Understanding the who, what and how of online learning

Online study — ©AJ_Watt via iStock — All rights reserved

Learning in a digital environment is potentially a great leveller, enabling people from all backgrounds to access learning and valuable knowledge; technically, all you need to learn online is an internet connection and curiosity about a particular subject or topic area.

‘Online learning’ now covers an incredibly broad spectrum of activities, from taking a wholly online course to accessing information online from a traditional classroom or library setting. We suggest in a new Jisc study into learners’ expectations and experiences of the digital environment that online learners can no longer be considered as a separate group.

We thought it would be worth looking at the ‘who, what and how’ of online learning, drawing on the findings from our study, which we launched at last week’s Association for Learning Technology (ALT) annual conference with Lou McGill and Helen Beetham.

What is online learning?

Let’s start, as we did in our own study, by clarifying what we mean when we talk about online learning.

When we use this term at Jisc we are referring to any course, programme or training with online elements. It’s not just those that are exclusively delivered online, such as distance learning or massively open online courses (MOOC), or where the majority of time learning is facilitated through digital platforms.

As long as there are at some online components, replacing or supplementing courses of study with digital tasks and interactions, this meets our definition.

Do you offer any pre-recorded lectures, or classes via videoconference? Use a virtual learning environment (VLE) or e-assessment? Host discussion forums or groups on social media? Offer learning resources in digital formats? These are all valid online learning experiences.

If you require learners to access online information as part of their independent study, or expect them to use apps or social media, you are building online learning into the study experience.

Who are online learners?

The next step in our understanding comes from looking at those people who are engaging in online learning.

If we use the broad definition, any and all learners can be online learners. It matters when, where, why and how much of their learning time they are in an online setting; and, of course, it matters in what way that online setting is designed for learning; but the differences between online learners are almost certainly more significant to understanding their experiences than the common features of the online setting.

For some learners, at least some of the time, online is the strongly-preferred or only available space of learning. This is true of learners who want to fit learning around work or other commitments, who have accessibility problems with place-based learning, or who are geographically or culturally isolated.

For most learners, however, online experiences are a continuation of their offline learning. As they move beyond compulsory education into lifelong learning and professional development, we see online learning becoming a more significant element.

We also know that learners with positive previous experiences of learning are likely to do better in online settings as well as in more traditional ones. We see differences between learners playing out in many similar ways across the different environments.

What makes them successful?

It is important for learning providers to understand what makes a successful online learner, in order that they can tailor their digital offer to meet these different needs.

In our review we identified a set of shared attributes that typically impact on learners’ success online:

  • Previous experience — those who have already been successful in learning (especially in online learning) are more likely to progress
  • Motivations and aspirations — consistently, level and type of motivation are the most significant factors in predicting online learning success (for example, learners who are motivated by accreditation are more likely to persist in gaining completion certificates, while those motivated by enjoyment or curiosity are likely to measure their success in different ways)
  • Self-efficacy — successful learners tend to believe that their efforts will be rewarded and that they can influence their own learning outcomes
  • Study habits — well-prepared, well-organised and conscientious offline learners tend to carry the same traits into online learning
  • Cultural and personal factors — different people experience the same online learning environment differently, depending on, for example, their cultural norms, preferences for social interaction, whether they have a disability or are learning in a second language
  • Feelings and beliefs — successful online learners take pleasure from the experience, whether from feelings of independence or sociability, progress towards goals, or interest in the subject; they are also able to minimise or overcome negative feelings such as frustration, boredom and isolation. Positive expectations and a capacity for enjoyment are very strong predictors of online learning success.

Taking advantage

For providers looking to expand their online learning offer, support learners and make the most of opportunities, there’s help available.

Get advice from Jisc’s guides on curriculum design, technology and tools and scaling up online learning at the institutional level, and try out the beta online learning readiness tool to identify your personal readiness for creating and delivering online learning. All of these are outputs from our scaling up online learning project.

You can also find out more about the survey and learners’ expectations and experiences of using technology, from the digital student project page or by visiting the digital student project blog.

By Sarah Knight and Heather Price

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