Much Ado About Online Learning

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Disruptive innovations aren’t easy for established institutions

Online learning has been around for over two decades now. Yet institutions – secondary and post-secondary – continue to struggle with its integration and applications. I am still hearing lots of questioning and debate about the suitability and effectiveness of online delivery. What does the research say?

Learning outcomes have been shown to be modestly better for online versus classroom-based courses (Means et al. 2010)

Learning activities can be equally effective across online and face-to-face conditions (Neuhauser, 2002)

Online courses across a variety of theoretical and practical topic areas have been offered successfully (Tallent-Runnels et al. 2006).

Course development (whether face-to-face, mixed mode or online) is resource-intensive. Here is a radical rethink of higher education from a systems perspective, from a provocative 2003 article by Carol Twigg (decribed as a Rock Star in higher education technology and innovation) for Educause:

American higher education remains what Bill Massy and Bob Zemsky have called a “handicraft” industry in which the vast majority of courses are developed and delivered as “one-offs” by individual professors… Currently in higher education, both on campus and online, we individualize faculty practice (that is, we allow individual faculty members great latitude in course development and delivery) and standardize the student learning experience (that is, we treat all students in a course as if their learning needs, interests, and abilities were the same). Instead, we need to do just the opposite.

Full disclosure: I have taught a graduate clinical course focused on addiction treatment for over 10 years. Don’t get me wrong, I love classroom teaching. But feedback I get from students has consistently reinforced three things:

1. There are as many ways of teaching online as there are face-to-face. Just like there can be good and bad classroom courses (and instructors), same goes for online.

2. Online courses can be experienced as equally or more rigorous than their in-class counterparts, in that online students report having to critique, reflect and formulate their ideas more deeply in order to contribute to class discussion and dialogue.

3. Online learning is accessible to students in a way that classroom teaching can’t accomplish.

In any case, the debate may well be moot: Instructional videos on YouTube – for everything from how to change a tire or rig a sailboat, to advanced chemistry – constitute what might well be the world’s biggest and most vibrant online apprenticeship training. Khan Academy (“our mission: to provide a world-class education for anyone, anywhere”) materials are used by teachers worldwide in their classrooms. (Because the online version teaches it better?) Students today have grown up in a world where the Internet has always existed. Digital communication, networking and collaboration are like talking (or breathing).

So why, twenty years on, aren’t there more online offerings in colleges and universities (especially among those in the top tier)? I think the hesitation comes from a deep place in our collective psyche as educators. We want to believe that our physical presence at the front of the class is a key contributor to meaning-making and learning for our students. From an instructivist theoretical frame, this makes sense. Thing is, the education field has widely adopted constructivist models of teaching and learning, at odds with a “sage on the stage” approach.

Online learning in higher education represents a paradigm shift and a disruptive innovation. Big time.

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