Go with the Flow

UV Letter - Volume II, #15

Is online education effective? Over the past decade virtually every study on the question has demonstrated that it is as effective as traditional classroom delivery. But as none of these studies randomly assign students to classroom or online delivery, what they actually mean is that students who are inclined to select an online program perform as well or better than students who are not so inclined. This self-selection bias should be a primary concern for anyone interested in the future of online education.

For online education to realize its potential in the U.S. and especially internationally, it must deliver comparable or superior outcomes for all students – not simply motivated adult learners.

In Edtech circles, much attention is paid to the multiplicity of academically beneficial functions available online which are not possible in a traditional classroom. This “gee whiz” factor overshadows the fundamental drawback of the online model – trading physical presence in a learning environment for convenience.

What do we lose when we are not physically present? If you attended an elite university and resided on campus for a year or more, you probably agree that a great deal if not most of your learning – or at least the learning that stuck – occurred way beyond the confines of the classroom. Learning extended into dorm rooms, common rooms and dining halls. Learning came from serendipitous encounters on the quad and study groups. Many who have benefitted from these immersive environments argue that the potential for learning outside the college classroom dwarfs what can possibly occur in the classroom. And because this “many” encompasses nearly all elites, the transformative potential of online education is not reflected in public policy. As a result of this bias, current policy is effectively (and unknowingly) recognizing that no matter how promising the research on the quality of online education, it is incomplete. It is incomplete because it doesn’t talk about what is lost when physical presence is lost, and how whatever that is can be regained.

In ascertaining exactly what is lost, it is helpful to think about successful educational programs that could not possibly work online. For example, Middlebury’s famous summer language schools, where arriving students take a “language pledge” and thereafter are not permitted to communicate in English throughout their enrollment (or risk expulsion). This means that in the classroom, at meals, during extracurricular activities and in the dorm students have no choice but to focus on the task of mastering the new language. Research has validated this immersion model as the most effective environment for language learning. Wellspring, with its boarding schools and summer camps, has developed a similar immersion model to address pediatric obesity. Students are in an environment where food and activity are controlled. In this environment, Wellspring trains students on the self-regulatory behaviors required to control their weight when they return home. The weight loss that results from the controlled environment helps accelerate adoption of the new behaviors. As with Middlebury, studies on Wellspring demonstrate that students maintain their weight loss after leaving the program.

The best known “immersion” model of recent years is one dedicated to solving a problem that’s much more important than lack of language skills or weight control: endemic poverty. The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) has constructed an immersive system of education, social services and community programs within 100 blocks of Central Harlem with the goal of transforming likely drop-outs into college graduates with the tools to succeed in life, thereby breaking the cycle of generational poverty. The program begins with pre-natal care and continues to support virtually every aspect of a child’s education and health all the way through college. It is intended to be a safety net so broad that no matter how and where you fall, you won’t fall through. The results to date are extremely promising: test scores of HCZ middle school students are indistinguishable from scores of more affluent kids. President Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods program intends to create 20 HCZs around the country.

The consensus on immersion programs like HCZ, Wellspring and Middlebury is they work but are expensive and therefore cannot be scaled to accommodate the educational needs of more than a small minority of those who could benefit. The same is true of our elite residential universities. This is why it is crucial for online education become as immersive as possible. If online learning can adopt immersion- like properties, it will become the dominant mode of delivery for higher education.

Unlike immersion programs, online programs cannot control behavior. At any time during an online learning experience, the student has the choice to open a new browser or walk away from the computer. The difference can be summarized as “controlled focus” vs. “focus by choice.” In an immersive environment, a student’s focus is controlled so virtually no one falls through the cracks.

So the key question online education must answer is how best to design and execute online learning programs so as to maximize student “focus by choice” – maximize it to the point where it approximates the “controlled focus” of immersion programs.


When you’re learning online, no one can hear you scream…

Despite the appeal of social learning, the best answer is not to attempt to replicate the campus environment. Rather, instructional designers should pay heed to the example of Michelangelo, who painted the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel for days at a time without stopping for food or sleep. Such stories caught the attention of the positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, former head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. Csikszentmihalyi developed the theory of Flow, which describes the mental state in which a person – working alone – is fully focused and immersed in work. Csikszentmihalyi’s work demonstrated that the three key criteria for entering flow are:

  • 1) Highly challenging work;
  • 2) Individual has the sense that his or her skills are above average and more than adequate to succeed with the work; and
  • 3) Goals are clear, and feedback is consistent.

Flow is achieved by artists, musicians, baseball players, and, of course, students. If and when students enter “flow,” research has demonstrated that their brain is so fully engaged that focus is no longer a matter of choice, it is effectively controlled.

The good news is that two of the most exciting areas of development in online learning relate directly to flow.

Gamification: In videogames, goals are clear and feedback is immediate. Focus is the result of interactivity and competition. If you’ve ever tried to pry a teenager from a videogame console, you’ve borne witness to the power of flow. Gamification, or the inclusion of game-like elements into online learning experiences, also employs rewards and recognition to provide students with the sense they can succeed. Well-designed simulations include these elements.

Adaptive Learning: Emerging adaptive learning systems attempt to meet students where they are, for example, by serving up more challenging learning objects as a result of high performance on formative assessments. As such, adaptivity is a nearly a prerequisite for the “highly challenging work” required to enter flow. And when students struggle, adaptive systems throttle back until the student is ready for more. Adaptivity helps students build and maintain confidence. And with the advent of tablets and the immersive (non-browser-based) app environment they enable, adaptivity will become even more powerful. Tablets know if a student is moving the tablet, touching the screen, ambient noise levels, if there is a human facing the screen, location, or change in focus (switching from one program to another) – all coming under the umbrella of “telemetry” data. Telemetry data will be instrumental in determining which learning objects and sequences are conducive to flow and which are not.

Today online learning can’t compensate for the self-selection bias. But in 10 years it will be a very different story. With advances in gamification and adaptivity and the resulting impact on flow, it will be hard to argue that online programs do not produce superior educational outcomes for traditional age students as well as adult learners, and in comparison with all but a handful of elite residential universities.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of ‘innovation from within’. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV expects to set new standards for student outcomes and advance the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.