While formal schooling systems have changed little over the past 300 years, the slow process of global synchronisation has sped up since the 1980s – and more so over the last decade alone. This has been exponentially aided by tech developments, which have changed not only the way in which learners engage with educational materials, but also how these materials are generated and distributed, and the processes used to evaluate outcomes.
Digital textbooks, gamified learning content and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are revolutionising how, when and where we learn. For countries that face serious educational challenges, like South Africa, digital education is providing vital solutions. India has already paved the way by investing some $33 million into integrating online resources into that country’s education system, with significant results.
A multi-billion dollar industry, online learning is hardly new to South Africa, where UNISA – one of the world’s largest distance learning institutions – has been operating for more than 140 years. Dr Cecelia Rosa, Head of Teaching and Learning at IMM Graduate School, and Managing Director of Graphanex Institute of Professional Handwriting Analysis, gained first-hand experience in online learning, having completed her degree, master’s and doctorate in education at UNISA.
“Online learning was very convenient for me: I have little patience sitting in a classroom and listening to people asking questions about topics that I felt had already been dealt with; I prefer to study on my own. On the other side of the coin, there are people who want and need that interaction,” notes Rosa.
Comparisons between the benefits of online versus face-to-face learning generally ended at the difference in personality and learning types: “There are basically two types of students: those who are Field-dependent, and have to see somebody’s face in order to cope with learning, and Field-independent students, who don’t need that, so online learning works for them,” says Rosa.
That distinction, she adds, has shifted as education offerings have evolved. “Now, online courses have a blended approach that works for both learning types, because it provides a little bit of both. Students are expected to be independent, and are provided with face-to-face interaction too.”
Today, online courses are not confined to the printed hand-outs of yesteryear: any course worth its accreditation is made up of a collection of webinars, online-collaboration tools, software that supports individually-paced learning, learning-management systems, and instant messaging and social networking. These, emphasises Rosa, are vital resources that are essential in classrooms, too. “If you don’t bring tech into class, even in a traditional environment, your students are disadvantaged,” she stresses.
Supporting real time interaction
Tech developments have greatly aided the online education revolution, not least by allowing for a significant support structure for students, explains Rosa. “When you develop a course for online use you need to include multimedia, so you bring the content into a real world context – to life, essentially. You also have continuous assessments, and there are discussion forums and online tutorials – students have the opportunity to converse with you, and with each other. Then of course, we use data analytics to monitor student behaviour and participation,” she explains.
“In the past, students would get static study guides and were expected to learn from that. But the introduction of ICT brings the course to life, and students are encouraged to actively engage with it,” adds Rosa, emphasising that student engagement is crucial to successful learning. “The only way the learning in any context is effective is if students actively engage with it, not by passively listening to a lecture. Actively engaging means to be asking questions, and finding the answers.”
Technology not only enhances teaching, it also allows for online teachers with more to offer, notes Rosa. “If students embrace the tech we have introduced, it will give them an edge when they study. In fact, online learning gives you an edge – it broadens perspectives because of the tech – and then of course, the lecturers are both academics and industry experts: they infuse life into the learning content, which is constantly updated. Students are then getting the theoretical basis, as well as the experiences of experts, which is current – so even a graduate knows what the world of work is like at that particular moment.”
Rosa, herself a ‘pracademic’ (academic with practical industry experience) believes strongly that “whoever is lecturing at any institution needs to have one foot in academia and the other in industry”.
Why it works
The convenience of studying online is probably the biggest driver in the rapid rate of enrolment in online courses – in South Africa and globally. This, and the growing need for people to improve and upskill themselves in the most convenient ways possible, acknowledges Rosa.
“We live in a knowledge economy globally, and it’s important to build up skills in the marketplace. We also live in a society where people want to do things quickly and efficiently, and online learning especially benefits people who are constantly on the move, working, have families and can’t sit in a classroom fulltime. So online courses are convenient, especially micro courses that can be completed during a lunch hour – Coursera, for example, offers numerous courses endorsed by credible universities.
Businesses and organisations, too, are buying into online certification as a training tool because “it’s more productive,” notes Rosa. “In the past, staff had to take days out of office for workshops and courses, which only served to hype them up for a short while, and then the effect disappears – now, it’s more productive for businesses to have their staff complete courses online.”
Cecelia Rosa’s tips for successful online learning
I think the first thing would be to research the institution, and whether it is accredited as there are many ‘fly-by-night’ offerings.
Then, question why you want to study, what the outcomes you want to achieve are when you do a course, and whether it will assist you in enhancing your career and work prospects.
Finally, embrace the tech to start with; at IMM we are developing our courses so students can access them anywhere, even on mobile phones, and actively engage with the content. If you don’t, you’ll be a mediocre student; successful, high achievers engage with, analyse and dissect the material, using cognitive approaches. Just reading and not questioning doesn’t make you marketable. The workplace environment is unpredictable and fluid, and to succeed in it, you need to apply your learning and you can only do that by engaging with it.
...the benefits of online versus face-to-face learning ended at the difference in personality and learning types
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