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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.

Authors

Lisa Neal is Editor-in-Chief of eLearn Magazine and an e-learning consultant.

Mark Notess is a system development manager and usability specialist for the Digital Library Program at Indiana University.

©2006 ACM  06/0500

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2006 ACM, Inc.



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ADDITIONAL READING

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