December 8, 2014
By James M. Lang
This fall I attended a conference at Rice University where Anant Agarwal, chief executive of EdX, and Daphne Koller, president of Coursera, spoke on “teaching in the university of tomorrow.” They highlighted the potential of online courses to expand access to higher education to people who have traditionally been excluded from its purview.
Both ended their talks by spotlighting specific cases of people whose life situations made a college degree difficult or unlikely for them. Yet they had started their trajectory in higher education as MOOC students and then gradually worked their way to more traditional universities and to career success. The obvious implication: Online courses cracked open a previously closed door for those students.
Michelle Miller, a professor of psychological sciences and co-director of the first-year learning program at Northern Arizona University, tells a similar tale about the role that online courses have played in opening access to students in the remote areas served by her institution. Miller’s primary research fields are language and memory, but recently her focus has turned to the role that technology can play in opening access and improving the learning experiences of our students.
“One of the reasons Northern Arizona University values teaching with technology is our geography and location,” she explained to me in an interview. “We’re located in the middle of some vast, sparsely populated spaces, and a major part of our mission as an institution is to serve the educational needs of the people spread throughout these spaces. Especially critical is our commitment to serving the needs of Native American students, many of whom live or spend time in rural reservation communities. Offering educational options that are partly or fully online is of real benefit to these students, who face long and sometimes treacherous commutes to our central Flagstaff campus.”
That mission is why administrators and faculty members at the university became early adopters of many technological innovations in education but also careful analysts of those online tools and strategies. That tradition, coupled with Miller’s background in learning and memory, led ultimately to her new book, Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology, published this fall by Harvard University Press. If you teach with technology in any form, at any level, I recommend you put this book at the top of your tottering pile of required reading on higher education. It’s an outstanding book that provides a road map for truly effective online teaching.
What distinguishes her book from much of the research available on teaching with technology, and pushes it beyond arguments about improving access, is her emphasis on the ways in which online teaching tools can actually improve learning for all students—not just those who have no access to traditional face-to-face classrooms.
Online courses—or an online component of a traditional class—offer a way to “give students repeated, challenging practice with the concepts we want them to know and the skills we want them to master,” Miller said. “When I started out as a teacher, we cognitive psychologists already knew that things like frequent quizzing were incredibly beneficial to learning. I was excited to apply these findings, but when I got into a real classroom environment I found that it was overwhelmingly difficult and time consuming to actually do so. In many traditional courses you also can’t do things like offer repeated quiz attempts with different questions, or adapt the quiz to the topics that individual students are having the most trouble with.”
Miller is referring there to the well-established “testing effect,” which describes the learning boost that comes when students are required to make frequent efforts to draw material from their memory and use it in different contexts. As many researchers have argued, the power of the testing effect is not limited to testing or quizzing: Any time we ask students to recall and work with information—rather than simply presenting it to them for review or study—we are strengthening their learning.
[Full article here.]