Study suggests high school students hold negative views of online education

This is a report on a poll of soon-to-be US high school graduates with aspirations to enter higher education, revealing an overwhelming majority want to take most of their college courses in person. Indeed, only just over a third wanted to do any online courses at all, while a measly 6% would be happy with half or more being online.

As the article rightly notes…

“Poulin warned against reading too much into those results. He argued that since many people associate the term “online learning” with massive open online courses and diploma mills, there are bound to be misperceptions. Studies that have looked at student outcomes from online courses have found them to be generally equal to those from face-to-face courses.”

It is also worth noting that those polled had largely not had any experience of online learning and have actively been taught not to learn that way. Schools teach a way of teaching, not just what is deliberately taught. And, especially in places like the US where standardized testing dominates actual learning, it is mostly a pretty terrible way of teaching. Overall, this is a comment about the students’ attitudes and failings in US schools, not about online learning. But, to be fair, though the US is notably weak in this regard, the same systemic problems significantly affect the vast majority of educational systems in the world, including in Canada.

One thing the study does tell us about online education is that a lot of work is needed to help get the message across to kids that online learning can be incredibly enriching and empowering in ways most face-to-face learning can only aspire to. Many adults that have spent time out of school (our dominant demographic) realize this, but school kids are so submerged in the teacher-tells-student-does model of education that it is understandably hard for them to think of it any other way.

An immediately obvious way to address this lack of knowledge would be to get a few of our better courses into schools, but I doubt that would help at all, and it might even make things worse. The trouble is, the methodologies and schedules of school teaching would mostly crowd it out: when our schools continue to teach dependence and teacher control, online learning – that thrives on freedom and independence – is likely to be swamped by the power-crazed structures that surround it. Faced with a scheduled, regimented system and compelling demands from local, discipline maintaining teachers, it would be all too easy for online work to be treated as something to fit in small gaps between more obviously pressing demands.

Far better would be for schools to spend more time supporting self-guided learning, which would better support students to take control of their own learning paths, in life and in further learning. Whether online or face to face, one of my biggest challenges as a university professor has always been to unteach the terribly dependent ways of learning school students have been forced to learn. 

Another thing that would help would be for those of us in the profession of distance teaching to more forthrightly and single-mindedly design and promote the experience of online learning as being a way to reduce distance. To show that it can be more personal, more social, more engaging than at least what is found in traditional large lectures and big, faceless institutions, and not far off what is found in smaller seminars and tutorials (better in some ways, worse in others). As the article suggests, many students are put off by the apparent isolation and few realize that it does not have to be that way. Sadly, there is still too much of it that is that way, albeit far less commonly in places like AU.

But it is not just about courses and teaching, that make up only a small, if prominent, part of the learning experience at a traditional collocation-based university. Most online institutions don’t do anything like enough to go beyond the course to engage students in the richer, broader academic community. Thanks to the Landing, we at Athabasca are better advanced that way than most, but it  only reaches a fraction of all staff and students and is all too often just seen as an extension of the course environment by some students. There are lots of ways the Landing could work better and do more but, really, it is only a small part of the solution. We need to embed the kinds of interactions and engagement it provides everywhere in our online spaces. If we don’t, we will eternally be stuck in a cold-start regime where students don’t come because there is no one there, and too many school kids (and others) will continue to miss out on the richness and value of online learning.



Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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