13 July, 2016
Many recent conversations in the online learning industry have revolved around what seems like an overnight shift in the overall acceptance of online education. Years were spent, decades even, swimming against the traditional education stream – risking possible career suicide and enduring disapproval from academic peers – advocating the benefits of online learning.
Online learning is not perfect. It will not cure all that ails the higher education system. But it does offer new possibilities and comes in various formats – not only widely available in formal and informal ways, but also provided by prestigious schools such as Harvard and MIT. Once just the work of for-profit institutions and continuing education programs concentrates on offering online professional development options, online learning has expanded quickly to include full programs from certificate to doctorate.
The events leading up to overnight success have been ongoing for many years, taking off in the late 80s and early 90s with the first truly web-based courses and degree programs. Several more recent trends and technological innovations have had a combined impact that propelled the industry into the mainstream in the past year:
Course Delivery: Blended learning and flipped classrooms integrate both online and face-to-face interaction, motivating effective use of time and resources. And mobile learning takes the convenience of online learning to a new level with apps and devices that go with us anywhere and everywhere.
Pedagogical Strategies: The popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and use of gamification methods challenge how we define and structure the learning process. Both approaches encourage a greater level of collaboration among learners, as well as present various strategies for learner motivation.
Team Approach: The days of individual instructors creating their own individual courses are not over, but online education is embracing new ways to make course and program development a team process. From in-house instructional design units and partnerships across universities to collaboration with technology vendors and education start-ups, robust online learning environments often need expertise in a wide range of areas.
So it goes, in education as it is in many areas of our personal and professional lives – technology is no longer a separate entity to be picked up and put down. It’s instead more integrated in all that we do, helping us in many ways including our educational pursuits. This is not all that surprising when you consider a new report from Forrester Research finding that 84% of adults in the United States use the Internet everyday, 50% own smartphones, and 19% own tablet computers, a number that has doubled in just the past year.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR ONLINE STUDENTS?
The learners themselves are perhaps those best positioned to take advantage of the new level of acceptance of online learning. A greater number of courses from various institutions and educational providers means more choices. This may make the decision-making process more complex, but could also result in better chances all around as schools work to attract students to high quality programs.
The growing acceptance of online programs in the education industry may also be shown in the growing acceptance by employers, many of whom are also turning to online learning to fulfill professional development and corporate training needs.
There’s still a long way to go, and with no real end point in sight as the tools and techniques rapidly evolve, taking us in new and sometimes unexpected directions. If we continue to learn from each new initiative and implementation, online learning environments and the experiences of the students navigating them only stands to improve.