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Online learning helps prepare students for higher education

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The experience of learning online during high school develops independence and confidence with technology says Ed Lawless, Principal of Pamoja Education.

After five years as the only approved provider of International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme online courses, Pamoja Education recently invested in research with London’s revered University College London Institute of Education to explore the experiences of students who had taken blended IBDP courses and then progressed to higher education. Pamoja Education, a dynamic and rapidly expanding Oxford (UK) based company, specializes in the development and delivery of supportive, globally collaborative, online learning for 16- 19-year-olds.

The research — How pre-university online learning experience can influence successful transition into and through higher education — explored the impact of online subject learning on students prior to studying at university. The research involved reviewing previous literature about the role of technology in preparing students for university study; undertaking a survey of IBDP students to explore their learning experiences at university; interviewing Pamoja Education IBDP alumni as a way of explaining and elaborating on these patterns of experience; and asking IBDP online teachers to reflect on how they worked with 16- 19-year-old online learners.

One hundred and eight current university students from 36 countries, primarily the US and UK, participated in the study. This included 58 who had studied at least one two-year subject online as part of their IBDP. The research asked questions about each respondent’s background, their current studies, their patterns of pre-tertiary and university study, the self-regulatory actions that they undertook as part of their pre-tertiary and university studies, their experiences of specific technologies, and any issues or experiences that may have helped prepare them for university.

The research identified the benefits of increased independence and also developed an understanding of the use of technology to support study as a result of the online learning experience.

Independence in learning

To provide context for the research, respondents were first asked about the learning demands of university compared to high school. When asked about self-regulatory behaviors for managing their studies, the vast majority of respondents agreed that these were important for success at university (page 38 of the report): 84% said that it was definitely important to be able to set goals as a way of managing the time they spent studying at university; 71% said it was definitely important to set their own standards for coursework; 73% said it was definitely important to know where to study most efficiently (and 71% for when to study); 78% said it was definitely important to try to solve problems independently; and 68% said it was definitely important to know when to turn to a tutor for support.

Not surprisingly, the respondents reported that studying at university was more complex and time consuming than at high school – on average, studying five hours more per week. However once in university, those who had taken online IBDP courses reported spending slightly less time studying than their peers, they were less likely to seek help from tutors, they were more likely to set goals based on their own performance rather than that of other students, and they had better developed strategies for managing and pacing their studies. One student said, “Studying online is different from attending regular classes. You have to be self-motivated to study on your own and set your own deadlines. Personally, I learned a lot from taking an online course because it helped me prepare myself in terms of scheduling and allocating time to finish each of the subjects that I am currently taking.”

Responses from the respondents who had taken online IBDP courses suggest that these students had developed greater independence in their work and, possibly, greater efficiency in the way they study.

Familiarity with technology

The research also asked students about their use of technology. Today’s university study makes extensive use of technology; and although there has been much talk of young people being ‘digital natives,’ the research suggested that there remains a significant lack of familiarity with some of the technologies required at university and certainly a lack of understanding of what best to use and when. Even when students have used technology in other settings, they may not know how to use it for academic purposes. The respondents identified several areas where technology use was expected in university (page 41 of the report): 89% needed to use the Internet to source academic resources; 74% had to use a learning management system to access course materials; 94% agreed that having experience of finding academic resources online was helpful preparation for university study, and 78% said the same for using online calendars or scheduling tools to plan and coordinate group tasks; 71% thought that it was useful to have experience of social networks in order to build relationships with other students; and 68% said that experience with wikis, Google Docs and other shared online editing tools was helpful preparation (page 43).

The respondents identified several areas where technology use was expected in university (page 41 of the report): 89% needed to use the Internet to source academic resources; 74% had to use a learning management system to access course materials; 94% agreed that having experience of finding academic resources online was helpful preparation for university study, and 78% said the same for using online calendars or scheduling tools to plan and coordinate group tasks; 71% thought that it was useful to have experience of social networks in order to build relationships with other students; and 68% said that experience with wikis, Google Docs and other shared online editing tools was helpful preparation (page 43).

The responses suggested that proficiency in the selection and use of technology affected quality of life, not just test scores and that technology was a necessary part of the university experience, something expected and relied upon, which was why it was such an issue for people unable to work with it successfully. For skilled users, technology helped make life easier, particularly by drawing together information and resources, and in some cases was necessary for making tasks possible that would otherwise be impractical. For example, one respondent said, “I often use Google Docs and other Google tools to collaborate on group projects, including working with teams that are in different locations and time zones.”

Intercultural experience

One additional benefit noted by respondents was the experience of learning in a global context. Respondents who had studied an online IBDP course said that they had benefited from working in globally distributed groups. Several said that this had helped them to view their subject from a more international perspective by drawing on the views of online classmates who were from a range of countries and cultures. One person said, “We actually had people on our course from all over the world so it wasn’t a very single country focus or anything, which is something I found really valuable.”

One additional benefit noted by respondents was the experience of learning in a global context. Respondents who had studied an online IBDP course said that they had benefited from working in globally distributed groups. Several said that this had helped them to view their subject from a more international perspective by drawing on the views of online classmates who were from a range of countries and cultures. One person said, “We actually had people on our course from all over the world so it wasn’t a very single country focus or anything, which is something I found really valuable.”

Collaborating online

Collaboration between students and between student and teacher was approached online in a way that didn’t happen in the physical classroom, using a more explicit process that enabled all students, including quieter ones, to have a voice. Respondents said that this was good preparation for university. It was a soft skill highlighted by online teachers who were interviewed for the research, too.

Pamoja Education teachers who were interviewed as part of the research, all said they had to work hard to build rapport with their online students by using a range of communication channels (including online bulletin boards, Instant Messenger chat, Skype and YouTube videos) to ensure that their learners had a sense of who they were as people. Teachers said they had to invest a lot of care and attention in the communication they had with each student, particularly when providing them with feedback on their work. One teacher in the study said, “I actually think that I give more detailed feedback online than I do in a face to face situation … because I’m not there for them to look at their paper or listen to their presentation and then to have questions asked back, so I try to give them a lot more information.”

This personal attention distinguishes the online IBDP courses from large-scale initiatives such as MOOCs. One online IBDP teacher said, during the study, “I can’t imagine having an online classroom with a hundred students because there’s simply not enough time in the day to do the kind of careful evaluation and feedback that is absolutely necessary to make the online environment work.”

Recommendations

The step from high school to university is demanding in many ways. Studying becomes more intensive and complex, courses are increasingly international in scope and participation, and students are expected to make use of specialist technologies as part of their academic work. To prepare students for this transition, schools can either provide experiences that act as a safe “rehearsal” for university study, or schools and parents can support student participation in online learning as a way of developing valuable skills at the same time as completing a subject course.

When it comes to technology use, students need to know not only how to operate it, but to understand why to use it and what they can achieve with it. Similarly, when learning alongside people from other countries, students need to know the value of listening to the perspectives of others and of appreciating diverse cultural viewpoints. And when faced with having to learn independently, students need to be confident about how to set standards of work and personal goals, how to schedule their time, how to respond to challenging situations and to know when to turn to a tutor — all fundamental aspects of the online IBDP learning approach.

There are, of course, other ways for students to develop these skills. What we mustn’t do, however, is shy away from the online experience if it’s something we ourselves are intimidated by. Using academic research to help us make the most informed selection of new learning options for students is helpful. Trusting young people to embrace the learning approaches we ourselves are daunted by is crucial, too.

Edward Lawless is the Principal of Pamoja Education which has been delivering online IBDP courses to students around the world since 2009. [email protected]

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Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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