Course Development
Online Learning

What is the site of online learning? A conversation exploring teaching and learning "spacetime"

04/05/18   |  
Christine Lewinski, Ed.D. and Reinhardt Suarez

“Spacetime,” in physics, is “the part of Einstein's Theory of Relativity that adds the idea of time to those of height, depth, and length.”  With homage to Einstein, in this blog, we define educational spacetime as the time and space (mental and physical) of the learning environment as experienced by the online student.

Students choose the option of online education for three driving reasons: 1) to find the courses they want to take, 2) at a price they are willing to pay, 3) with schedule flexibility to participate in ways that fit their lives and work. For this first in a series of blog posts, I asked Reinhardt Suarez, a colleague and instructional and interactive learning designer at Keypath, to think about this question with me: 

Given the reality of what motivates many online adult learners across the globe, are instructor and student needs aligned during the learning design process? 

Our conversation on the topic follows. The next post in this series will explore additional online design and teaching themes. 
Christine Lewinski, Ed.D., Director of Faculty Engagement, Keypath Education: Student interest in online learning suggests the physical classroom is not the default site of learning, but is instead one site of learning. Still, the idea of a physical place – a classroom – is often privileged in discussions of online course development. Do you find this to be the case? 
Reinhardt Suarez, Instructional Designer, Keypath Education:  I do. A linear model still prevails. We imagine students sit down, turn on a computer or device, engage with a specific platform in a specific way, and follow the instructions from the Subject Matter Expert and Instructional Designer. In short, the educational spacetime is compartmentalized and localized. This is the paradigm of the classroom education model. 
CL: One study found that faculty doubt, at first. whether online learning can achieve the same “perceived quality of face-to-face learning."   For faculty who are new to the experience of developing online content, isn’t it natural to start with how instruction works in a face-to-face setting – to start with the familiar?
RS: Yes. But I wonder: What if it didn't have to be that way? What keeps us transfixed on a limited locale/limited time/confined educational model? Instructors often focus on how to recreate classroom-style instruction in the online format. 
CL: It could be a threshold issue. The prospect of online teaching and learning is a threshold between two states of mind.  Like the experience of renting a car in another country, even if we’re skilled drivers, we start with contrast. This road is not like that road. This vehicle feature is not like that one. In this threshold state, according to Northcote et al, we are disoriented, at first, by what is new and must make sense of it to become skillful in a new environment.  
Reinhardt and I both read a recent blog by noted professor and e-Learning specialist Gilly Salmon, who writes, "First we need to disrupt our own thinking…since as educators we belong to Education 1.0 or 2.0 cohorts of learners." Professor Salmon observes that Web and Education 3.0 is marked by students and teachers sharing roles as co-creators and co-researchers (Salmon, 2017).

RS: We seem to be at a transition point as higher education institutions grapple with how their student bases are shifting. I believe that many instructors are successful in classroom settings and tune their assignments, assessments, and activities to foster deep learning. The real opportunity is in Web and Education 3.0 approaches.
CL: A more participative 3.0 version of the web matches the core principle of online pedagogy. Instruction and learning occur independent of time of day. Access to content is ubiquitous, not further away than a smart phone or other portable digital device. 

RS: Yes, and what does that mean for what we are creating? What changes when we think about online students as co-creators and actually enact this with design? 

CL: According to findings from the most recent Inside Higher Ed Survey on Faculty Attitudes on Technology, nearly eight out of ten faculty who have taught online report that it led to greater reflection on how students engage with instructional content. We haven't said anything about technology to this point. It's true that what makes education at a distance possible is technology.
RS: In my role, I work with faculty to enable access, interest, and flexibility for students using technology. But technology itself (better graphics, more buttons to push, etc.) is not the battle. What we may think is “innovative technology” changes so quickly, especially considering the range of on-demand media available.
CL: Developing skill with technology is an important building block in the transition to teaching effectively online.
RS: Right. Yet, the spacetime of online learning is only loosely about technology. I believe it is more about answering these questions: How do we activate learning while a student is making breakfast, exercising at the gym or picking up their children from school? Could a student learn while taking a bath or taking a walk? How about commuting to a job? Learning cannot be limited to a particular site, whether it is a classroom or the student’s computer or phone. 

CL: In this view, what matters is radically re-envisioning the educational model and challenging our assumptions about what actually happens in a physical classroom. Shifting the conversation from instruction to learning. 
RS: Yes. When we empathize with who and what online students need and want, what we cannot do is simply emulate the classroom setting. In fact, attempting to approximate it in any way, especially through technology, does not take us across the threshold. 

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Jaschik, S., & Lederman, D. (2017). The 2017 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology. Washington: Inside Higher Ed and Gallup. Retrieved from
Meyer, J., Land, R., & Baillie, C. (2010). Threshold Concepts and Tranformational Learning (Vol. 42). Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense . Retrieved from
Northcote, M., Gosselin, K., Reynaud, D., Kilgour, P., & Anderson , M. (2015). Navigating the learning journeys of online teachers: Threshold concepts and self-efficacy. Issues in Educational Research, 25(3), 319-344. Retrieved from
Salmon, G. (2017, March 3). Higher education 1.0 to 3.0 and beyond (Blog). Retrieved from Gilly Salmon: