The online learning experience

Not so long ago, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, were touted as the future of American higher education: We’d sit down with our laptops, a mug of coffee in hand, and together with 10,000 or so classmates, learn our way to a higher degree through free courses taught by professors at universities on the other side of the country or even the world.

MOOCs are a great way to dip your toes in a new subject — whether it’s the basics of epidemiology or a creative writing refresher, the uses of JavaScript or an introduction to modern Hebrew poetry — or bridge knowledge or skill gaps before beginning a more traditional degree program.

This fall, University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education will begin offering its Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction on an online basis. As with the on-Grounds option, students will take core courses before choosing to focus on reading, gifted education, English language learners or instructional technology. The two categories of students will interact through social events and guest speakers, with the hope that virtual students will feel like they’re part of a holistic learning experience, and not just accessing content online, while enjoying a sense of community with their on-site peers. “We want the students interacting with each other because it’s not just about our distance students feeling connected to our on-Grounds students,” said Stephanie Moore, assistant professor of instructional technology at Curry. “Our on-Grounds students are going to benefit from these interactions as well — whether it’s hearing from others’ experiences, or helping them understand learner diversity. The benefits go both ways.”

The ideal characteristics of any course — whether online or in the classroom — include a course design with clear learning objectives aligned across readings, assignments and the grading system; student engagement with the content in a meaningful way; and plenty of student-instructor and student-peer interactions. In other words, the best online learning looks a lot like the best on-Grounds learning.

One thing that has proven true online is that instructors need to be organized. Because so many online students are working full or part time while enrolled, they tend to look over the entire course syllabus early on and plan how to best fit assignments and tests into their busy lives. If there’s a significant change — a test is delayed or an extra reading is added — it can have an unwelcome ripple effect. Just one additional reading can force students to reallocate time away from family, work or even sleep to ensure the assignment is completed properly and on time.

“When it comes to accomplishing learning outcomes, the modality doesn’t matter — the design matters,” Moore said. “You can have a poorly designed class in the classroom and you can have a poorly designed class online. Conversely, you can have a well-designed face-to-face class and a well-designed online class, and the characteristics of both are the same. Choosing to develop online is primarily about extending access to that meaningful learning experience.”

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