Plaguing our screens, infiltrating our ears, dominating headlines: will online education actually work?


Addressing what makes online education work.

Many institutions have done their best to manage a rapid transition to online learning. Suffice to say, it has been fraught with challenges, leading to varying teacher/learner experiences and wide-ranging commentary on the future of online learning with many left asking the resounding question: Is online education actually effective?

Higher education is in perpetual flux, responding to larger trends of social, political, economic and cultural importance. But to appropriately answer the question it is vital that one analyses the variables impacting the success of online delivery.

Firstly, institutions were given minimal notice of closures. Developing digital literacies for staff and students is frenzied, and for universities not resourced for this level of support a necessary increase in hours has resulted for teaching staff, support staff and students to adapt.

Secondly, designing for online is not the same as simply putting face-to-face teaching materials on the web. The process for online-delivery is extensive, as materials need to be broken down and rebuilt with flexibility in mind. Face-to-face delivery allows staff to read students’ expressions as a way of checking their comprehension and understanding and allows for real-time clarification.

Comparatively, online instructions must be explicit for learners, with constant reference to support materials. Teaching staff must also regularly check for student engagement in the online space.

Consider, too, that when students enrol in online learning they do so for their own purposes and understand the obligations that come along with it. Students who enrol in face-to-face education seek a different experience, and this adaptation to a new environment can be particularly challenging.

I believe that once institutions recognise (and accept) the need for their new degrees to be 100% online and global - thus treating online learning and education the same way that remote and flexible working has been treated by corporations and businesses in years’ past – it will be wondrous to consider all that can be achieved when it comes to educational excellence in the online realm.

The key draw card is the flexibility that online learning enables

Today’s professional landscape hosts employees who have changed career-paths multiple times and now more than ever, upskilling is necessary to remain relevant. The flexibility of online learning allows those who work full-time, have home duties or other conditions stopping them from attending traditional education settings, to further their knowledge and skills while gaining the desired qualifications.

Students as resources

Online materials should differentiate from traditional teaching in relation to the chunking of content, which sees students learning through short topic-based videos before consolidating their learning by engaging in activities. These activities vary greatly and range from independent to group-based undertakings.

Seems obvious to say, but group-based activities help to build communities of learners, vital for engagement. From the point of online inception, students join groups and continue to discuss and collaborate throughout their learning journey.

Thus we begin to view the student as a resource – given online courses are (usually) available to international audiences, faculty can draw on the students’ varying experiences, skillsets and expertise to enhance peer-to-peer learning.

Constantly ask, “How do we best develop this program for the online learner?”

Student success in the online realm is heavily contingent on a small number of essential factors such as engaging delivery and deliberate design; regular teacher and peer engagement; and opportunities to connect learning with real-world experience.

Paramount to student success online, I believe, is regular and explicit facilitator engagement and feedback.

I think it will be equally as important for faculty staff to reasonably anticipate, and prepare for, the impact of online learning on the wellbeing and mental health of students given the framework or environment in which many online learners find themselves.

In an ideal world, through both formative and summative tasks, facilitators provide students with explicit feedback designed to improve their confidence, preparedness, knowledge and skills, and thus ensure their graduates are well-equipped to join innovative and dynamic workplaces and industries in 2020, and beyond.

An estimated 1.4 billion children have witnessed the closure of their schools right now (WHO). That’s over a billion kids who need exciting new ways to learn the same old stuff. To suggest that nothing will come of this period of transformation is like saying the internet has not fundamentally altered the way we live, work and play.

About Dr Sue Brown

Dr Sue Brown is educating the next generation of sport leaders in her role as Director of Federation University Australia’s and the World Academy of Sport’s new Bachelor of International Sport Management. Sue’s passion for sport and education is reflected through her ongoing and varied community involvement, acting as an ambassador and reference group member for the City of Ballarat’s Active Women and Girls Strategy, and a member of AFL Victoria’s Gender Equality Group. Sue was awarded the 2016 International Women’s Day Award by Golden Plains Shire for her involvement in, and advocacy for, community sport and for her performance as a role model to peers and the community for outstanding public service.

Sue’s long list of contributions to education and student life at the University have been recognised through accolades including the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in 2019 for Leadership and Transformational Change. Sue added a PhD in 2015 (with a focus on how women engage in leadership and how they develop as leaders in a sporting context) to her repertoire, and she continues to be a known-leader within her community and a voice and advocate for women in sport, having published and written several peer-reviewed articles.

About Karalee Dwyer

Karalee Dwyer is the Learning Designer for International Sport Management at Federation University. In this position, she supports staff to further develop their courses in order to enhance the learning experience of all students. Karalee assists in constructive alignment, scaffolding of knowledge and skills, and the implementation of current and emerging digital platforms and tools to facilitate and broaden the development of conceptual understanding of students.

Karalee recognised her passion for enhancing education and learning opportunities after teaching in a secondary setting for five years. She recently obtained her Graduate Certificate of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages which has increased her knowledge and understanding of global learners’ requirements. Before moving into supporting the degree on a full-time basis, Karalee worked as a Learning Designer across two schools at Federation University for three years, developing staff knowledge of effective application of digital tools to create effective blended and online learning environments.

Article published by Dr Sue Brown on Linkedin


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