7 trends that will revolutionize online learning

A look at new tools and new opportunities to create an instructional experience that is not only different, but better, taking online learning in mainstream higher ed to the next level.

online-learning[Editor’s note: This story originally ran as a feature in our Oct/Nov. digital publication. Read more features part of this issue here.]

Let’s face it: Online education has always been the unhappy stepchild to traditional classroom teaching. It’s generally been seen as a make-do solution to serve students who—whether for reasons of geography or scheduling—were unable to attend class in person. And, more recently, its great claim to fame has been as a cost saver, a scalable way to enroll large numbers of students with minimal financial outlay. Well, the ugly duckling may be about to turn into a swan.

“We’re starting to hear a real desire for online learning to turn the corner and be focused on a mode of instruction that is inherently better than what we have today in traditional education,” said Chris Walsh, CEO of Zaption, a video learning company based in San Francisco. “People are starting to look at new tools and new opportunities to create an instructional experience that is different but hopefully better as well.”

The idea that online learning could actually be better than face-to-face instruction has gained credence in recent years as new technology solutions promise to make the educational experience more personalized and engaging. Has that time finally arrived? Here, eCampus News looks at seven trends that have the potential to remake the world of online learning.


1) Blended Learning Is the Sweet Spot

Ironically, the ideal learning environment may not be online or face-to-face: It might be both together. “We’re definitely seeing a trend over the last three to five years of people moving to these blended, online, hybrid, flipped-classroom models,” said Jennifer Ferralli, math product manager at WebAssign, an online instructional platform that specializes in STEM subjects. “We’re seeing this across the different disciplines, not just in math but also in physics and chemistry. People are trying to find different ways to connect with students to make classroom time more effective and more efficient.”

It’s a trend that has also caught the attention of ProctorU, a company that provides technology to prevent cheating and fraud in online courses. “The blended model especially is exploding,” said Don Kassner, ProctorU’s CEO. “When we first started seven years ago, we were talking to online-only programs. Now most of the programs are blended.”

In the wake of the hype around MOOCs that engulfed online learning in recent years, there is a growing realization that taking a course online requires a level of discipline and drive that many students lack. “A very small minority of people can completely learn online without any kind of motivation—without having somebody tap them on their backs once in a while to say, ‘You’ve done this very well,’ or, ‘Try a little harder,” said Gregor Freund, CEO of Versal, an online platform designed to help faculty with no technical expertise create interactive learning experiences. “Online learning has to become part of an overall learning process that blends classroom learning, remote learning, on-the-job learning—all of these different elements.”

It’s an approach that has really helped students in the School of Education at Gardner-Webb University, which utilizes Teachscape Learn, a professional development platform designed specifically for teachers. “Flipping the classroom has really changed my game,” said Kelly Taylor, assistant professor and chair of middle grades education. “Students now come in with a background about the concepts we’re studying, instead of my having to spend some of the class period laying the foundation.”

(Next page: Trends 2-4)


2) Video Is King

The image of online learners slogging through text-heavy course materials on their computers is rapidly going the way of the abacus. In place of text is a growing emphasis on video as an instructional medium. “Video is now at the center of almost all learning experiences,” said Walsh. “Universities, at every single level, are trying to tap into video, because it’s a very powerful tool.”

Indeed, without the ability to use video, the flipped classroom may not even be feasible. “Students are much more visual now,” said Kelly of her trainees, who watch Teachscape Learn videos of other teachers in action in the classroom. “Instead of wading through text that they have a hard time understanding, they can now see a teaching concept in action: They hear the teachers talking about the decisions they make, and why they’re using the practices they’re using. It’s just been so much more powerful.”

From lecture capture recordings to supplementary videos provided by textbook publishers, the role of video is growing in every area of academic life. At Gardner-Webb, for example, trainees film themselves teaching from day one as a way to reflect on their performances as well as to provide faculty and peers an opportunity to offer critiques.

Increasingly, though, faculty are also turning to outside sources—as well as colleagues—for videos that can complement their teaching efforts. “A solid majority of our customers are using YouTube video,” said Walsh. “There’s more content on YouTube today than in all of broadcast history combined, a lot of which is high-quality video that can be used in almost any learning context.”

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3) Interactivity, Not Talking Heads

As valuable as watching video can be, it’s still a passive activity not very different from sitting in a lecture hall listening to a professor. For online learning to be successful, say many educators, it needs to be interactive and engaging.

Adding value to video lies at the heart of the concept behind Zaption, a video-enhancement platform that allows students and faculty to augment videos with 11 different interactive components including graphics, quizzes, comment fields, and photos. There’s even a telestrator: Students can now emulate commentator John Madden, who once drew on the TV screen to illustrate football plays, by marking up videos on the Zaption platform.

“You need to turn that learning experience into an active learning experience,” said Walsh. “Students are more engaged by having additional elements, especially multiple questions at strategic points in a video. It makes students actually want to watch to the end.”

The need for more interactivity in online courses is what prompted Freund to found Versal. “The typical online course really doesn’t work for me,” he explained. “It’s really a talking head with maybe a blackboard behind the professor and some quizzes. I have to touch things. I have to play with things. It has to be interactive for me to work.”

Freund’s answer is an instructional platform that uses mini JavaScript apps called gadgets that faculty can drag-and-drop into a course to turn their materials into interactive exercises and assessments. Among the customizable gadgets are interactive simulations, timelines, flash cards, and diagrams.

“A lot of the infrastructure and content of online learning is really geared toward students at the very elite universities—the Harvards and Stanfords of this world,” said Freund. “But, like me, a lot of students can’t listen to an hour-and-a-half lecture without falling asleep.”


4) Mobile Is a Must

Working adults and other non-traditional students now represent the majority of students in the United States, so colleges and universities cannot assume that their learners will do all their work at home or in the library. For students with families and jobs, life simply isn’t that predictable. This fact, combined with the reality that younger students consume everything except food through their mobile devices, makes the need for a mobile solution an imperative in online education.

“Mobile is the uber trend that you hear from everybody,” said Walsh. “Students are on the go, especially higher-ed students, and they have their mobile devices wherever they are. No longer can you have just an iOS app, you must also have Android. You have to have a native look, as well as a mobile web solution.”

It’s a view shared by Kelly at Gardner-Webb. “Mobile is very important—it’s what they’re used to and what students in this day and age expect,” she said. “Giving them content when they’re ready to access it, in a way that they’re most familiar with, is the best way to meet their needs.”

(Next page: Trends 5-7)


5) Identity Verification and Cheating

For years, concern about the validity of online education has focused on the potential for cheating. ProctorU, one of the major players in the online proctoring market, documents issues with about 3 percent of all test takers, of which 15 percent to 20 percent involve questions of academic integrity. “These are the numbers when students know we’re proctoring them,” said Kassner. “You have to believe the level of cheating is staggering when the exam is not proctored. It’s like speeding. If you’re on an open road with no cops around, you’re going to drive as fast as you want. If there’s a cop with a radar gun, though, you’re going to be pretty careful.”

But the threat of abuse now extends far beyond the exam room. Recent revelations about massive identity fraud in Title IV programs have refocused attention on the validity of certificates and degrees awarded to students in online programs. If online learning is to take the next step toward widespread acceptance, employers must be satisfied that the students they hire are the same ones who actually did the work—and completed it honestly.

ProctorU hopes that its UCard will help assuage some of these concerns. Released last spring, UCard validates the identity of students through the entire educational process, from the moment they register until they graduate. The identity of each student is confirmed by a keystroke-based behavioral biometric that measures how long the student strikes a key and the amount of time between key strikes. “Institutions can now have a straight-line authentication through the entire course,” said Kassner. “We can verify at the very beginning that it is the correct student. At various points during the course, we can issue a challenge. And then, at the end of the course, we can proctor the exam. It raises the level of certainty that the student is the student.”


6) Auto-grading

The issue of how to assess student performance online at scale rose to prominence with MOOCs. Given the complexity of the subject matter in higher education, multiple-choice tests were simply not a viable solution. In response, the developers of MOOCs created models that, for the most part, emphasized peer assessment. While this approach shows promise in courses where credentials are not awarded, it is unlikely to gain traction among degreed programs.

The need for a scalable grading solution prompted a drive to develop auto-graders that are capable of assessing responses to open-ended questions. These efforts now show signs of paying off. edX, the MOOC partnership between Harvard and MIT, for example, continues to tinker with an essay auto-grader that it released in 2013.

Another player is WebAssign, an online homework and assessment platform that supports STEM disciplines such as math, physics, chemistry, and statistics. While the company doesn’t focus on the MOOC environment, its platform is used in very large courses at some of the biggest universities in the country, including Purdue, Texas A&M, and North Carolina State. At the heart of the platform are approximately 900 textbooks from major educational publishers, most prominently Cengage. To create homework assignments, WebAssign encodes the questions in these books, randomizes them, and makes them open-ended.

“Instead of relying on multiple choice, we actually have students put in a specific equation or specific form of an equation and then we check the validity of the students’ answers,” said Ferralli. “There’s a wide variety of answer entry points such as a graphing tool, a map, or a number line tool.”

To grade a student’s work, WebAssign’s auto-grader runs a series of checks on the answers. “We actually use Mathematica on the back end,” explained Ferralli, referring to the computational software program built on the Wolfram Language. “The computer algebra systems verify that an answer passes all the checks that we’ve programmed in. It allows us to grade answers to differential equations and those sorts of things.”


7) Open, Intuitive Platforms

Educators railed for years about the walled garden that surrounded courses in their schools’ LMSs, which prevented them from taking full advantage of the wealth of content, apps, and services available elsewhere. While many LMS vendors are working to dismantle these walls, new products and platforms (which hook into LMSs via LTI) are actively touting the ease with which users can add content and applications from just about anywhere.

In the eyes of Versal’s Freund, such platforms can help faculty retake control of their courses and put their own stamp on what material is taught and how. “Right now, if you are a teacher and get a course from Pearson, you’re essentially a bystander—you can’t change it any more,” he said. “But one of the really cool things about electronic publishing is how much additional content is available out there. Teachers should be part of deciding what content is appropriate for their students.”

As an example, Freund cites a course on segregation in the United States that describes all the events and timelines in the Deep South. “But if I’m in San Francisco, I also want to teach students what happened in the city because I want to make it locally relevant,” he said. “Faculty might take a course that has pre-built core components, but then enhance it with their own information.”

To make this approach possible, the Versal platform is designed to be intuitive, utilizing drag-and-drop mini apps. “You don’t have to be an instructional designer,” said Freund. “Anybody can build online courses in it, so it’s more like a WordPress or a Power Point for education. The idea is to create a blended set of content out of professionally curated materials and a professor’s own selections and work.”

Andrew Barbour is a contributing editor with eCampus News.

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