The Current State & Future of Online Education

April 19, 2012

By Brooke Folliot

Brooke is an avid writer who strives to write about topics surrounding the rising emergence of online education and how it could effect the way that students of the future will learn, interact, and contribute to the world around them.  Brooke holds a graduate degree in business and is also currently considering further graduate work in the field of organizational behavior.

According to research cited in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, nearly one in three college students takes at least one online class. That figure presents an increase of 10 percent over the prior year and amounts to nearly 6 million students around the country who are enrolled in the virtual classroom. For older-aged working professionals looking to obtain an online graduate degree, the idea of a virtual classroom could appeal to them in that it carries the flexibility of online education but embodies the look-and-feel of the traditional classroom with which they are familiar.  Many researchers and students also cite the convenience of the online classroom, which allows students with non-traditional schedules to earn college credit on a more flexible schedule. Many education analysts, however, are wondering just how effective online education really is and what will happen if the virtual classroom becomes the paradigm of tomorrow’s university.

In some respects, online learning has definite advantages over the traditional classroom. A report issued by the U.S. Department of Education found that students taking online instruction performed better than their peers in the traditional classroom. When the online instruction was collaborative or instructor-directed, researchers noted a greater positive effect. Additionally, the most effective learning models involved manipulations that triggered learner activity, self-reflection and self-moderating of understanding.

The effective online classroom is influenced by the behavior of the instructor more than by any other factor.  If this factor of instructor excellence were to be combined with future virtual classroom concepts, such as those fostered by the virtual environment enabler Open Wonderland, there is no telling how effective a tool this could be. By having a medium where students can not only immerse themselves into one personable environment from anywhere in the world, but to do so with high-caliber teachers, the entire landscape of education could change drastically. In a study published in the Journal of Interactive Online Learning, John Savery of the University of Akron found that effective online instructors are highly visible through both public and private communications channels, including banner web pages, email, audio and video. Good instructors are also organized, compassionate and analytical, providing continuous assessment so that students can monitor both their progress and their understanding of course topics. Finally, the best online instructors lead by example, modeling appropriate online communication and meeting their own commitments in a timely manner.

The future university classroom will inevitably incorporate digital content. The same Department of Education study also found that students who took courses blending face-to-face and online instruction performed better than any other group. Savery suggests that online instructors set up proctored exams on campus when possible so that online students have a chance to meet their instructors face-to-face. Schools that continue to rely on traditional instruction can support in-class activities via online discussion or by posting course materials online.

When gathering in one location is not possible, social media, video conferencing, or virtual worlds help to provide the next best solution for face-to-face connection. For example, professors can use platforms like Twitter to post assignments or class updates, or students can participate in live Twitter discussions by using a designated hashtag. Instead of discussing via text only, students can also conduct video conferences with their professors or meet in a virtual world. Additionally, solutions like SavorChat can allow professors to schedule chat room discussions combining the use of both Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Online education cuts costs for universities, delivers flexibility for students and enhances the educational experience. With the proliferation of mobile devices, students can connect to their coursework anytime, anywhere. The traditional classroom may never entirely disappear; however, the virtual classroom will support, if not supplant, the face-to-face paradigm.

Vision for Online Economics Education

March 9, 2012

By Nicole Yankelovich

I recently collaborated with Amy Cramer, an economics professor at Pima Community College in Tuscon, Arizona. Together, we made a video that demonstrates how Open Wonderland can be used to create a dynamic, interactive environment for teaching online economics classes.

This came about as a result of her school encouraging her to develop a distance education course. She resisted because she was not satisfied with current online course offerings.  She did not think they did a good job of engaging students or offering the type of explanatory power of live instruction. On top of that, they involved more work for the instructor because of the volume of discussion text that had to be read and responded to.

These problems led her to explore alternatives. Together, we made this video to illustrate how using Open Wonderland could overcome the issues with web-based courses, while retaining all of the benefits.

The main insight from the video is that live classes that integrate collaborative activities with opportunities to interact with the instructor are considerably more engaging than reading web pages or watching canned videos. Those students who are able to take advantage of the live class will have a superior experience, but students not able to attend can still follow the course by watching video recordings of the sessions.


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