Monday, December 2, 2013

Two Books on Learning to Teach On-line

Recently I enrolled in a postgraduate course in on-line teaching. This does not start until early 2014, so I decided to get a head-start by reading the textbooks. One of the surprises for many is that on-line courses still have textbooks. In this case one book "The Theory and Practice of Online Learning" (Terry Anderson, second edition, AU Press, 2008) is available as a paperback, as an eBook for purchase and also as a free PDF download (under a Creative Commons license). The free PDF version is very well formatted and much easier to read that the on-page-at-a-time format which some university libraries provide it in. "Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education",  (Michael Simonson, Sharon E. Smaldino, Michael Albright, Susan Zvacek, Fifth Edition, Pearson, 2011) is only available as a paperback.

These two books cover the same topic in very different styles. Terry Anderson is a Professor in Distance Education at Athabasca University (Canada). The book is intended for postgraduate students of education and this shows in the writing, which can be at times a little too academic. The book is well formatted, with just black text on a white background and a few diagrams and photos. The look of the book is a little austere, but a benefit is that it is very usable in the free PDF version (I was even able to convert it to an audio book, using a synthetic speech program).

Michael Simonson is a Professor of Instructional Technology & Distance Education at Nova Southeastern University (USA). The book is aimed at school teachers, as well university lecturers and so the writing uses simpler language (while still covering some advanced topics). The book has numerous photos and diagrams, as well as shaded text sections. Some of the shading can be a problem as the book is monochrome and black text on a gray background can be hard to read.

Both books look a little dated, from the perspective of 2013. Neither book covers the recent development of MOOCs, which are challenging not only traditional face-to-face courses, but on-line ones. While there are numerous photos in Simonson's book, they are of very out of date technology, such as Cathode Ray Tube TVs. Also tele-medicine gets a significant mention, which does not seem relevant to the topic of the book (unless it is aimed at university medical schools). Some of graphic design advice provided by Simonson is intended for obsolete TV displays and should be updated for the web.

What both books do well is put on-line education in a historical context, pointing out it comes from a long history of paper based distance education and later adoption of technologies such as radio, TV telephone conferences. Also they point out that good on-line education follows the same principles as any education.

I found it very useful to read a chapter from each book in turn. For about the first half they seemed to be covering the same topics in the same order, but giving different perspectives. Anderson goes into more detail on the business of providing on-line courses, including how to cost them. This approach is reminiscent of the work of the UK Open University. Simonson

Simonson has photos and bios of the authors at the front of the book, Anderson has a brief bio of the authors at the end of each chapter, but no photos. I did not feel I was connecting with the authors in either case. Also there is the institutional aspect missing from both books. Teachers do not create courses in isolation, but in an institutional context. Anderson's book is in part a homage to Athabasca University, but how the institution works is never explored in detail. It would be interesting to compare the operation of USA and Canadian on-line institutions.

"The Theory and Practice of Online Learning" is clearly intended as readings to accompany an advanced university course and does this well (I remember reading a chapter of it in my USQ studies). "Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education", is more suited to a less advanced course and is more complete, in that it has discussion questions for each chapter. Each is a useful text on its own, but they also work well together. But both books need updating with the latest developments in MOOCs and need to cover institutional issues.

ps: Thanks to the Australian Defence Force Academy UNSW Canberra Library for the copy of "The Theory and Practice of Online Learning" and Australian Catholic University Library Canberra Campus for "Teaching and Learning at a Distance".

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