Home schooling has ended but, you may be asking, how effective is online learning?

RECENTLY, home-based schooling ended and for many parents there was relief. It may have been an interesting challenge for some, even rewarding to learn new skills, but its hard, tiring work. Highly effective teaching is no easy task, even for many teaching professionals.

Costa Coffee in Bath Street. Dennis Sale, international professional development consultant working on his laptop in a coffee shop                                                             Picture: ROB CURRIE. (30530420)
Costa Coffee in Bath Street. Dennis Sale, international professional development consultant working on his laptop in a coffee shop Picture: ROB CURRIE. (30530420)

However, while parents may now be spared this added role, technology-based online learning will become the dominant mode of instruction in the coming years. Apart from economic considerations (cheaper than classroom learning), greater access flexibility (learning anytime, anywhere, at own pace), there is also emerging research evidence to suggest that, when well-designed and facilitated, it can be as effective as face-to-face (FTF) classroom learning – and certainly more efficient.

Equally, poorly designed online learning is as bad as poor FTF learning. As the saying goes, ‘dull is dull’. I have observed teachers in many countries and cultural contexts, and when the teaching is dull, it is experienced more or less the same by students everywhere.

They tell me so, and that is because the brain works that way. However, the difference is how students in different countries and cultures respond to such experiences. For example, in China, I noticed that even the least interesting teachers did not receive much classroom disruption. Teachers were so well respected there that students would not show any sign of disrespect. This is not always the case in other countries, and I have heard that Chinese students are not all so passive now when confronted with boring lessons.

Of special interest is that recent research shows that blended learning (this is where some aspects of a course are taught online and other parts are conducted FTF) is the most effective format in terms of student attainment. Furthermore, the Educause Horizon Report (2019) Higher Education Edition noted: ‘Students report a preference for blended learning, citing flexibility, ease of access and the integration of sophisticated multimedia.’

Many years ago, online learning was seen by some educationalists as, ‘the best thing since sliced bread’. However, this early hype about its potential to enhance learning soon waned and it was not long before a significant evaluation of its use in education (Zemsky and Massy, 2004) referred to it as a ‘thwarted innovation’.

This failure of technology to positively impact teaching practices was partly due to its lack of usability at the time (complicated, slow and prone to breakdown). However, today, much has changed. Firstly, the technologies are becoming more stable, much faster and, most importantly, user-friendly (and many are free). Secondly, and this is the most significant aspect, we now possess so much more knowledge about how humans learn and what teaching methods work best, compared with previous times. For those readers who are old enough, you will remember dictation: in which teachers read out their notes and students did their best to copy these words in their notebooks. The study strategy was then to memorise these for the purpose of passing the exams.

Today we are now in a position to employ a more evidence-based approach to how we design and teach lessons, so as to create learning experiences that optimise attainment opportunities and well-being for an increasing range of student profiles.

Technology alone does not make a great lesson; good learning design and facilitation skills do this. In fact, when used poorly, it becomes no more than a distractor to student learning. However, when used in ways that support the learning process (is brain compatible), it can enrich the learning experience through multi-media, hyperlinking, and communication and collaboration platforms.

The use of interactive videos is especially interesting in terms of enhancing learning. We are primarily visual learners, and our visual system is more advanced than our other senses. While we struggle to keep several (at best) pieces of new information in our working memory, we can immediately apprehend (not necessarily understand) a new complex visual experience. I predict that in the coming years, the use of interactive videos will increasingly become a primary information source that students will use for their own learning, and teachers will employ as a means of instruction.

Knowledge about how humans learn from the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience can be practically applied in everyday teaching to enhance student attainment and engagement. Furthermore, this applies equally to FTF teaching as it does to fully online or blended learning. For example, and only in summary here, students learn better when teachers:

Set clear, challenging goals that are achievable with effort.

Connect new knowledge to students’ prior learning.

Teach the key concepts that are fundamental for understanding a topic.

Encourage thinking through focused questions – what and how questions.

Chunk up lesson content to minimise cognitive load (too much information at once).

Provide practice and feedback to aid retention of knowledge in long-term memory.

Encourage students to believe that with effort they can become successful learners – ‘grow their intelligence’.

These are some evidence-based core principles of learning and they are key to effective, efficient, and engaging instruction. Technology tools can then be used to enhance different aspects of the learning process. I often use the metaphor of a cake to illustrate how this works. A good cake has a solid nourishing base (this represents the core principles of learning) and additional to this, has delicious toppings that give it appeal and more taste (these are the appropriate technology tools).

Online learning is here to stay, whether fully online or in a blended format – the latter being the preferred mode for many educational sectors and context. However, economics may dictate otherwise.

If teachers of yesteryear, armed with only a blackboard and a set of coloured chalks, could still create inspiring and effective lessons (and there were those who could do this), then what is the potential for the highly creative teacher in the present context with such varied technology tools at his/her disposal? It will define teacher expertise for the foreseeable future.

lDennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as an adviser, researcher and examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100-plus consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis: website: dennissale.com. Email: dennis.sale@gmail.com.

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