Online Education: No Longer the Red-Headed Stepchild of Development

Teaching is in my blood, always has been. The rush of helping another understand a concept. The mutual connections and intellectual stimulation that flows both ways and creates a collaborative learning environment. Gone are the days of one-way learning, the professor professing and the student passively absorbing.

Oh sure, those environments still exist on many college campus and in even more corporate classrooms. But what a waste of effort, intelligence, and opportunity!

My own learning paradigms have shifted remarkably over the past decade, particularly with the rise and ease of technological innovations in learning.

Eight years ago, I took the leap toward on-line learning, enrolling in a blended MBA program at a reputable university. Given the need to be working full-time and with a family and kids in the picture, the option to study online, at a place and time of my choosing, was intriguing. It was a disaster.

Lectures were simply posted into an online learning management system. Discussion threads were started by the professors, but allowed to quickly peter out. All in all, it was exactly what many had warned online learning would be.

In the years since, however, I’ve gained a completely different perspective, thanks both to my own involvement in providing online education and to a vastly improved experience as a doctoral student in a primarily online degree program.

Done right, online education gains all the advantages of traditional classroom learning, with significant areas in which it actually may exceed the “brick and mortar” approach. The keys to this happening include:

  • Instructor Availability – A surprise to many traditional faculty is the time commitment necessary to successfully instruct in an online environment. Instructors must avail themselves to students by being overly responsive and by providing frequent and on-going feedback.  This is the single-most unexpected time commitment for online instructors, but it’s the most critical for ensuring a high-touch educational experience.  And it’s where traditional webinars, webcasts, and video and audio lectures fall short.
  • Community Building – Because online education typically lacks face-to-face interactions, instructors must include activities that build community between learners.  The bonds between online learners are not difficult to establish, but they do take some creativity and innovative use of collaborative online tools.
  • Leveraging Technology – If posting PowerPoint presentations is your idea of “online teaching,” you will fail. Instructors must incorporate the latest technology tools and activities into the learning process in a way that exceeds what can suffice in an live classroom.  Leveraged effectively, technology can move online learning into a much more dynamic learning environment than many learners have ever before experienced.
  • Required Interactivity – Online learning benefits most from the quality and frequency of dialogue between peers, as well as between student and instructor. Forget about students “hiding” in the back of the classroom. In the online environment, a key component of learning is insistance on frequent (and substantive) interactions in the virtual classroom.
  • Continuous Assessment – Forget the “butts in seats” model of many corporate or brick-and-mortar classrooms. Online instructors must be skilled and diligent about creating on-going assessments of both individual learning and the overall climate of the classroom. Tweaking approaches as a course unfolds is as critical to online teaching, if not moreso, than in traditional classrooms.

It’s time to erase the stereotypes of online learning. The fumbling of early adopters has been replaced by highly effective, increasingly affordable, and innovative virtual learning models that will shape the emerging new paradigm in corporate and post-secondary education. Those that get onboard with this paradigm will find hidden competitive advantages to drive success over the horizon. Those who don’t….well, they just may not exist beyond that horizon.

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