Online learning—the way of the future

While studying online is the new normal for students around the world, academic Dr Anne Yates weighs up what this means for the future.

Millions of students worldwide can’t be wrong—online learning works. Not only does it work, it places students at the centre of learning: it gives people the freedom to study where and when it suits them. Studying online fits around your life rather than fitting your life to study.

Flexible learning

Online learning is a branch of distance learning whereby students study in their own time, at the place they choose but without face-to-face contact with a lecturer and other students. However, students are connected, through the internet, with lecturers, tutors, and other students. Numerous channels of communication such as emails, texts, video calling, and social media platforms enable students to contact each other and their teachers.

Distance education isn’t new and has proved very successful, meeting the needs of students unable to travel to campus, on-campus students with timetable clashes or part-time jobs, and students who must stay in paid employment while studying. In these uncertain global times, it has provided consistency of learning and engagement between students and their places of study.

On an international scale, while face-to-face learning provides the opportunity to live and study in another country, experience other cultures, and form social connections, online study can make international education more accessible to more students.

Building work-ready skills

However, perhaps the strongest argument for online study is the increased need for remote working during COVID-19 and the future demand for work flexibility. Preparing students for the future is at the centre of every University and studies have shown that a wide range of skill development will be gained while learning online.

Skills such as technological know-how, organisation, time management, self-motivation and independent research. Online learning can also enhance self-discipline, resourcefulness, and independence. It can help build lifelong learning skills and skills needed for employment in the digital age, such as knowledge management, critical thinking, digital communication skills, and digital literacy.

The challenges

Research over many years has shown there is little difference for student performance between studying online or studying on campus. Yet online learning is not without its challenges. It places unique demands because it reverses traditional teacher/student roles and places students in control of their learning. This requires students to plan, organise, self-direct, and evaluate their work, and their ability to manage this varies and greatly influences their experience and subsequent course completion. Barriers to completion in online learning include students losing motivation to study, having too many competing interests on their time, courses that aren’t meeting their needs, and a lack of support from the learning provider.

Institutions must ensure that their online courses are relevant and engaging, that they can provide suitable online learning platforms, and that students are enrolled in appropriate programmes. Teaching staff need to be knowledgeable in online learning and teaching methods, student-centred, and empathetic. Staff also have to be able to enhance students’ self-efficacy and motivation to continue with their studies. The human element is an important factor in encouraging students who study online to persevere and complete their courses.

The future of learning

Online or digital learning is the way of the future. While COVID-19 has plunged more than a billion students into emergency remote online learning, many institutions were already moving to much more digital integration in their teaching and learning. Flipped classrooms, where teachers provide digital access to resources students work through before coming to class, are a common instructional practice. As is blended learning where classroom and online learning are used in tandem. MOOCs, Khan Academy, YouTube, TedTalks, and Education TV (to name a few) are all forms of online learning in existence. In the future, we are much more likely to question why face-to-face lectures still exist.

Dr Anne Yates is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. Her research focuses on digital technologies in education and online learning.

Established in 1897, Victoria University of Wellington is a globally recognised civic university. We are leaders in sustainability, creativity, and government, and our research intensity is ranked #1 in New Zealand (Performance-Based Research Fund, 2018).