Online learning has been around for more than 30 years, but recent excitement around Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has brought it fully into the public eye. In schools, online learning used to be a remedial alternative to classroom teaching, particularly where learners were geographically dispersed. But there is a growing belief that it might offer all students some distinct experiences that can prepare them for higher education.
There is a growing interest in the possibilities that different forms of virtual schooling can offer. This isn’t about whether online learning is better or worse than conventional teaching. As a 2009 US Department for Education report demonstrated, decades of research on “media effects” still shows no conclusive evidence that either approach leads to improved learning outcomes.
There is evidence that learners who study both online and in schools benefit because they spend additional time learning and are given tasks and materials not received by pupils studying face-to-face. It is not simply because of the medium of study.
Confident and organised
So what are the benefits? A study by the Institute of Education explored the experiences of current university students who had completed the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP). The IBDP includes online courses designed and delivered by Pamoja Education. There were 108 usable responses from students aged between 17 and 23, three-quarters of them women.
Students who had completed the online courses identified several benefits. Confidence with technology was one obvious advantage. Students who had studied online were familiar with technologies that formed an essential part of university life, such as virtual learning environments, discussion forums, Google tools, and audio-visual learning resources such as YouTube.
Of the students interviewed, 94% said finding academic resources on the internet was important to their success and 78% said being able to plan group tasks using online calendars, scheduling tools and discussion applications mattered. Another 71% found social networks useful for building relationships with other learners.
There were also cultural benefits. Online classes brought learners from other countries together: 36 countries were represented in the survey. Learners valued exposure to different perspectives on issues. One student described how this experience online had helped them develop valuable skills and approaches: “I often use Google Docs and other Google tools to collaborate on group projects, including working with teams that are in different locations and time zones.”
Perhaps most importantly, students who had studied online described how important it was that they could learn independently. They were less likely than their peers to rely on tutors for help and more likely to set goals based on their own performance rather other students’. They had also developed better strategies for managing and pacing their studies. One 21-year old student said:
Studying online is different from attending regular classes. You have to be self-motivated to study on your own and set your own deadlines. Personally, I learned a lot from taking an online course because it helped me prepare myself in terms of scheduling and allocating time to finish each of the subjects that I am currently taking.
Interviewees also explained that online learning brought its own challenges. The structure of the online IBPD courses includes access to support staff within schools, as well as their online tutors, creating a supportive environment for the students. The courses were taken alongside other conventionally taught courses, so that the unfamiliar experiences were part of a broader schooling experience, rather than an “all-or-nothing” alternative.
Challenges for teachers
Teachers interviewed as part of the study recognised the benefits and challenges that learners described. They also identified things that were less visible to learners, such as the way that postings in an online discussion forum meant that quieter learners were heard by tutors online in a way that doesn’t always happen in classrooms.
In the absence of traditional face-to-face communication, and recognising the diversity of their international students, the online teachers took care to ensure every step of the learning process was clear. They learnt to try and manage the levels of support each student received.
This is a stark contrast to the wider MOOC movement, in which there can often be little tutor engagement because courses are so massive. Retention is a major issue with this “sink-or-swim” MOOC model of student self-reliance.
I can’t imagine having an online classroom with 100 students because there’s simply not enough time in the day to do the kind of careful evaluation and feedback that is absolutely necessary to make the online environment work… If the teacher is not really focused and devoting a lot of time to the feedback process, it’s really easy for all but the most dedicated students to get lost.
Higher education is about more than passing exams: it involves taking responsibility and developing personal autonomy. Studying online alongside conventional school classes can provide a supportive rehearsal space where learners can develop their independence, giving them a head start when they progress to university.