Blended learning -- combining classroom and online instruction -- can offer a new model for universities
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"School's out for summer!" as the old rock song proclaimed.
If you hope to stay competitive in the real world, however, school's never really out. But thanks to innovations in online education, it's easier than ever to keep learning throughout a lifetime.
My company has offered IT education to software developers since the early 1990s. We have learned a lot about how adults acquire knowledge and how we can use technology to enhance the process. So I was interested to learn recently that elite universities like Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are finally embracing the Internet as a learning tool.
As New York Times columnist David Brooks noted recently, "Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures." Brooks went on to pose a series of tough questions, such as: "Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience? Will fast online browsing replace deep reading?"
If higher education mirrors the for-profit learning industry, these concerns can be put back on the metaphorical bookshelf. Sure, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, organizations hoped that online learning would completely replace instructor-led training and dramatically slash their training budgets in the process. This simply hasn't happened for a variety of reasons.
A Learning Tree study found that in a multi-part e-learning course called a ''25-hour-e-track,'' 72 percent of learners completed the first course, but only 52 percent completed two courses, and just 19 percent completed the full 25 hours. Participants cited "distractions, interruptions and conflicting priorities" as main reasons for the poor results.
Impediments don't just arise with students. Self-paced learning can lack interactivity that's required for student engagement. A Forrester Research study found that "more than half of the people enrolled in e-learning programs failed to complete them because of 'lack of interactivity.'"
In addition, online courses often include too much content on the assumption that students will learn some of the material on their own time. Again, reality often is a different story for time-pressed professionals who are busy juggling multiple commitments.
Which brings us to the heart of the challenge posed by Brooks: "In an online world, colleges have to think hard about how they are going to take communication, which comes over the Web, and turn it into learning, which is a complex social and emotional process. ... How are they going to blend online information with face-to-face discussion, tutoring, debate, coaching, writing and projects?''
My company, and the adult education industry as a whole, has wrestled with these issues for more than a decade. The result has been the development of a hybrid teaching-learning approach that some are calling "blended learning."
Blended learning refers to coupling the best of traditional classroom instruction -- dynamic, expert instructors, ample opportunities for questions and dialogue, ways to practice new concepts and the chance to connect with fellow learners -- with the ease and cost-saving made possible by the Internet and mobile technology. We have invested in high-tech learning spaces that allow students to easily participate from remote locations or our training facilities in Eagan. Instructors lead the training, which includes student dialogue, whiteboard illustrations, on-the-fly problem solving and the chance to ask questions and provide feedback as the course happens.
Intertech is far from alone. "Breaking the Mold on Blended Learning," a recent research study from the International University Consortium for Executive Education (UNICON), notes that "blended learning -- a combination of traditional classroom-based and technology-enabled instruction -- has significantly evolved from its earlier 'click-and-learn' roots in the 1990s." UNICON also found that many university-based executive education programs are making blended learning a key element in their strategic plans.
So what might universities learn from business about the brave new world of online education?
If nothing else, universities should remember that the majority of people simply do not learn much solely by reading static information online. Universities must find ways to make online learning interactive. And serious schools should not hesitate to invest in teaching facilities that allow learners to see and hear professors, even if the Web or a mobile app facilitates the lesson.
Internet-based learning -- like just about everything else -- can be as good or bad as we care to make it. Hard lessons learned by those of us in the adult education business can save universities time and money -- and help their students learn -- assuming they can accept that they, themselves, might have something to learn, too.