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What have we learned about online learning this year?

Published on 31 May 2016
Updated on 05 April 2024

Online learning is now part of education at almost all levels and not a month goes by without the announcement of a new cooperation initiative in online learning or a new platform being developed. Although the hype generated by the first Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is over, there is still excitement buzzing around each new initiative. Precisely because the hype is over but the excitement is not gone, this is the time to draw on the lessons of various online education initiatives. For this post, I’ll be reviewing three of the most recent reports.

MIT Online Education Policy Initiative – bite-sized, personalised learning

The final report of MIT’s Online Education Policy Initiative (OEPI) was launched in April. It gives an overview of online pedagogy – advantages, disadvantages, and possibilities – in order to impact policy and decision-making, particularly in the USA. The report outlines some key benefits of MOOCs and courses structured along similar lines (p. 24).

  • Many online courses offer short videos followed by quizzes. This means that learning is broken down into manageable chunks. The quizzes further improve retention and limit mind-wandering.
  • Online assessments can be spaced out so that participants will have to go back to topics that they covered days, weeks, or even months ago and thereby increase retention.
  • The course can offer various pathways of learning depending on the results participants achieve in their quizzes and tests.
  • Topics can be mixed and levels of difficulty can be adjusted according to participants’ results.
  • As participants’ capabilities increase, tests and assignments can become gradually more difficult and open-ended.

In sum, the MIT OEPI stresses the ability of online courses to present bite-sized learning that helps participants stay focused. It also highlights the possibility to tailor the content to the current level of knowledge and skills a participant has reached. The report calls this dynamic digital scaffolding.

Babson Online Report Card – blended learning as the way forward

The Online Report Card 2016 produced by Babson in February asked academic leaders in institutions of higher education in the USA about their perceptions of online learning. The report finds that although some reservations regarding online learning remain, 70% rate online learning as being at least as good as face-to-face instruction. However, when asked about various ways of integrating online learning into their work, more than 40% argue that blended learning, a mixture of online and face-to-face instruction, holds more promise than courses that are conducted fully online. 90% agree that blended learning outcomes are similar or superior to courses conducted fully online. It is important to note that these numbers reflect the perception of leaders in higher education institutions and not actual learning outcomes. The results are, however, a very strong indicator that the future of education is neither fully online nor fully offline.

Pew Research Center – an uneven playing field and a lack of awareness

The Pew Research Center report on Lifelong Learning and Technology was released in March. It contains many useful findings on lifelong learning. More than 70% of Americans who took part in the study consider themselves to be lifelong learners. The majority of them, however, engage in offline activities for lifelong learning.  Regarding online learning, the report shows that we should not believe that ‘the internet and other tools will automatically democratize education and access to knowledge’ (p. 6). Those with lower education levels and lower household incomes are less likely to turn to online learning. Similarly, possessing ‘technological assets’, such as a smartphone or a broadband connection at home, is a strong predictor of the likelihood of engaging in online learning. Most surprising perhaps is a general lack of awareness of online learning opportunities. More than 60% have little or no awareness of the concept of distance learning and 80% do not have much awareness of MOOCs. In a world enchanted with the possibilities of online learning and MOOCs, the report tells a cautious tale.

Looking at these three reports from 2016, we can draw four lessons:

  • Personalising learning and adjusting content and tasks to the level reached by each learner is key.
  • Blended learning, a mix of online and offline activities, is seen as yielding better results.
  • More needs to be done to level the playing field and ensure access for those with lower levels of education and income.
  • Awareness needs to be raised about online learning opportunities.

What do you think about these lessons-learned? What are your personal lessons? Let us know in the comments below.


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