ELearning has already had a transformational effect on education at all levels. On the top of it, cloud-based higher education software systems have made learning more accessible, deepened student engagement and allowed educators to shift to a more student-centered classroom model.
Yet in many ways, we’re just scratching the surface of eLearning’s true potential. Because the technology is relatively new, we’ve only begun to explore its capabilities. As eLearning tools grow more powerful and refined, those capabilities will be extended in ways we can’t currently imagine.
Some observers may wonder why — given the power of eLearning — more progress hasn’t already been made. The truth is that even the most revolutionary technologies often need a lengthy incubation period before making their true impact.
One example is the introduction of electricity. Though widespread access to electricity would eventually utterly transform the field of manufacturing, this shift took decades to unfold. For a transition to truly gain speed, those using the old technology must embrace the change. Additionally, market forces can also play a role in how fast new technology is adopted (consider the case of electric cars, a technology that far pre-dated the success of Tesla).
Today, eLearning represents the same kind of change agent. Let’s take a closer look at how this technology is being deployed, the benefits it offers, how institutions can best handle implementation and what may be in store in the future.
How is eLearning being used in higher education?
The standard pedagogical model (one instructor and a group of students in a physical setting) extends far into the history of human civilization. The first disruption to education delivered in a central, physical location came with the advent of early distance learning (correspondence courses being one example). Liberating as that change was, it paled in comparison to the much more profound disruption offered by Internet-enabled online learning.
Today’s institutions use the power of the Internet to decentralize the act of instruction and end the “brick and mortar monopoly” on education. Colleges and universities use eLearning to enhance the classroom experience and to deliver courses entirely over the Web. The adoption of eLearning offerings continues to rise. According to the most recent U.S. government data, nearly six million students at degree-granting post-secondary institutions are enrolled in an online course.
Current eLearning models
Online learning approaches can be implemented in a variety of ways within the context of higher education. Some of the more common models include:
- Blended or hybrid learning. In a blended approach, traditional face to face instruction is merged with online instruction. This combination allows educators to derive the best elements of each approach. It should be noted that the distribution of online or physical instruction doesn’t have to be 50/50.
- The flipped classroom. This approach, which is a type of blended learning, allows students to watch lectures at home and complete typical “homework” assignments in class. By doing so, students can focus on collaboration, class discussion, and other high-value activities.
- Self-paced online courses. These are courses delivered entirely over the Web but with a timeline.
- Blended online courses. These are courses that are primarily delivered online but have a smaller physical instruction component.
- Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). This is an online course taken to enormous scale. An essentially unlimited number of students can participate over the Internet, though these courses are not for credit. Many of the most prominent universities have some form of MOOC offering.
- Blended MOOCs. While not nearly as popular as standard MOOCs, blended MOOCs allow students to meet in a physical location for further discussion.
These various models provide a good cross-section of how eLearning concepts are being implemented at today’s higher learning institutions. As online learning continues to mature, these models will continue to be refined, and new models will be developed. The introduction of the first MOOC, for example, occurred fewer than ten years ago.
Benefits of eLearning
The advantages of electronic learning are not restricted to the students. Educators and institutions can also realize profound benefits from the successful adoption and maintenance of eLearning programs.
Some of the more important eLearning benefits include:
- Better educational outcomes for students. Studies have shown that students perform better when online learning is incorporated into the educational mix.
- It lowers costs in post-secondary education. Research has shown that eLearning offers efficiencies that can’t be replicated with conventional face to face education. For example, the use of eLearning can lower staffing costs, while also lowering costs associated with the physical production of books and other materials.
- It deepens student engagement. Many students find that the traditional model of observing a lecture in a physical space does not allow room for collaboration or fast feedback. Today’s students are also acclimated to working on mobile devices and other digital tools. By incorporating technology into classroom instruction, educators present material in a context that’s familiar to students.
- It offers much greater accessibility. By making eLearning part of the educational mix, higher learning institutions offer students greater flexibility to work on material when and where it’s convenient for them. It also extends educational opportunities to those who may have difficulty meeting at a central location.
- It can — theoretically — provide a world-class education to anyone equipped with a broadband connection. The costs associated with higher education continue to surge, making affordability and access serious concerns. The advent of MOOCs and other online learning offerings could herald a new age where learning opportunities can be affordably scaled to students who might otherwise never have a chance at a high-quality education.
- It opens an alternative revenue stream for higher education institutions. Not only students benefit from the lower cost of instruction, but institutions also reach students across the globe at low costs, allowing them to enroll in the courses from their locations. Higher the number of enrollments more is the revenue.
Will online learning be feasible in the future?
We’re poised at an exciting — yet somewhat uncertain — moment in the history of higher education. The industry continues to deal with a series of persistent issues, including fast-rising tuition, student loan debt and a lack of educational accessibility.
Fortunately, eLearning and other educational technologies offer the promise of addressing many of these concerns. As long as higher education remained confined to a small, physical space, it was destined to remain a scarce and expensive resource. This would also ensure that top-quality higher education remained out of the reach of millions of people.
Online learning closes that gap by allowing education to scale to massive levels at a very modest cost. Because of that equation, the growth of eLearning is all but assured in the years ahead.
However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be issues to confront; determining how to issue academic credentials or credit for certain online courses, for example. The technology has the power to make education more accessible and affordable.
As eLearning continues to mature, educators will discover new ways to leverage the technology. Higher education software platforms, too, will become more refined and powerful, offering even greater benefits to students.
The 50-year outlook
So how soon might we start realizing the full potential of eLearning? As mentioned above, the introduction of electricity provides one historical illustration. It took factory owners decades to determine the best way to take advantage of the benefits offered by electricity. Once that occurred, industrial productivity grew by staggering proportions.
It’s likely that the learning institutions will also need an extended period to determine how to best leverage the power of higher education software. After all, much of this progress will come through trial and error. Institutions must also grapple with the fact that most of their infrastructure was not designed with eLearning in mind.
Once this transition occurs, the shift should be disruptive, as higher education becomes more widely accessible, less expensive and more effective in practice.
What do colleges need to do to derive maximum benefits from higher education software?
So, given that we may be fairly close to the beginning of a decades-long transition, how can institutions best leverage higher education software today? Some of the best practices include:
- Ensure the focus remains on “learning” rather than “teaching.” Moving to a student-centered model is key to better student outcomes.
- Make sure the supporting architecture is in place to allow eLearning initiatives to thrive (financial backing, technical training, etc.).
- Make sure the tools used to implement eLearning are sufficient (the use of an advanced, full-featured learning management system, for example).
- Provide training to staff and technical assistance to students as needed.
- Create a committee (or a committee subgroup) dedicated to exploring how eLearning can best be leveraged on an ongoing basis.
Use technological tools to track student progress and analyze data for informed conclusions. Gather feedback from students to gauge the experience from their side.
By following these practices, higher education institutions can ensure that they are getting the most out of their eLearning initiatives.
It’s undeniable that eLearning has had a profound impact on higher education. It has made instruction more accessible, created new efficiencies and helped drive better student outcomes.
As eLearning matures and institutions learn how to best leverage the technology, we may see a far more radical transformation. Educators today can stay at the vanguard of that shift by committing resources to the successful deployment and maintenance of eLearning initiatives.