Online Learning’s ‘Greatest Hits’

column | Higher Education

Online Learning’s ‘Greatest Hits’

By Robert Ubell (Columnist)     Feb 20, 2019

Online Learning’s ‘Greatest Hits’

From the very start of digital education, the big question has always been: “How can students learn effectively, if they’re not face-to-face with their instructors?”

Since digital education first emerged, following the heady early days of the World Wide Web in the ‘90s, online learning faced the elusive hurdle of turning disembodied classmates and instructors into living, breathing engaged learners and teachers, with minds and hearts you can feel, know and understand; with whom you can imagine sitting together in a lecture hall.

Clever techies have stepped up to the challenge with their ingenious gadgets, transforming remote students into tangible beings with a heartbeat, devising uncanny innovations, most now surprisingly part of mainstream education, right on campus.

More than two decades ago, when I was hired at Stevens Institute of Technology, as dean of web-based distance learning—a quaint title for what is now known as online learning—few tools were available to help faculty migrate their on-campus courses online. I’d send instructors off into virtual classrooms, practically on their own, with little or no support. Sink or swim. Courageously, pioneer faculty would just dive in, largely unaided by high-tech devices, making do, often in inspired ways, simply and creatively with their wits and ingenuity.

Looking back now, here are my picks for what have emerged as the most influential tools for online learning that have helped bring digital education from an experiment to a mainstream practice.

Learning Management Systems

With learning management systems now installed at nearly all higher education institutions here and abroad, instructors can create course materials, assess student progress and generate custom exams. Students can communicate peer-to-peer and also engage instructors directly in text, voice, and video, recorded for later access or run immediately in real-time. Students enroll in courses seamlessly, with attendance and grades plugged-in to an institution’s central records automatically.

In a telephone interview, Phil Hill, edtech guru and co-publisher of the widely followed e-Literate blog , acknowledged that “the LMS is not only part of the university’s core infrastructure, but it also allows faculty and students to use technology creatively in the classroom.” Hill conceded that while “it’s not sexy and is often bashed, without it, students can’t get their grades or find their assignments.”

Neck and neck for the top spot in the LMS academic vendor race are Blackboard—the early entry and once-dominant player—and coming-up quickly from behind, the relatively new contender, Canvas, each serving about 6.5 million students . The LMS market today is valued at $9.2 billion.

Digital Authoring Systems

Faced with increasingly complex communication technologies—voice, video, multimedia, animation—university faculty, expert in their own disciplines, find themselves technically perplexed, largely unprepared to build digital courses. Online places a burden on faculty they had not foreseen when they signed up for academic life.

After all, most professors started out believing they were destined to do scholarly work, perform research, publish results and teach in classrooms; but for most, teaching online was not what they had in mind.

As sophisticated digital skills—capabilities ironically found more commonly among students—became decisive, two new trends emerged. The biggest occurred when instructional designers, long employed by industry, joined online academic teams, working closely with faculty to upload and integrate interactive and engaging content.

The next big move came when instructional designers, as part of their skillset, turned to digital authoring systems, software introduced to stimulate engagement, encouraging virtual students to interface actively with digital materials, often by tapping at a keyboard or touching the screen as in a video game. Most authoring software also integrates assessment tools, testing learning outcomes.

With authoring software, instructional designers can steer online students through a mixtape of digital content—videos, graphs, weblinks, PDFs, drag-and-drop activities, PowerPoint slides, quizzes, survey tools and so on. Some of the systems also offer video editing, recording and screen downloading options. “The good news is that you don’t need to be a programmer to build high-production-value online courses,” said John Vivolo, a former NYU colleague, in a phone interview last week. “All you need is your imagination.”

Compared with the cost of running an online unit, with compensation for instructors, videographers and recruitment staff, authoring tools are a bargain.

The authoring system market is fairly modest, running under $400 million in North America, according to one analyst, but as digital programs continue to proliferate and as more schools turn to instructional designers, the market will surely take off.

Adaptive Learning

As with a pinwheel set in motion, insights from many disciplines—artificial intelligence, cognitive science, linguistics, educational psychology and data analytics—have come together to form a relatively new field known as learning science, propelling advances in a new personalized practice—adaptive learning.

Designed to adjust in real-time to each student's prior knowledge and skill attainment, adaptive systems respond to variations in ability and diverse student backgrounds, sensitive to the the unique needs of each learner. Based on each student’s actions, when a student gets stuck, the system automatically suggests strategies on how to get out of it and proceed to mastery.

Like much of edtech, research results can be ambiguous, with some saying it’s marginally better than conventional classroom teaching , while others report impressive results. In the most recent annual Campus Computing Survey, a majority of academic CIOs concluded that “adaptive technology has great potential to improve learning outcomes.”


Recent virtual upstarts, MOOCs—massive open online courses—catapulted onto the global learning stage when Stanford University computer scientists Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig in 2011 came upon the bright idea of streaming their robotics lectures over the Internet. They knew it was an inventive departure, but they were taken aback when an astonishing 160,000 signed up. (The term MOOC was coined by others in 2008.)

Since then, more than 900 colleges and universities have jumped in, collectively offering more than 11,000 courses. Now in its seventh year, MOOCs crossed the 100 million learner mark, recently hitting 101 million. Of the top providers, Coursera, the Wall Street-financed company that grew out of the Stanford breakthrough, is the champion with 37 million learners, followed by edX, an MIT-Harvard joint venture, with 18 million. Launched in 2013, XuetangX, the Chinese platform in third place, claims 18 million.

MOOCs deliver mostly video-streamed lectures, with some offering readings, problem sets and interactive options as well. Forums often support peer-to-peer interaction. In some conventional courses, MOOCs also supplement on-campus curricula.

At first, MOOCs were available largely free to an unlimited number of participants, but as economic realities forced vendors to reassess their unprecedented generosity, MOOCs evolved. Today, in addition to continuing to offer some course materials at no charge, learners are given a menu of paid options, from modest fees for individual access, to many thousands of dollars for a degree-granting collection of MOOCs in partnership with first-ranked schools—MIT, GeorgiaTech and the University of Illinois among them. Coursera is reportedly nearing a valuation of $1 billion, which would make it a “unicorn” in Silicon Valley parlance.

MOOC critics say that streaming lectures is not terribly innovative. Just like lectures on campus, they fail to engage students in active learning, a likely reason retention rates tend to be depressingly poor, with about 85 to 90 percent exiting pretty soon after they sign-on. But with such staggering enrollments, many more learners complete than are enrolled in any university.

Former Yale President Rick Levin, who served as Coursera’s CEO for a few years, speaking by phone last week, was optimistic about the role MOOCs will play in the digital economy. “The biggest surprise,” Levin argued, “is how strongly MOOCs have been accepted in the corporate world to up-skill employees, especially as the workforce is being transformed by job displacement. It’s the right time for MOOCs to play a major role.”

While these examples help animate ghosts inhabiting digital education, I may have introduced the false impression that virtual learning is just a species of technology, another edtech gadget. It turns out, however, these ingenious systems operate as the envelope in which online instruction is delivered, like paper and ink and chairs and desks in conventional classrooms.

In virtual education, pedagogy, not technology, drives the metamorphosis from absence to presence, illusion into reality. Skilled online instruction that introduces peer-to-peer learning, virtual teamwork and other pedagogical innovations stimulate active learning. Online learning is not just another edtech product, but an innovative teaching practice. It’s a mistake to think of digital education merely as a device you switch on and off like a garage door.

The surprising thing is that while these innovations began life online, many crossed over into our analog sphere, productively available to students and faculty on campus, too.

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