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2012 February 6 - 12:00 am

POV: Online Learning Today: What Works, What Doesn’t

In today’s world of virtual course delivery, we are finding that what works for students is both easy to use and free, or if not free, then easily affordable. We live in a time of 99 cent apps and $20 software, and we no longer tolerate products that are difficult to use, expensive, and quickly outdated.

West Kentucky Community & Technical College has been in the online learning business since 1991, when the college introduced an English Composition course with an enrollment of 12 students. The course could be taken from home using a virtual bulletin board in a system limited to one login at a time. Students scrolled through course content in a single direction, turned in their papers via e-mail, and received graded papers from the teacher through postal mail. Students set up their computer and modem at home, and the online course support consisted of a handbook and some online guidelines to writing. They then had to try to log in; if the line was busy, students were expected to try back in ten minutes.

Clearly, things have changed. Today, students can enroll in online classes at multiple campus sites and institutions. More than 60,000 online classroom seats are filled each year in Kentucky alone. Course management systems (CMS) provide frameworks that allow students to participate in class virtually at any time, from anywhere, and using a variety of devices.

At WKCTC, we’ve seen many changes in online learning, and we also see a pattern in what works and what does not:

Consistency. For the CMS to be efficient, it must be easy to use and consistent within each class. That is especially true for the classes offered within a single institution. Common menu labels, consistent syllabus procedures, and uniform teacher-student communication policies help students move from one course to another. Campus unity in major areas within courses makes it easier for students to adjust to different courses without having to adjust to different course formats. One quick example is for all faculty to use a label for testing that has the word “testing” in it. Jumping from testing in one course to quizzes in another, assessment in a third, and evaluation in a fourth can be confusing to students. We find that easy-to-use formats enhanced by common phrasing among the courses work well. What does not work is inconsistency, massive lists of course activities, and random placement of content that differs among courses and sections.

Presentation. Appealing presentation of course content sprinkled with appropriate humor never hurt in teaching and learning, whether online or on-site. Students want new approaches, engaging material, and content presented in an enjoyable manner. Faculty have added games, puzzles, videos, live audio sessions, and animation to their formats. They have introduced themselves with back-porch videos, animated Voki comments, and on-screen fireworks. What works is content and presentation that are new and inviting; flexibility and on-demand content help the student stay focused on the subject. What does not work is last year’s lecture from last century’s notes. Standing in front of a class physically or virtually and reciting course material from decades ago won’t make it, and neither will adding that material to an online class. Current history classes that end in the 1960s, math that is taught without relevance, and biology that puts an onion skin under the microscope are no longer pertinent. Relevance matters.

Engagement. Involving students in the content and allowing them to participate in the creation and sharing of ideas are additional ways to keep students focused on learning and on successfully completing requirements. The biology class that tests the water in a local river or creek or the composition class that studies political speeches for logic and significance are the ones that move the student forward. Knowledge and comprehension are basic, and college classes should take students well beyond the basic, making material relevant by engaging students in applying and analyzing the material in real-world contexts. Discovering students’ interests, where they are going, and what would they like to accomplish involves listening to them. We may teach subjects that are not directly, instantly related to their daily routine, but by listening we can determine how to contextualize content so it is relevant to their needs, concerns, and interests. What does not work is telling students what they need to know and asking them to give that information back to us in our words. Today’s students no longer believe that the teacher is the sole possessor of the truth. Instead, they know that many truths exist, and they are looking for the ones most aligned with their interests and beliefs. They are exposed to limitless information, and they want to determine what is relevant and important. Our job is to help them learn how.

Affordable Quality. Open content, personalized learning, and affordable high-quality materials are keys to successful education. So many quality tools are available free or for a minimal cost that students no longer need to pay hundreds of dollars for software or textbooks. In business-model terms, think of education not as a big-box store but as a quality experience. What works is providing reasonably priced, high-quality programs built around sound course content that engages students and expands their learning. What does not work is an educational philosophy that searches out low-cost but ineffective course products while allowing students to avoid responsibility for course deadlines and skip over rigorous academic standards. Success is not guaranteed simply because students pay for a course, show up every day, or complain about the difficulty of a test. Success in college, like success in life, comes with hard work and with accepting responsibility for completing that work.

Mobile Options. Mobile learning is an increasingly important factor in content delivery. The CMS is the starting place for multiple-site access to information. The iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Zune, and 3G and 4G networks are all vehicles for accessing material. The more places students can find material and the more ways they can access material, the more likely they are to learn what they find. Today’s students want the flexibility that comes with mobile learning. They are used to variable-site learning, where information can be displayed on a 50-inch screen or a 4-inch screen. In either environment, students are able to use the time and space available to study or complete their work.

Accessibility, availability, and quality are what work in online learning today. What does not work is learning in a regimented environment where information is presented in a finished form without involvement by the student.

This article was previously published in the League for Innovation in Community College's Learning Abstracts, December 2011, and is reprinted by permission.

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