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Online learning: Delivering on promises?

Published on 01 December 2017
Updated on 05 April 2024

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.

7 replies
  1. Zemaida Mozali
    Zemaida Mozali says:

    Blended learning benefits
    And, many thanks to Hannah for being very clear and professional during the session and after in reflections about MOOCs as a great learning opportunity.

  2. Zemaida Mozali
    Zemaida Mozali says:

    Blended learning benefits
    I was one of the panelists of this session in the Conference on The future of Diplomacy. During that session, Hannah made a clear explanation of how effective blended learning is and should be and how it can help learning of Diplomacy. As a participant of 2003 Diplo online Course, I also shared my experience of online learning, something that I keep sharing and underlying as a very effective “new way of learning”.

    I have already commented on Hannah blog post that more than 70% of the population in Albania, have access to Internet, which is a high level of usage of IT. The question is: For what purpose is it used? Referring to a study paper, the results of which indicate that 28.8% of the students use Internet for academic learning for five or more hours weekly and 84.5% of them use social networks every day, we do not come out very optimistic. (https://www.researchgate.net/…/318115493_Internet_use… [accessed Nov 30 2017].)

    I find very interesting and useful the idea of MOOCs. In our countries, we lack the general culture of using it for the purpose of improving the knowledge and skills. It is very important that the concept of MOOCs should be intensively promoted, applied, in more and more cases, multiplied. It needs a platform or strategy for it. It would be very helpful for professionals, for scholars and students at different countries, places on the globe to exchange ideas on various fields of study; it would enable the growth of distant learning, both within nations and across borders, it would provide students and lecturers with a communication system that they can use to communicate with each other irrespective of distance and irrespective of being developed or developing country. It would be a strong tool to keep abreast, to keep updated with advanced world information, to network and use it for the purpose of learning and using it to increase the capacity and improve the performance in the working place-s.

    • Hannah
      Hannah says:

      Thanks for your comments,
      Thanks for your comments, Zemaida (and for sharing your experience during your presentation during the conference). Your comment here raises a question I have also been thinking about (and I’m working on another blog posting related to this): is Internet access on its own sufficient to lead to using the Internet for learning? This does not only mean formal learning through online courses: there are so many different informal ways to learn online, from simply reading articles or blog postings to joining discussions and debates. However, most people focus on the entertainment aspects. What is needed to move from potential to actual use of online learning (formal and informal) by more people, especially in developing countries?

  3. Jovan Kurbalija
    Jovan Kurbalija says:

    How can inclusivity trigger exclusive solutions?
    Thank you Hannah, for a very insightful reflection on MOOC and online learning. A dominance of ‘spin communication’ triggers many paradoxes including this one that prima facie inclusivity of MOOC courses could lead towards de facto exclusive participation and limited social impact.

  4. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    are they really free?
    Thanks for your comment, Katharina. The question of cost is another potential barrier to participation. If there is a fee for the certificate, it means that lower-income participants may benefit from the knowledge, but cannot get the piece of paper that proves they have done so and might even help with obtaining better paid work, for example. So in the end we have two tiers of participants.

    Actually, I think that MOOCs offer a great learning opportunity – but we should keep our eyes open and not assume that this opportunity is truly free and equally available for everyone, everywhere.

  5. Katharina Hone
    Katharina Hone says:

    how “free” are MOOCs?
    Thanks Hannah for this very timely blog post. I think now that the hype surrounding MOOCs is fading, it is a good time to think about them and what they can and cannot deliver. Regarding the openness of MOOCs, I really appreciate your critical reflection on the barriers that still exist regarding participation. There is one more point that some critics raise. They question if MOOCs are really free. This concerns paying to receive certificates and courses being an advertising opportunity for degrees with big US universities.

    • Paul Owusu Donkor
      Paul Owusu Donkor says:

      You’re comments are spot on
      You’re comments are spot on Kathrina. Thankfully, there are some universities that offer waivers on certificates for MOOCs for candidates from developing countries. The strategy greatly engenders participation and spurs one on to not only complete the course but also obtain a pass mark. Together with a number of colleagues of mine, we just succeeded in completing an 8-week MOOC while taking advantage of this offer.
      Now whereas this waiver exists, it takes some effort to know how to benefit from it. Making such waivers more accessible may be one constructive way of deepening the inclusivity and participation for developing countries.

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