Diigo as a tool for collaborative learning and research in higher education

There is significant opportunity within higher education environments–indeed, all education environments–to lean into a constructivist educational philosophy and approach knowledge as something co-created by both instructors and students.  Furthermore, as higher education courses and programs are increasingly offered in hybrid and fully online modalities, finding authentic ways for students to increase their social presence and overall engagement-level in coursework is essential (Baran, 2013). Digital tools can greatly assist in the act of socially constructing knowledge by helping to eliminate learning boundaries and extend opportunities for both formal and informal learning in a myriad of ways (Baran, 2013).  

Within higher education, one of the more important realms of knowledge construction between students and instructors, especially at the graduate level, takes place in the academic research process and in the conversations that, quite literally, take place in the margins within that research process (Farber, 2019).  As a graduate student who currently does not use any specific annotation or research collaboration tools for research outside of Microsoft Teams or Google Suite, I am curious to explore the ways in which the social bookmarking tool Diigo (which allows learners to collect, annotate, organize, and share online resources) supports efficient, collaborative research among instructors, students, and their peers in higher education.  Furthermore, I am interested in anecdotally comparing my exploration of this tool with the functionalities of more recently-released (and decidedly more expansive) digital collaboration tools like Teams and Google+.  Does Diigo hold its own in the digital collaboration tool market in 2021?

According to the product website (Diigo Inc., 2021), Diigo supports collaborative learning endeavors in four key ways.  It allows users to:

  • Collect: save and tag online resources to public or private curated libraries for easy access
  • Annotate: annotate web pages, PDFs, and other digital content directly while browsing online
  • Organize: organize links, references and personal input to create a structured research base
  • Share: share research with friends, classmates, colleagues or associates

Originally released in 2011, Diigo (Digest of Internet Information, Groups and Other stuff) quickly found a dedicated user-base and distinguished itself from other types of bookmarking applications (most notably its 2003 bookmarking predecessor, Delicious) due to its user-friendly interface, emphasis on social engagement, and extensions specific to use in education, combined with more traditional bookmarking functionalities (Ruffini, 2011).  The table below shows a helpful comparison between Diigo, its initial competitor and predecessor Delicious (now defunct), and the typical bookmarking capabilities of a web browser.

Table 1. Social Bookmarking Comparison Chart (updated by Ruffini, 2011)

FeatureDiigoDeliciousBrowser
Organize bookmarks automatically with tagsxxx
Popular bookmarksXXX
Anytime, anywhere access to bookmarksXX 
Share bookmarks with othersXX 
Powerful, customizable search toolsXX 
Groups of people with similar interestsXX 
Post automatically to blogXX 
Tools and browser extensions for bookmarkingXX 
Lists of grouped bookmarksXX 
Free iPhone and Android appsXThird party 
iPad Safari browser bookmarkletX  
Add and share sticky notesX  
Capture, mark up, share images and textX  
Collect web pictures into albumsX  
Sync bookmarksX  
Tools for educatorsX  
Original table by: Schmidt, Jason. (2010, July 30). Diigo and Delicious. Interactive Inquiry. https://iisquared.wordpress.com/2010/07/30/diigo-and-delicious/

As the table indicates, Diigo offers much more functionality in several categories, but most notably (pun intended) in the realm of annotation.  When installed as a browser extension, Diigo can be integrated fairly seamlessly into existing research habits, and perhaps most importantly, most Diigo tools can be accessed for free.

Since Delicious left the scene, new social learning/annotation tools have surfaced such as Hypothesis.is and Mendeley, both of which deliver many of the same features as Diigo, and both of which are largely open access.  Though a detailed direct comparison of these tools is beyond the scope of this post, a brief exploration seems to suggest that Hypothesis might be most appealing for educators who would like to incorporate the application into their Learning Management System (LMS).  Hypothesis can integrate nicely into all of the major LMS platforms and it offers many resources and training videos for educators so that they can truly maximize their use of the tool within their planned learning activities (Guhlin, 2020). Mendeley, a tool primarily intended for use in higher education, has a handy “cite as you write” plugin that prioritizes the streamlining of the reference process, automatically capturing author, title, and publisher information as needed (Guhlin, 2020).

Though it’s now been a decade since its release, Diigo seems to maintain its relevance and dedicated user base for several reasons:

  1. It is a bit simpler and more user-friendly than its competitors such that it is more easily adapted for use in a variety of learning environments and contexts, including both K-12 and higher education (Guhlin, 2020).
  2. Diigo seems to be the tool with the strongest integrated support for educators independent of an LMS.  Since its early stages, special accounts are available for educators that empower registered teachers with a variety of extra tools and features, leveraging the tool for use and collaboration with an entire class if desired (Education Technology, 2015).
  3. Individual features like Diigo Outliner, which lets you create and share digital outlines within a document, add sustaining value to the tool; these features are more nuanced than the general commenting features or Track Changes available in so many other types of collaboration tools (Guhlin, 2020).
  4. Because of its longevity, Diigo has had time to collect a large, lasting user base and dynamic Interest Groups (i.e. K-12 teachers, higher education instructors, researchers, etc.) which offer grassroots professional development tips and organic user insights accessible to the whole community (Ruffini, 2011).  
  5. Diigo’s longevity is also a testament to the creators’ ability to update the tool to best fit user needs over time, and there continue to be product and app updates on a regular basis. Diigo has evolved over the years, and today it is used more frequently for its collaboration/annotation capabilities than the social bookmarking services it was originally focused on (Guhlin, 2020).

Having recently worked on a collaborative research publication using Microsoft Teams, and as a frequent user of collaborative Google products for both academic and personal endeavors, I was curious if this exploration would support Diigo as a stand-alone tool to be considered for use in collaborative research endeavors, or whether its offerings were more or less synonymous with tools embedded within these larger platforms.  Anecdotally, I think the answer is yes, Diigo does stand alone, at least for specific use cases.

Both Teams and Google have many strengths when it comes to video conferencing, and cloud-based word processing and document sharing, but I do not find that these tools go quite so far to aid in the initial research phase. According to Educational Technology and Mobile Learning (2015), with Diigo, student and faculty researchers may:

  • Search for online content relevant to their project, bookmark the websites and then add them to a shared ‘class’ or group
  • Organize bookmarks by tags and date to organize content around a particular topic and to make it easy to search for it later
  • Highlight specific segments of a webpage or add sticky notes to annotate them for others to read 
  • Take screenshots of useful online content and annotate them for use as well

In these cases, Diigo essentially cuts out a step (or multiple steps) for an instructor or student trying to share research. In the initial research phase, a researcher using Diigo would not need to save and download a PDF or copy the link for a website of interest, only to reupload it or paste it later to a general repository, not having the same ability to annotate the resource or organize it as efficiently as Diigo would allow.  However, I do think Diigo finds its strongest value in working for a specific research purpose with a specific group of people.  Its value is inherently collaborative and is best used when trying to co-construct knowledge.  Consequently, it isn’t a tool I’ll be using regularly in my daily academic activities for just myself, but it is a tool I’ll be reaching for when it comes time to spearhead my next research project.

Resources:

Baran, E. (2013). Connect, participate and learn: Transforming pedagogies in higher education. Bulletin of the IEEE Technical Committee on Learning Technology, 15(1), p. 9-12. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.681.1177&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Diigo Inc. (2021). Diigo. https://www.diigo.com/

Education Technology and Mobile Learning. (2015, January 14). 7 ways students use Diigo to do research and collaborative project work. https://www.educatorstechnology.com/2015/01/7-ways-students-use-diigo-to-do-research.html

Farber, M. (2019, July 22). Social Annotation in the Digital Age. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/social-annotation-digital-age

Guhlin, M. (2020, April 13). Note-taking and outlining: Five digital helpers. TechNotes. https://blog.tcea.org/note-taking-and-outlining/

Ruffini, M. (2011, September 27). Classroom collaboration using social bookmarking service Diigo. Educause Review. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2011/9/classroom-collaboration-using-social-bookmarking-service-diigo

Schmidt, Jason. (2010, July 30). Diigo and Delicious. Interactive Inquiry. https://iisquared.wordpress.com/2010/07/30/diigo-and-delicious/

Global research collaboration and the pandemic: How COVID-19 has accelerated networked learning in higher education

Image courtesy of https://www.polyu.edu.hk/web/en/about_polyu/global_network/

According to the National Science Foundation (2019), one out of every five academic research articles are written by authors hailing from more than one country. This fact suggests that the value of international research collaboration was recognized and sought out well in advance of the global COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, but perhaps it’s only just the beginning.  Reasons to pursue global collaboration in higher education include reaching wider audiences and increasing the impact of published research, reducing bias and broadening perspectives with a diverse research team, and leveraging the ability to offset domestic skill shortages by collaborating across national borders (Lee & Haupt, 2020).  Networked learning in higher education can also encourage new levels of creativity and innovation in all kinds of disciplines, and it expands the potential for authentic global and cultural learning experiences in an increasingly connected world (Cronina et al., 2016).  These benefits apply to even the most scholastically “productive” countries like the USA and China (Lee & Haupt, 2020).  That said, understanding that international collaboration in higher education was valued–at least to a certain extent–prior to 2020, I am curious to explore how recent changes in technology and cultural shifts in academia during the pandemic have worked in tandem to build upon this trend, potentially accelerating technology’s impact on global research collaboration and cooperation into the future.

With the onset of COVID-19, scientists and researchers from every corner of the world scrambled to understand the virus and seek a cure. Information sharing among countries quickly became essential, especially for those countries that were hardest hit early on (Lee & Haupt, 2020).  Though socio-political tensions between countries–and even domestically within countries–were hardly in short supply in 2020, the demands of the pandemic shifted priorities such that many international corporations and research institutions began working together rather than competing with each other to produce a vaccine, and large-scale exchanges of medical and public health data, including possible solutions, was (and still is) shared internationally using digital and online tools (Buitendijk, 2020).

When it comes to information sharing, one way of measuring an increase in international collaboration is through a country’s participation in open access publication platforms.  Open access journals and publication platforms remove barriers for accessing information and research since they do not require payment or subscriptions in order to be read and cited.  Sometimes the cost of publishing is absorbed by these open access platforms through philanthropic efforts, sponsorship, or submission fees paid by the authors, etc., but the bottom line is that there’s typically little profit to be made by academics, researchers, and authors who publish in open access platforms. Thus, the motivation for researchers–either individually or nationally speaking–to publish in an open access platform is often more altruistic in nature, placing higher priority on the sharing of information than any potential gains or notoriety received from publishing, monetary or otherwise.  According to Lee & Haupt (2020), countries with lower GDP who were more severely affected by the pandemic were the most likely to increase participation in open access publishing and international research efforts. It would follow that decisions to increase open-access participation was also meant to illicit reciprocal behavior from other countries, and indeed, the majority of all “knowledge producing” countries increased their participation in open access publishing during the pandemic: “For each of the top 25 COVID-19 research-producing countries, there was a noticeably higher proportion of open-access articles on COVID-19 than during the past 5 years and on non-COVID-19…publications during the same period” (Lee & Haupt, 2020, para. 26).

In addition to the public health concerns that have motivated scholars and researchers to participate in more information sharing during the pandemic, it must also be said that the act of collaboration has gotten exponentially easier in recent years.  In a 2010 publication, Iorio et al. discuss the use of digital tools designed to facilitate international collaboration and interaction amongst higher education scholars.  In this specific case, domestic teams in five different areas of the world were attempting to complete an integrative design task which required synchronous virtual meetings, a way to exchange ideas, brainstorm, and problem solve in real time (though not necessarily synchronously), as well as an appropriate digital repository for their work (building plans, model mapping, cost estimates, etc.) which could be accessed frequently by the members of each team in their respective countries.  The article focused its efforts on reviewing the virtual reality platform Second Life. To me, Second Life now feels woefully insufficient as a project management platform, at least according to 2021 standards, but at the time, the authors found Second Life to be a comparatively “appealing choice” due to its options for customization and tools such as virtual white boards, voice and text chat, scheduling agents, etc., all in one centralized, virtual location. Second Life aside, the authors noted that “To date, very few technological options exist that provide all of [the needed] functionalities to distributed networks. Commonly used tools such as email, instant messaging, and teleconferencing do not provide a framework for interaction that fully satisfies the demands of geographically distributed projects.”

Sample of a virtual meeting room in Second Life; image courtesy of https://marketplace.secondlife.com

In short, Second Life was more or less the best this research team could find in 2010. Since then, there’s been a massive influx of virtual project management/collaboration platforms introduced to the market.  Consider the list below of some of the “big names” in collaboration software along with their launch dates:

This list represents nine, powerhouse collaboration platforms, all of which rolled out between 2010 and 2020, and many of which depend heavily on the power and popularity of cloud storage or cloud computing (which was also expanding significantly during this time frame).  And please note: this list is hardly exhaustive.  There are many more out there (and counting!), and even the ones on this list are constantly being updated and expanded.  Each platform or collection of tools on this list boasts its own strengths and weaknesses (the exploration of which is not the point of this post), but there can be no doubt that no matter the platform, it is easier to make the choice to communicate, collaborate, and innovate with people all over the world in 2021 than it was even ten years ago.  Of course, not only have the tools themselves gotten better, but the pandemic has accelerated digital tool adoption for purposes of collaboration at an extraordinary rate, popularizing already existing tools (e.g.. Zoom teleconferencing) in unprecedented ways, such that millions, if not billions, of students and professionals in myriads of settings worldwide are collaborating and problem solving virtually across distances in ways they were not one year ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into stark realization the fact that we need ‘global solutions to global challenges’ (Buitendijk et al, 2020) and that we need not relegate the phenomena of increased global collaboration in higher education to a particular moment in time.  Instead, we might view this as an opportunity to challenge the model of competition between higher education institutions and place lasting value on diversified bodies of knowledge production, dissemination, and consumption (Buitendijk et al, 2020).  We might also recognize that a philosophy of collaboration makes it possible for students and lecturers in all types of higher education settings to have more equal roles in creating content, sharing resources, and asking/answering important questions (Cronina et al., 2016).  As centers of research all over the world, universities have a crucial role to play in helping humans to better care for one another on a global scale, teaching us to become “more empathic, less competitive, and more networked in our research and educational activities” (Buitendijk, 2020).  Let us not lose the momentum of this moment to embrace a new norm in higher education, maintaining a sincere commitment to, and value of, community-minded research and collaboration across borders.

For further discussion on this topic, consider viewing this 60-minute webinar, “The impact of COVID-19 on University Research and International Collaborations” offered through the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education. The webinar was recorded in August of 2020.

References:

Buitendijk, B., Ward, H., Shimshon, G., Sam, A., & Sharma, D. (2020). COVID-19: An opportunity to rethink global cooperation in higher education and research. BMJ Global Health. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjgh-2020-002790

Cronina, C., Cochraneb, T.,  & Gordonc, A. (2016). Nurturing global collaboration and networked learning in higher education. Research in Learning Technology, 24

Iorio, J., Peschiera, G., Taylor, L., & Korpela, L. (2010). Factors impacting usage patterns of collaborative tools designed to support global virtual design project networks. Journal of Information Technology Design in Construction, 16, 209-230. https://itcon.org/papers/2011_14.content.08738.pdf

Lee, J., & Haupt, J. (2020). Scientific globalism during a global crisis: research collaboration and open access publications on COVID-19. Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-020-00589-0


National Science Foundation (2019). Publications Output: U.S. Trends and International Comparisons. National Science Board: Science and Engineering Indicators. https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsb20206/executive-summary

The Changing Nature of Research in Higher Education

Research in higher education looks very different today than it did even ten years ago.  Academics who, not so very long ago, were well acquainted with physical library study spaces and large collections of peer-reviewed academic journals, find themselves in a digitized world of research with unprecedented access to information and virtual repositories of human meaning-making activity.  The nature and culture of research in higher education is shifting, including that which is considered “worthy” content to explore when conducting research in all kinds of disciplines.  One need look no further than the APA reference guide and the ever-expanding list of possible resources (e.g.. YouTube videos and TED talks, podcasts, blog posts, etc.) to note that the “rules” of research are expanding, and must expand, alongside our access to information.

jesadaphorn/Shutterstock.com

As a current doctoral student (and someone who received my initial graduate degree a decade ago), I am curious about the ways the research sector of higher education has changed over time. How are undergraduate students being taught to conduct research?  What kind of shifts have been made due to new tools and technology platforms that assist in the research process?  What cultural shifts are happening in graduate and doctoral programs, and are these cultural shifts impacting research strategy? 

Jonbloed et al. (2008) posit that higher education has an expanding set of stakeholders and thus a continually shifting societal expectation of what a university’s public obligation is.  Early universities provided education exclusively for clergy and societal elites, but over the centuries, higher education has been democratized such that there are many invested parties and participants with competing paradigms and priorities. Indeed, one of the major, ongoing, accelerated shifts in higher education is the diversification of students, staff, and faculty and the role that universities can/should play as advocates of–and vehicles for–social justice (Brennan & Teichler, 2008).  We also now live in a “knowledge society” where knowledge is considered the solution to everything and the key to personal and societal advancement (Jonbloed et al., 2008).  Thus, higher education institutions (HEIs) are driven to make teaching and research more publicly accountable, often restructuring programs and creating new ones to meet modern societal demands and forfeiting, or “reorienting,” long standing academic norms and values along the way (Jonbloed et al., 2008).

Even the doctorate degree, a terminal, research-based degree program which is typically the highest academic degree that can be awarded by a university, isn’t immune to change.  There is an increasing demand for doctoral programs to become more relevant, to produce academics with transferable skills in their field in addition to research skills, and to even be more sensitive to issues of employability that extend beyond creating new academics who scarcely step outside the “ivory tower” of a university campus (Park, 2005).  This requires attention to the course structure and modality of a doctoral program, the quality of the mentorship provided, the diversity of students within the program, and an expansion of that which is considered sufficient, valuable evidence of research contributions in a given field.

At the undergraduate level, much focus is given to the development of research skills as a form of information or digital literacy.  K-12 schools and districts across the United States differ greatly in their approach to teaching digital literacy skills.  Thus, undergraduate students at HEIs come into lower division classes with a wide range of background and abilities (or lack thereof) informing their approach to research.  In a case study conducted at Texas Christian University (TCU) by Huddleston et al. (2019), faculty were surveyed to determine what research skills they felt were most needed and valuable for undergraduate students to have, and which skills undergraduate students tended to struggle with most.  A list of nine core skills for research success was produced based on faculty responses:

  1. Topic selection
  2. Search strategy
  3. Finding resources
  4. Differentiating source types
  5. Evaluating sources
  6. Synthesizing information
  7. Summarizing information
  8. Citing sources
  9. Reading and understanding citations

Perhaps unsurprisingly, faculty overwhelmingly felt that the skill they most wanted students to master by the time they graduated was the ability to critically evaluate information and sources.  This was, however, also found to be the weakest skill that undergraduate TCU students possessed, and that they were least likely to be able to do at a satisfactory level upon graduation (Huddleston et al., 2019).  It is no coincidence that the ability to think critically about an information source is needed now more than ever due to the overwhelming amount of information and sources available on the world wide web.  While access to valuable, credible sources of information expands, students need to be able to recognize “worthy” material in dynamic ways which allow them to differentiate their source types appropriately.  Certainly not all valuable research material is limited to the contents of academic journals, but neither is every blog post worthy of scholarly consideration. In this case study, Huddleston et al. (2019) note that the university library/librarians are important resources and guides when it comes to information literacy instruction, and a number of suggestions were made to help increase the visibility of librarians at the department level, leveraging their knowledge and training alongside faculty in a collaborative approach to teaching undergraduates needed research skills.

There is no denying that a certain level of digital and informational literacy is essential in all areas of higher education given that “research outputs across the academic disciplines are almost exclusively published electronically,” and therefore “organizing and managing these digital resources for purposes of review…are now essential skills for graduate study and life in academia.” (Lubke et al., 2017, p. 285) Of course, in the year 2021, there are also a myriad of digital tools available that not only assist in the research process, but make it easier to practice information literacy and grow a researcher’s individual technical savvy. Assuming the literature review (i.e. research paper) is the most frequent research-based activity conducted in higher education, especially at the graduate level, Lubke et al. (2017) propose a simple, 3-step framework which can become the essential workflow for a paperless research project.

Lubke et al. (2017)

As the image suggests, stage one begins with selecting a digital tool to store and analyze sources.  Some suggested platforms include Zotero, EndNote, F1000 Workspace, RefWorks, and Mendeley.   Each tool has its own strengths and weaknesses, but generally speaking, each is an example of a digital tool that assists researchers in methodically storing and organizing possible source material for consideration, both in the current research process and for possible future use (e.g. dissertation).  Once sources have been selected and stored, researchers may then move to stage two where they may read, annotate, and analyze their sources.  This is where weak sources may be removed from consideration and where important pieces of information are mined and commented on in preparation for creating an academic argument (Lubke at al., 2017). In the annotation phase, digital tools like GoodReader can be used to take notes and highlight a text; then, annotated versions of sources may be saved separately from the original.  Finally, in stage three, researchers may choose to employ Qualitative data analysis software (QDAS) like QSR NVivo to synthesize themes and pull together information from across sources, ultimately drawing conclusions for publication.

The nature of research in higher education–and really, higher education itself–has changed drastically over the course of the last couple of decades.  Higher education is expanding in its scope and purpose, and there is increasing demand for academic research to have immediate, practical value. When conducting research, the most frequent problem faced by students and academics at all levels is what to do with the vast amounts of information we now have access to: how to source it, organize it, and analyze it critically.  Direct instruction in digital and information literacy continues to be a need in postsecondary education (both undergraduate and graduate), but there are a number of tools available that can be powerful aids in the research process, expanding our knowledge base and extending our capacity to think critically about sources, thus also expanding our potential for innovation.  There is no doubt that the nature of research will continue to evolve alongside the digital world…are we ready to consider the possibilities?

References

Brennan, J. & Teichler, U. (2008).  The future of higher education and of higher education research. Higher Education, 56(3), p. 259-264. https://doi.org/10.1080/13583883.2003.9967102

Huddleston, B., Bond, J., Chenoweth, L., & Hull, T. (2019). Faculty perspectives on undergraduate research skills: Nine core skills for research success. Reference & User Services Quarterly (59)2, pp. 118-130. 

Jonbloed, B., Enders, J., & Salerno, C. (2008). Higher education and its communities: Interconnections, interdependencies and a research agenda. Higher Education, 56(3), p.303-324.  https://doi.org/10.1080/13583883.2003.9967102

Lubke, J., Britt, V., Paulus, T., & Atkins, D. (2017).  Hacking the literature review: Opportunities and innovations to improve the research process. Reference and User Services Quarterly (56)4, p. 285-295.

Park, C. (2005). New variant PhD: The changing nature of the doctorate in the UK. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 27(2), p.189–207. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1360080050012006

A Few Best Practices for Online Learning & Adoption in Higher Education

Though the digital age may not actually be changing a student’s capacity to learn, it’s certainly changing how students access content and participate in learning environments. Digital technology thoroughly transforms the way in which we create, manage, transfer, and apply knowledge (Duderstadt, Atkins, & Van Houweling, 2002). Unsurprisingly, it’s also changing how educators teach, particularly with technology-mediated instruction in higher education. The demand for online instruction is on the rise.  In the United States alone, the number of higher education students enrolled in online courses increased by 21% between fall 2008 and fall 2009, and the rate of increase has only grown in recent years, both nationally and globally (Bolliger & Inan, 2012).  Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has also necessitated a radical—though in some cases temporary—shift to online learning modalities at all educational levels across the globe.

Fortunately, there’s evidence to support that digital education incorporation can enhance pedagogy and improve overall student performance at the college level.  An extensive, multi-year case study conducted at the University of Central Florida showed that student success in blended programs (success being defined as achieving a C- grade or higher) actually exceeded the success rates of students in either fully online or fully face-to-face programs (Dziuban, C., Hartman, J., Moskal, P., Sorg, S., & Truman, B., 2004).

In the switch to online teaching and learning, a clear challenge is presented: teaching faculty are faced with a need to move their programs and classes into online/flexible learning formats, regardless of their discipline or their expertise/ability to do so.  It is not uncommon for teachers, no matter the level at which they teach, to be asked to implement something new in their classroom without sufficient support, professional development, or resources to make the implementation successful.  The need for appropriate training becomes that much more pressing when educators are asked to engage with an entirely different instruction medium from that which they are accustomed to.  In the case of blended or online learning, many faculty will need to develop completely new technological and/or pedagogical skills.  While a number of scholars have conducted investigations into the effectiveness of blended or online learning, very few have provided guidance for adoption at the institutional level (Porter, Graham, Spring, & Welch, 2014). 

Far from being a comprehensive guide, this post seeks to explore a few major themes and best practices for online learning in postsecondary education which may prove helpful for teaching professionals and higher education institutions heading into an otherwise unfamiliar world of digital education.

Create a Learning Community:

Digital education is made possible by computers and the internet.  In the age of the Internet, the computer is ultimately used most to provide connection, whether that be through social media, e-commerce, gaming, publications, or education (Weigel, 2002).  Technology-mediated education is making it possible for students to participate in programs, access content, and connect in ways they were previously unable to.  Rather than viewing the Internet as a necessary evil for distance learning that ultimately begets isolated student learning experiences, digital education should, first and foremost, be connective and communal.  This means a professor accustomed to lecture-based learning in a physical classroom may need to consider a new approach in order to make space for student voice in the learning process.  In an online context, this means there should be dynamic opportunities for students to engage in debate, reflection, collaboration, and peer review (Weigel, 2002).

Beyond Information Transfer:

Learning and schooling no longer have the same direct relationship they had for most of the 20th century; devices and digital libraries allow anyone to have access to information at any time (Wilen, 2009). Schools, teachers, and even books no longer hold the “keys to the kingdom” as sources of information.  Higher education, then, will not function effectively as a large-scale effort to teach students information through a standardized curriculum.  Rather, education must be a highly relevant venture that enables individual students to do something with the virtually endless information and resources they have access to (Wilen, 2009).

Relevance:

If university instructors are going to seriously account for the rich background experiences, varied motivations, and personal agency of their postsecondary students, they must also take into account the larger “lifewide” learning that takes place within the life of most college students (Peters & Romero, 2019). Student learning at any age is both formal and informal, and what takes place in a formal classroom environment is influenced by informal learning and daily living that takes place outside of it.  Likewise, if deep learning takes place, a student’s world and daily life should be altered by the creation of new schemas and the learning that has taken place in a formal classroom environment. 

In a multicase and multisite study conducted by Mitchell Peters and Marc Romero in 2019, 13 different fully-online graduate programs in Spain, the US, and the UK were examined in order to analyze learning processes across a continuum of contexts (i.e., to understand to what extent learning was used by the student outside of the formal classroom environment).  Certain common pedagogical strategies arose across programs in support of successful student learning and engagement including: developing core skills in information literacy and knowledge management, community-building through discussion and debate forums, making connections between academic study and professional practice, connecting micro-scale tasks (like weekly posts) with macro-scale tasks (like a final project), and applying professional interests and experiences into course assignments and interest-driven research (Peters & Romero, 2019).  In many regards, each of these pedagogical strategies is ultimately teaching students to “learn how to learn” so that the skills they cultivate in the classroom can be applied over and over again elsewhere.

Professional Development:

Still there remains the question of implementation.  In order for the mature adoption of digital education to take place, faculty need to be given time and training to help them develop new technological and pedagogical skills.  If an institution fails to provide sufficient opportunities for professional development, many faculty members will likely fail to fully embrace the shift to an online format, and will instead replicate their conventional teaching methods in a manner that isn’t compatible with effective online instruction (Porter, et al., 2014).  If higher education institutions are committed to delivering high quality instruction in all contexts, it will be important for administrators to retain qualified instructors who are motivated to teach online and who are satisfied with teaching online (Bolliger, Inan, & Wasilik, 2014).

 In a 2012-2013 survey of 11 higher education institutions reporting on their implementation of blended learning programs, Wendy Porter et al found that every university surveyed provided at least some measure of professional development to support faculty in the transition.  Each university had their own customized approach, but the fact that developmental support was prioritized in some regard remained consistent across all of the institutions in the survey.  Strategies used for professional development in digital learning included presentations, seminars, webinars, live workshops, orientations, boot camps, instructor certification programs for online teaching, course redesign classes, and self-paced training programs (Porter et al., 2014).

Digital Literacy:

Digital literacy among higher education faculty can’t be taken for granted.  A recent Action Research study aimed at exploring the digital capacity and capability of higher education practitioners found that, though the self-reported digital capability of an individual may be relatively high, it did not necessarily relate to the quality of their technical skills in relation to their jobs (Podorova et al., 2019).  Survey results from the study also showed that the majority of practitioners (41 higher education professors in Australia) were self-taught in the skills they did possess, receiving very little formal training or support from their employer, even with technology devices and tools directly pertaining to teaching and assessment (Podorova et al., 2019).  Though this data relates to a specific case study, it is not difficult to imagine that higher education faculty in institutions all over the world might report similar experiences.  If faculty aren’t given sufficient technological support and training, they will be less satisfied in their work and, ultimately, the student experience will suffer (Bolliger, et al., 2014).

Institutional Adoption:

In addition to providing sufficient technological or pedagogical resources, it is important for university administrators to communicate the purpose for online course adaptation.  In a later study conducted by Wendy Porter and Charles Graham in 2016, research indicated that higher education faculty more readily pursued effective adoption strategies when they were in alignment with the institution’s administrators and the stated purpose for doing so (Porter & Graham, 2016). If faculty members are, in essence, adult learners being asked to acquire new skills, it is essential to take their own motivations for learning into account.  Additionally, sharing data and course feedback internally from early-adopters to online instruction can go a long way in helping reticent faculty feel ready to approach online learning (Porter & Graham, 2016).  Institutional support is cited frequently in literature pertaining to faculty satisfaction in higher education. In the domain of online learning, institutional support looks like: providing adequate release time to prepare for online courses, fair compensation, and giving faculty sufficient tools, training, and reliable technical support (Bolliger et al., 2014).

One effective approach to professional development for online learning places professors in the seat of the student.  At Hawaii’s Kapi’olani Community College on the island of Oahu, Instructional Designer Helen Torigoe was charged with training faculty in the process of converting courses for online delivery.   In response, Torigoe created the Teaching Online Prep Program (TOPP) (Schauffhauser, 2019). In TOPP, faculty participate in an online course model as a student, using their own first-hand experience to inform their course creation.  As they participate in the course, faculty are able to use the technology that they will be in charge of as an instructor (programs like Zoom, Padlet, Flipgrid, Adobe Spark, Loom, and Screencast-O-Matic), gaining comfort and ease with the tools and increasing their overall digital literacy.  Faculty also get a comprehensive sense for the student experience while concurrently creating an actual course template and receiving guidance and support from the TOPP course coordinator.  Such training is mandatory for anybody teaching online for the first time at Kapi’olani Community College. A “Recharge” workshop has also been created to help faculty engage in continued learning for best practice in digital education, ensuring that faculty do not become static in their teaching methods and are consistently exposed to new tools and strategies for digital education (Schauffhauser, 2019).  Institutions that participate in online education need to provide adequate training in both pedagogical issues and technology-related skills for their faculty, not only when developing and teaching online courses for the first time, but as an ongoing priority in faculty professional development (Bolliger et al., 2014).

Summary:     

The number of graduate courses and programs that must be offered in an online format is increasing in many higher education environments.  Effective online educators will acknowledge the unique needs of their postsecondary learners: that their students need to have their background experiences and context utilized in the learning process, that their learning needs to be relevant to their life and work, and that their learning needs to be providing them with actionable skills and learning strategies that ultimately change how they interact with their world.  Effective online learning will also provide ample space for student connection and active participation.  This means there should be dynamic opportunities for students to engage in debate, reflection, collaboration, and peer review (Weigel, 2002).  Additionally, online learning ought to be a highly relevant venture that enables individual students to do something with the virtually endless information and resources they have access to (Wilen, 2009).  Yet in order for the mature adoption of digital education to take place, faculty need to be given time and training to help them develop new technological and pedagogical skills.  This training needs to happen with initial adoption and as an ongoing venture.  One example of highly effective faculty professional development can be found in Instructional Designer Helen Torigoe’s Teaching Online Prep Program (TOPP) (Schaffhauser, 2019).  In this program the instructors become the students as they familiarize themselves with a new learning system, create a customized course template, and get feedback and support from knowledgeable online educators.  In short, well-equipped, well-trained, and well-supported graduate faculty are fertile ground for effective online education.

References

Bolliger, D. U., Inan, F. A., & Wasilik, O. (2014). Development and validation of the online instructor satisfaction measure (OISM). Educational Technology Society, 17(2), 183–195.

Duderstadt, J., Atkins, D., Van Houweling, D. (2002). Higher education in the digital age: Technology issues and strategies for American colleges and universities. Praeger Publishers.

Dziuban, C., Hartman, J., Moskal, P., Sorg, S., & Truman, B. (2004). Three ALN modalities: An institutional perspective. In J. R. Bourne, & J. C. Moore (Eds.), Elements of quality online education: Into the mainstream (127–148). Sloan Consortium.

Peters, M. & Romero, M. (2019) Lifelong learning ecologies in online higher education: Students’ engagement in the continuum between formal and informal learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 50(4), 1729.

Podorova, A., Irvine, S., Kilmister, M., Hewison, R., Janssen, A., Speziali, A., …McAlinden, M. (2019). An important, but neglected aspect of learning assistance in higher education: Exploring the digital learning capacity of academic language and learning practitioners. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 16(4), 1-21.

Porter, W., & Graham, C. (2016). Institutional drivers and barriers to faculty adoption of blended learning in higher education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 47(4), 748-762.

Porter, W., Graham, C., Spring, K., & Welch, K. (2014). Blended learning in higher education: Institutional adoption and implementation. Computers & Education, 75, 185-195.

Schaffhauser, D.  (2019). Improving online teaching through training and support. Campus Technology. https://campustechnology.com/articles/2019/10/30/improving-online-teaching-through-training-and-support.aspx

Weigel, V.B. (2002) Deep learning for a digital age. Jossey-Bass.

Wilen, T. (2009). .Edu: Technology and learning environments in higher education. Peter Lang Publishing.