For at least some people, the idea of online learning is still cause for alarm. On the more moderate end of the spectrum are those people who assume that virtual classrooms—and more generally, all distributed forms of learning—hold the potential to augment but never truly replace face-to-face forms of instruction. On the more extreme end of the spectrum are those people who see the move to online learning, in both the education and training sectors, as a sure sign that the “death of education” and the “commodification of knowledge” are already upon us. Take, for example, the following grim assessment of online learning by Dr. Wendy Brown, a Professor of Politics at UC Berkeley:
Our era is so quick to reduce everything to bits of consumer value that it is no surprise university educations have succumbed to this way of thinking. But what is sacrificed when classrooms disappear, the place where good teachers do not merely “deliver content” to students but wake them up, throw them on their feet and pull the chair away? Where ideas can become intoxicating, where an instructor’s ardor for a subject or a dimension of the world can be contagious? Where scientific, literary, ethical or political passions are ignited?…As is well known, no matter how “high touch” it is, on-line education inherently isolates and insulates students, deprives instruction of personality, mood and spontaneity, sustained contact, and leaves undeveloped students’ oral skills and literacy. Countless studies reveal that on-line courses necessarily dumb down and slow down curriculums. They reduce as well the critical, reflective and reflexive moments of learning, moments of developing thoughtfulness, navigating strangeness and newness, and of being transformed by what one learns.
If it is worth citing Dr. Brown at length here, it is because her stance is by no means an isolated one. Many educators, especially at the university level, and even some training professionals share Brown’s position, clinging to the conviction that face-to-face forms of instruction carried out in traditional classrooms by definition represent a higher quality form of instruction. But do they? Is Brown’s conclusion that online courses necessarily “dumb down” content and reduce moments of critical, reflective and reflexive learning actually true?
Evidence that Online Learning Enhances Instructional Activities
While it may be the case that some forms of distributed learning are less engaging or rigorous than traditional forms of face-to-face instruction, a growing body of evidence suggests that there is no reason to automatically assume that the adoption of a learning management system necessarily reduces the quality of instruction. Indeed, many studies now suggest that a learning management system can lead to higher quality instruction while simultaneously bringing instructional opportunities to hitherto neglected or under serviced populations.
In 2010, the US Department of Education published, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. The systematic review of more than one thousand empirical studies on online learning discovered that while early studies found few differences between classroom and what was at the time called “distant learning” environments, recent advances have radically changed distributed learning and for the better. A key finding of the study is that students who took all or part of a course online on average performed better than students who took the same course on campus. The study also found that students engaged in collaborative online learning courses were especially likely to benefit from online instruction.
A 2012 Pew Research Center Study on online learning, The Future Impact of the Internet on Higher Education, also suggests that there is little reason to conclude that online learning is necessarily less effective than face-to-face learning. The study further emphasizes, however, that in many respects, higher education in particular continues to lag behind in preparing students for the future. Some observers cited in the study suggest that much of what students learn while in university is irrelevant by the time they graduate and that moving forward, “lifelong learning” will become increasingly important—perhaps, as important as one’s formal college education. Implied in the observation, of course, is the fact that training, while once something designed to augment one’s formal education, will gain import over the coming decades.
Assumptions and Realities about Online Learning
Assumption: Online courses are less responsive to learners’ needs.
Reality: Unlike face-to-face classrooms, especially large lectures, learning management systems have the ability to acquire and respond to student feedback throughout a course. This means that online instruction is often far more responsive to student needs than instruction delivered in a traditional classroom setting.
Assumption: Online courses are guided by financial, staffing and/or time constraints not learning outcomes.
Reality: While it is true that online courses can typically be delivered for much less than face-to-face courses, it is not the case that financial, staffing and time constraints are the only thing guiding online instructional models. In fact, because courses must be carefully designed in advance, more rather than less attention is frequently paid to course design and to ensuring that all course learning outcomes are being met. After all, while one might “wing it” in a classroom situation (preparing materials at the last minute), there is no “winging it” in the context of an online course–advanced planning becomes increasingly important and necessary in this context.
Assumption: Online courses are isolating and reduce student interaction.
Reality: Anyone who has sat in a large lecture class or even participated in an on-campus seminar will know that face-to-face instruction is not necessarily interactive. Indeed, many classrooms, even seminars, are dominated by only a few voices—namely that of the professor and those students who feel compelled to speak up often. The best learning management systems represent a radical democratization of classroom spaces and lead to more rather than less student interaction. Indeed, students often find their online courses less isolating than their experiences in physical classrooms. For shy students and students who may not be as comfortable speaking in public for other reasons (e.g., students working in a second or subsequent language), the benefits of asynchronous discussion formats are especially significant.
Assumption: Online courses restrict who can access instructional opportunities, reducing instructional opportunities for less privileged learners.
Reality: While “digital divide” arguments were once compelling, over the past decade, a growing number of Americans and people around the world who did not have access to the Internet because they did not have a home computer or Internet connection are now online due to the spread of mobile technologies (cell phones and tablets). While there is still work to be done in some rural and remote communities, with few exceptions, online instructional opportunities are now more rather than less accessible.
Does One’s Choice of Learning Platform Determine Instructional Quality?
There is strong evidence to support the fact that opting for an online rather than face-to-face learning platform (a traditional classroom) does not necessarily lower instructional quality. Indeed, there’s strong evidence to conclude that by adopting an effective learning management system, one can in fact enhance the instructional experience, support more collaborative forms of learning, increase the frequency and effectiveness of evaluation, and reach learners who may have previously been left behind. That said, not all learning management platforms are built alike. When choosing a learning management system to support your instructional needs, it is important to consider whether the platform features:
- A flexible design: The LMS can be easily modified to meet specific learning outcomes.
- Student-driven options: Can be used by learners in many environments and on their own time.
- The ability to track student progress/collect feedback: Can be used to track learner progress (e.g., completion rates and success rates) and gain real-time feedback from students on what is and is not working about the course.
- Built-in resources: Is connected to other resources and links learners to the wider world of learning.
Back in the 1960s, media studies scholar Marshall McLuhan observed, “Our entire educational system is reactionary, oriented to past values and past technologies, and will likely continue so until the old generation relinquishes power.” While his comments may sound extreme, his observation may still remain relevant today—in many respects, education, at least in some contexts, lags behind the times, reflecting older values and ways of doing things. Unfortunately, assuming that tradition is always and necessarily better can prevent one from realizing the benefits of new systems, models and platforms. In the case of instructional design, there’s strong reason to believe that online learning and mobile learning, when delivered with the right choice of learning management system, enhances instructional experiences in ways previously unimaginable.