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Fundamentals for Online Learning

A digital age demands an innovation in learning and increased accessibility as a defining feature of education.  Digital devices are already permeating our lives, so it’s no surprise that they should be carried into the classroom.

Source: Deloitte Digital Education Executive Summary

MOOCs (mass online open courses), offered by various universities and online hubs like ‘Coursera,’ are a revolutionary new direction for education to take. In fact, MOOCs are touted as ‘growing faster than Facebook‘, having a user growth rate greater than 2,000%. 

In sheer numbers, that looks like a batch of 160,000 students enrolled at one university in 2011, going to 35,000,000 students spread across 570 universities, facilitated by 12-course providers by 2015. 

The success of MOOCs and their subsequent evolution has made it very clear that online courses and eLearning call for three fundamentals in order to be effective.

First: The ‘Instructor’ as ‘Coach’

While they were initially offered as free courses, casting as wide a net as possible, the scope and function of MOOCs has changed since the first 17 courses were launched on the edX platform. There are now ‘six tiers of MOOC monetization’, according to a report on MOOCs Stats and Trends in 2017, by Class Central: 

While the levels of MOOC monetization have evolved, so has the role of the instructor. This is the first fundamental change that course creators can (and should) address.

Generally, teachers have very positive attitudes towards incorporating digital learning and technology into the learning and education process. This is especially true if these teachers or instructors are themselves digital natives. 

Source: Deloitte Digital Education Executive Summary

The fact is that teaching online entirely changes the teacher-student relationship. The ‘interface’ is now the Web or digital space. Classrooms are built environments but digital learning is an experience. And, in this experience, the instructor-registrant relationship changes. 

To see this in action, let’s take a look at the enrolment and completion rates for Harvard and MIT registrants on the edX platform in the summer of 2013: 

  • There were 43,196 registrant certificates of completion
  • Only 35,937 registrants explored half or more of course content without certification, 
  • An additional 469,702 registrants viewed less than half of the content and 
  • A whopping 292,852 registrants never engaged with the online content. 

These numbers from the early days of online classes tell us that the instructor-student relationship needs to be transformed to correspond with the fact that online classes and eLearning experiences are a very unique form of learning

So, they require an entirely new way to allow students to take charge of their own learning. 

Adopting the ‘instructor as coach’ approach

In traditional classrooms, instructors, teachers, and professors are responsible for a one-to-one teaching method. They’re responsible for lessons, marking and grading, setting assignments, heading discussions, and giving feedback to each student.

When translated online, however, this gets tricky. 

One of the fundamental shifts that online education platforms call for is a reimagining of the role of the teacher/instructor or professor. When faced with eLearning experiences or webcourses involving thousands of registrants, it is virtually impossible to retain control and interface with every individual. 

Instead, course creators should design courses that adopt the instructor-as-coach approach. This model, much better suited to the democratic and self-propelled nature of the Internet, calls for the instructor to act as a guide or ‘coach’. 

While they still deliver their expertise in short, video modules or lectures, the rest of the material and assignments place the responsibility for learning on the student. 

There’s an assumption here that the student is intrinsically self-motivated. This means that learning will (and needs to) occur peer-to-peer. In fact, this is when learning happens best. 

In the instructor-as-coach approach, the professor or instructor leading the coach would also make themselves available for ‘office hours’, running ‘hot seats’ or live ‘Q&A’ sessions where students can pose questions directly. 

A student’s role, in this case, is to direct their own learning. They’ll be accessing assignments and following through, taking automated quizzes directly connected to certification, forming their own discussion groups, responsible for self-marking or even peer-to-peer marking. 

This fundamental aspect of a successful online course is better suited to the digital world. It’s a connective learning model that the founders of the original MOOC concept, Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Dave Cormier, had in mind all along. 

The approach in action

The defining feature of the eLearning experience is the ‘e’ aspect: It’s happening online and this shift changes:

  • How students relate to each other
  • How students relate to, learn and absorb the content

Knowledge doesn’t occur from one point and flow down to all other students. Rather, students are responsible for forming a connection and instructors for coaching and guiding their learning experiences at various points. 

A project that has been running for the last four years works off this concept of the ‘DOCC’ or ‘Distributed Open Collaborative Course‘. Comprising instructors from over 15 colleges and universities, the initiative’s structure asks students to guide their own learning, giving them multiple forms of content and requiring them to interface with each other to progress in the course. 

Second: Tech and Design as Facilitators, not Obstacles

So we’ve got the right instructor. What about the right platform? Learning happens under very specific contexts. 

Online learning relies on a combination of sound, high-functioning, and nearly intuitive technology and diverse, simple design. The combination of the two should capture the learner’s attention through its aesthetic appeal while simplifying the process through its flexible and smart design. 

An instructional design plan for web courses is important because it further supports and reinforces a student’s eventual understanding of themselves as ‘self-directed learners’. 

They’ll need to be able to access content from a variety of sources, be able to connect in multiple formats (video, chat groups, etc.) with their peers in the course, and benefit from assignments or work tasks that ask them to do their own research.  

The tech and design that stand behind an edX platform, for example, need to take into consideration three distinct things:

  • ‘Who’ are we serving?
  • ‘What’ are their goals?
  • ‘How’ can we reorient expectations around the eLearning experience?

These three questions really come down to the ‘audience’ of online classes, which can then be whittled down to a user or a set of user personas. It’s inevitable, in fact, that UI and UX approaches will enter into instructional design for online courses.

Source: Identifying Styles and Paths toward Success in MOOCs

Instructional design and technology, for example, can and should take into consideration a hierarchy or a visual representation as shown above. These are the most likely student actions and behaviors which the design can then respond to.

What does the audience of eLearning classes look like? When Harvard continued its research into MOOCs in 2015, it found that:

  • There is a rising share of female, U.S.-based, and older participants
  • 39% of learners are teachers
  • Among the one-third of participants who responded to a survey about their intentions, 57% said that they wanted to ‘earn a certificate’; of these, almost 25% went on to do so
  • Participants who paid for “ID-verified” certificates (with costs ranging from $50 to $250) earned certifications at a higher rate than other participants: 59%, compared to just 5% who did not pay for ID-verified certificates but also completed the course
  • Pedagogical innovations…like videos and assessment scoring algorithms, in smaller, traditional lecture courses, need to be formalized.

These observations paint a compelling picture of the intended audiences versus the actual profiles of registrants who are coming in. Obviously, tech and design cannot address each and every single learning style or individual — but it doesn’t need to. 

Instead, the role of technology and design in the learning process is to be invisible, serving students’ underlying motivations. 

For example, those who were willing to pay for ID-verified tracks can expect the design of the course to test more often and offer more study opportunities, in order to move on to verification and certification. 

Third: Preparing Students for the Learning Experience

This pulls the first two fundamentals together and ties them in a neat little bow. 

When tech and design are used as facilitators, and instructors assume the position of a ‘guiding coach’, then students begin to expect an eLearning experience that is rightly self-guided and necessarily self-motivated.

Preparing a student for the learning experience is a combination of:

  • providing a solid onboarding or orientation process,
  • providing plenty of ‘time’, tips, and learning opportunities that challenge the students to familiarise themselves with the platform, 
  • encouraging particular study habits and the need to connect with their fellow students through video or discussion, as much as the materials. 

Course creators can cut their dropout rates and significantly reduce redundant questions by acting on the following: 

  • Orienting students through the technical tools used in the course, 
  • Guiding them to applications, and
  • Making a comprehensive orientation a part of the online course experience.

Whether it is MOOCs we’re discussing or simply one-off courses taught by an increasing number of small businesses building a ‘brand’, eLearning experiences need these fundamentals not only to survive but thrive to the point of growth and evolution. Otherwise, we’d have a truly ironic turn of events on our hands: The case where something that is supposed to make you grow and develop as an individual, through learning, is itself unable to learn from its own mistakes.

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