Mode of delivery: Learners as a determining factor

February 5, 2015 Tony Bates
Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

This is the third of five posts on choosing between different modes of delivery as part of Chapter 10 for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

As always, start with the learners

Fully online/distance learners

Research (see for instance Dabbagh, 2007) has repeatedly shown that fully online courses suit some types of student better than others: older, more mature students; students with already high levels of education; part-time students who are working or with families. This applies both to formal, credit based online courses and even more so to MOOCs (see Chapter 7) and other non-credit courses.

Today, ‘distance’ is more likely to be psychological or social, rather than geographical. For instance, from survey data regularly collected from students when I was Director of Distance Education and Technology at the University of British Columbia:

  • less than 20 per cent gave reasons related to distance or travel for taking an online course.
  • most of the 10,000 or so UBC students (there are over 60,000 students in total) taking at least one fully online course are not truly distant. The majority (over 80 per cent) live in the Greater Vancouver Metropolitan Area, within 90 minutes commute time to the university, and almost half within the relatively compact City of Vancouver. Comparatively few (less than 10 per cent) live outside the province (although this proportion is slowly growing each year.)
  • on the other hand, two thirds of UBC’s online students have paid work of one kind or another.
  • many undergraduate students in their fourth year take an online course because the face-to-face classes are ‘capped’ because of their large size, or because they are short of the required number of credits to complete a degree. Taking a course online allows these students to complete their program without having to come back for another year.
  • the main reason for most UBC students taking fully online courses is the flexibility they provide, given the work and family commitments of students and the difficulty caused by timetable conflicts for face-to-face classes.

This suggests that fully online courses are more suitable for more experienced students with a strong motivation to take such courses because of the impact they have on their quality of life. In general, online students need more self-discipline in studying and a greater motivation to study to succeed. This does not mean that other kinds of students can’t benefit from online learning, but extra effort needs to go into the design and support of such students online.

The research also suggests that these skills of independent learning need to be developed while students are on campus. In other words, online learning, in the form of blended learning, should be deliberately introduced and gradually increased as students work through a program, so by the time they graduate, they have the skills to continue to learn independently – a critical skill for the digital age. If courses are to be offered fully online in the early years of a university career, then they will need to be exceptionally well designed with a considerable amount of online learner support – and hence are likely to be expensive to mount, if they are to be successful.

On the other hand, fully online courses really suit working professionals. In a digital age, the knowledge base is continually expanding, jobs change rapidly, and hence there is strong demand for on-going, continuing education, often in ‘niche’ areas of knowledge. Online learning is a convenient and effective way of providing such lifelong learning. So far, apart from MBAs and teacher education, public universities have been slow in recognising the importance of this market, which at worse could be self-financing, and at best could bring in much needed additional revenues. The private, for-profit universities, though, such as the University of Phoenix, Laureate University and Capella University in the USA, have been quick to move into this market.

One other factor to consider is the impact of changing demographics. In jurisdictions where the school-age population is starting to decline, expanding into lifelong learning markets may be essential for maintaining student enrollments. Fully online learning may therefore turn out to be a way to keep some academic departments alive.

However, to make such lifelong learning online programs work, institutions need to make some important adjustments. In particular there must be incentives or rewards for faculty to move in this direction and there needs to be some strategic thinking about the best way to offer such programs. The University of British Columbia has developed a series of very successful, fully online, self-financing professional masters’ programs.  For example, students can initially try one or two courses in the Graduate Certificate in Rehabilitation before applying to the master’s program. The certificate can be completed in less than two years while working full-time, and paying per course rather than for a whole Master’s year, providing the flexibility needed by lifelong learners. UBC also partnered with Tec de Monterrey in Mexico, with the same program being offered in English by UBC and in Spanish by Tec de Monterrey, as a means of kick-starting its very successful Master in Educational Technology program, which over time has doubled the number of graduate students in UBC’s Faculty of Education. We shall see these examples are important when we examine the importance of modular programming in Chapter 11.

Online learning also offers the opportunity to offer programs where an institution has unique research expertise but insufficient local students to offer a full master’s program. By going fully online, perhaps in partnership with another university with similar expertise but in a different jurisdiction, it may be able to attract students from across the country or even internationally, enabling the research to be more widely disseminated and to build a cadre of professionals in newly emerging areas of knowledge – again an important goal in a digital age.

Blended learning learners

In terms of blended learning, the ‘market’ is less clearly defined than for fully online learning. The benefit for students is increased flexibility, but they will still need to be relatively local in order to attend the classroom-based sessions. The main advantage is for the 50 per cent or more of students, at least in North America, who are working more than 15 hours a week to help with the cost of their education and to keep their student debt as low as possible. Also, blended learning provides an opportunity for the gradual development of independent learning skills, as long as this is an intentional teaching strategy.

The main reason for moving to blended learning then is more likely to be academic, providing necessary hands-on experiences, offering an alternative to large lecture classes, and making student learning more active and accessible whenstudying online. This will benefit most students who can easily access a campus on a regular basis.

Face-to-face learners

Many students coming straight from high school will be looking for social, sporting and cultural opportunities that a campus-based education provides. Also students lacking self-confidence or experience in studying are likely to prefer face-to-face teaching, providing that they can access it in a relatively personal way.

However, the academic reasons are less clear, particularly if students are faced with very large classes and relatively little contact with professors in the first year or so of their programs. In this respect, smaller, regional institutions, which generally have smaller classes and more contact with instructors, have an advantage.

We shall see later in this chapter that blended and fully online learning offer the opportunity to re-think the whole campus experience so that better support is provided to on-campus learners in their early years in post-secondary education. More importantly, as more and more studying moves online, universities and colleges will be increasingly challenged to identify the unique pedagogical advantages of coming to campus, so that it will still be worthwhile to get on the bus to campus every morning.

We shall see that identifying the likely student market for a course or program is the strongest factor in deciding on mode of delivery.

Feedback

1. Given that students can do a lot of their studying online, what kind of students do you think will benefit most from face-to-face teaching? All students, if they can get to campus? If so, why?

2. Is there a particular kind of student who benefits more from a blended learning approach than from full time face-to-face teaching?

3. What do you think are the implications of widening the traditional ‘for credit’ market from high school leavers to lifelong learners? Do you agree that this would require some major changes in the way programs are offered? What would be the implication for Continuing Studies or Extension departments?

Next up

Seeking the unique characteristics of face-to-face teaching. This will look at how to identify what to do online and what to do on-campus in a blended learning course.

Reference

Dabbagh, N. (2007) The online learner: characteristics and pedagogical implications Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, Vol. 7, No.3

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