Tag Archives: on-line learning

Support for on-line education

Those of us involved in teaching and learning often talk amongst ourselves about many issues, including whether on-line education is effective or not. Sometimes, it’s useful to get some views from people without a professional interest.

Gallup have done just that, by conducting a survey of over 1000 adults in the USA, and found that the majority take a reasonably positive view of on-line higher education (reported today in Inside Higher Ed). The table below shows the responses to the question whether the respondents thought that on-line education was the same, better or worse than traditional classroom education, in relation to the features mentioned.

  Online better The same Online worse
Providing a wide range of options for curriculum 33 39 23
Providing good value for money 33 34 27
Providing instruction tailored to each individual 23 31 41
Providing a format most students can succeed in 23 42 30
Providing high-quality instruction from well-qualified instructors 15 37 43
Providing a degree that will be viewed positively by employers 13 33 49
Providing rigorous testing and grading that can be trusted 11 39 45


Source: Gallup survey  Online Education

Most adults think that on-line is positively better for the range of options and good value for money. On all of the factors bar one, the majority consider on-line to be at least as good as traditional education, if not better. The only negative perception relates not to the respondents’ own views but their opinion of how employers might regard on-line qualifications. It’s interesting that people think that employers might be less accepting of different routes to qualification, even though they personally think the learning is just as good.

The question about testing is a close call: although the majority thought that this would be the same or better on-line, a full 45% didn’t trust on-line testing and grading.

They’re probably right about that – we haven’t yet come to a point where on-line testing has the same rigour and breadth as doing it the old-fashioned way and that’s currently the main factor holding back further development of purely on-line teaching.

It might also explain another finding of the survey. The questions referred to above related to courses with some on-line elements, not necessarily exclusively on-line. When asked to rate purely on-line college courses against traditional four-year degrees, the majority thought the former were “only fair” or “poor”.

It would be interesting to do a similarly rigorous survey of university lecturers to see whether they are more, or less, positive about on-line education than the general population.


Can a computer help you swim?

People often ask me whether e-learning is “just as good” as face to face. Now, as a rule, I’m not inclined to be evasive, but my stock answer is “it depends”. However, I go on to add that e-learning methods can be effectively deployed to teach a much wider range of knowledge and skills than most people give it credit for.


There are certain practical skills which e-learning is not (yet) good for. I wouldn’t want to be a passenger in a car driven by someone who had learned to drive purely at a computer. Someone who jumps in a river after a series of virtual swimming lessons may regret not having signed up for a course at her local pool. Computer simulations are getting better and better and can certainly support practical classes, but cannot entirely substitute for them.


Sceptics tend to identify the lack of a social dimension as a key weakness of e-learning, compared with attending a face to face class. It’s certainly true that, for most people, learning is more successful if it’s a social activity: we learn from our fellow students as well as from teachers and resources. Social learning can encourage deep learning as well as develop critical thinking and the ability to formulate arguments coherently. However, it’s a mistake to assume that e-learning is a solitary activity. There are many ways in which social interaction can be facilitated even among students attending a purely on-line course.


I recently participated in a short-lived MOOC run by Coursera (ironically it folded because of technical difficulties, but that’s another story). One of the best things about the course during the few weeks that it ran was the terrific sense of community among the learners, of whom there were thousands. It was a MOOC on on-line education, aimed at teachers and lecturers. I met and had stimulating discussions with teachers from all over the world – all via a simple on-line discussion board.


Sometimes a course has to be entirely on-line, whether to reach the target student audience or for reasons of resource. The designer of the fully on-line course has to give careful thought to creating the most suitable social framework for the intended students. For many students, the social dimension afforded by social media will be just as satisfactory as a live experience, and, indeed, often more so.