Not so many years ago, students who wished to complete distance courses corresponded through the mail. Some time later, radio, television, and eventually the personal computer and regular access to the internet revolutionized distance education (Harting & Erthal, 2005, pp. 35, 37). But despite innovations in both computer hardware and software since the late 1970s, the philosophy of distance education, as well as research-informed practices, have been slow to keep pace (p. 37). Today, instructors must adapt their teaching to ever-advancing educational technologies, particularly as universities expand their online program offerings.
As a professor at Western University’s Faculty of Education for the past twelve years, and at University of Aukland before that, Dr. John Barnett has been researching the pedagogy/teaching of online education. His research examines the use of educational technologies to improve learning, and embedding contemporary learning theories into the structure of online courses.
Barnett is a proponent of the philosophical concept of connectivism, which he believes ties strong pedagogy and practice together in online teaching and learning. According to Barnett, “Connectivism proposes that knowledge is produced through the connections that people make with other people, academic literature, the internet and databases.” Rather than conceptualize learning as an isolated, autonomous process, connectivism views learning as “occurring primarily by creating and modifying existing networks of knowledge.” For Barnett, connectivisim accounts for how students interact with each other through the online learning environment, as well as how they make new knowledge together through that interaction.
Those who have taken an online course might argue that limited face-to-face interaction feels “disconnected,” precisely the opposite experience that connectivists would predict. However, it is precisely this feeling of isolation and lack of connection that Dr. Barnett’s research examines, and a gap that his teaching aims to close.
Dr. Barnett believes that if students connect with classmates, literature, and all forms of media during their course, they are more likely to succeed based on strengthened connections that inform and shape their learning. The key to connecting, and to connectivist learning, in an online course is participation. Thus, Barnett promotes creating opportunities for online students to interact with a variety of materials—and with each other—to promote participation.
Currently, many people are participating in the online learning phenomenon known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). One might be tempted, from a connectivist standpoint, to argue that MOOCs enable the very best possible “connectivist” learning experience. Certainly, in addition to educating thousands of people from around the world, they can also offer a range of engaging materials, including infographics, videos, short chunks of texts, and quizzes.
Yet, completion rates for MOOCs are quite low with fewer than 10% of the students registered completing the courses (Morris, 2013, p. 251). The quality of students’ experiences in them may also be lacking. Although there may be more people with whom to connect, those connections may be superficial at best. In contrast, smaller groups of online learners generate a more intimate setting that make possible deeper peer engagement. For Barnett, smaller online classes promote greater quality – rather than quantity – of connections.
Barnett puts his pedagogical research into practice in his online courses. In order to build a strong online community, students sign up to teach modules to their peers. If a student is allowed to flourish in class by developing and delivering a module on a topic they enjoy, Barnett surmises, then they will work harder to engage fellow classmates. Idea sharing and discussion amongst students increases both quantity and quality of learning connections with each other.
In addition to his research on online courses, Barnett is completing research on the bio-technology literacy of teacher candidates with research associates in Spain and China. Barnett is also producing a narrative “video documentary” that follows 12 student teachers as they complete their degree.
Faculty of Education. (2012). Brief proposal of new programs. London, ON: Graduate Western University.
Harting, K. & Erthal, M. J. (2005). History of distance learning. Information Technology, Learning, and Performance Journal, 23(1), pp. 35-44.
Morris, L. V. (2013). MOOCs, emerging technologies, and quality. Innovative Higher Education, 38(4), pp. 251-252.