eLearning Has Improved In The Last 7 Years…

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What Are The Drivers Of These Changes?

The growth of online enrollments in the U.S. has increased for the 14th consecutive year… At the same time, the number of students exclusively taking face-to-face classes on a brick-and-mortar campus has been dropping (Seaman, Allen, & Seaman, 2018). In 2016, there were over 6 million students in the U.S. who enrolled in at least one online course (Lederman, 2018), and the proportion of students enrolled in at least one online course has risen to over 30% (McGraw, 2021).

It was the summer of 2014 and someone from a fairly new publication, eLearning Industry, reached out via LinkedIn to ask if I’d be interested in writing an article for their site. Why not? I had just spent the past 9 months developing an online learning strategy for the Ministry of Education in Ecuador, had finished a technology plan for a US-based school district, and was teaching an online course. I had been involved in online learning, mainly as an instructor, since 2000. I’d written national educational technology plans. I had some ideas; maybe enough for 4-5 articles…

Seven years and 49 articles later, this final article—number 50—seems to call for a “look back” at online learning since I’ve been writing for eLearning Industry. Though eLearning, or online learning, is, at its core, similar to what it was in 2014, it has expanded in terms of reach, quality, and acceptance. This article outlines what I regard as the main drivers or developers of those changes in the last several years.

I’ll start with a few caveats: these drivers are discrete and interconnected; they are subjectively assembled (this is a blog, after all); and—with two exceptions—most have that been around for a while are not novel. Caveats acknowledged, below are what I believe to be the five drivers that have had the greatest multiplier effect on online learning.

1. Learning Analytics

In 2014, far fewer Learning Management Systems used learning analytics to act as an early warning system so instructors could target support to students. Since then, increasingly, information derived from individual learner characteristics, learner choices, and assessment data have been collected, measured, and analyzed (often through APIs, which I’ll discuss below) to better understand and serve learner needs in terms of course offerings, design, and instruction.

While learning analytics are not new, they have been a boon for Learning Management Systems. Most LMSs now have built-in systems to provide feedback, share information via dashboards, tailor assessments (via branching), and offer learning pathways (Ferguson, 2012). This has helped to personalize and individualize online learning through design features such as branching and personalized instruction to give students greater control over the learning and their progress.

2. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

No, they did not replace higher education. No, they did not universalize education globally. No, they generally did not live up to the hype. But MOOCs have been a major driver of positive change in online learning, nonetheless.

Pre-MOOCs, a lot of online learning often suffered from the “old wine in new skins” syndrome—flat, highly-text-based content delivered via new technology. In part, this may have been because online learning was a private learning experience “hidden” behind the walled garden of an organization’s LMS so that instructors and designers saw little beyond what they themselves created.

MOOCs changed online learning, for the better, in four ways. First, they upped the online learning IQ of many educators who had never before seen an online course, and thanks to the ability to access free MOOCs, for the first time saw the possibilities of online learning.

Second, the first batch of MOOCs was produced by university consortia (for example, Coursera) that had access to high-quality production teams, studios, and content. Again, for the first time, many potential online learners and instructors could see carefully designed online courses complete with video, clean interfaces, rich media, and interactive exercises. Many LMS designers began appropriating some of the best design features of MOOCs for their LMS.

Third, MOOCs did, and still do, continue to provide online learning to those who would be unable to access it through face-to-face means—even if it is à la carte. (I burnished my own statistics knowledge through a wonderful free Penn course I dropped in and out of several years ago.)

Finally, MOOCs provided a point of comparison or treatment group to synchronous online courses so we could understand what worked and what didn’t in synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Because many MOOCs were designed and run by university consortia, many of the same entities did actual experimental studies on the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of MOOCs. This research has helped the online education field as a whole.

3. “The Cloud”

The third driver is cloud computing. This means that content or a piece of software is no longer confined to a device but rather resides in “the cloud.” Educationally speaking, this means that students and teachers can access content or an application any time, any place, from any device (hence the terms, Content as a Service and Software as a Service). The development of Software as a Service and Content as a Service has resulted in an explosion of online learning tools that can complement or act as locum tenens for expensive eLearning platforms (think Dropbox, Google Drive, Nearpod, or Edmodo as examples).

But it is not enough that these programs are “out there.” Getting them to work together is also critical. As more content and software became cloud-based, Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), made it possible for these new and different web-based programs to work together. There is an array of wonderful metaphors that capture the essence of an API—marriage counselor, translator, and my favorite—a waiter in a restaurant (remember restaurants?). It’s worth noting that APIs are not new (probably the best eLearning example of this is the de facto eLearning industry-standard, Shareable Content Object Reference Model, or SCORM); but, as more content has moved to the cloud, they have become more versatile and experience-oriented. Thanks to APIs, like Google Chrome Extension APIs, online learning has increasingly incorporated more interactive, browser-based learning activities (e.g., Chrome extensions that increase the functionality of say, a Google doc).

APIs don’t just work with browsers. They can allow for interoperability among platforms and software applications (think of an LMS pushing out grades to a school’s existing student information system or Zoom working within an LMS).

This trend toward cloud-based content and programs and the versatility and flexibility of online learning through APIs has been an educational boon to teachers and students.

And it’s also made a certain technology company very, very rich…

4. Google

The fourth driver for change in online learning is Google—in particular, Google Classrooms. When I started in educational technology in the late 1990s, Apple dominated the education space. Since 2014, following the introduction of Chromebooks (essentially “thin clients”), Google stands astride the K-12 online learning firmament.

Google Drive (a free web hosting service) is the platform for Google’s cloud-based Apps for Education (GAFE), which in turn are optimized by built-in and third-party extensions (thank you APIs) that enhance the functionality of GAFE. Students and teachers access all of this content and learning via their Chromebooks. The result has been Google’s hegemony of K-12 online learning; in the first few months of remote schooling alone, Google Classrooms enjoyed an increase of 100 million subscribers (DeVynck & Bergen, 2020)!

It’s hard to overstate the degree to which Google has colonized K-12 online learning. For a large percentage of K-12 institutions across the globe, and even many universities, Google Classrooms IS online learning and Google Classrooms IS a Learning Management System. One of the more interesting tensions in eLearning is the competition between Google Classrooms and Learning Management Systems. Google Classrooms has undoubtedly eaten into the LMS market share and many LMSs (for example, Canvas) have made sure to be able to technically integrate Google Drive within their LMS.

Google’s ubiquity has had very real ramifications for online learning. By offering its products and services for free, targeting schools, and actively training teachers to be “Google Certified Educators,” and the power of its Chrome-based extensions, Google has created an intergenerational loyal user base and defined the parameters of the online learning experience in ways that will surely shape online learning for years to come. This will have pedagogical implications, and for LMS providers, market share implications.

The above 4 drivers (Google Classrooms excepted) are not new (i.e., in the time I’ve been writing for eLearning Industry), but they have shown themselves, separately and cumulatively, to be force multipliers in terms of the quality, functionality, and spread of online learning, as the quote that frames this article shows.

But there’s one more driver that has arguably done as much to change online learning in the last few years.

5.   COVID-19

COVID-19 introduced a large percentage of the world’s students and teachers to online (or “remote”) learning. In so doing, it has, and will, indelibly change our understanding of online learning for years to come.

COVID/remote learning has expanded our understanding of online learning. Teachers are far more adept at using technology and designing with technology to help students learn online. They know which online learning modalities—synchronous or asynchronous—work best with which eLearning platform. Students too have had a year-long internship in online learning—its tools and pedagogies.

COVID has diversified our understanding of online learning. In 2014, when I began writing for eLearning Industry, eLearning meant one thing—a class held in a virtual learning environment or Learning Management System. In 2021, online learning is any learning we do online, whether via free or fee-based subscription services (like Khan Academy and DreamBox, respectively), web conferencing, or Web 2.0 platforms (Edmodo, YouTube channels)—another overlooked candidate for this list.

And COVID has constrained our understanding of online learning. In 2014, when I began writing for eLearning Industry, eLearning was largely asynchronous and done in an LMS. In 2021, for a plurality of teachers and students across the globe, eLearning means one thing: Zoom and it means learning that is live and synchronous.

There’s far too much to say about the impact of COVID on eLearning, except for this: eLearning has both exceeded and failed to meet expectations during COVID. Online learning has reached learners of all ages across the globe. But they have been the easiest, not hardest, to reach. Online learning has touted its superiority in terms of innovation, quality, engagement, and efficiency. Yet, remote learning has laid bare the uncomfortable truth that for a large portion of its customer base—teachers and students—learning online is nowhere near as innovative, high-quality, engaging, efficient, or desirable as its in-person counterpart.

But What About…?

Yes, there are many omissions in my list (Web 2.0, blended learning, etc.), perhaps most notably mobile learning. For example, while mobile device ownership has certainly exploded and more people across the globe access online learning opportunities through mobile devices such as cell phones, I still think that smartphones are not quite up to the task of providing an optimal experience in a formal online class given the obstacles around phone-based reading and writing.

Thank You!

I’ve enjoyed the regular writing gig for eLearning Industry over the last 7 years. It’s been enormously gratifying both professionally and personally. Thanks to eLearning Industry for allowing me to share ideas and experiences. Thanks to those of you who have read and reached out. I encourage those of you who are involved in eLearning in education (in particular) to share your experiences here. This is an exciting time in online learning and there’s a lot to learn. What better way to learn it than from one another?

References: 

  • DeVynck, G. & Bergen, M. (2020, April 9). Google Classroom users doubled as quarantine spreads. Bloomberg News. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-09/google-widens-lead-in-education-market-as-students-rush-online
  • Ferguson, R. (2012). Learning analytics: drivers, developments and challenges. International Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(5/6) pp. 304-317.DOI: https://doi.org/10.1504/IJTEL.2012.051816
  • Lederman, D. (2018). Who is studying online (and where)? Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/digitallearning/article/2018/01/05/new-us-data-show-continued-growth-college-students-studying
  • McGraw, N. (2021). The state of online education in 2020. Online Schools Report. https://www.onlineschoolsreport.com/the-state-of-online-education/#ftoc-heading-15
  • Seaman, J. E., Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2018). Grade increase: Tracking distance education in the United States. Wellesley, MA: Babson Survey Research Group.
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