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