What Future for Online Learning?

During the past year, I enrolled in a number of online courses including World History from 1300, The History and Future of Mainly Higher Education, Financial Markets and A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behaviour. These have helped to shape my views on the future of online learning, which, using current technology, is still in its early stages, although a form has previously existed. It is too early to know how it will turn out. The following are my impressions to-date about its future.

 

  • The beginnings of online learning occurred with correspondence courses, the Open University in the UK, and the publishing of textbooks.
  • Some who have delivered online courses see them as a substitute for text books. Students can watch the course in their own time, and attend classes conducted as discussion groups focused on the lecture content. Many lecturers already provide outlines of their lectures available as Power Point presentations, either before or after a live lecture.
  • Experimentation is taking place with various degrees of in-class and online lectures. Different disciplines and levels (undergraduate and graduate) lend themselves to different blends. The instructor and subject matter will make a difference to what does and does not work. Seminars and lab work require an in class presence.
  • Those who have given online courses say that the upfront (fixed) costs of producing the material are high. The cost of another student accessing the material (marginal cost) is negligible, and make these courses attractive to cash strapped institutions and those not wishing to raise fees. Fixed costs are likely to decline as experience is gained and software improved to facilitate presentations.
  • Those watching videos are used to the production values of first rate television programs such as Downton Abbey, a National Geographic Special or Jeopardy. Online lectures which do little more than put a camera in a classroom will be an ineffective teaching tool, regardless of the reputation of the instructor and the institution.
  • While the foregoing addresses mainly university teaching, online instruction is useful for education at all levels including schools, technical colleges, professional training and any skills which require updating as developments occur.
  • The issue of certification for online courses is always raised. For example, an online course given by a Yale professor may lead to a certificate if the student meets certain conditions. While it will not be equivalent to a Yale course credit (or degree), if the person receiving the credit gets a job, and after a probationary period appears to have the knowledge associated with the course content, the certificate will gain the recognition of having certain value which becomes known to employers. Experimentation is taking place to test different business models.
  • Richard Levin, an economist and President of Yale University for 20 years became the CEO of Coursera, one of the largest commercial companies offering MOOCs  (Massive Open Online Courses). Udacity and edX are two others, while the Kahn Academy offers course material for free. Universities and entrepreneurs are investing in these changes.
  • To-date, information technology (IT) has resulted in significant restructuring of industries, for example, television, film, newspaper, book and magazine publishing, (although less so for periodical publishing), finance, retail shopping, and manufacturing through the use of robots. As outlined above, IT is currently creating changes to the delivery of educational and training services. Quality content is now available worldwide wherever the internet and mobile phones are available. The current world population of 7bn is associated with 6.8bn mobile phones – eg. phones per 100 inhabitants by country, Italy 147, Brazil 137,Morocco 113, China 89, Canada 74, N.Korea 8.
  •  Cost implications for universities depend on the restructuring which occurs. Some universities offer only online courses, and thus save on buildings and salaries of support staff. Others offer a mix of online and on-campus courses, where there will be a mix of additional equipment to distribute online course material but savings on classrooms, offices, support staff and buildings. Ever since the introduction of portable computers, my observation is that faculty has spent less time in campus offices and more time working at home. Other industries no longer provide individual offices for their staff which use shared space. The same could occur in post-secondary institutions.
  •  Cost implications for students include more efficient use of their time, less travel time, easier to work at home and to collaborate with other students and faculty online. They can also mix study with work more easily.
  •  It is the case that taking courses online is not the same as getting the benefits of live interaction with other students and faculty, and use of the other facilities which a traditional university setting offers, such as a library, athletic facilities, clubs and cafeterias. In the same way that restaurants offer different facilities and menus, so post secondary institutions will offer different combinations of onsite and online facilities at different prices to the students and the taxpayers. The latter tend to fund a big chunk of university education in most countries.

 

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2 Responses to “What Future for Online Learning?”

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