Online learning: Delivering on promises?

01 December 2017

Diplo’s recent conference on the Future of Diplomacy included a session on the hype and reality of online learning. Panellists and participants discussed whether diplomacy can be taught online, and how. They looked at just-in-time and blended learning. They considered trends like MOOCs (massive open online courses), and the effective use of webinars and visuals.

We tend to compare different types of online learning, asking which is best. However, this question does not make sense without reference to a specific context and specific learning objectives. Just like learning in general, online learning covers a huge range of activities with very different characteristics and aims. It can refer to MOOCs, offered by universities to participant groups numbering in the thousands. It can refer to self-paced online courses consisting of readings, animations, exercises, and quizzes, which individuals follow at their own pace, without contact with a lecturer or other participants. It can also refer to highly interactive, tutor-led online courses offered to small groups, often as part of professional development.

I repeat: it does not make sense to ask, for example, whether MOOCs or interactive tutor-led online courses are better: it depends on what you want achieve. However, we can measure each type of online learning against what it promises to deliver.

MOOCs are often criticised for their low completion rates: typically around 10% (or lower, according to a recent study of four-years-worth of data). However, MOOCs never promised high completion rates. Registration is free and easy, and participants enroll for many different reasons. Some are just exploring new ways to learn. Others don’t aim for a certificate, but this does not mean they do not find value in the course.

What do MOOCs promise? It’s in the title: massive and open. The promise was to democratise education, making high-quality university-level education available for free to the masses at home and abroad, and especially to those who could not otherwise access it. Has this promise been fulfilled?

Studies suggest not. A special report in The Economist from January 2017 found, for example, that 80% of learners on Coursera (one of the MOOC platforms) already have a degree. A study published in January 2017 in Science compared participation in MOOCs in developing and developed countries. It found that MOOC completion rates ‘reflect prevailing educational disparities between nations’ and that ‘the educated and affluent in all countries enroll in and complete MOOCs at relatively higher rates.’ Why? Alongside formal barriers (lack of broadband Internet access, formal education, and English proficiency), the study suggested that participants from least developed countries countries may feel unwelcome and fear appearing less capable than their classmates from developed countries (a response they refer to as ‘social identity threat’).

Looking more broadly at lifelong learning, including online learning, a 2016 Pew Research Center Report on Lifelong Learning and Technology found that in the USA, people from lower income households and with lower education levels are less likely to pursue lifelong learning, including online learning. In addition, those with fewer ‘technological assets’ ‒ like broadband Internet connections or smartphones ‒ are less likely to to engage in online learning.

These studies suggest that we should be skeptical about claims that the Internet and other technological tools will automatically democratise education and increase access to knowledge. In fact, MOOCs and other online learning opportunities, in their current form,  may reinforce existing inequalities.

What about interactive, tutor-led online courses? Their promises include a high level of learner engagement, interaction among course participants and with tutors, and high completion rates. Meaningful statistics are hard to come by, as such courses are offered by diverse organisations with different methodologies, and student groups are small. However, some examples can be illustrative. In autumn 2017, Diplo offered an interactive online course on Humanitarian Diplomacy. Over nine weeks, the 25 participants contributed 1110 comments and responses to online discussions, and the course team responded with almost 500 comments. In another course on Digital Commerce, 40 participants posted 1922 discussion contributions, and the course team contributed some 257 responses to these discussion threads. Diplo runs around 20 online courses each year with similar interaction levels, and with a completion rate of around 90%. In our experience, well-designed interactive online courses, led by experienced tutors, live up to their promises.

Such courses are delivered on a micro-scale compared to MOOCs, and do not aspire to democratise access to education. Nonetheless, if scholarships or bursaries are available, interactive courses can be accessible to participants in both developing and developed countries. And due to the high level of individual interaction, a skillful tutor can address the needs of each participant, providing encouragement, suggesting useful background readings, and drawing out the specific experience and knowledge of each participant, thus taking steps to overcome the social identity threat mentioned earlier. Again, an example is illustrative: the 40 participants in the above-mentioned course on Digital Commerce, from 23 different developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Central/South America, all successfully completed the course. In our experience, tutor-led online courses with small participant group and a high level of interaction can effectively support the inclusion of diverse groups of learners and bridge any existing capacity gaps between them.

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