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On Our Radar – First-person, first-time online learning

On Our Radar features HEQCO staff and guest bloggers offering their unique perspectives on trends, new ideas, and hot-button issues in higher education. The opinions are those of the authors.

Many people have strong opinions about online learning but few have actually engrossed themselves in the experience. Call me a curious cynic or optimist depending on the day, but I have decided to take it upon myself to give online courses a try and will devote a series of blogs to my thoughts, sentiments and struggles.

The online learning movement largely stems from the birth of OpenCourseWare (OCW), which is the free online sharing of higher education course materials. OCW became popular through the launch of MIT OpenCourseWare in 2002. Since then, the online landscape has exploded with a variety of options, ranging from degree-conferring virtual institutions to partnerships between already-established institutions that offer extensive online learning options to a global audience. My experiences will only reflect those from the latter.

Like most individuals my age, I became attached to the internet in primary school through interactive games, such as Oregon Trail, and seemingly ignore the reality that using social media websites as a medium to stay connected and communicate with my friends might one day haunt me. In fact, I wholeheartedly embrace the online community and am looking forward to seeing how online learning and social media websites will shape and alter higher education and the work force for future generations.

Within the past few years, there has been considerable hype, both online and in real life, about the use of virtual classrooms to supplement learning. The reality is that today’s students are much more connected than ever before, despite claims that the Internet isolates individuals from the outside world and dilutes true learning. The truth is, we need to be connected. Being connected to an infinite amount of materials and resources is truly one of the best ways that we can continue to compete with the growing demands placed on our generation.

Similarly, many suggest that today’s students are lazier than ever. But I would argue that the levels of expectations have grown exponentially and I never cease to be amazed by the level of commitment and passion that my generation brings to all sectors. Today’s students are expected to not only be masters in their subject but also in a wide-range of other fields. As a master’s student in political science at the University of Toronto, I am not simply expected to be a social scientist, but also well-versed in foreign languages, statistics, computers and technology, and life and health sciences to boot. When applying to entry-level jobs, today’s students are expected to have some type of higher education credential on top of years of relevant work experience. As these demands and prerequisites continue to pile, online learning may provide an affordable opportunity for students to develop those necessary skills that are not specifically embedded within their current academic pursuits.

Although there are several online course options, I chose to try Coursera through a friend’s recommendation. I was immediately drawn to the variety of courses offered and their unique subject matter. These courses are particularly attractive to those who want to brush up on quantitative methods skills or perhaps explore an area that their higher education institution does not offer in computer science, mathematics and statistics, healthcare, business and information.

My blog will focus on my experiences with the Health Policy and Affordable Care Act course, taught by University of Pennsylvania Professor Ezekiel Emanuel. Assessment is based on weekly assignments derived from class lectures and readings that are then peer-graded. All of the lectures and readings are found on the course website. As the name suggests, this course pertains to health care policy in the United States but also draws content from global comparisons. In eight short weeks, Professor Emanuel will provide lectures starting with an overview of the current status of health care policy in the United States and will end with an in-depth discussion of the Affordable Care Act. The timing of this discussion could not be more perfect since the United States Supreme Court recently ruled on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius.

Truthfully, I am not sure what exactly to expect regarding the depth and breadth of this eight-week course or the overall experience of attending class completely online. My education thus far has always contained online learning components, but I have yet to experience a completely virtual classroom with thousands of classmates from all over the world. Because I anticipate that the discussions will be as fiery and diverse as the American public itself, I am most looking forward to this component. Stay tuned for more updates and I encourage you to challenge my claims for yourself by enrolling in one of the free courses!

-Lauren Hudak, Research Intern

4 replies on “On Our Radar – First-person, first-time online learning”

I think you will be disappointed by the quality of “class discussion” unless this independant prof is using some tech not used by colleges and universities. Keep in mind that a real course would need to be prof graded. Peer grading changes the approach so you can’t really comment about online learning when your format is diFferent to the norm. “Watching a lecture” also does not happen- much to my surprise. Lol good luck.

I am looking forward to following your experiences and reflections regarding online education. Of particular interest is the dialog amidst students and with the Professor (as sage or guide). How is dialog and relationship fostered? What are your responses?
Enjoy your learning, Lorraine

Lauren: This is such a timely topic for exploration. In the past year, i have had the experience of taking both a blended(hybrid) course and a fully on-line course as part of my doctoral studies an I have two observations. The hybrid course used two face-to-face meetings at the course beginning and end. The platform was Blackboard and participants posted comments in threaded discussions. More professor-led direction was needed about length of posts, continued vs new threads, # of expected posts by participant in each week, and a method for ensuring each participant received post responses. There were no evaluation rubrics or guidelines.
The second course used a proprietary platform with wonderful functionality that allowed participants to see participation metrics, and a record of all individual posts in one place. The professor was well-organized, skilled in framing discussion questions, clear about expectations of participants, adept at positing questions to guide discussions, summarizing weekly discussions, and ensured breadth of particpant interactions with each other. The first of the two experiences was postive, but would have been less so without the face-to-face component. the second experience was rich in discussion, engaging, and meant deep learning, although all interaction was virtual. The lesson for me? It is all about good teaching, and making the most effective use of the modality selected.

We will look forward to hearing about what you learn, Lauren.

You might think about reaching back a little further, though, for the history of online learning. To say that “The online learning movement largely stems from the birth of OpenCourseWare” would be more accurate as “public notice of open educational resources largely stems from…”.

For the longer and larger history of online learning, you might check the personal reflections of some of the pioneers: http://bit.ly/OUizkF.

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