Sunday, April 15, 2018

On-site and online learning - different but equivalent

Online students are different to campus students and therefore online course must reflect these differences: they are older than most campus students, they tend to combine studies with work and family and they appreciate the flexibility of the online format. However, they are very similar in terms of their desire to learn, their need for social interaction, feedback, and a clear teacher presence. Strangely, these vital elements have been omitted from many online courses, despite the fact that there are platforms and tools that can provide that vital social element. Somehow it has been assumed that online learners are content with content-based self-study and as a result the whole field is viewed by many as a "next-best" option. This is discussed in an article by Sean Michael Morris in Inside Higher Ed, Online Learning Shouldn’t Be ‘Less Than’. Why should online learners be less interested in the social aspect of learning and be content with behaviourist content consumption?

But if online learning is more rudimentary, less nuanced, personal, complex than campus learning, that betrays an implicit assumption that so are online students. But “nontraditional” doesn’t mean unacademic. Online students are students like on-campus students. Just as curious, just as hopeful, just as genius, just as troubled, just as excited and unsure. Have we built, do we sustain, an online learning that embraces these students? Do our online courses actually accommodate them?

This simplistic model has even created a vicious circle where students often expect online courses to be relatively undemanding self-study and are therefore surprised and confused when they are asked to actively participate. Indeed many campus students try to cram in extra credits to their full time studies by also taking an online course, thinking that the extra course will not be so demanding. When they realise that the online course is just as demanding as the campus ones they are forced to drop out, unwittingly and ironically contributing to the argument that online learning has low completion rates.

Online courses demonstrate the university's commitment to lifelong learning and outreach, but the article asks if we are not short-changing our online learners by not offering the full university experience.

Which leads me to ask, do online courses accommodate students at all? Or do they cater primarily to an ideology of efficiency, retention, “student success” and numbers that institutions can report? Are online classes provided for learners, or are they intended to extend a university’s reach, its revenue-generating enterprise? Certainly if the latter, then the quality of online courses needs only meet that standard that students will tolerate for the sake of the credential, the carrot on the stick.

The point is that a university course demands a lot of the student in terms of engagement and commitment, regardless of whether it is delivered online or in a traditional setting. Online learning is neither a short-cut for the learner nor a cost-saving strategy for the university. It should certainly not be seen as a second-best, watered down version of the "real thing". Courses should be demanding, interactive, social, stimulating and challenging whatever the delivery method. The technology and pedagogy are there, we just have to use them.

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