Five Ways Online Learning is Enabling Change in Post-Secondary Education

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There is a lot of speculation that online learning, which has been a feature of college and university education since 1994, is becoming disruptive. The suggestion is that online learners are changing the way colleges and universities function.

This all too common assertion misses the key point: all learners today are online learners to some degree. The real issue is how developments in technology are enabling changes in pedagogy, which in turn may affect the way in which colleges and universities operate.

There are five changes occurring in pedagogy as a result of the prevalence of technology that are having a significant impact on post-secondary education.


Whether it’s through digital textbooks, search engines, Wikipedia or online learning objects, teachers and students have significant access to knowledge in a way that is new in this century. We have the ability to track developments in a discipline using RSS feeds or apps that offer instant and continuous access to information and literature. This changes, not only what the student can know and learn, but also who is the gatekeeper to what the student can know and learn.


It used to be that learners worked in largely isolated ways, gathering only for class and coffee (or something stronger). Now, learners can be part of peer networks - institutional, local, regional, global - and receive support, exchange ideas, review assignments and explore project ideas together. In one PhD class there are 24 students in eight countries engaged in powerful conversations as a class. But each student is also using their LinkedIn networks to support their learning. This gives the class access to some six million potential people sources.


Students can connect to their instructors online from anywhere at any time. In a single week, an instructor supported four learners through email (threaded conversation online), Skyped another who was having real difficulty, and recorded a short video to post to two who still could not understand a particular statistical technique. The instructor could have been anywhere, as could her students.


New technologies, which use machine learning, have the potential to adjust what the student is being asked to study according to their learning style and performance on assessments. Rather than having a single text-based course which is the same for all students, the course material is adaptive - different material (video, audio, text, simulation) for different students in the same course according to ability. While this is "new" (and is more commonplace in the K-12 system), it is quickly gaining traction in the post-secondary world.


The technology now makes it possible for instructors to focus on the needs of individual learners rather than the group of learners. A combination of self-study materials, peer networks for support, anytime mentoring and adaptive curriculum is making differentiated instruction a more realistic proposition than it has been in the past. While this was something always done by instructors, the request usually came from the student in office hours. This still takes place, but it can now also be driven by analytics that suggest who in a class needs help and for what.

These five developments in the changing external environment for students and institutions, chosen from a longer list, are leading to three kinds of changes in the design of college and university programs and their delivery. These are:


More colleges and universities are increasing the number of start dates and are looking to more flexible program designs. Shorter courses, courses which are .5, 1 or 1.5 credit weights, condensed 3 credit courses taught in four or six weeks or monthly start dates. What students look for, especially those who study part time and/or are working, is flexibility.


Students want all of their learning to count and not to have to study again what they already know. In many European countries there have been substantial developments in fast track prior learning assessment, new models for integrating work-based learning into credit programs and more block transfer and credit recognition (two year associate college degrees transferring into three and four year degrees at universities, for example. This too is part of the new flexibility students seek.


More use of adjunct faculty and peer networks and less reliance on the business model of a single instructor teaching a single class - the move to scale. Institutions which have moved away from the 1 professor = 1 class model to 1 course = many instructors can achieve growth in scale at a lower unit cost. A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) which has 50,000 students is demonstrating this in action, especially now that several universities and some colleges have agreed to award credit for such courses.

The demand for flexibility, the growing challenges of access and equity, and the increasing costs to the student of post-secondary education, especially at a time of economic uncertainty and recession, is changing how colleges and universities think about their future. Online learning is not "causing" these changes, but is an enabler of change.

As pedagogy changes, and with it student behavior, so will our colleges and universities. It’s not online learning that is changing our post-secondary system, it is teachers and learners adapting and adopting the new technologies to their learning and teaching styles.