Spotlight on Online Learning

Modern education has been changing in the last decade, and at the forefront of that change has been the ability for students to connect with teachers and learn from anywhere in the world via online learning. With all the changes, both positive and potentially challenging that online learning can bring, we talked to Michael P. Alfano, dean of the Isabelle Farrington College of Education at Sacred Heart University about online learning and the way it is being used in K-12 education.

Q. What are some of the most important things faculty and online education administrators need to consider when choosing an online learning tool, especially for K-12 students who might learn in different ways?

A. From an instructional design perspective, great attention has to be paid to the “fit” between what is being taught online versus the skillset and background of the learner.  If an instructional technology is misaligned to what kids know and are able to do, it is doomed to fail.  Conversely, if there is thoughtful alignment, instructional technology can be an amazing tool to facilitate and extend learning outcomes.

Q. What are some ways to increase student engagement when teaching in an online format?

A. As is the case for any instructional arrangement, the best way to engage students is to take the time and effort to get to know them.  What are their backgrounds, interests, skill sets, and opportunities for growth?  This information can be used to create “fun” multi-media opportunities, which are thoughtfully and proactively aligned, to get kids to actively take ownership over their own learning.

Q. Are there any advancements on the horizon that you expect to change the way online learning is currently carried out?

A.  Instructional technologies are changing so rapidly and in such incredible ways it’s hard to give a precise answer, as what I know is likely already out of date.  In general, I think there is real opportunity to link online learning opportunities to real world applications that encourage critical thinking and problem-solving skills of students.  Those skills are what colleges and employers are looking for in applicants. 

Q. What are a few disadvantages of online learning versus classroom learning, and what are some ways to mitigate those? 

A. For me, the biggest disadvantage is that online learning cannot replicate face-to-face social-skill development that is so important to real-world personal and professional interactions.  This can be mitigated by using platforms like Skype, to an extent, but not completely.