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Why Is Online Learning Effective?
“It’s such a shame when the only thing that anyone gets out of a program is, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’” So said Fordham Law School Professor Mary Gruber in an interview with Crikey in 2015.
How often do you find yourself reaching the same conclusion? Are you certain a class is effective if you don’t really understand what’s being taught?
Some of the uncertainty around online learning stems from a lack of any standardized metrics. However, many institutions have devised measures that show a return on investment of online schooling—a test, for example, that rates students’ engagement. While such measures can be useful in giving an overall sense of how effectively online schooling works, it is a simplification of education that ignores the human element. There’s a difference between an online course and an online individual, and even the latter is sometimes less effective than the former.
One particularly well-regarded method of measuring the effectiveness of online education is rote memorization of material, followed by answering multiple-choice questions. If students have no interaction with instructors or each other, they’re unlikely to engage with their work. This can lead to weeks of work before the assignment is awarded and worse, grade inflation.
An example of an interdisciplinary class at my alma mater, Iowa State University, gave an insight into the type of things researchers want to observe in the classroom.
Faculty teach a public-interest law course where students are the prosecutors. The class is about to participate in their first mock trial. To coordinate the class, faculty decided to connect the students in different major disciplines through the online Coursera program.
The investigators studied what happened when the students saw one another in the classroom. The students learned from each other, but they also learned from the instructors’ interaction. This does have a downside: it can be difficult to determine whether one student in the class is learning more from being in an online program than another.
With this success on a relatively small scale, the investigators were able to report a 15-percently higher take-home class average and a 14-percently higher placement rate for student progress.
The conclusions here didn’t come from counting test scores or class exam scores. In fact, the researchers found that homework, exams, and submissions from the class had no significant effect on the take-home class average. The only thing that matters is the relationship between the class body and the course content. Students are learning from one another, and this is why a professor’s participation can make a difference.
What about blended online and in-person courses? The authors observed low and even negative effects of this type of course.
The core problem isn’t trying to find the “right” way to teach, but letting teachers do what they do best. This benefits students. This benefits teachers. It can be done. All we need to do is remember that education is not about evaluating success. It’s about teaching.
It’s Not Just About Quality
There are a number of factors that go into teaching. When the ultimate measure of effectiveness can only be determined by comparing results between the classes they are teaching, it tells us nothing. It doesn’t really matter whether the students in my classroom or my students’ classrooms learn from one another as long as we’re teaching.
Fortunately, the differences in the professors’ styles can be useful. My instructors could offer something very different from that in the classroom, and that could result in a dramatic improvement in the class’s outcome.
How much will my online instructor’s engagement play into your understanding of her class content? Well, this goes a long way toward encouraging students to perform better in that class.
Stay tuned for my blog “The Most Important Section of Your Learning and Development” which provides lots of useful ways to engage with critical thinking, writing, problem solving, analysis, and humanities learning.