Many students who are time-poor, or who want to study at a particular institution but live too far away, are turning to learning in the online classroom. Far from replacing the traditional lecture, the online classroom is enhancing it, as well as opening up higher education to a wider audience through distance learning.

MIT have been offering online courses since 2002, but the online classroom truly became part of wider public consciousness when Purdue University bought the technology learning company Kaplan early in 2018, so that they could deliver content to students who would otherwise be unable to sign up for traditional, lecture-led courses. Now, 98 percent of universities offer online classroom options.

In this blog post, we’ll cover the different flavors of online classrooms and how they’re applied, some basic differences between online teaching and its class-based counterpart, and look at some potential future developments.

The history of the online classroom

Online classrooms and online education have never been about the technology itself, but the learning. Distance education has been going on since the 18th-century by mail and via radio in the early-twentieth century.

Several specific degree-awarding institutions were set up long before the popularization of the Internet. The early 1970s brought Athabasca University in subarctic Canada, and the Open University in Milton Keynes, England. (In lieu of YouTube, filmed lectures from the Open University even appeared on early-morning or late-night public free-to-air television on the BBC: air times were included in mailouts.)

Given that the Internet started as a military network, and then expanded to academia, online classrooms were implemented early. By 1995, an online course was developed—CALCampus, which calls itself the first implementation of a totally online-based school through which administration, real-time classroom instruction, and materials are provided.

Since then, online classrooms have developed in many different settings, some hugely scaled up, some very closely connected to the lecture hall.

Different kinds of online classrooms

Massive online-only courses, or MOOCs, are what most people think of when they consider online teaching. MOOCs are to traditional classrooms like cruise ships are to yachts. They take advantage of size and scale, carrying one large group of people to a popular destination or subject. Courses are usually self-paced, and there is little (often no) personal contact with the instructor. Although MOOCs have been criticized for low completion rates, that’s often down to the casual nature of entry—and there’s no doubt that they’ve expanded access to knowledge for millions.

While many universities run MOOCs, individual instructors often incorporate online teaching into their own courses. Flipped classrooms place all the lectures and slide materials in video and document files for students to watch before the class, and reserve in-class time for discussion and lab work. Blended learning is a little closer to the traditional classroom—it incorporates technology use into the class, perhaps through quizzes or online assignments.

Both flipped classrooms and blended learning lend themselves to active learning, a teaching technique that encourages students to focus less on sitting and listening to a lecture and more on participation, engaging in debate and collaboration with peers. Furthermore, many MOOCs feature webinars, and are often automatically graded.

What’s different about teaching in an online classroom

Those who focus on online teaching need to bear in mind the different formatting of online instruction—and the reasons why people choose to study online. Here are some ways that you can adapt your existing course material and teaching style. These work with blended learning, flipped classrooms and massive online-only courses.

Go bitesize

You’d be wrong to assume that people taking lessons in an online classroom have more time and like watching longer lectures. Virtual learning is meant to be time-saving—so your materials need to be focused and shorter.

One example of this is Professor Lisa Wolf-Wendel, who teaches higher education at the University of Kansas. When she flipped her classroom and put her lectures online, she was able to use the data from her learning management system to see how many people completed the course. “I noticed that no one was watching the 20-minute video segments,” she said. “Now they are all 10 minutes long.”

Manage your time

Of course, there’s a counterpoint to making online courses shorter for students—just because your teaching and assessment materials are all online and you don’t need to repeatedly teach them, doesn’t mean you have endless time available; in fact, you can quickly become overwhelmed.

Online courses are meant to be asynchronous. If you’re using a message board, you don’t have to reply to every single forum post. Are students coming to you with tech problems? Divert them to IT support. Be clear from the beginning about what students can contact you by e-mail (or instant message) about, and how long they need to wait until you reply.

Communication is different

For many people, it’s harder to communicate if you’re not face-to-face in front of somebody. Meanings can be misinterpreted over chat and email without the help of body language.

Foster discussion

Many online courses are set up on learning management systems such as Moodle or Blackboard, and adding a discussion forum is one way to help students connect with each other and the material. However, without incentive to use them, these are often ignored by students.

You can help your students stay socially and cognitively connected to the course if you push them gently in the right direction by setting up a WhatsApp or Signal group. Depending on the size of your course, students can use it to discuss the material and learn from each other—and it could also be a boon for successful group projects. Consider giving extra grade points for meaningful participation in the group as well.

A note on the future of the online classroom

But online education has to provide value, otherwise it becomes a flashy and useless gimmick. In the late 2000s, universities rushed to set up ‘virtual campuses’ in the multiplayer universe Second Life, in order to create multimedia learning experiences. A little over a decade later, they’re now deserted—in fact, you can go on virtual tours of them.

New tools have to save time or open up new audiences—and be accessible to the wider public—in order to avoid the same fate as those cobwebbed digital campuses. Instead of looking to virtual or augmented reality for the future of the online classroom, we should consider the changing demographics of students and the technology that is already available, and look at new ways of targeting course materials for engagement.

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