WCET members spend countless hours in committee meetings trying to finesse definitions for digital learning modalities. Help is on the way!!! Nicole Johnson’s new WCET-sponsored paper addresses the basic question: “What to do when a modality of a learning experience is unclear?”

Nicole Johnson is the Executive Director of the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association (CDLRA). In the paper, she provides “guidelines for creating multidimensional learning experiences.” It should help when you need to answer questions about how to label a course, whether a new modality definition is needed, or what to do in the grey space in between those, and all the other related inquiries.

No guidelines are perfect. But, this will help.

About Dr. Nicole Johnson

Way back when, I had a small part in creating the CDLRA as Canada has no national counterpart to the U.S. Department of Education to collect data on distance education enrollments or most anything else. The CDLRA surveys have proven valuable in gauging progress and potholes in digital learning across the country and in some specific provinces. Not being a federal agency has also given it the freedom to ask much more interesting questions.

Not long after Nicole assumed her leadership role, someone told her to give me a call. As you can imagine, we joyfully geeked out on the nuances of digital learning data. We especially focused on the emerging mess of digital learning modality definitions. Those were murky and bad before the pandemic, and they are seemingly much worse now. It was a joy to talk to her and it is a joy to work with her.

Check out the CDLRA website to see the results of surveys they have performed on several different instructional technology issues in Canada.

What We Have Done on Definitions So Far

an individual using a laptop computer

The WCET Steering Committee set modality definitions as one of the top priorities for our staff focus over recent years. As a result, we have conducted research and created several resources for WCET Members and the higher education community at large. All of these are available on the WCET website:

  • Conducted a broad WCET-sponsored survey (with CDLRA and Bay View Consulting) in which we learned that there is much less disagreement on the basic definitions than we imagined.
  • With the help of Rob Griffith’s team at The Ohio State University, we held a student focus group that reminded us that students do not care what we call the modality, they just need to know at the time of enrollment:
    • Do students need to be somewhere in-person anytime, anywhere during the course?
    • Do students need to be present for virtual synchronous sessions?
    • What technologies and software will be used?
  • Kathryn Kerensky (State Authorization Network and WCET) conducted a review of federal, state, and accreditation definitions of one term: “distance education.” Spoiler alert: They are all over the map and the U.S. Department of Education has four on their own.
  • Watch for the results of a follow-up survey on institutional modality definitions practices to be released later this year.

What’s In the New Paper?

It’s a quick read, so I don’t want to spoil it and Nicole is more eloquent than I am. She uses some different “cases” to illustrate broad, similar situations in addressing the difficulties and possible solutions when applying modality definitions. Some of the main points are highlighted below.

Modality Usage (and Thus Definitions) Are Now a Continuum

Nicole builds on a chart that she first created for the initial report resulting from the survey on agreement of digital learning definitions. It is now difficult to find courses that make NO USE of digital technologies.

A chart showing the range of technology related courses from offline distance learning, online learning, hybride lenmon

Additionally, faculty have, rightfully, made countless choices on what technologies to use, when to meet in-person, and when to meet synchronously. The forced “emergency remote” migration accelerated this trend. The reason that it is difficult to classify modalities into discrete buckets is that the buckets are not discrete.

Don’t Create New Categories Just to Create New Categories

While the paper doesn’t go too deeply into this issue, it is a important problem. Kathryn Kerensky (State Authorization Network), Nicole, and I have mused over Zoom about some institutional definitions. One institution seems to completely violate the basic tenets of how one definition is used when compared to everywhere else in the world. We have also seen a few papers on another supposed modality, which confused us. If we do not know what they mean (and we asked Van Davis, too), pity the poor student who does not study the nuances of modalities for a living.

Please note that I chose not to implicate the guilty in this post, but you can ask me if you want.

Communicate with Students

We are doubling down on what we learned from the student focus groups. Students need to know what the academic experience will be like. Do they need to be somewhere in person? Do they need to meet at a time appointed virtually? What technology and software are needed and what does it cost?

Enjoy the Paper

Finally, we hope that you enjoy the paper.

We would love to hear your feedback on what worked for you, what did not work for you, and additional ideas for future research or papers on digital learning definitions.

Russ Poulin

Executive Director, WCET & Vice President for Technology-Enhanced Education, WICHE



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