The University of Cambridge has announced that all lectures will be offered online for the academic year beginning in October 2020. Other UK universities are expected to adopt similar policies, adopting a format which blends online learning with more traditional teaching.
Over the past few months, universities have had to scramble to move courses online. In some cases this has resulted in unsatisfactory student experiences and has exacerbated negative perceptions of online learning.
Online university courses may not be able to replicate the experience of on-campus social life. But in terms of teaching, well-designed online learning can be more satisfactory than sitting in a large lecture theatre. Now is a good moment for universities to think about how online learning can enhance, rather than substitute for, face-to-face teaching.
Here are five ways online learning can outperform traditional university teaching.
Online learning is free from a range of physical restrictions that impede face-to-face teaching. Students – and lecturers – with certain physical and health conditions often find online learning more accessible than campus-based activities. It provides not only an opportunity to acquire new knowledge but also an opportunity to meet and socialise with other students, which is otherwise unavailable.
For many students with travel difficulties and social responsibilities, online learning may be the only option. It can open up educational opportunities to a bigger group of international students by removing legal and financial complications. Well-produced learning content such as recorded lectures can enhance the ease of learning – particularly for students who, for whatever reason, may find it difficult to pick up new information in real time from one-off lectures.
Students enter university with diverse backgrounds, prior knowledge and experiences, and they learn at different speeds. However, in large lecture theatres, it is extremely difficult to customise the difficulty of lecture content for varying student needs. Instead, teachers may assign independent tasks that need to be completed between weekly lectures and hope that lower-level students can catch up.
In online courses, however, it is possible to present multiple learning paths with different sets of resources and activities, allowing students to choose their own learning content and pace. A brief self-assessment to help students better understand their readiness for the subject and choose the best option for themselves can be a great start to online learning. Such flexible learning experiences can greatly improve student satisfaction.
Clarity is at the heart of well-designed online learning. Every single idea and task, large or small, is explicitly and repeatedly explained in online settings. Students pause, reflect and repeat until they understand.
Although we often assume that face-to-face communication is more effective, numerous ideas, rules and details are left unspoken and misunderstood. Teachers are often hurried to finish lectures, mistakenly perceiving a couple of students nodding as a sign of class consent, and confused students are too embarrassed to ask for clarification.
Online learning offers the opportunity to shake up the traditional pattern of university study. Rigidly scheduled weekly lectures can be replaced by group project work or intensive tutorials. The size and attendance requirements of sessions can be varied according to their purpose.
This means that students will have diverse learning experiences which may be more challenging and stimulating than face-to-face lectures with little variation. Lecturers can be creative when designing modules and arranging activities, without worrying about room availability and a fixed timetable.
There are various ways for students to interact academically in online modules. These range from class discussions to peer review exercises and small group project-based learning. Students can feel supported by structured peer-to-peer activities and develop a strong sense of community online.
The shift from face-to-face “teaching” to online “learning”, suggests it is ultimately students who need to regulate and direct their learning. It is important to note that many students may find it challenging. They go through a painful trial-and-error process until they establish the right habits and routines, working in their unique learning situations.
But they obtain invaluable life-long learning skills and attitudes through this process. Success in online learning offers a profound sense of achievement. Although it may be difficult for teachers to let the control go in the first place, they are often amazed by how active students can be in their learning. Students as a group also find creative ways to overcome virtual restrictions and achieve beyond what is intended and imagined.
Kyungmee Lee is a Lecturer in Technology Enhanced Learning at Lancaster University.