If you approach online education from the perspective of traditional education, you miss the real beauty of digital learning. A few years ago a University professor (Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia) lamented the failings of internet courses. His assumption was that internet courses had to follow the same format that university lecture courses take. His bias and ignorance all gushed out, “…in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will.”
Yeah, he’s right an Internet course never will be a lecture hall course, and I might add lecture hall courses don’t reach the “intellectual joy” echelon all that often. There are some great professors out there, but then there are hordes of mediocre professors out there also, so maybe a change of educational format isn’t such a bad thing. I know, change is painful and many only face change by kicking and screaming, but let’s take a look at what’s different about an online course from a University lecture hall course and see if there aren’t a few advantages in the online format.
For starters, the basic nature of the Internet is that it offers a global network of connections in real time. Learning online can focus on the immediate needs of a large diverse audience that is spread around the globe. The traditional lecture hall series of fifteen or sixteen consecutive lectures spread across a semester were structured for quite different circumstances than what the internet offers. So, while a fascinating lecturer may capture an audience and carry some part of that audience forward from week to week online, that is actually a rare occurrence. According to statistics, only about 5 percent of MOOC registrants complete the course they sign up for. Clearly there is a difference between online education and on campus college education.
Many professors point out how an online lecture doesn’t offer the connections that make learning a group experience. Again that comes from a lecture hall mind set, but how does online learning work best? It’s possible that webinars are a format we should consider when we look at online education. Internet marketers have learned to use short-term online interactions as selling tools. That’s one of the primary uses of webinars. But the format not the content may be what is significant. Those who participate aren’t committed to a long string of interactions, usually they sign up for a single twenty-five minute to hour long webinar – and that’s it. Should online courses begin thinking more in terms of the single interaction? Probably!
That leaves a lot of questions, like: how do you deliver a semester’s worth of content in twenty minutes to an hour? Obviously you don’t. So maybe the structure of the information and the way the group interacts need to be revised to favor online experience. That may be the starting point for how online education takes shape.
Traditional Educational Goals
Maybe it’s not just the structure of the information, maybe we should also consider the goals of the students who take online courses. Some of these courses are now being used to save costs at colleges and universities. An online lecture series is substituted in place of a live lecture hall delivery. That is probably a misuse of online education. That is forcing internet realities onto a campus-based experience and can only diminish the college campus experience. But what if gaining a degree or a certificate isn’t a significant goal of most online students? What if most of these students seek a particular type of information and want that information for a particular use.
For example, I recently watched part of a webinar that lasted a little bit more than an hour and was about a method of using web based training modules to reach an audience of 500,000 people. The content was all about how to use a “web show”, which I learned was something like a TV series that is set up to stream in real time when ever a viewer wants to watch it or a venue wants to deliver the show to an audience. The point is that webinar was a one-time learning experience for me and I got enough information about web shows to figure out what they mean to me. That’s all I was after. That was my goal – to figure out if web shows would be of use in my business.
The goals of college degrees match well with the corporate hierarchy that used to hire a large part of the graduating classes from universities. Now that corporations are not hiring as many recent graduates the connection between college degree and corporate employment is not as significant a goal for some part of the public. That changes the way education works. Committing to years of education on the hope that a job might follow at the end of the experience is taking a lot on faith. That used to work for a larger percentage of those attending colleges, but now a commitment to years is coming under scrutiny. And, with that scrutiny comes a much more sweeping consideration of how educational content should be organized for delivery. Here’s where online education may begin looking at the strengths of internet formats and stop imposing a campus-based structure for educational content. Shorter courses and shorter series of courses are one feature that are likely to come into focus.