The wealth of online education

by Charmele Ayadurai

Today’s online learners are no longer a population of mostly adult, mostly employed, place-bound, goal-oriented and intrinsically motivated individuals, but tend to be heterogeneous, younger, dynamic and more responsive to rapid technological innovations.

And their numbers are quite staggering. According to Sloan’s Survey in 2009, there are about 4.6 million students taking at least one class online.

Many agree that students gain significant learning benefits when learning from audio-visuals, simulations and real-life models as opposed to conventional instruction. Therefore, Cloud computing, micro-blogging, mash-ups, viral video, widgets, social networking and 3D computing are no more just a social hype but viewed as sound educational tools.

The plus points of an online education are endless.

Easy access to Wi-fi not only enables students to print handouts and readings only when it is necessary, but also drastically reduces the use of paper and helps them to save on their pocket money.

Students with family or work responsibilities can access course materials at any time of the day. They are given the liberty to complete assignments and homework during their most productive times.

If they are working, they can choose to download reading materials and take up practice exams at their own convenience or use group communication tools in googledoc to present their work without the constraints of meeting their group at a pre-arranged date, time and location.

In an online course, the instructor plays the role of a facilitator who stimulates, guides and challenges his or her students by empowering them with the freedom and responsibility to study at their own time and pace, rather than a lecturer who focuses on the delivery of instruction.

While the instructor takes a back seat, discussions enter a new dimension. Before responding to an instructor’s discussion question or to classmates’ posted comments, students can refer to their course materials and think through the answers.

As a result, they have the opportunity to post well-considered comments without facing the demands of the immediate, anxiety-producing face-to-face discussions, which often elicits the first response that comes to mind rather than the best possible response. Furthermore, each student can view another student’s answers and learn through the exposure to different perspectives.

Online learners can also share their insights and comments on popular social networking platforms such as Facebook or Myspace.

The best ways to teach students how to write more effectively is to have them write more often. Online education has made this maxim a reality. Online courses are generally far more writing-intensive. Over the duration of the course, the quality of students’ work will improve.

Since grading is computerised, instructors can post practice exams and end-of-chapter reviews without worrying about finding the time and resources to analyse results. This means students receive immediate feedback and allows them to understand their weaknesses and strengths, and to plan their studies accordingly.

Pedagogical learning models such as Microworlds, simulations, WebQuests and cognitive apprenticeships are used to support collaborative learning, communication, social learning, evaluation and reflection skills.

MUDs (Multi-User Domain) and MOOs (Multi-Object Oriented) originated in a game called Dungeons and Dragons which was developed for multi-users on the Internet. In educational settings, MUDs and MOOs emphasise social interaction and negotiation through role-playing. As a result, students get to experience all that they would experience in a face-to-face class; only much more interesting and livelier.

There are a few pitfalls that online learners have to watch out for, however.

Considering the busy lifestyles of most people, simply finding the time to attend regular classes may be impossible, so an online education becomes a viable option. However, the reason that online education is a great option – lack of time – is the very reason online education is often difficult.

When attending traditional classes, students go to school at pre-arranged times. They are expected to be in class and are forced to keep up with the instructor’s assignment schedule or risk failing the course. Since an online course gives the students the liberty to work at their own pace, some will find themselves putting the work off until they find they no longer have enough time to finish the requirements.

The basic requirement for taking an online class is access to a computer with Internet access. For online courses with a video element, high-speed Internet connections are often required, although many courses can be accessed through a dial-up connection.

Many online classes require students to have e-mail accounts for submitting assignments and receiving feedback. Others require students to have a headset and/or a webcam for real-time interaction with other students and instructors, while some courses require students to download proprietary software.

Thus, the lack of a nominal level of technological proficiency as a prerequisite for online learning also means students might find it difficult to operate the programme.

In the future, there will be a changing composition of the workforce around the globe. Richard Florida in his new book, The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), sees the emergence of a new class of ‘creatives.’

The creative class needs lifelong continuing education to stay productive and competitive as there is an ongoing need for new knowledge and skills, regardless of the particular content area.

A higher threshold of careers will be required to qualify for a job. The future world, above all else, will be a world of performance, of what a value-added person can contribute. The jobless of the future will be those with a degree but without an insight, an inspiration, and of course, a strong work ethic.

Online learning, despite its shortcomings, is here to stay and will help shape that future world. If you haven’t yet, by all means delve into online learning and exploit the wealth benefits it brings.

Charmele Ayadurai is a Banking and Finance lecturer at Curtin Sarawak. Prior to joining Curtin Sarawak, she worked at Barclays Bank and Natwest Bank in the United Kingdom as a trainee associate, and having obtained her Masters degree, ventured out to work with UNISYS, an American insurance company as a lead verifier, and later on as a business development manager cum entrepreneur with TC Autos. In Malaysia, she has worked as a business development associate with OSK Investment Bank Berhad.