Online Learning: The Next Evolution of Education

July 21, 2020

A Brief History of Online Education

Computers have been creeping into classrooms since the mid-1990s. Early education began by teaching students how to make queries in search engines and the basics of Microsoft applications. Next, students and educators began utilizing email as a means of communication and submission of materials. Later, digital course management platforms emerged, ushering in the first online classes.  

A Useful Tool or Unhelpful Distraction

While technology has become omnipresent across education institutions, it has always been viewed simply as a tool; something to be used when helpful and dismissed when seen as a distraction. Traditional educators have been very slow to incorporate technology into their classes, choosing instead to keep to traditional methods.

But then, some twenty years later,  a pandemic has swept across the world, forcing hundreds of millions to stay home. COVID-19 has forced educators to move their entire curriculum online, sometimes overnight. 

But such a hasty transition to online misses the real opportunity. When implemented correctly, online learning transforms the education experience to be more personalized, flexible, and engaging. At a moment when online learning has become essential, higher education institutions must adapt to the evolving needs of their students.

What Online Education is Not

Designing and implementing a high quality online learning experience is a significant time and financial commitment. Training faculty, collaborating with instructional designers, establishing the complex digital infrastructure, then phasing in student orientation is a long, complex process. Understandably, in the wake of COVID-19, institutions have not had the time or focus to design such an online education experience. “What we are talking about when we talk about online education is using digital technologies to transform the learning experience,” said Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. “That is not what is happening right now. What is happening now is we had eight days to put everything we do in class onto Zoom.” 

Students recognize that their quality of education has diminished since the COVID-19 crisis and have reported a dissatisfaction with their classes. More than 75 percent said they don’t think they’re receiving a quality learning experience, according to a survey of nearly 1,300 students by the online exam-prep provider OneClass. A poll by niche.com, which rates schools and colleges, found that only 15% of students find online classes as effective as in-person. 

The vast rates of dissatisfaction are undeniable and understandable. Institutions had to make quick, difficult decisions in the wake of an unprecedented crisis. But now there is an opportunity to right the course. It is possible not only to improve the quality of online learning, but also to open the door to an education system that is better than ever before.

Where the Real Power Lies 

To understand the true potential of online learning, it is best to reframe the internet not as computers interacting with one another, but as human minds interacting with one another through machines. A change in perspective allows educators to rethink everything they think they know about online learning and see its true power. Effective online learning:

  • Offers greater flexibility to students and teachers
  • Allows students to go at their own pace 
  • Fosters personalized learning 
  • Generates data used to continuously improve classes

It is the final point that is most powerful and yet least understood by professors. Each moment spent on an educational platform, each movement of the mouse, every word typed, offers a picture into the mind of the learner. When synthesised and analyzed, institutions can better understand not just what their students are learning but how they are learning. 

Conclusions can be drawn at the macro and micro levels. Classes can be continuously improved by monitoring such things like: time spent to complete assignments, questions students ask, course completion rates, time spent reading content, and even the pages they open during an exam to prevent cheating. All of this information is analyzed and offers opportunities to make continuous, measurable improvements. 

At the micro level, students can get independent feedback and personalized recommendations for supplementary content based on online behavior. Students can track their progress in each lesson of every class, year after year. This level of personalization would only be possible with personalized tutors, which can be very costly. When done properly, online learning offers students and teachers access to previously unimaginable insights.

Online Learning Done Right 

Having a teacher awkwardly speak into a camera during Zoom call is uncomfortable for everyone. It also misses the point of online learning. Instead of having static lectures, educators should create hands-on projects and student check-ins. Virginia Tech Musicology instructor, Elizabeth McLain, assigned each student a vocabulary word to teach to the class — by creating a 60-second TikTok video. Another example is to have a discussion board where the students are graded on their responses to one another. 

To be successful, professors need to stop talking and put themselves in the shoes of their students. This is difficult, as professors have spent their career in the driver's seat and have had the luxury of choosing what technology to incorporate into their classes. Faculty must ask themselves, “ ‘What part of what we just did can be substituted with technology and what part can be complemented by technology to transform higher education?’ ” said Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business

To the Fall Semester (and Beyond)! 

People and organizations resist new ideas until external shocks force them to change. As the world continues to change rapidly in the 21st century, it is time for new systems of education to emerge. Online learning has the potential to revolutionize education by providing personalized education capable of making continuous improvements. 

After experiencing an unprecedented crisis and a discombobulated response, higher education institutions can not only make necessary changes for the short term, but can be laying the path forward. But the question remains: have we learned our lessons? The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 57% of higher education institutions are planning for on-campus instruction in the fall 2020 semester, despite a continued increase in COVID-19 cases. Institutions that re-open as business as usual are almost certainly setting themselves up for yet another crisis filled semester. 

Our trusted institutions no longer have the luxury of waiting, then returning to business as usual. Those that seize this opportunity to evolve will be the institutions leading the 21st century. 

Written by
Jake Hannigan

Jake Hannigan is the Business Development Strategist for Van Allen Strategies. He has spent his career growing and developing start-ups in the education and technology industries.

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