Online learning driving higher education reforms

Updated: 2014-03-13 08:26

By Simon Ho (HK Edition)

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Online learning, also known as e-learning or online courses, is one of the most significant trends in global higher education, ushering in a revolution in university education.

Historically, there have been few real changes or benefits brought by advances in educational technology. It was not until the 19th century that education started gaining popularity and more people began receiving higher education, but there have been few changes in teaching and learning methods since then.

Distance e-learning is not a new concept, having appeared over two decades ago. In the early offline distance courses, students chose the time and place to watch pre-recorded video lectures and submit homework to tutors. Consultations with tutors were largely conducted through e-mail or by telephone. Yet such teaching was one-way and lacked the benefits of real-time interaction.

Even on the Internet, one-way online lectures have inherent disadvantages and limitations. They homogenize students, lack personal face-to-face interaction, and tend to dehumanize. Today, we have real-time interactive teaching and learning in addition to one-way online lectures. This means many innovative teaching and learning methods can be put into practice.

The most powerful aspect of the new generation of online courses is their ability to balance large class sizes (many thousands of students in one class) and individualized learning - a balance that does not exist in traditional education.

In traditionally large classes, teachers generally have no idea how much of a lecture's content their students understand or master. But the effect may be different when teaching activities are conducted online in real time. For instance, when several thousands of students take an online course at the same time and are asked to answer a multiple-choice question, teachers can immediately determine, based on the distribution of the answers, the number of students who have answered incorrectly and the nature of any misunderstandings.

Based on such real-time data, teachers can adopt appropriate remedial measures at once or afterwards to enhance the students' ability to learn. The system can automatically guide students to review the content with which they have the most difficulty. Therefore, online teaching allows teachers to monitor the personal progress and needs of many students more effectively.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have launched another wave of online education through a concept started by top US universities. There are several global MOOC platforms that provide free online courses for hundreds of millions of people around the world. People can use their computers or mobile devices to watch their favorite real-time or pre-recorded subjects (generally without assessment). Regular students of an institution offering MOOCs can also take them to fulfil some course credit requirements.

In less-developed countries, online education is a shortcut to improving people's levels of education in the short term. Of course, limited access to computers, the Internet, or particular websites in some countries have kept many people from taking advantage of online learning and from enjoying conversation. Some argue that MOOCs may make education (and social) inequality more severe.

MOOCs are also one way to further internationalize higher education. Online learners of varying ages from different countries, cultures and professions can learn to find solutions to common global issues such as education, the environment, energy, poverty, health and international relations.

How should we view a university diploma or degree in this era of online learning? There is no doubt students, parents and employers still value universities' reputations, which extends to the degrees they issue. However, holding a university degree may not equate to attaining knowledge, a good attitude towards learning, or ability.

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, says students' knowledge should be distinguished from the way they acquire it. Gates, who dropped out after his first year at Harvard, has been a real-life "full-time student" for many years through his engagement in online courses. He encourages university graduates to maintain life-long and continuous online learning.

Whether or not Internet technology will shake the foundations of traditional universities, many experts believe the importance of physical universities will decline over the next five years. To tackle this, leaders of traditional universities must take timely initiatives.

Pure distance learning is a second-choice teaching approach, and can by no means replace face-to-face and interactive learning settings. Therefore, online courses can only supplement real-world classroom activities for paid regular degree students at an institution. Such supplementation is called a "blended learning" or a "hybrid learning" model.

It has become outdated to have students sitting in classrooms to attend lectures. Teaching should always be student-centered, dividing students into different study groups and promoting cooperation and teamwork through new technology. This helps students master deeper learning and core transferable competencies, which are more important and valuable than attending one-way lectures.

Ultimately, no matter how far technology advances, it should not widen the distance between teachers and students as the former set themselves as role models to inspire the latter. Nor should it reduce inspiration among students. Many people believe education in future will be solely online, replacing the current classroom teaching model, but I do not.

While new technology supplements and strengthens the effectiveness of education, it cannot replace the personalized classroom, even though models for teaching are changing. In the end, undergraduate education is a process of personal interaction.

The author is a senior university leader and professor.

(HK Edition 03/13/2014 page1)