Monday, August 26, 2013

Making the Case for E-Learning


Recently someone said to me "too much great information never makes it out of the classroom" when we were discussing an assignment in which students were going to share their content publicly. [If your FERPA radar is going off, check out this blog post]  So, here's part of a paper I wrote last weekend that I thought may be interesting out of the class environment. The goal was to convince management that e-learning was awesome (my interpretation). The rest of the paper was an implementation plan that I personally would have put more work into if it was real, so I'm not sharing it :)  [I still got a 99%, in case you're wondering!]

Online education presents a new business strategy for higher education institutions. While overall enrollment in higher education fell in 2012, the number of new students enrolling in online courses grew by over 570,000 to reach 6.7 million students learning online (Allen & Seaman, 2013).  Since 2002, when Allen and Seaman began studying online education in US colleges and universities, enrollment in online courses has consistently increased much more dramatically than has overall higher education enrollment.  In 2012, 32% of students were taking at least one online course.

The perception of online learning is gaining favor.  An analysis of research comparing face-to-face and online learning found that the performance of students in online courses was slightly better than those in entirely face-to-face courses (United States Department of Education, 2010).  This finding is not a reflection of the technology necessarily; it is due to the pedagogical strategies used in online and blended modalities.  In addition, Allen and Seaman (2013) have consistently found that online education is perceived by the majority of leaders in higher education as at least as good, if not better, at meeting learning outcomes than traditional education with only 23% perceiving online education as inferior to face-to-face.  The perceptions of academic leaders at institutions that offer courses online is much more favorable than those whose institutions do not offer online courses.

Learning Without Boundaries

A clear benefit of online education is the elimination of geographic boundaries (Lehmann & Chamberlin, 2009).  For a university, online offerings make available an entire world of students, rather than just those who live within commuting distance or those who are willing to move.  Increased student diversity presents additional learning opportunities in an online learning community that may have otherwise been more homogenous.  In addition, online courses also allow for a remote instructor.  This benefit allows current instructors to have flexible schedules and teach from home or remotely during summer session.  In addition, qualified instructors who would not otherwise be available geographically could be hired to teach online, resulting in students learning from experts in the field they otherwise would not be able to access.  The lack of face-to-face contact also makes online learning pandemic proof.


Pedagogical Benefits

When best practices for online teaching are followed, the format presents pedagogical benefits over traditional education (Lehmann & Chamberlin, 2009).  Because students are not physically present, they are required to be active learners online or risk being invisible.  Academic integrity concerns with online testing require instructors to incorporate more authentic assessments such as projects or application based questions.  Rather than simply answering multiple choice questions in which students remain at a low level on Bloom’s taxonomy, online students are often required to obtain higher levels of knowledge such as evaluation, synthesis, and creation.

Flexibility 

Many students choose online courses because they are seeking flexibility in their learning (Hrastinski, 2009).  Asynchronous e-learning allows students to do coursework at the time of day they prefer.  E-learning is an alternative to night classes that interfere with family life for adult learners or early morning classes that interfere with traditional age students’ sleep schedules.

Everyone Participates


It takes guts to speak up in this environment.

Asynchronous learning communities also allow students to thoughtfully craft responses to discussions.  This allows students who are not able to quickly think of responses or students who are shy to contribute just as much as extroverted students (Huang & Hsiao, 2012).  Additionally, lack of face-to-face interaction may help some students feel more comfortable contributing to class due to reduced fear of being judged on physical attributes (Lehmann & Chamberlin, 2009).






Sustainability

The environment benefits from online learning (Viscusi, 2008).  Instead of printing, students upload papers electronically and instructors provide feedback and course materials in a digital format.  Online students do not increase greenhouse gases by driving to class and they would not require additional parking or classroom space.  Online courses and programs allow universities to grow without increasing their physical footprint. 

It's Not for Everyone Though 

I've highlighted many benefits of online learning from multiple perspectives, but I would never recommend it across the board. I read research indicating that people with very verbal learning preferences struggle in online courses. My husband fits this description; he is the type of person who can sit in a passive lecture and just listen and actually learn things, but he is not a writer and would rather listen to an audio book rather than read print. On the other hand, sitting in a lecture is the worst way for me to learn; I love online classes because I'm mostly a reader and a writer and I need to be active.

Online classes also require more self-direction and it can be easy to fall behind. I can't guarantee 18-year-old me would have succeeded online due to my intense procrastination. Traditional college aged students get many social benefits from face-to-face classes. An online class here and there, especially in summer and winterim, are great to speed up graduation and hybrid is the best of both worlds. Even with all the love I have for online education at 34, I am happy that 18-21 year old me had a traditional experience. Just last weekend my husband and I  walked around our alma mater and it struck me just how special that university is to me and how many memories I had there.


Student studying from http://www.flickr.com/photos/duketip/5428587298/
Bloom's taxonomy image from http://www.techlearning.com/studies-in-ed-tech/0020/blooms-taxonomy-blooms-digitally/44988
Lecture hall pic from http://blog.syracuse.com/technofile/2007/10/college_kids_dont_use_macs_or.html

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