Online learning presents a mix of benefits and challenges for learners. While providing flexibility in time and place, online learning requires additional discipline and intrinsic motivation from learners. By virtue of being computer-mediated, online courses also involve different technical proficiencies, changes in personal interactions, and a shift from oral to textual communication. Understanding the specific benefits and challenges of online courses helps instructors and course designers scaffold the online learning process for students, directly informing online course design considerations.
Learners and instructors meet regularly in a typical in-person course. Class time is set aside for regular interaction, and instructors often grade students on attendance and participation. Course content can be ephemeral, particularly if instructors tend to lecture during class time. In contrast, a typical online course allows learners to engage with course content, the instructor, and other learners at the time and place of their choosing, requiring learners to set aside time for engaging in the course. While online course material, including lecture content, typically remains available indefinitely, the responsibility for engaging with the material falls firmly on the learner. Online courses thus provide welcome flexibility while significantly shifting the burden of time management and responsibility, thus demanding increased discipline and intrinsic motivation from learners. Given individual differences in these areas, online courses may seem quite natural for some learners and much more difficult for others.
Computer mediation significantly changes the learning experience as well. Differences in technical proficiency contribute to learner experiences of the learning environment. Learners with strong technical skills may find online environments easy to navigate and relish the opportunity to work on assignments that test their technical abilities. Learners with less technical backgrounds may find it confusing to navigate online settings and become frustrated with online learning as a result. In-person meetings and in-class discussions often contribute to a sense of community in a course. When these are absent, as is typically the case in online courses, learners can feel isolated or alienated and learning can seem impersonal. Content and participation often shift from oral means like lecture and class discussion to textual means like reading and discussion posts. Learners will react differently to this modality shift based on their learning preferences. Some learners may find this shift quite difficult, while others will appreciate the ability to contribute to class discussions via discussion board (particularly those learners who may not be comfortable speaking in front of their peers in class).
How can online course designs take advantage of the benefits and minimize the challenges? A important first step is introducing learners to the differences between in-person and online courses and encouraging self-reflection. Do learners understand the responsibilities involved in taking an online course, as well as the benefits? Do they feel comfortable with the tradeoffs involved? These and other questions can help learners decide if online courses are a good fit for them. Course design considerations can also mitigate some of the challenges described above. Instructors might require regular assignments throughout each week to ensure that learners are regularly engaging with course content. Instructors might decide to hold synchronous meetings through virtual conferencing software to encourage learners to get to know each other through oral and visual interaction. Regarding technical proficiency, course designers should make sure that learners have access to a robust introduction to working within the online course environment. Instructors and course designers should ensure that courses are well-structured and easy to navigate, deadlines for assignments are clear, and necessary software is readily available. Instructors might also provide learners with a range of assignment options so that learners with technical skills like graphics, video, or website design will be encouraged to use these abilities. Furthermore, instructors might provide a range of content in various modalities to provide flexibility and reinforcement for learners.
Online courses are significantly different than in-person courses. If well-designed and purposefully scaffolded, however, they can be just as meaningful as in-person courses.