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Opinion Piece: Benefits of online higher education in 2020

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Author: 

Dr Hendrik Botha

While many institutions grapple with a sudden and dramatic shift to online learning, provision of technology-mediated learning is in our DNA. Boston City Campus & Business College has decades of experience in this modality of provision. “That Covid-19 will have a transformative impact on the way learning happens within the universities seems indisputable. The most dramatic evidence of this is the shift to online learning” (Habib and Valodia, 2020).

While the emergency remote teaching (Hodges et al., 2020) deployed during the first half of 2020 was restructured in haste and lacked the proper pedagogical construction for online learning (Habib and Valodia, 2020), Boston has carefully curated its teaching and learning materials to be durable, reliable, cutting-edge and most importantly constructively-aligned for a seamless and coherent student learning experience.

 

The lockdown necessitated by COVID-19 across the world is the perfect backdrop against which to review our experience in online education and the advantages thereof.

In our experience, online and distance learning (ODL) is flexible, cost-effective and enables access even to those in full-time employment.

Learning can take place at any time and in any place and is not constrained by factors such as lecture-room capacity. Online and distance learning opportunities remove the binary choices: it is no longer study or work, study or travel, upskill or have a family: it is study AND work, travel, and have a family.

Moreover, the world is no longer preoccupied with what type of learning got you your qualification: what remains important is the reputation of the institution and of its graduates. One such measure is evidenced in local and voluntary international accreditation. There is no more a social hierarchy between contact learning (face-to-face) and online and distance learning experiences.

Money talks, and where online learning opportunities are concerned your saving is less likely to be in the fees per se, but rather in the considerably associated spend on living expenses which include over-priced accommodation close to the institution and high travel expenses, and opportunity cost i.e. not being able to take up part-time or full-time contract work and especially not so if it is outside the geographic location from the campus.

Acknowledging the context of the 21st century and the fourth industrial revolution, online learning by its very nature supports and develops personal independence, and prepares the candidate for the modern workplace – one which is characterised by remote work-from-home arrangements and a high degree of personal autonomy.

The student who has had to self-manage their studies is someone who can be trusted to meet deadlines in the remote workplace. Driving one’s own academic journey via online and distance learning accelerates the individual’s need to think critically, solve problems, and take responsibility for progress: these “soft skills” are valuable currency in the modern workplace.

Self-directed learning also affords you the chance to pace yourself toward your goals: we cannot all run the race at the same speed, and nor should we. Choosing your pace is but a part of the participatory nature of online learning, where the student is actively involved in determining learning goals and is able to choose how many courses to take in any semester while taking into account other responsibilities, such as family and employment. In a word, online learning predicates itself on “autonomy”.

Technological advances have revolutionised the online and distance learning space. Learning management systems (LMS) offers single-point access to all that is needed for the truly integrated learning experience: digital content, syllabi, interfacing with faculty, communication with peers, synchronous and asynchronous lectures (real-time or recorded for later viewing).

The LMS technology also facilitates online completion of assessment events, permits grading to happen online, and for feedback to reach the student swiftly. Boston leverages the available technology to the student’s benefit, incorporating AI to monitor participation, send motivational communications, and trigger alerts when participation is low which prompts a call to the student from a member of faculty or a personal student advisor.

Online does not mean alone!

Technology has reduced the relative importance of space. Many contact institutions have considerable capacity challenges which consequently curtail the number and range of programme types that can be offered. Moreover, these challenges restrict the number of students who can enrol. Online providers have no such limitations and are also able to extend the range of higher education programmes on offer to give credence to widening access.

Boston offers a wide range of Higher Certificate and Diploma qualifications which cater to niche specialisations and are occupationally focused. Access to these qualifications is not restricted by the need for a Bachelor’s Pass in the Matric examinations, and completion of one of these qualifications may facilitate transition into a Bachelor’s Degree upon successful completion.

Your dream of higher education is not over because you did not achieve a Bachelors’ Pass: there are many alternative higher education qualifications available to you, all recognised on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). At the other end of spectrum, you may elect one of our Bachelor’s degrees in Commerce, Accounting or Social Science, or perhaps you may wish to advance your business acumen through our unique Postgraduate Diploma in Management.

Online provision of learning comes in many different forms and with many variants of support available to the student. You may be familiar with online learning where you simply purchase the course and complete it and have no contact with any subject experts along the way, relying exclusively on pre-recorded videos and material available online.

On the other end of the scale, there is online learning that relies heavily on lectures via technology such as Zoom, which requires you to be online at a certain time to attend the class. Boston likes to take a middle road approach: the material is online for you to access 24/7 at your convenience, and subject experts are available for consultation via online communication channels.

We go a step further than this. Boston provides the prescribed courseware (textbooks) free of charge as part of the fee structure. This means that when Eskom load sheds, or when you run out of data, you can continue your learning journey.

We believe that we cannot rely exclusively on technology and that the deployment of our LMS works best in conjunction with the “good old hardcopy textbook”.

Some may argue that online learning does not offer the student the same personal development opportunities, social exposure, and peer engagement that other, more traditional (face-to-face) means of learning might. We think the key is in the word “personal” development and we argue that the enthusiastic student who is willing and able to learn will derive the same developmental benefits from the online interaction as from a face-to-face connection. 

After all, we are all digital natives in some sense in 2020. Never satisfied with “good enough” Boston goes a step further: we provide Support Centres around the country where students can meet to collaborate, learn together, use technological facilities, or seek assistance from a Student Advisor.

Attendance at a Support Centre is voluntary, self-directed and a matter of choice: this means you can travel to the centre during off-peak times when travel is cheaper, choose your days according to what suits your schedule, or indeed choose not to make use of the facilities in person in favour of online communication with faculty or advisors. The choice is yours – entirely yours.

Covid-19 highlights the need to reimagine the global institutional architecture of the higher education system” (Habib and Valodia, 2020).

Higher education is forcibly being pushed into new territory, unknown challenges lie ahead, and admittedly, no person has gone before us in this respect.

The architecture of online education, such as we deploy at Boston, is established and robust. It has stood the test of time and has been through iterations of change and improvement in response to student needs. Where we may once have sat on the fringe of higher education provision, online provision of education now finds itself firmly central, swiftly approaching mainstream.

Trust the online provider with years of experience to guide your learning journey. After all, it is one of the most important journeys you will ever embark on.

 

Written by: Dr Hendrik Botha and Dr Janet Viljoen

References:

Habib, A., and Valodia, I. (2020). How universities can play a role in shaping a new post-crisis world. Business Day, May 24, 2020. Retrieved May 27, 2020 from https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/2020-05-24-how-universities-can-play-a-role-in-shaping-a-new-post-crisis-world/

Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., and Bond A. (2020). The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Educause. Retrieved May 19, 2020 from https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning

 

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