Online learning trends, challenges, and the consumers fuelling it

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Elementary schools are using state-of-the-art software to teach kids with creative, predictive learning platforms. Meanwhile, post-secondary educational institutions are so advanced in online learning, they are now even partnering with leading corporations to create Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) that work for training and online education. 

Online education is growing at a remarkable rate and represents new opportunities and challenges for educators, technologists and students alike. Many educators and innovators in the space are suggesting the industry is poised for tremendous change. At the opening keynote of EDUCAUSE 2014 in October, Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen suggested we are poised for massive disruption as a result of new offerings in online learning. But where will this disruption emerge? One thing is clear, there is no singular big idea that will prove to be the individual catalyst. Instead, it will likely be the sum of three key variables: current trends, challenges and having a deep understanding of the current student-consumer. 

There are countless changes and advances being made in online education, the following portend five of the big drivers in the coming year. 

1. Big data

As more and more students engage in online learning, there is a wealth of data to be amassed, analyzed and used for predictive purposes. The trend is to leverage these millions of data points as tools to better understand and serve the student ‘consumer’. Examples include tracking statistics on completion rates, times and duration, frequency, start / stops, preferred pathways and learning styles then mapping how they align with each student’s demographics to create a better learning pedagogy. 

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2. Gamification

This is the straightforward concept of applying the principals and techniques of gaming to the design of online curriculum.  While this might not appeal to all learners, it appeals to many because it creates a more engaged student learner. This type of design typically means integrating a competitive (self or group) element with ongoing scores and rewards for the learners. 

3. Personalisation

There is a new breed of ‘personalized’ learning emerging, which is defined by tailoring the teaching methods, curriculum and learning objects to the right learning environment to meet the needs of the individual learner. One-size-fits-all was never successful in education. Nonetheless it was the longtime curriculum model. With online learning and thinking software, the student’s preferences and skillsets dictate much of how the course will be delivered. Personalized learning will continue to gain momentum as online students demonstrate greater mastery and speed than those using traditional learning methods. 

4. BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)

Some may think this is simply the advancement of mobile learning, but it is much more. BYOD requires developers and educators to acknowledge the intersection of optimized context, mobile learning devices, QR codes, GPS, screen optimization and manageable sized learning modules all in one. In addition, BYOD demands a learning landscape that can be developed and optimized for current and future devices of choice. For the developer and the educator to be successful in this era of BYOD, everything developed has to be device agnostic and truly adaptable. 

5. Project-based learning

This trend is referred to by a variety of names, including outcome-based, performance-based or project-based. Regardless of the label, they share a common characteristic: A student must demonstrate mastery of the subject matter at the end of the course. One example includes producing a project with specific outcomes that can only be achieved with mastery of the subject matter. Educators will debate the nuance of the various terms but most will agree this approach outperforms conventional student testing. This alternate approach allows the student to draw from all forms of their skillset (learned in class or life-based) to demonstrate their competency.  

The challenges that existed in the past still loom large in 2016, as the emerging student-consumer faces these reoccurring issues:

1. Adaptability

Transitioning from traditional in-person instruction to online learning is not easy for some. It is a new learning paradigm for adult students and the limited face-time and the lack of classroom structure can present unexpected challenges. Regardless of age, there is an adaptability struggle to overcome. To make this transition easier, educators are looking to a hybrid approach. This brings an online class together with prescribed and mandatory live or synchronous sessions, which has proven to be effective. In the end, the arc to overcome and master adaptability needs to be addressed right away at the risk losing student engagement. 

2. Technical issues

Never has a generation been more blessed with technological advances and, at the same time, so vexed by technical issues than the current class of student-consumers. While technology is at its best and getting better every day, it places a significant burden on students to have the latest devices, software, drivers, monitors, printers, network connections to work most effectively. Nothing is as intuitive as one would hope, creating a greater need for helpdesks and online support that enables online learning student-consumer platforms. 

3. Time management

Time management has proven to be a difficult undertaking for many online students. This is especially true for classes that are nonsynchronous and allow students to proceed solely at their own pace. Paradoxically, many students prefer online learning for its independence and convenience, yet there is a tendency to underestimate the commitment these courses require to be successful. In the absence of regularly scheduled classes, many online learners find time management a common struggle. 

A closer look at who’s learning online 

The third key variable is understanding the student-consume profile. How many online students are there? According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), there were approximately 5.5m online students—roughly one-quarter of the total US enrollment for institutions.

Among those 5.5m students, about 2.6m were enrolled in fully online programs. The rest took a mixture of traditional and online courses. Those numbers also highlight a split between undergraduates and graduate students with 22 per cent of graduate students enrolled in fully online programs compared to undergraduates at 11 per cent. 

What is more telling are the demographics of these student-consumers as compiled in 2014 by, and  The typical online college student profile was a working caucasian, female, 33 years of age, not the first in their family to attend college, with a medium income of $66,500. They work full-time for an employer who offers tuition reimbursement.   

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This online learner is joined by millions of other student-consumers from many walks of life who are reshaping the definition of “student” as they move from the typical brick and mortar to the online space. 

Is there massive disruption coming?  Most likely yes, but will it be rooted in the emergent trends, or in addressing the current challenges, or could it be optimizing the typical online student profile?  Time will tell.

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