At a time when the half-life of knowledge is six to 18 months, and unexpected problems are the rule, continuous learning is the cornerstone of career success. Consequently, a growing number of us are turning to online education for degrees, certificates, and other specialized training, primarily because of its convenience and affordability. Yet while these attributes are certainly attractive, the real advantage often lies in the learning experience itself. In fact, well-designed, technology-enhanced courses “ whether fully or just partially online “ have proven to be more empowering than their face-to-face only counterparts. Below, I will discuss three ways technology-enhanced courses can benefit learners.
Personalization. Online courses, more than face-to-face learning, can accommodate the unique needs of individual learners. Contrary to popular practice, one size does not fit all when it comes to creating effective learning environments and experiences. Aside from obvious differences in age, background, and lifestyle, learners also come with a wide range of experiences, skills, and learning preferences. Although this diversity can be difficult to address in a face-to-face classroom, the online environment lends itself particularly well to the task, given extraordinary advancements in interactive technology.
By carefully choosing from among the seemingly endless assortment of digital course enhancements, we can tailor e-learning activities and materials to optimize individual learning styles. For instance, podcasts work extremely well for auditory learners, while mind-mapping tools make it possible for visual learners to chart their thoughts and ideas. Equally important, there are sophisticated online learning systems that spontaneously adapt course content and teaching methods to reflect the pace at which lesson concepts are mastered, so e-learners are far better equipped to connect the dots between what they know and what they need to learn.
Interactivity. Quality online education moves the focus from passive teaching to active learning, by exploiting many of the same technologies we use every day to connect and collaborate with just about everyone in our lives. For centuries, educators have put great stock in passive teaching tools, such as lectures and textbooks, relegating students to taking notes, memorizing what they need for the exam, and once it’s over, forgetting most of what they’ve heard and read. Experts, however, contend that by connecting and collaborating with others, we not only learn more, we retain it longer. By taking advantage of the interactive technologies we use in our everyday lives, we can create collaborative virtual environments and communities that make it easier for us to acquire relevant knowledge and reinforce valuable career skills.
Take webinars, for example. These online seminars connect learners with recognized experts in their fields, from anywhere in the world. And by incorporating the latest audio and video conferencing software, webinars promote active and ongoing exchange among presenters and other participants. Likewise, social networking platforms have given rise to online communities of practice, where like-minded professionals meet to generate knowledge, solve problems, and share resources.
Engagement. Well-designed virtual learning environments offer unprecedented opportunities for us to learn by doing, under real-world, real-time conditions. Successful football players don’t learn how to run a touchdown by reading a book or listening to a lecture. They learn by doing it repeatedly, under various field conditions and against many different adversaries, with plenty of feedback from coaches and teammates alike. The same goes for any aspiring professional, which is why we value so-called “authentic” learning experiences like apprenticeships and internships.
But in an interconnected world with increasingly complex problems to address “ like super storms, cybercrime, and bioterrorism “ these in-person experiences may be harder to come by. That being said, online educators are rushing to create virtual facsimiles, using a variety of digital tools. Multi-player simulations and videogames immerse learners in problem-based activities and role-playing exercises, aimed at developing the skills they need to become successful practitioners in their fields. Equally important, they remove the obvious risk factors associated with such real-life scenarios as military preparation for battle or public health training for disaster response.
Remote access technologies also afford a unique chance for emerging scientists, engineers, and network security professionals to experiment from a distance, using real-world scenarios, hands-on applications, and state-of-the-art equipment. And remotely located smart sensors furnish access to actual data sets produced under authentic conditions, for students to use in conducting their own field investigations.
Of course, the case for e-education will only grow stronger, especially as technology advancements give rise to new professional disciplines, such as cybersecurity, bioinformatics, and digital communications, which are obviously best taught online. Even traditional fields like economics, accounting, and nursing require an increasing amount of digital literacy. Beyond that, digital natives will lobby for greater control over their learning process, while the demand for expanded and cost-effective learning opportunities will undoubtedly fuel a new generation of MOOCs and other online providers.
At the end of the day, however, quality will supersede convenience, control, and affordability as e-education’s primary selling point, driving it squarely into the mainstream of higher learning.
An abbreviated version of this article was published in the USA Today Online Education insert on March 15, 2013.
Hear Dr. Aldridge speak in person at Connect 2013, our online higher education conference.