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The Role of Humans in Blended Learning

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Last month a colleague at U.C. San Diego sent along a lovely piece of research that begins to address one of the most important gaps in online learning research: what roles do people play in blended learning environments? When people take an online course for credit, or a MOOC, or some other self-contained online learning experience, they don't just learn from the software or the online content. Sometimes they learn online but off-platform, by looking up terms on Wikipedia, posting questions on sites like StackOverflow, or looking up answers in search engines. And sometimes they learn from the people around them, either by deliberately seeking expert help, deliberately creating social venues for working together like study groups, or they find people in their network who can support their learning. These activities are invisible to people studying data from online learning platforms, so at present we know very little about them; they are not in our Big Data big datasets. The best entry point into these unstructured, informal experiences is to conduct qualitative research that asks people to describe their learning behaviors or better yet, to observe them as they go about the business of learning. 

Enter the work of Mica Pollock at UCSD's CREATE lab. She and her students spent the summer of 2013 conducting observations in classrooms from USCD's Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP), a program that lets underserved high schools students take online courses, called UC Scout Courses, that earn them credit towards the admission requirements for the University of California system. The online Scout courses are developed and administered by the University of Santa Cruz, but students in the EAOP program take the courses in local high school classrooms where each student has their own individual workstation as well as access to teachers and undergraduate teaching assistants for support. Thus, it is a blended model where local teachers provide supplementary support for an online curriculum. 

The Scout courses are designed to be taken entirely individually, so this motivates the question: what are the teachers in the EAOP doing to help these ambitious but underserved students take the Scout courses they need to get into the UC system? To answer this question, Pollack and her colleagues observed a summer's worth of classes, and they created a taxonomy of seven kinds of work that humans took on in these blended learning environments:

  • Humans as fixers and explainers of technology
  • Humans as digesters of content
  • Humans as explainers of content 
  • Humans as extenders of content, toward application
  • Humans as providers of feedback and assessment 
  • Humans as regulators of student behavior
  • Humans as peer supporters

One way to think of all of these human supports is that they identify places where the online software falls short, where humans have to step in and do what computers cannot yet. For software designers, these might be useful inspirations to identify ways that teaching software can be improved. But these findings also may be a reminder that, especially when trying to serve the students who most need our support, there are plenty of crucial dimensions of learning for which humans remain irreplacable. Pollack's conclusion: 

Some students, including low‐income students from under‐resourced schools, can use Scout largely  independently and successfully to move quickly and sequentially through core course material and assessments. But, the gold standard of Scout implementation and indeed, of online learning ‐‐ where students dive deeply into course concepts, synthesize, extend, and apply their learning, become curious about a field, or discover and fill key holes in what they know - will likely require more flexible integration between humans and online course curriculum. Since supporting high‐need students particularly is Scout's main goal, designers and users will have to navigate a classic core tension between balancing essential access to and completion of college‐preparatory A‐G courses and credit (basic equity) with ensuring the highest quality learning experience that will set students up well for future coursework (deep equity).

The full report is worth reading and a great piece of anthropological research to inspire deeper thinking about the balance between people and machines in blended learning environments. 

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

* Corrections (5/27) A previous version of this article said that EAOP students took classes at UCSD, which is incorrect. They take classes at their local high school. 

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