The Challenges of Online Education

There’s a lot going on with online learning. Today, as an educator, I think most of us are either:

  • involved directly in online learning
  • work for an institution that uses online learning
  • grappling with how best to use online learning for our professional or personal needs

There really is no escaping it. Online learning – the good and the bad of it all – is here, and it’s not going anywhere. Recently, I was interviewed by MarketScale Education Technology about what I saw as the future of online learning for both higher education and in the business world. The full podcast is here. In this post, I want to highlight three important aspects about the current and future status of online learning and what we need to consider.

Online Classes Have to be Motivating and Engaging

Taking online classes, particularly in an asynchronous format, can be difficult for students. It requires a certain level of organization on their part, but it also requires them to be motivated and want to engage with the content, with you, and with their peers in a course. While it is important to think about what you teach and how you teach it, we also have to be mindful of creating communities. Students have to want to show up to the online space, and (ideally) we want them to be excited and look forward to doing so. This means we want them to be motivated to both contribute content as well as consume it. How do we make that happen?

  • Take time to build relationships with your students. You will have to go out of your way to do this because you cannot do it in person. You must make time to interact one-on-one with your students. This post on reaching out to students gives you one way to go about this.
  • Focus on the process of learning and less so on the grade. I know my view will not sit well with everyone, but I want my students to take risks and push themselves in my courses. This means that they will stumble, and yes, they will make mistakes (sometimes grand ones) and have failures. I do not want them to be penalized because they took a risk and it did not pan out. And really, do you? The last thing I want is someone playing it safe to get a good grade. These posts get at my view on the role of grades in courses and how we might rethink them in a way that truly supports learning. If you only read one, read this.
  • We have to push back against having students watching videos and simply sharing information. This is neither motivating or engaging. Classes have to be interactive. Experiences have to be connected to the lives of students.

Online Classes Have to Be High Quality

We can debate what counts as high quality. However, the fact of the matter is we have to constantly be pushing the boundaries of what online learning can be. We cannot be content to sit inside the walls of our LMS and design experiences based on whatever features those developers decided it could have. We have reached a point where we can create classes that are not bound to spaces. We can create experiences where students contribute to the professional knowledge base, where they can share resources with each other, and where their ideas, work, and questions can make a global impact.

We cannot continue to have classes where students write papers, turn them in, and get a grade only to move on to the next thing (and this goes for F2F classes by the way). Instead, we need to creating spaces where students are a part of the global conversation around their learning. There is a place for writing paper and communicating knowledge in multiple formats. But that information needs to be shared and discussed by a community that extends well beyond the class itself.

We have to design courses that systematically and regularly provide them with these opportunities. But in doing so we have to be mindful of the fact that students are not used to classes that offer these things. They will likely feel uncomfortable when school stops looking like school as they know it. They may push back out of fear or feeling vulnerable. Be ok with that and help them stay the course.

Related: The Campus LMS: Bound To The System

Higher Education Has Something To Offer

In our interview, we discussed how businesses are starting to implement their own in-house forms of online professional learning for their employees. There are multiple reasons for this. What I want to stress here is that we in higher education should embrace and support businesses that are doing this work. My area of concern here gets back to the quality. Are the classes being offered well done? What do the people who design them know about teaching? How interactive are these courses? Do they simply mimic how school has always looked or are they really pushing the boundaries of learning?

The issues that businesses face in having highly skilled employees are issues we can work on together. Universities – or people within them – can partner with businesses to figure out what this kind of learning can look like and how it can be supported beyond a traditional degree. Universities can only prepare students to do so much. No one with a Bachelor’s degree graduates as an expert in their field. Developing expertise takes time and continued learning. Those of us in higher education should be looking beyond our walls to see how we can help our community create continuing learning experiences in ways that are motivating, engaging, and collaborative.

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