Week 3 – Notes on Kolowitz.

Kolowitz talks about the ideas/research conducted by Douglas E. Hersh, dean of educational programs and technology at Santa Barbara uni.

The premise of the discussion is that students are more likely to drop out of distance education courses. Many reasons for this (e.g. being too busy) – some of these cannot be addressed

But Hersh believes there is a major reason however which could be addressed – that is the lack of human touch.

Solution: incorporate more video and audio components, i.e. videos of themselves teaching or interacting with their online students

2008 – Hersh convinced Santa Barbara uni to drop Blackboard and use Moodle. He built there the “Human Presence Learning Environment”.

  • Professors deliver lessons and messages using their webcams
  • It show who is logged into Skype
  • Students could post their answers in video format.

Hersh believes engagement goes hand-in-hand with audio-visual communication.

John Bourne, executive director of an online-education research group, says “social presence” reduces drop out rates. There is a link between increased interaction between humans and increased engagement with course, which would result in greater retention rates in the long term.

Hersh’s presents his dissertation on the satisfaction and completion rates of 145 students in his “presence-oriented learning environment” compared to a similar sample taking their courses through a “traditional” LMS as proof of the above-mentioned idea.

He credits the higher engagement and retention rates to the “illusion of non-mediation”, a term taken from virtual-presence scholars Matthew Lombard and Theresa Ditton. It means that when students can see the face of the instructor they trust her/him more and they feel more invested in the course. The same applies to classmates.

Hersh admits to a downfall of his system: the loss of focus. Written communication forces the participants to focus more. But it is also alienating.

Reggie Smith, president of the US Distance Learning Association, is sceptical of Hersh’s ideas. He claims that the use of video might be just an attempt to add flash to lower standard materials. He does admit that student-instructor and student-student communication is important, but he doesn’t think it is an essential ingredient for an online course to be successful.

One thought on “Week 3 – Notes on Kolowitz.

  1. Jo Lockwood

    Summary – Kolowich, S (2010) The Human Element
    The premise of the article is that online courses need to be personalised, or ‘humanised’ in order to retain students’ interest. An online course needs to be ‘humanised’ with an instructor presence and this can be achieved with the use of videos featuring the instructor.
    Videos are more often used in online courses to present course material, lecture PowerPoints etc. and don’t show the lecturer.
    Douglas E. Hersh, dean of educational programs at Santa Barbara City College, is using his custom-made platform (through Moodle) to deliver lectures captured via webcam. Instructors and students can also interact using Skype or audio responses in online Discussions.
    The article emphasizes the place of ‘social presence’ in promoting student engagement.
    Blackboard now has a ‘text-chatting’?? feature which allows instructor and student interaction.
    Blackboard states that audio/video interactivity is less important than ‘engagement in general’ whereas Hersh and others believe human interaction is key to engagement and retention.
    Hersh’s bases his argument on the human element promoting ‘trust’ between students, their instructors and each other.
    Hersh does consider the objectivity of text-based interaction as opposed to the more emotional responses to f-t-f interactions.
    R. Smith, president of the US Distance Learning Association, emphasizes the overall design of online courses as essential to a course’s success.

    Thoughts on the article:
    The article conflates the concepts of ‘engagement’ in online activities and social interaction/engagement and I think these need to be teased out.
    I have no argument with the idea that an instructor presence is motivating for students and video and audio do this very effectively.
    However, if we want student engagement with the online activities, we need to create meaningful activities, aligned with learning outcomes and assessment and able to promote in students some deeper learning strategies.

    The questions from the MOOC:
    1. What happens if we look at it from a perspective informed by the readings we have been doing this week? If we accept that ‘humanity’ is an ambiguous category at best, where does that leave claims like the ones made here for ‘the human element’ as a touchstone for good course design?
    2. And why are video and audio constructed here as being ‘more human’ than, for example, text?
    3. What assumptions are at play here, and what do they say about the broader discourses which dominate discussions of technology and education?

    1. It probably is possible to design an online course without a teacher presence, delivered, graded and awarded wholly by ‘machines’. This would be a huge challenge for the designers of the course to create meaningful, engaging activities.
    This does still mean though, that there is a human element there somewhere, even if it is in the background – in the development rather than the delivery.
    2. Well-written text can be just as effective as video or audio because text can stimulate the imagination. However, some people are visual learners and would need some images, diagrams etc.
    3. This hypothetical course without any human or social presence could still be considered ‘humanistic education’ because it is the aim and not the delivery that makes it such. The aim of humanist education is the enhancement of the individual within a learning culture of freedom, lack of prejudice and connectedness with the world.
    However, I question how far a totally automated online course can take learners down this path. There is a big difference between following a process or accumulating knowledge (which can be done with text, images, diagrams) and supporting students to develop a sophisticated personal perspective on world systems. This requires debate, interaction, critical analysis of texts and feedback from others (students and teachers). I think we are a long way from the Teacher bot being capable of support at this level.

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