By Kaitlyn May Clancy
Online learning (often referred to as ‘e-learning’) is rapidly growing in popularity. In Ontario alone there are more than 760 online programs provided by recognized colleges and universities, constituting 15% of all courses offered (Bates, 2011). E-learning’s growing popularity is in large part due to its convenience, accessibility, flexibility, and self-directed structure. Despite these benefits, e-learning is relatively new, and there are a number of issues with this new medium of learning. In my post I will briefly explore three of these problems.
Problem #1: Quality Concerns
How is quality controlled? Does a degree obtained from online classes hold the same value as one earned from ‘traditional’ (face-to-face) classes? Are online learners held to the same academic standards? Quality concerns include issues of academic ownership, plagiarism, and standards of assessment and evaluation.
But what can be done to improve quality?
Instructors need to make use of the technology available to them (Valentine, 2002). A big benefit to online classes is the plethora of resources available via the World Wide Web. Training facilitators how to effectively make use of the technology should be a top priority.
Furthermore, the trend toward hiring part-time contract professors needs to stop. I understand that institutions can save money by hiring part-time contract faculty, but what impact does this have on the morale of those hired (Woolsey, 2012)? How willing are they to put their own material online, only to become the property of the university? Professors need to feel valued, which is difficult when their security is constantly being threatened.
Check out the following link for a detailed guide on ensuring quality in online courses: http://www.contactnorth.ca/sites/default/files/tips-tools/A%20Guide%20to%20Quality%20in%20Online%20Learning.pdf
A few highlights from the guide include: ensuring online policies are aligned with institutional policies, establishing a committee or office to monitor quality, and ensuring that adequate resources and funding are provided for online programs.
Problem #2: Limited Social Interaction
Years after you graduate from university, what will you remember about your experience? For many people, it’s not the hours spent cramming for tests, but rather the time spent interacting with peers and faculty on campus. Group study sessions, lunch meetings, sporting activities, and other campus events, are a large part of the university experience. Although students in online classes have the opportunity to interact with classmates via discussion groups and virtual chats, the independent nature of online classes can be isolating. The absence of face-to-face interactions makes it difficult to develop relationships with other students and faculty (Kumar, 2010).
So, is there a solution?
Not entirely, but there are ways to strengthen social relationships in online courses. The facilitator has an important role in student relationships because they decide the amount of interaction. Bangert (2004) recommends that instructors encourage student-faculty contact as much as possible. This might include measures such as offering virtual office hours, or providing weekly feedback in the form of personalized messages to assess progress or address concerns. Students should also be encouraged to collaborate with classmates, which can be accomplished through group projects and discussion forums. Also consider the option of holding one or two face-to-face classes over the term.
Problem #3: 24/7 Access
Online learning gives users access 24/7 access. This sounds great, right? Wrong. In theory, the idea of being always ‘connected’ (via ‘smart’ technology), sounds appealing (Woolsey, 2013). But, at what point does this constant access become intrusive? How do you quantify the amount of time spent on tasks ‘online’ when you’re never really ‘offline’? Many students enrol in online courses under the mistaken assumption that they are less of a time commitment, which is often not the case. For facilitators, working in a ‘virtual workplace’ can be even more consuming because of expectations to be accessible at all hours of the day (Woolsey, 2013).
How can the problem of over-accessibility be solved?
One option is to limit the number of hours spent online – for both students and instructors. Students are often given a ‘minimum’ number of hours/modules that must be met, but how about a maximum? Another option is to synchronize the class and require students to be online at specified times.
The demand for online courses is growing rapidly, as more and more students are forgoing a traditional classroom for a virtual one. And while online classes may be appealing (more flexibility, independence, etc.), it is important that post-secondary institutions address concerns of quality, interactivity, and over-accessibility, among others. What are your thoughts on the future of online learning?
Bangert, A. (2004). The seven principles of good practice: A framework for evaluating on-line teaching. Internet and Higher Education, 7, 217-232.
Bates, T. (2011). Hard data on online learning in Ontario. Online Learning and Distance Education Resources. Retrieved from http://www.tonybates.ca/2011/02/26/hard-data-on-online-learning-in-ontario/
Kumar, D. (2010). Pros and cons of online education. NC State University IES. Retrieved from http://www.ies.ncsu.edu/successes/research-and-white-papers/pros-and-cons-of-online-education
Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty & Instructors. (2013). A guide to quality in online learning. Retrieved from http://www.contactnorth.ca/sites/default/files/tips-tools/A%20Guide%20to%20Quality%20in%20Online%20Learning.pdf
Valentine, D. (2002). Distance learning: Promises, problems, and possibilities. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 5(3). Retrieved from http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/browsearticles.php
Woolsey, S. (2013). Quality and sustainability: Concerns for online course offerings in institutions of higher education. In Kompf, M., & Denicolo, P. (Eds.), Critical Issues in Higher Education, (237-252). Rotterdam, AN: Senese Publishe