The Growth of Online Learning
Online education has been around long enough and is growing in enough countries around the planet that researchers have begun to look very seriously at what counts for satisfaction in online courses. Online students are getting savvy about what makes a great online course and what makes a bad one, and online teachers and teacher trainers are everywhere trying to figure out how that translates to best practices.
One blogger, writing mainly for the corporate training industry, repeated some mind-blowing statistics about the growth of online education. We’ve all heard that in the USA alone, 4.6 million university students had taken at least one class online by 2012. But I, for one, was only dimly aware that experts predict more than 18.6 million students will be in that category by the end of 2014, and that, by the end of 2019, half of all the classes university students take will have been offered online. In the K-12 arena, the US Department of Education republished a statistic first issued in a report from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning: that is, that at least 1.5 million K-12 students had taken at least one class online in 2010 and the number was expected to rise. In fact, some US states are so serious about online education as the way forward that they have established completely online schools at the elementary and secondary levels, and even begun listing the completion of at least one online course as a requirement for high school graduation.
Although around 70% of the online learning revenues worldwide are generated by online classrooms in the US and Europe, another regions are edging up with explosive growth of their own. Asia, for example, is posting 20% gains in online enrollment on year-to-year basis. The ICEF Monitor identified eight countries that are “leading the way” in the establishment and growth of online higher education. Besides the US and the UK, India was singled out as a country in which rapid progress is being made both in the establishment of world-class universities in general, but in online education in particular, with revenues from online courses expected to top $1 billion in US dollars by the end of the decade. Great strides by Australia, China, Malaysia and South Korea were also mentioned, as was the fledging but promising turn towards online education in South Africa.
But What is the Real Foundation of That Growth?
[All CC Images by opensourceway]
The big statistics are staggering but they take our attention away from the foundation upon which the overall trends are built: the inside of that online classroom where online teachers bring their expertise, their love for their subject matter and their love for teaching to bear, and where online students put their energy and their dreams. The best informants for truly understanding what makes a great online course experience and what leaves something to be desired arises equally from teachers and students, their satisfaction and their dissatisfaction, what they care about, and what worries them. As they dance around each other, and, we hope more often not, as they dance with each other in the context of widely varying course delivery styles, classroom and learning management systems, and with the influence of course design theory, teaching philosophies, and local, national, regional and global administrative goals, we all yearn for something wonderful to happen.
Teachers and Students and Satisfaction
In one study of online educators, researchers divided the happy (read: satisfied) teachers from the not-so-happy (read: dissatisfied) teachers and discovered what were the elements that impacted on those differing levels of happiness. For example, almost two-thirds of the dissatisfied teachers (62%) felt that their workload was significantly higher than it would be if they had been teaching the same material in a traditional face-to-face classroom. More than two-thirds of them (68%) felt that their students were not particularly enthusiastic about online classes. Nearly three-quarters of the dissatisfied teachers (74%) felt that they needed to be more creative in their online courses.
On the other hand, 85% of the satisfied teachers felt that the flexibility they were given in their online classroom was important to them. Three-quarters of them felt that the students they taught online were active learners, and a bit more than that (77%) felt that the students are also good at communicating their needs. Among the satisfied teachers, 82% felt that being able to teach students who would otherwise not have access to education or access to the materials available in the online classroom was a big plus.
As I read this report I couldn’t help but wonder if the not-so-happy teachers had been in online classrooms that were overly designed, and/or that were offered by schools that did not allow the teachers to instill some of their own creativity, their own experience, their personalities into the lessons taught. I also wondered if the students had been pushed into the classes by school requirements or found themselves in situations in which they were not given enough information about what was expected of them, either before they signed up, or even as they went along. I also wondered if there had been institutional or instructional barriers that made it hard for the students of the dissatisfied teachers to be enthusiastic about their online experience.
The Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium conducted a study of student satisfaction called What Online Students Want to Tell Faculty. It is worth a read no matter what your online teaching context might be. Quite a large number of “instructions” for online teachers were listed. For me the ones that stood out were: 1) design a course that’s organized, clear as to what needs to be done and when; 2) give clear feedback; 3) be patient, accessible, and available; and 4) in discussions let the students talk and then add comments. The students also did not want to feel self-taught but rather wanted the teacher to be “present” in the course, watching, encouraging, adding, and interacting.
Another article, posted by the Academic and Business Research Institute and written by Jollean Sinclaire from Arkansas State University, reviewed the literature on both online learning and job satisfaction and found a number of commonalities. The main elements of student satisfaction appeared to her to be: 1) course design; 2) the learning environment; 3) the ability of the students to control the pace at which they were learning; and finally, 4) interaction and communication. That is, students needed both to feel comfortable with the course design and learning environment, and to exert some control over their experience. Interacting and communicating well with their teacher and fellow classmates was also key.
Not So Much Difference After All
In looking all these materials over, it occurred to me that a great deal of agreement could be inferred from the teachers’ list and the students’ list. For example, online teachers were happiest when they had some control over their classrooms, in that satisfied teachers felt happiest when they had flexibility and dissatisfied teachers were unhappy that they were not, or could not be more creative when they taught online. Students were also happiest when they had some control. They wanted to know what was going on in their classes, what was expected of them, when and how they should respond.
Happy teachers identified their students as active learners. Students, on the other hand, wanted teachers who were present, who engaged in the classroom but didn’t overshadow the students’ contributions and were encouraging. In a sense students were asking for active facilitators: teachers who both led and took the journey with their students.
Enthusiasm was also key to both groups. The not-so-happy teachers found the lack of enthusiasm for online learning among their students to be somewhat debilitating. But perhaps the students were feeling unexcited about the courses because of reasons apart from the mechanics of the course design, or the fact that it was delivered online. Truth be told, having an online teacher with a passion for his or her subject matter is as important as it is in the face-to-face classroom. The enthusiasm that comes from passion can buoy students along when the going gets tough, when deadlines are approaching, or communication is dragging a bit. Maybe dissatisfied teachers allowed their unhappiness to dampen their passion, or maybe they weren’t feeling so enthusiastic for other reasons and that got communicated to the students. Students were also looking for encouragement and perhaps that need arose from a wish to be respected and heard. In a sense then, maybe teachers and students just wanted to be appreciated for their efforts.
So What Do They Really Want?
In trying to think about the overlap between what teachers and students really want out of their online education experience, I put together the infographic below. I’m not a graphics artist, so I hope you’ll forgive the home-made feel to this.
Whatever the overall statistics tell us—and we know as online teachers that the growth estimates may be low considering the economies of the planet and the real and socially satisfying human connections that are made every day in online classrooms—the engine driving the growth is always going to be the success of the relationship between the teacher and the students and their shared journey through the material.
Best practices are really about finding and identifying what the people in the classroom need: what the teacher needs to teach and learn, what the student needs to learn and teach. There are elements in design, administrative and economic support, in classroom management techniques, and in sheer everyday human understandings that impact on how welcoming an online course is, how demanding it is, what success means, what encouragement means, and what both the teacher and the students take away from the experience. The numbers are big and often global, but the foundation on which the numbers rest is basic and local.
I find it rather nice to know that when that relationship between teacher and students in an online classroom is nurturing and reciprocal, the best online teaching and learning may occur. Success in online education—whether in one class or a program, in a single school or many schools in a region, or at a country-wide level—is not just about the enrollment numbers or the revenue, not just about the delivery system or the administrative details. It’s about creativity, flexibility, in-class communication, and the all-important passion for teaching and learning. Maybe it’s more than nice: maybe that makes me truly happy. I hope it makes you happy too.