How Technology Can Improve Online Learning

Technology is giving adult learners new choices about when to learn.

Sifting through the criticisms of digitally enabled institutions, including test-prep programs, is a daunting task. But there is one response to complaints that its demand for specialization offends — digital learning.

My analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of using technology to create breadth within higher education assumes that one purpose of online programs is to enhance the ability of graduates to develop industry specialization. But this is rarely the case.

There is a legitimate concern that, for instance, students are exposed to only a small subset of a program’s curriculum. But additional research suggests that more comprehensive curricula might have a significant impact on one’s success in the workforce.

In a report entitled “What Are the Benefits of Online College Courses?,” researchers from Cambridge, Michigan State, and Syracuse universities found that students enrolled in an online version of a humanities program only spent a quarter as much time on a formal course as their peers enrolled in the traditional classroom version.

After the students spent a year of coursework, students in the online experience had more than twice the rate of academic success as their peers.

But even within the humanities, there are a number of vocational skills taught in depth that would not benefit students from an online experience. Students taught critical thinking, for instance, have less academic success.

Research also finds that the average length of online program courses is shorter than those held in physical classrooms. Students in programs offered through online education providers have worked for three years on courses that might have taken a year to complete in a bricks-and-mortar institution.

By the time the students graduate from an online program, they likely know less about their courses than their classmates in the traditional classroom classroom.

Without exception, online students have graduated with fewer credentials, and hence they usually have lower-paying jobs, including lower-level jobs in the field.

The earlier study of my own by Gardner University’s Roger Gutierrez illustrates how widely this effect is felt.

He found that the proportion of bachelor’s degrees earned within a decade dropped from 72 percent in a program designed for nontraditional students to just 58 percent. The researchers attributed the decline to students’ far fewer years of coursework.

My colleagues found that an online philosophy program offered at Morehouse College in Atlanta “only covers about 19 of the textbook’s 24 chapters.” This included chapters in philosophy’s four basic components:

*Justice and Philosophy

Historically, courses in any given discipline can be taught only from the perspectives of a limited number of authors, therefore encouraging students to develop their own knowledge and interpret complex ideas through their own understanding.

But the effectiveness of specialization is likely to be lost among an online experience that generally can only afford a narrow view of the world.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways that technological advances can be implemented to enable more breadth in online programs. First, curriculum should be formulated in collaboration with instructors, and the faculty’s questions ought to be answerable by the students.

Unlike these former methods, this is a discipline that is best left to university experts in both the humanities and social sciences, allowing professors to engage with, for instance, a wide range of sources.

Second, students should be allowed to interact with one another more quickly than usual. While many studies of online learning find students who meet and discuss their course material online report the same results as face-to-face students, their encounters often last less than an hour.

In a 2009 experiment led by psychologists from Columbia University, students in an online psychology course spent an average of two hours each week with their peers in more than half of their weekly classes. The face-to-face interaction was still paramount for students’ overall grade point averages, but it did facilitate the conversations that led to individual successes.

In a recent study of tutoring programs, Drexel University’s Lesley Kapp in Philadelphia and Paul Hauptman at Rutgers University of New Brunswick found that students who received more personalized tutoring from classmates had better academic performance.

Finally, there is evidence to suggest that students learn more about themselves when they are engaged by the other students in their program.

When a student is participating in a group discussion, he or she can rely on another student’s knowledge as a parallel to his or her own. While this raises the prospect of social interactions that might be divorced from professional ethics, it also allows students to connect on their own terms.

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