While the concept of a virtual classroom has been around for decades, the modern online university is still in its infancy. Technology and accessibility are critical to its evolution, so as more students forgo “traditional” college for the flexibility of online courses, growth is only limited by investments in innovation and how quickly schools can adapt to the evolving needs of today’s learner.
Technology remains the biggest “pro” for online universities. Successful schools do more than simply replace the college bookstore with downloadable ebooks. Students deserve content that is accessible on every device, easy to read, and tailored specifically to their courses and degree programs.
The University of Arizona Global Campus online learning suite, Constellation®, was developed as a “learning experience that is much more personalized and adaptive,” according to Steve Wainwright, Associate Vice President and Editor-In-Chief of Learning Resources for Bridgepoint Education, which owns and provides services to UAGC.
“Constellation is an ideal learning tool for an online university because it was developed from the beginning to be an experience for adult learners,” Wainwright said. “The content is ‘digital first’ and takes advantage of the Web and its multiple modes of learning, with quizzes, videos, diagnostics, and other interactive elements that enhance the student learning experience.”
Constellation has undergone a number of evolutions since its debut in 2009, and Wainwright sees personalized learning as the next step forward – specifically adaptive learning and competency-based education.
“Adaptive learning, in a nutshell, is when the content adapts based on student performance, going up a level when a student has mastered the content, or down a level when the student needs a review,” he said.
“Competency-based education is an approach to courses where students advance only by showing they have mastered a set of skills or competencies, not just because the course term is over.”
While online learning may not involve the face-to-face interaction of a classroom setting, successful schools have been able to recreate the experience through video, apps, and discussion boards, to name a few. According to Wainwright, increasing the amount of real-time information and feedback for faculty and students – based on performance and activity – can improve the overall experience.
“There is still a lot to do. We should develop more effective ways to measure learning and competency in an online classroom,” he said. “Adaptive learning systems have come a long way, but they work best in technical fields like math. We could use more tools that help in the less technical fields, like the humanities.”
Innovation and success will get you noticed, and tools such as Constellation have helped combat the stereotype that online schools are less valuable than brick-and-mortar schools. While the stigma still exists in some circles, attitudes are changing. A 2014 U.S. News & World Report article noted that perceptions about online learning began to shift dramatically when top schools such as MIT and Stanford started following the trend and offering classes over the Internet.
“It’s a very dynamic and growing field,” according to Wainwright.