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.

MOOCs at the End of 2019

A recent email update from Class Central as they put together their report for 2019 brought some MOOC news.

"MOOCs are as big in China as they are in the rest of the world combined. According to China’s Ministry of Education, there are around 270 million MOOC learners in China (this number is hard to verify) and about 20 MOOC providers offering 15,000 courses."

They compiled a list of Chinese-language MOOC providers

China MOOCsOther MOOC news at year's end:

edX has a new co-CEOAdam Medros, who will lead the company alongside the founder and CEO Anant Agarwal.

Udacity continues to tweak their pricing,

FutureLearn crosses the10 million learners mark

Coursera courses now start every day.

The Online Learning Perfect Storm

online learnerAwhile back, edX CEO Anant Agarwal wrote in Forbes "How Four Technologies Created The 'Perfect Storm' For Online Learning." The four technologies are cloud computing, video distribution at scale, gamification, and social networking. A commentary by Stephen Downes doesn't question the impact these four have had on online learning, but he does question Agarwal's claim that each is a part of edX.

For example, he notes that the claim that "social networking" is present is because it uses a discussion board. That is certainly a stretch. For gamification he cites "simulation-based games, virtual labs, and other interactive assignments," none of which is integral to edX.

Downes considers the article "lightweight" but though there may not be a perfect storm it is worth noting the impact of those four things beyond edX.

Cloud computing has allowed exponential scalability in many sectors including online learning. Online learning platforms (Does anyone say learning management systems anymore?) became more responsive and faster.

Scalability was certainly key to the emergence of MOOCs. When some colleges tried their own MOOC offerings they realized that they couldn't handle the jump from courses with 25 or 100 students to ones with thousands of students. Of curse, even if you are still offering smaller online courses, the cloud allows all students to benefit from faster, more responsive platforms.

Video has been a part of online learning for 40 years if you go back to ITV, videotapes, CDs and DVDs. Broadbandallowed video to stream and sharing and distribution really hit about the same time as MOOCs were starting to gain initial momentum. YouTube and Vimeo allowed some smaller institutions a way to distribute high-quality videos.

When I was at NJIT, I got the university to sign on in 2007 as one of the first of 16 universities to use Apple's iTunes U. That gave us a much larger presence in online learning. I wrote about it extensively on this blog. But iTunes U didn't grab the market share the way MOOCs and YouTube did. The interface was not friendly to universities or to users. You don't hear it mentioned much by educators now and I doubt that it will exist in 2020.

iTunes U was important for sharing university lectures and some supporting documents. It was more open than what we would expect from Apple because the content was opened up by the institutions (colleges and also educational institutions like museums). I consider it an early tool in the MOOC movement. 

Gamification has been a buzzword for a long time, but it still hasn't made its way into most learning platforms by for-profits or in colleges. There's no doubt that instant feedback and more active engagement in the learning process produces better success, but I find faculty still back off at the word gamification. Some of that fear or disdain is because they associate it with videogames and gaming sounds less "educational." This is a misconception, but one that has persisted. I always used to say that just say "simulation" instead of gamification and you'll get more buy-in from faculty. Sometimes that worked.

Simulations that use game strategies and components can be used in virtual labs and many interactive activities, knowledge checks (graded or not) and assignments in order to promote higher-order thinking tasks such as design, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. The "fun factor" shouldn't be ignored although that is part of the hesitation from faculty. There is this sadly persistent idea that learning is supposed to be difficult and not fun.

Social networking came on strong in the era of Web 2.0. Today it comes in for a lot of criticism. I believe that many educators who were using Twitter, Facebook and other social sites in their teaching have backed away. part of that is the criticism and privacy issues on such sites and part of it is that there are some tools built into platforms that allow for a more private social experience. However, posting your thoughts in an LMS for the rest of the class really doesn't duplicate or approach the experience of posting it online for a large part of the world. Twitter boasts 330 million monthly active users (as of 2019 Q1) and 40 percent (134 million) use the service on a daily basis (Twitter, 2019).    The chance to interact and possibly collaborate across the globe is no small thing.

What will create the next perfect storm in online learning? Agarwal suggests that the next four high-impact technologies will be AI, big data analytics, AR/VR and robotics.

Transitions Are Difficult

transitionIf you read the annual Bill and Melinda Gates letter, it includes 9 trends it considers surprising. One that affects educators is the idea that "Textbooks are becoming obsolete." By that, they mean that digital content that is customized and personalized learning can better support students than a traditional textbook. 

The promise here is text online connected to engaging video along with perhaps a game that reinforces the concepts. Your learning is assessed and the software moves you forward appropriately or perhaps sends you back for more review. of the content you seem to have missed. 

We have been told that this kind of learning transition was going to happen - and it has happened,several times. We were told that the printed book would be replaced by ebooks. Some were replaced; most were not.

There has been a lot of talk about replacing the lecture with short video lectures that don't "lecture." That is somewhat the case in online courses, but the lecture in the classroom is still running strong.  

Even bigger than textbooks and lecture is the idea that online learning would replace classroom learning. Add to that the idea that MOOCs would replace online courses and even make degrees obsolete. Hasn't happened yet.

Transitions are difficult. Maintaining the status quo is so much easier. 

Maybe if I was still around in 2050, I would find that learning happens without printed books, without lectures, without classrooms and without degrees. But I doubt it.

Online Learning Is Not All in English

globeAmericans are rather well known for being American-centric. President Trump's "America First" speeches make that clear. Despite what Copernicus pointed out, we tend to think we are the center of the universe. This also tends to be true when it comes to MOOCs.

MOOCs from outside the United States don't get the same amount of attention as ones from within. I started a group on LinkedIn back in 2012 when I was offering a meta-MOOC on their rising use in academia. That group over the years has been much more international and broadened the discussions to online learning in general. 

Of course, even an American MOOC taught from Stanford is international in its participants. I try to take note of international courses and efforts.

Globally about 75% of all MOOCs are offered in English. Translating MOOCs taught in English to other languages can increase participant enrollment and disperse course knowledge to non-English language learners. However, it takes a significant amount of time and resources to translate text from English into another language, and then manually replace the translated text in the targeted language.

"China's higher education is facing problems, such as traditional teaching approaches, content and the quality of teachers not meeting student demand in the new era," said Zhan Dechen, a professor at Harbin Institute of Technology. Could MOOCs could be a solution to those problems? More MOOCs in China creates its own set of challenges.

The Online Education Development Office (OEDO) in Japan has trained teaching assistants who support faculty members in all aspects of Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and Small Private Online Course (SPOC) planning, production and course running as well as assistance with copyright issues. They offer a MOOC Development Toolkit which include Microsoft Excel and Python scripts to speed up the translation process in Open edX Studio. OEDO developed a Content Modification Tool that replaces English text with translated Japanese text in a localized version of Stanford University's MOOC on “Creating Effective Online and Blended Courses”, for Japanese faculty/staff development.course development in edX Studio.   

Still, that 75% of MOOCs in English have international appeal, translated or not. Google launched a MOOC to train entry-Level IT Support Staffers. It was intended for use with Americans. Before Google created its certificate program through Coursera, Google training programs designed to help low-income young adults get into the information technology industry by learning the fundamentals of tech support were being offered. Through its work with a relatively small number of learners who participated in Google internships or an IT residency program, the company discovered it could get them qualified very quickly. This is the type of course that if it was a truly MOpenOC, and translated, it could be offered for a much more global audience.