A dozen or more years ago, the idea of home schooling usually conjured up visions of a conservatively-dressed mother sitting at the kitchen table, patiently teaching arithmetic to her offspring. Today, there's a new era of virtual learning that has moved far past that niche to encompass real-time exchange of information, ideas and knowledge for global learners of all ages, education levels and economic backgrounds.
Thanks to innovation, technology, software, hardware and even the philosophical outlook of educators— remarkable changes are occurring with online virtual learning, particularly at a college level education. Online college was once limited to solo students sitting on their home computer watching a lecture videotaped days or weeks earlier. Now, many expect the virtual learning experience to mimic almost perfectly the brick-and-mortar of attending a top-notch university— minus only the brick-and-mortar. Best of all, most of the content is absolutely free to anyone who has access to a computer, tablet or other Internet-connected devices.
IT Challenges for Building Virtual Learning Platforms
To best replicate the experience of attending a live college course, changes to the earlier framework have begun. Virtual learning environments should have the capability for real-time interaction among students and professors; the ability to administer tests and accept written assignments, and even allow for some hands-on activities. The course material itself should be interesting, topical and informative, taught by leaders in their fields. At the end of each course should be the option for grading and feedback.
The best online programs now have the technology to provide all that and more, according to MIT’s Open Learning Enterprise. The Open Learning Enterprise is developing a comprehensive online class experience called MITx, headed by Professor Anant Agarwal. MITx’s prototype class has 12,000 enrolled students and uses an online chat room that allows for off-hour discussion and collaboration. It also can support virtual experimentation through a computer program Agarwal developed to allow students to build virtual circuitry on the computer instead of in a lab. In an interview for MIT News, Agarwal describes the challenges of bringing such experiences to a variety of disciplines.
“How do you put a chemistry lab online…? We are just getting started here.”
The Technology of MOOCs & Clouds
Bringing all of this online learning to the masses is a new phenomenon called Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOC for short). MOOCs are private companies that provide the knowledge and content on dozens of subjects, and markets these courses in partnership with top-level educational institutions. The MOOC then offers its entire virtual library of courses to the public, for free or for a subscription price.
The success of a MOOC depends on how the user experiences the online education course. As Justin Ferriman, founder of LMS provider LearnDash, explains in his blog, a MOOC that merely provides copies of videotaped lectures to be viewed statically "leaves a lot to be desired." He sees incredible opportunities for educational designers and e-learning software developers in the coming year. And experts with engaging and interactive content in an online learning program will be in demand as MOOCs grow in popularity.
Cloud computing is the one IT development helping the spread of MOOCs. Cloud computing is particularly suited to the virtual learning environment, because individual users don't have to buy, download and regularly update software onto their own computer. A MOOC may develop or buy the software needed to run a fully integrated and interactive e-learning program. It then makes it available to users to access document sharing programs, text editors, online testing programs and more.
Ivy League Education Online
MIT’s experience is a great example of the high caliber of schools offering online college programs. As technology develops, better methods to present course material to students will make the virtual college experience even more rich and varied. Top-flight schools are already among the colleges and universities that offer virtual learning. Search online for lists of free online colleges and educational programs. On the list are Ivy League, top business schools and non-profit organizations in the business of providing free virtual educational content.
Mobile device technology is playing a larger part in this new online learning experience. Education via mobile tablets is growing fast. There are obvious advantages of tablets over even the lightest laptop computer. Portable, touch-screen technology are among some of the features that are helping to create new uses for tablets in online learning.
In regards to the possibilities and limitations of e-learning via tablets, one marketer thinks that support for cloud computing needs to grow rapidly to ensure simple access to necessary software and applications. Tom Bishop, director of marketing and communications at KnowledgeVision, suggests a need to coordinate applications needed for online learning, with the capabilities of the tablet that students will use. If the school doesn't mandate a particular device, it might run into problems of non-conforming tablets trying to provide full e-learning access to students.
Migrating to standard tablet technology in real-world classrooms or for online programs will require students to make an investment in the new technology.
Whether universities or colleges move toward tablet-based online learning or continue to focus on PCs, Bishop predicts that most schools will continue to develop specialized software and other technology that's specifically designed for their courses and needs. Making sure that their online education platform is available to all students is the challenge that educational institutions will be facing in the next several years.