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  • Online learning - prodigy or problem child

    - Following the rise of ICT and social media innovation the potential of online education appears large, both for educators and companies. U.S. researchers predict its massive proliferation within 3-5 years. What obstacles does online learning face? What benefits does it bring for students and universities?

    A group of American researchers created a report on online learning environments and barriers to their adoption. 25 senior administrators from U.S. universities were interviewed on behalf of Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit organization supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

    Boom of online education within 3-5 years

    Following massive innovation in ICT and social media, online education has recently gained momentum. India, for instance, attempts to widen access to universities by bringing classrooms online. Major companies like Google and Apple have picked up on this trend too trying to realize the financial potential of digital education. Meanwhile, European stakeholders like Anka Mulder from OpenCourseWare openly advocate this idea as a response to budget cuts.

    To realize the online education vision, the Ithaka report emphasizes "1. the need for open, shared data on student learning and performance that are created through Interactive learning online (ILO); and 2. the need for investment in the creation of sustainable and customizable platforms for delivering interactive online learning instruction."

    As of now, online education is a promising, but uncommon phenomenon. "Full implementation of sophisticated ILO systems where instruction is either exclusively or largely machine-guided remains quite rare." The authors still predict that "a wide variety of such systems, of varying quality and sophistication, will proliferate in the next three to five years."

    Better teaching motive only secondary

    This may have significant consequences for higher education. "We believe that [ILO] technology will bring about fundamental reform in how teachers teach and learners learn in years to come. Whether these reforms also significantly lower the cost of education remains an open question."

    Significant cost savings could be achieved by employing smart online education instead of teaching inside classrooms and labs. Yet, the authors question whether universities will be willing to pass through these savings to the consumer of education: the students. In the report it states that "Very few are using either savings from online education or the net incremental revenue [from teaching more students] to reduce the price of education to students."

    This financial motive behind online education becomes quite apparent in the interviews the authors conducted. The aim to improve study success is only secondary. "Aside from a few institutions' references to improvements in retention or pass rates, most interviewees did not explicitly mention a desire for better learning outcomes as a main factor behind their decisions to increase their online offerings."

    Teachers struggle to make it their own

    Obstacles to online education are mostly twofold. Firstly, lecturers fear becoming superfluous as more and more education is realized outside of the classroom. Secondly, intellectual property rights were quoted by interviewees as prime worry. "Faculty are extremely reluctant to teach courses that they do not 'own'. The familiar textbook model in which faculty authors retain copyright does not always translate well for online courses developed with institutional support that may run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars."

    To really take off, digital learning environments needed greater customization possibilities. Teachers have the desire to "brand courses as their own… To date, no sustainable platform exists that allows interested faculty either to create a fully interactive, machine-guided learning environment or to customize a course that has been created by someone else (and thus claim it as their own). This is perhaps the largest obstacle to widespread adoption of ILO-style courses."

    Would you like to learn more about how new ways of teaching can foster excellence? Roosevelt Academy is organizing a summer workshop on teaching excellence together with Harvard University's Derek Bok Center. Sign up here till the 8th of May!