Why can’t something be taught online?


CarolinaFireJournal - By Kelly Kirk
By Kelly Kirk
05/12/2016 -

“You can’t teach that in an online class.” I’ve heard this phrase doggedly expressed by many over the past 15 years. I have struggled to find a topic that is truly undeliverable via eLearning. To date, I have never found a subject, topic, or even skill that can’t be effectively delivered, at least partially, online.

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Why can’t something be taught online? What makes a topic or skill so uniquely complex or difficult to disseminate that it can’t be delivered via an eLearning platform? I think that I can effectively address these questions by identifying the spectrum of online learners and their specific academic needs, what we as educators seek to accomplish, and the purpose and primary objectives of the topics offered up online. Conducting this analysis is my first step in instructional design, and ensures that I create an educational end product that is conducive to the retention, comprehension and effective use of the information delivered.

By and large, our target audience in emergency services remains consistent with few variations within the same focus group — firefighter, first responder, EMT, paramedic. Our primary analysis, for the purpose of this article, will remain on the purpose and overall goal of the online course. What is it exactly that we are trying to accomplish?

Goals and Objectives

All topics should be preceded by a lesson plan that includes the overall aim of the lesson and the cognitive, psychomotor and affective objectives necessary to accomplish that goal. These objectives, if written properly, are specific and measurable via an assessment that proves the learner’s mastery of the objective and collectively his/her topical competency. This provides educators and accrediting bodies with objective criteria known as “student learning outcomes.” The National Institute for Learning Outcomes defines learning outcomes as “...the expected knowledge, skills, attitudes, competencies, and habits of mind that students are expected to acquire at an institute of higher learning...” Without clear learning outcomes there is really no clear direction or purpose for the lesson.

The next step is to deliver the material to the learners using a variety of techniques and methods addressing multiple learning styles, known by academic circles as Fleming and Mills’ VARK acronym: Visual, Aural/Auditory, Reading/Writing, Kinesthetic. Delivery should include opportunities for learners to engage the material, each other and the instructor. Learners should be allowed the opportunity to assess their own learning and remediate as necessary before a final objective assessment is completed and recorded as proof and completion of the defined learning outcomes.

This sounds a lot like traditional education doesn’t it? That is because it is education, traditional or otherwise. The Cambridge dictionary defines education as “the process of teaching or learning...”, though the “process” is not specifically defined. Education is not defined by delivery method, but by the transfer or attainment of knowledge. How that knowledge is obtained varies from traditional lectures and textbooks to group discussion, electronic learning (eLearning) and self-discovery. The point is that knowledge has been obtained.

Online Learning Defined

Let us revisit online learning. All things being equal, why can’t we learn something online? Allow me to redirect that question to you, the reader. Have you ever had trouble trying to figure out how to repair something around the house — a leaky faucet, a clogged drain, a lamp cord that lost a fight with your vacuum — and finally found a solution after researching the problem on the Internet? My best friend is www.YouTube.com when it comes to repairing things around the house. Just about anything you could ever want or need to learn can be found on the Internet with step-by-step guides, videos, images, tips and more. If you’ve never heard of Pinterest (Let us revisit online learning. All things being equal, why can’t we learn something online? Allow me to redirect that question to you, the reader. Have you ever had trouble trying to figure out how to repair something around the house — a leaky faucet, a clogged drain, a lamp cord that lost a fight with your vacuum — and finally found a solution after researching the problem on the Internet? My best friend is www.YouTube.com when it comes to repairing things around the house. Just about anything you could ever want or need to learn can be found on the Internet with step-by-step guides, videos, images, tips and more. If you’ve never heard of Pinterest (www.pinterest.com), then you have no idea what you are missing. Go check it out — you can thank me later. Pinterest is absolutely chock-full of free tips (cognitive) and tricks (psychomotor) for personal enrichment (education). Every bit of this is eLearning or online education. It doesn’t have to be academic in nature to be educational. Remember, education is the process of learning.

Concerns of eLearning

There are several inherent concerns with eLearning, which are multiplied exponentially for fire, rescue, and EMS since we are dealing with life safety issues. The most common concerns generally revolve around the “I’s” (pronounced “eyes”): Integrity and Identity. Both of these concerns can be addressed with many of the same methods.

How do I know that John Q. Public is actually the person who completed all of the work in a class?

This question addresses both identity and integrity. It is possible, especially in an online class, that John Q. Public signs up for a certification course and has his previously-certified friend attend and complete the course in his place. Notice that I intentionally did not specify “online” course in my original question. This is because false and fraudulent attendance can happen in a traditional class as well. Do instructors check photo ID and verify the identity of every student in traditional classes? Not likely. More often than not, roll is called, the class attendees answer, and class begins. Fraudulent attendance is less likely and requires a more brazen attempt in a traditional classroom than with the aid of anonymity offered in online classes, yet it is still possible.

How do I know that John Q. Public completed the test honestly and without external aid?

Here again, there is no separation between online or traditional. We all know that “cheating” has been happening for centuries in traditional classrooms. As a matter of fact, there are websites and videos filled with the latest tricks for cheating in traditional classes.

Do a quick search for “clever ways to cheat on tests,” or one of my favorites, “cheat using a coke bottle.” Scary stuff.

The bottom line is that online or traditional, a trickster is a trickster. Academic leaders play a cat and mouse game of trying to stay one step ahead of those who attempt to cheat the system, remaining vigilant, and putting as many safeguards in place as reasonably possible to prevent students from cheating.

Course Design

Do we as educators, training officers and content developers simply wish to engage the learner in content, something he/she may not have seen in a while (review)? Or do we need to introduce a new topic or procedure and then ensure competency of the learner (introduction)?

Does it really matter? What matters most in any educational session is the student’s mastery of the learning outcomes. We all learn differently — as described in the VARK acronym we covered earlier — and students generally, whether consciously or inherently, prefer one learning style to another. Proper lesson design incorporates delivery methods for all learning styles. Imagine sitting in a pitch black classroom while a voiced-over lecture oozes from the ceiling. Unless you are a largely auditory learner, this teaching style would quickly lose your interest. Likewise, an online class that consists of a 100 plus page PDF document and a 20-question quiz would not be an effective avenue for knowledge retention for anyone except the reading/writing (visual) learning students.

Online classes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are designed with interactive, multi-modal, engaging lessons surrounded by a design that includes clear instructions, expectations, and guidance from a present and active facilitator/instructor. Some online classes are reminiscent of post-apocalyptic ghost town shells with one or two files consisting of a poorly-constructed lesson — usually in PowerPoint, PDF, or Microsoft Word — and a final quiz somberly waiting at the terminal end. The latter example is born of the languid attempt of an inexperienced, untrained, ill-supported subject matter expert (SME) driven by greedy administrators to deliver familiar material in an alien environment, while translating it into an alien language. As you can imagine, the academic outcomes are not always favorable for learners in this type of structure-impaired and unsupportive virtual setting that often betrays the ambitions and good intentions of well-meaning students.

In 2000, I was one of those inexperienced, untrained, and ill-supported SMEs and was thrown to the proverbial wolves. Fortunately, I happened to be lucky enough to be supported by a supervisor that was a visionary who encouraged creativity and was willing to invest in my professional development by sending me to corporate conferences. Why corporate and not academic conferences? The corporate world was, and is, well ahead of academia in regards to eLearning. Why? The answer to that is an easy one: MONEY. Corporate America has considerably more money than state-funded institutions and are more willing to support projects that will save millions of dollars in the end.

For example, a large corporation will gladly spend $20K to develop an eLearning presentation for a global sales force that would otherwise require over $70K in travel expenses alone.

Stay tuned. There’s more to come...

In this series of articles, we will take a candid look at online courses, especially those designed for emergency services. I will debunk, confirm, or otherwise identify the plausibility of eLearning’s myths, mysteries, and legends. Topics we will discuss include:

  • Online vs. Traditional Learning
  • Are they the same?
  • Quality Online Course Design
  • What are the characteristics of a quality online course?
  • Online Delivery Styles
  • How can you teach that online?
  • The Three Types of Online Learners
  • What are the characteristics of successful vs. unsuccessful online learners?
  • Seat-Time vs. Outcomes
  • How can you assure me that John Q. Public spent 3 hours in this course?
  • Online Course Design Spectrum: Is it Life and Death or Good to Know?
  • Design for competency, engagement, or both. What is important to you?
  • Tricking the Tricksters
  • How can I prevent the student from going straight to the test?

Kelly Kirk, III, AAS, BS, EMT-P is president and CEO of 911 eLearning Solutions, LLC. He is a North Carolina EMT-Paramedic, EMS Instructor Level I and Level II (paramedic) and is currently providing instructional design for online learning at Capella University. Kirk was Director of Distance Education at Randolph Community College for two years and Distance Education Program Director/e-Learning Instructional Designer at Davidson County Community College for five years. He was a firefighter for Pilot Fire Department and Fairgrove Fire Department and Captain at Thomasville Rescue Squad.
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Issue 33.3 | Winter 2018

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