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A Differentiated Online Teaching Experience Requires More Than Zoom

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the inadequacy of generic videoconferencing tools for online teaching. In this article I describe important dimensions of a differentiated online synchronous (OnSync) course for both students and faculty. I describe the shortcomings of current technology for OnSync courses and what new technological solutions would have to provide. I conclude by describing how to compete and win with differentiated OnSync teaching.

Higher Education Strategy Series: This is entry #8 of 15 in this series. This page describes the whole series and provides links to all of the articles.

1.0 Introduction

With the rise of Zoom as the go-to infrastructure for remote teaching, it is becoming clear that a generic videoconferencing tool does not meet the needs of either teacher or student in an online classroom. MOOC platforms weren’t the answer for asynchronous learning, and Zoom isn’t the answer for synchronous. The video part is not the issue but more of a faculty member’s loss of feedback and control as they move an in-classroom experience to online. This obviously has a big impact on the students’ experience as well.

A face-to-face classroom experience allows the teacher to “feel” the students, evaluate participation, see what people are doing, structure the intra-session interactions via physical location, and have in-person feedback mechanisms (to name a few). Most of these do not exist in the current remote teaching setup, leaving teachers in the dark and students disengaged.

Colleges and edtech companies should both be motivated to improve online synchronous (OnSync) learning for at least two reasons:

  1. For many years faculty have held strongly negative attitudes toward online learning. Improving the online teaching experience so that it provides the benefits that they value within an experience they are comfortable with might go far in addressing these attitudes.
  2. As summarized by Robert Ubell in an Inside Higher Ed article, “Studies that have investigated effectiveness, retention and achievement by and large concluded that virtual instruction can be as good, or better, than on-campus teaching.” Here at Extension Engine, we haven’t seen any reason to feel any differently.

Thus, it is at least feasible that improving faculty and student acceptance of online learning—a mode that has been show to be at least as effective as face-to-face teaching—could do much to speed, or at least enable, the adoption of online learning.

In this essay I describe how a school might execute a differentiation strategy based on OnSync teaching. This means both examining what efforts need to be completed in order to do this well and also what a high-quality OnSync experience looks like. With that as a basis, I describe the shortcomings of the current technological approach to OnSync teaching and then go into some detail related to the features that a system must be able to provide in order to do OnSync well. I finish by outlining the steps that must be then be executed if a school hopes to differentiate itself and win based on its approach to OnSync teaching.

2.0 Differentiation

As we have seen, all strategies are differentiation strategies aimed at some particular target market. In order to make this useful for a particular school in a particular situation, leadership needs to determine how is is going to differentiate itself. Back in post #6 of this series, I highlighted the most important high-level takeaways from the Generalized Differentiation model:

  • A deep understanding of target prospects,
  • A deep understanding of the relative strengths and weaknesses of your program in comparison with competitor programs,
  • Differentiation-related choices,
  • The alignment of marketing efforts, feature development and investment, and an understanding of what prospects know about and have insight into.

In this section, I apply the above to the potential strategy of competing via differentiated OnSync courses, highlighting what it means for the experience of both student and faculty.

2.1 Competing via differentiation in online synchronous learning

Let’s examine each of the above points in relation to OnSync courses.

Target prospects

The program’s target prospects must care about, know about, and be able to understand what a high-quality OnSync learning experience is. Further, the prospect must have learning experience as a maximized feature. It is doubtful that a prospect who classifies learning experience as satisficing would value the difference between a good enough OnSync course (as possibly provided via Zoom) and one that has been reengineered to be remarkable. The problem in this situation is that most prospects have no idea that OnSync courses could be taught in any other way than over Zoom. Thus, it is possible that, even though a prospect would highly value a remarkable OnSync approach, she might have resigned herself to not even investigating schools for their particular approaches to OnSync teaching.

Relative strengths and weaknesses

When considering features on which to compete, a program (school, university) must understand its strengths and weaknesses relative to its competitors. For that program to choose to compete via OnSync learning, it would have a more obvious payoff if the program could win competitions for more prospects. A program must have some insight into the online teaching approaches, both synchronous and asynchronous, used by its competitors.

This is the type of operations-level issue that is either not highlighted or is simply obfuscated in promotional materials. Most schools would view this as a satisficing feature because they know that their approach is no better than anyone else’s. A multi-pronged research approach might be used to find out what competitors do: 1) scan the web pages of competitor programs, 2) administrators chat with their peers at those institutions, and 3) faculty members talk with their peers and learn about their tools for OnSync courses. All these channels should be used to determine a program’s competitive place in the market.

Differentiation-related choices

The best situation in which to invest in OnSync teaching would be one with the following qualities:

  • Prospects assign a high value to OnSync teaching,
  • Prospects have some way of learning about your program’s OnSync approach (especially in relation to your competitors),
  • Prospects can understand what a high quality OnSync learning experience is, and
  • Competitors use a standard OnSync teaching approach.

As mentioned above, prospects must have some way of learning about your approach. Professionals from marketing and admissions should be brought in early in the process for brainstorming sessions about how and when prospects might learn about your possible new approach. Farther along in the process, these same people could also do some early research with students, prospects, and former prospects.

The prospects must also be able to understand what high quality looks like. Thus, in addition to investigating how and when prospects might learn about the approach, professionals should ask what their experience has been with OnSync courses, what they know about different approaches, what they like or disklike about those approaches, and whether or not they look for this type of information when investigating programs.

Alignment of efforts

The three work streams listed below must be coordinated in order for the investment in improving OnSync teaching to pay off:

Marketing effort
Prospects must have deep and accurate knowledge of OnSync teaching. Leadership and the marketing and admissions teams must determine how to best convey this. It might use email messaging, video demonstrations, and, possibly, a sample learning experience that prospects could participate in. It might also involve contrasting with current approaches to OnSync; this would be a tricky message to formulate because most of the school’s current programs probably use those same approaches.
Program definition
Courses must rely on OnSync teaching. Courses must be delivered, at least in part, synchronously. Faculty have to understand how the platform works and develop new online pedagogies best take advantage of it. As discussed below, the benefit of the platform under consideration is that pedagogies of face-to-face class sessions should translate fairly directly to this platform, thus enabling a more rapid, less expensive, and more effective transition to OnSync teaching.
Program investment
If program leadership projects that the marketing effort will succeed, and if faculty are interested in and capable of integrating the OnSync teaching tools into courses, and if the school has the ability to create the tool (either internally or via a third-party vendor), then the school should go ahead with the investment. Leadership needs to plan for both a relatively larger initial investment and then on-going smaller, though still significant, investments in future years to continue evolving the program.

2.2 Relevant dimensions

Now, given that a program has chosen to compete based (at least in part) on OnSync teaching, it must determine what the desired learning experience for students and faculty should be. The following lists are only representative of what an analysis of your own program’s needs might uncover but it is indicative of the types of requirements that you will need to gather.

In this analysis I am highlighting factors for both students and faculty members. Certainly, for competitive and market-focused reasons, it is the student experience that the program would be most focused on. However, the program should also be interested in the faculty experience. Faculty lead the course creation and delivery efforts. Having better teaching faculty involved in a program has been shown to increase course quality. Further, having a platform that can support a wider range of more effective pedagogies would enable those faculty to deliver even better online courses than they would be able to deliver otherwise.

For a student

As mentioned above, improving the student experience in online courses is important from a competitive position. Given that, consider the following list of factors that possibly determine a student’s satisfaction with a particular session of a class:

  • Class-based:
    • Topic (e.g., “Classical Greek Architecture” or “Algorithms and Data Structures”)
    • Perceived relevance of the session’s material, to the class topic, to the student’s success in the class, and to the student’s life
  • Student-centered:
    • Perceived value of the class (by groups that matter to the student)
    • Expected grade
  • Pedagogy-focused:
    • Clear summary of a session’s outcomes
    • Ability to interact with and learn from peers
  • Professor-focused:
    • Breadth, depth, quality, and coherence of the information contained within the class
    • Quality and effectiveness of the experience
    • Entertainment

First, it must be noted that I made up the above list based on my experience as as professor and dean. For your program, you will want to do a more detailed investigation of the question. This should include academic research, summaries of student evaluation data and written responses, and surveys of the school’s student body. For now, this will do. Also, there is definitely some overlap among the four high-level factors, but this does not get in the way of this analysis.

Second, the question under consideration is to specify the desired learning experience and, specifically, to focus on those factors that can be improved with a better technology platform. The class and student-centered factors seem to be less amenable to change by technology. On the other hand, some of the pedagogy-focused and professor-focused factors do seem to be more promising:

Ability to interact with and learn from peers
The opportunity to interact with peers, either formally or informally, is a key benefit of in-person courses. Any improvement to the Zoom experience for this would be appreciated. Students learn more when teaching, learning from, and learning with their peers. Current OnSync courses have to minimize this type of work because it is markedly different from face-to-face interactions, a strong “take turns” rule has to be imposed, and faculty lose almost all insight into what is happening in a class when “breakout rooms” are used.
Quality and effectiveness of the experience
The whole reason for paying attention to pedagogy is to construct an effective and enjoyable learning experience. Different faculty members pay different levels of attention to the “effective” and “enjoyable” aspects of course design. These are not mutually exclusive but the designer does need to pay attention to each or they will not come to be. Making available more, more effective, more appropriate, and more flexible teaching tools to the course designer (often the professor) should, almost by definition, improve the learning experience.
Entertainment
Faculty generally don’t think that they are getting into the entertainment business but most eventually face this reality at some point in their career. It’s not that a faculty member has to aim to be entertaining, but a bit of it thrown in periodically can keep the students engaged. Again, having more tools available to the professor allows her to “mix things up,” changing the pedagogy so as to keep the students from getting bored.

For a faculty member

Improving the faculty experience should lead to higher faculty satisfaction with online teaching and better quality classes. Given that, consider the following list of factors that can have an effect on a faculty member’s satisfaction with a particular session of a class:

  • Ability to teach in the desired manner (sometimes this is the most effective manner, too)
  • Quality of the student participation and interaction
  • Interest level of the students
  • Perceived success of the session

Certainly, while all of the above are important, the first factor (and other factors above related to the student experience) is a significant determinant of the other three. I shall focus on that one. There is a bit to unpack in this statement:

Ability to teach in the desired manner (sometimes this is the most effective manner, too)

As a general statement, faculty would prefer to teach in an effective, desired manner. However, it is not always the case that what is effective is desired nor what is desired is effective. Further, desired can simply be what is familiar though it can also be what the faculty member believes would be most effective. This means that a faculty member must choose, or must compromise in, her choice of pedagogy based on what is available on the technology platform.

One complicating factor in the choice of teaching online synchronously versus asynchronously is that face-to-face teaching is a synchronous experience. Thus, most faculty have extensive experience with synchronous teaching while asynchronous teaching can be foreign to the faculty member’s world. This can lead to faculty members generally preferring a synchronous teaching style because of past experiences, irregardless of whether or not it’s appropriate for online teaching. In addition, when designing a class with asynchronous components, faculty members generally have to rely on support from instructional designers, videographers, graphics designers, and others. This can reduce a faculty member’s sense of ownership and control, certainly in comparison to the usual experience when teaching a face-to-face class.

Again, the question under consideration is to specify the desired learning experience and, specifically, to focus on those factors that can be improved with a better technology platform. It is absolutely the case that different technology platforms can enable different pedagogies. Further, some pedagogies are more easily delivered on some platforms than another. Thus, the choice of a platform is a determinant of what pedagogies are available, how effective those pedagogies are, and how easy they are to use.

3.0 Technology foundations of a differentiated online course

Given the discussion above, in the following section I examine shortcomings of the current approach to OnSync teaching and then describe what is needed in order to create a more successful approach.

3.1 Shortcomings of current approach

Teachers around the world have recently come face-to-face with OnSync teaching, many times through the Zoom application. While it is a satisfactory short-term solution to the need for “remote teaching,” it has some significant shortcomings when looked at as a solution that can enable high quality OnSync learning.

Lost diagnostic ability

Much of the magic that occurs in a face-to-face class is the constant body language and tactile feedback that all participants can give out and receive. Anyone who is paying attention can easily, based on thousands of years of evolution, figure out how well the session is going. This is, for the most part, lost when teaching in a Zoom session. All that we have is a random array of 2D images of faces, sometimes live and sometimes just a photograph.

Limited range of use-cases that are easily applied and effective

Zoom has a very small set of use cases for which it can be easily applied. And, even for those, it has limited effectiveness. Lecturing is certainly possible. But, if you’re going to be lecturing, then why not record it, get it right, and then show it to the students. Breakout “rooms” are also possible, but professors lose view of the breakout groups while they’re gone. A discussion-centric format is nearly impossible because, while it’s possible to give out some cues, it’s almost impossible to read them because no one knows who should be on the receiving end of the cue.

What it comes down to is that Zoom is a basic videoconferencing tool. It is not purpose-built to support the needs of teachers or learners. A special-purpose tool needs to be built and deployed.

3.2 What is needed

Combining the relevant dimensions of a quality learning experience—for both students and faculty—that can be improved with a better technology platform, I get the following list:

  1. Ability to interact with and learn from peers
  2. Quality and effectiveness of the experience
  3. Entertainment
  4. Ability to teach in the desired manner (sometimes this is the most effective manner, too)

Let’s consider these while addressing the shortcomings of the current approach that we just discussed. The hope is that a quality OnSync learning experience will be enabled if we address these shortcomings.

Improve diagnostic ability

Creating a tool for OnSync learning that is focused on improving the diagnostic ability for students and, especially, faculty members would go a long way toward improving the quality and effectiveness of the experience (point 1, above). This is a hard problem, make no mistake, and the solutions that are proposed here will not be the same ones that are available in a face-to-face situation. However, beginning to explore approaches to provide this information is the only way that solutions might be found. Consider the following:

Seating chart
Allow faculty members to create a “seating chart” as it relates to where students are located within the digital grid on the screen. This would create a sense of space. Every faculty and student is used to having his/her own space in a classroom. This would help everyone get familiar with the participants more quickly while also enabling “turn-taking” in a seamless manner.
Signals
Allow students to easily signal “I’m confused,” “I have a question,” or “I understand” to make up for the difficulty in providing physical cues.
Reading signals
Make it obvious, but not intrusive, to the professor that students have questions, are confused, or understand. This could also be captured on a timeline in aggregate so that a faculty member can do some analysis after the fact to get a sense of the trouble spots in a particular session. It also might be an option to let students see these signals as well, just as they would in a face-to-face class.
Engagement dashboard
Provide a dashboard for the professor that reflects student engagement. When a class meets face-to-face, a professor continually “takes the temperature” of the classroom by examining body language, questions, interactions, volume of conversation, and a myriad other clues. For an OnSync class, other measures have to be provided, none of which are perfect substitutes, but which might be able to provide a related sense of engagement: number of polls answered, hands raised, quality of comments (as measured by peers, teaching assistant, or faculty), words spoken, participation in breakout sessions (as measured by peers), and more. These could all be combined into an easily digested graphic or number so that a faculty (and the student as well) might know how deeply students are engaged.
Breakout rooms
These should allow faculty to drop in and observe, ask or answer questions. Students should be allowed to leave the room and ask the professor a question (or “get in line” to ask a question). Students might have “session workbooks” that the platform automatically captures; these could be both saved for the student and shared with the professor so that he/she could get some insight into how well students were performing.

These are just an initial set of features that might be deployed on an OnSync teaching platform. I’m sure that different institutions would want additional features, but this provides a good baseline to start with.

Improve range of use-cases that are easily applied

Suppose that a professor has access to an OnSync teaching platform that has the above features. Now, consider class sessions that are lecture-based, seminar-style, case-based, or problem-based. It’s pretty easy to see that the changes that are focused on improving diagnostic ability (above) would go quite a ways in improving the OnSync experience with those sessions. While the OnSync experience would not be the same as the face-to-face experience, it would be a big improvement from the Zoom-based experience. This would be a much-increased range of use-cases that can be more easily used when OnSync teaching.

These changes focused on improving diagnostic ability would also make interactions among peers more natural, more effective, and more easily integrated into the flow of class. Students would have many more opportunities to talk with each other in seminar classes, problem-based clases, and case-based classes. This, alone, would make the adoption of a platform such as this worth the effort—students would not have to think of OnSync courses as simply a time to listen to a professor talk or engage in stilted conversations with peers. It could bring them back to more conversation-based, problem-focused, and student-focused experiences.

These changes should, in turn, increase the entertainment value of the class significantly. A class could employ a variety of pedagogies both within and across sessions. Students could talk with each other in small groups, work on problems, carry on discussions…all of those activities that make synchronous classes so enjoyable.

Thus, if there were a platform that added the features described above, all four items mentioned above that would improve the quality of an OnSync learning experience would have been addressed.

4.0 Next steps

What we now have is an understanding of our current inadequate approach to OnSync teaching and a vision of where we want to be related to it. In order to compete and win based on differentiated OnSync teaching, we need to review the three work streams that need to be coordinated.

Marketing effort

Marketing needs to be aware of and periodically check in on the design process. These professionals need to understand what is being created and must then determine how to best convey this to prospects who would care about it. It might be possible, and possibly even required, to use simulations that are created early in the design process to provide early glimpses to those prospects. It might also make sense to get feedback on the tool and the approach from them. Their words and reactions could be used in future marketing efforts.

Program definition

Of course faculty are involved in the development of the tool and approach. Now they must be given enough time to get familiar with the tool in order to integrate it into their courses.

A design team would have to work with faculty and students to design what the approach would actually look like in order to provide them with what they need. This would possibly involve creating focus groups, paper-based simulations, and feedback from computerized simulations of the tool. After the design is created, the team would have to create a plan for the implementation process. After that is approved, then it is a matter of executing on that plan (and, of course, keeping everyone up-to-date with how it is progressing).

In the pre-COVID-19 academic world, some programs were referred to as hybrid. This meant that some portions were taught face-to-face with the rest being taught online. With a tool such as the one being discussed, a new program format could be rolled out—let’s call it online hybrid. The point of the OnSync tool is to allow more natural interactions among students so as to build camaraderie. Formerly, this would have been done face-to-face, but now the reality is that much of this will have to be done online. These new online hybrid programs could be a mix of OnSync sessions (that would have formerly been workshops and seminars held face-to-face) and synchronous learning modules (such as those that are currently used in online programs).

Many faculty who have taught online programs before will have created asynchronous courses. Almost all faculty (because of the COVID-19 pandemic) will have taught online synchronously with Zoom (or something similar). Both of these faculty groups would be hungry for a tool such as the one under consideration. Training would focus on getting faculty comfortable enough with the tool to enable them to conduct seminars, workshops, and breakout groups as they would normally do in face-to-face programs. User groups of the initial faculty group to adopt the tool should be formed to enable best practices to be shared.

It will absolutely be the case that, as more faculty are being exposed to and trained in the tool, a list of desired features for future development will be gathered. This should be embraced. As the tool evolves, classes will evolve based on the new pedagogy and the supporting tool. The embedding of the tool into the program will become a growing competitive advantage for the school as the intertwined processes advance: tool improvements, evolving pedagogical approaches, and more extensive adoption of both.

Program investment

One benefit of investing in a tool that could improve OnSync courses is that the tool would be usable across the whole university. Some investments in edtech (e.g., a computer simulation of inter-personal negotiation) have narrow applicability. The benefit of investing in a tool for OnSync teaching is that it would have applicability in every program that incorporates that mode of teaching.

Conclusion

The above analysis presents a reasonable approach for a school to build a differentiation strategy based on OnSync teaching. The Generalized Differentiation Strategy model provides a framework for competing this way. The technological foundation, while not provided by generic videoconferencing software, can feasibly be created with current programming tools. And, finally, the GD model also provides an outline of what steps need to be completed in order to win based on this strategy.

Robert Ubell wrote the following:

“The strengths of online education emerge from new conceptual approaches in teaching and learning. In dismissing it for its dependence on technology, opponents overlook crucial elements that make digital education transformative — an entirely new way of teaching with new methods of engaging students.”

That is what is discussed here: a new way of engaging students. It takes some planning, some work, and some human and financial resources. Of this there is no doubt. But what it might enable is a great advance in education, as well as a preservation of a pedagogical approaches that have proven themselves over decades or even centuries and that faculty are comfortable with.

Activities

For this series, I am posing activities for an educational leader to complete. The unifying project for these activities is to define a medium- and long-term plan for competing and winning online.

  1. Would faculty and students at your school be excited about the deployment about such an OnSync tool? Why or why not?
  2. What programs would have target prospects who would be interested in such a tool?
  3. What other reasons might you use to support the development of such an OnSync tool?
  4. Would such a tool support your institution’s strategy? Why or why not?
  5. What other types of technologies might you wish to see developed that would support your institution’s strategy? Maybe related to your career services? Alumni? Community engagement? Or other?
Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or comments. 

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Define and Act on Your Institution’s Strategy

Dr. Scott Moore has written a 15-part series on defining and acting on a higher education strategy to guide leaders during these difficult times. It is targeted at educational leaders who are participating in shaping their school's actions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

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