Date of Publication: 22 February 2019
Can you enjoy the community of our courses if you are learning online?
What’s the best part about an Oxford Summer Courses experience? I’ve been speaking to our alumni over the last few weeks and most of them have said that the people make it. Community. A tutor who knows you. New friends. Perspectives from across the world. And this doesn’t just apply to our courses; most learning experiences are richer and more enjoyable with a group of peers to share the journey and a teacher understands who you are and what motivates you.
So what about online learning? What if you are learning from your sofa, in your pyjamas, miles away from your teacher and classmates?
We know that online learning is not always engaging. Sometimes – in fact scarily often – students disengage with online learning experiences. Paul Basken, North America Editor for Times Higher Education, recently explored the problem of the ‘MOOC’ in an article entitled ‘Online university courses for the masses fail to materialise’.
‘MOOC’s – massive open online courses – are normally courses run by universities for free (though some have a cost), available to any student with an internet connection. Despite the offer of content free of charge, a recent study looking at edX, the MOOC provider born out of MIT and Harvard, found that more than half of students who registered for a course never even opened the course software. MOOC completion rates are low across the board – around 5%.
So why aren’t students interested in engaging with courses offered to them for free? What makes students switch off?
One of the greatest factors at play here is lack of student support. MOOCs offer the content, a few quizzes, and a discussion board – take it or leave it. There is no personal tutor, no personalised feedback, no tailored goals, no sense of being known. None of that sense of being part of something which our students get so excited about at our summer courses.
Fundamentally free content alone is not enough for a meaningful learning experience. Even if the course materials are of the highest quality, in order to be effective and engaging, learning needs to be personal. A few weeks ago we discussed the idea of the effectiveness of personalised learning, discussed in this post. But here I’m more talking about being known as a student.
When learning online it is easy to feel anonymous, disconnected, and this leads to students giving up on their learning altogether.
But there is another way. Universities are starting to understand get to grips with this problem, and while it’s difficult to offer a personal touch for free, they are weaving it into their paid distance learning offerings.
Paul LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University is strongly behind this idea. His university assigns every online student an adviser who stays with them throughout their studies, available to students to discuss academic questions, but also personal and emotional issues. Here in the UK, universities are trying to offer more of a ‘friendly face’ to online learning too. The Open University makes sure that lecturers call each student individually at the start of an online course, and use peer-to-peer learning to nurture interaction and community.
Our students are central to all that we do. So, as we develop our suite of online courses, this personal approach is core to our thinking. We’ll keep you posted…
 R. Craig, College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education, Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2015
J. Duckworth, H. Partington and anonymous, ‘Online Learning Has a Friendly Face’ [letters], THE, 3 January 2019