Friday, February 05, 2021

How to Become a Critical Reader of Online Research

Distance education has existed for a long time. Think correspondence courses and the pony express. Education at a distance has evolved as new technologies have been created. Radio and television played a role in distance education sometimes used to reach students who were unable to attend classes in a brick-and-mortar setting. Often the technology has been used to attempt to reflect as close as possible the traditional instructional brick-and-mortar models. Early email instruction resembled first correspondence and then lecture classes.  In the mid-90s a new approach to education at a distance provided an alternative to the synchronous satellite television and proliferation of satellite dishes that were used to show that the school was advanced.

Virtual education started, not as a replacement for the brick-and-mortar school but as a supplement. And primarily was asynchronous. Quick move to 2020 and the COVID pandemic where schools were closed to help prevent the spread of the disease. Because virtual education had grown from the first few programs to over thousands of schools and programs reaching millions of students and there were many different approaches to online learning in play, school leaders quickly instituted remote learning options generally with little thought to preparing or supporting teachers to operate in this new environment (and I use the term “remote learning,” and not “online learning” here purposefully). Sometimes they looked critically at the distance learning field, but more likely just felt if there were lots of virtual education programs it had to be easy.

Recently we’re seeing a good deal written about remote instruction with much of it being critical. Rightly so. What was missing, was the clear statements that online learning isn’t as simple as posting PowerPoint slides online or recreating the brick-and-mortar class activities in Zoom. And some of that needs to be owned by stakeholders in the field of virtual schooling at all levels who have been involved for over two decades, was what is actually required to provide quality online learning experiences. There are now a myriad of approaches to online learning. There is not a single instructional approach. But if you don’t study online learning broadly then it’s like the blindfolded feeling the elephant and having a limited experience but thinking they know what an elephant is like.

The educational research on distance education, online learning, and remote learning all suffers from the same problem. Many researchers will report their results as generic for all online or remote learning contexts. That paints the field with a very wide brush and the research tends to reflect the inherent biases of the researcher. There is a limited amount of research findings for many different approaches, but seldom does the research describe the approach used for the subject of the research.

Selective use of research to write about online, virtual, or remote learning can paint most any picture the writer wishes to portray.  And then, that research is used to present a generic view of the learning, without characterizing the specific approach or stating that they are not talking about the entire field. In many instances the author themselves have such limited knowledge of the broader field they don’t even know what they don’t know.

It is impossible, within the current range of research on online, virtual, or remote learning to make blanket statements about the field beyond the observation that online and hybrid instruction can deliver strong results, but like anything in education there is no guarantee of good outcomes. No matter what the claim, there’s always some study that shows a conflicting result. Any claim about the field, other than to point to the diversity, needs to be tempered with some qualifying statements. A critical look at the tenor of an article can actually provide the reader with a sense of the bias of the writer in most cases. A knowledgeable writer will state their bias or experiences to help provide transparency and provide the reader with perspective.

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