While I believe that quality online instruction starts with the same fundamental principles of effective classroom instruction, I agree with Ally (2008) that the online learning environment does hold some distinct needs that are not found in a traditional classroom. Many of Ally’s “implications for online learning’ can be considered examples of quality instruction and can be universally applied to traditional, blended or online learning environments. My belief that the online environment has its own set of distinct needs is based on my recent experiences in my own classroom. I teach secondary science to 10-12th graders, in a district with a newly adopted one-to-one initiative, in what might be considered a blended environment. While my class is not a true online class, much of the class can be conducted asynchronously. I have taught in the blended environment for three years now and have seven years of teaching in the same subjects in the traditional environment to compare with. By addressing the distinct needs of online learning and providing students with the opportunity to work within this environment we are teaching them the skills they will need to grow and adapt in the modern work and educational landscape. According to Siemens (2005) “As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses.’ Access to and comfort with finding and building upon others’ knowledge using the online environment is a key skill that students need to acquire.
Like Ally, I feel that the online environment offers some distinct benefits to rival traditional classrooms. I would suggest that the online environment has the potential to provide superior differentiation for individual learners, when compared with a traditional classroom. As Ally (2008) suggests, in “a traditional lecture, instructors contextualize and personalize the information to meet their own needs, which may not be appropriate for all learners. In online instruction, learners experience the information first-hand, which gives them the opportunity to contextualize and personalize the information themselves’. Online assessments can also be adaptive, testing students at their individual level and making sure each student is challenged. These assessments can cater to “individual differences by determining a learner’s preference and providing appropriate learning activities based on that learner’s style’(Ally 2008). Online courses can also allow students greater choice in assignments, deepening understanding by giving students the opportunity to select and apply concepts to areas of interest to themselves. The online environment can provide information in multiple modalities at once so that it is processed better. An example from science might be that a student could be viewing a diagram of an atom, while listening to a podcast that describes ionic bonds or even listening to an audio reader while reading a passage about the structure of an atom. Students can also determine the sequence of learning, timing and venue for learning. I feel that the ease of differentiation that an online environment creates has been particularly successful for the diverse needs of the population I work with. As Ally (2008) suggests “the delivery method allows for flexibility of access, from anywhere and usually anytime, but the learning must use sound instructional design principles.’ The self pacing aspect and continual availability of resources has allowed for an environment, where accommodations are built in, and students have greater control and ownership of their learning.
The benefits to online instruction have come with their own unique set of challenges. Ally (2008) identifies feedback and motivation as challenges to online instruction, and while the challenges are also found in the traditional classroom, the severity and response to these challenges is different in the online environment. I have found that both of these challenges are present in my blended classroom. One of the greatest benefits of a traditional synchronous classroom is the availability of immediate feedback from the instructor as well as from peer interaction. The instructor can continuously monitor the understanding of students by observing, questioning and listening to student discussions in a traditional class. The instructor can quickly pick up on misconceptions or lack of understanding and alter their method of delivery to rectify the situation. In an asynchronous environment the student often has immediate feedback from the content through self quizzes, but when quizzes do not adequately measure concepts, misconceptions can develop and persist, without proper feedback. Ally (2008) suggests that feedback can be effective in online instruction if there is an emphasis on frequent self checks and interactions “between learners, between the learner and the instructor, and between the learner and experts to collaborate, participate in shared cognition, form social networks, and establish social presence’. I use online discussion in my own classroom, but find that it is a skill that needs to be explicitly taught and in many ways is not as effective as a class discussion.
The other challenge faced in online instruction is motivation. While motivational challenges exist in a traditional classroom the availability of outside distraction is perhaps not as easily accessible. The online lesson must compete with all the other information and activities online. My students struggle to focus their attention on the lesson when presented with games, Youtube and online shopping. Ally recommends Keller’s ARCS (Attention, Relevance, Confidence, Satisfaction) model to overcome motivational challenges. This model is a universal model of good instructional design, but in the online environment, where the instructor cannot provide immediate clarifications and feedback, it is perhaps more important to have flawless instructional design in place.
Online learning presents challenges to both the educator and learner, but they provide practical experience with the same challenges that students will eventually face in the work place. Students and workers of the future must be able to work with diverse networks and navigate through endless streams of information and be able to “identify important information from unimportant.’
Ally, M. “Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning.’ In The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, 2nd ed., 15—44. Athabasca, AB Canada: Athabasca University, 2008.
Siemens, G. “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.’ International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 2, no. 1 (2005).