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.

Should Teachers and Students Be Looping?

Infinite loop

 

Here's an idea from aasa.org:

"Imagine you had to begin each school year with a brand new staff.

Every year, every professional and every support specialist working in your school had begun his or her first year there. Every principal, teacher, custodian and food service worker wouldn’t know the routines, the curriculum or the procedures you expected them to follow.

There would be no building upon last year’s successes. In addition, the personalities of individual staff members and their impact on the culture of the school would be unknown to everyone as they started the year.

As an administrator, you wouldn’t anticipate high productivity until staff members learned what was expected of them and how to work together to benefit the students. For most administrators, the idea of 100 percent staff turnover is an unpleasant one to consider. Successful schools (and districts) depend on continuity of staff, curricula and programs from one year to the next in order to continually improve.

Some educators are discovering that this continuity on which schools rely also can work in the classroom. Instead of starting each school year with a completely new group of students, some teachers are staying with their students for a second year at the next grade level, a practice that is known as 'looping'."

Having been in classrooms for 45 years in secondary schools and also college, my first reaction would be to consider personalities. What about the teachers or students who don't work well together? Do you force them to endure another year together? Parents already have a lot of say in those decisions. This would cause more input from them. I had a year when I moved with my students from grade 8 to grade 9. there were advantages and disadvantages. But it's an interesting approach to consider.

Apps in Education 2011 to 2020

In 2011, I made presentations at several colleges about the use of mobile apps in education and teaching in an "app world." At that time, apps were a big topic in the tech world but not a big topic in education. That presentation (it is on my Slideshare site) included the slide below where education doesn't even appear as a category unless you consider it to be part of the 5% of "other" app consumption. Clearly, games and social networking dominated usage at that time and they both still garner a high percentage of app use.

app use chart

How we were using apps in 2011

Showing this slide to college faculty reinforced their idea that apps are not for education. Of course, in 2011 apps were also not for common banking and financial use, medical records, and other "serious" computing.

That has certainly changed. But has it changed for education?

Reviewing my own 2011 presentation predictions, I said that I thought apps would come to education in three waves: Adoption, Adaption, and Creation.

Adoption was schools and educators adopting existing apps that had some education features or were designed for education. The obvious one then and now was apps for learning management systems. Blackboard was the first I used but now Canvas and all the other players have them. Adoption was not immediate. The two colleges I worked at then both chose not to offer the mobile version. Faculty could not see how you could possibly take a course on your phone. But I had a graduate student that year who told me that she did her coursework for me on her phone in her free time while she was at her night job. We were using Moodle and she just resized the web pages. I couldn't see how that worked but I knew an app would have made it better.

The second wave was adaption - using apps not specifically designed for education in courses. That was being done by individual teachers as they discovered and bought into the app world. Adaption requires some pedagogical changes. Mobile devices still were not acceptable (even banned) in some classrooms in 2011. It was the rare faculty member who said "Take out your phone..." and asked students to use it for class. 

Now in this time of the pandemic, it is clear to schools, teachers, students, and parents how "educational" phones or tablets can be. Schools are supplying tablets the way we once supplied laptops. But even laptops are using apps. I'm sure app downloads are up in the past two months. App versions of Zoom and others have become common tools not only for educators but or personal use.

That move from personal to professional (business or education) use is critical to adoption or adaption/adaptation. As teachers started using their phones and apps more in their everyday screen time, the move to use them for teaching became easier.
 

apps in education

Something that made faculty fearful in 2011

Those 2011 audiences weren't sold on using apps in the first half of my presentation. They weren't using apps for themselves. Some did not have a smartphone. But they were hearing "There's an app for that" from friends, colleagues their students and on television commercials. They knew it was coming.

I caught their interest when I shifted to talking about why - even though I was an app evangelist - apps are NOT online courses or would virtual schools in the near future. (I find that educators generally like the status quo.) There was an article I pointed to that was headlined “My Teacher Is An App.” A provocative headline but the article did follow my point that things were changing but we wouldn't be there for quite a while.

The article said “In a radical rethinking of what it means to go to school, states and districts nationwide are launching online public schools that let students from kindergarten to 12th grade take some—or all—of their classes from their bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens. Other states and districts are bringing students into brick-and-mortar schools for instruction that is largely computer-based and self-directed.”

That was not common in 2011 and still wasn't common in 2019 - but it is a lot closer to being true in the spring of 2020.

I wondered then if apps would be driving curriculum or would curriculum be driving app development. I'm pleased that the latter seems to be generally the case now.

I asked the audience if they believed that this reliance on smartphones and apps will "produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it because they will not practice their memory. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many Socrates on the things without instruction and written word, will, therefore, seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with since they are not wise but only appear wise.”

Those in the audience who did agree were right in line with Socrates in 340 BC since those were his words on his belief about the dangers of the written word. Socrates was wrong about the adoption of the written word into education.

My third wave was just beginning to form in 2011. That was colleges creating their own apps. I had a few examples of colleges adopting and adapting things like parking and events using commercial apps and GPS to navigate campuses or scheduling apps for campus calendars, courses, or facilities scheduling.

But do schools need to create their own apps or just purchase commercial ones that can be branded? I looked back to the development of school websites as an example. Initially, most schools bought a package or a vendor but along the way many schools took it on as an in-house operation, perhaps using some commercial products - a combination of creation and adaptation. 

In 2011, may school websites weren't even dynamic enough ready for viewing on phones or tablets. But schools were creating their own apps and courses about how to develop apps were becoming a hot topic.

In 2020, there are plenty of no-code tools for app development (Airtable, Bubble, Zapier, Coda, Webflow) so that it doesn't take a wizard developer to make a fully functioning app. 

If you are a teacher or student at any level K-20, the chances are excellent that you are using apps in your courses and on your campus.