When Massive Open Online Courses -or MOOCs- were first introduced in 2012, they were seen as an exciting technological development; opening elite universities’ courses to the masses, serving as a tool to democratise education.
But by 2019, doubts had crept in, and a study by academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology confirmed existing fears: learning online was an incredibly demotivating experience. They found that online courses had an astronomical dropout rate of about 96 per cent on average over five years. The research, which studied people who both registered and viewed a course by MIT and Harvard on their joint online learning platform, edX, also found that this figure had not improved between the 2013/14 and 2017/18 academic years, despite a push towards increasing motivation by increasing interactivity, and sending students regular updates, among other strategies.
It does not come as a surprise to most of us today that sitting in the same spot for months on end, staring at the screen of your laptop, day in and day out, is not the most productive learning environment. And yet, for a university student in 2021, this is our reality. Universities have been forced to put all learning online, with no time to readjust their techniques.
When evaluating the ways to increase motivation among students taking MOOCs, researchers found that interactivity was key. It is well known that learning is improved when students apply theoretical concepts to practical scenarios, as opposed to simply being told information and asked to regurgitate it.
As time has passed, UK universities have risen to the situation, recognising the vast potential of this digitalisation drive. Guy Daly, deputy vice-chancellor at Coventry University recognises what’s happening as a necessary change to the education sector. “We also used to talk about the death of the traditional lecture and bringing in more student activity-based learning as opposed to traditional didactic methods, but we’ve accelerated that journey due to Covid,” says Daly. And his university’s policies reflect that: he says that [they] ‘shifted’ academics who were simply recurating their material with PowerPoint slides and brought in new hardware and specialists to assist them.
Using technological tools to educate students can be massively beneficial. For example, machine learning algorithms could be used to personalise content for each individual student, constantly adjusting the course based on what the student is struggling with, as well as providing instantaneous feedback. Virtual Reality software can be used to recreate a lab or workplace environment, without the associated risks.
In fact, as far back as 2017, the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School saw this potential. They installed the UK’s first immersive virtual classroom: a bank of 27 HD screens able to simultaneously support up to 84 students from across the globe. An in-room camera follows lecturers moving around the room, who can respond – as in real life – to visual cues from and talk directly to individual students. This is how virtual learning could be in the next few years, once universities have readjusted to this new normal.
In summary, the potential of online-learning is massive, especially for students at universities. Students and academics alike would benefit from the effective use of technology to supplement face-to-face learning. In fact, I would argue that it is a necessary -and even inevitable- step to take in an increasingly technologically-driven world.
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By Ammara Yasin