Three Problems that E-Learning Needs to Solve

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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.

Final Thoughts

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?

References

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

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5 thoughts on “Three Problems that E-Learning Needs to Solve

  1. Hi Kaitlyn! Thanks so much for the great read. I think you brought some thought-provoking arguments to the table. To begin, how quality is controlled in e-learning is a good question to ask, and one that I also struggle with. I think it is because I struggle with understanding what quality education is in the first place. I wonder if it depends on the students’ preferences, and quality is defined as learning that is meeting their needs and pushing their limits? The website link for the Guide to Quality in Online Learning (which was very informative) touches on the students’ perspective as well as accountability of the professors. Online education is explained as a different and sometimes more beneficial learning experience, and one that is not meant to replicate what occurs in a traditional classroom (Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty & Instructors, 2013). Therefore I would agree with you in saying that the training and valuing of facilitators is extremely important to help improve quality and instructor effectiveness, since what may work in a classroom may fail miserably in an online learning environment. I think another issue that compromises quality is that online instructors are having to take on more and more students and courses, which is problematic in the relationship between instructors and students.

    Furthermore, the notion of isolation in online learning is very real and true. You have offered some great solutions. I find our blended class (both online and face-to-face) is the perfect combination of learning experiences. We have relationships with our peers and we have a relationship with our instructor, which I feel gives some context to our discussions and activities online. We know where each other is coming from, and we can put a face to a name, which makes the learning experience more personal.

    And lastly, you have made valid points regarding the amount of time spent online. It can be overwhelming, fragmented, and time consuming for both the learners and facilitators. But I would also like to raise another question: is online learning accessible for all? Does it further marginalize those who do not have access or do not have the technological skills to navigate through an online learning environment? And so, in regards to your question regarding the future for online learning… I am mixed. On one hand, online learning has the potential to provide a more in depth learning experiences, and is beneficial for people with families or careers. But on the other hand, online learning also has the potential to be inaccessible to more people without the resources to participate.

    Reference:
    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

  2. Hi Amanda,
    Thanks so much for your reply. I think you’re right, defining quality is a tricky task. I think there are so many definitions and measures of “quality” that it will depend on who you ask! I found a paper published by UNICEF that attempts to define quality in education (check it out here: http://www.unicef.org/education/files/QualityEducation.PDF). It’s a very basic definition, and is written for a global audience, but I think it is useful and applicable.

    I am also a fan of the blended learning format. I think it offers a perfect mix for those not wanting to commit to a purely F2F or online class. Our class is relatively small though, so I wonder how a blended class would work for a large class of 100+ people?

    I’m glad you touched on the accessibility issue. The reality is that not everyone has the access or even the skills required for an online class. This issue is definitely worth exploring further….

  3. Hi Kaitlyn,
    You’ll probably want to look at work by Gilly Salmon on elearning and also a Pallof and Pratt re: online learning communities – and David Jacques work on online groups – great suggestions in all of these for how to make online work better. Oh – and how to fit more time into the day!
    I’m curious about your comment on
    “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.” – can you connect that to the literature?

  4. Thank you Kaitlyn for your thoughtful analysis of e-learning. I recently completed an Introduction to Teaching Online course (http://www.usask.ca/gmcte/courses/teaching_online – an open course so you can take a look) offered by colleagues of mine at the U of Saskatchewan. During the course we discussed strategies for engaging students in the material and discussions. While there is the dichotomous challenges of getting over-involved and never getting around to doing it because there is always later, I got to appreciate online learning when I was travelling to a conference. I could look up my assignment in the airport, draft on the plane, post from a ferry, review colleagues posts days later on another ferry etc. But I was also lucky enough to have internet access – and even then only some of the locations would run the videos.

    More broadly when discussing social interaction and participation, I am curious in comparison to what form of in-person teaching/learning?

  5. 5P52 is my first introduction to an online course and I am hooked! Working full time at my paid job, being a parent and juggling all that comes with this ‘job’, handling some major health issues and trying to do my Masters at the same time is a lot to handle. Taking this blended online course is great and allows me the flexibility to pursue my learning. I love it! I find that being more of a listener/observer in class, I have participated more in this class than in my lifetime of taking classes! I have the freedom to share my opinions. I enjoy not being restricted to take classes at the Oakville location only due to travel and time constraints. My options have opened up. I can still have my child as my priority as I am able to go online anytime. Lastly, I like the fact that I can read peoples responses and have time to think about things before responding. My only negative comment would be around handling and keeping up with the constant e-mails at all times. But this is part of the ‘bargain’ and despite this, I find myself now looking first for an online course.
    Regarding the three problems noted- quality, social interaction and access: technology is here to stay and will become a bigger part of people’s lives. Our perception of degree needs to also change along with the times, thus, a degree on line should be equal to a degree obtained in the traditional sense. I experienced this recently when helping a client of mine who obtained her Psychology degree entirely online; another client who lived in Africa obtained his degree from a university in Quebec. With my new found love of taking courses online, I will be one of these stories as well as part of my degree will have been achieved online.
    I don’t believe plagiarism is any more of an issue with online classes than it is with face-to-face courses. The issues are the same. It appears from taking 5P52 that online courses are more work and the standards are the same. Regarding part-time professors, unfortunately, it is becoming less common for people to be hired full time permanent. Frequently, people have to hold down a couple of part time jobs or are hired from one contract to another. It is an employers world due to a surplus of unemployed people they can choose from. Education is no different than what is happening ‘out there’. Furthermore, any material I develop on my job is the property of my employer. I am motivated to continue developing new ideas because I want to keep my job. Again, professors are not facing anything that is new.
    Limited social interaction: yes, looking back to my undergrad, I remember the people and a lot of other things. Working now for the last 20 years, I am not sure this is really of importance anymore. My social life comes from other areas, school may be one of many options at my stage in life, however it not the only option. Furthermore, it is not a priority for me. Maybe students that go from high school to undergrad to Masters would have a different perspective in that the social aspect would take priority. I am taking an online course because of other reasons, so this is not a big factor for me.
    Access: As I mentioned above my only negative comment would be in this area; the constant e-mails and keeping up with them. For me, I know what needs to be achieved and ensure that I do it. The technology does not dictate my life. So in essence I put my own limits on my involvement. There is an ‘off’ button.
    For me, the benefits of taking an online course definitely outweigh the disadvantages! I haven’t seen anything so significant that it would deter me from pursuing online courses in the future.

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