How Do We Meet Today’s Online Education Challenges?

online education challengesOnline education is an expanding industry at all levels. From K-12 to higher ed we’re seeing the benefits of educational technology and Internet access, but not without a few challenges to continued growth and acceptance.

Identifying the best possible strategies for online education initiatives is a common goal for instructors, students, course designers, administrators, and technologists alike. Last month our Inside Online Learning chat (#IOLchat) hosted a discussion via Twitter that asked participants to share not only specific issues of concern, but also realistic suggestions for moving forward.

What are you most concerned about right now?

My thanks (and an apology) to someone in my professional learning network (whose name I’ve long forgotten), for posting this question online recently. I thought it was a great way to capture educators’ and students’ most immediate thoughts about their courses, schools, technology choices, and more.

This is the question that inspired the #IOLchat session I mentioned previously. The responses during that conversation led to a list of ideas and, of course, more questions. Here’s what our chat participants were most concerned about:

Changing Demographics

Students are increasingly non-traditional (i.e., older), even on college campuses. They often have prior work experience, and are juggling family and employment commitments along with their classes. They bring different learning characteristics and support needs to their institutions, which may or may not be reacting to the change.

  • Technology skills are a concern. While students of any age may be used to communicating with social media or working with tech in the office, they may not be prepared to participate in an online learning environment.
  • Failing to recognize the changing tides in research and application at all levels (e.g., institutional, program, course) will lead to limited progress and success for students, instructors, and administrators.

Lack of Authentic Learning Experiences

Online courses can become static presentations of information with quizzes to evaluate reading comprehension and concept understanding. It’s a good place to start, but doesn’t do what we want online education to do – engage students in meaningful learning activities that change their perspectives, enhance their knowledge and skills, and prepare them for the choices they’ll make after graduation.

  • Creating an atmosphere that fosters and encourages authentic learning is an ongoing task. As educators we should be continually striving to review and revise our approach and materials to include real-world examples, opportunities for creativity, and clearly-stated objectives and benefits of participation.
  • Selecting instructional strategies that lead to “learning by doing” can include a variety of problem-solving activities and project-based assignments, as well as a maker’s approach to creating with technology.

Balancing Engagement and Scaling

There’s a push within many institutions to explore online education as a way to expand access to more students, and increase enrollment. But short course production time frames and unrealistic goals can lead to over-extension of already limited resources. This is a challenge that affects all parties involved in the delivery of and participation in an online class.

  • Support is required as a foundation for learning and teaching. From tech help desks and software access to advising and library databases, creating an online program is more than just offering classes.
  • The course design process should include consideration of class sizes and the impact this may have on communication, collaboration, and content presentation. Embed opportunities for purposeful engagement.
  • Encourage personalized interaction, rather than reliance on “canned” or overly standardized feedback. Building positive learning relationships within the context of an online course means being authentic and genuine, establishing presence, and connecting with each learner. Administrators can share clear expectations with instructors and monitor things that can impact them like large class size and limited access to communication tools.

Staying Relevant

Improved technological capabilities offer better, faster ways to connect in the context of online teaching and learning. However, the options seem to change much faster than any of us can keep up with individually. Staying up-to-date with the latest resources requires support.

  • Professional development funding is hard to come by these days. Conference attendance may be out of the question, but many institutions offer seminars, tutorials, guidelines, advice, and one-on-one assistance through faculty development offices and instructional design centers.
  • Maintaining motivation to stay current is part of the overall effort required. We can learn in many ways, formal and informal, from participating in professional association activities and MOOCs, to initiating conversations with colleagues and setting aside time for reading.

What needs to happen in order for online education to grow and improve?

Becoming aware of current challenges and their potential impact on our courses is just the beginning. We can spend time listing the problems, but then we need to get to work. How can the industry-at-large make needed changes happen? The chat group suggested the following ideas:

  • Involve administrators with educational technology expertise in curriculum and policy decisions. Don’t relegate them to the traditional “tech” roles in academic computing and IT offices.
  • Partner with museums, community makerspaces, leaders in the field, and employers to integrate more “real world” experiences and conversations. Think about how students want and need to apply what they are learning in online classes to their lives and work.
  • Realize it isn’t going to be easy. Creating and maintaining high-quality online education opportunities is time and effort intensive. Be willing to change your approach, probably more than once. Dedicate resources toward continuous improvement.
  • Support all of your teachers, lecturers, and professors. Faculty members need community as much as students do. Work on building resources, training opportunities, and communication channels that integrate all instructors: on-campus and online, part-time and full-time, adjunct and tenure-track.
  • Change stereotypical perceptions about online education. We’ve come a long way in this area, but many students still enter our classes with “earn a degree in your pajamas” expectations. Can you earn a degree in your pajamas? Absolutely, but it will still take time and effort. Marketing efforts can incorporate academic quality and activities, as well as convenience and flexibility.

Many thanks to @ceasom, @Melynda_Conner, @jshamsy, @k20, @clowningar for sharing not only their concerns about online education, but also suggestions for improving future learning environments.

What challenges do you face? What are your recommendations for solving these problems? Start similar discussions with your colleagues and get involved with your institution to provide input when and where you can.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog