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Higher education is undergoing an explosive period of transformation that embraces the digital age. From tablets to smart phones to wikis and blogs, today's digital environment makes communication, collaboration and information sharing easier than ever before.
Teaching and learning now occurs on a multi-dimensional level that involves both personal instruction and cutting-edge online technologies. This paradigm shift has made advanced education considerably more accessible to current and potential students, driving increased demand for online learning opportunities.
Statistics show that higher education institutions are striving to meet this demand. The 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning  revealed that enrollment rose by almost one million students from a year earlier, and that nearly 30 percent of all college and university students now take at least one course online. Online learning offers students easier access to education, as well as a more personalized, flexible, and customized learning experience, which explains its increasing popularity among a cross section of students including working professionals interested in lifelong learning.
Along with the benefits, the phenomenal growth of online learning also presents an uncharted set of challenges for academic institutions, most of which are much more familiar with the traditional classroom setting. Additionally, it has spurred a new set of demands and expectations from a range of stakeholders including students, instructors, regulatory institutions and advocacy groups. Given these new challenges, several factors are proving to be instrumental in shaping the way higher education institutions implement and improve upon the state of online learning.
Academic accountability and transparency are two of the largest catalysts in the transformation of online learning in higher education.
As more individuals enroll in online courses, certificate and degree programs, the need for a universal standard of quality is escalating in importance. Currently, online programs must adhere to specific standards, yet the level of academic rigor and quality offered may differ from one school to another or one instructor to the next. Seeking consistency and excellence government institutions, advocacy groups and students are calling for greater accountability measures.
To this end, new research has shown that online education can be just as, if not more, effective than in-classroom instruction. A recent report on online education, conducted by SRI International for the Department of Education, concluded, "On average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction" .
Aiming to meet these distinct needs, academic institutions are eager to implement effective new tools that enable transparent academic reporting and assessment. As a result, offerings such as learning management systems are fast becoming a staple for any institution that offers, or plans to offer, online education.
The mounting focus on accountability and transparency will naturally drive improved course and content quality—a factor that is of ultimate importance to every institution.
But what will actually facilitate this overall improvement? Many experts agree academic analytics and assessment solutions that are built into online learning environments, particularly learning management systems, will serve as valuable tools when it comes to assessing and amplifying course and content quality.
Higher education institutions will increasingly rely on learning management systems that enable "prescriptive content"—meaning the systems define appropriate content for each student, according to their measured abilities, and employ learning modalities and techniques that are proven to drive achievement. This method of online learning challenges the student while allowing them to progress at their own pace—ultimately resulting in increased academic success and satisfaction.
By evaluating students in a number of key areas—including time and task, grades, answer confidence, information retention, and satisfaction —learning management systems are eliminating the days of cookie cutter content and one-size-fits all courses. By harnessing these tools, instructors are able to continually track and evaluate students and optimize course content to help individuals overcome academic hurdles and address difficulties as they occur. As a result, the quality of course and program content will only continue to improve.
One of the most important factors impacting student success is the instructor. Yet, some professionals still fear that their role will become marginalized as technology becomes more deeply integrated into today's learning environments. However, the reality is technology will not replace the teacher, even in fully online learning environments. Although some instructors fear technology will increase their workload, effective education technology tools provide instructors with new ways to better engage and teach students, without additional demands on time.
Additionally, as online learning continues to progress, instructors will also be held to a higher standard of excellence, driving increased demand for quality, tech-savvy instructors. This new generation of educational leaders will be called on to use technology in the fully online and blended learning classrooms, thereby changing the way courses are taught. Instead of demanding memorization and feedback, instructors will employ tools that enable application of knowledge to real-life problems and real-time collaboration with peers.
To support instructors in these efforts, administrators can use academic analytics and assessment tools to analyze their individual performance and areas where improvement needs to be made. By employing ongoing assessment, institutions will be able to set a higher standard for teachers and cultivate an environment where quality is a norm.
The availability and adoption of student-to-student and teacher-to-student collaboration tools is already a reality—and they are making a big impact on the way teaching and learning continues to evolve. Web 2.0 collaboration tools such as social networking, user-generated content, video conferencing, wikis and blogs, are changing the way institutions educate students. These various changes include professors teaching in more than one medium; students being expected to collaborate online to complete group projects; printed textbooks being replaced by customized eBooks with multimedia content; and traditional paper-based grading methodologies changing to accommodate new ways of learning, including collaborative projects.
Given the fact that learning management systems play a key role in online learning, it is important to note that most systems already offer a variety of collaboration tools. This level of availability is helping to create new opportunities to engage students in a more accessible and flexible environment. It will also help to transform learning management systems from a platform into a true environment that enables more collaborative online learning.
In short, the institutions that are able to effectively integrate these new collaborative, multi-modal mediums into their online and blended learning environments will emerge as the pioneers of the next generation of online learning.
Technology is transforming education and its impact just continues to grow. By creating and embracing a solid framework for online learning and employing cutting-edge learning management systems, higher education institutions are in a position to significantly improve student outcomes today and into the future.
Senior Director of Teaching & Learning at Pearson eCollege, Jeff Borden has his M.A in rhetoric/human communication and is currently a doctoral student (ABD) in education leadership at Argosy University in Denver. Borden has created, taught, and administered several upper and lower division communication and computer courses for several universities and community colleges around the country since 1998. Additionally, he has assisted faculty, administrators, and trainers from diverse fields in conceptualizing and designing both on-ground and online courses as well as given direction to schools for total program success.
 The 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning. "Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010." November 2010.  U.S. Department of Education. "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies." (Revised September 2010)
 The 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning. "Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010." November 2010.
 U.S. Department of Education. "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies." (Revised September 2010)
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