20 July 2011

Online Learning: Promise and Challenges

Many universities are initiating online courses and encouraging students to enrol in these courses. Some regions in the United States are anticipating online enrolments in excess of a quarter-million new students in online programs over the next few years. However, not all online courses are good ones. The strength and success of an online course directly corresponds to three main features of the program, their interactive, constructive, and flexible nature as courses.

The first factor in creating an effective course is that it must be interactive. Students should be able to learn in more ways that merely reading texts or listening to an instructor. Students who are more engaged in the course will be more interested in what they are learning. Students who are more interactive with the course materials will be more successful.

A second feature of effective courses is that they must be constructive. Being able to develop and build upon skills will provide students with a better learning experience. This goes beyond the mere understanding of information. Such a program will also provide a non-judgmental but effective learning environment. Building new, student-owned, knowledge stimulates confidence and creativity in the students, as well as the motivation to learn more.

The final essential feature of an online course is that it must be flexible. Courses should not be arranged around conceptions of curriculum as a 'one size fits all' model, and student need to be freer to follow their own interests. They arrive at these courses with interests distinct from those of other students and the instructors, and they develop new interests as the course proceeds. Good online courses will encourage students to pursue their interests as far as the discipline studied allows.

Online courses can be very effective, but the difference between good and bad online courses can be predicted by how interactive the course is, whether the information emerges from the course, and how flexible the course is to independent investigation. These three factors provide necessary conditions for a successful course. However, these factors are not themselves sufficient conditions, guaranteeing a course's success. What other features do you think should be added to our description of effective online courses?

This post was written collaboratively by members of my professional writing class at university and me.

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