Physical College Classrooms are so Yesterday. Why Are We Still Studying Deeper Learning in Face-to-Face Settings?

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My colleague who is a professor at Fitchburg State University studies deeper learning in face-to-face and online approaches in higher education. The idea is that if educators use deeper learning approaches, the students will learn more efficiently. Others have talked to me about deeper learning, and when I looked into it, I found that the concept of deeper learning is not very well-defined. I found a very good article I would recommend that has a table that helps explain how to think about deeper learning approaches. I’m summarizing part of the table here.

Deeper Learning Principles by Wickersham for face-to-face and online courses

Of course, when I read these, I immediately thought of online learning – like the LinkedIn Learning courses in data science I authored. But then, I also realized that almost all graduate students I tutor are in college online programs. Even if they are enrolled in programs that require some physical classes (like clinicians who need to in-person classes in patient care), most of their courses are taught online.

Like my colleague, I used to teach at an in-person nursing college, but the courses I taught were online. When I was teaching that course, I created these lecture videos for the didactic information, and also these “quiz prep” videos so I could demonstrate to the class how to work out the statistics problems.

So even though I was teaching online courses, I was trying to use online deeper learning with the quiz prep demonstrations. So when my colleague asked me to help her publish a review of studies on deeper learning approaches in higher education, I jumped at the chance!

Studies of Deeper Learning in Face-to-Face and Online Courses

When I started reviewing the papers that my colleague had collected on studies of deeper learning approaches in higher education over the last 30 years, I was curious by one thing I noticed.

Most of the studies in the last 30 years – even the most recent ones – focused on in-person courses, not online courses.

In fact, as a result of this observation, I was so moved to make this figure, which is also in the article (but this one is prettier because it is in color!):

Line Graph of Deeper Learning Studies Over Time comparing online, hybrid and face-to-face

The unit in the figure is classes that were the subject of study in peer-reviewed studies on deeper learning in higher education in the last 30 years. As you can see, over time, the frequency of studies per year has gone way up in all categories – face-to-face, online, and hybrid.

But what shocked me is how the blue line – which represents studies in face-to-face classes – stays higher than the other two lines in recent years. Much higher. The other two lines represent online courses, and hybrid courses (meaning in-person courses with an online component). Starting in 2012, long after online learning in higher education was well-established, every year through 2019, the frequency of face-to-face classes studied was much higher compared to the other modalities. In some years, it was over twice as high.

Designing Deeper Learning Courses is Different for Face-to-Face Compared to Online

Let’s unpack this finding. First, probably the reason the concept of deeper learning was invented in the first place was because college classes sucked. I attended college in person in the 1990s and early 2000s, and most of my classes – whether in costume design or medicine – consisted of someone lecturing for over an hour, and the rest of us taking mad notes. I would reserve my weekends to do deeper learning activities to try to actually learn the material from my notes and whatever resources were provided to us.

Second, if teaching in college already sucked in face-to-face settings, the introduction of online teaching was probably going to make things even worse. Trust me – it did. I remember taking an online course in a public health topic in 2004, and the professor kept giving us information she found on the internet without knowing the source. Research shows that there were big problems just trying to get professors to adopt Blackboard or whatever learning management system (LMS) was there.

Third, once professors who had experience doing face-to-face teaching finally started using the LMS, they were hit with the fact that they could no longer lecture for an hour or so while students to take mad notes, and expect them to go home and learn the material on their own. If they wanted to hold an online lecture, the technology was complicated. If they wanted to record a lecture, the technology was complicated. Of course, it is always possible to write something, but there usually already was a textbook.

In short, in the beginning, no one really knew how to teach online. So online teaching practices have essentially been developed from scratch over the last 30 years. This is why I am so disappointed at these findings.

We already know a lot about face-to-face teaching in higher education – so why are we still studying it? Why aren’t we studying online teaching, since colleges are moving online at a rapid pace, and everything we know about online teaching has been found in only the last few decades?

So my take home message is this: If you are a professor and you want to study deeper learning, please study an online method. That way, once you publish your paper about your findings, we can all use this knowledge to guide us when developing our online classes.

Want to read the paper we wrote? Download it from the Journal of Higher Education Theory and Practice here.

Updated February 9, 2020

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