Why Online Learning Often Fails – Tips for Instructors
Technology has, over the last 200 years, transformed how we live our lives and yielded us an extraordinary present. The global transformation process has been especially dramatic in the last year of this span of time.
Today, the internet enables us to connect, control, and learn in ways like never before. However, despite the massive upside potential of the internet to enhance the learning process, glaring failures have made it difficult for the medium to be fully realized
UPDATE: At the end of this article we have embedded a Youtube video of LIVE interview with Scott Hindell on the topic of the article.
The potential of, and unfortunately more so, disappointments of online learning is under scrutiny now more than ever as recent news of COVID-19 has put the world in lockdown.
In this article we will discuss the reasons why most online training programs struggle to fully meet their goals, featuring an interview with a seasoned instructor from UCLA and M Accelerator, C. Scott Hindell.
The problems that plague the virtual space as a learning environment can be distilled to issues revolving around technical and practical limitations, the inability of programs to engage students as they would in real person, and low transparency leading to weak overall accountability.
Technical Difficulties and Limitations
Online learning programs require a certain level of “computer literacy” on the part of both the instructor and students. With technology changing rapidly, it can be hard for people to keep up with new devices and software.
Oftentimes, it is assumed that those involved know how to best use the technologies but this isn’t the case in reality. The gaps in technical faculty mean that inefficiencies will persist as the programs transpire.
Even though online learning programs give students the great benefit of being able to learn virtually anytime and anywhere, they just can’t seem to draw the same level of engagement from students as live sessions do.
There just seems to be something missing in online environments that weakens retention among students.
Programs have struggled to recreate “meaningful interaction between students and instructors” in the manner and consistency that live programs do.
This leads to more serious problems such as lower completion rates. Studies show that students will steadily drop out of online programs regardless of how much of the programs they have completed.
Low Transparency and Accountability
The issue of accountability has yet to be effectively addressed when it comes to virtual learning programs. This can range from those taking the program, to the instructors, administrators, and even developers.
It’s hard to regulate and establish standardization across the now not so nebulous medium because all the programs are decentralized in nature.
This is certainly in part due to weak transparency measures in place to make sure there’s accountability across all involved parties in the learning process.
Responsibility is often squarely rested on the shoulders of the students learning with little accountability measures for instructors and administrators. Italicize or bold
In addition to that, “misconception relating to cognitive load” on the part of instructors can lead to overburdening students with work in virtual learning programs.
This can be especially true of learning programs that are newly transitioned to the online space because it can be easy to add more material when the constraints of time and space have been relaxed.
But adding more material doesn’t necessarily equate to more learning, it might prove to be counterproductive and even detrimental to the learning experience.
Interview with Scott Hindell
Scott Hindell is an Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Business and Custom Programs master instructor at UCLA extension and lead instructor at M Accelerator. We organized a virtual chat with him to get insights on the shortcomings of online learning programs.
What are the main struggles learners have to deal with when taking an online course?
One thing that stands out as everybody expects that the online learning experience is going to be like the physical learning experience. One may travel across town, or school, to spend three hours in a room that gives an instructor a lot of power and it also keeps the students accountable.
When it’s asynchronous, in particular, it requires more discipline from the student’s point of view so they need to manage their time and handle their affairs better. That can push a lot of the learning on to the last minute and deadline, usually a week-long duration.
This is a challenge for both the student and the instructor. Another struggle is that each medium essentially has its pros and cons and we’re still in the process of learning what the pros of online learning actually are. Online learning, in its best form, is flexible, engaging, and efficient.
We’re still building on hundreds of years of practice where instructors are teaching in time-bound, fixed locations. Even in even in synchronous sessions, we’re still learning how to best use the tools we’ve developed
Conversely, what are the main struggles that instructors have to deal with when implementing an online course?
The challenges instructors have with constructing an online course center mainly around learning first and foremost what this new medium of teaching offers as far as prose.
Instructors also want to know what the challenges and constraints are as many people are trying to replicate what happens in the live environment in an online environment.
There are two primary forms of teaching online one is asynchronous where students are completing the tasks set by instructors at their discretion with respect to deadlines.
But when instructors attempt to replicate the live environment in an online environment it hasn’t been very effective. Each situation offers certain benefits and constraints so the challenge is administering the lessons and critical concepts effectively.
Another challenge is that instructors don’t know how to utilize the tools that are available online in a way that makes it feel like it’s in person. Distilling what drives students to go to their classes and why they prefer in-person learning is very important.
An important tool for me is learning loops, through them, I am able to conduct even 3 hour-long online sessions that feel as good if not better than live environments. I do this by creating tasks, getting the students to do them quickly in breakout sessions, and encouraging discussion after reconvening.
Can you elaborate on the value of learning loops in the online sessions you hold?
Learning loops are really important for me and my programs. I think of it as an opportunity to help students attach their mental tentacles to a concept as much as possible.
The more tentacles I can help them attach to a concept, the more likely they are going to be able to understand it. I can’t just give them the concept and then move on to give them the next one, I have to implement a lot of learning loops.
The New York Times, several years ago, did a feature article on the concept of learning loops. They talked about how kids learning to skateboard would take months, if not years, trying to learn tricks.
Until YouTube came around and gave people trying to learn things remotely a way to be able to interact with a community that could give them insights they might have been slow to reach on their own.
Before it would take months but these online communities allowed the generation of learning loops so people can pick up on things in a relatively short amount of time.
It’s interesting what this unfortunate [COVID-19] situation is presenting for us because we, at M Accelerator, worked hard to get as many learning loops in our [in-person sessions] but after transitioning rather quickly online, we’ve been able to get more learning loops in both an asynchronous and synchronous way within the remaining weeks of the program.
Through tools like slack, we are able to have participants post comments and get those in-between synchronous sessions. Which is a fortunate experience I don’t think we would have been able to run in the same way and the outcome being equal, if not better than what we would do in a physical situation.
As a course designer, what is the main challenge for you?
For me, it’s the layers of the contents when we’re designing a course. A lot of instructors make the mistake of giving people too much information. At the end of a program, students are walking out and they have this tray with all this information but don’t know necessarily what to do with that.
For me, it’s really understanding the central concept: this is what I have to get to actually get them to master and understand. Not just introduced, but master and understand.
Then what do I want to build off of that? I would say more than anything, the organization of material is the big challenge. It’s not really an additive process but more of a subtractive process.
You have to remove things to bring emphasis and focus on the key things that you need them to understand. And then the whole world kind of opens up in front of them.
What are some of the largest trends in online learning that are making the process better?
I would say we’re still much like digital marketing where we’re still figuring it out. Certain things tend to work better than others. One thing I’ve struggled with a little bit is the concept of making short instructional videos that are generally not supposed to be longer than 6 minutes.
How do you build a concept in 6 minutes or less? It tends to be somewhat superficial. The key here is if they are to be successful, you really have to synthesize what the essential elements are and distill it down to making a couple of key points for them. Then utilizing tasks or discussions to expand upon those.
A lot of programs I’ve seen are just a series of these short videos but without a unifying aspect to it. So the trends that I see working, are ones that actually have a unifying aspect.
They’re making a core point and then they’re utilizing tasks to build off of that to get the students to develop an understanding of what you’re trying to do is supposed to do as opposed to knowledge.
What are some tips you would give to instructors looking to implement an online course?
I lead the instructor developer program at UCLA, and the number one tip I give to everybody is organization.
There are no shortcuts to that and once you go through hundreds of pages of material, you get that down into some workable material and then you distill that down even further.
The promise of the future of online learning is it’s flexible, engaging, and efficient. You need to distill these concepts down into something that’s really clear.
It’s kind of like the written word as opposed to the all-day idiosyncratic mistakes we make when we do a live presentation. You’ve got to do the hard work and get the central concept, then use tasks and discussions to fill in the blanks.
Even though the tech hasn’t lived up to what it could be in the realm of online learning programs, this may soon change as the world closes up and the need for effective innovation in virtual learning increases.
With so many startups and organizations working hard to provide the solutions to the major pitfalls within the virtual platform that weaken progress in the field, things are sure to improve in the near future
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Here below a video interview with Scott Hindell about the challenges of online learning and how we addressed them at M Accelerator.