Cover image of Vol. 12 No. 4 (Autumn 2012)

DND photo

Cover image of Vol. 12 No. 4 (Autumn 2012)

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.

I read with interest the article titled “The Use of Web Conferencing in Joint and Command Staff Programme Distance Learning [JCSP DL]” (Vol. 12, No. 4), which argues that using a new “web conferencing tool” will enable synchronous learning activities (all participants are on line at the same time) that “ will undoubtedly result in a better learning experience for students” in “distance learning courses of JCSP.”  I write to offer my views, based upon my experience as a member of the team that designed and managed, between 2003 and 2009, the precursors of and the first version of distance learning JCSP. I would like to address two questions: 1) the decision to use asynchronous group learning techniques (participants are on line at different times) instead of synchronous learning activities for distance learning JCSP, and 2) the assertion in the article that face-to-face seminar learning is a pedagogical “best practice” that is more effective than other types of group learning.

When we were designing the distance learning JCSP, two of our basic assumptions were that: 1) individual learning activities could be accomplished at any location convenient to the learner and did not have to be in a residential setting, and 2) group learning activities could be synchronous or asynchronous, but needed to be carefully designed to achieve maximum effectiveness. We adopted the synchronous face-to-face seminar methodology for the two residential portions of the course, where all students met for the first two days of the course “to foster feelings of community and of belonging,” and for the final two weeks, to conduct small group discussions, case studies, and seminars related to academic activities completed during the year, as well as operational planning process exercises. The residential activities related to team building and academic activities completed during the year were discontinued about four years ago. The residential portion of the course is now only run during the final two weeks of the course, which is largely focussed upon the operational planning process. When designing JCSP DL, we considered using a synchronous seminar method for the distance portions of the course using available technology, namely, videoconferencing. Even though it was not as advanced as today’s technology, it would have allowed for a ‘face-to-face’ seminar experience. The decision to use asynchronous group learning methodology was based, not upon a lack of technological capability, but upon the fact that a synchronous activity was not possible. With learners located literally around the world, and with some deployed and having limited internet connectivity, it was not possible to schedule or to guarantee connectivity for synchronous activities. Therefore, asynchronous activities were used.

We were not concerned about the effectiveness of asynchronous activities because a review of the literature at the time confirmed that they could be every bit as effective as synchronous activities. In addition, we accepted that traditional face-to-face learning is not necessarily a ‘best practice,’ because, as the article indicates, a “truly effective...distance education setting” can be created by following basic principles of student learning. A recent Queen’s University draft report “Virtualization and Online Learning,” which was based upon a comprehensive review of the literature (available at http://www.queensu.ca/saptf/?page_id=864) reaffirmed these principles. It also noted that many innovative ways of active learning designed to facilitate different styles of learning can constitute more effective alternatives.

These findings in the literature were confirmed by the experiences of our design team, composed of senior officers and academics who had taught at CFC and at universities for many years. Their experiences reflected the fact that, while the face-to-face seminar experience at CFC can be a very effective learning experience, this is not always the case, especially if the experience is not designed well, or if subject matter experts are not part of the seminar discussion. The less successful seminar activities have been described as “pooled ignorance” where students operated “on ‘gut feeling’ and past experience,” rather than engaging with new ideas and applying critical thinking skills.

In my view, all higher education learning activities, including JCSP DL, should be carefully designed to achieve learning outcomes, not just to replicate processes found in residential settings. The design must also take into account the varied needs of the learners. While new technology may enable traditional forms of teaching, like the lecture and the face-to-face seminar, these activities are increasingly being supplanted by more effective learning methodologies in both residential and distance settings. Technology may be a useful adjunct to achieving learning outcomes, but it should not be the main justification for change.

Allan English, PhD
Associate Professor
History Department
Queen’s University