Is Online Education Living Up To Its Potential?


Online learning, not only at the tertiary level but increasingly at the K-12 level has become increasingly ubiquitous. As technology advances, the demand for and availability of this format of learning has increased exponentially. As well as university degrees being offered via online study, there are also increasing numbers of massive, open online courses (MOOCs) available on all manner of subjects. These courses, often being free of charge, present further study options for today’s students. However, online learning has its drawbacks and issues at present.

An ongoing problem in the online learning sector, compared to traditional delivery methods has been the retention rate of students. According to 2013 statistics for Australia, around 15% of undergraduate students dropped out of their courses. Those studying online dropped out at a rate of 28%, almost double the rate of the rest of the undergraduate cohort. There are numerous reasons for this, but a major factor behind this statistic is the poor design of many online courses. In many cases, online courses are not designed in a pedagogically sound manner. A typical example of this are courses where the online component consists primarily of an online lecture to view, a textbook chapter uploaded to the course and a discussion forum. These are not bad in and of themselves – however, many courses do not extend beyond this format. Students understandably find this uninteresting or unchallenging in many cases and do not engage as a result.

Why has there been a lack of innovation on this front, then? Paul Wappett, writing for The Conversation, puts forth a few reasons for this being the case. One of the reasons is that the current university system heavily favours research output over teaching. The ubiquitous saying within higher education, ‘publish or perish’, is testament to this. As a result, university staff, as well as the institutions themselves are not incentivised to overhaul their teaching methods in any significant way.

Learning Outcomes

The literature on the learning outcomes produced in online formats at present is decidedly mixed. There are undoubtedly numerous benefits to the rise of online education and in particular MOOCs. For one, it is a much more flexible form of learning than traditional schooling. Students who otherwise may not be able to further their education are able to do so through remote, online learning. Research by Markova, Glazkova and Zaborova (2017) indicates that the possibility of combining work and study is the primary motivating factor for students enrolled in online courses.

Online learning also has the benefit of lower operating costs, which can then be passed onto the student. This is a particularly important point in light of the student loan crisis in the United States in particular. Online schools and bootcamps, such as Lambda School, are notable examples of this in action.

One of the problems with online learning at present is that, in contrast to more traditional forms of learning, a ‘best practice’ has not been established as definitively. Online learning is still quite new compared to other forms of learning. The technology is developing at a rapid pace. As with anything new, there is a lot of trial and error that inevitably enters the learning process. As a result, the quality of these programs varies wildly.

The distant nature of online learning, which does not allow for the constant presence of a teacher, also contributes to many students’ difficulty in being able to learn in online courses. Because of this lack of a teacher presence, many students often feel ‘confused, isolated and frustrated’. As a result, many students ultimately drop out the course who may otherwise had been supported had a teacher been able to assist them in a timely manner.

Another factor, one which is often overlooked in these discussions, is the students’ ability to seamlessly navigate and work with the online courses. It is usually presumed that today’s students are ‘digital natives’ – children who have grown up with digital technology. As such, designers of online courses build these assumptions into the design of their courses. For example, a natural proficiency with digital technology is assumed. Another assumption is that these ‘digital natives’ are able to multitask. However, this assumption may be incorrect. According to a recent paper from education researchers Pedro de Bruyckere and Paul Kirschner, both these assumptions have no evidence to back them up. The researchers present a literature review which finds plentiful evidence to debunk both claims.

Undoubtedly, online learning is going to be an ever-growing aspect of education in the future, particularly at the tertiary level. It is imperative that online courses become more effectively designed and accessible in order to maximise the benefits for students. That is not to say that traditional brick-and-mortar schools need disappear entirely, however. A blended approach, particularly at present, is likely the best way forward. Face-to-face interaction between student and teacher is still invaluable, as is the ability to collaborate and work with other students.

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Scott Davies is a freelance writer and tutor. He is currently studying a Master of Education. He is interested in education, economics, geopolitics and history. He's on Twitter and has a Medium page.

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3 thoughts on “Is Online Education Living Up To Its Potential?

  1. Anecdatum: My wife has to take graduate courses to keep her teaching credential. In the past she has taken summer classes at a local(ish) university. None of them panned out as an option last year, so she took an online course. Its outstanding qualities were that it was cheap, and she confirmed ahead of time that her district accepted it. This also was the first time that she complained about the course. She didn’t use the word “bullshit” because she is more ladylike than I, but that was the clear sense. Dropping out wasn’t an option, but it wasn’t a fulfilling experience. To be blunt, the model works to check off boxes, but as an educational experience it sucks.

    For myself, I looked at MOOCs when they first became a thing, and decided I wasn’t interested. Autodidacticism is very much among my talents, so any topic I was interested in enough to consider taking a MOOC, I had already read about. The result was that the MOOC inevitably meant wading through basic stuff I knew, without the compensation of direct interaction with someone who knows more about it than I do. I can imagine some learning styles benefiting from access to well done lectures. But as a text-based learner, I am better off reading a few books about the subject.

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  2. This makes sense. Richer, younger people with better study habits are going to be able to handle an online format more easily, but they’re the people who are much more likely to be in traditional educational programs. Less tech-savvy people, older returning students, people who are trying to balance work, life, and school, that’s who is more likely to take online coursework.

    I’ve been reading recently about language learning, and the current thinking is that adults are *better* able to learn a new language than children. Adults understand language structure better, and have the tools to make associations between languages. Adults struggle with learning languages because they’re impatient. It takes them two weeks to learn to say “yes it is cold today” and it makes them feel foolish – but that’s because they had to learn to say yes/no, it is hot/cold/rainy/snowy/sunny, yesterday/today/tomorrow, and all the other words in the first five chapters of the lesson plan. Kids can handle saying “yes it is cold today” without being embarrassed that they don’t know the words for “meteorologist” or “cold front”. Anyway, where I’m going with this thought is that adult learners sometimes underestimate the importance of structure and study time. Online learning has to be flexible, but there’s an efficiency cost in that.

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  3. I love the idea of Lambda School and I am excited by how Lambda expects its graduates to pay for it.

    The problem is that it’s pretty much 100% a trade school. You take the course, you learn to code. That’s it. No poetry. No film studies. The theory is computer language theory rather than critical theory.

    While I imagine that this will make a person employable right out of the gate with a lot less debt to pay off, it won’t give them the experience of getting stoned in a dorm.

    So I see both sides.

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