The Rise of Online Learning: Analyzing the Biggest Concerns
“As a disruptive innovation—an innovation that transforms a sector from one that was previously complicated and expensive into one that is far simpler and more affordable—the rise of online learning carries with it an unprecedented opportunity to transform the schooling system into a student-centric one that can affordably customize for different student needs by allowing all students to learn at their appropriate pace and path, thereby allowing each student to realize her fullest potential.”
-Christensen & Horn, The Washington Post
With an array of news circulating in favor of the emergence of online learning, there are still concerns of how online learning might not be as effective as the traditional classroom, especially for adults. According to a report that was analyzed by Inside Higher Ed, some of the biggest concerns include:
-Increases in socioeconomic gaps
-Increases in racial achievement gaps
-Lack of student-educator interaction
-Necessity of computer literacy in order to perform
-Affordability of 'quality' online courses
-Online degrees not being held in the same regard as in-person
Breaking Down Each Concern:
Socioeconomic & Racial Achievement Gaps
Some of the largest concerns revolving around low-income learners can largely be attributed to easy access to a collection of cheap, inadequate online education solutions. The existence of these types of courses, sometimes called “lift and shift” courses, may in fact result in greater issues being caused than they actually solve. This is because they can inhibit learning by creating separation from resources, face-to-face interaction, and other important aspects of traditional learning environments (1).
It kind of makes sense why some of us still have doubts right?
However, in face-to-face learning environments, disadvantaged students often lack the resources and money that would enable them to really expand upon and deepen their in-person learning experiences (2). This is evident in how students from low-income households frequently don't have the funds to receive tutoring and attend field trips and extracurricular activities (2). Though programs aiming to provide students from lower income communities with the same opportunities as their peers are becoming more common, they are still limited by their reported lower levels of engagement compared to students that don't need to opt for the reduced-price lunch program (3).
In reality, we can combat some of the major concerns for low-income learners by actually building better online learning. Though we may be at the so-called "'Big Bang” in delivering online learning tied to meaningful educational credentials according to Unbound - UPCEA (4), we are actually over a decade or two in since the emergence of the online degree. EdTech companies like Construct now have the data and resources to build better online and blended learning programs that can serve the unique needs of disadvantaged learners in beneficial ways.. The lifting and shifting of content may not make up for the exchange of advantages in online vs. face-to-face learning. However, through the integration of technology, learning design, and data, online courses can effectively elevate learning for all demographic areas, regardless of race, income, gender, etc.
“By harnessing emerging technologies, universities can reach beyond campus walls to empower diverse learners at global scale.”
-Belsky, Harvard Business Review
A rising solution to this concern would be blended learning: an approach that allows students to learn inside a classroom and interact with learning staff, while also giving them the opportunity to learn at their own pace through online modules and resources. Not only do blended learning approaches provide room for the facilitation of relationships between students and educators, but so do strictly online approaches. Online learning has adapted to provide students with the resources to be able to interact with their teachers and professors in their own time. Professors can record lectures and students can communicate with educators and advisors directly through the LMS (learning management system).
Though learning only online may keep students from collaborating within a physical classroom, being able to learn on their own time, at their own pace, will grant them the opportunity to spend more hours in the actual workplace developing the skills they actually need to succeed on the job. This is especially true for non-traditional learners and the higher education market.
One of the major purposes of higher education is to prepare students to be ready for a career and develop their knowledge and abilities so that they can succeed and obtain opportunities at work. Why is it then that so many employers have raised concerns that students too often lack the necessary 'soft skills' they need to thrive in the modern workplace (5)? If some learning environments aren’t fostering this, they may in fact be hindering a learners ability to be prepared to succeed in the real world- possibly even introducing unnecessary detractions. For example, there are many adults that often need to go back to school in order to refine or rectify their skills for a career. This is where online learning doubles as not only a primary learning option, but also a secondary finishing school option that can cater to every individuals specific needs and fill those gaps.
The flexibility and customizability of online education programs are becoming increasingly necessary. Learner-centered OPE (online program enablement) companies like Construct further have the tools to create more complex learning solutions to combat these rising concerns and resulting skills gaps.
So how does online learning work if not everyone knows how to properly use a computer, computer programs, or even how to search the internet?
Though this may seem like an inane question to many of us who had to know how to use a computer to even be able to read this, it is a much larger concern than many of us realize. In our increasingly digital world, there are still people who don't have a basic level of computer literacy. So how do we combat this?
In the words of Aristotle:
"For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them."
By introducing "online" into the learning process, we are encouraging and facilitating the means by which learners can actually familiarize themselves with technology and in turn develop these skills. There will always be a learning curve when introducing a new or unfamiliar element into a process. However, computer literacy is just one more skill that will prepare learners for the real world where working with technology and computers is simply becoming a standard, no longer an option.
Affordability, Quality, & Accessibility
Affordability and quality are two concerns that are just as prevalent in the face-to-face world of education as in the online world. In the online world, students are challenged in this spectrum by their ability to differentiate from the bad, the good, and the best programs—the difference between content dumping, and quality learning design, data, and technology backed courses.
In the face-to-face world, conditions including weather, increased concerns surrounding student safety on campus, travel distance to quality schools/colleges of choice, can easily detract from the learning experience or a student’s ability to be in class every day. Take for example the coronavirus and the barriers being caused for students whose education must now be delayed due to cancellations of in-person classes and travel bans. When a student misses a day of class or even months in this case, a professor does not repeat an entire lesson for that one student, making it difficult for a student to catch up on content and material. Everyone has to deal with unpredictable events that can’t be anticipated and as a result may cause a person to miss out on an important piece of their education.
Beyond the fact that a professor/teacher will not repeat a lesson for single students, traditional classroom environments are often tailored to the best suit the “average” student rather than all learners. With data and analysis of trends in digital learning, students can learn at their own pace. This is an ongoing topic of contention in the world of education: how do we speed up courses to cater to students that learn more quickly while simultaneously slowing down to teach those that require more time and explanation of a subject in order to fully grasp it?
This issue not only causes concerns for educators but also impacts younger students’ perception of self-worth in the stages of life when they are most vulnerable to being impacted by the perceptions of others (6). The time in life when students are trying to understand who they are and where they belong shouldn't be burdened by peer comparisons.
Granted, competition can often drive motivation and effort. But once again, this is not true for all learners, leading us back to the central question:
How can we adapt to all types of learners?
The answer can be found in pedagogy (learning and teaching) and data, gathered through online learning approaches. Being able to analyze the learning cycles, patterns, and processes of each student allows for the catering of education to each individual learner while simultaneously allowing them the opportunity to gather “soft-skills” they need for employment in their own time.
Ultimately, online learning allows us to help communities with less access to quality educational resources. Which brings up the question: how do we differentiate the bad online course from the good, or even the great ones?
Credibility of Online Degrees
This concern arises largely in part, due to mentality. Online degrees are new, and as research points out, people are still skeptical about their quality and rightly so. Not every new technology and/or innovation should be accepted simply because it is 'cool' or 'different.' All creations will go through a stage where they grow to become accepted, but only after they have proven to be useful and worthwhile.
According to research conducted in a 2010 SHRM poll, only 34% of employers considered online degrees to be as favorable as a traditional degree. However, by 2016, in a survey administered by Northeastern University, this same number had increased to 48%. And only two years ago, a research survey conducted by Unbound UPCEA revealed that the majority, at 61% of employers, viewed online degrees to be of a quality that is equal to in-person degrees (7). Though we are not at one-hundred percent acceptance, data has revealed that the the acceptance rate is increasing quickly, with a 27% jump over this time span alone.
Beyond simply being accepted, people may argue that the online degree doesn't hold up to a degree obtained in-person because it does not provide the same all-encompassing college/learning experience. However, technology is evolving to make this seemingly far out solution to this concern a reality. Not only does blended learning offer a solution, but educational institutions now also have the ability to transform entire programs of content and courses into a complete online learning experience. With this also comes all the resources and aid that one might typically find on a campus including counseling, advisorship, tutoring, clubs, etc.
What the question of credibility ultimately boils down to however, is quality. Yes- this means we must be able to differentiate between the bad, the good, and the best. When considering whether a online course or program truly fits the parameters around being “the best,” remember to prioritize the following hallmarks of quality online learning:
Pedagogically supported learning design
Data-backed learning customization
Technologically and educationally sound development
Quality production design and creation
Facilitated and enabled communication between learner & educator
“...doing things the way they’ve always been done hasn’t proven effective for most industries, and it shouldn’t be accepted for our students any longer either.”
-Lisa Nielsen (Educator, speaker, and author of ‘Teaching Generation Text’)