by Emma Richards

Digital Learning

Online learning revolution

Digital Learning
Leaders in education are examining the strong pull toward digital tools and looking at how these will shape the way knowledge is presented and accessed in years to come. Just recently, leading higher education specialists from around the globe came together at Cambridge University to attend a pioneering conference on the future of online learning. 

The trend that emerged, reveals great potential for educational development along with significant challenges across the sphere of higher education. 
Hosted by the OpenCourseWare Consortium, the Cambridge conference focused on collaboration among education leaders, the shift in educational business models, and the need to embrace the opportunity that is
online learning. 

Once seen as a threat to higher education, online resources are now being reframed as drivers for creating lifelong learners and skilled workers. 
However, the quantity of online resources cannot always be equated with quality, and herein lies the challenge for many academics. The process of sorting, correcting and filtering this raw data is known as curation, which has always been the domain of teachers and subject experts. It is a safety net that many are wary to do away with, which is why leading institutions are throwing their weight behind the testing of various learning models.

As contentious as the issue may seem, the goal of online learning is clear: to eliminate obstacles to the exchange of knowledge and ideas. E-learning is more affordable, more accessible and significantly more dynamic than anyone could ever have imagined it would be. 

In a country such as South Africa, where skills development is a necessity, there is an abundance of opportunity in the online education and teacher training market. 

According to a recent report titled, “South Africa Education Market Outlook to 2015 – Opportunities in the Online Education and Teacher Training Market”, the online education industry is still in an embryonic stage, but it demonstrates massive growth potential. The crucial factors that will either help or hinder the move toward e-learning are Internet penetration and government support. 
Internet penetration in South Africa has increased steadily, although it lags significantly behind advanced nations. Furthermore, the government has gradually recognised the need for alternative education solutions to traditional, full-time enrolments at universities and colleges. 

In line with international trends among universities such as MIT, Berkeley, Yale and Oxford, South African tertiary institutions such as the University of Cape Town (UCT) have joined the open education movement, which essentially provides a wide range of valuable learning materials to the public free of charge. In some cases, these are merely lecture slides or notes. In other instances, entire courses – including video lectures, textbooks and assignments – are provided. These resources are vital in a country where financial and social means are often lacking. 

However, open education does not altogether address the issue of certification and endorsement that employers seek when making recruitment decisions. This is where learning organisations such as GetSmarter are pioneering a dynamic education solution by providing fully supported, online courses that are accredited by top education institutions such as UCT. 

An insider’s perspective on e-learning

Many South Africans are turning to online courses to further their skills and to gain a competitive edge in the job market. These courses are generally pursued part-time and allow the flexibility of being able to work while pursuing certification. To put it bluntly, e-learning is a supercharged, interactive and convenient upgrade of traditional correspondence courses. 

Online courses merely require that students have access to a computer and an Internet connection, which are some of the most common household tools in today’s modern age.

Possibly the most beneficial aspect of online education is the fact that students are not required to be in a set place at a set time. This essentially means learning can take place at the student’s own pace and in his/her own time, which is a more natural approach to learning. 

Furthermore, the use of subject experts or teachers has enriched the online learning experience and they are able to repurpose and enrich content with links, videos, slide shows and other resources found online, thereby ensuring students get maximum value from any course. 

In terms of instruction, online courses are no exception to the traditional lecture-based model. Many e-learning channels make use of a qualified subject expert to provide instruction in the form of lecture videos, which are then uploaded for students to watch in their own time. To gain certification for such courses, assessments are presented in the form of interactive quizzes, written assignments and peer reviews. 

At one stage, there were concerns about the possibility of lonely, isolated students, but this has been largely dismissed primarily because e-learning has effectively demonstrated that the digital student is one who is always connected via discussion forums, instant messenger and social networks. The potential to share knowledge offers distinct advantages over more traditional modes of learning interaction, the most notable of which is its networking opportunities. 

Lastly, but by no means insignificantly, the opportunities of access that online learning provides in terms of affordability, put education within reach of many students and working professionals who may otherwise not have the chance to develop themselves and increase their potential. Courses are offered in virtually every field, and offer anyone with interest and drive the ability to obtain valuable skills and certifications.

Emma Richards

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Issue 58