The 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) was just completed for 2008. They surveyed 22,000 students at 47 institutions of higher education. This year the survey was expanded to also survey students who had completed online courses, and they compared the results of those students who had an online learning experience with those who hadn’t. The online students reported higher levels of “higher-order thinking,” “integrative thinking,” and “reflective learning.” Together NSSE refers to these three as “deep learning.” This finding is consistent with other surveys, and anecdotal reports of both faculty and students in higher education who have experienced online learning.
While we serve a different learning population, it also reflects our experience with the level of engagement of the professionals and managers who enroll in eCornell courses. We find learners deeply engaged in integrating their real-world experience with the conceptual frameworks in the course, or reflecting on their personal experiences, biases, and approaches when solving the problems presented by a faculty member.
The survey posits several reasons for this differerntial.
“It may be that students who pursue online courses—such as older students for whom the flexibility and convenience of the medium may be particularly important, given work or family commitments—are those who embrace the spirit of independent, student-centered, intellectually engaging learning as captured by the deep learning measures. It may also be the case that professors who teach online courses make more intentional use of deep approaches to learning in their lesson plans.”
I think that learning online, especially, in a structured yet asynchronous course, such as eCornell’s, provides an opportunity to intentionally design in reflection and time for application and integration. I meet many corporate learning managers who are interested in “on-demand” learning and are concerned that a more structured model just doesn’t fit the demands of the modern workplace. I disagree. In a dynamic and uncertain environment, and we all find oursleves in that environment right now, we are better served by creating the space to think, to test ideas, to reflect on what has worked and not, and then identifying new solutions that we can implement. An immediate response to a new piece of knowledge if acted upon right away, may be very different than if I have an hour, or a week, to reflect, then respond in a more strategic way.
Also, in a traditional classroom, we ask students to respond now–raise your hand, participate in a small group discussion–and in an isolated location–away from work, life etc. In an online course that unfolds over days or weeks instead of hours, the learner can begin to integrate the ideas from the course into their work or their life while they are still engaged in the learning experience. Rather than leaving work to attend class, and learning in isolation, the learning comes to them. The result is a more integrative, higher-level, and reflective learning experience that has a greater opportunity for significant impact in their worklife, then the traditional experience which may have transferred knowledge but may have been less successful at creating change.