Is online learning moving too fast?

I’ve been teaching and designing online courses for 12 years now, and it seems like ever since I started I’ve been hearing the same thing: “What you’re doing is the way of the future!” Yes, it is, I firmly believe that, and it is also the way of the present.

In my view, decent online provision can’t move fast enough, but I’m getting the impression from my conversations with my face to face colleagues that some institutions could be doing a better job moving in this direction. Naturally, the attractive prospect of expansion into new markets, and the reduced cost of maintaining physical teaching locations is causing a boom in online provision, but it’s very clear to me that this is causing quite a bit of resistance from traditional educators.  While I think that some of the resistance comes from not particularly well informed biases, and also probably some very outmoded ideas about effectiveness and teaching, I really do understand the nature of some of their concerns.  It used to be when I started working in this whole crazy world that successful online educators were both subject matter specialists and also online pedagogy specialists. Now, face to face educators are being forced by their administrations to offer more fully online provision when frankly, they don’t want to.  The availability of open source and free, downloadable learning management platforms seems like an economic solution for many universities in their desire to expand their online provision, but many professors are now being forced to design and teach courses with no training in online learning and a lack of institutional support.  Honestly, I can completely understand the frustration of my face to face colleagues who feel as though they’re having online teaching forced on them when they don’t really understand how to teach this way, and also don’t understand how and when online learning is useful and successful.   Professors are busy enough people without having to take on a whole new level of formal training in teaching and design on top of their other commitments.

I’ve been saying for years that face to face teaching and online teaching are like apples and oranges, they use different strategies, they are best for different populations, and they’re not interchangeable.  Not only have I done a lot of training to learn to teach this way, but I make sure that I’m keeping up on best practices in online teaching through continuing education and reading recent research.  I have chosen to make this my specialty, but not everybody should.  If administrators are rushing into online learning without providing the appropriate support for teachers and students, they will find that their efforts will simply not be successful.

Another consequence of the rush into online learning that I am experiencing is that counselors are pushing students into online courses who are really not suited for them.  I am increasingly having more students in my classrooms who are barely computer literate and who do not receive adequate training on the learning management system.  Based on my observations, I believe that there are many students in my classes who do not know how to initiate an e-mail to me, do not know how to create a document and send an attachment, and who do not know how to find information within the course.  Naturally, all of these issues are addressed in my introductions, and also in the training that the school provides, but my belief is that a lot of the students are frankly just not that competent in an online environment, and advisers are still pushing them into taking online courses.  I’m spending more and more of my time every term addressing what are matters for the helpdesk.  Many students frequently encounter problems with the learning management systems, or with their own ability to use them, and I’m the first port of call even if my ability to help them diagnose and troubleshoot is not that great. It’s not my job!

Online learning is great, and it is the way of the future, but it is also genuinely not for everyone and that goes for both students and teachers.  Of course I would love to see really good online provision expanded, I would certainly love to see more experimental courses on a graduate level, but if we’re going to maintain the track record that we have with success in online learning, it means that we need continuing quality control, which requires training and support for both students and educators.  I have been extremely fortunate that the schools for which I teach have excellent ongoing training and support programs, that have helped make this career path a much more joyous one.  So, yay for more online learing, but only if we’re doing it in a way that we know works, which means good design, good training,  and a commitment to this way of educating people.

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Online Educational Specialist