The Rise of Online Learning: Why You Can’t Ignore It & What’s Next

by Rony Zarom, CEO and founder of Watchitoo

Even with student demand for more accessible, technology-forward learning environments and the need for colleges to competitively differentiate themselves, the adoption of online learning in higher education has been slow.

According to a 2013 Babson Survey Research Group study that tracked 10 years of online learning, only 2.6 percent of higher education institutions currently offer a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC), and 55 percent of institutions are still undecided about offering online courses. Many secondary institutions perceive the quality and legitimacy of online instruction inferior to face-to-face learning and believe the time and cost of implementing online learning programs is too great.

These beliefs have undoubtedly stifled the progression of online learning.

However, as academic leaders remain skeptical that online learning is a sustainable complement to traditional education, students feel differently and continue flocking to online programs in record breaking numbers. In fact, the number of students enrolling in online classes has increased at rates that far exceed those enrolling in higher education overall. Currently, nearly seven million students are taking at least one online course, and the proportion of all students taking at least one online course is at an all-time high of 32 percent, reports the Babson study.

As today's students gravitate toward a more affordable, accessible and future-forward learning ecosystem to drive their education, the online learning revolution is poised to disrupt the American education system. Its role in the classroom can no longer be ignored.

It's Mobile, Social and Personal

One of the biggest attractions to online learning is students' desire for mobile connectivity. It's a driving force powering the online learning revolution, whether educators like it or not.

In this Connected Age, today's college student owns an average of seven mobile devices and spends nearly four hours a day using a smart phone, according to a Marketing Charts study. Students expect the same access to technology in the classroom they enjoy personally—and for good reason.

study by the International Society for Technology in Education reported 72 percent of students surveyed showed improvements in learning with regular access to technology. Students who participated in a 2013 Educause study revealed that interactive, online learning components, such as chatting with students and instructors during lecture, participating in real-time polls, reading electronic textbooks and video conferencing, "engaged them more in class and made them feel more connected to what was being taught."

The pervasion of mobile devices certainly justifies the need to incorporate online learning into the traditional classroom. Additionally, online learning fosters social collaboration and creates a community-based network of peer support, which biobehaviorists confirm is key to creating successful learning environments. Online education communities allow students to learn and collaborate in a way that's most native and unique to their personal socialization habits.

This type of personalized collaboration has many benefits. It breeds diverse patterns of learning and encourages students to become individual agents of learning—tapping into various online networks, courses and resources based on their educational needs and mastery of concept.

What's Next: Learning from Big Data

Until educators embrace the development of personalized, online learning experiences, the barriers students encounter when working and learning at a uniform pace will never be eradicated. The solution to successfully scaling personalized learning revolves around analyzing big data to create education content from data-driven insight.

For example, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab recently set out to better understand what was driving the success and failure of massive online open courses. Presumably, both rely on educational content. Since online learners spend most of their time watching video, analytics gleaned from 100,000 learners perusing more than 6.9 million video sessions included key findings as to what online learners want from videos:

Brevity (viewers generally tune out after six minutes).
Informality, with professors seated at a desk, not standing behind a podium.
Lively visuals rather than static PowerPoint slides.
Fast talkers (professors seen as the most engaging spoke at 254 words per minute).
More pauses, so viewers can soak in complex diagrams.
Web-friendly lessons (existing videos broken into shorter chunks are less effective than ones crafted for online audiences).

Educators who use data, like this insight from MIT, to drive and continually correct the development of systemically valid and appealing course content will be the true disruptors of education.

Additionally, online learning software will give educators access to predictive data, allowing them to track, quantify and improve student behaviors, accomplishments, strengths and engagement. Using predictive analytics to understand students' past performance and recommend corrective courses of action through prescriptive analytics will encourage the "right learning model" and a shift toward competency-based higher education.

Slow to its coming, the revolution of online learning has not only begun but also cannot be stopped or ignored. It most certainly has earned a place for itself in higher education and is poised to become America's most promising tool in providing more affordable, accessible and progressive education.

Rony Zarom is the CEO and founder of Watchitoo, an online video collaboration platform that helps top universities, including Yale and Wesleyan, create powerful video classroom learning experiences.

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