Online Learning Is Broken - Here's How to Fix It.
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min read

Online Learning Is Broken - Here's How to Fix It.

Group of students throwing hats in the air

The e-learning industry is growing at lightning speed. It’s projected that by 2022 it will be a $275 billion market and, considering recent events, it might grow even faster.

But when I look at the state of online learning today, I see a system that is not living up to its promise. While many online courses coming out of educational institutions are innovative and interesting, the majority of courses in the private sector are stale and ineffective.

Almost all of these courses follow the same model: watch a video, take a quiz, repeat. It’s tired. This heavy dependency on prerecorded lectures and simple quizzes has made the potential for deeper learning impossible and atrophied our penchant for innovation.

All is not lost, though. We can still unlock the potential of e-learning. We’ll just have to be less intellectually lazy, more proactive and listen to the troves of research available to us. The key is in how we structure our courses and what activities we offer to students.

You Can’t Learn in a Vacuum

When instructors move online, their first instinct is often to take whatever they were doing in the classroom setting and digitize it. And lectures are easy to digitize. All you have to do is record a video of yourself performing the lecture in an empty room, then upload it online.

The problem is, watching a lecture alone in your home isn’t the same thing as attending a lecture in person. Even in in-person lecture courses, teachers do more than just drone on; they ask questions, answer questions from students, tell people to discuss problems with each other, and generally interact with their students. Those things don’t translate into a prerecorded lecture automatically.

It’s easy to upload a video, but it takes more intention to digitize the experience of being in the classroom — of collaboration and community. And that’s a problem, because those things are an essential part of the learning experience, and without them, it becomes much harder to truly learn new concepts deeply.

Learning in a vacuum is incredibly isolating. This isolation has been proven to lead to lower motivation and poor course-completion rates. This is particularly true for students who were already at risk or suffering from low motivation.

Online, we are social people. We spend our time on Facebook, and Reddit, and Twitter — mediums where we can interact with other humans. We crave human connection. So why, when it comes to online learning, are we all sitting alone in the darkness watching the same videos?

How E-learning Got Lazy

As Martin Weller shares in his book 25 Years of Ed Tech, if you look back at the early days of online learning, none of it was done with video. People simply didn’t have the technological capabilities to upload or watch long videos, so they had to find more inventive ways to share knowledge. Learning took place in community forums and on public blogs. Teachers used mailing lists and newsgroups to interact with students. The tools were rudimentary, but they were interactive.

The evolution of video streaming capabilities has contributed to a phenomenon of intellectual laziness in the e-course creation community. In the past 10 years, personal computers and internet speeds have improved to a point where anyone can stream video instantly. As a result, more and more courses moved online. 

The e-learning movement changed further with the arrival of for-profit EdTech companies like Coursera, Udacity, and edX. These companies specialized in massive open online courses (MOOCs), where anyone with an internet connection can participate.

Most of these companies let people take courses for free, and the companies make money by selling certificates upon course completion. If a course is too hard, students don’t complete it, and the company doesn’t make any money. Their revenue model motivates them to make courses that are easy to pass.

This is when you started to see the increasingly prevalent course model of watching a series of videos and then taking a quiz. It’s easy to come up with, efficient, and simple to complete.

MOOCs are easy, maybe even fun, but they are not optimized for getting students to really learn deep skills.

One Possible Fix: Collaborative Learning

To fix online learning, we need to look beyond the now-standard videos and quizzes to create more complex, interactive, and community-based learning experiences for students.

Collaborative learning is any situation where two or more people attempt to learn something together or help each other learn. This can take many forms: peer reviews, group projects, discussion groups, and more.

Collaborative learning has a ton of benefits for students, including:

There is a lot of research showing that you learn far more by doing than by simply viewing or reading educational materials. A meta-analysis of collaborative learning studies found that active learning led to greater success and knowledge retention than passive lecturing.

Writing a paper or creating a group project, reviewing another student’s work or having a passionate debate are all ways to engage students while also helping them better understand and retain information. This article specifically looks at the learning effects of having students teach other students - and not surprisingly shows strong effects.

Instead of making a quiz about different photography techniques, ask students to employ those skills in the real world by creating a portfolio that demonstrates each skill set. Then, let students peer review each other’s work. Share the best work with the class, and discuss.

This can be applied to almost any sort of course. We need to build courses that turn students into producers, not passive viewers. Only then will we have educational experiences that are truly worth students’ time.

Fostering Collaboration Is Easier Than It Sounds

In a physical classroom, encouraging students to converse and work together is easy. Although planning, designing and scaffolding are an important part of teaching, opportunities for discussion and collaboration often happen naturally, sometimes without any planning at all. That serendipity disappears once students are no longer in the same room.

Unlike in a brick-and-mortar classroom, instructors can’t create collaboration experiences on the fly during online courses. Teachers have to structure learning experiences thoughtfully to incorporate more student participation and collaboration.

It can seem daunting. If you’re going to facilitate an online peer experience, you need to create an assignment, allocate pieces to students to review, give them a feedback rubric, create a mechanism for reviewing the reviews, keep the data organized, etc. It’s a lot for one person to organize. Luckily, you don’t need to do all of those things by yourself. There are some great tools out there such as Eduflow, that can make this process organized and painless.

With the right tool, setting up a collaborative learning activity is quicker and easier than producing a video-based course. And, when you consider the expense of professionally shooting and editing video, it’s potentially more cost-effective as well.

We Need to Raise Our Expectations

I’m not advocating banishing all videos and quizzes to the rubbish bin of history. Videos and quizzes still have utility, and they have a place in many online courses. Lectures are an integral part of many courses for a reason: they are one of the easiest ways to convey large chunks of information.

These are good learning tools. They’re just not the only learning tools. And when we act like they are, we’re doing students a great disservice. To quote Weller again, "It is why education has been so resistant to a formula for success — it is a fundamentally human experience."

We need to move beyond our comfort zones and encourage students to do the same. The process of learning isn’t always easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. By creating more opportunities for creation, collaboration, and community, we can create better courses, and better learners, too.

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