The Brave New (Wired) World of Online Education

For all our modern advances, the jury is still out regarding the most effective ways to teach online.

iphone on table

It is a brave new world, indeed, in which milk, cars, and spouses can all be acquired via the Internet. But for all our advances, the jury is still out regarding the most effective ways to teach online.

Many online learning platforms consist of passive video lectures and podcasts, or universities repackaging classes for the web. To illustrate, imagine you have students who have never seen a pizza before and want to learn how to make one. Working with current online teaching methods, they’d likely not throw the dough, choose the toppings, or get feedback on their work. They would probably have to sit quietly through written descriptions and video lectures online.

The prevalence of this passive approach demonstrates a key challenge in the pursuit of engaging, effective web-based education: the issue of interactivity. While more studies are showing that interactivity breeds engagement and information retention, instructors and platforms are still struggling to employ effective levels and modes of interactivity.

Researchers at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center examined 23 entry-level online courses at two separate community colleges and made some interesting discoveries on this phenomenon. Their assessment was that most of the course material was “text-heavy” and that it “generally consisted of readings and lecture notes. Few courses incorporated auditory or visual stimuli and well-designed instructional software.” While technology that supported feelings of interpersonal interaction was found to be helpful, mere incorporation of technology was insufficient—and recognized as such by the students. The research noted that, “Simply incorporating technology into a course does not necessarily improve interpersonal connections or student learning outcomes.”

The research specifically called out message boards (where instructor presence and guidance was minimal) to be insufficiently interactive to engage students in a way that they found clear and useful. The consensus of their research was that “effective integration of interactive technologies is difficult to achieve, and as a result, few online courses use technology to its fullest potential.”

Another interesting look at web-based learning and interactivity is a 2013 study conducted by Dr. Kenneth J. Longmuir of UC Irvine. Motivated by the fact that most “computerized resources for medical education are passive learning activities,” Professor Longmuir created his own online modules designed for iPad (and other mobile devices). These three online modules replaced three of his classroom lectures on acid-base physiology for first-year medical students. Using a Department of Defense handbook as his guide for incorporating different levels of activity, Longmuir utilized text and images side-by-side and had an embedded question and answer format. From student comments, “The most frequent statement was that students appreciated the interactive nature of the online instruction.” In fact, 97% of surveyed students said it improved the learning experience. They reported that not only did the online material take a shorter time to master than in-person lectures, but the interactivity of the modules was the “most important aspect of the presentation.”

While Dr. Longmuir was reluctant to draw hard conclusions about this particular online course’s efficacy (due to variables in student procrastination, students skipping important material, etc.), there are a few clear points to be taken from both studies. For one, engaging, interactive content is the exception, not the rule, in today’s online learning environment. Both studies suggest the importance of interactivity in online learning—if not definitively in test results (though that’s a possibility), certainly in how students feel about their engagement with the material. This isn’t surprising since research is showing that lack of interactivity in traditional classrooms is detrimental, as well.

While the science behind producing effective online learning courses is still in development, the need for meaningful interactivity in new educational technology seems like a no-brainer. If we hope to teach our students to make that pizza, the most effective way is not to drown them in video clips and PDF files; we should create online learning experiences that mimic—or even improve upon—the interactivity and satisfaction that pounding the dough themselves would provide.


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