Online Learning: What Will Make It Work

It should be obvious that simply transferring learning materials from print to digital involves only a change in medium. A change in medium does not necessarily affect learning. Whether a teacher in a rural school in the Philippines uses a handwritten visual aid on a piece of cartolina or a projector that shows a PowerPoint slide should have only a minute impact on learning outcomes. Whether a student reads a textbook in print or from an online source displayed on a screen should not really make a big difference except for aesthetic and ergonomic reasons. As long as the content and quality are comparable, the medium of choice should not matter at all. Thus, the transformative effect of technology on learning requires a lot more than just delivery of content from a cloud. Any claim that online learning would revolutionize education is simply wishful thinking if all that technology does is changing the medium.

There are numerous studies that have evaluated online learning. Unfortunately, most of these studies are poorly designed making the conclusions drawn invalid. There are quite a few that have attempted to do the studies properly but even in these cases, there are clearly remaining limitations. One aspect that makes such studies difficult is decoupling the instructor from the study. A comparison between a traditional lecture and an online one requires a random assignment of instructors. Ideally, the instructors in both groups must be practically equivalent. It is quite difficult to make this happen. In the real world, instructors have preferences. Some instructors who deliver lectures effectively prefer to teach in the traditional way. Some instructors who are eager to try an online medium are usually the ones most tuned to the technology right at the onset. Thus, studies become tainted. Teachers who are trying out the new medium are also the ones who are eager. That means motivation and engagement. One example is a recent study published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management:

The above is in fact one of the very few reliable evaluations of online learning. One should take note that this is not a simple "put in a cloud learning materials" change. First, it is a hybrid. There is still an hour of face-to-face instruction. Second, "machine-guided instruction" means that the software actually maps, tracks and assesses student learning. This type of online learning begins with a large amount of data that describe how students learn the material. It is research-based. The software therefore tries to mimic a seasoned lecturer (one who has taught for so many years and have seen and interacted with so many students). With this background information, the software is then able to provide instruction customized to each individual student. The software also tracks each student so that a teacher can monitor each student's progress and provide targeted guidance during the face-to-face instruction. In other words, this is not a simple software. Yet, the conclusion from this study is that the results are the same. At least, online learning does not harm the students. One also must keep in mind that this study is not fully randomized. The instructors' characteristics differ as shown in the following table:

Online learning has potential, but it still has a long way to go. Technology can indeed provide routes to concept mapping, student monitoring, and tailoring of instruction. These are the ingredients that can make online learning a step ahead of the traditional lecture. One top of all of these, the instructor still matters. An instructor not adept with the new technology is a sure prescription for failure.

Unfortunately, many are quick to embrace technology just because it is a new medium. There are already some important lessons out there like Educomp in India:

Above copied from Forbes India
EdSurge wraps nicely what happened with Educomp with the following:
One analyst who has watched Educomp closely believes the Smart Class strategy “was built on a very hairy concept that simply putting multimedia hardware in front of teachers and students would work.”
There is great potential for technology to aid education, but it is not to provide simply an alternative medium or hub of resources. It must capture and enhance the magic that happens between a student and an effective instructor.