Friday, August 21, 2009

In Praise of Online Learning

Great post from Don Tapscott at Grown Up Digital. I know many faculty that dipped their toes into online education in its' infancy and were less than impressed, finally giving up on the medium. But online education has come a long way and many people have worked hard to improve the tools, the training, and the quality control. I don't doubt that you'll still find some clunkers out there, but online learning has proven itself in higher ed and when done right is an important part of every schools' offerings.

One aspect of the report that I find particularly interesting is the efficacy of blended learning. I've always been a big believer in providing online content to my students to supplement the face-to-face content. Blended learning is a great way to connect with students with different learning styles, allow over-achievers to delve deeper into a topic, and as the study points out blended learning often includes additional learning time allowing students to proceed at their own pace and lets them repeat material they find difficult. Lastly, I think it's important we not underestimate the value of providing content to students in this digital environment that so many of them have grown up in and are so comfortable in.

Online learning boosts student performance
The U.S. Department of Education has just released a report comparing traditional face-to-face classroom instruction to learning supplemented or completely replaced by online learning. The conclusion: ‘Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.’

The most effective teaching method blended face-to-face learning with online learning. The study notes that this blended learning often includes additional learning time because students can proceed at their own pace and lets them repeat material they find difficult.

Barbara Means, the study’s lead author and an educational psychologist at SRI International, was quoted on the New York Times’ website that ‘The study’s major significance lies in demonstrating that online learning today is not just better than nothing - it actually tends to be better than conventional instruction.’

There's even some insight into what has changed to make online courses so effective:
The story notes that until fairly recently, online education amounted to little more than electronic versions of the old-line correspondence courses. That has really changed with arrival of Web-based video, instant messaging and collaboration tools.

The real promise of online education is providing learning experiences that are more tailored to individual students than is possible in classrooms. In Grown Up Digital, I describe this as “student-focused” learning as opposed to traditional “teacher-focused” broadcast techniques with the teacher in front of a large class. The story correctly notes that online learning enables more “learning by doing,” which many students find more engaging and useful.

The moral of the story: Students would be better served with much of the curriculum being online. And to repeat what I said in the book, this does not mean a diminished role for teachers. Their time would be freed up to give extremely valuable one-on-one teaching.
[Emphasis added - MQ]

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