This guest post written by Natalie Hunter. Thanks for your focus on e-learning, Natalie, one of the future frontiers of learning in our education system.
Computers will never have the responsiveness and adaptability to each student's strengths and weaknesses required in teaching that a human teacher has. Conversely, teachers not always be able to give each and every student the time and attention comparable to what can be received from an online coursework source that can be accessed at any time of day and from any computer or online device. Online schooling, therefore, makes an excellent supplement to a traditional educational system by allowing the student a means of accessing extra help and information outside of the classroom.
The simplest way of implementing online education is simply a web page that contains text relevant to the course in question. Students could then access the website to read about the subject, just as they would read a textbook they had taken home. Teachers can also record lectures and present visual models in the same manner, to accommodate students who respond better to verbal explanations or visual aids, and making the online textbook into a sort of book on tape as well. More information on these methods can be found at the National Repository of Online Coursework.
Repetition also helps students to learn, and being able to rewind any given lecture allows a student to repeat instructions or facts until he or she is comfortable with the material. Given the cost of textbooks, keeping lectures and text online may help ease the financial burden on students and their families, provided that the family can be expected to own a computer or have access to a library. Since the cost of a year's worth of textbooks in four or five subjects may exceed the cost of a simple computer, and many families may have a computer anyway, this is not an unreasonable expectation. This tactic also can help to bring down district costs, which is a definite bonus.
Providing reading material, however, is insufficient without proper assessment of the student's comprehension. Online assessment methods do exist, but presently they are crude and ill-suited to certain subjects. Many online coursework programs include multiple choice tests, and a computer can easily execute a math assessment, but for anything more nuanced, a human instructor is needed. Teachers can use online assessment methods as a valuable tool in determining what students are learning and not learning, and refocus the lectures and discussions accordingly. Just as it is the instructor's duty to evaluate the students' progress, so must the instructor evaluate the online programs used. Foundations of educators such as the European Foundation for Quality in e-Learning have been formed specifically to help educators find suitable online resources and evaluate their worth.
Another new aspect that online coursework brings to the education process is that online learning aids can be "asynchronous", meaning that the student and teacher need not be using them at the same time. An instructor can post an audio file of a lecture or a text file regarding the subject to a website when his or her schedule permits, and each student can listen to said file when it is convenient for them. Because the student and teacher need not bend their schedules to each others' more than a traditional class would require, this allows each student to seek extracurricular help at any time of day regardless of the instructor's availability, giving students more "virtual face time" then would be possible by traditional means. This is as much a drawback as it is an advantage, however, in that instructors have no guarantee that a student will check the online updates with any degree of frequency or regularity. Outside of the classroom, a student may fail to check e-mail or other educational websites as surely as a student may fail to finish homework on time. Online materials will therefore never fully replace the time spent with a teacher in the classroom.
Online learning programs can never replace the guidance and personalized assistance that a teacher can provide, but teachers can use online learning programs as a versatile tool in their courses. If teachers are willing to make use of the possibilities that online learning have opened up to them, schools and universities will someday come to see online programs as just as much a part of the total learning experience as textbooks, notebooks, and the like.