Academic journal article The Future of Children

E-Learning in Postsecondary Education

Academic journal article The Future of Children

E-Learning in Postsecondary Education

Article excerpt

Although most student training and development in U.S. colleges and universities continues to take place with teachers and students interacting face-to-face in traditional classrooms, the past decade has witnessed a significant migration of postsecondary education from the classroom to online. A 2011 Babson Survey Research Group poll of more than 2,500 chief academic officers found that 65 percent view online learning as a critical part of their long-term strategy. (1) The survey also revealed that more than 6 million, or 31 percent, of the nation's college students took at least one online course during the fall 2010 term, an increase of more than 560,000, or 10.1 percent, over the previous year. Although this figure is significantly lower than the 21.1 percent annual growth in online enrollment recorded by Babson in fall 2009, it far exceeds the 0.6 percent annual growth in the overall number of higher education students during the same period.

The growth of e-learning in postsecondary education is not limited to online courses and programs but rather covers an expanding array of applications and approaches that use technology in different ways and to varying degrees. These applications include simple videotaped lectures posted on the Internet, as well as learning-management systems, such as Blackboard, that distribute content such as lecture notes, syllabi, and assignments and facilitate peer and student-teacher interaction. They also include more sophisticated online collaborative simulations that create high-fidelity learning environments and interactive e-learning systems that use artificial intelligence to deliver customized instruction to students. (2) Interest is also growing in making learning accessible to students through mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets.

There are a variety of reasons for the growth of e-learning in postsecondary institutions, including a need to generate new revenue streams, expand access, offer students greater scheduling flexibility and the freedom to work at their own pace, and curb increasing costs. As e-learning has been expanding, however, so have debates about its effectiveness and concerns about its impact on the quality of higher education. According to Babson, for example, although two-thirds of the academic leaders polled believe that online education is just as good as or better than face-to-face instruction, the remaining one-third believe the learning outcomes of online courses are inferior to those of face-to-face instruction. (3) As might be expected, leaders at institutions that do not offer online courses or programs tend to be more skeptical. A survey of the general public conducted by the Pew Research Center using a nationally representative sample of 2,142 adults found that only 29 percent believe online courses are as valuable educationally as courses taken in the classroom. (4)

In this article we address three key questions about the growth of e-learning in postsecondary education. First, is e-learning as effective as other delivery media? The debate about the effectiveness of e-learning has typically been framed in terms of how it compares with other means of delivering instruction, particularly traditional teacher-led classroom instruction. To examine this question we review research that evaluates the effectiveness of e-learning by comparing learning outcomes across different delivery media. Second, what features of e-learning influence its effectiveness? Exploring this issue requires moving beyond the "does it work" question to a more nuanced consideration of the conditions under which e-learning is likely to be most effective in postsecondary settings. Third and finally, what are the barriers to the adoption of e-learning in higher education? Before addressing these questions, we define and describe e-learning and review current trends in how it is being used in higher education.

What Is E-Learning?

For researchers, e-learning is a vast and somewhat disconnected area of inquiry that has attracted interest from disciplines as diverse as educational psychology, computer science, information science, management, communications, and more. …

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