Whereas in the past, the rigid timeframes of classroom based education could prove challenging for students trying to juggle numerous commitments, online learning now allows students to work on course materials from any part of the world at a time of day that suits their schedule.

An online world

“The whole world is online now; the economy is online and every occupation is online,” says Rory McGreal, who is the UNESCO/Commonwealth of Learning Chairholder in Open Educational Resources and a Professor in the Centre for Distance Education at Athabasca University. “So to have courses at universities that aren’t online is odd, it’s maintaining a backward system for no reason.”

The Vice-Provost of Open Learning at Thompson Rivers University, Dr. Gordon Tarzwell, believes that the flexibility of online education makes the learning experience a more desirable one for students.“It allows for the student to fit education around their life, as opposed to fitting their life around education,” he says. “That results in students working on their education when the environment around them is the most conducive.” 

Synchronous or asynchronous 

There are two main methods of delivering online education: synchronous and asynchronous. Online synchronous teaching copies the classroom model by getting all of the students together online at the same time using Skype, or something similar, for a lecture or seminar discussion session. 

"It allows for the student to fit education around their life, as opposed to fitting their life around education."

In the asynchronous model, students are given material to study on their own time, with the tutor available online for any questions or problems. Asynchronous learning also incorporates online discussion forums.

“One of the advantages of the asynchronous model over classroom discussions is that it gives students time to think,” explains Professor McGreal.  “The shy students tend to interact more because they have more time to consider their responses, and are not as nervous about speaking up as they would be in the classroom.” 

Using the technology

In recent years, advancements in online analytical technologies have enabled educational institutions to build a more accurate picture of how students are progressing throughout their courses. 

“Analytics identifies the students who are having difficulty, allowing the institutions to actively help those students before they get too far behind with their studies,” explains Dr. Tarzwell. 

“It sometimes identifies a problem that a student is having before even the student themselves has recognized it, meaning that institutions don’t have to wait for the student to approach saying that they’re in difficulty.”

Dispelling the myths

As online education grows more popular, and more people get used to how it works and its benefits, commonly held misconceptions about the quality and value of e-learning are starting to fade. 

“Some people think that online education is inferior to the classroom model, but that’s based on absolutely no research evidence whatsoever,” says Professor McGreal. “We instructionally design our courses and we put in pedagogy. We look at how to teach and how to present the material, and we have expert instructional designers doing that.”

Online technology is continuously improving and it’s imperative that education be adaptive and responsive to this progress. “Online education has emerged as the future platform of education and the idea of the traditional classroom without an online component doesn’t exist anymore,” says Professor McGreal.

“The online aspect of online education is only going to get more powerful and universities cannot divorce themselves from this development.”