Online courses have definitely opened access to students in remote areas. They also offer option to people with learning requirements that require more flexibility with meeting times, and more critically with issues of physical accessibility and even learning disabilities.
There are lots of books, articles and theses devoted to this research on teaching with technology. More recently, I see research on the ways in which online teaching can improve learning for all students.
More and more traditional, full time, on or near campus students add online courses to their schedule. In many cases, it's for the same reasons as students at a distance - time scheduling around work, and enjoying the freedom and different approaches to learning an online class offers.
We don't hear these courses and programs referred to much anymore as "distance learning" because distance is not the biggest factor for enrollments.
Michelle Miller, a professor of psychological sciences and co-director of the first-year learning program at Northern Arizona University, usually researches language and memory, but a newer book by her looks at the role technology can play in improving the learning experiences of all students. That research appears in Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology.
In an article on chronicle.com, she says that "One of the reasons Northern Arizona University values teaching with technology is our geography and location. We’re located in the middle of some vast, sparsely populated spaces, and a major part of our mission as an institution is to serve the educational needs of the people spread throughout these spaces. Especially critical is our commitment to serving the needs of Native American students, many of whom live or spend time in rural reservation communities."
It is only recently that educational technology has mixed with neuroscience and cognitive psychology to design with the brain in mind. These designers are considering how attention, memory, critical thinking, and analytical reasoning can be used for technology-aided approaches. This approach seems relevant for teachers and instructional designers.
Online courses by their very delivery seem to be a natural pathway to using technology for learning. Miller says that cognitive psychologists already knew that frequent checks for learning (quizzing) is beneficial to learning. This "testing effect" doesn't work very easily in a traditional classroom. In an online course, repeated quiz attempts with different questions and adaptive learning techniques to adapt a quiz's topics or questions to an individual student is easier. Of course, this technology can also be used with students in an actual classroom with some course retooling.
This is a key concept for Miller who suggests that "for more complex activities such as problem-solving exercises, simulations, and case studies. Using online tools, we can set up multiple scenarios, present them as many times as we want, and customize the content or pacing for different students. We know from research that effortful practice is the way to master complex skills, and technology offers new ways to lead students into this effortful practice."
Miller's book is not just theory. In the chapter on "Putting It All Together," she offers a sample syllabus for an online course with commentary linking the policies to the cognitive principles covered in the book.
Aligning online pedagogy with learning science and putting instructional design and cognitive science together into usable design principles seems to be a worthy, though difficult, process.
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