Learning online vs. face-to-face instruction

Over the years we have witnessed an ever-growing migration of students from brick-and-mortar universities, schools and colleges, to virtual institutions of learning online. In fact, entrepreneurship scholars Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman noted (PDF) that “online enrollments have been growing substantially faster than overall higher education enrollments” and that “[o]nline enrollments have continued to grow at rates far in excess of the total higher education student population, albeit at slower rates than for previous years.” Increased students access and degree completion, as well as “[t]he appeal of online instruction to non-traditional students” are cited as reasons for universities to offer online instruction.Interestingly, Allen and Seaman observe that the fact that online courses cost less is not a main driver for online students. While academic leaders see the need for self-discipline on the part of online students and faculty acceptance of online instruction as main barriers for the success of online instruction, they “do not believe that there is a lack of acceptance of online degrees by potential employers.” Web based learning-systems provide students with a collaborative environment that is available on demand. It is also free from constraints of time and space, in other words, it is asynchronous – instruction is delivered at one time and the work can be done at a different time.  (Source: Distance Learning Definitions.)

So-called asynchronicity helps online students to concentrate on their studies without having to relay on the availability of course teachers and fellow students. This supports the “available on demand” character of online study. Universities, on their part, are able to offer courses globally – often incorporating other tertiary institutions. An interesting example is the master’s degree in Adult Learning and Global Change, offered by the University of the Western Cape (UWC.) This online programme is offered in collaboration with the University of Linköping in Sweden, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver Canada, the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia and The University of the Western Cape in South Africa.`

Online-learning environments offer participants the opportunity to work with each other through dedicated, web-based applications. This is known as “computer-mediated collaborative learning.” My all-time favourite asynchronous collaborative learning application is Moodle, an open-source free web application that enables educators to create powerful online learning sites. Collaborative learning relies on a community-based activity that uses technology, such the web, to offer incredible learning facilities where students can discuss and present issues, watch videos, listen to podcasts, use PowerPoint presentations, devise wikis and blogs, link to social networks, submit essays and papers, write exams and even fill in attendance reports.

According to Moodle creator Martin Dougiamas, the application’s power comes from its Constructionist operational philosophy -”Constructionism asserts that learning is particularly effective when constructing something for others to experience. This can be anything from a spoken sentence or an internet posting, to more complex artifacts like a painting, a house or a software package…   Social constructivism extends constructivism into social settings, wherein groups construct knowledge for one another, collaboratively creating a small culture of shared artifacts with shared meanings. When one is immersed within a culture like this, one is learning all the time about how to be a part of that culture, on many levels.”

Over the last few years, e-learning gained complexity, experience and depth. According to a paper published by the University of West Georgia Distance Education Center, “almost 3.9 million students were enrolled in at least one online class during the fall of 2016. The 12.9% growth rate for online enrollment is much greater that the 1.2% growth overall of the higher education student population.”  The paper argues, however, that 2017 online students are much more likely to drop out of their studies than campus based students. “Age was found to have a significant unique affect on dropout in both programs with older students more likely to dropout.”  Other factors influencing dropout include “Issues of isolation, disconnectedness, and technological problems” (source: Sloan-C.) Karen Frankola, Internal Communications and Creative Services Director at Deloitte, lists eight reasons (free registration required) for high dropout rates among online students:

  • Students don’t have enough time
  • Lack of management oversight
  • Lack of motivation
  • Problems with technology
  • Lack of student support
  • Individual learning preferences
  • Poorly designed course
  • Substandard/inexperienced instructors

Is there a detectable disillusionment form asynchronous courses? According to Frankola ‘’e-learners who took only the asynchronous course were much less likely to complete it than e-learners who also participated in live sessions.”

High dropout rates for online courses, says Frankola, is a “problem a lot of people in the e-learning industry don’t like to talk about […]  a recent report in the Chronicle for Higher Education found (PDF) that institutions report dropout rates ranging from 20 to 50 percent for distance learners.” Administrators of online courses seem to agree that “dropout rates are often 10 to 20 percentage points higher in distance offerings than in their face-to-face counterparts.”

These figures may seem unusual, when looking at the total dominance of the social network model: none of Frankola’s eight points keeps people away from Twitter or FaceBook.  Sloan-C’s observation that “Issues of isolation, disconnectedness, and technological problems” may point to the problem with online learning isn’t indicative, either – social network denizens are neither isolated nor disconnected.   Vast communities offer real-time one-to-one and one-to-many communication opportunities. Participants mostly feel supported by their online peers (with some over- publicised exceptions), their needs are being met, their personality (real or assumed) accepted, bolstered and respected, their opinions heard.

It is unlikely that online learning will disappear, rather,  off-line places of study will see people who prefer face-to-face learning and can afford (financially and geographically) to attend courses on campus, while online learning will remain the domain of those who live far from campus and / or can’t afford the costs involves in campus-based studies. When questioned, people listed financial considerations, the educational and technical competency of online instructors and improvements in online technologies as factors that will most significantly affect the success of online programs.

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