High-Tech or High-Touch? Lit Review of CIC Research Brief for PAR Project

I have started a Participatory Action Research (PAR) project around blended learning at my university. I have never facilitated a PAR project before so I may be going about it the wrong way but I have a group and we are now collectively discussing what the research questions should be and soliciting documents from one another for a lit review. As a part of this process, one of the members sent this research brief called High-Tech or High Touch put out by The Council of Independent Colleges and Universities and I’ve decided to review the document in public in the hopes of widening my understanding of it.

In many ways this report was affirming to me. I was already familiar with many of the sources; citing most of them in my MA research. Additionally, I found the lens of independent colleges and universities to be an important one as often ed tech reports are looking to give a broad overview and they leave out the specifics of the environments in which these technologies are deployed ignoring the deep cultures involved in these these deployments.

However there is something about the report that bothers me and I am not sure exactly what it is overall. I may need to blog more about this but I am hoping that I can get some feedback from others that are considering this report.

First of all the title really bothers me in that it is this either or position. Why does it have to be high-tech OR high-touch? Can’t it be both? I searched for the word connectivism in the document but it does not appear. The word connected appears but only once in the hyphenated Internet-connected to refer to the types of devices students bring to college. Networked does not appear in the report at all but network appears twice once to refer to bandwidth and another time to refer to a group of education centers for online learning. As far as I can tell there is no mention of connected learning, networked learning, or participatory culture in the brief at all. This makes me sad.

One of the things that I like about the report is that they offer definitions right of the bat by creating a glossary. Ed tech can be hard to understand because of the proliferation of buzzwords and all the different meanings. It kind of bothers me that the brief makes no mention of the ambiguity surrounding terminology the field over. I hope that by taking a closer look at the terms as laid out in the report that it will help me to dialog with the report better and perhaps help me to better understand what it is about it that is bothering me.

The first definition from the report I want to look at is MOOC:

Massive open online course (MOOC): An online course that a) has start and end dates; b) is free to students, at least for those who are not seeking a certification, and open to anyone; and c) uses social media and automated grading technologies to enroll large numbers of students. Permutations include synchronous massive online course (SMOC) and distributed open collaborative course (DOCC).

I think this is a pretty good definition. I’m not sure I agree with the actuality of start date/end date thing but I will agree that many of them do have that and even if they start early or continue afterward the dates are often there. Yep they are usually free as far as I can tell. But use of social media and and automated grading? I’ve been in some MOOCs that use those but others that do not. And the mention of permutations are important (I even have my own post on these) but why call out the SMOC and DOCC when there seem to be so many? What about SPOCs?

The second term I take beef with is Online Learning:

Online learning: Instruction that is delivered over the internet instead of in a traditional classroom. It includes delivery of course content— for example, through online video lectures or asynchronous discussion boards—as well as more interactive technologies focused on problem solving or skills practice. Basic uses of a learning management system such as posting a course syllabus and assignments for a classroom-based course are not typically considered “online learning.”

I should state that earlier in the report they state that they will use the terms online learning and online education interchangeably.  I struggle with this, however, in my mind learning and education are related but they are not the same thing. Education is a process of teaching and learning and learning is one part of the bigger picture. I think this leads to the reason why the first word in the definition of online learning is instruction. This seems off to me. To me, learning is not a form of instruction and instruction is only one form of pedagogy. I’m worried about this because I think that online learning is a specific type of learning that requires different kinds of skills, attitudes, and approaches. Online education encompasses online teaching and I’m not entirely convinced that instruction is the best approach to online teaching. (BTW count on the word “instruction” is 35).

Next comes Open Educational Resources (OER)

Open Educational Resources (OER): This term is frequently used to describe online educational content or tools that are free to end-users (who may be students) and use open copyright licenses that allow for reuse and repurposing by other instructors.

So, first of all kudos to the report for even including OER in their list of terms. OERs are by no means new but they are, at the same time, far from mainstream. Where I am left wondering is in the fact that after reading the report I don’t remember much else about OERs. Using my handy find feature I discover that here in the glossary section is the only time that this term appears. Why would you define something and then not use it? Did I miss something? My second problem with this definition of OER is that OER is defined in isolation from Open. As far as I can tell Open Education is a complex topic with a rich global history that I am still trying to understand myself. But here OERs are presented in isolation as though they are a solo thing. Am I being too harsh in this criticism?

Finally, I’m going to call out Personalized Learning:

Personalized learning involves creating an online (or offline) environment suited to the needs and preferences of an individual; for example, this could mean tailoring topics that illustrate common concepts to different student interests.

And I am not going to pull this definition out so much because I have something to say about it as much as I just wonder about it. I’m taking the Personal Learning MOOC (#NRC01PL) right now and I am wondering how this definition fits in. I saw in the discussion boards that there was some talk around a difference between personal learning and personalized learning but where does this definition fall?

I don’t want to dump on this report completely; if it is viewed as a lit review I think it is fine. My problem with it is that it seems to be hinting at more than just a collection of facts. It seems to be making a subtle judgement call about the value of online learning. I’m okay with judgement calls if the building blocks of the argument are well thought out. I’m hesitant to say that these definitions are not well thought out; perhaps that is my own reading that is off. But I am struggling with this report so I’m opening this part of my reading of it up to see if maybe others have thoughts on any of this.


Photo: Track at North Station (Shuttle platform at North Station for Atlantic Avenue trains with connecting steelwork to Lechmere viaduct; never used). Creative Commons CC-BY-SA City of Boston Archives