The Purpose of Online Learning

In a five-part series, Canadian Tony Bates looked at the overall purpose of online courses, in reaction to recent moves by the Canadian government:

Over the years, I have followed Bates’ work…and appreciate his thoughtful posts.  He brings a Canadian lens to our global work of elearning, which I find refreshing.

In the first of this series, he explores Ontario’s recent requirement that all high school students take 4 out of their 30 credits online, in recommended classes of 35 students.  It is an interesting case study of administration dictating requirements without (1) sufficient data justifying the move, or (2) sufficient support to either teachers or students to ensure success.  I agree with Bates that there may be reasons for moving some learning online (as his fourth post suggested)…but requiring it across the board seems arbitrary.  And while I have taught 35 students before (in college classes), this also seems arbitrary if the on-campus classes are going to remain at 25.

In the second post, Bates tackles whether elearning can reduce costs.  He looked at recent surveys that suggested that increasing access – not reducing cost – were the primary drivers of online courses.  He also noted that while automation could help with lower level thinking skills, it is not yet capable of helping with higher level skills.  I liked his suggestion that maybe rather than thinking about the costs of face-to-face versus online, we think differently about where costs savings might be possible.  As students move through education (K12 to undergrad to graduate), their online needs are different, and so the funding structure should differentiate as well.

In the third post, Bates looks at how one might use elearning to help disadvantaged students…which did not necessarily mean intellectually weak students, but rather those with difficult situations at home … and for college students, at work.

His fourth post was my favorite – exploring how elearning could help develop the skills students need for the future.  Bates noted:

“…Prediction is always difficult (especially about the future!) but usually the big trends in the future can already be seen in the present. The future will merely magnify these current conditions, or current conditions will result in a transformation that we can see coming but is not here yet. Examples are many:

  • the Internet of Things where almost everything is digitally connected
  • autonomous vehicles and transportation
  • massive amounts of data about our personal lives being collected and analysed to anticipate/predict/influence our future behaviour
  • automation replacing and/or transforming human work and leisure
  • state agencies and/or commercial oligopolies controlling access to and use of data
  • lack of transparency and corruption of messaging in digital communications.”

In focusing on these big trends, he channels Kevin Kelly’s predictions in The Inevitable, where Kelly talked about the twelve technological forces that are shaping our future, as well as Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0, where the question of how we shape our future co-existence with artificial intelligence.  Bates noted:

“…We have a responsibility for ensuring our students are educated sufficiently so that they understand these issues and have the means by which to address them. This is a responsibility of every educator, because it affects all areas of knowledge.”

In the final post, Bates returns to the question of the purpose of online learning.  In a survey of Canadian universities that he and others ran, he noted what institutional leaders cited as strategic rationales for online courses:

Why online learning is strategically important

Bates noted that online learning could serve many different purposes well…but that implied within each of these priorities are strategies and resource allocations.  He therefore suggested four overarching priorities:

  1. increasing access and flexibility
  2. developing 21st century skills
  3. reducing inequalities in the education system
  4. increasing the cost-effectiveness of education

Again, these resonate with me and in many ways align with the work I have done with faculty for the past decade.  If I had to change any, I might suggest moving beyond the language of “21st Century Skills”…as we are already nearly 20 years into the Twenty-First Century.  I might suggest instead the use of Aoun’s new literacies – data literacy, technological literacy, and human literacy, coupled with an entrepreneurial mindset and lifelong learning.

Book by Aoun

I recommend a close read on all five Bates’ posts.  He hopes to generate conversation around the notion of “purpose”…and it would be interesting to hear your thoughts as well.

{Graphics: Pappas, Dashe & Thomson, Bates, MIT Press}

One thought on “The Purpose of Online Learning

  1. Many thanks, Britt, for pulling together so well what I was trying to do in my five posts – much appreciated

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