Spotlight on Online Learning

Online learning is growing in popularity each year, with new applications springing up on an almost daily basis. Even with its many uses and advantages, the online learning model can present instructors with a new set of challenges and issues. We spoke with Colette Rossignol, education technologist in the Office of Digital Learning at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT, about the present challenges and future potential of online learning at colleges and universities.

Q. The tools used for online learning seem to be evolving at a rapid pace. What are some of the most important things faculty and online education administrators need to consider when choosing an online learning tool? 

A. There are two areas for consideration when implementing digital tools in an online course—the technical requirements, and the pedagogical design of the tasks within the course.

Pedagogically speaking will this promote student interactivity and/or engagement? Will using this tool accomplish the goals and learning objectives for the task and course? Do you need to use a digital tool to successfully teach your students?

From a technical aspect, what level of training will your students need with the tool (ease of use)? Do you have tech support for this tool? Do your students have access to high-speed Internet? How will the tool integrate within your learning management system? What are the technical requirements? Will the tool work across all formats and operating systems (computer, tablet, or mobile device)?

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

A. An online course begins by building a community from the first day of class. As an instructor, it is most important that your students see you in the course through video, announcements, feedback, and email, while also giving students opportunities to introduce themselves, share ideas, and opportunities to work together. You can use an asynchronous approach to increase interactivity within your course. Discussion boards, group activities, and the use of digital tools can be effective for student interaction. You may also use video conferencing and interactive real-time activities to connect students to the course material and, above all, each other.

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

A. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a promising technology that can help educators by removing mundane repetitive tasks, freeing up instructors to challenge their students to use critical-thinking skills in real-world scenarios.

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

A. Online courses are not able to foster real-time interaction or discussion without the use of digital tools. While online courses provide flexibility, especially for graduate students, we are no longer fixed to a geographic place, space, or time. Most communication is conducted by text asynchronously which does not add to spontaneous discussion comments. Fostering an online learning community is key to a successful online student learning experience.