As online education enrollment growth slows, programs are exploring new formats to appeal to students. The definition of online higher education is becoming increasingly broad as new models incorporate more real-time instruction, turn course work into competition or rethink how student learning is assessed, experts say.
“The range and extent of those offerings continues to increase at a pretty fair clip,” says Malcolm Brown, director of the learning initiative at Educause, an educational technology advocacy group.
Below is a look at three emerging trends in online instruction through the lens of institutions that are among the leaders in their implementation: synchronous instruction, gamification and project-based learning.
• Synchronous instruction: In the online master’s in social work program at the University of Southern California, students in their first semester participate in a virtual field practicum.
Instead of being placed in a partner agency to do traditional field placement work with live clients, students spend four hours a week using videoconferencing and other interactive tools to receive synchronous – or real-time – instruction.
An hour of that weekly time is spent in a mock counseling session with an actor hired to portray a realistic client – similar to one students might encounter in an actual field placement. Students alternate leading the video session, and then use a second hour to discuss which strategies for engaging that client proved most effective.
The model gives students from diverse backgrounds much-needed preparation for interacting with a variety of clients. By delaying their face-to-face field experience into a following term, it also allows students in rural communities more time to find a suitable field placement following their enrollment, says Elizabeth Phillips, who oversees students’ clinical work as an associate professor.
“Before, we were just putting people brand new behind closed doors and saying, ‘We trust you,'” Phillips says. “Now we’re saying, ‘We think we’d like to teach you a little bit more.'”
Educational technology company 2U provides the program with tools for both synchronous and asynchronous, or self-paced, instruction. The growth of 2U has come mainly in proportion to demand for synchronous learning environments that allow students and faculty to interact just as if they shared a brick-and-mortar classroom, says company CEO and co-founder Chip Paucek. He estimates the company supports 1,200 live synchronous sessions a week.
“You’re connecting with faculty in a very real way,” says Paucek. “What you’re trying to do is take this amazing thing that exists on campus and bring it online.”
• Gamification: At the online New England College of Business and Finance, both undergraduate and graduate students may find themselves in courses that include gamelike modules designed to take advantage of students’ ambition.
“They’re very business-focused and they’re very competitive, so we play off that,” says Paula Bramante, the school’s senior vice president of student services.
The school’s online MBA students participate in a simulation where they steer their own businesses, then justify their results to a fictitious board of directors.
In the undergraduate digital marketing program, students compete with classmates to build the best website for a preselected nonprofit group. Those who had the top three submissions as selected by faculty then get to offer their finished product to the organization.
Jason Kramer, an e-learning instructional technologist at the school, says gamifying courses – or infusing them with a competitive element and rewards – helps students retain knowledge.
“Taking game-based mechanics and aesthetics and applying it to learning elements allows us one sort of tool that we can use to make the learning experience an exciting memorable one,” Kramer says. “One of our goals is to get our students talking about our classes afterwards.”
• Project-Based Learning: The practice of project-based learning, where students demonstrate mastery of academic concepts through the creation of a product, characterizes the online College for America at Southern New Hampshire University.