Online learning enables an unprecedented level of customization for each individual student, but just how significant is personalization in education? Education scholar Benjamin Bloom conducted research in 1984 which demonstrated that students given one-on-one attention reliably performed two standard deviations better than their peers who stay in a regular classroom, the difference between an “average student” and one in the 98th percentile. However, in 1984, the idea of providing personal attention to each individual student was unthinkable simply due to the staggering costs involved. But now with online learning, customizing education for every student is no longer beyond the scope of possibility.
Online learning will enable not only the pace, but also the delivery of the course to be tailored to each individual student in ways that traditional face-to-face education cannot accommodate for. Students have unique learning styles and interests, and increased customization can make the learning process more engaging and effective. One student may learn calculus derivatives faster by walking through numerous example problems; another may prefer to have it explained more visually; and still another student still might better grasp the concept if it is taught within the context of physics.
Christensen also emphasizes the significance of how customizing the context of the subjects being taught can break down the “departments that characterize higher education.” He expressed in an interview that “We graduate students with the belief that every field is a different one and the day after they graduate they realize oh my god, I can’t use any of these things independently. Online education gives us a clean slate so we can teach calculus in the context of chemistry, music in the context of history, and so on.”
Online learning has also made it possible for many non-traditional students to continue pursuing their education even as they juggle multiple priorities. As more working adults return to school to complete bachelor’s degrees or to obtain masters to advance their career or improve job security, there is an increasing need for courses that offer flexible scheduling. Rhona Peat, who is currently completing her MBA degree remotely, believes that distance learning “gives you the ability to fit studying around other things. I think that becomes much more important for those with families – being able to choose when to study rather than having to attend weekend and evening lectures is very useful.” While traditional MBA degrees may sometimes require students to leave their jobs and, in some situations, displace entire families to move closer to campus, distance learning has made it possible for individuals to pursue their degrees with minimal impact to their lifestyles.
Online learning has affected not only postsecondary education, but has been breaking ground in K-12 learning as well. In 2009 more than 3 million students in primary and secondary education participated in some type of online learning. In 2010, 27 states offered statewide virtual schools that allow students to take a class online, and 24 states offered the option for students to attend the virtual school full-time. Using a hybrid system that combines the classroom with instructions provided by online education platforms, such as Khan Academy, some teachers have already begun adopting new approaches to education that have shown increased engagement and remarkable academic improvement in students by allowing individuals in the same class to learn and advance at different paces based on each individual’s needs.
But as online learning begins to take on a more significant role in student learning, what does that mean for teachers? Harvard Business School had in recent years stopped teaching accounting, and instead has their students take a course online taught by Professor Norman Nemrow from BYU. Professor Sebastian Thrun offers his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online free of charge, and MIT Professor Walter Lewin’s “Intro to Physics” course has been taken by over 5 million people. As instructions from the best and brightest in different fields become more readily available online, some educators are finding their role changing as they spend less time lecturing in front of the classroom and focusing instead on providing the detailed personalized help that only a live teacher can offer. Such a change, welcomed by some and resented by others, may indeed disrupt the teaching profession for all levels of education.
The adoption of online learning as a substantial part of a student’s learning experience can also inspire institutional changes. Phoenix University, whose online program has the largest enrollment of any university, spends approximately $200 million each year on improving their teaching methodologies. Traditionally, improvement in teaching has been largely an individual responsibility placed on the faculty, who do so through systems of feedback and evaluation. If more face-to-face instruction is replaced by online lectures, the responsibility may fall on the institution to acquire and develop material and tools to provide the highest quality content and best educational platforms available. This type of change would undoubtedly entail modifications in an institution’s personnel, infrastructure, and spending.
Clayton Christensen: Why online education is ready for disruption, now. – Interview with Dr. Clayton Christensen on how the Internet is changing the way the world learns.
The Customization of Online Education in a Thirty-One Flavors World – A study discussing three different online learning formats developed for different types of courses and students.
Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies – A study conducted by Center for Technology in Learning to compare the academic performance of students in online classes to those in face-to-face classes.
How Online Innovators Are Disrupting Education – A blog entry from the Harvard Business Review on the impact of online learning on education and relevant concerns.
How Online Learning Is Revolutionizing K12 Education And Benefiting Students – An academic paper defining online learning and outlining its benefits.
Read more about how teachers’ roles are changing in “Are Teacher-Written Digital Textbooks The Way Forward?”
This article originally appeared on accreditedonlinecolleges.net.
Image by Ryan Somma.