IP: The Future of Education
Online learning, which incorporates Web-based instruction, multimedia resources and the capability to support real-time and asynchronous communication, is transforming the traditional classroom into a digitally-rich, interactive and highly personalized environment.
Although online learning has its roots in distance education, it has expanded beyond the traditional correspondence course. Today, a virtual program can replace or supplement traditional brick-and-mortar classroom instruction. Virtual courses are available in K-12 environments, higher education institutions and industry-specific continuing education programs.
This dramatic shift in the U.S. education landscape is prefaced upon the availability of broadband infrastructure within the traditional school building, in the learner’s home and in mobile locations. Over the next few weeks, the New Edge will publish a series of articles exploring how online learning is affecting U.S. education, and how students utilize the broadband pipe for learning opportunities.
The Online Learning Boom
More than 5.6 million higher-education students were enrolled in at least one online course in 2009, an increase of nearly 1 million students in one year, according to the report Class Differences: Online Learning in the United States, 2010 by The Sloan Consortium. Nearly 30% of higher education students now take at least one course online, and 63% of reporting higher education institutions said that online learning was a critical part of their long-term strategies.
K-12 education is mirroring the trends seen in the higher-education environment. K-12 online learning is a booming field, growing at 30% annually. Today, supplemental or full-time K-12 online learning programs are available to most students in 48 states, plus Washington, D.C.
Susan Patrick, president and chief executive officer of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), is witnessing the migration to online, digital technology first-hand. In 2010, iNacol estimated that in the United States greater than 2 million K-12 students were enrolled in purely online learning programs, and up to 4 million in a combination of online and blended or hybrid learning programs, which combine face-to-face instruction with online resources.
“The authors of Disrupting Class estimate that by 2019, 50% of U.S. K-12 courses will be delivered online,” Patrick said. “Some students will take courses in the school building and some will take classes at home. This flexibility helps students learn at their own pace and teachers to customize instruction, and the wave of interest is going to place huge demands on the underlying broadband infrastructure.”
The migration to online learning is fueled by a variety of benefits. The number one reason a student enrolls in an online course is because it is unavailable locally. In the K-12 environment this is especially true for advanced placement courses, learning disabled education, credit recovery programs and electives such as foreign languages and sciences. Oftentimes in rural areas post-high school instruction is quite limited or nonexistent.
Online education enables a customized environment that appeals to a student’s unique learning style. The student has the ability to go at his own pace, access additional resources and partake in one-on-one instruction with master teachers, experts in their fields.
Students have a clear preference for learning that is highly personalized, untethered, socially based and digitally rich, according to Project Tomorrow’s 2009 Speak Up national survey. Online learning addresses each of these essential elements.
For rurally located learners who often reside great distances from the nearest traditional institution, online learning is a lifeline. Due to family or business responsibilities a rural student may not be able to re-locate to enroll in a college or university, or may find the two-hour bus ride to school a hardship; however, with a broadband connection the student can learn Mandarin, take an advanced placement Biology course, or enroll in a university course from the comfort of his own home.
Virtual learning also is a driver of economic development for small, rural towns. “Currently a teacher is limited to open positions within driving distance of where he or she lives,” Patrick said. “However, using an online system, a teacher in a rural area will be able to teach from home and reach students across the state, district lines or possibly even across the country. Online learning really opens a whole range of opportunities for instructors.”
Multimedia: The Foundation of Online Curriculum
Driven in large part by increased access to the Internet and the prevalence of mobile devices, young people now spend an average of more than 53 hours per week consuming media, according to the 2010 Generation M²: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Multimedia—text, audio, still images, animations, video and interactivity—is clearly students’ chosen modality and the foundation of digital, online curriculum.
“Traditional classrooms encourage students to power down, but students are often uncomfortable in this environment,” said Alex Morrison, vice president of sales for Discovery Education. “They are unengaged and don’t listen to or retain the material. In schools across the country teachers are learning to bridge to a new multimedia, learning environment that engages students in the learning process,” he said.
Customization is one of the chief advantages of an online learning environment. Multimedia instruction addresses all types of learners—auditory, read/write, visual and kinesthetic, those who learn by doing—by providing an atmosphere that meets an individual student’s unique needs.
Terri-Lynn Brown is a former teacher who now serves as senior education specialist at Desire2Learn, a technology vendor that services virtual education organizations. “Students learn at different places and times,” Brown said. “There is no one-size-fits-all curriculum. Online learning accommodates all types of students and learning styles.”
The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) is working to advance the use of technology-enhanced teaching and learning in higher education. WCET Deputy Director, Research and Analysis Russell Poulin said that multimedia enables a student to hear and see a concept explained by an expert resource. “When an instructor—or a student for that matter—is using video, the creator pays lots of attention to getting the visuals, words, audio and animation to efficiently and effectively work together,” Poulin said. “Often a well-produced, 20-minute video can explain a concept better than a one-hour lecture.”
There are many multimedia content options available to students and educators from publicly available repositories such as MIT OpenCourseWare and HippoCampus, to premium pay content sources such as SAS Curriculum Pathways, Discovery Education and NBC Learn. Online resource libraries offer breadth and depth of content options including visual images, audio files, full-length videos and segmented video clips. Many sites also provide unique interactive features. For instance, MIT OpenCourseWare features Highlights for High School showcasing science demonstrations by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) faculty. NBC Learn offers “What’s Your iCue?,” an educational game which blends trivia with NBC News videos. Discovery Education offers a unique multimedia glossary that defines scientific terms using a variety of learning modalities. To explain the term germination, for example, the student can choose from a written definition; an animation showing a seed germinating by exposure to water and soil; a video with narration that shows the process in advanced speed; and diagrams and images of seeds and seed anatomy.
Morrison said that instructors across the nation are increasingly using digital technology for student activities. For instance, Microsoft Photo Story is a free application that allows students to create digital movies using their own images and voice over narration. Glogster allows students to create individual glogs—online multimedia Web pages with text, photos, videos, graphics, sounds, drawings, data attachments and more. Students and educators also are finding ways to leverage multimedia on mobile devices. For example students in St. Mary’s City School district in rural Ohio are creating presentations from photographs they have taken of geometric shapes using their smartphones, according to The Project Tomorrow and Blackboard report Learning in the 21st Century: Taking it Mobile.
These multimedia tools can be used in the traditional school building, assigned for homework or included in the virtual education environment. “These applications engage students in the learning process and reinforce what they have learned,” said Morrison.
Stay tuned for part II in our series which will examine interactive educational tools — simulations, games, and communication & collaboration applications.