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The Basics of an Online Learning Course

The online learning course is a staple of 21st century education. Without the boundaries of time, the inconvenience of location and weather conditions, or the health risk of close contact, this is rapidly becoming the most practical way to learn.

This is because online learning is usually what educators call “asynchronous,” or happening at different times for different people. Students can speed up or slow down as they move through the material and can do this from the comfort of their home as they have time. 

Thanks to online learning platforms, educators can organize weeks of materials into units and lessons that would normally be presented in person and develop a self-paced course for a variety of learners. Videos, slides, texts, and discussions become a series of modules that build on each other as learners click through the materials at their own pace.  Students answer questions as they progress, post to discussion boards to collaborate with peers, access supplemental materials as needed, submit assignments at designated checkpoints for instructors to review, and take assessments at the end of units. 

With all of these capabilities, online learning platforms can accomplish the same goals as an in-person course with flexibility and ease. 

The Benefits of Asynchronous Learning

Ask any college student with an 8AM class, or a commuting college student, or an adult learner with kids, or really, any of us who can’t help hitting the snooze button, much less make it out of our homes showered and dressed by a certain hour. 

Face-to-face learning is the opposite–“synchronous” by default–and can be pretty inconvenient. 

It can play out like this: the same college student might attend that 8AM class once a week for three hours or twice a week for an hour and a half with 100 other students. Their professor might divide learning into (hopefully) digestible chunks with lectures and notes and maybe require an hour-long lab once a week in another building for hands-on practice. This is a weeks-long time and travel commitment and can be an obstacle, especially when professors consider attendance as part of the course grade. 

That same college student or several of the hundred in an asynchronous online course might be able to make it through the same lecture and notes in half the time at 2PM the same day, if they were allowed to, and move onto an assessment if they were ready. They might be able to achieve similar hands-on practice if it were necessary.

An asynchronous online learning course can meet diverse needs for a variety of learners in different times and places. 

But What About the Disadvantages? 

You’ve probably heard the sighs of exasperated parents (and virtual pandemic teachers!) when someone mentions the term “virtual learning.” This is definitely a complex issue, tied up in childcare and the ability to work remotely, among many other things. 

But parents and teachers know that in-person, synchronous education has advantages and opportunities that online learning can’t provide. Synchronous learning means that students experience the lesson at the same time the teacher is conducting it. Synchronous learning allows students to ask questions and receive an immediate response and for the teacher to adjust their strategies as students experience confusion or need a change of pace.  Students can more easily collaborate and discuss ideas with peers who they’ll more readily listen to than the teacher at times.  

Parents and teachers know that in-person, synchronous education makes it a lot harder for the learner to run out of the room to grab a bowl of popcorn and never come back, or to click buttons on the screen while simultaneously playing the XBox. Someone is physically available with the authority to snatch their cell phone away when Candy Crush becomes more interesting than the lesson. 

This is probably why so many parents of in-person K-12 students surveyed by the Pew Research Center were the most likely to say they were “very satisfied” with how their local schools were handling instruction. 

Similarly, according to a 2019 study from the Educause Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR), about 70% of college students prefer solely or mostly in-person learning so that they can stay engaged with their professor and colleagues. 

It seems even college students and adult learners could use someone to encourage them to look up from their cell phones from time to time, hold them accountable for learning,  and require them to spend some time engaged in face-to-face interaction.  

A Solution

To work well, a quality online course should provide the flexibility and convenience of asynchronous learning; prevent participants from mindlessly clicking through modules without absorbing the content; and offer opportunities for live feedback and interaction that fuel genuine learning.

Aside from the issue of care for school-aged children, an answer to the problem of effective online learning seems to be engagement and accountability. 

Once a course is online on the right platform, a well-designed course will first engage students by building on their foundational knowledge in the same way they would an in-person class. Then, it will control the order in which students progress through the course to ensure they’re learning things in the same manageable chunks they would be in person.  To hold students accountable, just like utilizing quizzes and questioning in a live class, a well-designed course will include checkpoints for participants to ensure true learning is happening. It could be in the middle of a video or after reading a large chunk of text. This prevents students from continuing without answering a key question that checks for understanding. For assessments, a good course will require both multiple choice questions for general knowledge and open-ended responses and projects to test application. These can be as simple or complex as the instructor or employer needs. 

With a good online course, a combination of synchronous and asynchronous time is also possible. Many students prefer this method because they get both the benefit of the flexibility and live feedback. Teachers and trainers can present to all participants at the same time live from their classroom, living room, or office effectively in targeted, short spurts, take questions, and actively work through issues with students and employees. A quality online course considers this very real need for human interaction. 

Whether or not it’s ideal for all learners,  online learning isn’t going away soon, so educators and employers have to find ways to make it work well.  And with most current professional development courses all or partially online, companies need to think more than ever about designing the best online learning environment for their employees. Furthermore, if you’re a SaaS company that would like to build out your own online university, visit SaaS Universities.

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