January 23, 2017

Online learning for beginners: 5. When should I use online learning?

Knowledge-based industries include entertainment, such as video games design

Most subject disciplines now require students to know how technology influences their field of study

This is the fifth of a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The other four are:

This question ‘When should I use online learning?’ is difficult to answer in a short post because there are many possible reasons, and as always in education, the answers are absolutely dependent on the specific context in which you are working, but the reasons can be classified under three main headings: academic, market, and policy/administrative.

Academic reasons

These boil down to relevancy and the changing nature of knowledge in a digital age.

Curriculum requirements

Technology is affecting the content of curriculum in nearly all subject disciplines. It is increasingly difficult to think of an academic area that is not undergoing profound changes as a result of information and communications technologies (ICTs). For instance, any business program now needs to look at the impact of social media and the Internet on marketing and on the delivery of goods. How are ICTs going to change financial investments and advising? In science and engineering, to what extent would animation, simulations or the use of virtual reality enable better understanding of three-dimensional phenomena, equations or formulae? In humanities and fine arts, to what extent are ICTs changing the way we express ourselves? How do we ensure our students are digitally literate and responsible? How do we prepare our students for a world controlled by massive technology companies who track our every movement and expression? It is difficult to think how these issues can be addressed without students themselves going online to study such issues.

Skills development

Also, the skills that our students will need to develop in a digital age will often best be achieved through the use of ICTs. In Chapter 1.2 of Teaching in a Digital Age, I give more detailed examples of such skills. Many of these skills are not only best developed by, but may not even be possible without, students spending an extensive period studying online.

However, I want to focus on two ‘core’ 21st century skills: independent learning and knowledge management. In a knowledge-based society, students will need to go on learning throughout life and outside the formal academic curriculum. Jobs are constantly changing as the knowledge base changes, and even our social lives are increasingly dominated by technological change. Independent learning – or self-learning – is a skill that itself can be taught. Online learning in particular requires self-discipline and independent learning, because the instructor is often not physically ‘there’. Thus gradually introducing learners to online learning can help build their independent learning skills.

Perhaps the overarching ’21st century skill’ though is knowledge management: how to find, analyse, evaluate, apply and communicate knowledge, especially when much of this knowledge is Internet-based or located, and constantly undergoing change. Students then need many opportunities to practice such skills, and online learning often provides a means by which this can be done in a cost-effective manner.

Whether we like it or not, an understanding and management of the use of ICTs is becoming critical in almost any subject area. Students will need to go online to study such phenomena, and to practice core 21st century skills. To do this students will need to spend much more time than at present studying online. (Again, though, we need to ensure that the balance between online and face-to-face time is also properly managed.)

Market reasons

Not only is knowledge undergoing rapid change, so are demographics. In most economically advanced societies, the population is aging. Over time, this will mean fewer younger students coming straight from high school, and more lifelong learners, perhaps already with post-secondary qualifications, but wanting to upgrade or move to a new profession or job and hence needing new knowledge and skills.

Also, with mass education, our students are increasingly diverse, in culture, languages and prior knowledge. One size of teaching does not fit all. We need ways then to individualise our programs. In particular, there are many pedagogical problems with very large lecture classes. They do not meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. Online learning is one way to allow students to work at different speeds, and to individualise the learning with online options enabling some choice in topics or level of study.

The changing population base offers opportunities as well as challenges. For instance, your area of research may be too specialised to offer a whole course or program within your current catchment area, but by going online you can attract enough students nationally or globally to make the effort worthwhile. These will be new students bringing in extra tuition revenues that can cover the full costs of an online masters degree, for instance. At the same time, online learning will enable critically important areas of academic development to reach a wider audience, helping create new labour markets and expand new areas of research.

Policy/administrative

We all know the situation where a President or Vice Chancellor has gone to a conference and come back ‘converted’. Suddenly the whole ship is expected to make an abrupt right turn and head off in a new direction. Unfortunately, online learning often leads to enthusiastic converts. MOOCs are a classic example of how a few elite universities suddenly got the attention of university leaders, who all charged off in the same direction.

Nevertheless, there can also be good policy reasons for institutional leadership wanting to move more to blended or flexible learning, for instance. One is to improve the quality of teaching and learning (breaking up large lecture classes is one example); another reason is to expand the reach of the university or college beyond its traditional base, for demographic and economic reasons; a third is to provide more flexibility for full-time students who are often working up to 15 hours a week to pay for their studies.

These policy shifts provide an excellent opportunity then to meet some of the academic rationales mentioned earlier. It is much easier to move into online learning if there is institutional support for this. This will include often extra money for release time for faculty to develop online courses, extra support in the way of instructional and media design, and even better chances of promotion or tenure.

Implications

  1. It can be seen that while market and policy reasons may be forcing you towards online learning, there are also excellent and valid academic reasons for moving in this direction.
  2. However, the extent to which online learning is a solution will depend very much on the particular context in which it will be used. It is essential that you think through carefully where it best fits within your own teaching context: blended learning for undergraduate students; masters programs for working professionals; skills development for applied learning; or all of these?
  3. Online learning is not going to go away. It will play a larger role in teaching in even the most campus-based institutions. Most of all, your students can benefit immensely from online learning, but only if it is done well.

Follow-up

Chapter 1, Fundamental Change in Education, of Teaching in a Digital Age, is basically a broader rationale for the use of online learning

Chapters 3 and 4 look at ways to individualise learning; see in particular:

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‘How do I start?’

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