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The Web and the Changing Landscape of Learning

We live in an era where the vast storehouse of human knowledge is readily available and easily accessible - quite literally at our fingertips. Using devices from laptops to mobile phones, we can connect to the Internet from anywhere and in moments search for and find information that not only helps us answer questions, solve problems and complete tasks, but also entertains, inspires and confounds us. At the same time, the web has become a place where anyone with a computer and a connection to the Internet can readily publish text, images, audio and video. The web has become a space where human knowledge is stored, reshaped, accessed and redistributed. Information is abundant and knowledge has been set free.

This state of affairs is unprecedented in human history.

The video below by Michael Wesch, professor at Kansas State University, captures in four minutes what we mean by this changing state of affairs.  We are all engaged in gaining a better understanding of the implications this has for traditional conceptions of education. These changes bring into sharper relief the need to [re]conceptualize what online teaching might mean. Our view is that teaching online is in many ways fundamentally different from teaching face-to-face.

Let us illustrate how the web is changing how and where learning takes place through some examples that have evolved in recent years.

In India, a joint venture of the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institute of Science - representing eight schools in total - have launched the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL). Part of this program has focused on providing open access to full video recordings of course-based lectures. NPTEL has posted content in the form of topical play lists that represent complete lecture materials for individual courses. There are currently ninety-five (95) courses listed with a total of over 3560 videos uploaded. One purpose of this content is to provide open access to science and engineering course materials to India’s vast population, many of whom have limited access to advanced educational opportunities. It is common for individual lecture videos, many of which have been up for less than one year, to have 30,000+ page views.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been engaged in their OpenCourseWare (OCW) project for over seven years. The OCW is a web-based publication that contains course content for nearly every undergraduate and graduate subject taught at MIT. Syllabi, lecture notes, readings, exams and videos are available for free, and no registration is required to access content.  Many of the courses have been translated into Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai and Persian. MIT OpenCourseWare averages 1 million visits each month; translations receive 500,000 more.

Academic Earth (http://www.academicearth.org/) is an organization that acts as a clearinghouse for thousands of video lectures from the world’s top scholars, all openly accessible and free. Currently, Academic Earth houses over 1500 videos from MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale all of which have been published under a Creative Commons license at the host institution.

This placement of content online has been occurring at an ever-expanding rate for nearly a decade.  Content alone does not make a course, nor an education.  Anyone can access the courses in MIT’s OCW program, but obviously a degree from MIT not only reflects the access to content, but crucially includes, the access and interactions that occur when skilled faculty in the field facilitate that education. In other words, access to information does not lead to knowledge.  Everyone has access to high quality learning content.  Teaching online therefore means more than serving up content.  You are critical, in that you are the driver of quality course design, content mastery, and the skilled facilitation of learning.

Within this context of openly accessible and abundant learning content on the web, it becomes very clear that online teaching is not only about sound course design and high quality learning content, but increasingly it is about the skilled facilitation of learning by faculty who understand how to interact with and engage students in this new learning landscape. From our perspective, this transition is far from seamless. 

We believe that the practice of teaching online requires a shift toward practices that facilitate learning in web-based environments. Our experience suggests that these shifts are not always transparent to those wishing to make the transition to teaching courses online.

State of Online Learning Nationally

Nearly four million students nationally were taking at least one online course during the fall 2007 term - a 12 percent increase over the number reported the previous year and a 66 percent growth in three years (Allen and Seaman, 2008).  At the regional level, the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has now added accreditation standards for online courses (COC-SACS, 2006).  Student demand for online courses nationally is increasingly generating competition between institutions (Allen and Seaman, 2008).  Online education nationally has matured in the past decade from pilot programs to a mainstream method for delivering courses of instruction at many institutions. 

As institutions of higher learning have begun to provide instruction over the internet, three separate and distinct methods of delivering instruction have emerged, so let us start with some basic definitions.  Face-to-face instruction remains the predominate mode of instructional delivery at most institutions, though it is common for these classes to be web enhanced, with from 0 to 29 percent of instruction actually delivered online.  In the past decade, it has become common nationally for institutions to have courses and even entire programs which are delivered as totally online courses, which we define as having at least 80 percent of the course content, activities, discussions, and assessments occur online, either synchronously or asynchronously.  If national trends are any indication, the demand for totally online delivery of instruction is expected to increase.  In between face-to-face instruction and totally online instruction, we have hybrid or blended courses where between 30 to 79 percent of the instruction is delivered online (Allen and Seaman, 2008). 

In the sixth annual Sloan Consortium report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education, Allen and Seaman (2008) reported that online learning in America has continued to grow at rates that far exceed the growth of higher education itself.

  • Over 3.9 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2007 term; a 12 percent increase over the number reported the previous year.
  • The 12.9 percent growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the 1.2 percent growth of the overall higher education student population.
  • Over twenty percent of all U.S. higher education students were taking at least one online course in the fall of 2007.

Nationally, over 80% of these nearly 4 million online students are undergraduates.  Many of these undergraduates are working adults trying to balance home, work and academic lives.  Doctoral institutions have reportedly lagged other forms of higher education in adopting online delivery, primarily because online delivery was not previously seen as implicit with the core mission of the institutions or its student population.  However, 55% of doctoral/research institutions now report that online delivery is critical to the long term strategy of the institution (Allan and Seaman, 2008).  This reflects changes in student demand as well as recruitment challenges.  The SLOAN report found that the recent economic downturn was having a positive effect on online demand and enrollment across all forms of higher education.  It also found that online education was growing across all disciplines and not restricted to any particular discipline.  Interestingly, the student demand for online education does not translate into students seeking universities across the world.  The most recent study found that the trend for students to take online courses from local institutions remained consistent.  Eighty-five percent of online students live within 50 miles of their institution of higher education (Allen and Seaman, 2008).

A survey of 8,500 faculty nationally found that student need was the primary factor in the decision to move to online delivery of education.  Faculty members cited meeting student access needs and meeting needs of particular students as the two top reasons for providing online education (NASULGC, 2008).

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Last updated: 09/22/2009
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