Natalie Lloyd navigates the maze of online education

There’s no doubt about it, education is changing. Online education is becoming an increasingly popular option for learners worldwide, and it’s quite hard to decipher the excitement surrounding this migration to online.

We thought we’d make it that bit simpler by delving into the world of online education, and exploring what it can offer, where it’s at now, and what it could be in a climate of constantly evolving educational demands.

Online education fits the lifestyle, demands and professional ambitions of Millennial audiences. Self-initiated, globally connected and with the opportunity for brutally democratic peer-to-peer assessments, online courses offer the independence and self-direction highly valued by those that want a keen control on their learning. It’s no wonder the most influential online education providers are attracting under-35 year olds in their droves.

In an industry that is growing at a staggering pace, online course providers such as edX, Coursera and Khan Academy, offer thousands of diploma-equivalent courses to subscribers for minimal entry requirements. With the opportunity to cultivate global communities through forums and social media, control the pace and time of their learning, and with a greater choice of subjects at a budget price, it’s easy to see why there is such a high sign-up rate. However, out of every 100 students on a Coursera course, only three will actually complete their course. This raises questions into the educational models used online because, essentially, online courses are unlike conventional seminars and lectures. Millenials know what they want from their education, and often need constant feedback, and a rapid sense of development, choice and democracy, which is why questions are being asked of the evolving landscape of online education. Do we continue on this course, or do we find new, innovative methods of addressing our growing student population?

Online course providers are constantly challenging conventional, institutional education as we know it. Still very much in their infancy, they are using a range of teaching methods to take existing academic courses and translate them onto digital platforms. From video tutorials with accompanying material, to live webcasting with chatrooms, online education providers are using new, adaptive practices in order to get students from point A to point B, no-knowledge to complete, comprehensive knowledge, without losing engagement. However, there’s no use in doing a course that ticks all the boxes, all of the course requirements, without leaving qualified. Not just because of the qualification you’ve earned, but with the confidence that you are prepared to start your professional life. Here lies the ongoing challenge, which is not specific to digital platforms, of how to create, and deliver, the complete package.

We are seduced by the story of The Drop-out Entrepreneur, the mythologies of the Zuckerbergs and Jobs of the world, which push us to reconsider our paths to professional life. Do we need to spend thousands of pounds sitting in a classroom, virtual or physical, in order to get what we need to prepare us for our careers? The Drop-out Entrepreneurs made their millions through a self-initiated, self-directed education which, in a climate of rising tuition fees, is an overwhelmingly attractive option for young people today. It’s very clear that we’re experiencing a generation eager to learn but impatient to do so, and that we need to embrace this by developing a more varied learning experience, informed by this culture of self-management. One that is experiential, and tailored, that reaps the benefits of the learn-as-you-go style demonstrated by our entrepreneurial heroes.

There’s a lot of talk about “flipping classrooms” and gamification, but even CodeAcademy still leads you through problems by asking students to fulfil a task, rather than letting them explore and find their own solutions. I’d like to imagine a new path for online learning that looked a little like an 80s text adventure game, the kind you would play on an Acorn computer. As a player, or in this case, student, you begin by answering a simple question or riddle, then go on to define your own path through the game. Each learner’s journey through the content might be a little different, but the method by which they access each element is part of the teaching process. Those roadblocks along the way, expected or otherwise, encourage students to think creatively, to search out the right answer without having their destination predefined. It is this application of critical thinking, this learning through doing, and thinking one or two steps ahead, that allow for this entrepreneurial incubation.

Now, it is not to say that we should ditch everything and go back to an age of Flash simulators, but there’s something to be learned from them. We should be questioning whether the linear learning path that exists in classrooms, which is proving to be inflexible to modern demands, is still relevant online, and best for the students we subscribe. We should be welcoming new digital platforms as a flagship of innovation and experimentation, taking the opportunity to engage students in new and exciting ways that attract those future learners. Addressing the ways we prepare students for unexpected problems, and teaching them to learn from failure as well as success, will leave them feeling confident and fully qualified for what lies ahead.

A final note on qualifications: you want to know that the qualification you earn from an online course will stand up on its own, and be an asset to not only your future employment, but to your own professional development. Having an accreditation that can be placed in context with other qualifications is not just essential to prospective students, but often the deciding factor in signing up for an online education course. This is why online MOOCs, including EventCourse, continually strive to offer course credits, or part-accreditation for the online courses available. We know the value placed in having something to show at the end of a course of study, something you can not only be proud of, but carry into your professional life.

Natalie Lloyd is Director of If Not Now, a digital business consultancy firm. She's also an international editor for AppleJuice Magazine, Producer/Curator of TEDxBrighton and digital training advisor for Ashdown Academy. For more information on courses ... (Read More)

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