The Round Barn: Does Online Learning Work?
Dr. Ashley Mitek: Hey, Jim, did you hear that college campuses across the country are moving from face-to-face teaching to online instruction?
Dr. Jim Lowe: Yeah, Ashley, I did hear that. It's a big move, but it's part of our campus' strategy to limit the spread of coronavirus. What do you think people think about this?
Mitek: I think it's necessary, and a great opportunity to show the value of delivering courses online. But, some faculty here and parents are concerned that the quality of the instruction is going to suffer.
Lowe: I really think it's an opportunity to show that the internet is good for more than the three P's.
Mitek: Three P's? What's that?
Lowe: You don't know that?
Lowe: Pornography and partisan politics
Mitek: What is the matter with you?! [laughs]
Lowe: We're going to talk about online learning today. My day job here is to be the director of the i-Learning Center, which is the online hub for the college as we're trying to transition a lot of our CE and our instruction, even in elective courses, to online material. So, obviously, I'm an online advocate. And Ashley, you've done a lot, and we work together daily on these things. But I think I'm going to play devil's advocate today and really say, is online learning just an internet vending machine? Is it low cost and of no value? I want to kind of work through this.
One of the things that I think you and I have talked about a lot is, we really improve teaching by online. The perception would be that we just put these videos up there, and you don't really have to watch them, then you take some stupid test, and that's all this is; it's Diploma U. Is that really true? Or can we make it better? Can we be better than what we do day to day, teaching our students?
Mitek: I think what has really gotten me inspired about online learning and education is that -- well, I guess we should say from the beginning that you can do online learning really well or you can do online learning really poorly; you can teach face-to-face really well or you can teach face-to-face really poorly.
Lowe: And I that's the ticket, right? We just assume that all this is a monolith. You and I have these debates, and we get very passionate, they're kind of fun, and we'll try not to yell at each other on this podcast. But, right, I think the difficulty is, we tend to lump everything as, there's all good or all bad; all face-to-face is great, or ...
Mitek: Right. I think the biggest problem for me is that online learning is a trigger word right now in a lot of college campuses. There's still a lot of faculty who, you say that word, and all of a sudden, they don't even want to give you the time of day. They don't want to consider that this is actually something that could be really beneficial. And so, I think that's one initial hurdle that we have to get over when we talk about this, is just that word, online learning.
Lowe: Why do they think it's not good?
Mitek: Let me give you an example of what happened to me. I started here as faculty. I'm still pretty young faculty. I started in 2016. And I was lucky to get to --
Lowe: Are you suggesting I'm old?
Mitek: Yeah, you're a little bit older. [laughs]
Lowe: OK. [laughs]
Mitek: You have a little less hair.
Lowe: Hey, hey! I've got my sock hat to go outside, I'm fine! [laughs]
Mitek: [laughs] And you're more likely to get coronavirus, now I know how all that works. But, I was in the faculty mailroom, right? And I was just getting my mail. And I ran into a much more senior faculty. This was a few years ago, and I had just gotten into online learning by accident with you and some of your colleagues that were doing really cool things. And this faculty member pulled me aside -- and this was somebody who had been a mentor to me. And they said, "Ashley, I'm really disappointed in you." And I thought they were joking. I was like, "Where's he going with this?" And he said, "I heard you got yourself involved in online learning." And he was completely devastated. And I said, "Well, why is this such a negative thing to you?" And they said, "Well, that's going to take my job away." I think there's a fear component of that, with instructors who are accustomed to teaching face-to-face. And then there's a component of, they don't understand how it could still be really high quality education. And I think that's what we should talk about, is, what are the things that go into online learning that can make it even better than a face-to-face experience?
Lowe: Yeah. So, why did he think it was going to take his job away? What was his ...
Mitek: I think, what I would consider the antiquated model of education -- and we could maybe just talk about medical education for a second, since that's the realm we're in, but it applies to all higher ed -- we used to think traditionally that there was this content expert, right? Like, you're the pig guy, you know everything about pigs, and the only way I'm ever going to learn about pigs and be remotely as smart as you about diagnosing a pig with a respiratory disease is, I have to come to your class and listen to your talk. Right? And the internet has completely changed that, right? We still have content experts, but the actual content itself -- what are the five common causes of respiratory diseases in pigs, or something -- you could probably give me a resource online to look at, or a textbook chapter. But your value has not been diminished by that. Your value actually has been enhanced, because the learning that we're trying to accomplish at a higher level is, we need people to help our students, our learners, connect the dots.
I think it brings up this really important issue which I think higher ed has really neglected in the past, which is, we've focused on teaching; we haven't necessarily focused on learning. And teaching and learning are two very, very, very different things. Right? You can stand in front of a group of students, and I can teach my heart out about whatever I'm passionate about, but there may be no learning that's happening. And what gets me excited about online learning, if you do it right -- that's why we call it online learning, not online teaching -- if you do online learning right, you are able to evaluate if learning is taking place or not.
Lowe: Yeah, but I do that in the classroom.
Mitek: How do you do that in the classroom?
Lowe: So, if I've got a group of 30, 40 students in the room, it's possible for me -- and, as you suggested, I'm old and crotchety, or at least old --
Mitek: I didn't use that second word.
Mitek: Maybe slightly jaded is the word I'd use. [laughs]
Lowe: OK, well, those are synonyms. That's a big word I've learned to use --
Mitek: [laughs] I don't think they're synonyms, but it's OK!
Lowe: It's good enough. This is why I'm not an English --
Mitek: This is not an English course, yeah, we're not English professors.
Lowe: Yeah, this is not the English department. But, I look at that room, right, and I'm looking around the room, and I'm lecturing, and I'm talking to students, and we're having this discussion back and forth. And I know when they don't understand because of the questions they ask.
Mitek: Yeah, but how many students are you engaged with? You say you have 40 students in that class, are you engaged with all 40 of those students? Or are there five students that are the talkers, the thinkers, that are going to be raising their hands?
Lowe: Yeah, that does happen. But I think there's osmotic learning from the other ones, because they listen to those conversations. And if two have the question, probably 20 have the question. That's where I struggle with online, because I can't get that engagement. So, how do I bridge that? That's one of, I think, our challenges.
Mitek: Right. I think it brings up a couple issues, which is, what is online learning really good at? I would argue that we are seeing this educational model at a lot of institutions -- both at the undergraduate level, graduate level, professional school level -- where the average class size is getting higher. So, to be able to have a class size that's 10 students, 15 students, or even 40 students, may be less common now. We're more likely to see these mega classes, where there's 100, 200; you might even take a class that has a thousand students in it.
Lowe: You and I teach every day in a curriculum that has 130 students per class, right?
Mitek: Right, right. And so, if we take that as one example, where traditionally, a lot of the material covered -- just out of what we would consider efficiency standpoint -- is a lecture. It's essentially the content expert standing in front of the 130 students, "Blah blah blah." And the students listen, and there's minimal interaction, because it's hard to accommodate that many people. You can't.
Lowe: There's no interaction.
Mitek: Or no interaction at all, right.
Lowe: I mean, the practical reality is, they sit and listen to us pontificate, and then they leave.
Mitek: Right. And so, you compare that with the example you were just talking about, which is a slightly smaller classroom -- I think there are some great benefits when you have a smaller class size like that. But, where online learning really excels at is then being able to, instead of -- we're talking about these larger class sizes. A lot of the research has shown that at that level, most of the material the instructor is trying to cover, whether it's an intro to biology course or it's an introduction to swine health course, at that type of class size and level, the learning objectives tend to fall lower on what we would call Bloom's taxonomy. They tend to be lower-order-thinking learning objectives that are remembrance information. For example, if you're going to talk about an anatomy course, it's, where's a femur? What does a femur do? What muscles connect to a femur? That's really basic information that is not very cerebral information.
And online learning, we can chunk out material -- which is a really key word for learning -- chunk out material into small pieces and allow the students to watch that. And either that replaces what was the lecture, or they come to class and then you can work it out. I think that's where there's tremendous value in online learning. And we've seen that when we've piloted this stuff with our veterinary students. They love it. They love that they can sit at home and watch the material. They love that they can go back and rewatch it. And then, the bit about learning, and having that interaction with students, is that you can get immediate feedback from them based upon the learning management system you use and how you set it up -- are they actually learning what is coming out of my mouth? Which you can't always do when you're lecturing to them, when you're lecturing to 130 students. You might find out the learning outcome three months later on their final exam, and that's way too late. We missed them. We didn't clarify that gap in the students.
Lowe: But it doesn't seem to me it works for everything, right?
Mitek: I think it works for everything. Absolutely.
Lowe: So, you're an anesthesiologist by training and habit.
Mitek: I like controlled substances.
Lowe: We don't need to --
Mitek: Legally. I like legally using controlled substances in animals.
Lowe: That's another whole podcast we're going to talk about.
Lowe: But, I'm not sure I'm comfortable being anesthetized, or having my dog anesthetized, by someone who's only done this online, and never, like, actually held the dog, and had you hovering over their shoulder teaching them how to do it. How do we close that gap?
Mitek: I think that's a great point. What's really cool about learning is that there's two categories, if you're just going to simplify topics. One is this declarative knowledge. If we're going to use anesthesia as an example, it would be the things like, what is propofol? How does it work? What receptor does propofol work on? What is morphine? Where does that drug work? That material is declarative knowledge. It's something that I can hand a book chapter to a student and say, "Go read this," or I can make an online course, assess their knowledge, and I can feel very confident they know that information.
Now, the bit you're talking about is procedural knowledge. Like, how do you suture a pig when you do a C-section? How do you manage a complicated case? That information can be really challenging to convey, depending upon the specialty and the situation, in an online course. It doesn't mean it can't be done, but it means that we're set up now that, if we wanted to try and convey that information with an online course, we'd have to put a little bit more effort into it than we would in doing it face-to-face like in a traditional teaching hospital or whatever.
I think what online learning is really good at is definitely lower-level learning objectives that's perhaps in a lecture-based classroom. Where it's a little bit deficient, or where we have to work harder, is when it's procedural knowledge. Do you know how to do a spay in a dog? Right? How do I teach you how to do a spay in a dog?
Lowe: If we go back straight to anesthesia, right, much of anesthesia is interpreting readouts from data points, whether that's heart rate or respiratory rate or blood pressure, and then adjusting the process. So, there's a bit of art, but also -- so, there's some online things that, as you said, we'd have to work harder, but we can build really cool simulations that might actually be better.
Mitek: And that's really where the field of anesthesia is going, definitely. We're not there yet in veterinary medicine because we're much smaller compared to the human anesthesia medical field and training programs, but now we're seeing -- at least in the anesthesia residency programs -- that they're using simulation models online. And they're having much better learning outcomes. The cool thing about that is, if you take some patient, let's say, that has a very rare cardiovascular disease. They have to have heart surgery or whatever. You may see anesthetic phenomena or weird things that happen with that case maybe once in your residency, if that. You may not always get to see that case. But we can recreate all these situations with case simulations online, and change the blood pressure, change the heart rate, say, "What do you want to do now? Oh, they just died. What's going to be your next step?" And we can have them think through that logic in what we would call a safe space, where there's no risk for human health. That is a great example of how you can incorporate a case simulation that's really high-level on Bloom's taxonomy -- it's an application of knowledge, you might have to actually even create new things and think about problem-solving the situation. That's definitely available with online learning.
Lowe: So, we're fixing to take all these classes at all these universities and drop them online; and magically, in seven days, create online courses, right? There's kind of been two strategies as I've looked at the news. One is, we're either going to delay spring break -- because they're in spring break right now -- and bring them back a week later. Or, in our case, we're going to have spring break, and then they're just going to magically come back. So, in seven days, poof, we're going to create an online curriculum or alternative delivery curriculum. I know how that's going to be done. Can we just take a regular class and plunk it online? Or do we need to, like, think about that?
Mitek: I think what's going to happen in the short term is not ideal, but it's what we're going to have to do. We're essentially telling instructors with 24 hours' notice or a week's notice, "Hey, you're going to have to convert everything online." And there's some limited options on how you'd do that. Probably, what we're going to see a lot of universities adopt is lecture capture type systems, or these live or recorded lectures. What they were initially going to present with a PowerPoint in front of students, they're just going to sit at home and do that with their computer, and maybe do audio over slides. But what we know, what we've learned going through this process over the past several years, converting face-to-face courses to online is, if you do it right, it takes a long time. We both have had experiences where we thought we could convert a course to online, or a new, novel online course, that we thought we could make it in six months, right? And it was never six months. The running joke around here is, how many years did it take me to create one of our online courses? Roughly 1.75 babies, which is more than six months, if you do the math.
Mitek: So, I think it takes a long time to do it right, but the best part about that -- and it goes back to the quality issue -- is that if you do it right, you learn so much as the instructor because you have to think about, how do you break down the material? Somebody a long time ago, I don't know why, 100-plus years ago, came up with this idea that in college and other educational formats, this 50-minute or one-hour lecture was this ideal attention span. And we know now that is so wrong, right? Our student attention span is nowhere near 50 minutes.
Lowe: My attention span is nowhere near 50 minutes.
Mitek: [laughs] So, what we're learning more and more is that we really need to chunk out the material and focus on certain learning objectives, and either make a video around that learning objective -- and the ideal time is probably somewhere between five and 10 minutes. Then, you build your course by what we know is a principle that works really well, which is this idea of backwards design. So, you figure out, what do I want my students to be able to answer on an exam? What are my assessment questions? What am I really trying to accomplish? And then you go backwards from that, and identify, what learning objectives do I need to include? And instead of doing a whole 50-minute lecture, you might break it down into smaller pieces.
Lowe: It sounds like we're going to go do this, and it might be a bit of a challenge. [laughs] But there's maybe an opportunity to think about, how do we get better? And how do we teach differently? And how do we leverage these online tools to really increase student learning? One of the things is, we've kind of been on this journey of how do you build classes; it's really made me rethink about how I lecture. The reference I go back to is, I can't remember the last time I've read an instruction manual. Or, "Ah, I've got to something in the car," I'm working on a tractor or something, "I've got to work on something," well, I don't go dig out the manual anymore.
Mitek: You look it up on YouTube.
Lowe: I YouTube it, that's exactly right. Why do I do that? Well, because it's focused, and it's to the point. And then I would string those together as I need them to do multiple steps. And I think that's what we're talking about here. How do I string the ideas together in short bits that I can concentrate on?
Mitek: Right. And I think the thing that's really interesting about that comment is that the students ... I'm going to say this, and everybody listening to this is going to be offended, but that's OK. The students are smarter than us when it comes to education. They are usually ahead of the curve at figuring out the most efficient and effective way to learn material. And we know this because, one of the things I think is really interesting is, they've studied what the attendance rates are for medical school lectures. And it's really low, right? At a minimum, at least 25% of medical students are saying, "I never went to class." The other interesting thing is, you follow them out on their final exam scores, there's no benefit to them going to class, at least in some of these smaller studies. Where I'm going with this is, when you ask those students, "How were you learning? How did you still score at the same level or higher than your peers that went to every class and every lecture?" They're going to tell you they looked stuff up on YouTube, they watched videos, they found the resources that could effectively educate them on that material. And so, I think we need to keep watching what these little guinea pigs are doing, our students, because they're actually a pretty good window into how we should be thinking about designing online courses.
Lowe: I think that gets back to a bit -- we all had different styles, and we both made it through vet school and graduate degrees and other things --
Mitek: I don't mean to cut you off, but this whole idea of learning styles, that was made up. That has completely been debunked, if that's where you're going with "styles." We've had this conversation about, "People are auditory learners or visual learners." All the recent research shows that that is not true. There's one good way to learn.
Lowe: And that is?
Lowe: But, I do think, we've figured that out over time; each of us have learned and said, how do we flex?
Lowe: One of our big mantras around here is, how do we be individualized, and how do we meet the learner where they're at? We can't take online, we can't take all these classes, and shove it back to, "We're going to teach one way." We have to provide this variety. How do we meet learners where they're at? I think that's the grand experiment we're going to conduct here over the next few months, as universities move to online and we move that out.
Mitek: Right. I want to add one more thing before you cut me off; I know we've got to go. But, with the learning style comment, that's true, but that doesn't necessarily mean we shouldn't be individualizing learning, which is what you're saying. And that's the beauty of online learning, is that we can provide these options for students to go at their own pace, and learn kind of in the format that they want to learn in.
Lowe: Absolutely. Ash, thanks for joining us.
We hope you've enjoyed listening. We'd love to hear from you, too. Find us on Twitter. Our handle is @TheRoundBarn1. Or, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We may even share your comments on our next show.
Please subscribe and tell your friends about the show. It's available on iTunes or the podcatcher of your choice.
And one last thing. We offer a wide range of learning opportunities, even a multimedia empire, for folks who work with livestock and veterinarians, too. You can learn more at online.vetmed.illinois.edu.
See you in two weeks.