Trends in Adult Education: Online Learning


Online learning is a major trend in adult education (even education as a whole). This trend is of interest to me for several reasons. First, as someone working in learning and development, it represents a method by which I can reach a wider audience that is separated geographically. My company has several offices working in different time zones, so physical presence is a challenge. Additionally, arranging convenient times to maximize audience is a challenge, not just due to different time zones, but other conflicting professional obligations amongst employees. Online learning can solve the temporal spatial conflict ever present in the workplace.

On a personal level, there are few years of my adult life where I have not taken some sort of course or workshop either for professional or personal reasons. Online learning is a convenient trend to makes doing so easier.

As side from the convenience factors, many are starting to discuss additional benefits to online learning platforms. Breaking away from the physical classroom also allows us to reconceptualise learning in the online classroom–it need not be bound by the traditional way classroom way of doing lectures. New tools can allow online courses to personalize the education experience. While this video is focused on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses which is a wide enough topic in itself), it describes the potential of personalizing education through online modules:

In this TED talk Daphne Koller discusses the Coursera platform. While Coursera courses often have 100s of thousands of students, the platform is able to personalize the education experience using smart technology and active feedback. She discusses the “Sigma 2 problem” in which different teaching styles affect learning outcome–ranging from lecture style, mastery (where students cannot move  on until mastered module), to finally individual tutor.The learning outcomes of those taught by individual tutor are 2 standard deviations above those taught using traditional lecture style. Koller suggests that the personalization potential of online platforms presents the opportunity to create an education experience to that of an individual tutor.

Online learning platforms also have the potential to provide better content. Student feedback is easier through rating and ranking systems. Those that fail to meet expectations will disappear, but those that are engaging will go ‘viral’. This forces online educators to keep material content engaging and current. Josh Bersin discusses this in the following article:

In this article he discusses that not only can students rank and rate courses, but anyone can create new content–from top university professors to business leaders. The ease of use and access also appeals to a wider audience. People will enroll in courses for interest, where in the traditional classroom module many would be detracted by the effort needed to enroll, let alone show up to weekly classes.

Finally, one benefit that is starting to garner attention is the learning community aspects that the online platform provides. John Green’s talk on online learning focuses on the learning community:

Using social media and forums, online learning communities allow students to engage in problems or ideas around the world. This can also present students to new perspectives and ideas that one would not have in traditional learning classroom. The exploration in online communities are engaging–much more rich experience where learning can be fun at the same time as informational.

I have seen the online learning experience evolve quite a bit since I took my first online class in the early 2000s. Some have been structured similar to traditional classroom with powerpoint modules, quizzes and assignments. Others have been well developed series of video lectures. There’s still a lot of room for growth.

As I am a committed life long learning, I’m certain online learning will continue to be a large part of my learning experiences. What excites me most though is that broader use of these technologies will attract more life long learners with it’s ease of use and accessibility.

Let’s keep developing!


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