If you have ever taken an online learning course, in particular one relating to a nationally recognised qualification, you will probably sit in either one of two schools of thought on the subject; it was really worthwhile (possible, but still very hard to find), or it was rubbish (probably the more likely outcome). With the immense range of so-called online learning programs currently available, it is sometimes hard to fathom why the vast majority of them still fall into the latter category.
Online learning is evolving, slowly, but too often the most energy goes into the content of the course. However, it is the overall experience that the learner has whilst undertaking the course that remains woefully neglected. Online learning should be much more than providing students with a stack of PDFs and wishing them good luck with it all. This anachronistic approach continues to give initially highly motivated students a poor experience, quickly leading to disengagement and the inevitable dropouts.
Whilst providing relevant and current content is crucial to achieving the desired learning outcomes for the student, it is how the content is provided that is consistently overlooked. IMHO, online providers should be considering other equally important pieces of the online puzzle, such as:
- Get creative with how the content is accessed– think less words on pages and more interactive tools that encourage the student to direct their own learning journeys, video presentations by experts in their fields, podcasts by experienced industry consultants and links to relevant websites for networking and subscription opportunities to help develop skills and knowledge. Mixing things up will keep things interesting, as well as catering to the many different learning styles we all have.
- ‘Online’ does not mean ‘isolated’– online learning gives people the opportunity to work at a rate that suits them, but this should not mean they can’t be connected with like-minded individuals to share ideas and swap war stories if this suits their style of learning. Using virtual classrooms (e.g. webinars) occasionally and online forums provides a sense of collaboration and inclusion often missing in online courses. Why not throw in a one-on-one online or over the phone coaching session, just to make sure they’re on track and enjoying the ride. It is a myth that most people take up online learning because they do not want to study in a group or interact with others in any way.
- Make sure it truly is ‘online’– the learning content must be accessible any time, anywhere (within reason) and on any device, including mini tablets and smart phones, even if this content is just chunk-sized in the form of videos, iBooks or podcasts (I would not expect anyone to complete an assessment on a mobile phone!). Being able to catch a 10-minute podcast while waiting to catch a bus is becoming very important to today’s time-challenged, tech-savvy students.
- Offer exceptional student support– there’s a lot more to providing quality support than posting a list of FAQs online and hoping for the best. Support must be real, someone who can listen to concerns and provide solutions, whether the issue be a technical one (“Ugh! I can’t upload my assignment!”), or course-related (“Can I RPL any parts of this course?”).
So, what’s all the fuss about? Providing quality online learning is very achievable provided it is created with the students’ experience as a priority, not just an information dump. Keep it exciting, challenging and relevant and you will have a greater chance of keeping students engaged through to completion.