But beyond industry tag lines, there is a technology-driven sea change in education toward online learning that involves delivering information in small, digestable pieces that make learning more time efficient and, some say, more relevant for the modern student.
“One of the challenges is understanding the learner journey”
Pedagogy that tames the internet beast
Nanolearning, of course, is part education’s shift towards blended and digitised learning taking place across all levels of education. But, creating content for online learning requires research and investment. “To cross that boundary between the classroom and home is really difficult to achieve,” comments Miranda Hamilton, learning expert for Pearson’s Adult ELT products.
Pearson’s flagship My English Lab (MEL) supports a blended learning model where students access digital content outside of the classroom that is then reinforced when they are in traditional learning spaces. Hamilton argues that blended learning has huge potential to improve learner outcomes, but says a tension exists between the functionality of technology and robust pedagogy.
“We all know the web is an unwieldy beast so the responsibility of the publisher is to essentially tame the beast”
“One of the challenges is understanding the learner journey – precisely what are you hoping to achieve for your learner from that specific product that you’re developing,” she explains.
“We all know the web is an unwieldy beast so the responsibility of the publisher is to essentially tame the beast. It’s our responsibility to draw out what we see is useful that we can frame into something that will support our learners toward the achievement of their learning goals.”
In the language learning sector, Hamilton says nanolearning presents extra challenges. “The way in which MEL is designed is that you can access it in bite-sized pieces but as a publisher we need to understand the user journey through the content so that we can deliver it meaningfully,” she says.
Educators have yet to find ways to immerse students in all manners of language communication through online learning. Hamilton says speaking especially needs further development but mentions the use of text messages and social media as a possible medium to get students writing.
“The written word has grown in popularity in ways that we would have never envisaged before through social media,” she says. “This is an opportunity that I think is quite promising for us.”
Increasingly, educators are learning they have to go to where the students are: their phones. Private companies and traditional providers alike have created mobile learning apps to reach students at any time and get them hooked on a topic early.
In developing the mobile app for EF’s online school, Efekta, chief marketing officer Andy Bailey says the company’s research found some students learn better through bite-sized bits of information.
“Those that deliver their existing material simply on a mobile phone are going to fail”
“Actually doing so in much smaller chunks, the learning moments, is much more in tune with how people use that device when compared to sitting in front of a laptop,” he notes, adding that small, frequent bursts of information are most beneficial to lower-level learners.
Like Pearson, EF has realised that creating effective mobile learning isn’t just a matter of putting online content on mobile-ready websites. Bailey says EF thought about the ergonomics of the phone, how and where students use them, and then developed new content for the platform.
“Those that deliver their existing material simply on a mobile phone are going to fail,” he says. “Mobile learning is, in the serious phases of its evolution, in its infancy. How it’s going to grow will take into consideration the ergonomics of the device and how people use them, snack-sized content, different structures and different content in some cases to the regular content that suppliers might use.”
Bus stop classrooms
But it’s not just lower level language learners who respond to nano-sized content. As learning becomes more mobile, bus stops and supermarket queues are increasingly becoming classrooms. Correspondingly, content is coming in shorter, smaller chunks of information and, according to Mike Sharples, professor of educational technology at the Open University and academic lead at UK-based MOOC platform FutureLearn, with lots of repetition.
Predicting and preparing for these new learning contexts is the biggest challenge educators face when developing online content, he says. “They may have just half a minute to spare to look at a video or they may have three hours. We have to do a lot of analytics to try to understand learners and their context.”
“We have to do a lot of analytics to try to understand learners and their context”
Unlike its MOOC counterparts in the US, FutureLearn has set itself apart by taking a social constructionist approach to learning. At the heart of this method is the idea that students make richer connections through conversations and sharing with other people. “You learn best when you’re constructing your own knowledge and you learn even better when you’re doing that with other people,” argues Sharples.
FutureLearn has attempted to scale the classroom discussion by putting tens of thousands of people together to share and learn. Peer comment and review are at the centre of its online platform where social media-style ‘like’ and ’follow’ functions have been incorporated in order to facilitate conversations.
However, after one video received 40,000 comments, even Sharples admits open run on a comments box can be overwhelming. “That’s something we didn’t anticipate or expect – that there were going to be that many comments,” he says. “What we’ve tried to set in place is to use some of the techniques from social networking. We want to be able to filter and make the best ones rise to the top.”
Sharples believes universities are at a crucial point in history where they must evolve or be left behind. “Most universities over the next few years are going to have to embrace online learning, which means supporting the online students as much as they support the campus students but in different ways.”
Adaptive and analytical
In addition to expanding universities’ global reach, there are other advantages to a digitised learning space. The same algorithms that allow Google to suggest individual advertisements based on your web browsing history are now being applied to online learning.
According to edtech entrepreneur and online learning expert, Donald Clark, algorithms are in our lives everyday as consumers of Amazon and Netflix, so it makes sense that they be used in education too.
“I think a big game changer will be capturing data analytics to gain richer insight into learner behaviour online”
“Adaptive learning holds the most promise in the longgame,” he comments. “It’s a bit like having a sat nav. It’s an adaptive system connected to a network of content and each student has an individual path through it that is determined through your sat nav.”
According to some experts, however, the field is far away from providing a Netflix-style education.
“Basically, it doesn’t work,” argues Sharples at the OU. “One, it’s very hard to produce courses that are adaptive because you’ve got to produce a lot more material to adapt to different sorts of learners.
“Second, you’ve got to find out who those learners are and it’s not easy to infer from learners’ actions what their preferences are.” Most importantly, he says, learners don’t like adaptive learning.
“There’s research evidence showing adaptive learning of sending students down different paths really isn’t successful. Once you’ve got some elements that only some learners do, other learners feel that those things are hidden from them.”
Educators are only beginning to develop ways to use the power of learner analytics. The Open University just announced it will be using algorithms to monitor online student progress to provide better support from tutors when they need it.
“I think a big game changer will be capturing data analytics to gain richer insight into learner behaviour online,” comments Hamilton at Pearson.
“If we can capture that data, interrogate it and then explore learners’ perceptions by talking to learners about their online activity, we can then use the analytics, listen to learner voices and design content in response to what’s happening online.”
Accessible for all
When 27-year-old Hina Kahn’s family moved from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, she was a semester shy of finishing a degree in business administration. As expats living in Saudi Arabia, university education was financially out of reach for her family.
“People want to be able to do something, go away and leave it, and come back maybe”
“I had low self-esteem when I moved from Pakistan, I wasn’t constant with my studies like other friends who were already studying so I wasn’t feeling comfortable with them because I couldn’t complete my studies,” she recounts. “I found myself forgetting what I had learned.”
After searching online for free courses she came across ALISON, an Ireland-based learning platform that offers short, self-paced courses on anything from how to use Microsoft Word to applied psychology.
For Hina, it was the perfect opportunity to continue her studies while still helping her mother manage the household. “You can’t get a good job if you don’t have a strong academic background,” she says. “It really made me think seriously about my studies and to be able to do something because I couldn’t complete my final exams in Pakistan.”
With five million learners and 600,000 graduates, ALISON is the world’s largest free online learning platform. The BBC has called it the “biggest education provider you’ve never heard of”.
Founder Mike Feerick says he was inspired to start the company in 2007 by Article 26 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights that says everyone has the right to an education and that one day, education should be free.
“We’re self-paced, we’re not waiting for a professor to come online,” says Feerick. “And the courses are short. People want to be able to do something, go away and leave it, and come back maybe. But even if you don’t complete the course, learning happens.”
He concedes that while ALISON is good for fact-based learning, it’s not the solution for everyone.
“There are some instances where you simply have to discuss something at a peer-to-peer level, or where you have to stand in a lab and put some chemicals together.”
Addressing access, Clark observes that as demographics change and demand for an education comes from elsewhere in the world, the flaws in the current system become even more apparent.
“There are students who will go abroad irrespective of technology, irrespective of what other opportunities may exist for them”
“In Africa, a tiny percentage of kids are able to go to university – so what’s the solution? To build lectures halls and pay academics 100 grand a year? It’s not a gnat’s bite into the problem,” he says. “It needs to be a high octane, online, scalable solution with good teaching support on the ground.”
Mobile learning apps, meanwhile, are able to take education to parts of the world like never before. Certain developing countries where mobile technology has leapfrogged physical infrastructure are more likely to be at the earlier stages of learning that benefit from nano learning, says Bailey at EF.
Impact on mobility?
What does the online learning revolution mean for the predicted eight million mobile students expected by 2025? Not much, says Rahul Choudaha, senior director of strategic development and chief knowledge officer at World Education Services in the US.
“There are students who will go abroad irrespective of technology, irrespective of what other opportunities may exist for them. What they’re seeking is the experience that could eventually be the brand and the socio-economic stature that comes with it,” he says.
Choudaha adds that online learning could indeed enhance student mobility starting with scalable pathway models. Universities currently have to invest significant amounts in real estate and buildings to attract students who sometimes stay for a year, he says. “This mode in the long term is not sustainable. It will move toward online, self-paced or asynchronous learning facilitated by on the ground instructors.”
He points out, however, that what much of online learning lacks up to now is recognition from universities. Being able to offer transferrable credits through online courses, nano or otherwise, is also what Sharples at the OU says is a barrier to further online learning uptake.
It’s clear the arrival of technology is empowering students to take control of their learning. And when an online education comes at a lower cost, more convenience, and in familiar consumer packaging, why shouldn’t they? The successful educators of tomorrow will be the ones who embrace the revolution.
- This article is an abridged version of the original which is in edition 7 of The PIE Review.