Beyond the classroom walls: The role of online learning


I have often been asked two questions about online learning:  “Will online learning replace the role of good faculty?” and “Isn’t online learning poor quality by its nature because it replaces a highly interactive classroom experience with an essentially lonely and sterile experience?” Both questions are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of good quality online learning. Good teaching is about dialogue, between academic and student, between student and student, between different perspectives on a subject, and between theories and practices. This is just as true for online learning, as it is for face-to-face learning. Online learning can be a very engaging, highly interactive experience, and that is certainly how it is practiced at The Open University. However, getting to this level of engagement requires skilled learning design, expertise in the subject, and significant interaction with students.

Another common misunderstanding is to equate MOOCs with online learning.  We have certainly seen a surge in the offerings of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and they are a great contribution to widespread engagement in learning. They open up access to a large range of learning experiences for very large numbers of potential students. They can also be a great sandbox for institutions to experiment with new approaches to teaching. They are, however, no panacea for the problems of higher education and are by no means representative of the field of online learning. Nor is it likely that they can replace traditional models of teaching.

It would be wrong to consider MOOCs as a primary model for online learning in higher education, especially for those who have suffered educational disadvantage. MOOCs mostly attract people who already have a degree, and they have low retention rates. Both of these problems arise from a common cause. Because MOOCs are free, they need to be low cost to run. This implies low levels of student support from course tutors. Without interactive and engaging support, it is hard for some students to maintain momentum when they get stuck with a learning challenge and the people who will be best equipped to benefit from the course are those who already “learned how to learn”.

I believe that online and blended learning approaches offer the opportunity to significantly increase access to high-quality learning opportunities and to improve the quality of student learning. That will mean we need more faculty, not fewer. However, the skill mix is likely to change. We should expect a move to more team working; teams of academic experts, learning designers, media developers, learning technologists, and teaching assistants. We should expect, as academics, to continue to produce some of our own learning materials but increasingly to also develop skills in curating learning materials produced by others. In some ways this is just an extension of what many of us already do as we draw on cases and textbooks others wrote.

I work in an institution that has decades of experience in distance learning approaches, and I think we have arrived at the stage where I can honestly say that we can deliver learning online that is as good or better than the face-to-face equivalent. However, what is harder to achieve in the delivery of online learning, is to harness that element of social support that many students need as they hit challenges. It is hard to find the online equivalent of the individual chat at the end of a class with a struggling student or the group of students who naturally chat over a coffee, and take solace in discovering that they are not the only ones who find a topic difficult.

Increasingly, though, I see the possibility of improved social support in the online setting. Firstly, many of us are getting used to maintaining kinship and friendship networks online through social media. It no longer seems strange to consider the online environment as a place where we can get support from colleagues, friends, or family. Secondly, learning analytics give us the opportunity to spot students early who are at risk of failing or dropping out. The technology can be a tool to help us know who needs our personal intervention and to help identify failure points in courses. Finally, as in the classroom setting, the sense of human engagement depends a good deal on tutor-to-student ratios. In a lecture theatre with 100 or even 300 students to a single professor, it is hard to have that sense of human engagement. It is the same online. At The Open University we work with a ratio of 20 undergraduate students to one online facilitator and 16 to 1 in the postgraduate program.

With the right approach to teaching and the right resources, online education can be of even greater benefit to students than many forms of traditional classroom learning. I believe that these learning approaches offer the opportunity to significantly increase access to high-quality learning opportunities and to improve the quality of student learning.

An earlier version of this article previously appeared on the AACSB Blog

Professor Mark Fenton-O’Creevy is Associate Dean and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at The Open University Business School. His published research spans practice-based learning, cross-national management practices and the psychology of financial decision-making.  He co-facilitates the AACSB seminar on online and blended learning.