors sometimes mandate a style of participation—such as to have students post their thoughts and then iteratively read and comment on other students' responses—or even offer illuminating examples of both thoughtful and less compelling "me too" posts.

While online instructors can mandate certain behaviors, they can't force students to learn. We all operate under the assumption that a carefully crafted assignment increases the likelihood of learning. And given the online world's lack of traditional communication channels, many instructors require student participation in hopes of increasing accountability and engagement. But does any of this help an unmotivated student learn?

A helpful framework for thinking about this problem is the deep vs. surface learning distinction. As learners, we are always deciding whether to adopt a deep or superficial approach to completing assignments. As instructors, we naturally prefer, hope, and even imagine that our students will always adopt a deep learning strategy, sucking the marrow from the toughest assignments. Yet, as current or former students, we know we often fall short of this ideal, choosing instead to cram for the test or skim the readings, spending as little time and effort as we can to achieve the grade we hope to receive. This distinction applies equally well to corporate e-learning, where an employee may just do the minimum necessary to achieve a certification or check off the compliance item, then quickly shed any concepts or skills picked up along the way. Faced with busy, efficiency-oriented students, we must accept that a student's choice of a deep or surface-learning strategy is beyond our control. Yet, we can be glad that the student's choice is often open to our influence. An online instructor can increase the likelihood that students will choose a deep learning strategy through these approaches:

  • Be transparent in your own deep engagement with the course content. Are you still a learner yourself? Do you still care? In an online environment, you have to find new ways to make your enthusiasm contagious. If you're committed to being the "guide by the side" rather than the "sage on the stage," share your own experiences, insights, and passion for learning as part of that guidance.
  • Make sure your course is well organized, paced, and communicated. Otherwise students can become disappointed, discouraged, or frustrated—even cynical—which can lead to surface approaches to learning.
  • Develop activities that are authentic—that feel more real than contrived, and that feel important and relevant to the student. Where possible, let real-world constraints and evaluation play a part, such as when a group of students works with a real client to solve an actual problem.
  • Let students have some choice so that they can increase the relevance and authenticity of course activities and have more control over and ownership of the learning process. Choice may apply to the selection of course readings, or the type and topic of assignments.
  • Select activities that cannot be completed without application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Challenge shallow responses early so you can raise the standard of discourse.
These five suggestions won't apply in all situations, but they provide a good foundation for guiding online students toward deep learning. What has worked for you? Please add your own suggestions below.



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ADDITIONAL READING

    Lisa Neal
  1. Q&A
  2. Storytelling at a distance
  3. Talk to me
  4. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  5. Online learning and fun
  6. Everything in moderation
  7. eLearning and fun
  8. The basics of e-learning
  9. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  10. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  11. My life as a Wikipedian
  12. Five questions...for Elliott Masie
  13. Five Questions... for John Seely Brown
  14. Five questions...for Lynn Johnston
  15. Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie
  16. Do it yourself
  17. Predictions for 2004
  18. When will e-learning reach a tipping point?
  19. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  20. "Spot Learning"
  21. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  22. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  23. Learner on the Orient Express
  24. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  25. How to get students to show up and learn
  26. Blended conferences
  27. Predictions for 2002
  28. Learning from e-learning
  29. Q&A with Don Norman
  30. In search of simplicity
  31. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  32. Want better courses?
  33. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  34. Just "DO IT"
  35. Senior service
  36. Formative evaluation
  37. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  38. Predictions for 2007
  39. Not all the world's a stage
  40. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  41. Do distance and location matter in e-learning?
  42. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  43. Degrees by mail
  44. The Value of Voice
  45. Predictions for 2006
  46. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
  47. Five questions...
  48. Five questions...for Larry Prusack
  49. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  50. Music lessons
  51. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  52. Advertising or education?
  53. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  54. Predictions for 2008
  55. Serious games for serious topics
  56. Back to the future
  57. Predictions For 2003
  58. Mark Notess
  59. Usability, user experience, and learner experience
  60. Preliminary heuristics for the design and evaluation of online communities of practice systems
  61. Books by the chapter?
  62. The e-Learning Rules of Engagement
  63. Of hot tubs and Beowulf
  64. Online learning for seniors
  65. Tools for designing learning
  66. Not Dead Yet
  67. Interview with Anya Kamenetz