Learning without borders: online education on the rise

Elliot Gowans, Senior VP International, D2L, discusses the benefits of online learning, and how to optimise courses

For many students in further and higher education it can be a challenge to attend a study programme in person. Both travel and time can be an issue, particularly for adult learners juggling family and work commitments alongside their study. The cost of education can also be a barrier. In these situations, fully online courses can offer a valuable alternative. 

For educational institutions working to maintain enrolment numbers while facing budget pressures of their own, online courses can also be a viable option. In the UK there are now around 380,000 students enrolled in distance education and over 70% of these are undergraduate students.

With the rise of technology-based learning, it’s of little surprise that a 2017 Navitas Ventures study found that at least 50% of respondents expect the traditional university model to be disrupted by 2025, with nine out of ten university leaders expecting disruption by 2030.   

Fully online courses can make learning attainable 

Online learning offers an appealing level of flexibility as educators and students increasingly recognise that when it comes to learning, one size often doesn’t always fit all. Students will often devote differing amounts of time to a topic to fully understand it. This stands to reason – after all, we all learn in different ways and at different rates. Adult learners in particular will hold a wide range of pre-existing knowledge and skills from earlier studies and work experience and will bring this to their studies. This is a strength that adaptable online courses can help students capitalise upon. 

Through a learning platform, progress can be at the students’ own pace. This not only maximises chances of success, it also helps learners stay motivated and engaged. It’s all about personalising learning – shaping the programme around the student rather than the student around the programme.

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Optimising online courses for student success

Fully online courses can bring down barriers to learning, but for them to be successful, educators and administrators must also recognise the unique challenges that distance learning poses.   

With a centralised place of learning removed in lieu of one that exists online, many motivating and supportive aspects of the bricks and mortar establishment also risk being lost. The most obvious of these is that students are working on their own – they don’t come together in groups or have face time with tutors. 

Peer groups can be highly influential when it comes to maintaining learner motivation. Tutor-student interaction is also central to creating a supportive, successful learning environment. The good news is that nowadays, these things can still be a part of the equation when it comes to distance and online learning with the right technology in place.

A learning platform can provide a range of features, including online discussion boards and live video interactions to help create an in-classroom experience and support students as they progress through their courses. Feedback by video can prove useful for both student and tutor; in the absence of in-person conversations, it can help provide personalised, descriptive assessment of coursework.

From an economic perspective, distance learning creates a new revenue stream for educational institutions, whose costs subsequently shift from supporting a physical infrastructure to providing tutoring and coaching at distance. It can, however, require a shift in mindset around the instructor/learner dynamic and as with any change, this must be managed carefully. Particular focus should be paid to maintaining students’ learning momentum, motivation and self-discipline. 

While there are clear benefits to be seen, educational institutions must take steps to ensure online distance learning will work for both learners and educators. In particular, attention should be paid to their choice of learning platform and ensuring that they make full use of the tools within them. In doing so, more institutions can diversify their offering and move a step closer to creating the right learning environment for each and every student.  

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