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In certain educational contexts, online learning can be more effective than in-class instruction for pupil learning outcomes. Research shows that students can retain between 25-60% more content when learning online. In contrast, the information retention rates from face-to-face instruction are much lower at only 8% to 10%.

Students can learn new skills and concepts quicker online than when in the classroom. E-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn a concept than when compared to a traditional classroom setting. This is because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-visiting material, skipping sections that they are already familiar with, or accelerating through learning material according to their schedule.

Online Learning Gives Freedom to Learn

Again, we have touched on this point a little, but online learning can free people to pursue their educational interests and aspirations in any area of their choosing, regardless of geographical location. Online learning allows the learner and the teacher to be free from the historical limitations that have been placed – which are obvious and understandable restrictions on traditional and geographically-present education.

Schools, colleges, and universities still need to deal within budget limits, overheads and staffing issues for certain courses, and to a certain degree this will always be the case. Institutions may not have been able to hire enough staff and teach all the courses that might interest students. This can lead to a reduction in a course syllabus, which leaves learners without the in-depth knowledge of a particular subject area. Furthermore, if some courses are not in as high a demand, there is a greater chance that the institution will cut them. Online learning can also open up access to new learners who are geographically removed from an institution and so add to what an instution can offer potential students.

Online learning can address this problem. New learning programmes appear almost every day. People can find information on any subject online. This does not place the same burden on institutions as online learning tools can deliver this information to a large audience without much additional expense. This makes quality education more accessible to learners. 

Online Learning Means Self-Paced Learning

man working at a desk using three computers

Online learning is flexible when it comes to the learner and time management. Students can choose to follow a full-time or a part-time programme if they want to complete an online degree. This is especially important for learners who would be classes as mature learners, where they are older than full time students but also may have a family or work commitments. Where there is also an option to enroll part time on a course, this would allow the learner to commit the level of time that they can reasonably commit, in light of their other responsibilities.

There are a lot of courses that are using new methods of assessment to help ease student requirements. Assessments using video content, smaller (or weekly) tests that are worth 5% of the overall module mean that there is a different structure to the overall assessment of the module, makes online learning more convenient for those learners who have to balance studies with family or work responsibilities.

Asynchronous classes give students the control to create their own learning schedules in a way that fits their life. They get full control over their study sessions. If there is a section that students are familiar with, then they can move through these sections quickly and spending some extra time on more complicated or new topics. As a result, a learner can get the most out of class, achieving greater educational mastery over the learning content than compared to sitting in the classroom.

Online Learning: Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning

Synchronous learning is where the teacher and the learners are in the same place, at the same time, in order for learning to take place.

Asynchronous learning is a student-centered teaching method widely used in online learning as the student can access the learning material at a time that suits them and their schedule (around jobs and family for example). With asynchronous learning, the teacher will typically construct the learning pathway, which the student can then follow at their own pace. This pace can be governed by the instructor in some cases – perhaps where the course has certain materials released or made available for a certain period of time (e.g. 1 week), or it can present all the material for the course which would give the learner the ability to plan their learning and work throuigh the content in the given time.

Synchronous learning will always have its place in education. Full-time mandatory education up to GCSE and then the optional A-Level / Level 3 qualifications are traditionally served on a face-to-face basis. There is a mixture of support and opposition for online learning at these age groups – most of which came to the fore during the pandemic. However I would argue that there is a place for these types of learning in full-time education, but it needs to be carefully planned and designed. Much of our online learning was initially thrust upon us as a reaction to the context of events as they arose, but intentional online learning can be of greate benefit to the learner. Video tutorials that allow learners to rewind instruction simply cannot be replicated in the classroom without holding back the class. Pupils may not feel comfortable doing this and so online learning gives pupils this advantage of reviewing the content as much as they need. This works also for pupils with additional needs and for those with processing difficulties.

I think as a result of the pandemic, schools should seek to implement a carefully planned curriculum that makes use of both synchronous and asynchronous (or blended) learning. Pupils have already experienced online learning, so why force them to return to an inferior and less effective method of learning?

Implementing this blended online learning gives both the teacher and the learner the best of all methods. Synchronous learning (be it face-to-face in a classroom, or on a scheduled online meeting) is of benefit to building relationships in the class and a rapport with the teacher and so should not be ignored completely. For Further & Higher Education institutions, it may not be practical to have a face-to-face meeting in a geographical location, particualarly if learners are spread across different countries. But an online meeting could be arranged very simply as most HE institutions will have these arrangements already in place.

Platforms like YouTube (and to a lesser extent, Vimeo) are already used by students on a daily basis and can be accessed on smartphones. Teachers can upload simple tutorial videos that are subject-specific and build their own teaching library of online video content to enable further online learning outside of the classroom. These can be used for both synchronous and asynchronous teaching methods and so give the teacher greater flexibility over how their learning is designed for their students.

Online Learning Can Lower Costs

It is no secret that education is expensive. At the time of writing, it is being considered in Northern Ireland for the cost of university courses for students to rise from around £4000 to £7000 (while also reducing the number of places, which seems counter-productive). Student loans for US students reached $1.7 trillion by the end of 2020. Online learning can be much more affordable than traditional, classroom-based classes. Even if the cost of tuition remained the same, online learning could enable learners to save money in not having the cost of living expenses by not having to be in geographical proximity to their place of study.

We should not also forget about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that offer free access courses that  in some cases, can also be used towards course credits.

Online students can also save on textbooks as most learning materials are digital. Movements like Project Gutenberg or Open Education Resources (OER), like OER Commons can be used to aid learning at no cost to the learner.  Some textbooks are still priced proibitively, with the digital version is sometimes a more attractive option. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. One book I had listed on a Programming module I taught in a previous job was ‘Starting our with Python’ by Tony Gaddis (you can see it on Amazon here). The (brand new) paperback version is only priced £12.35 higher than the digitial version. It’s a large book, so I recommended the physical version to students on the basis that they could annotate the physical copy with their own notes). 

Other textbooks that I have used or viewed in the past across a number of computing topics have been disappointingly and quite prohibitively priced from a learning perspective. As an employed teacher I have the financial ability to affrod the textbooks, but would actively look to find suitable learning alternatives – be it free or a pdf ebook that will help me achieve my learning goals. Other types of learning material is now also available to learners. YouTube and other online video tutorials can be of great benefit to learning, not to mention much lower in price(or free).

From an institution persepctive, online learning can reduce costs of having the building open and all the associated costs. There would be no need for rooms to be booked along with any IT requirements for learners as this would be pushed back to the learner to have a suitable IT setup at home, which most would now have.

Online Learning From Home

woman learning from home

We have already touched on this aspect of online learning that gives students the flexibility of learning anywhere they want. There is no dress code (although clothes are generally advised if online), there is no commuting to a class, and no uncomfortable seats. Students are able to choose any place to study wherever they feel comfortable, which could include a local cafe. The learner can go straight to learning without wasting time on packing to ensure they have all the correct learning materials, or quickly changing after a day at work. Naturally, the home is a place where the student will feel most relaxed and comfortable. This will reduce any feeling of pressure and stress and so allow the learner to be in the best position, ready to learn and to grapple with the new concepts or skills they are studying. I have seen firsthand how this type of positive atmosphere contributes to better academic outcomes.

Online Learning And Technical Skills Development

Online education develops a students’ transferable technical skills by encouraging them to access and use several digital learning tools. They will familiarise themselves with the software needed for video conferencing, messaging, project management, and sharing files with their instructor and with other students. As technologies are now used across all industries and job sectors, these skills become vital to overall employment – not just within the educational sphere of learning. Given that lifelong learning is also a conceept that we will emphasise to continual professional development throughout their career. This must start in education.

Currently, many people not only study but also work remotely. Online learning helps them to build a solid skill base and understand how this or that digital tool functions and how it can optimise their performance. These skills have helped many people to secure a new job because all employers value people who know their way around a digital environment; are actively invovled in online learning; or have the skills to develop an online learning platform.

Online Learning Gives A Broader Worldview

online learning meeting

As online learning pushes against current learning boundaries, it is also broadening global discussions and exposing students to new ideas and experiences. It now facilitates a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary approach to education, which produces a learning process with new ideas and perspectives. Where learners (in a particular course) are becoming more multi-cultural, it creates new experiences for the learners by exposing them to new ways of thinking and viewpoints that they might not have previously considered or known about. Consider the statistic that in Northern Ireland (my home) according to the 2011 census, 98.28% of the population is white. I’m not intending this as a comment on the level or existence of racism, but because of the ethnic make-up of our country, I know in my own experience, I might not actively consider other ethnic perspectives because I have not been previously exposed to them. I’m certainly not against them and happy to learn new ideaas and perspectives, but through online learning, I can develop new perspectives through interacting with other students from other geographical locations. Online learning can bring a multi-cultural element to learning simply by interacting with students from other ways of life and this can only serve to be an enriching aspect to online learning.

Online learning also promotes the idea that education and professional development do not require impossible things. Anyone can learn something new in the comfort of their home. – it does not matter whether it is a full-time online degree or a free course on a MOOC (like FutureLearn), online learning has options and access for everyone. Every step, no matter how small it might be, can contribute to helping to move people closer to their aim. Online learning helps people to become self-directed learners who are open to new information and can suggest innovative ideas to improve the world around them.

There Must Be Some Negatives to Online Learning Though?

woman in wheelchair sitting at a table

Online Learning Means More Work for teachers

Online learning does generate more work for teachers. There is simply no getting away from it. And the people I feel who need to hear this (from experience) are the managers who see online learning as a new (not to mention quick & easy) revenue stream.

The ‘simple’ part of the job is standing in front of a class and delivering the curriculum content. It’s much easier to understand class humour; to take part in a group discussion; for the teacher to correct errors or to discuss material/progress with each student individually.

The time and cognitive effort it takes to produce an online course is greater than a classroom-based curriculum. Greater attention, detail and planning is needed to deliver a curriculum of the same standard.

Feedback and marking also take longer. During the second lockdown in Northern Ireland, I was delivering a degree module on Interactive Web Authoring (front end HTML, CSS & JS). When students sent through their work if they were stuck on a certain point, the process of reviewing their work involved downloading their file, opening it on the HTML editor I was using, reading the entire file to understand their coding style, find their error and then reply explaining how they were to fix the error.

If I was teaching that module again, this time around I would simply ask them to share their screen to show me what was happening – but life is not always so simple in programming and so while I think this would be a way to improve my feedback, there is no guarantee it would help them as much as the detail I was able to give them in written text.

Online Learning is More Difficult on the Pupils (and Parents)

There is no doubt that a whole day of virtual learning that follows a school timetable is difficult for anyone to focus on. It can also be difficult for parents to manage.

Teachers have a different type of relationship with children, this is mediated by certain rules and there is an emotional line is not crossed without consequence. However, even teachers find it difficult to teach their own children because of these lines being blurred.

Is Online Learning the Future?

That said, most schools have observed an increase in parental engagement with their online learning platforms but some have also had to lower expectations of how much online learning time children can do in a week. Older children appear to cope better than younger ones. This would seem evident given the discipline that is needed for online learning. Younger children do not possess this level of discipline or concentration due to the age difference and maturity differences – hence why online learning begins to increase in overall effectiveness as the age of the pupil increases until adult maturity is reached.

So while there have been periods of enforced online learning for all pupils during a lockdown, typically online learning will continue to be develop as a favoured model for institutions who want to raise their profile beyond the nearest political and geographical borders and attract an international profile of learner. For compulsory education in the post-primary sector, online learning should and hopefully will become more of a blended learning model in which classroom instruction is used alongside online learning for outside of the classroom learning.

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