A major survey of the effectiveness of online learning, conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), recently suggested that it offers advantages for learners that surpass the benefits of face-to-face teaching in conventional classrooms. The study found that online learning encouraged ‘deeper approaches to learning’ than standard teaching. The findings challenged the persistent idea that classroom learning somehow always has the edge over online learning and education that online tutors and teachers deliver via the internet.
What is deep learning?
In 2005 Professor Thomas Laird described two approaches to learning: ‘surface’ and ‘deep’ processing. Cramming for exams is surface processing, with the emphasis on mastering facts ‘instead of grasping key concepts and understanding their relation to other information and how the information applies in other circumstances’.
Deep learning involves higher order, ‘integrative’ thinking. It means reflecting, evaluating, synthesising and applying what is learned. Students who are trained in deep learning have a better understanding, are able to see different perspectives and tend to achieve higher grades. The NSSE study suggested that people engaged in online learning seemed to be better versed in deep learning approaches than those in conventional education.
Why does online learning seem to have the edge?
The study’s findings are suggestive, but not final. It may be that the online learners surveyed were older and more motivated. It may also be that online tutors and teachers, aware of the issues created by distance, make extra effort to produce tutorials and courses that encourage deep learning. It is also true that online learners were only slightly ahead in the statistical analyses. Even so, the results cannot be ignored.
How online learning can also promote ‘deep learning’
One of the strengths and weaknesses of online learning, and one that exercises online tutors and teachers, is that it demands that students develop skills in independent working. That means the discipline and commitment to get on with the job but also the ability to think more laterally. The best online tutorials and interactive materials are designed to encourage student engagement through problem-solving and the development of study skills. This is very different from being provided with texts to work through and repeat in an exam setting.
Computers and internet communication make this easier in several ways, with online tutors providing interactive games and puzzles that encourage students to apply their knowledge in virtual scenarios being one example. Collaborative learning also assists deep learning. Interacting with other learners, perhaps from very different backgrounds, encourages learners to consider other perspectives and gain a more nuanced understanding of their subject(s).
The combination of independent working with guidance from online tutors, personalized attention and computer teaching aids all conjoin to provide learners with opportunities for developing the skills of ‘deep learning’, rather than memorizing or fact-oriented learning. Effective online tutors and teachers are aware of the difference and design their teaching materials and the attention they give to learners accordingly. As our understanding of the strengths of online learning improves, online tutors and educators are increasingly well placed to exploit the advantages of online methods in providing top quality education to an ever-larger number of students.