What does quality online education look like?

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Online education has been stuck in the “eLearning” paradigm since it came about in the late 80’s.

Now 30 years on, we’ve seen online technologies grow from websites and message boards, to wikis and blogs, and then evolve into AI-driven social media.

However, the big game changer over the last 30 years has been technologies which have changed the way we interact socially and form communities – connecting people locally, or globally with the same ease.

While social media platforms now govern our everyday interactions in all social spheres (i.e. organising get-togethers on Facebook, participating in global conversations on Twitter, or using LinkedIn for everyday business networking), online education seems to have fallen behind.

If you’ve enrolled in any online learning program, there’s a very high likelihood that you’ll find the same formula that’s been recycled for the last decade: content to download (readings, lecture slides), “eAssessments” (a multiple choice quiz or “multimedia” exercises), and a discussion forum rather reminiscent of 90’s bulletin boards.

The lucky ones will have videos, of varying quality – but it would probably be wise to look for something more useful on the topic by searching YouTube.

So what does quality online education look like? Below are three points to consider when constructing effective learning design for online education.

Constructive experiences vs. passive experiences

A problem with current eLearning frameworks is how it frames the experience for the potential learner. The typical learning experience for an individual is instructor-led, and more in line with training rather than encouraging the exploration of ideas, and self-directed learning.

Below is a list of activities educators might include in a course delivery and the key set of patterns which describe these kinds of learning experiences.

  • Passive experiences. This is the bread-and-butter of most online courses. They are very content-heavy and rely on PDF documents to read, videos to watch, or recordings to listen to.
  • Note-taking, or annotation. This is a very common way to serve passive content in an attempt to make it just slightly more active and involved.
  • Correction. Quizzes come in many forms, perhaps dressed up as crosswords or multiple-choice questions have been engineered over the ages. The common factor is that correctness has been predetermined for you, that information has been withheld, and you need to get that correct answer.
  • Instructional pathways. This includes step-by-step tutorials, didactic sets of commands or instructions, and more recently software that allows these pathways to be more adaptive to the actions of a learner.
  • Constructive experiences. Hands-on experiences, where a learner has the opportunity to be creative, construct new knowledge, or apply new knowledge by being constructive.
  • Interactive social experiences. Interaction with peers, sharing work, ideas, and perspectives, and learning by teaching each others.

Each of these activities falls somewhere on the spectrum between constructive and passive learning.

At the heart of it, a successful online course is one which fundamentally transforms the learner. This is not just a package of content and assignments, but a well-designed journey of transformative experiences that foster a deep understanding.

Along this journey, a learner will practice self-expression and apply knowledge in personal ways, building learning connections with others, and engaging in authentic discussions and collaborations with peers.

Ideally, learners will share their discoveries, reflections, and inspire one another to make the learning process a personal one, and to develop an accountability and responsibility to one another, rather than to an authoritative figure.

In this situation, the role for the subject matter expert is a leader in this community, to reinforce concepts, ideas, and values – not to dictate them.

This article was originally published in The Educator Online, Australia on October  24, 2018 under the headline, “What does quality online education look like?”

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