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Towards Ecological Evaluation of Online Courses: Aiming for Thick Description

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Abstract

Evaluating postgraduate online courses needs to go beyond the market-driven surveys and output measures currently collected by universities and governments. Such approaches tend to isolate educational elements, such as student satisfaction, resulting in thin and ambiguous descriptions of curriculum implementation and functioning. We propose instead an ecological perspective, which takes account of a broad range of educational elements and the relations among them. This presents a promising direction for evaluation practice that can supplement existing standardised evaluation information with more useful and meaningful comprehensive accounts. Ecological evaluation distributes responsibility for course and programme functioning across institutions, teachers, students and the broader systems in which educational programmes are embedded. To realise this vision, we make a plea for 'thicker descriptions' that acknowledge active participation of students and teachers in shaping assemblages of designs, environments, purposes, ideas, tasks, people and other elements of education; many of these cannot meaningfully be separated from each other. Thick descriptions should incorporate knowledge derived from theory, pedagogy, conventions, or beliefs about what counts as success or failure. We provide examples from educational literature illustrating how evaluation of online courses can produce information that supports development of teaching and increases the formative value of evaluation.
Pre-print to appear as: Fawns, T., & Sinclair, C. (2021). Towards Ecological Evaluation of
Online Courses: Aiming for Thick Description. In T. Fawns, G. Aitken, & D. Jones (Eds.).
Online Postgraduate Education in a Postdigital World: Beyond Technology. Cham: Springer.
Towards Ecological Evaluation of Online Courses: Aiming for Thick Description
Tim Fawns, Edinburgh Medical School, University of Edinburgh,
tfawns@ed.ac.uk, ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5014-2662
Christine Sinclair, Centre for Research in Digital Education, Moray House School of
Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh, christine.sinclair@ed.ac.uk, ORCID:
https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5469-0381
Abstract
Evaluating postgraduate online courses needs to go beyond the market-driven surveys and
output measures currently collected by universities and governments. Such approaches tend
to isolate educational elements, such as student satisfaction, resulting in thin and ambiguous
descriptions of curriculum implementation and functioning. We propose instead an
ecological perspective, which takes account of a broad range of educational elements and the
relations among them. This presents a promising direction for evaluation practice that can
supplement existing standardised evaluation information with more useful and meaningful
comprehensive accounts. Ecological evaluation distributes responsibility for course and
programme functioning across institutions, teachers, students and the broader systems in
which educational programmes are embedded. To realise this vision, we make a plea for
‘thicker descriptions’ that acknowledge active participation of students and teachers in
shaping assemblages of designs, environments, purposes, ideas, tasks, people and other
elements of education; many of these cannot meaningfully be separated from each other.
Thick descriptions should incorporate knowledge derived from theory, pedagogy,
conventions, or beliefs about what counts as success or failure. We provide examples from
educational literature illustrating how evaluation of online courses can produce information
that supports development of teaching and increases the formative value of evaluation.
Key words: purpose, datafication, holistic, meaning, trust, enactment of curriculum
Introduction: Evaluation in A Postdigital Context
In their paper on ‘ecological teaching evaluation’, Fawns, Aitken and Jones (2020) argued
that ‘datafied’ market-driven evaluation practices privilege summative judgements of quality
over the formative development of teachers and teaching. In this chapter, we consider how
online postgraduate educators might move towards those authors’ ecological view, proposing
‘thick descriptions’ as a promising approach to understanding not only the quality of already-
run courses, but also how to improve future educational designs and practices in relation to
particular purposes and values. Our main focus in this chapter is on the evaluation of courses,
although we recognise that in higher education (HE), online course evaluation is itself an
aspect of programme, curriculum and institutional evaluation. Course evaluation also
inextricably links with the evaluation of teaching, though contemporary evaluation often uses
proxies for teaching (Fawns et al. 2020) and the teacher’s actual work is likely to be invisible
(Hayes 2019). Our aim is to counter this marginalisation of teaching, beginning with a
question about why that marginalisation happens.
Whose Purposes Are Prioritised in Evaluation?
Like assessment of students (see Hounsell 2021, this book), the evaluation of teaching and
courses can be formative (for learning and development) or summative (for accreditation,
ranking, continuation) or a mix of both. Beyond those broad purposes, there are potentially
many others (see, for example, the ‘evaluation utilisation terms’ in Onyura 2020). Moreover,
different interests in the quality of online postgraduate courses and teaching might be
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categorised as pedagogical, aspirational or commercial. Although varying evaluation
techniques can support a wide range of purposes, it is important not to lose sight of whose
interests are predominantly served by a particular method and what it is able to reveal (Biesta
2009). For us, this is crucial to the focus of this book in situating online postgraduate
education within its wider context.
Those who have the power to commission evaluations are likely to prioritise their
own purposes and needs, which may not be the same as other stakeholders. Stakeholders in
HE include, among others: university management and administration, governments, funding
bodies, employers, commercial organisations, parents and partners. Our concern is that the
interests of two key stakeholders in the evaluation of postgraduate online courses—teachers
and students—are not currently prioritised. Rather than involving them in evaluation that
empowers and improves teaching and learning (Fetterman et al. 2010), other more powerful
stakeholders prioritise economic, informational and accountability needs.
For example, ‘accountability’ has been a watchword in higher education since the
1980s, considered by many writers as evidence of loss of trust in the sector and a move
towards management control. Whereas few would deny the importance of accountability in
its vernacular sense of being responsible, what we have been seeing is its more technical use:
‘the duty to present verifiable accounts’ (Lorenz 2012: 617). Harvey and Williams (2010)
have pointed out that accountability does not tend to lead to improvement; indeed, a quarter
of a century ago, Trow (1996) showed how accountability can lead to what we would now
call ‘gaming’ the system. We have lost the sense of to whom we might be accountable and
why. Accountability may simply be shaped by and restricted to the needs of the
commissioning stakeholder. There is now a dearth of important pedagogical insights in the
HE evaluation data available to us. Instead, we see the prioritisation of other values such as
retention rates, showing a disproportionate emphasis on the needs of stakeholders other than
students and their teachers.
Formal course evaluation data are generally collected centrally by HE institutions.
Recently, the main sources of evaluative information about teaching have been standardised
satisfaction surveys and output measures, such as grades, retention and future salary (Biesta
2009; Fawns et al. 2020). This approach suits aspirational and commercial interests,
highlighting supposedly ‘excellent’ components of education. These discrete elements
become aggregated for league tables—ranked lists of groups, individuals and institutions—
which are now influential in all aspects of society (Esposito and Stark 2019). They are also
often used in comparison studies of educational methods, technologies, or student
demographics. Herein, they are employed to make claims about the ‘effectiveness’ of
courses, as well as to further market institutions and programmes. Although it can be
gratifying and even useful to know that a league table positions one’s university in the top
100 globally, that does not say much about why the course one is teaching is regarded so
highly. Perhaps the only clue is a number: an averaged percentage of ‘satisfaction’ awarded
to the course by students. Such claims are ‘thin’ descriptions of practice that lack the detail or
nuance that is critical for course development and support for teaching.
Our chapter calls for the interests of teachers and students not to be subordinated to
those of other stakeholders. This entails producing evaluative information about our
postgraduate online courses beyond the measurement of discrete components and reductive
compiling of the results. It centralises the pedagogical and formative value of evaluation in a
culture of trust. Later, we will propose thick description as a move towards an ‘ecological’
perspective on teaching evaluation (Fawns et al. 2020) that counteracts the tendency to view
educational variables in isolation as items to be used in creating ranked lists of ‘excellence’
or pitting one educational approach against another.
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How Has Datafication Affected Course Evaluation?
The university sector’s adoption of digital technology to support not only teaching but also its
evaluation has offered access to hitherto unimaginable data, enthusiastically deployed by
university administration and management. Yet that potential coincides with a period when
evaluation in higher education has apparently been increasingly driven by both market
positioning (Gourlay and Stevenson 2017) and compliance with university and national
governance (Erickson et al. 2020). ‘Datafied’ approaches serve these concerns well, opening
up evaluation to the interest of powerful and wealthy commercial organisations aiming to sell
applications that will shape our understanding of teaching and learning (Williamson 2017).
Williamson’s exploration of the emergence of the new discipline of education data science
brings out its underpinning assumptions:
This psycho-informatic approach treats mental life and learning as if they could be
known mathematically and computationally, and, having been made measurable, as if
they could then be enhanced or optimized. (Williamson 2017: 106)
Simple numeric measures may lend the sheen of science to evaluation processes
(Hanson 1993), particularly when bolstered by seemingly objective and systematic uses of
technology to perform complex, opaque mathematics on proxies of quality. Yet they reduce
our appreciation of the interplay between educational elements, thus diminishing our ability
to apply results to new contexts (Biesta and van Braak 2020). They may obscure not only the
educational practices involved, but also the context and theoretical understandings
underpinning those practices (McLaughlin and Mitra 2001). These complex points can be
illustrated through an example, where the appeal of simple numbers has tempted people to
seek clear, quantifiable conclusions about online learning.
In an article written in March 2020, Jonathan Zimmerman made a plea to use the sudden shift
to online teaching brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, supported by masses of
available online data, as a ‘Great Online-Learning Experiment’ that could settle a contested
debate once and for all:
at institutions that have moved to online-only for the rest of the semester, we should
be able to measure how much students learn in that medium compared to the face-to-
face instruction they received earlier. (Zimmerman 2020, emphasis added)
We believe that this example reflects a view of education that leads to unwarranted
expectations of what data can tell us. At least five questionable assumptions underpin
Zimmerman’s request:
1. The modality for delivering education is responsible for the educational outcomes of
learners.
2. The modality can be isolated as a variable for scientific study.
3. The pandemic provides an ideal setting for a controlled experiment on the virtues of
classroom vs online learning.
4. The indicator of merit in the evaluation (the ‘evaluand’) is a summative outcome of
how much is learned.
5. It is possible to measure this evaluand.
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In March 2020, when Zimmerman wrote this piece, buildings in schools and
universities were closing in many countries and ‘solutions’ had to be found to this crisis
caused by the pandemic. Potential solutions (e.g. a particular software system or platform)
may have been brought in without sufficient understanding of how that technology shapes
and is shaped by the setting in which it is introduced (Enriquez 2009; Fawns 2019). The
technology should not itself be seen as fully responsible for any outcomes, positive or
otherwise, though it will certainly have some influence.
There have already been many comparison studies between online and on-campus
learning, in the main concluding that there is no significant difference, with various
implications erroneously drawn (Lockee et al. 2001). Importantly, a lack of significant
difference between outcome measures should not be interpreted as ‘there is no difference’
between the two categories being compared. Rather, it is an inconclusive result derived from
an invalid assumption: that a modality can be isolated as a ‘variable’ for scientific study, with
learning seen as a dependent variable. This fails to take into account other variables that
together affect teaching and learning, which would include student characteristics and
circumstances, pedagogic activities and many other factors. Zimmerman is repeating this
error from the now widely-discredited media comparison studies.
In the particular context that Zimmerman wanted to exploit, there were even more
variables than usual affecting what is happening in classrooms and online. Williamson wrote,
in a blog post critiquing Zimmerman’s idea:
Treating a pandemic as an experiment in online learning reduces human suffering,
fear and uncertainty to mere ‘noise’ to be controlled in the laboratory, as if there is a
statistical method for controlling for such exceptional contextual variables.
(Williamson 2020)
Related to this, the pandemic has also brought many forms of inequality to light which cannot
now be ignored (Czerniewicz et al. 2020). At a simple illustrative level, ‘online learning’ will
be experienced differently by students with laptops and students having to share a single
mobile phone with parents and siblings—and some do not even have access to that.
It is also important to consider what would be evaluated here. Broadly, it is ‘online
learning’ vs classroom learning, but Zimmerman’s specific focus is on ‘what is learned’.
Soon after Zimmerman’s article appeared, Hodges et al. (2020) suggested that the approaches
that emerged in the Covid-19 pandemic should be named ‘emergency remote teaching’ rather
than online learning, and evaluated accordingly with a focus on the context, input and process
as well as the product (following Stufflebeam and Zhang 2017). We also suggest that
‘products’ might include potential harms alongside potential benefits, and these harms would
not show up in quantified measurements of learning (see Stone et al. 2021, this book; Bussey
2021, this book, for powerful examples of such potential harms).
The final assumption we have identified from ‘Zimmerman’s experiment’ is that this
evaluand—the summative learning from two different modalities—can actually be measured.
This view of learning is particularly associated with a cognitivist paradigm of education,
focused on memory and retrieval (see Baker et al. 2019 for an overview of contemporary
paradigms of education). This paradigm puts a strong emphasis on testing, and results of tests
are likely to be regarded as a proxy for learning. Thus, in our judgement, Zimmerman’s
proposal for an experiment is to test what students can remember during a period of
education in a crisis, and to attribute to technology any differences from the quantity of
things they could previously remember. The resulting data would show whether classroom or
online learning is ‘better’. We disagree with this suggestion and the assumptions on which it
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is based, but our inquiry has encouraged us to further explore the notion of proxies for
learning and teaching.
What Counts as Learning and Teaching in Contemporary Course Evaluation?
Counting or measuring learning is far from straightforward. We might be able to count
retention of basic facts, and ignore the myriad purposes and values of education. We could use
grades from in-course assessments, assuming that these assessments (which are part of the
courses being evaluated) will generate ‘accurate’ measures of learning. The late philosopher
Gilbert Ryle critiqued preoccupation with retention as a ‘very thin and partial notion of
teaching and learning’, involving ‘the forcible insertion into the pupil’s memory of strings of
officially approved propositions.’ (Ryle 2009a: 467). Measurement is further complicated by
different understandings of the concept of learning (Hodkinson et al. 2008). As other chapters
of this book show, there are many different forms of learning (Boyd 2021; Hounsell 2021; Lee
2021; Jones 2021; Marley et al. 2021), and many factors that influence learning beyond the
methods or modality of a course. Indeed, the purposes and challenges of education can be
obscured by the very emphasis on learning. Biesta has argued that ‘learning’ is a term that
‘denotes processes and activities but is open—if not empty—with regard to content and
direction’ (Biesta 2009: 39).
Measuring the quality of teaching is equally problematic. Institutions tend to adopt
similar approaches to evaluating teaching or courses, regardless of the context. For example,
in online postgraduate taught (PGT) education, context, needs, methods and outcomes are
importantly different from other forms of education (Aitken 2020), yet very similar approaches
are taken to evaluation. Governments, in particular, are keen to standardise measurement of
teaching quality. In the UK, for instance, the demand for accountability gave rise to Teaching
Quality Assessment (TQA) in the 1990s, followed by several other organisations and
initiatives, most recently the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in 2017. Many scholars
have critiqued these initiatives (Gourlay and Stevenson 2017) highlighting problems with
evaluating only what is easily measurable, and contesting the implicit notions of ‘excellence’
and underpinning ideologies. Our own main concern is that this might reduce important
qualities of teaching to meaningless or questionable claims. Statements such as ‘This is
excellent teaching’ or ‘students learn more with online learning’ are thin and empty without
accompanying details about contexts, contents, roles, and mechanisms.
A complex situation such as student learning affected by a change of approach during
a pandemic is certainly worth evaluating. Rather than trying to discount, simplify or control
the complexity, it would be better to incorporate it into our thinking about ‘developmental
evaluation’ (Patton 2010). We offer a perspective that recognises this.
An ecological perspective on higher education
Fawns and colleagues (2020) propose that an ecological perspective would help to capture the
complexity of the activity and contextual factors that make up educational programmes. An
ecological perspective is a way of understanding how students are connected to all of the
various elements contributing to their learning: tasks, ideas, tools, objects, environments,
people––as well as their own previous and current experiences. We should explore how this
assemblage functions in concert, rather than attempting to simplify it to suit available but
limited measurement processes. A more holistic approach to evaluation will avoid the
problems described above of standardised, fragmented education, thin and partial descriptions,
and inappropriate proxies for learning and/or teaching. The ecological perspective provides a
way of seeing past the instrumental views that still beset accounts of learning environments,
particularly in relation to the use of technology in education (Damşa et al. 2019).
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This alternative perspective helps us see that it is not methods (e.g. lectures vs. problem-
based learning) nor modality (e.g. online, hybrid, or on-campus) that are the main determinants
of quality, nor even of outcomes (see also Onyura et al. 2016). Quality is determined by the
situated activity, and interaction and interrelation of teachers and students, within the context
and infrastructure of the institution. It emerges from the particular designs, scaffolds and
supports that help students make use of available methods, resources and affordances; it can
be found in spaces where students couple their cultural and academic backgrounds with the
conventions and culture of the course. The quality of any particular element is then understood
as part of a context-dependent set of relationships with the others. This view is radically at odds
with the claims that technology is either a neutral tool for achieving particular pedagogic goals
(instrumentalism), or the main determinant of what will happen (determinism) (Hamilton and
Friesen 2013). It also steers us away from those competitive but inappropriate comparisons
between online and on-campus classrooms.
Developing Quality and Evaluation in An Ecological Way
To adopt an ecological perspective, we need approaches to evaluation that allow shared
understanding and purpose, both of the course itself and the evaluation of it. We need to know
the context of the evaluation, and underlying assumptions—pedagogic, institutional,
disciplinary and social—affecting working practices and material conditions in that context.
The manifestation of quality (the evaluand) emerging from the activities, interactions and
relationships within the context is likely to depend on a number of factors, which we attempt
to tease out below, starting with evaluative approaches we can see in other chapters of this
book.
A key issue is that students’ experiences of their courses can change over time. Boyd
(2021, this book) gives the example of an activity done in one course, that students return to
and build on in the following year. The value of each activity looks different when considered
across both courses. Lee’s (2021) chapter of this book shows how students do not always
become aware of their underlying motivation to learn until they have had certain transformative
experiences. Both of these chapters show the importance of taking development into account:
there will be different results from the same evaluand at different times. Additional complexity
arises when courses are viewed in the light of a full programme and beyond. In Marley et al.
(2021, this book), Jeremy Moeller, an online PGT graduate, describes the value of his
programme manifesting over a number of years.
‘I completed the programme in 2016, but I reflect on it often. Some of the benefits of the
programme were only apparent to me years later.’ ([PAGE])
Moeller explains that familiarising himself with online methods, environments, forms of
interaction, and the programme culture, took time. Early evaluations (‘I was not comfortable
at all with the weekly discussion sessions… they felt slightly loose and unstructured to me’)
gave way to later ones, where he had come to appreciate the different approach taken and how
it related to his online context. Later still, he came to understand how certain educational
principles could have value across modalities, and he began to emulate aspects of the approach
taken by his online programme in his own on-campus teaching.
These examples indicate that the timing of an evaluation will affect the information it
gives us. What can seem like a negative ‘outcome’—discomfort with discussions—may simply
indicate a stage of development. The information can still be useful in considering any steps
that need to be taken to support a student, scaffold an activity, or signpost what is happening.
But the (informed) judgement may be that no remediation is necessary at all at this stage. There
are several implications from this situation: teachers need to be able to tolerate negative
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responses as part of their own development as well as their students’; teachers need some
autonomy in deciding when to take remediating action; the timing of an evaluation should be
appropriate to the purpose of the evaluation, which is also likely to be relevant to the purpose
of the course. And we particularly want to highlight how these examples show that evaluation
can be useful in different ways, especially for development. For detailed analysis of usefulness,
see Onyura (2020) on evaluation utilisation and Patton (2010) on developmental evaluation.
The student view in the above examples is therefore crucial, but must be seen in the
light of timing, context and purpose. Before starting a course or programme, students may not
be in a position to predict, or even conceive of, the potential benefits that they will derive by
the end (Aitken et al. 2019). Konnerup et al. (2019) argue for designing in opportunities for
‘springboards for development’, where students and teachers jointly develop new ways of
doing things. This approach gives intention to something that happens anyway: students
inevitably contribute to the design of a course, even when it is prescriptive. Students ‘complete’
designs by reinterpreting them, and by co-configuring their learning environments (Goodyear
and Carvalho 2019; Fawns et al. forthcoming).
Teachers and universities are not in control of the student’s ecology: each student has
their own, although there are clear areas of overlap and interdependence. Peters and Romero
(2019) looked at the strategies online HE students use to configure their own learning ecologies
across a formal/informal learning continuum. The result is a balance of control, wrought
through design, policy, practice and subversion. Students subverting the teacher’s intentions,
and the course’s expected learning outcomes, may not be a problem. Students are not always
compliant, for a number of reasons, including many good ones. This is recognised as an
inevitable aspect of design for learning, and the associated need for teachers to redesign as they
go (Goodyear and Dimitriadis 2013). Indeed, if students did not learn things other than
prescribed learning outcomes, then the attainment of graduate attributes or professional values
would be impossible (Boud and Soler 2016). Evaluation that allows for expression of such
elements is likely to entail reflection and dialogue and less likely to contain only ‘measurable’
features.
It is clear, then, that ecological evaluation cannot be entirely reduced to numbers, and
may require qualitative and dialogic approaches to achieve its purposes. This is a significant
challenge, since evaluation often aims to convey information about educational quality simply
and concisely to a range of stakeholders, to facilitate easy comparison across courses, teachers,
or institutions. Even if we do not wish to rank and compare, we often still need to convey the
results of evaluation clearly and concisely. An ecological perspective implies that effective
evaluation needs appropriately ‘thick’ descriptions of what has been going on, while still taking
into account the practicalities of existing systems and practices.
The Case for Thick Descriptions in Evaluations of Postgraduate Online Education
Standardised questionnaires and measurements of outputs generate descriptions that are useful
for ranking and marketing but are too ‘thin’ for developing teaching practice. While teachers
need to be aware of any findings of such measures, they also need a sense of the context and
other variables to avoid misinterpreting, overemphasising, or misattributing results to discrete
elements of teaching such as modality. Crucially, educators need to be able to see how to make
improvements, not only to a particular aspect of teaching or course design but to the whole
system that embeds it, and to be able to contribute to dialogues about such systems.
Thin and Thick Descriptions
We refer again to the work of philosopher Gilbert Ryle to propose thick descriptions as a way
of supporting shared meaning. They provide a more contextualised explanation of a given
indicator in terms of both intention and cultural practice:
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…thick description is a many-layered sandwich, of which only the bottom slice is
catered for by that thinnest description. (Ryle 2009b: 497)
Thickness is not just about adding layers of data, however; such layers may make the
description richer, while not fully accounting for what is actually going on. The layers of thick
description must also convey something of intention, prior knowledge, and conventions within
a culture. As Freeman notes:
thick description designates both the discrete data available for interpretation and a
strategy to interpret and represent that data. (Freeman 2014: 828)
Thus, thick description must help us understand quality in relation to the lens through which it
is viewed. A key feature of thick descriptions is that they have:
success-versus-failure conditions additional to and quite different from… [their thin
counterparts] (Ryle 2009b: 498)
In explaining differences between thin and thick description, Ryle contrasts two boys: one has
an involuntary twitch; the other is winking conspiratorially. The thinnest description is that
each boy is contracting an eyelid. Yet, as Ryle points out, there is a huge difference—the twitch
has no intentional meaning, but there are many layers of possible meaning behind the wink
(e.g. the boy could be parodying another boy’s clumsy attempt to wink; he might be rehearsing
such a parody). Only with sufficient information and its interpretation can we appropriately
understand the wink in relation to its purpose, and the situation where it is enacted, to get
behind the surface meaning of an ambiguous indicator.
Thick descriptions have been employed in a research context, most notably by Clifford
Geertz, an anthropologist who borrowed the term from Ryle and applied it to culture and
ethnography (Geertz 1973). In research, thick descriptions help us to make sense of complex
phenomena and dynamic contexts by providing a framework for interpreting the researcher’s
understanding. In education, thick descriptions might be recognised as a form of evaluative
argument (Ory 2000) involving pre-interpreted, theorised explanations of the purpose,
rationale, situated activity and success (or otherwise) of the activity relating to a course.
The notion of thin and thick description might help unpack the ostensibly objective kind
of evaluation prized by endeavours like the UK Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). In a
stringent critique of the use of the TEF, Tomlinson and colleagues noted that:
Qualities that do not align to the logic of the competitive market ordering of HE or that
cannot be expressed in quantities disappear[,] are marginalised and become devalued.
(Tomlinson et al. 2018: 10)
The results are then ordered in a way that ranks universities for quality—entailing a thin and,
in this case, very biased view of what quality means for universities. By further labelling the
results of ranking as indicators of ‘teaching excellence’, the creators of the TEF elide thicker
descriptions of what the quality of education actually manifests. The thinner the description,
the more likelihood there is of such misrepresentation (or, at best, ambiguity). Tomlinson et al.
(2018) do not use the language of thick description, but refer to the Bourdieusian term
‘symbolic violence’ to indicate the sleight of hand that our use of the thin/thick distinction also
uncovers. Ranking universities in order of teaching excellence creates a thin, market-driven
description that obscures many different and competing understandings of what teaching is
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actually about. To counteract this, teachers and course designers may wish to undertake their
own evaluation to supplement standardised, institution-wide processes.
Examples of Thick Descriptions in Educational Literature
In the three examples below, we have found evidence of attention to meaning, interpretation,
culture and context in evaluation. They show how theory and values can be used to interpret
and even elicit shared understandings. These examples are from published papers, and though
the term ‘thick description’ is not used, each incorporates it—that is, they indicate what
teachers and students were actually doing or attempting to do within a specific context and how
its success or failure might be interpreted. The examples cover online and campus-based work
as well as undergraduate and postgraduate. They have been selected for specific points we want
to make for the postgraduate online context, which we draw together in the following section.
Example 1: Applying a theoretical lens to interpret one’s own practice (on-campus Masters)
We have argued that most common forms of formal course evaluation do not provide a
sufficiently full picture to inform future teaching in specific contexts. For this, teachers need
to create their own descriptions, reconciling new information with the emerging overall picture
through the application of a theoretical or praxis-based lens. Consider this extract from a
largely negative account of his own teaching on embodied cognitive science by John van der
Kamp, published with colleagues:
One of us (John) coordinates and teaches a course that addresses motor skill learning…
As the teacher, John defines (or confirms) the intended learning outcomes, chooses
course content, teaching and learning activities, and assessment methods… John uses a
compendium of classical and current scientific papers and book chapters, the contents
of which are assessed in a written exam. The course is organized in lectures and
tutorials… by and large, John does the talking, the students listen and make notes
(hopefully)… During the tutorials, students are meant to do the talking and thinking,
but John often finds himself interrupting discussions to correct— in his view—
misapprehensions of theory and methods or to further explicate. In short, despite good
intentions, John’s teaching is largely prescriptive… As a teacher, John makes all the
choices without consulting prospective students, though he does consider the
suggestions made by students in the previous year’s course evaluations. By and large,
students have no say in course content, it is enforced upon them and they have to adapt
to it (cf. Freire, 2008). This being said, students… show up in high numbers, except
when exams are approaching. Also, students do value the course and teaching highly,
giving ratings of quality of course content, lectures, and tutorial of approximately 4.5
on a 5-point scale. (van der Kamp et al. 2019: 3)
Despite positive ratings, John does not simply accept the results of his course surveys. Instead,
he worries that they may reflect the implicit adoption, by John and his students, of a
transmission model of education. More precisely, he uses Freire’s (2008) concept of ‘banking
education’ in which teachers ‘deposit’ knowledge into the students. The authors recognise a
tension between the way John teaches and his beliefs—informed by his area of expertise—
about how people learn:
…the assumptions underlying John’s teaching—as presumably that of many
colleagues—deeply conflict with the assumptions underpinning his science. Even
though he emphatically tries to show students that radical embodied cognitive science
deserves careful consideration, John does so by regulating the way in which they
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encounter it. John merely deposits it upon the students. (van der Kamp et al. 2019: 3–
4)
As negative as this account of John’s teaching is, the purpose is to help John and others
think through the relationship between his philosophy of teaching and learning and his teaching
practice. Further, John criticises not only his own practice but also the structures where it sits.
He brings together several sources of information, including standardised evaluation forms,
but considers them through the critical lens of his own philosophy, which he has developed
through thinking, talking, reading and writing about embodied cognition and related ideas. This
is an important point—it is not feasible to construct an ecological evaluation without being
clear on what one believes education to be and what is important within that. Armed with this
clarity, teachers can then analyse their own practice through that theoretical lens, as John has
done. They can compare their beliefs with their actions, and with the structures that support
and constrain educational practices. John’s example shows that values and philosophy are
important in underpinning thick descriptions that can run counter to available data and surface
conceptions. It is interesting to note the tension between this thick description and the thin
description of the student ratings. This also highlights a limitation of this thick description,
from an ecological point of view: student voices are not considered, beyond student surveys
which are largely dismissed, though they do emerge later when the authors describe John’s
practice following this evaluation. John’s discomfort with the mismatch between his values
and his practice has led him to make changes in a way that highlights the developmental
benefits of a holistic approach to evaluation.
Example 2: Attention to timing, context and student perspectives (3rd year undergraduate
online)
Muir et al. (2019) set out to counter limitations of traditional end of semester questionnaires
by combining weekly surveys and repeated interviews (eight for each student participant)
across a semester. Their longitudinal approach to evaluation elicits ‘rich’ descriptions of the
complexity of student engagement over time in relation to the practices of their teachers and
the conditions in which they learn. They show that engagement with a course is not fixed or
stable, as suggested by satisfaction ratings, but fluctuates over time, in relation not only to the
instruction within the course, but also to factors outside it (e.g. personal circumstances).
The authors provide a detailed account of one participant, Angela, highlighting the
depth of information and insight that this process generated. The account contains thick as well
as rich description; it embodies the contextual approach we have endorsed, including the
intention of meaningful interpretation. Further, their description shows that Angela’s
impression of different elements of the programme was related not just to what kind of element
it was, but also to its particular qualities. For example:
Engagement was boosted by ‘catchy, interactive’ and practical learning activities, while
heavy, theory-based reading was ‘hard’. (Muir et al. 2019: 270)
One particular week, readings were a key theme:
‘long, laborious readings’ dominated her study schedule but were disengaging,
particularly if written in technical ‘jargon’. Obversely, one assigned reading that helped
her see ‘the big picture’ was ‘fantastic’, prompting interactivity with the text- book
itself: she described ‘highlights [. . .] and Post-It notes everywhere because it just really
consolidated what I knew.’. (Muir et al. 2019: 271)
11
This shows the problem with assigning fixed characteristics to a particular technology,
resource, method or modality—as many writers do, including Zimmerman (2020) in calling
for the ‘Great Online-Learning Experiment’. Angela’s experience shows the interrelation of
factors: the timing of her encounter with materials, the way they are presented, their relevance
to set learning tasks, and the interactions with teachers and peers that support her engagement
with that resource.
The context around this example of thick description is important. We learn about
Angela’s combination of part-time study and part-time work and her adult children who live at
home, as well as how she identifies her approach to learning. Angela is not representative of
all students, and her account alone is insufficient. However, she is an important ‘local voice’
whose insights can help us understand some of the design parameters and teaching
considerations in online and, indeed, all kinds of education. Where each tick on a standard
questionnaire is supposed to be representative of a student in such a complex set of
circumstances, a thick description can tell us something about what that student is trying to do
in their context. Example 2 does this by heavily featuring a particular student voice and context,
and examining engagement over the duration of a course. However, it lacks the clear theoretical
lens of example 1, and is primarily focused on workload, with limited interrogation of the
concept of engagement or of the educational purposes in play. Thus, teachers can use this
description to think about the balance of tasks and student workload, but may need additional
information to inform the ways in which their designs and practices can support students to
engage with and complete those tasks.
Example 3: Combining academic and professional meaning-making (postgraduate online)
Turning our attention now to the even more complex world of the part-time professional online
postgraduate student, we feature a paper by Aitken (2020) that has been influenced by the ideas
of ecological and holistic evaluation (Fawns et al. 2020). As noted by Fawns and colleagues,
teachers on Aitken’s programme—an online MSc in Clinical Education—were already aware
that their programme was satisfactory to students: they had scored 100% for overall student
satisfaction in a Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey. This was reassuring but incomplete:
The PTES score does little to help us understand the extent to which satisfaction is
derived from overcoming such challenges, or from meeting less demanding
expectations (Fawns et al. 2020: 5)
Aitken (2020) uses dialogues with students and staff to evaluate the perceived impact
of postgraduate online education. She considers students’ actions and interactions through
technology and through their material contexts, extending to both academic and clinical
settings. Aitken makes her theoretical influences and methods explicit, and provides
considerable detail through her use of activity theory as a framework for analysis. This allows
her to generate thick descriptions through focusing on what people are doing in a specific
context—with its own conventions, forms of mediation, and division of labour. In the context
of part-time online professional postgraduates, the division of labour is very different from that
of full-time, campus-based undergraduate school-leavers. An excerpt from the paper shows
how the author takes pains to bring the professional and academic elements together:
There was a clear focus on helping students’ professional development, not merely
delivering academic knowledge, with a sense of encouraging students to think
creatively and question more. Consideration was shown by staff in choosing mediating
artefacts that would more clearly encourage criticality in students. In this way, an
12
outcome in the programme system has the potential to become a tool or object in the
student’s professional system… (Aitken 2020: 7)
Aitken identifies rich themes in the students’ experiences of learning and the associated
implications for teaching and course design. Her thick description also considers the goals and
study conditions of a particular online postgraduate context. Aitken’s themes indicate the
dynamic relationship between study and clinical practice, influences that go beyond online
exchanges, effects on professional identity, and individual practices, to the expansion of their
networks. This then gives Aitken a valuable focal point for development.
These three examples have provided insights into how these particular courses were
enacted: through teaching according to espoused or actual principles, through learning over a
period of time in complex conditions, and through careful course design in relation to a
professional curriculum. Remillard (2005) used the notion of the ‘enacted curriculum’ in a
review of mathematical curricula to not only differentiate the intended curriculum from what
actually happens, but also to highlight the agency of teachers (and others) in realising curricular
intentions. Like the notion of thick description, the short expression enacting the curriculum
points to the context, purpose and interpretation of the activities and interactions involved,
helping us understand how we might determine the success or failure conditions.
Features of Thick Descriptions in Evaluation
We are proposing thick description as a way of articulating the complexity underlying the
manifestation of quality in educational courses. Adopting thick descriptions for course
evaluation facilitates integrated understanding of how individual beliefs, course structure,
purposes, intentions, activities, resources, and agents interact to influence course quality. The
three examples above show that each thick description is context-dependent, so we cannot be
prescriptive about how to ‘enact the curriculum’, nor should we be. However, we recommend
that thick descriptions for course evaluation include the following features:
1. Explicit articulation of how the curriculum is being enacted. This will include action
and interaction by teachers, students or other agents. It should also articulate any
findings concerning what the enactment of the curriculum means to these agents.
2. Examination of the value of both the planned curriculum and its enactment. This could
show how the human agents interact with curriculum materials previously prepared,
and any potential differences between intentions and enactment.
3. Exploration of potential value for future development of teachers and courses. For
example, the evaluation might support taking forward something that worked, dropping
or adapting something that didn’t, or exploiting an unanticipated outcome.
4. Meaningful involvement of students in the evaluation process. Student voices might be
heard partly through evaluation surveys. However, conversations with students about
their experiences and understandings of them are bound to yield richer insights.
5. Accounts of the physical and/or virtual environments and social structure of a course.
This might include a rationale for these aspects of design (Goodyear and Carvalho
2014). Additionally, there can/should be evaluative inquiry into how agents interact
with these structural elements. There may be instances where there was little or no
intentional design, but that still warrants reflection: what is part of the design, what is
emergent, and what can that tell us?
Our own examples of thick descriptions have been drawn from research literature, for
practical and ethical reasons. However, we believe such descriptions can be developed for
scholarly teaching, if they are not indeed already present through dialogues and informal
13
feedback. Our five suggestions above indicate that teachers attempting to ‘thicken’ their
available evaluation might explicitly consider the significance of any evaluative information
and their interpretations of it. Significance and interpretation are more important than adding
layers of description (Freeman 2014). In other words, we need a contextualised interpretation
of our data and how different elements relate to each other, translating this holistic idea into
language that is meaningful to others (Geertz 1973). Using a theoretical lens is one way of
doing this. Another is to articulate a set of values (i.e. what is important to you in your teaching
and why), and then use this to consider the data.
This latter point might help us approach a considerable obstacle to ecological
evaluation: the limited extent to which educators feel able to give open and honest accounts,
especially in a risk-averse, market-driven economy. The availability of values-driven thick
descriptions can be useful where it is necessary to explain the context behind unsatisfactory
metrics, or where a clear plan for informed change is called for. As Onyura (2020) points out,
there can be tension between the use of evaluation to justify prior actions and argue for
resources, and to generate new knowledge (about a course, one’s students, one’s teaching).
A related consideration is the extent to which it matters whether the values and
rationales espoused in our thick descriptions are true accounts of prior intentions, or post-hoc
rationalisations. Discrepancies between what was designed and what transpired highlights the
limited extent to which one can design the actions or outcomes of students or, indeed, teachers.
Indeed, example three brings into question the desirability of such control, particularly in the
context of online postgraduate education, where significant value is found in emergent
connections between disciplines, settings and cultures (see also the chapter by Marley et al.
2021, this book). Such understandings would be of value to many teachers, managers and
students. Thus, thick descriptions within evaluation can have a formative aspect, not only to
the evaluator, but also to those who have access to these descriptions, creating additional
opportunities for reflection on practice.
Onyura notes that learning from evaluation is aided by ‘explicit clarification and
examination of the theoretical underpinnings’ (2020: 4). This knowledge need not be restricted
to the teachers on a course: it can be distributed across teaching networks through dialogue and
dissemination, thus contributing to the quality of teaching beyond the evaluated programme.
We might even argue that teachers should receive credit not only for how well their teaching
went, but also for how well they have evaluated that teaching, including generating rich
understandings of how to improve practice in the future. In such a system, honesty, even about
one’s failings as a teacher, emerges as a positive attribute, as we saw in Example 1. Clearly,
this will work best within a framework of trust between educators and managers, and between
students and teachers. Still, by giving evaluation a formative focus, local stakeholders and their
trusted colleagues can benefit from evaluation information even where it is not ‘politically
acceptable or actionable’ (Onyura 2020: 4). Indeed, we argue that without a culture that allows
such openness, the development of teachers will be stunted. We propose that even modest
moves towards ecological evaluation, enacted through the generation and sharing of thick
descriptions, can be a starting point for repairing the damage to trust that a focus on
accountability to market forces has done to the university sector.
Conclusion
Thin descriptions of higher education teaching, supported by datafied approaches, are
important to governments, administrators, managers and marketing specialists, and those who
aim to promote the excellence of competing universities. University teachers and their students,
however, need thicker descriptions of practice to enable them to understand and develop their
joint endeavour to achieve pedagogical intentions in an atmosphere of trust. They can thicken
existing thin descriptions by interpreting them in relation to reflections on practice and
14
pedagogical theory, dialogues and interpretations that take account of all the components
involved, along with the purposes and intentions of the evaluation itself. An ecological
perspective on evaluation of postgraduate online teaching can take into consideration the
interrelations between the different topics covered in this book, including practices and labour
of teaching (Aitken and Hayes 2021) and assessment and feedback (Hounsell 2021), and the
diverse contexts of students (Boyd 2021; Lee 2021; Marley et al. 2021; Stone et al. 2021),
institutions (Fawns, Gallagher and Bayne 2021), and teachers (Bussey 2021; Buchanan 2021).
Academic educators and researchers will need time and a conducive atmosphere to put these
ideas into practice.
Acknowledgements: The authors are very grateful to Lucila Carvalho, Massey University and
Betty Onyura, University of Toronto for insightful and invaluable feedback on an earlier draft
of this chapter.
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... While it is relatively easy to see how course or programme level adjustments influence the learning activity of students, as Fawns and Sinclair (2021) point out in their chapter of this book, these adjustments happen within a broader terrain. To start with, many of the resources and infrastructure used within formal curricula, and by students outside of them, are established at University level. ...
... However, the generative surfacing of teaching practices that emerge across the University's array of online PGT programmes requires focusing less on generalised outcomes (consistent with efficiency and accountability) and more on ecologies (consistent with encouraging an array of online programmes to surface innovative or exemplary practices, see Fawns and Sinclair 2021 in this book). Here again, we see a need to negotiate centralised processes with programme-level discretion (Bannink et al. 2015) in order to produce complementary, holistic evaluation practices, to both describe and develop the quality of online PGT programmes and teaching (Fawns and Sinclair 2021). Thus, beyond connecting teaching networks with leadership constellations, we might look at how more open and formative evaluation practices might help to inform desirable change at different levels of the institution. ...
Chapter
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While there are a range of practices and principles that underpin quality online postgraduate education, this work cannot all be done through course design and teaching. Good educational practice is also embedded in institutional policies, strategies, cultures and infrastructures. In this chapter, we examine two very different initiatives at the University of Edinburgh-the Distance Education Initiative (DEI) and the Near Future Teaching project (NFT)-to discuss the challenges of generating coherent institutional change towards supporting quality online postgraduate taught (PGT) education. In doing so, we highlight the importance of meaningful negotiation of central and local aims and values, through faculty development, communication between educational and leadership networks, and the embedding of educational practitioners within leadership constellations.
... In the aspect of the message of participating in the Learning Environment Survey, it is indicated by the teacher's testimony statement that hopefully this educational environmental survey can bring changes (Jones, 2021), especially to the world of education, hopefully with the learning environment survey it can make changes to the world of education for the better (Fawns & Sinclair, 2021), from the information obtained it should be used to take positive policies that support the implementation of learning and create a more conducive sense of comfort for teachers among students, teachers, parents, government, positive support from various parties for the implementation of the learning environment survey, hopefully in the future the survey results can be evaluated properly and there are improvements and more attention to schools, teachers must have an empathetic spirit towards all aspects related to the world of education, because try to comply with the concept of the learning environment, before conducting a guided survey first, it is better for an assessment between the teacher and the principal. ...
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This article describes the perception of tourism Vocational High School Teachers in Bengkulu City, Bengkulu Province in the Learning Environment Survey on the implementation of the 2021 National Assessment. The purpose of this study is to describethe level of teacher preparation and the level of teacher implementation implementation in the Learning Environment Survey activities in schools; alsodescribing the impression and/or message, supporting factors and inhibiting factors; and solutions or efforts to overcome the inhibiting factors of the Learning Environment Survey activities in schools in the 2021 National Assessment activities. This research is a Qualitative Descriptive Study on Tourism-based Vocational High School Teachers in Bengkulu City, Bengkulu Province.In this research, the researcher use Miles and Huberman’s theory in analyzing the dataconsists of three concurrent flows of activity: data reduction, data display, and conclusion drawing/verification. Based on the results of the study, it can be concluded that the perception of tourism-based Vocational High School Teachers in the Learning Environment Survey on the implementation of Assessment National in 2021 is really positive and hopes that the implementation of the Learning Environment Survey next year can run even better along with the improvement in the quality of the learning climate in an effort to create a conducive learning system and atmosphere in schools so that it has a very good and significant impact in achieving improvement. student achievement and learning outcomes.
... The unit of analysis for entangled evaluation is combinations rather than components. Neither technologies nor teaching methods can be evaluated in isolation of the contexts in which they are embedded (Dron 2021;Fawns et al. 2021a;Fawns and Sinclair 2021). Each element in Column 3 is also internally entangled. ...
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‘Pedagogy first’ has become a mantra for educators, supported by the metaphor of the ‘pedagogical horse’ driving the ‘technological cart’. Yet putting technology first or last separates it from pedagogy, making us susceptible to technological or pedagogical determinism (i.e. where technology is seen either as the driving force of change or as a set of neutral tools). In this paper, I present a model of entangled pedagogy that encapsulates the mutual shaping of technology, teaching methods, purposes, values and context. Entangled pedagogy is collective, and agency is negotiated between teachers, students and other stakeholders. Outcomes are contingent on complex relations and cannot be determined in advance. I then outline an aspirational view of how teachers, students and others can collaborate whilst embracing uncertainty, imperfection, openness and honesty, and developing pedagogical knowledge that is collective, responsive and ethical. Finally, I discuss implications for evaluation and research, arguing that we must look beyond isolated ideas of technologies or teaching methods, to the situated, entangled combinations of diverse elements involved in educational activity.
... It's all teachers, and it's administrators and students. It comes back to what you wrote in your chapter with Christine, Tim, on the need to think about evaluation in a much more holistic way (Fawns and Sinclair 2021). It's interesting, in other fields if something is easily measured, you would often be sceptical about the veracity of it, but in education it seems to be 'oh its easily measured, let's just use that'. ...
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In this concluding chapter, we depart from many of the typical conventions of a conclusion (synthesizing the content of chapters; tying up loose ends) and, instead, use the ideas and conclusions of the various authors within the book as points of departure for further, and always incomplete, dialogue. Rather than wrapping things up, we leave them open. How could we do anything else, when many of the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic for postgraduate education have yet to play out? In any case, for us, online postgraduate taught education is not something to be solved, streamlined or standardised-it is, and should remain, a rich tapestry of methods, purposes, contexts and practices. For these reasons, this chapter takes the form of a conversation between the editors, looking back over the chapters and forwards to the challenges of online postgraduate education in a postdigital context.
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School closures and the wider social constraints resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the difficulty of attaining educational goals and affected students with special needs. Education and training systems have responded and demonstrated a great ability to innovate and adopt new approaches, but also shown significant shortcomings due to teachers' being unwilling to make use of different environments and learning tools. The chapter reflects on the immediate response to the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, looking at the systems of teacher support available, including the successful and safe uses of technology for learning that help education systems become more equitable and inclusive and more effective in fulfilling their mission, more efficient in their operation and use of resources, and thus, better equipped to serve the needs of their communities and society at large. Appropriate teacher training and teacher competencies are fundamental to ensuring teachers are adequately skilled, remunerated, and ready to implement equitable and inclusive learning.
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Our aim with this chapter is twofold: to provide an account of the diverse ways students engage with online learning and to offer an alternative approach to student feedback on courses, one that extends an ‘ethic of hospitality’ to the process. In our chapter, we challenge the typically narrow structures that govern ‘student feedback’ (e.g., standardised surveys like the National Student Survey) by adopting an open approach, where students provide an account of their experience of learning without pre-set parameters or boundaries on what can be said. The chapter provides the personal accounts of four students’ experiences as postgraduate students on online MSc programmes at the University of Edinburgh. A number of prompts were provided as a guide for writing the accounts, but it was for the student to decide whether they were relevant or useful to them. All authors then engaged in a co-written, thematicised account derived from their combined narratives. Our chapter offers unique insights into some of the experiences, positive and negative, of adult online learners, which will be useful for educators involved in the design and development of online teaching.KeywordsEthic of hospitalityFeedback processStudent voiceCo-researchingEngagementOpenness
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Online postgraduate education has been perceived as taking place in a potentially isolating virtual space. Recent research has challenged this view and demonstrated how online learning is entangled with the student’s location or place in the world. And yet, this location can remain a silent, almost invisible, presence in the learning experience. It is recognised that the student is embodied, while not necessarily considering the importance of where they are embodied, and the influence and impact that location and location-knowledge may have on learning. In this chapter, I will outline how place-based approaches to learning at a distance may help to reframe the learning experience, creating opportunities to recognise diverse locations and the local place-knowledge that each student may bring to their online cohort. I will provide an overview of formative activities that draw on elements of place-based learning traditionally used for outdoor, face-to-face teaching, where online postgraduate students were invited to explore their locations, to find meaning in their place, to learn from and with their local community as well as their online community. The focus of the learning and teaching centres on students’ locations, rather than the locations selected by the staff. These pedagogical approaches can encourage students to build, and build on, their own place-data. Achieving this at a distance can be challenging and the results can be messy, but the graduate skills to deal with risk and uncertainty are needed in this rapidly changing world.KeywordsPlacePlace-basedPlace-responsiveEco-hermeneuticsOnlinePostgraduate
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I explore four topics relevant to research and practice in online postgraduate education. The first concerns the historic neglect of taught postgraduate education by higher education researchers and the challenges this creates for discussions of practice. For example, there is little consensus about how postgraduate and undergraduate courses and students differ, and whether research on undergraduate education generalises to the postgraduate level. I then raise some questions about three lines of analysis that are salient in other chapters of the book, and in wider academic writing on online and higher education. First, I ask whether the tumbril labelled ‘learnification’ is as pleasing a mode of transport as those now pushing it appear to think. Renewed attention to teaching, and celebration of its importance and difficulty, is timely, but is best accompanied by serious, continuing attention to learning. The two need not be in competition. Second, I argue for framing teaching, design and other educational work, as situated, proposing that this has implications for what educational workers, at all levels, can do in those segments of time when consequential change is possible. Third, I suggest that we need to untangle sociomaterial analysis from the temptation to debunk—especially where the debunking is aimed at outcomes of sincere educational work by our peers. The chapter plays a little with the traps and affordances of language, and weaves in some skeins of autoethnography, suggesting there are many ways we can learn from each other’s writing, if we so choose.KeywordsLearning from teachingAutoethnographySituated designMaterialsPostcriticalGoing meta-
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In this chapter, we challenge the current focus on the income generating potential of online postgraduate programmes, arguing that more attention should be given to the value of the education that occurs. High quality programmes in which learning communities develop require the input of creative and innovative educators. The input and agency of these individuals is largely obscured by the wording in institutional policy and promotional materials. We offer a critique of some recent academic strategies before discussing the changing role of academic labour amongst those contributing to online postgraduate programmes. Teaching online requires a diverse skillset and the adaptability to straddle traditional academic roles and more commercial aptitudes. This is a high-pressured environment where online programmes operate in an increasingly global market, and even high-quality programmes are in a constant state of innovation and evolution. We call for a clearer articulation of the positionality of educators in policy documents. Through greater acknowledgment of the agency of educators and students, we increase their visibility and foreground postgraduate education as a means of developing new knowledge and insights, and eroding traditional boundaries between academic and professional spheres.KeywordsPostdigitalPositionalityAcademic labourInstitutional policyPolicy documentsEducator agencyHuman agencyOnlinePostgraduateTeaching
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There are a growing number of online PhD programmes across the globe. Many online doctoral students are working professionals with multiple social responsibilities. Although they often choose to study online due to the flexibility and accessibility it offers, these part-time distance students can suffer from a lack of social interactions and a subsequent sense of isolation and loneliness. To address these issues, some online tutors in these programmes have strived to build a learning community among distance students by encouraging learner-to-learner interactions. However, it can be hugely challenging to develop a genuine sense of community among this group of students, especially when they make a continuous effort to present the best possible version of themselves to each other. This chapter presents an online tutor’s autoethnography on her teaching experiences in a research methodology module in an online PhD programme. The author’s honest and critical reflection on her pedagogical practice provides an invaluable insight into the complexity of online teaching and learning at postgraduate level. The story vividly captures important moments of how a group of online doctoral students overcame their initial sense of insecurity and uncertainty and successfully grew into a genuine community that embraced mutual vulnerability. The chapter concludes by stressing its contextual specificity, which readers must approach holistically and critically.KeywordsOnline doctoral educationDoctoral studentsAutoethnographyResearch methodologyImpression managementImposter syndrome
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While there are a range of practices and principles that underpin quality online postgraduate education, this work cannot all be done through course design and teaching. Good educational practice is also embedded in institutional policies, strategies, cultures and infrastructures. In this chapter, we examine two very different initiatives at the University of Edinburgh-the Distance Education Initiative (DEI) and the Near Future Teaching project (NFT)-to discuss the challenges of generating coherent institutional change towards supporting quality online postgraduate taught (PGT) education. In doing so, we highlight the importance of meaningful negotiation of central and local aims and values, through faculty development, communication between educational and leadership networks, and the embedding of educational practitioners within leadership constellations.
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Over the last decade there has been a root-and-branch rethinking of how feedback in university education is conceptualised and practised. Against that transformed landscape, this chapter discusses the distinctive challenges and opportunities that feedback raises at postgraduate level. First and foremost is alertness to the postgraduate 'habits of mind' characteristic of the particular discipline or profession concerned. These shape how feedback is configured and what scaffolding may be called for, especially when embarking on postgraduate study has entailed a shift in students' subject affiliation, professional orientation or teaching-learning culture. Optimising feedback also calls for strategies that are well-attuned to the constraints and affordances of postgraduate online learning. Three clusters of strategies are discussed and extensively illustrated with examples from postgraduate programmes in a range of countries and subject areas: • generative feedback, in the sense of comment-making that invites dialogue and offers scope for personalisation; • actionability and feedforward, where priority is given to feedback on work-in-progress, to maximise students' active engagement with and use of feedback to advance their learning • feedback between peers, not only mirroring the collegial interactions of professional workplaces but also deepening students' grasp of the disciplinary and/or professional norms and expectations underpinning evaluative comment.
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Taking the notion of the postdigital as its starting point, this chapter begins with my experience teaching in postgraduate teacher education courses. In postgraduate teacher education, professional learning is understood as being a ceaseless process. Mirroring the way, the concept of the postdigital illuminates our almost seamless relationship with digital technologies in education, the concept of lifelong learning highlights that education is now conceptualised as a continuous process of upskilling. This chapter explores the public pedagogical implications that occur with the use of social media sites for networked professional learning. Drawing on feminist theorising and postdigital conceptualisations of education, this chapter asks critical questions about the promotion of social networking sites and reflects on the implications of those questions for postgraduate education. This postdigital analysis of Twitter demonstrates the utility of postdigital theory as a reflective tool when applied to postgraduate education. 2 2
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Our aim with this chapter is twofold: to provide an account of the diverse ways students engage with online learning and to offer an alternative approach to student feedback on courses, one that extends an ‘ethic of hospitality’ to the process. In our chapter, we challenge the typically narrow structures that govern ‘student feedback’ (e.g., standardised surveys like the National Student Survey) by adopting an open approach, where students provide an account of their experience of learning without pre-set parameters or boundaries on what can be said. The chapter provides the personal accounts of four students’ experiences as postgraduate students on online MSc programmes at the University of Edinburgh. A number of prompts were provided as a guide for writing the accounts, but it was for the student to decide whether they were relevant or useful to them. All authors then engaged in a co-written, thematicised account derived from their combined narratives. Our chapter offers unique insights into some of the experiences, positive and negative, of adult online learners, which will be useful for educators involved in the design and development of online teaching.KeywordsEthic of hospitalityFeedback processStudent voiceCo-researchingEngagementOpenness
Chapter
Online postgraduate education has been perceived as taking place in a potentially isolating virtual space. Recent research has challenged this view and demonstrated how online learning is entangled with the student’s location or place in the world. And yet, this location can remain a silent, almost invisible, presence in the learning experience. It is recognised that the student is embodied, while not necessarily considering the importance of where they are embodied, and the influence and impact that location and location-knowledge may have on learning. In this chapter, I will outline how place-based approaches to learning at a distance may help to reframe the learning experience, creating opportunities to recognise diverse locations and the local place-knowledge that each student may bring to their online cohort. I will provide an overview of formative activities that draw on elements of place-based learning traditionally used for outdoor, face-to-face teaching, where online postgraduate students were invited to explore their locations, to find meaning in their place, to learn from and with their local community as well as their online community. The focus of the learning and teaching centres on students’ locations, rather than the locations selected by the staff. These pedagogical approaches can encourage students to build, and build on, their own place-data. Achieving this at a distance can be challenging and the results can be messy, but the graduate skills to deal with risk and uncertainty are needed in this rapidly changing world.KeywordsPlacePlace-basedPlace-responsiveEco-hermeneuticsOnlinePostgraduate
Chapter
In this chapter, we challenge the current focus on the income generating potential of online postgraduate programmes, arguing that more attention should be given to the value of the education that occurs. High quality programmes in which learning communities develop require the input of creative and innovative educators. The input and agency of these individuals is largely obscured by the wording in institutional policy and promotional materials. We offer a critique of some recent academic strategies before discussing the changing role of academic labour amongst those contributing to online postgraduate programmes. Teaching online requires a diverse skillset and the adaptability to straddle traditional academic roles and more commercial aptitudes. This is a high-pressured environment where online programmes operate in an increasingly global market, and even high-quality programmes are in a constant state of innovation and evolution. We call for a clearer articulation of the positionality of educators in policy documents. Through greater acknowledgment of the agency of educators and students, we increase their visibility and foreground postgraduate education as a means of developing new knowledge and insights, and eroding traditional boundaries between academic and professional spheres.KeywordsPostdigitalPositionalityAcademic labourInstitutional policyPolicy documentsEducator agencyHuman agencyOnlinePostgraduateTeaching
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Technology and education are interdependent, with both online learning and traditional teaching sharing core principles regardless of the modality employed. In practical terms, online teachers are still acting in physical, embodied ways, even when they conduct their work outside of the university classroom. Any physical or sensory impairment, chronic illness, or caring responsibilities that a teacher may have, should be considered without a prior assumption of ‘ableness’. While there is a profusion of literature describing the rights and inclusion of students, much less has been written about similar issues as they affect teachers (Nalavany et al., Dyslexia 24:17–32, 2018). When considering developing good practice in this area, the perspectives of teachers who themselves face challenges that could impact on inclusion should also be considered, but this is not always the case (Kent, Disabil Stud Quart, 35(1), 2015). Online learning is often poorly understood by institutions (Fawns et al., Online postgraduate education in a postdigital world: beyond technology, Springer, Cham, 2021, this book), and therefore the efforts and challenges of teachers (particularly those with non-typical, yet not infrequent, needs) may not be recognised, supported, or accounted for. This chapter seeks to address these issues by exploring the issue of inclusivity in teaching from a broad perspective, using disability, health conditions and caring responsibilities as examples. It concludes that although online teaching is becoming recognised as a potentially flexible and accessible way of delivering postgraduate education, there are considerations that should be made to ensure that those advantages are also applicable to teachers themselves.KeywordsInclusivityOnlinePostgraduateTeacherEquityDisabilityCarerIllness
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‘Curriculum’ is a ubiquitous term despite widespread recognition that there is no consensus on a definition or understanding of what it means. Although it may not be possible to escape the word, it is possible to draw attention to the tensions and debates it provokes. In this chapter, I suggest conceptualising the curriculum in terms of ‘ideal types’ (abstract analytical constructs): the modernist, postmodernist, new modernist, and postcurriculum. I then propose that contemporary higher education happens in a predominantly ‘postcurriculum’ context characterised by co-existing features of previous phases. Despite the challenges that exist for postgraduate teachers (particularly those employed to ‘teach online’), it is possible to find ways to survive the alienating features of postcurriculum contexts and exploit available opportunities.
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Through its more flexible approach, online learning is providing a significant opportunity for further widening of participation in Australian higher education. Increasingly, students from backgrounds and circumstances historically under-represented in higher education are able to enter online postgraduate programs based on prior learning and work experiences, not necessarily previous university studies. The online postgraduate student cohort now contains more students who may have little or no experience of university expectations, including those who are first in their families to study at university, let alone at postgraduate level. This more diverse cohort of students needs to be well supported within teaching and learning practices and broader support mechanisms to increase student retention and completion rates. While online postgraduate completion rates within Australia are higher than online undergraduate completion rates, they nevertheless still lag behind the completion rates for on-campus postgraduate studies. This chapter explores findings from recent research into the online student experience, applying them particularly to postgraduate online education. Based on these findings, this chapter proposes that the delivery of online postgraduate study cannot be separated from the social and cultural context within which students are living and managing busy and complex lives. It offers recommendations for institutions on strategies to ensure that the lived reality of the student cohort is properly understood and taken into account in the design and delivery of online postgraduate study, thereby enhancing student retention and success.