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Designing an Effective Online Learning Program: WHO are you teaching and HOW do they learn?

Technology is having a huge impact on education. More than 90% of all colleges now
offer some online programs with schools as prestigious as Harvard joining their
ranks (Rudestam, K. E. & Schoenholtz-Read, J. 2010). The exponential growth in
online learning has been fueled by many factors including rising transportation
costs, advances in learning technologies and the decline of the dollar making US
online programs more appealing for international students (Rudestam, K. E. &
Schoenholtz-Read, J. 2010).

This rapid movement of taking learning online has led some administrators and
teachers to apply old methods to a new learning paradigm with less than optimal
results. I agree with Prensky’s viewpoint that BOTH our teaching methodology and
content need to change.  How we use new technology to teach ‘legacy’ content such
as reading, writing, arithmetic and logical thinking is one of the biggest
challenges facing educators today (Prensky, M. 2001). We also need to start
teaching ‘future’ content like software, hardware, robotics, nanotechnology,
genomics and a slew of other technological subjects (Prensky, M. 2001).

In a recent post outlining Harvard’s online education strategy, Marty Neumeier
points out the struggle that many universities are having in continuing to provide
value to students. In order to design a successful online learning program,
educators need to start questioning their current methodology and resist the
temptation to simply bring current teaching practices to the online environment.
Two key factors that need to be considered prior to designing an effective online
learning experience includes 1) WHO is the student and 2) HOW do they learn.

1) WHO is the student? – Digital Native or Immigrant?

Today’s students, K through college, have spent their lives surrounded by
technology. These digital natives ‘HAVE CHANGED RADICALLY’ according to Prensky who provides evidence based arguments in support of giving our education system a major make-over. Prensky sums it up well when he states, “Our students have changed
radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was
designed to teach.”

Digital Natives have (Prensky, M. 2001):

•    Spent less than 5,000 hours reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games
•    Think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors
•    Brains that are PHYSICALLY different from Digital Immigrants
•    Prefer graphics BEFORE text
•    Are AMAZING multi-taskers
•    Prefer games to ‘serious’ work

These traits are often NOT appreciated by their Digital Immigrant professors or
their parents for that matter. Educators that did NOT grow up with technology need
to stop designing learning experiences that best suit how THEY learn. Many of their students are wired differently and only new learning methodologies will reach them.

So determining if the student body will be comprised of digital natives or
immigrants is a key factor. The large number of adult learners, some completing
part-time online degree programs while working full-time, means many classrooms
are currently divided amongst natives AND immigrants. My digital marketing class at Portland State fits into this category. About 50% of my students are freshly out of an MA or MBA program (Digital Natives) with the remaining 50% comprised of
marketing executives needing to gain digital skills (Digital Immigrants). Each term I’m struck by how differently each group approaches my class. The natives LOVE the
online content and the fact that they get to have their laptop in front of them at
all times. The immigrants tend to print out their lessons and some even take notes with pen and paper. Now that’s OLD school (PUN intended).

2) HOW do they Learn? – Learning Theory

There is much we can learn from the research that has been done around human
development and learning psychology. There is no doubt that much more research is
needed, especially in light of changing technology, but many of the key findings
are still extremely relevant. Media psychology, my new field, draws on theories in
psychology and apply them to media in facilitating learning, or include them as
tools enabling learning to take place (Rudestam, K. E. & Schoenholtz-Read, J. 2010, Chap 6).

The authors of the Online Learning Handbook believe that the following theories in
psychology MUST be understood if the e-learning world is going to improve:

•    Motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic
•    Success and Failure
•    Intelligence
•    Mastery
•    Cognition
•    Positive Addiction
•    Emotion
•    Retention
•    Semantics
•    Persuasion
•    Control
•    Personality

The research and theory surrounding these principles, amongst others, should be
considered before attempting to update our current online learning platforms. The
challenges identified within the education industry has fueled recent research that may supply some answers. We just need to pay attention and keep asking the right
questions.

References:
Neumeier, M. (2014). Michael Porter and Clayton Christensen Are Both Wrong About Finding the Future of Business Education. Forbes.com. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesleadershipforum/2014/06/12/michael-porter-and-clay-christensen-are-both-wrong-about-finding-the-future-of-business-education/)

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants part 1. On the horizon, 9 (5), 1-6.

Rudestam, K. E., & Schoenholtz-Read, J. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of online  learning. Sage.