Online Learning Has Its Advantages

learning online in cafe
    Image: pxhere

It is unfortunate that the emergency move to online classes in March 2020 is often being seen as the definition of online learning. This is especially true for administrators, faculty, students. parents and the general public who had no experience with it previously. I would say that what is being offered this fall should be of a higher quality if schools used the spring experience and a summer of planning to prepare for the possibility of being fully online again. perhaps the perceptions of spring will be improved.

In a journal article that I am working on now, I say something that may not be supported by research but is supported by every faculty member I have talked to for the article: It is easier to move a good online course to a face-to-face (F2F) format than it is is to take a good F2F course and put it online. Many articles have appeared this year saying that the elements of a good online course are essentially the same as a good F2F course.

For example, if I am designing a brand new online course, I will be including all the "handouts" I would use in-person but also ones I wouldn't have included in creating a new F2F course. For example, in-person I might take 15 minutes to explain to students an upcoming assignment. For the online version, I will need that explanation in a document or as an audio/video file. If my online course is ever used to teach F2F having that explanatory document or video available for students who want to review it again after class and especially for students who missed the class session would be very useful. For the online version, I will need to create "lectures" that are chunked into smaller segments. For he F2F class, I might use those mini-lectures to flip the classroom as before class "reading" assignments. For the online course, might even rethink my entire approach to lectures.

One thing we learned from the rise of MOOCs was that there were a lot of people who wanted to learn but had no interest in credits or a degree. They took courses to learn what they wanted to learn and most of the time were not even interested in using all of the course or "finishing" the course as we would expect in traditional courses or training. This was initially the biggest criticism of MOOCs - students did not complete the course - but we came to see that completion was not an objective for most of these learners.

Skills and career advancement are the primary motives for many nontraditional learners, and online courses allowed that with a number of advantages. While in some jobs an additional degree or a certificate can mean advancement in salary and position, you can also "move up" by acquiring new skills. Online courses, degrees and certificates allow learners to continue working while they study.

Pre-pandemic, Santa Clara University surveyed hundreds of distance learners about how online learning impacted them and more than 50% of respondents recognized and appreciated the benefits of online classes.

Traditional and non-traditional learners can take online classes and the advantages apply to all. Some of the most often mentioned advantages are:
- flexibility in scheduling (most of my online graduate students have been working full- or part-time)
- lower costs
- options for preferred learning spaces
- options to take courses from other campuses or institutions
- self-paced learning
- technology and other skills learned by being an online learner

Flexibilty includes MOOCs and other offerings that allow those seeking a degree, credit, a certificate or skills advancement to start a course immediately. Even traditional programs with a 16-week structure might also offer accelerated eight-week courses. This accelerated course should have the same academic requirements and only works well for learners with no significant work or family obligations. They are sometimes offered in "intersessions" between semesters when students may be taking only one or two courses.

Some terms that have become much more familiar this year in the online learning experience are asynchronous, synchronous, hybrid, and HyFlex. Asynchronous refers to a fully-online course that does not hold scheduled meetings and students complete work at convenient times but must still have assignment deadlines. Synchronous courses, like on-campus courses, have set meeting times where the instructor conduct classes using a video conferencing service. Hybrid courses offer a combination. A course might meet once a week synchronously (on-campus or online) and the rest of the time asynchronously online. A fully HyFlex course (AKA converged learning) offers the option of F2F attendance as well as a synchronous offering of that live class session and a recorded version that can be used asynchronously. 

Although most online courses run asynchronously in order to provide maximum scheduling flexibility, some also offer or require learners to participate synchronously at set times or meet with an instructor during virtual office hours. This year, I am seeing more schools offer the options of hybrid or HyFlex courses that combine online and F2F which can increase or decrease the flexibility of being fully online.

There can be cost advantages with taking online classes. The caveat to this is that in most of higher education, online learners pay the same per-credit tuition rate as on-campus learners. There are exceptions with MOOCs, certificates, and a few fully-online degree programs. An overlooked cost advantage is that the fully online student saves on not needing campus housing or meal plans and on commuting and parking costs.

Students can also save money by using cheaper digital textbooks. But the real saving there occurs when faculty embrace using Open Textbooks (generally available for free) and other open resources. I have found that faculty in designing online courses are much more likely to consider those resources than F2F instructors.

The learning space for the online student can be their dining room table, home office, work office during lunch, a local library, a coffee shop, or a park on a nice day. "Learning styles" may have fallen out of favor but clearly each of us have ways of learning and settings where we learn best. I write notes, drafts, and final versions directly on my laptop. My wife likes to spread out paper notes and references on a big table and work on her tablet.

One of the big attractions to MOOCs was that it allowed you to take courses from anywhere in the world. A student at a small community college could take a course in artificial intelligence offered by Stanford - an opportunity never available before. I took about a dozen free courses online back in 2012 when the MOOC was a hot topic even though I have no need or desire to acquire additional certifications or degrees. I took them from elite universities in the U.S. and beyond that I never had the opportunity to even consider for my own degrees.

Not having to be restricted by geographic location means attending an elite school or finding the best professor for a subject doesn't require relocating and possibly (in the MOOC option) not paying any tuition.

Anyone who has taught or learned online has probably discovered that they have learned technical skills that were not part of the formal course curriculum. Many of these skills will be needed in jobs, such as learning new software suites, doing research online, communicating by using discussion boards, and teleconferencing. 

The advantages of online learning are real. They are best appreciated when the instructor learner has made the choice to learn online. That was not the situation in March of this year, but hopefully, it has led schools, faculty, and students to learn by necessity how to learn more effectively in the online world.

Will education after 2020 be "forever changed"? I doubt it. The pandemic may have been a seismic event, but moving the tectonic plates of education is very difficult.

The MOOC Revival

online learner
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

I have been writing a lot about MOOCs since 2012. (Do I still need to explain that a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course?) That was (as dubbed by The New York Times) the “year of the MOOC.” 

This year, the Times was saying that though MOOCs were "near-death" the COVID-19 crisis has put them back into the "trending" category. Their article is headlined "Remember the MOOCs? After Near-Death, They’re Booming."

Though MOOCs existed prior to 2012, the emergence of online learning networks was something new. While many colleges initially viewed these free online courses as a threat to their tuition systems, within a year many of the most elite colleges began to offer them. It was more than "if you can't beat the, join them." Schools, faculty and students (often on their own) discovered the value of not only MOOCs but online learning in general.

The Times article is negative on the impact of that MOOC revolution saying that "the reality didn’t live up to the dizzying hype." I agree that the hype was truly hype. It was too much. My wife and I wrote a chapter for the book Macro-Level Learning through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Strategies and Predictions for the Future and we titled it "Evolution and Revolution." The title was not meant as a question. Much of the discussion in 2012 was about the revolutionary nature of MOOCs, but we viewed them through the lens of 2015 and saw them as more evolutionary.  

Fast forward to 2020 - the "year of the pandemic" - and we see schools from kindergarten to graduate schools forced to use online learning in some way. A revolution? No. Again, an evolution that should have started for schools a decade ago but clearly has not for many of them who fond themselves unprepared in march 2020 to go fully online.

MOOCs have changed. My many posts here have shown that the open part of mOoc has become far less open both in the ability to reuse the materials and in the no-cost aspect. Companies have been formed around offering MOOC-like courses, certificates and degrees. 

The biggest criticism of MOOCs was probably that most learners (not always traditional students) never completed the courses. Completion rates in free courses of about 10% certainly sounded like a failure. Making students pay even a small fee or offering credit improved that percentage but not enough to make observers feel the revolution had succeeded.

I never worried about the completion rates because my research and my own experiences teaching and as a learner in these courses made it clear than the majority of students in them never intended to complete all of the coursework. They were there to get what they wanted to learn and get out. They didn't need to take a freshman year of requirements and prerequisites or gain admission to Stanford in order to take a course on artificial intelligence from Stanford. 

Of course, as the Times article points out, MOOCs kept going without all the hype. They evolved, and in some ways so did online learning because of them. Platforms and for-profit companies emerged and certificates, fully online MOOCish degrees, and nanodegress were offered. 

With the spotlight off them, MOOCs were able to evolve into different species - free, for-profit, accredited, for lifelong learning, massive, small, skills training, corporate, for K-12, etc. 

Sheltering and working and learning from home has given another boost to that second "O" in moOc. The providers like Coursera have signed up 10 million new users since mid-March, and edX and Udacity have seen similar surges. And that doesn't even take into account the less-visible use of big (such as Khan Academy) and small grassroots use of these courses by teachers and students.

My wife and I are now writing a journal article for this fall about online learning as a solution for some crises in higher education. 2020 has definitely a time of both crisis and opportunity for online learning. I hope the hype doesn't return to the MOOC. It did not serve it well in the past.

If you have any thoughts on the current state of MOOCs and online learning, contact me.

Might Your Fall 2020 Courses Be HyFlex?

The HyFlex model is one that is being considered by schools for this fall semester. In this model, teachers teach simultaneously to students in their classroom and other students connect synchronously to the class. It can be labeled in other ways - hybrid, flex, blended - but all of them provide options for students who can’t come to class for health or logistical reasons. For this fall semester, this can also allow for socially distant classrooms because students can rotate through classroom spaces on alternating days.

At my university, NJIT, one model is called converged learning and offers a third option for students to view a class recording asynchronously later. By reducing the number of in-classroom students, they plan to use large spaces to socially distance students in courses that require face-to-face teaching, such as labs and studio courses. For a science and technology university, using physical spaces is essential for many courses.

Some faculty feel it will be very difficult to engage students in multiple locations. HyFlex also pushes faculty back to the "sage on the stage" lecture format that we have been trying to move away from the past two decades in order to increase engagement. many faculty at all grade levels still do not feel comfortable with the online technology even after the emergency switch over to it this past spring.

As an instructional designer, I feel that you need to design a course as a fully online one and consider the in-person portion (if it does occur this fall) as the enhancement. Don't expect the in-person portion to carry more than half of the teaching and learning.

Some things are better done in the classroom. Lecture probably isn't one of those things. Teachers and designers need to consider the differences based on the course, the space, and the instructor. In a FLEXible course, group might be best in-person or easier with more time put online. You wouldn't want to waste any lab or studio time lecturing.

In "Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms," Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, posted about using the technology. He suggests that you might forego classroom discussion and have students respond to questions using live polling and web conferencing platforms.

For any of the flex models to work, all the class materials, assignments, group work, and other activities need to be ina a learning-management system so that they can be accessed no matter where they are learning. Bruff thinks it's a misconception that flex courses require two versions of a course for the classroom and for online.

If you want to know more about HyFlex, look into Brian Beatty's open-source book, Hybrid-Flexible Course Design.  

Kevin Kelly wrote a guest post, "COVID-19 Planning for Fall 2020: A Closer Look at Hybrid-Flexible Course Design" with examples of how a HyFlex class session might work. 

Views and Reviews on the Elements of Good (Online) Courses

online learnerThe second half of the 2019-2020 school year was abnormal. It's hard to imagine a grade level where teaching and learning will return to what it was a year ago. The most obvious change has been around using online learning. This summer there have been many stories about schools K-20 making plans for this fall. Some of them announced that they will be primarily online. It's a hedge bet that the situation with COVID-19 will be improved and that there will be some classroom face time.

The three approaches schools have considered are 1) start the fall semester fully online  2) go back to "normal" physical classrooms with social distancing, masks and disinfecting 3) some hybrid of those two approaches.  

But schools also need to consider the "reviews" that are being made formally and informally about the online learning that happened in March through June 2020. Those reviews are coming formally by journalists and educators and informally by students and the parents of K-12 students.

K-12 parents have found themselves spending more time working with their children on schoolwork. That might make them appreciate how hard teachers work - or they might decide that online education is a waste of time. When you hear non-educators talk about the qualities of a good online course, they are often talking about the qualities of any good course.

College students' parents don't usually figure into the equation, but now I'm hearing parents say that they are reluctant to have their child go into a classroom and unwilling to pay $25-50,000 for an online curriculum. When parents are paying for school directly (rather than through taxes), they are more likely to feel they should have some control on how their money is being used.

Those qualities mentioned include:

  • The course is engaging and challenging.
  • It invites students to participate, motivates them to contribute and captures their interest and attention.
  • Open educational resources are prioritized over expensive textbooks
  • It is interactive - teacher to students and also student to student.
  • It is not just an information dump, but it does provide meaningful readings, lecture videos, and resources.
  • Students receive personalized feedback, support and guidance.
  • Students feel they are part of a learning community. 
  • It involves students in “doing” — not just watching, reading and writing papers.
  • And finally, this high-level combination of qualities - a course is informed by issues of equity and justice and takes into account social, political and cultural issues, including students’ backgrounds and socioeconomic circumstances.

Looking at that list nothing jumps out as being ONLINE. If you do break out the responses teachers, students and parents gave that are online-specific, they fall under two categories: the availability of the technology; the preparation to use the technology.

The Chronicle did an article titled "In Their Own Words: Here’s What Professors, Chairs, and Deans Learned From Remote Courses This Spring." They looked for words that were most often used in the responses to their survey. One keyword they found in their responses was "flexible." Here are 3 of those responses:

“Be extremely flexible. Don’t expect complete guidance from the administrators; make your best guess as to what is going to be. Most importantly: By adopting many online-learning concepts and best practices in advance, I was prepared to go online at a moment’s notice. This helped immensely.

“Flexibility was key in the transition. I chose to be more lenient with students than I am in a traditional classroom. If we stay online I will once again become more rigid, but I feel this semester was exceptional for everyone, and it was critical to be understanding.”

“You have to be willing to learn to teach virtually and have compassion and empathy with your students. Learn to be flexible and challenge your teaching skills. Covid-19 has changed how we will teach in the future.”

They also found - unsurprisingly - that faculty need a lot more support to teach online than expected.

“Many faculty have resisted true development in pedagogy, but that’s unavoidable now.”

“As a faculty, we should have been more proficient in distance education before the move to online. This was a wake-up call for all of our faculty that we did not make this a priority.”

“Some faculty were really unprepared to work with technology."

“I was very impressed that our faculty who already teach online were willing to step up and help their colleagues who were unfamiliar with this modality.”