Online Learning in Higher Education: Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

Article excerpt

The spectacular development of information and communication technologies (ICT) through the Internet has provided opportunities for students to explore the virtual world of information. It provides them with the tools to point and click their way around the world, visiting different places, collecting information, experiencing visual and auditory stimulants, communicating with others anywhere and anytime, taking a peek into the future, and extending their intellectual world beyond the walls of the campus. Higher education institutions are expected to acquire and integrate these network technologies to enculturate their students to be lifelong learners--to learn how to seek out new information, think critically and show initiative to meet up with the challenges of the fast-changing world.

Studies on online learning have shown that the Internet provides a springboard for successful enculturation of lifelong learning in higher education institutions [1, 2, 3, 4]. In this paper, online learning is defined as the asynchronous or/and synchronous facilitation of learning over the Internet to students' and faculty members' computers. Online learning has the potential of allowing students to access up-to-date information anywhere and anytime, promoting active and independent learning, and supporting communication between experts and novices [5]. Attracted by these opportunities, many education institutions have focused on the technological challenges of buying the right courseware, getting enough bandwidth allocated to online learning, and obtaining state of the art online learning tools.

However, such hardware, software and financial commitments are only the necessary conditions for successful online learning. This is especially evident when we explore the four characteristics of online learning:

1. Online learning is about the learning processes mediated by network technologies;

2. Online learning is about making possible successful knowledge management to leverage upon the intellectual capital of the learning environment;

3. Online learning is about harnessing the strengths and addressing the weaknesses of network technologies to create a conducive learning environment;

4. Online learning is about providing the interactions among the students and their communities to build and share knowledge [6].

Internet technologies do not exist in isolation; they are interwoven with the rest of the tools, and participants in the learning environment. The strategies for successful online learning in education institutions must focus on the whole configuration of events, activities, contents, and interpersonal processes taking place in the context that online learning is carried out. The purpose of the paper is to identify and discuss the necessary and sufficient conditions for successful online learning in higher education. It first discusses the software, hardware and financial commitment necessary for successful online learning; followed by an exploration of the sufficient conditions for successful online learning that include a paradigm shift towards building a learning culture, mediated by a strategic plan that integrates online learning to enculturate students to be lifelong learners.

THE NECESSARY CONDITIONS FOR SUCCESSFUL ONLINE LEARNING

When considering the necessary conditions for successful online learning, higher education institutions are faced with the challenges of ensuring quality, access and cost efficiency [7]. Quality is an important issue for all educators and it includes the pedagogical strategies and established evaluative instruments to ensure the quality of learning. The issue of access poses the challenge of students' and faculty members' access to required technologies that include up-to-date computers, required software, the Internet, e-mail, and adequate bandwidth connections. In addition to technology access, successful online learning requires skill access by students and faculty members to effectively use the technology. …