Online learning – prodigy or problem child

Nieuws | de redactie
2 mei 2012 | 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 andbarriers to their adoption. 25 senior administrators from U.S.universities were interviewed on behalf of Ithaka S+R, a nonprofitorganization supported by the Bill & Melinda GatesFoundation.

Boom of online education within 3-5 years

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

To realize the online education vision, the Ithaka reportemphasizes “1. the need for open, shared data on student learningand performance that are created through Interactive learningonline (ILO); and 2. the need for investment in the creation ofsustainable and customizable platforms for delivering interactiveonline learning instruction.”

As of now, online education is a promising, but uncommonphenomenon. “Full implementation of sophisticated ILO systems whereinstruction is either exclusively or largely machine-guided remainsquite rare.” The authors still predict that “a wide variety of suchsystems, of varying quality and sophistication, will proliferate inthe next three to five years.”

Better teaching motive only secondary

This may have significant consequences for higher education. “Webelieve that [ILO] technology will bring about fundamental reformin how teachers teach and learners learn in years to come. Whetherthese reforms also significantly lower the cost of educationremains an open question.”

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

This financial motive behind online education becomes quiteapparent in the interviews the authors conducted. The aim toimprove study success is only secondary. “Aside from a fewinstitutions’ references to improvements in retention or passrates, most interviewees did not explicitly mention a desire forbetter learning outcomes as a main factor behind their decisions toincrease 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 isrealized outside of the classroom. Secondly, intellectual propertyrights were quoted by interviewees as prime worry. “Faculty areextremely reluctant to teach courses that they do not ‘own’. Thefamiliar textbook model in which faculty authors retain copyrightdoes not always translate well for online courses developed withinstitutional support that may run into the hundreds of thousandsof dollars.”

To really take off, digital learning environments needed greatercustomization possibilities. Teachers have the desire to “brandcourses as their own… To date, no sustainable platform exists thatallows interested faculty either to create a fully interactive,machine-guided learning environment or to customize a course thathas been created by someone else (and thus claim it as their own).This is perhaps the largest obstacle to widespread adoption ofILO-style courses.”

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


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