Over the years, online education has sparked many a lively and often contentious debate around the halls of academia. Yet, given the tremendous impact of interactive technology on our personal and professional lives, it’s becoming increasingly obvious — even to the naysayers — that these digital tools can indeed transform the way we learn.
In fact, evidence is mounting to support the claim that well-designed, technology-enhanced learning is every bit as good as — and, in some respects, even better than — its in-person counterpart. Likewise, survey after survey reports the growing number of students, educators and employers who are becoming true believers in the merit of an online degree from a reputable institution. In other words, quality is and always will be the real benchmark of academic value, regardless of how we deliver the education.
While it’s true that quality means different things to different people, you know you’ve hit the mark when your students have acquired the expert knowledge and complex skills they need to hit the ground running in an ever-more-sophisticated workforce. Cognitive science reveals that the best way to achieve this outcome is through active, authentic and customized learning experiences that integrate problem- and knowledge-based instruction. And with the amazing array of available technologies, online educators are now far better equipped to create these experiences.
Here are three key factors to consider in evaluating quality:
1. Self-paced should never mean “on your own”
There’s no doubt we’ve come a long way since the early days when course modules were little more than a series of hand-outs published and delivered online. Back then, virtual study was a lonely experience, for the most part, predicated solely on a student’s ability to passively absorb information. Still, for many, it was an acceptable tradeoff for the privilege of learning from anywhere, at any time.
But we now have the capacity to actively engage online students, individually and collectively, in meaningful learning experiences that strengthen such important career skills as written communication, perspective taking and creative problem solving. While quality courses offer students the advantage of learning at their own pace, they also provide multiple pathways for connecting and collaborating with fellow classmates through a variety of interactive digital applications, from discussion boards, shared documents and social media to videoconferencing and virtual worlds.
At the same time, instructors are always on hand (via email, discussion board and phone) to offer ongoing feedback and clarification, both of which are essential for deeper learning. In addition, quality online programs provide round-the-clock digital access to high-tech, high-touch support services, including academic advising and library resources, writing assistance and tutoring.
2. The learning space should readily accommodate diversity
Given the growing emphasis on continuous education, today’s online student demographic is increasingly multicultural, multigenerational and multidimensional. That’s why robust virtual learning environments integrate a variety of intuitive technologies across multiple platforms chosen with diversity in mind — from age and ability to cultural tradition and learning style.
That said, course materials and activities are customized to meet the unique preferences of individual students for interaction or independence; oral or written expression; simulated experience or stimulating lecture. For instance, videoconferencing technology is not only easy to use, but also supports the face-to-face social exchange so many of our students genuinely need and enjoy. What’s more, there are intelligent systems that spontaneously adapt course content and teaching strategies to help struggling learners grasp difficult concepts.
3. There should be ample opportunities to learn by doing
This is perhaps the most important of the three points. Most of what we do in our professional lives — from performing an intricate medical procedure to negotiating a complicated business deal — requires repetitive practice, under various conditions and with plenty of feedback from others. That’s why quality online courses promote authentic learning by incorporating hands-on virtual experiences grounded in real-life problems and real-world scenarios.
Educational videogames, multi-level simulations and remote access technologies make it possible for students to learn by doing, as they apply expert knowledge and practice complex skills within a safe but challenging virtual environment. Equally impressive, these facsimiles are designed to generate tremendous amounts of data for instructors to use in assessing performance and personalizing instruction.
This is the first of a two-part series by Drexel University Online President Dr. Susan Aldridge exploring quality in technology-enhanced education. In the conclusion, Dr. Aldridge shares case studies exploring some of the most innovative and effective uses of technology to enhance the learning experience.
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