Even before Covid-19 forced schools, colleges and universities all over the world to suspend their 2020 classes, online learning was developing rapidly, with educational publishers like Cengage and Pearson offering their e-textbooks to students under subscription models as well as for purchase. In fact, Pearson made headlines last year when it announced that it was shifting to a “digital-first model” for its educational publications. When home learning became a reality for students around the globe, even the most traditional bricks-and-mortar teaching institutions had to adapt to this new reality. In this post, we look at some different models of online learning, how content is commonly delivered online, the potential difficulties and the conditions that make for effective distance learning.
The ability to study anywhere and anytime is often cited as a benefit of online study. Many students are used to using their mobile phones, tablets and laptops for all aspects of their lives, so why should education be excluded from this? Information can be shared easily, given the right infrastructure, and students are free to explore topics further using online sources. This of course depends on students’ ability to navigate the vast quantities of material on the web, a skill which becomes more crucial as we come to depend more on online sources of information. Good information literacy could be seen as either a result of or a prerequisite for successful online learning, or both.
With this convenience and flexibility comes the risk that students may feel isolated without the face-to-face contact with peers and tutors that traditional learning involves. Although online communication can help some students to overcome shyness when compared to the pressure of speaking in front of a classroom of other students, some skills are difficult to develop without this direct contact. Of course, teamwork and communication skills can be developed online, but it is important that providers of online education recognise the support that a positive classroom environment provides, and find ways to replicate this where possible, or find other ways to motivate and nurture students that are more suited to the medium.
Just as there are many different ways to organise a classroom, there are also many types of online learning. We have mentioned the eTextbook services that a number of educational publishers are now providing. These can be seen as supplementary to traditional face-to-face teaching. Moving away from this mixed approach, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) provide a popular way for students to access courses from reputable universities and other providers. Platforms such as Futurelearn, EdX and Coursera use a freemium model, where courses can be taken for free or students can pay a fee to receive certification. These platforms bring the benefit of integrated video content and other multimedia features such as quizzes and message boards for students to share ideas and ask questions.
Platforms such as Futurelearn, EdX and Coursera use a freemium model, where courses can be taken for free or students can pay a fee to receive certification. These platforms bring the benefit of integrated video content and other multimedia features such as quizzes and message boards for students to share ideas and ask questions.
Many educational institutions use VLEs to coordinate their digital services and learning materials. Platforms like Moodle and Blackboard, for example, give tutors more control over how they present materials to students at different points in a course, often allowing lectures to be uploaded and revisited by students for consolidation or revision. All of this is dependent, of course, on the infrastructure (in this case, recording equipment) being available and working properly. VLEs also offer a point of contact where staff and students can interact. They allow assignments to be uploaded anonymously and automatically passed through plagiarism-detecting software. Finally, they also offer reporting systems for grades and feedback.
The term Learning Management System (LMS) is often used interchangeably with VLE, although some educational technologists associate LMSs more with in-company training, accreditation and Continuing Professional Development (CPD). This takes us into a whole other area of online learning, focused on the business world. With a number of popular marketplaces for online courses, including LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda.com) and Udemy, there are many opportunities for smaller providers to find a platform for their content in this competitive sector.
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