Reversing the Tyranny of Distance Education: Using Research About Threshold Concepts in Online Teaching to Humanize Online Course Design

Reversing the Tyranny of Distance Education: Using Research About Threshold Concepts in Online Teaching to Humanize Online Course Design

Maria Northcote (Avondale College of Higher Education, Australia), Kevin P. Gosselin (Texas A&M University Health Science Center, USA), Daniel Reynaud (Avondale College of Higher Education, Australia), Peter Kilgour (Avondale College of Higher Education, Australia), Malcolm Anderson (Avondale College of Higher Education, Australia) and Chris Boddey (Avondale College of Higher Education, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0968-4.ch011

Abstract

In today's higher education environment, online education has become a rich and nuanced medium characterized by a dynamic and progressive use of technology. These technological advancements require research-informed guidelines and practices to facilitate understanding of how they can be used to foster positive outcomes in distance education contexts. By employing a mixed-methods multiphase design case study at Avondale College of Higher Education, the authors examine the challenges, self-confidence and threshold concepts, or transformative, conceptual understandings that academic faculty staff experience while engaging in distance education course design. The authors examine how these threshold concepts, attitudes and skills can be used to inform the design of professional development programs for academic staff who teach in online contexts. The results and associated recommendations of the six-year investigation are presented to inform professional development programs that aim to improve the quality of online teaching, course design and learning experiences of students.
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Introduction

The seminal work of Meyer and Land (2003) on threshold concepts has generated interest across a range of disciplines, which have utilized this framework in assisting student learning. The notion of threshold concepts was proposed as a way of developing effective teaching and learning environments in higher education (Meyer & Land, 2003). Threshold concepts are fundamental underpinnings that are central to a body of knowledge. They are defined as “a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learning cannot progress” (Meyer & Land, 2005, p. 53). A further related term is “troublesome knowledge”, which is knowledge that challenges the learner and can cause cognitive conflict as learners compare new ideas with their prior knowledge (Perkins, 2006). The mastery of this “troublesome knowledge” produces a transformative outcome which is permanent in learners, as they integrate what was previously apparently contradictory, alien, and counter-intuitive into an inter-relational whole, forming a foundation on which new knowledge and experiences can be attained. An important consequence of comprehending a threshold concept is a shift in the perception of the subject matter from being difficult, obscure and intimidating, to being open, accessible and rewarding, creating an environment in which learning can progress.

Meyer and Land (2005) elucidate the idea of threshold concepts by providing examples. The study of medicine is one such example where it is illustrated that the concept of ‘pain’ is put forward to students as something to inform diagnosis rather than just something for the students, as potential medical practitioners, to eliminate. They go on to put forward that: “the new ‘conceptual space’ opened up by such transfigured thought is bounded, possessing terminal frontiers, bordering with thresholds into new conceptual spaces” (p. 374).

Threshold concepts are also integral to the context of online learning in higher education. Academic teaching staff are typically required to design online courses for university students, although they do not always have skills or experience in constructing online learning activities, resources or assessment tasks. Similarly, lecturers are increasingly expected to perform in the online classroom, but have not necessarily developed the skills for teaching in an online environment. These academics encounter key threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge as they grapple with this mode of delivery. Until those threshold concepts are clarified and mastered, the online learning environment can appear alien, intimidating and decidedly inferior as a means of learning in comparison with the face-to-face classroom.

Online education can be a rich and varied activity, potentially encompassing a range of uses of online technology to enhance or deliver learning experiences. The blended classroom uses online resources and activities in combination with the face-to-face classroom, but online learning also can involve distance education, whereby the teacher and student never physically meet, interacting exclusively in cyberspace. The differing nature of online learning and teaching suggests that a sound pedagogy of online learning needs to address the various ways in which it is used and experienced. It is vital to ensure that teachers in online environments understand the particular demands of online curriculum development in conjunction with teaching and meeting the needs of their students whose learning they moderate (Salmon, 2011), and with whom they interact and communicate online.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Troublesome Knowledge: Troublesome knowledge is knowledge that challenges the learner and can cause cognitive conflict as learners compare new ideas with their prior knowledge (Perkins, 2006 AU255: Anchored Object 142 ).

Course Design: In the context of higher education online courses and within the constraints of this chapter, the term “course design” is interpreted as being the way in which a course is planned and created, in terms of intended learning outcomes, topic, content, structure and sequence. The manner in which the learning activities and assessment tasks are structured is also an element of course design, as is the approach taken to engage students in the use of selected resources.

Threshold Skill: Building on Meyer and Land's (2005 AU254: Anchored Object 141 ) definition of a threshold concept, a threshold skill can be viewed as a fundamental skill that is central to a person's competency in a particular field of professional expertise. The achievement of a threshold skill may transform the way a person's skills-base develops.

Threshold Concept: Threshold concepts are fundamental underpinnings that are central to a body of knowledge. They are defined as “a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learning cannot progress” (Meyer & Land, 2005 AU252: The in-text citation "Land, 2005" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. , p. 53 AU253: Anchored Object 140 ).

Self-Efficacy: Self-efficacy has been described as the “beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments” (Bandura, 1997, p. 3 AU250: Anchored Object 138 ). An online educator's self-efficacy can be defined as the belief in one's capabilities to enact course design and teaching actions required to provide distance students with high quality learning experiences.

Threshold Attitude: Building on Meyer and Land's (2005 AU251: Anchored Object 139 ) definition of a threshold concept, a threshold skill can be viewed as a fundamental attitude that is central to a person's self-efficacy and personal approach in a particular field of professional practice. The achievement of a threshold attitude may transform the way a person perceives and engages in their field of practice. The conceptual understanding and perception of phenomena is framed as a concept, but one’s attitude encompasses the affective, cognitive and conative perceptions of the concept. The positioning of skill within the framework is conceptualized as interactive; one’s skill is thought to influence the attitude about a concept, and in turn, one’s attitude mediates the behavioral outcomes.

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