More than 5.7 million students will not set foot in a classroom this year.
That’s because they are part of the flourishing online and distance education community. Rather than lecture halls and campus libraries, these students get their information online and complete their assignments remotely. And those 5.7 million students aren’t completing some shadowy, print-your-own degree program, they’re all enrolled in institutions that qualify for federal student aid support.
In the same way that telecommuting employees are forcing brick-and-mortar businesses to rethink the way they interact with, support, and supervise remote employees, so too are the distance education students forcing higher learning institutions, including the most established collegiate names in the country, to re-evaluate their teaching methods.
The methodologies are still developing, but early research suggests the key to learning online is establishing a strict structure of digital interaction and evaluation.
Building an Online Classroom
Researchers at California State University, Fullerton are currently in the middle of one study of online learning dynamics. Their work includes remote students who study in groups under the guidance of a teacher using video conferencing.
What they’ve discovered so far is that everyone within the study group has to agree on how to actually conduct the classes. That means more than everyone signing up to the same video conferencing provider. Such groups need to understand how each member works best in a virtual environment, considering issues as disparate as technological know-how to emotional comfort dealing with strangers in a face-to-face video chat room. After all, for some people, merely having to see their own face on screen during a video chat is enough to put them on edge.
Beside those broad issues, there’s also the matter of how to share files online, how to interact during a call, and how to limit technical difficulties by getting everyone’s audio and visuals right.
The researchers are also investigating the importance of matching students and teachers by their IQs, personality traits, and social sensitivities, given the still uncommon environment of meeting remotely over a video call.
Those last considerations show the complexities of reproducing human relationship online–a topic we’ve explored before at VC Daily–but there are at least some easy solutions for the technical side of things.
Video Calling Equipment for Online Learning
One piece of information we would pass on to the CSU researchers is the importance of finding an all-in-one video conferencing app or platform. There are dozens of quality services out there but in a shared learning environment it would be handy to have one that can do all the following:
- Accommodate group chat without lag
- Give centralized control over audio and visual information to the teacher
- Enable video call recording and sharing
- Offer a shared whiteboard for real-time graphic interaction
- Easy file sharing, even when offline
- instant chat alongside live calls
- The ability to store files within an account
We’ve come across a number of potential candidates that tick those boxes, but Blue Jeans, Star Leaf, and Vidyo are the standouts. Each are primarily aimed at the business crowd, but at heart that just means they cater for small- to medium-sized professional groups that need a reliable and flexible service. Vidyo can even go so far as to operate as a WebRTC caller that can be accessed from any browser and grant entry to people, maybe guest speakers, who aren’t signed up members.
With a solid tech backbone in place, the rest of the online learning structure is more a personal concern. Students and teacher alike need to agree to a set schedule of classes and their duration, and be willing to give their attention and opinions to the group. It takes time to adapt to the social cues of strangers in the real world, and when you’re staring at disembodied faces via a computer screen it’s an even greater test of patience.
We hope those CSU researchers will come up with some further advice on the best way to structure distance education courses, because this method of learning is set to boom across the U.S.
The Future of Online Learning
The Millennial generation currently emerging from the traditional college system is the most heavily burdened with debt in American history. The majority have at least $10,000 in repayments ahead of them that will take decades to pay off. That debt will only increase for the generation that follows them–tuition fees at California’s largest colleges have risen 130% over the past decade.
In the face of that financial pressure, cheaper courses offered by distance education, especially those offered by online-only schools that don’t have to maintain grounds and field football teams, should become more popular.
Couple that with the affordable nature of webcams and video conferencing equipment, and you’ve got perfect conditions for growth in the online learning industry. Apple’s iTunes U may not currently, or ever, have the prestige of the Ivy League, but there’s a reason why its free education software has earned more than a billion downloads in about five years.