Sensible planning for online learning

800px Online Learning learn from home elearning

Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

In the rush to online education, schools and colleges appear to expect instant transference of their on-campus programs to new media such as Zoom and Moodle.

Anyone who has observed the implementation of online education knows that this is a recipe for disaster, one that will lead to little meaningful learning and much angst on the part of students, teachers, parents, and administrators.

In this context, it’s worth taking a look at what has contributed to the success of some online learning.

The LEEP online masters program

In 1996, the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (now the iSchool) at the University of Illinois began offering master’s degrees over the Internet, with only brief periods of on-campus learning.

This program, actually just a scheduling option for the traditional degree, is called LEEP. It has a 24-year record of success from the perspectives of students, faculty, staff, employers, researchers evaluating the program, and formal accreditation bodies.

Upon graduation, one student said that it

has truly been a marvelous, exhilarating experience. I have met and learned from a wonderful group of students and teachers. At times overwhelming, but always challenging, the GSLIS classes have taught me far more than I could have imagined. I have gained insights and confidence, knowledge and skills, and friends for a lifetime. The virtual community of LEEP3 continues to develop and thrive. [Quoted in a 1999 paper by Dean Leigh Estabrook, “New Forms of Distance Education”]

Why has LEEP been so successful, especially in contrast with what many are doing today? This is worthy of a longer discussion, but it’s useful to list a few of the characteristics of LEEP that have helped it to succeed:

  1. Voluntary participation: Faculty were invited to participate, but were not required to do so. Although some were eager to give the new modality a try, others needed to see how their colleagues fared first.
  2. Planning and preparation: Through course releases and other mechanisms, faculty were given time to prepare new courses or new versions of existing courses that reflected the affordances and constraints off the new medium.
  3. Match to available resources: There was detailed consideration of the background knowledge needed by students, and of the necessary technical features such as bandwidth, computer and operating system platforms, or microphones and speakers.
  4. Technical support: There was substantial technical support for both students and faculty, so that they could concentrate on the course content.
  5. Reflection: There was an annual retreat to discuss successes, surprises, and challenges.
  6. Analysis and ongoing revision: The program was regularly and systematically studied through surveys, interviews, and analyses of course interactions. This has led to books, articles, conference presentations, and other publications, which contributed to the program’s continuing development.
  7. Collaboration: The program was developed in collaboration with other units within the university and with similar programs at other institutions.

What schools are doing instead

All too often today, participation in online education is mandated, with little participatory planning, little support, and no opportunity for reflection or revision. This will not work. Perhaps the only thing worse is the equally haphazard approach being taken to new forms of on-campus instruction, necessitated by covid times.
 
Few things are more important now than education and support for young people’s development. Having safe and successful schooling is also critical for the economy. But none of that can happen without more investment of resources and more thoughtful implementation.

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