Is It Possible to Learn Anything Online? A Student’s Perspective

Open learning resources along with web based training and online degree programs on almost every subject have been accumulating at an amazing speed, and become vastly abundant for each individual learner. According to a study conducted by Babson Survey Research Group, at least 30 new courses are released on major MOOC platforms (e.g., Coursera, EdX) every week in 2014, compared with 10 in 2012. Students’ enrollment of online courses is growing even faster. Only 2% of students used to take at least one online course in 2002, in the fall of 2010 this number had increased to 30%. More than 7.1 million students took at least one online course during only fall 2012 . A recent survey by Ambient Insight Research predicts that the online learning market will rise to $49.9 billion by 2015.

Online learning is on the rise - both in formal and informal settings (Image by Alec Couros)

Online learning is on the rise – both in formal and informal settings (Image by Alec Couros)

Is it possible to learn anything online? An effective learner can teach him or herself almost anything with the copious online resources. However, my personal experience in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) makes me doubtful whether college students are prepared for this type of learning.

I took a course named “R Programming” on Coursera last year. This course was very popular, and has been shared on Facebook for more than 6.000 times. The course was presented as an introductory course, recommended to people who have “some familiarity with programming concepts and basic knowledge of statistical reasoning” before taking the course. The less-than-4-hour video lectures of the course covered some very basic programming knowledge, like control structure and loop. However, when it came to assignments and projects, the requirement for programming knowledge suddenly increased to a level far beyond the video lectures and recommended prerequisite knowledge. Many students felt frustrated when working on the assignments/projects and dropped out off the course. I finished the course and got a certificate with distinction, simply because I had been coding in different programming languages for several years, not because I learned very much from the course material. Honestly, I didn’t even watch all the lecture videos.

From my experience, especially in the area of programming, this is not an exception. Many online learning resources are not structured in a way that reaches learners with no or little pre-knowledge.  Though they may contain valuable material and information, it is doubtful that you will learn how to program if you are not a programmer yet. Plus, it is as easy to drop out as it is to sign in. To take advantage of resources like MOOCs effectively, a learner has to be able to think critically, understand clearly the knowledge structure of a subject and his/her own abilities, constantly diagnose learning problems, search online for additional learning material, and seek support through a personal learning network. Is the typical college student ready for this type of learning?

Much of the discussion around MOOCs creates the impression that today’s students are digital natives, held back in our informal learning journeys by outdated brick-and-mortar institutions. My ongoing research and personal experiences tell a different story. In 2014, I conducted  a survey among college students majoring in computer science at the University of Georgia. It included three questions on students’ attitude towards self-directed online learning.

Interestingly enough, the low score of first/second year college students indicate that they did not believe that they can learn sophisticated knowledge through online learning. They didn’t like independent learning very much, and also reported less frequent online search in their learning. A possible interpretation of the difference between first/second year college students to fourth year students is that the college experience actually helps us to develop independent online learning behavior. This is a question worth further exploration.

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