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Making the transition to online learning

  • 3 Min Read

“Why key design, assessment, and communication elements make all the difference”

The results of a recent survey of 487 prospective college students conducted by the Art & Science Group, a higher-education consulting firm1, reveal how the current COVID19 outbreak is shaping college-bound high-school seniors perceptions of college and their near-future plans – as many as one in six are rethinking whether they will attend college this fall.

Besides public health factors and warranted concerns around social distancing, both current and prospective students are worried that they will be paying thousands of dollars for tuition, only to sit in their living rooms and take classes online.

This is an understandable concern on numerous levels. The truth is, a lot of what passes for an online learning experience in many colleges and universities is pretty ineffective.

Many courses are poorly designed, the instructor is rarely present, directions regarding what to do are unclear; lessons, course activities, and assignments are passive and show no clear connection to the real world. Ouch. Yet, another important truth to call out here is that the same can be said of many more on-campus courses.

Quality control of online learning can be a challenge for academic institutions, from elite private schools to local community colleges. It’s difficult for institutions to have this completely dialled in. However, there is one important distinction that’s worth noting here: What makes online learning unique and what gives it a quality control advantage is its transparency. Online courses lay bare all the elements tied to teaching and learning.

And we can quickly see what kind of learning experience we can expect by looking through an online course. For example, an online course requires facilitation, guidance, and an organised set of instructions that orient the learner to the course objectives, activities, examinations, and deliverables so that they can understand what is being asked of them and chart a path toward success.

If an online course is missing any of these elements, the process of working through the material may be unclear and therefore not worth the time or effort.

Since 2001, researchers have documented more than 200 empirical studies that show “no significant difference” in student outcomes between traditional and alternative modes of educational delivery (https://detaresearch.org/research-support/no-significant-difference/), yet the myth persists.

Online learning has been labelled second rate by many because the learning experience has been poorly designed. This is not a technological short-coming. No, the answer is patently clear – good teaching and instructional design work no matter the delivery mode.

The quality of the learning experience is not about whether a course is online or physically on campus – it’s all about proper planning, engaging design, scaffolded learning activities, and thoughtful execution, assessment, and feedback.

Today, higher education is at an inflexion point that will lead to ongoing, and permanent changes in the way K12, colleges, and universities operate.

Around the globe, higher education leaders are asking internal teams and committees to look not only at what their institution needs to do to adopt remote learning options, but also what their institutions should consider as permanent adaptations, such as more and better online content.

Many students and families will still want a traditional college-campus experience if it’s available to them. However, what they want may not be an option.

What will be the new norm will be is up for debate. It is certain; however, that online learning may not be an option anymore for institutions if they want to remain open.

Institutions that will thrive in this new world will need to demonstrate that tuition for online courses pays for a high-quality faculty member, engaging classes with lots of individual attention – even at a distance. There is no reason that a college cannot offer a high degree of care and support for students rendered in a way that serves students no matter where they are.

It’s merely a question of having the vision, the infrastructure, and the resources in place to deliver effective online learning.

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