Four tips for adult dig­i­tal learn­ers

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - REPORT ON BUSINESS - GUY DIXON

When con­sid­er­ing on­line classes, e-learn­ers need to de­cide what they want to get out of a course be­fore choos­ing

The ti­tle alone, Death 101, sug­gests some­thing other than typ­i­cal Univer­sity of Toronto fare.

But Death 101 is no hor­ror show. It is an on­line course, now archived, on global health risks, death and dis­ease, and their ef­fect on pol­icy, de­vel­oped by the Univer­sity of Toronto for EdX Inc. And that makes the course even less typ­i­cal.

EdX is a third-party plat­form on the web (an­other pop­u­lar ser­vice is Cours­era Inc.) that is in the busi­ness of host­ing MOOCs, or mas­sive open on­line cour­ses. Some­times the cour­ses have a pre­req­ui­site, such as prior knowl­edge of the topic. Some­times they are part of pro­fes­sional cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­grams.

MOOCs have be­come an­other op­tion, along with the plethora of on­line cour­ses al­ready of­fered di­rectly by post­sec­ondary in­sti­tu­tions, for busy adults look­ing to dip into on­line learn­ing, whether for work or plea­sure.

And as a re­sult, this has led to rapid changes in adult learn­ing. The de­sign of on­line classes has evolved dra­mat­i­cally in the past five years. And what is re­quired of stu­dents on­line has also changed dra­mat­i­cally.

Prospec­tive stu­dents who choose to study on­line have a few key is­sues to con­sider.

Ex­pect to be busy

Sim­ply sign­ing up, do­ing some read­ing and dab­bling in a class anony­mously are not enough. That is no more ef­fec­tive than sit­ting in a lec­ture and watch­ing a pro­fes­sor speak for one, two or three hours, says Gre­gor Kicza­les, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia’s ex­tended learn­ing depart­ment and a pro­fes­sor of com­puter sci­ence.

On­line cour­ses are about con­ci­sion. Each lec­ture tends to be short, about 10 min­utes, ac­com­pa­nied by ex­er­cises sprin­kled through­out the course. They aren’t about day­dream­ing through long classes and weeks of plow­ing in­de­pen­dently through vast texts.

“What’s in­ter­est­ing is that the on­line cour­ses, in a funny way, have a real ad­van­tage, be­cause it’s so easy for them to in­ter­mix pre­sent­ing con­tent with ac­tiv­ity. It’s so easy for them to say to the learner, ‘Hey, you haven’t solved a prob­lem in a day. Why don’t you do this now?’ ” Dr. Kicza­les says. “It’s so easy for them to en­cour­age the kind of ac­tiv­i­ties that we know pro­mote learn­ing.”

Shop around for the right class

This isn’t as ob­vi­ous as it may sound. There are many dif­fer­ent ways in which on­line classes are de­signed to en­gage stu­dents, from con­tin­ual as­sign­ments to lit­tle nudges by an al­go­rithm or di­rectly from an in­struc­tor. Con­sider your pref­er­ences.

“Look for signs that the on­line course is well de­signed for learn­ing, not that it’s well de­signed to be ef­fi­cient for the in­sti­tu­tion pro­vid­ing it. Does it have a clear sense of what’s go­ing to hap­pen each week? Does it have real ac­tiv­i­ties that are go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing to en­gage in? Does it check back in with you to see how you’re do­ing, and keep you up to date? When you post ques­tions on­line, do they get an­swered quickly? All of those are qual­ity in­di­ca­tions,” Dr. Kicza­les says.

Ex­pect a ‘flipped’ learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence

The tra­di­tional method of do­ing the read­ing, at­tend­ing the lec­ture and then do­ing some ex­er­cises later is now fre­quently flipped. The em­pha­sis with on­line cour­ses is of­ten on the ex­er­cises. This cre­ates a more se­quen­tial learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence – baby steps – dif­fer­ent than the go-italone ex­pe­ri­ence that some cour­ses of­fer.

“I have them do a lit­tle bit of read­ing, a lit­tle bit of video [watch­ing], and a lit­tle bit of ex­er­cises on which they get feed­back. And that process re­peats un­til they get all their skills,” says Saul Car­liner, a pro­fes­sor and in­terim chair of the depart­ment of ed­u­ca­tion at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity. This flips the learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence by em­pha­siz­ing ac­tiv­ity rather than pas­sive lis­ten­ing. This is spilling over into how many tra­di­tion class­room cour­ses are taught, too, of­ten with a hy­brid, on­line-off­line ap­proach.

“There is a fair amount of ev­i­dence that this is quite a suc­cess­ful means of teach­ing. It may be more en­ter­tain­ing, that’s great. But ide­ally, it’s more en­gag­ing,” he says. “It’s do­ing what you’re sup­posed to do with ef­fec­tive in­struc­tion, which is, I in­tro­duce a skill and I ver­ify that you un­der­stand it be­fore I move you on to the next skill.”

The ques­tion, though, is whether this flipped method, this step-bystep ap­proach of se­quen­tial ex­er­cises on­line, suits the way you like to learn. Not every­one is so lin­early minded; not ev­ery sub­ject is as suited to lin­ear teach­ing.

Think about what you want from the on­line class, not just what it of­fers

Are you look­ing for a new pro­fes­sional skill, or ob­tain­ing a pre­req­ui­site for fur­ther study, or look­ing to earn a cer­tifi­cate?

“That self-as­sess­ment of what’s ap­pro­pri­ate for you, and what you’re look­ing for, is prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant thing, so that you fol­low a path that’s not go­ing to be frus­trat­ing for you,” says Lau­rie Har­ri­son, di­rec­tor of on­line learn­ing strate­gies at the Univer­sity of Toronto.

Re­mem­ber, too, that even if the class is a good fit for your needs, the way it is de­liv­ered on­line can al­ter what it pro­vides. For in­stance, some MOOCs are free, but cer­tain things like a com­ple­tion cer­ti­fi­ca­tion or study aids are likely be­hind pay­walls. So as­sess­ing your needs of­ten means plow­ing through op­tions of which class to choose.

“It’s a dou­ble-edged sword. You could al­most say that with so much choice, where do you be­gin? But with so much choice, there’s a right fit for every­one,” Dr. Har­ri­son says.

UBC’s Gre­gor Kicza­les.

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