Reflections on Online Skills Development

For the last couple of months, I have been busy at work getting Douglas College’s Essential Skills Practitioner Training Program online using the Blackboard Learn platform. This experience has caused me to reflect on a number of issues surrounding online learning and the increasing attention being given to online skill development.

In the rush and excitement to put things online, how does an instructor know that the content can be effectively taught online? Online learning is under increasing scrutiny to determine its effectiveness and the jury is still out. In 2010 the US Department of Education released a meta-study (link) that quickly had to be revised as it was criticized for overstating the benefits of online learning (link).

Learning tools such as the Khan Academy, Alison, Udemy, Coursera, and edX have been leading the way.  But how effective are these new learning environments? How does one determine if someone is ready for online learning?

Below I share with you some of my observations based on my experiences in building courses in the online environment:

1) Building courses online is incredibly time intensive.  In addition to the normal content preparation associated with in-person course delivery, online courses require structuring of content in different predetermined formats, document version control  and usability testing of the platform. Furthermore, it takes a considerable amount of thought and effort to ensure that all of the information that is transmitted in the classroom through verbal question and answers and other interactions can be replicated online. A great deal of time is spent in making sure that everything works correctly and flows with the content.

2) It is very difficult to gauge how learners respond to different online tools and mediums.   One of the things that is missing from the online environment is that constant monitoring and feedback an instructor receives in an in-person workshop or class.   Without being able to monitor body language or respond immediately to questions, feedback is often received only after the course has finished.  One of the benefits of online learning is that it allows learners to go at their own pace. However, it can be difficult to determine if sporadic learner participation indicates frustration with the material or simply procrastination.  This can cause headaches for the instructor

3) The learner’s familiarity and comfort with the online learning environment is critical to the success of the course. We often hear from students who say that they enjoyed the course but really would have preferred to have taken it in person due to their unfamiliarity with the learning platform.  Others, however, really enjoy the freedom of online learning.  This mirrors studies (link) that have shown that online learning is not for all learners. We have not done a rigorous analysis but based on my interactions with our learners, I strongly suspect that those who have more experience and comfort in online environments have enjoyed greater success in our courses.

I would be curious to hear other perspectives and experiences, both as students and instructors in online learning environments.  For us, the learning experience has been both greatly satisfying and incredibly frustrating.  I’m sure as technology improves and more people gain comfort in online environments, the experiences and learning outcomes will improve.  What sort of experiences have others had with online learning?

Profile photo of Chris Perrin
Chris Perrin
Chris Perrin is an Essential Skills Consultant with Douglas College. He has worked on numerous local, national and international projects focussed on helping clients quickly upgrade their skills through the career development process to successfully participate in the labour market. Prior to his career at Douglas College, Chris worked with the Vancouver YWCA as a career counselor, helping youth find employment. Chris holds a Master's degree in Public Administration from Queen's University.

3 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Roberta
    March 26, 2013, 6:07 pm   /  Reply

    Thanks for posting these reflections, Chris. Having designed, built, and taught online courses for the past 12 years, I recognize both the satisfactions and frustrations – you’re not alone. :-)

    I’m curious about whether or not the courses you’re referring to are facilitated e-learning (i.e., where students are actively engaged in discussion forums with their instructors and peers) or self-paced e-learning (similar to online tutorials where students independently follow steps and connect with their instructor or tutor as needed)? I think each has its own strengths and challenges but what can be taught online very much depends on which of those approaches is being taken. :-)

  2. Profile photo of Chris Perrin
    March 27, 2013, 1:57 pm   /  Reply

    Hi Roberta, thanks for your comment. We have been facilitating the e-learning so far. We use discussions, activities and webinars. Which method do you use in your courses? Do you have a preference?

  3. C. Murray
    June 19, 2013, 12:13 pm   /  Reply

    I enjoy online coursework primarily because it can be difficult to attend classes in person if they are not offered in your community (especially smaller, rural locations). Personally I prefer a course that is instructor/institution-paced rather than self-paced. I feel that this provides better results personally (i.e. overcoming procrastination) and allows for a cohort of students to go through the learning process together. I have also found courses that provide discussion boards where the instructor monitors and answers questions regularly are most effective.

Leave a Reply