Moving Past Convenience

Online courses’ potential to dramatically improve learning experiences

GUEST COLUMN | by Paul Freedman

Altius book and technology imageOnline learning has come a long way. In 2010, more than 6.1 million students took at least one online class—that was roughly a 10 percent increase from the year before—and as colleges and universities across the U.S. embrace this new, cost-effective way of delivering courses, more and more students are taking advantage of the flexibility and convenience of online learning.

However, whether an online course can deliver an experience that’s more than simply convenient is still up for debate.

According to a survey of 46 community college students released by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College this month, students prefer to take courses they deemed difficult, interesting, or important in person rather than online.  These findings make an interesting companion to the 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Education, which showed that students in online courses did better than those in the face-to-face equivalents.

So which study tells us the most about the current state of online learning? Both, of course.

Yes, online learning has come a long way. Students are benefiting from the increased access, convenience, and flexibility that they offer. But what the students are telling us is that online learning can go a lot farther.

I truly believe that technology has the potential to create game-changing innovations in higher education, but today’s innovators need to recognize the difference in the online vs. the in-person experience and respect both delivery models for what they are. (And perhaps, more importantly, for what they aren’t).

Because they aren’t the same thing and they’re never going to be. What works in an in-person course can’t always be translated over into an online experience. On the flip side, there are a lot of powerful improvements online courses can offer that a traditional experience simply can’t.

Personalization at Scale

A good teacher instinctually knows how to adjust a lesson to fit the needs and interests of her students. If she’s giving a lesson and sees that her students are struggling with one area more than another, she can adjust her instruction on the spot to focus on the area her students need more time on. She can also use examples, anecdotes, or scenarios she knows will appeal to them. This is great. Even amazing when you think about it. There’s a sort of magic that happens in the classroom of an experienced teacher who knows how to read her students. The problem is that the magic has limits. A teacher can adjust her delivery for 30 or 40 students, but when those numbers climb to large lecture halls where there are 200 to 300 students, the magic is lost.

A well-developed online course can deliver personalization at scale. If a student has shown that they’ve mastered one area of a course (through a pre-test or performance on previous assignments), the course can adjust its instruction on the spot to focus on the areas the student is struggling with. It can also customize the content of a lesson to appeal to a student’s interests or degree program. For example, if students are in a healthcare administration program, the math lessons they experience can use examples and anecdotes that are relevant to experiences they’ll encounter in the healthcare field. At Altius, this is something we’ve integrated into Helix’s learning platform by presenting content through narratives. Not only does this appeal to students’ interests, but it provides a context and relevancy to what they’re learning that results in enhanced retention.

Detailed Performance Data

One of the most exciting things about the technology of online courses is the ability to collect data. If developed properly, online courses can provide institutions with information on student, instructor, and course performance. Most online courses do this already but a lot of institutions aren’t sure what to do with this data once it’s collected. One of the things we’ve been focusing on is using data collection and predictive modeling to create a process for change management within our institution. If the program identifies that a student is struggling with a concept, his or her instructor is informed so they can make sure to address it during the next one-on-one session. Likewise, if students across the board are experiencing difficulties, instructional designers are informed so they can come up with new ways to present content in a way that’s easier to understand. Constant feedback loops work with institutional processes to create a plan for improving student outcomes on a consistent, ongoing basis.

Social Learning Experiences

One of the big myths in the online vs. offline discussion is the assumption that an online experience is less social. The best and most successful online programs use a wide range of technologies and social tools to enhance the experience and connect people directly. They don’t replace teachers with robots or group projects with video games. Rather, they provide opportunities for students to connect with instructors and each other. We have a very active online communities where our college mentors post weekly study tips, hold contests, ask questions, share blogs from students and staff members, and create a community to enrich relationships outside of the classroom. We also have private online communities for people with common interests and shared realities. Students learn more effectively when they are working together, and we’re seeing more and more schools leverage online groups and forums to provide opportunities to connect students with the university.

Online education is massive and growing. The huge popularity of MOOCs, recent government support for competency-based programs, and the growing need to find creative ways to reduce the overall cost of a college education are driving this growth forward. There’s no question that the convenience of online courses provides more learning opportunities for more students.

But now it’s time to move past mere convenience, and use the technology we have to improve the learning experience in a way that’s both meaningful and sustainable. I’ve already said there’s a sort of magic that goes on the classroom of an experienced and talented teacher, but I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I didn’t believe that technology has its own sort of magic, too.

Paul Freedman is the founder and CEO of Altius Education, a higher education and technology company focused providing students with a quality, affordable college education. Altius pursues this mission through Ivy Bridge College, an online transfer college and Helix, a virtual learning environment that combines technology innovations and research in cognitive science to revolutionize the way students learn online. Learn about Altius and its programs at

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