Scholars have dedicated a lot of print to the needs of online students, and rightly so. Online learning has a unique set of challenges for both the student and faculty. But have we reached a point where we are spending too much time making the distinction between online learning and just learning? With the ubiquitous availability of instructional technologies and our increasing use of technology for teaching, should learning just be discussed as learning, despite the modality?
The differences between online and traditional education are melding as we continue to advance our understanding of what our students are looking for in their educational experiences. Let’s start by looking at some current thinking regarding online learning as a means to begin investigating what students identify as important to their learning. Commonly held misperceptions of online courses are gradually being debunked but students and faculty still too frequently assume that online will (1) have less work and be easier (2) allow for students to complete the work according to their own timetable and (3) not require interaction with fellow students and faculty. A recent study by the Learning House and Aslanian Market Research illustrates the changing environment of online. The report states that we need to realize that online education can no longer be viewed as merely “’flexible and convenient’ . . . The conversation needs to become more nuanced, and institutions need to more clearly share the positive outcomes” of online programs. Online students articulate their belief that “online courses would be better if there was [sic] more contact and engagement.” In addition to the call for more interaction in online courses, students indicate they want to be part of a community, according to the report findings.
How do these identifiers of online learning differ from our goals for traditional student experiences? In reality, they don’t. At Loyola we have invested in a number of ways to engage students with the university community; we recognize the direct tie between the connection to campus and student success and retention. Students do better when they feel a part of a community. Interaction between students and with the faculty member also ranks highly on the scale of teaching activities that students respond to positively. Pair-share, small groups, exploratory writing exercises, and group summary activities are all cited as techniques that get students more actively involved in their learning (Lumpkin 122). Again, the interactivity sought after by online students is also an indicator of successful learning in more traditional environments.
The 2014 ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology report states that 72% of students included in the study stated that the courses they take with some form of online components are preferred for learning. Among the technological features they are most interested in using are learning analytics that suggest: how to improve their performance; help regarding courses they might consider taking; feedback on their academic performance; alerts if their performance slacks (29). The majority of the respondents say they learn best with a blending of both traditional materials and online resources and view the LMS (Learning Management System) as an important part of their learning experience (36). A considerable portion of students indicated they would be better students if they knew more about using different types of technology (34).
Our mission becomes more clearly tied to a blending of learning with effectively-structured technology. We can no longer separate learning from technology and need to continue talking about effective practices in learning: not on-ground or blended or online, but learning that enhances and enforces contemporary approaches to making course content effective and students connected to their learning.
Bogardus Cortez, Meghan. “Online Students Need More Interaction with Peers and Teachers.” Edtech Magazine: Focus on Higher Education. June 22, 2017.
Educause. “ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students & Information Technology, 2014.” https://library.educause.edu/~/media/files/library/2014/10/ers1406.pdf
Lumpkin, Angela, Rebecca M. Achen, Regan K. Dodd. “Student Perceptions of Active Learning.” College Student Journal. Spring 2015, Vol. 49, pp. 121-133.