Learning is often a social experience that includes students participating in classroom activity and benefiting from interaction with each other and their teachers. As universities around the world boast more online students than ever, traditional ways of learning are transforming.
With an increased acceptance and use of digital technology, the internet and social media play a huge part in our everyday lives — including how we learn. As a result, more and more students are realising that, instead of replacing classroom-based learning methods, online education is actually a valid alternative that also adds value.
Over the last decade there has been a wider acceptance of the merits of online education and its power to increase people’s access to learning, with a growing number of educational institutions adding online programmes to their curriculum. In the Middle East, it is now predicted that the market for e-learning will be worth more than $560 million (Dh2.05 billion) next year, so why the increased interest?
Across the Gulf states, there is a well-publicised need to upskill the workforce and supply the talented, educated people that the region’s businesses need. The World Bank estimates that the proportion of the population in the Middle East and North Africa aged at least 25 with a tertiary-level degree is less than 10 per cent. In some countries in the region, it is less than 5 per cent.
There are many other reasons why online learning is growing. It appeals to more mature students, offering new opportunities for people with family or work commitments whom you would not expect to see in a traditional classroom environment. A 2012 survey by US-based Learning House, for example, found that the average age of an online learner was 33, and that the majority were already in full-time employment.
As a result, these learners are looking for a flexible solution. The online classroom is available 24 hours a day, and by delivering an asynchronous approach in which students are not required to be in the classroom at a specific time, they are encouraged to participate when it is convenient for them — from wherever they are in the world. This flexibility also allows faculty to accommodate students’ different learning styles. Programme content is also adapted to the working professional, breaking large learning units into smaller bite-sized sessions so students can continue their studies during their lunch breaks, while travelling or whenever works best for their schedule.
In addition, the online classroom, which is truly global and connects students and faculty from all over the world, makes it possible for them to collaborate and share resources that were not as accessible a decade ago.
There are some online institutions like ours that have developed networking platforms similar to popular social-media channels to help students build communities among their peers. Despite the thousands of miles between students, they can connect with each other and their faculty members as well as share best practices that can be applied immediately to their daily work and career. Creating an academic environment that supports networking inside and outside the classroom like this has now become an integral part of online postgraduate learning programmes.
Faculty also play an important role in fostering this approach to joint learning, where students engage in creative online discussions in small groups as they complete assignments. Personalising the experience is just one way to achieve this goal, as faculty members should be present and in day-to-day contact with the students, using videos, blogs, wikis and discussion forums to actively promote critical thinking and problem-solving.
Using digital technology to deliver education is not only increasing access for millions around the world; it’s also helping many learn better. It has been estimated that students who do study online have a 60 per cent faster learning curve than those who attend traditional programmes, which is why, perhaps, we have seen a rise in uptake of these types of courses in the Gulf states.
While there have been many who say online education cannot replace the experience of the classroom, research by the US Department of Education suggests that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.
There will always be a place for the classroom and traditional student–teacher interaction, but as technology continues to evolve, so does the way in which we learn. Online learning is now dramatically increasing access to quality education around the world, helping more people fulfil their potential. For that reason, we should warmly embrace the innovation social technology brings to the online learning experience.
Dr Craig Marsh, vice-president of academic innovation at the University of Roehampton, London Online, looks at the growth of online learning and applauds the new technologies that are improving access to education.