e-Learning – a growing trend in distance education

In a previous “Matter of the Principal” I discussed the fact that international research confirms that more and more students are moving towards distance education. I listed three main reasons, namely that they do not want to leave their place of employment, they do not want to leave their family and they do not want to pay the higher prices of residential programmes. But what kind of distance education are they choosing? A growing trend is e-learning, and to evaluate our own e-learning methodologies, the South African Theological Seminary has been conducting (and continues to conduct) extensive research, some of the early results of which I will highlight here.

e-Learning is growing rapidly worldwide, is popular among all age categories and among both men and women. Academic journals have been launched which focus on e-learning, including the free Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (JOLT). In 2009, 44 per cent of post-secondary students in the USA were taking some or all of their courses online, and the projections are that this figure will rise to 81% by 2014. Among college students, 4.6 million are taking at least one class online. By 2014 that will increase to 18.65 million. Half the physical colleges in the US offer their degree programmes online. Of traditional universities 96% offer at least one class in an online-only format.

Adults over age 50 are increasingly pursuing online instructional modalities of higher education coursework. While research shows that late-career adults typically prefer traditional, face-to-face instruction, some are embracing the flexibility and convenience inherent in online instruction. Surprisingly, results indicate that not only are late-career adults satisfied with the online delivery, but they actually find the experience to be more rewarding than their early- and mid-career peers despite the differences in technical abilities. Additionally, results reveal that for late-career adults to be successful in online classes, they initially require higher levels of technology support and digital interaction. However, after receiving the technical assistance, they perform as well as or better than their younger peers [source: Erickson and Noonan, JOLT 6(2) 2010].

The 2010 Horizon Report says that people “expect to be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want to. Life in an increasingly busy world where learners must balance demands from home, work, school, and family poses a host of logistical challenges with which today’s ever more mobile students must cope. A faster approach is often perceived as a better approach, and as such people want easy and timely access not only to the information on the network, but to their social networks that can help them to interpret it and maximize its value. The implications for informal learning are profound.”

Both SATS and other institutions have recorded higher success rates among e-learning students than those studying by other methods. Our recent online survey showed the great benefits of e-learning, consistent with other institutions worldwide. In addition, a telephone survey of SATS e-learning students was conducted and, as with the online survey the results were extremely positive (i.e. in favour of e-learning). As an example, all students asked said they would recommend e-learning to other students.

In a research study conducted by Wagner, Garippo and Lovaas (2011) a single introductory business application software course, delivered as a traditional course and as an online course, was offered over a period of ten years. The course was taught by the same instructor using the same criteria and standards across all classes, however, new versions of the software were utilized. Student performance was analysed across 30 sections of the course from the years 2001 to 2010. Results indicate that there was no significant difference in student performance between the two modes of course delivery. On the other hand, Shachar and Neumann (JOLT 6(2) 2010), using a much larger sample of 20,000 students over 20 years, found that in 70% of the cases, students taking courses by distance education outperformed their student counterparts in the traditionally instructed courses.

One of the main e-learning tools is the discussion forum and Andresen, in a paper in 2009 on Asynchronous discussion forums: success factors, outcomes, assessments, and limitations (Educational Technology & Society 12(1)) notes some of the benefits of the asynchronous discussion that may make it more effective than the traditional face-to-face discussion: it allows those people who need more time to participate to contribute to a discussion, a discussion participant cannot be “cut off”, and there is a transcript of the discussion for study purposes after the discussion takes place. It is clear that asynchronous discussion forums can achieve high levels of learning.

Our own students have high praise for their e-learning experience. Here are some of their comments:

  • E-learning is the best way ever to study.
  • There is a lot of good interaction with students and the facilitator, with rapid feedback to my contributions.
  • Studying this way is helpful and motivating.
  • The fact that there are deadlines and discussions also encourages hard work and participation.
  • There is a feeling of fellowship amongst the students, and it is fun and informative to interact with them and we become like a family.
  • I gain more understanding and learn more than through other methods of study; it truly stimulates my thinking and I get to see other people’s opinions.
  • It helps to keep me focused and disciplined – and I can study at times convenient to me.
  • E-learning is an absolute winner for me!
Naturally as we continue on this journey we will also learn a great deal more about refining the methodology and course design, but we are determined to pursue this approach and as we implement the results of our continuing e-learning research, we are convinced that our students will enjoy the experience even more.

Dr Reuben van Rensburg Principal