Nate Cottle, professor of human environmental sciences at the University of Central Oklahoma, uses the process approach to learning as delineated by William Horton (2006) in his online and blended courses. Cottle spoke to Online Classroom about using this model. “Learning isn’t something that has to be confined to the classroom, and so as I teach blended classes, I think the more I can involve the students in learning and the more contexts I can involve them in, the more they’re going to learn,” he said. “The idea is to get them to slowly digest the information in different ways and to engage in different activities so that by the time the course comes to an end, they can apply the knowledge they have learned. That’s the ultimate goal: to get them to be in a state where they can apply the knowledge.”
The process model consists of three stages:
- Absorb—During this stage, students are gaining basic knowledge. This can include reading a chapter in the textbook.
- Do—Students then engage in an activity such as a discussion before the face-to-face session (in the case of a blended course) or a synchronous online session in the case of a totally online course.
- Connect—Students apply knowledge to real-world situations.
OC: How do you use this approach in your courses?
Cottle: I use that basic model that Horton laid out, and I like that because the process is gradual, but it’s also hierarchical—[students] are moving up. During the absorb stage, they’re just trying to get the basic material. In some cases it would be reading the chapter and then doing some type of activity before coming to class. Instead of having them do discussion after class, I’ve been having them do a discussion before class where they’re responding to the material and interacting with their fellow students.
Instead of meeting three times a week, we’ll meet once a week, and the content they’ve already provided allows me then to have something that I can use during the in-class session. This is the do stage, which becomes focused on applying the material. … As people redesign courses, I think the question they have to ask themselves is, “What would I like to do in class but never have time to do?” The blended approach allows someone to do something in class that they may have never thought they would have been able to do because they’ve got to lecture, they’ve got to get through the material. And so students do this online lesson and read this book and then answer a question that demonstrates to me that they already know the knowledge and now they can do something with it. In-class activities would be anything like debate, or you can have them do all kinds of different interactions to get them processing the material more and more. It may be that you’re giving them a case study, a simulation, or something that they have to be able to apply the knowledge to.
The last stage is the connect stage. That’s where I think [the content] is solidified or makes sense to them. I really see that as a reflection, and so what they have to do then is be able to reflect or critique or draw some conclusions about how this material affects their lives or the subject they’re studying. The more that I can get students to think about the material and to apply it to different activities before, during, and after class, the more learning takes place. So the goal is to get them to think about it much more than they would by just walking into class and sitting down and saying “Teach me.”
OC: Do you find that students need to be prepared for this approach?
Cottle: They’re used to walking into class—maybe having read [or] maybe not—and then having the instructor do everything. It’s a big paradigm shift for them to realize, “Not only do I have to do something before I come to class, but I’m responsible for this material. And if I don’t know it, then when it comes to these activities I won’t be able to do it.” So I think it empowers students, and it requires them to be more responsible about reading the book [and] about doing those things they need to do before they come to the classroom.
OC: Do you do this exclusively as a blended approach or also online?
Cottle: I think it can be done online. … I think it just makes an online class a little bit more synchronous. And in some ways it draws back from the approach, but it certainly is something that you can do.
OC: Would you have synchronous sessions in online courses to simulate what goes on in face-to-face sessions?
Cottle: I think that’s a great way to do that. It allows you to come together. And there are more and more technologies out there that allow you to bring a small group together to have a discussion or to [collaborate]. It’s tough to schedule. The difference in the two approaches is [that] in one they’ve already committed to a time, and in the other they’re going to have to find a time that fits. As an instructor, I think you have to be more flexible in meeting their needs and providing them different opportunities for that to happen.
OC: What do students tell you about this approach?
Cottle: Some of them say it’s more difficult, that [I’m asking them] to do more than other teachers [do]. And then on the back side I get, “I’ve learned more than I have in any other class.” So it is something that challenges them, [and] when they rise to that challenge, they feel rewarded for it. There is some initial push back, but I think in the end students recognize that having to do this is important. After working in a social services setting … a lot of students come back and say, “I was so glad I was able to apply this to a situation because this happened after graduation … [after] getting a job, they’re asking me to do these things I’ve learned in class, so at least I have a starting point to go from.” And so it really becomes what we at the University of Central Oklahoma call transformative learning—where you change the person as a result of learning and that person then is prepared for the discipline that they are engaging in in their careers.
OC: From the instructor’s or instructional designer’s perspective, what is involved in redesigning a course in this manner?
Cottle: I think the first step is to not try to make a blended or online class the same as what you do in a live class. I think you have to start from the learning objectives and ask, “What do I want to accomplish?” Allow yourself to do whatever it may be that will accomplish those learning outcomes in either the blended or online environment. There are things that you can do online that you could never do in a class. There are opportunities and tools out there, and so really to say, “Well let’s just take what I do in class and move it online,” is somewhat shortsighted. You have to ask, “How will the students be different after this class?” Then ask: “What activities do I need to put together? What readings do I need them to have access to in order to reach that outcome?” When you think about course redesign, it’s starting from scratch rather than “This is what I do in a live class; let me just do a little bit of that online.” You’ve got to start and say: “What do they need to know? What do they need to absorb? How can I have them apply it? And how can they connect it?”