In this season of forced online instruction, recent debates about the value of online versus face-to-face learning generally miss the point.
Learning environments themselves, whether face-to-face classrooms or asynchronous online courses, are relatively neutral with regard to their potential for fostering quality learning. Used in a way that is most effective relative to their respective attributes, most learning environments can be employed to generate approximately the same level of learning efficacy.
What actually determines the quality of learning is not the environment itself, but rather the design of the elements and activities that occur within the environment. These elements, learner agency, active learning, relevant practice, and meaningful interaction, are what create a successful learning experience and should be constant across learning environments.
While there are challenges in supporting these elements in an online learning environment, the tools are available. They just look different than in a face-to-face classroom.
Challenges Specific to Asynchronous Online Learning Environments
One of the most common learning environments for online education is the asynchronous online learning environment. In this learning environment, students learn more independently, with greater flexibility and individualization but receive limited synchronous instruction and/or synchronous interaction with other students.
The promise of this environment is that it can lower or eliminate entry barriers related to time, space, and cost. Designed properly, these environments would facilitate the delivery of truly equitable access to quality learning to secondary and post-secondary learners, anytime and anywhere.
Since online learning began to gain significant traction in U.S. education 20 years ago, however, the potential benefits of asynchronous online learning environments have often been offset by a number of common criticisms, such as a lack of student engagement, lack of personalized relevance with regard to course content, and difficulty creating meaningful interaction with other learners.
We did a study to see if that had to be the case.
Experiential Learning Components to Scale Effective Learning in Asynchronous Online Learning Environments
At TEL Education, we focus our work on creating affordable, asynchronous online general education courses that are offered for dual-credit to high school students and independent learners, and to traditional college students. Of particular importance to our mission is designing and delivering engaging learning experiences that promote the demonstrable evidence of learning.
In 2019, we received a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation to help us research, design, and test solutions for scaling experiential learning experiences in asynchronous online courses
The focus of our research, conducted over the past year, has been the development of experiential learning components that promote:
- Individual learner agency
- Constructed knowledge over information memorization.
- Centrifugal learning by pushing student exploration outside of the “classroom”
- Real-world applications of learning in their local communities
- Project and learning choices that allow for student individualization based on interests and skills
- Varying levels of online connectivity and provides access to both digital and print versions of module materials
Working with teams of subject matter experts and learning designers, we created and integrated experiential learning modules into three courses: Introduction to Communication, American Government, and Introduction to Information Technology. These modules were designed as a series of scaffolded, rubric-based Mastery Assignments that guided students to the completion of a final project that addressed a problem within their local community. Projects were aligned with course learning outcomes and specific 21st-century skills, allowing students to earn required and optional skills badges as they worked through the courses.
In the Fall semester of 2019, we began testing these modules with high school students taking dual-credit courses. Research participants included homeschool learners and students at a private high school focused on college prep. From a learning-experience perspective, the results were positive. Overall student activity and performance in the courses with experiential learning modules were higher than that for students in TEL’s other asynchronous online courses.
Students found the projects to be engaging, relevant, and valuable use of time. As one student remarked in a follow-up interview, “I like this stuff and it’s just teaching me things that I’m interested in.”
Students reported that the skills they learned were pertinent and transferable, which they viewed as particularly valuable One of the students remarked that “…being able to do a presentation without, you know, feeling so nervous and being able to answer straight forward questions as much as I can, you know? And, just being comfortable with presenting in front of multiple people.” One participant summed this up by saying that “knowing that one day I actually do wanna go into that field, made me happy to know hey I have my resource and I’m already getting a start on it.”
At a high level, our pilot research data shows that we can indeed design and integrate experiential learning components into asynchronous online courses to promote enhanced student engagement, content relevance, and the demonstrable evidence of real-world skills and competencies. Moreover, the scalable implementation of experiential learning components across the curriculum moves us closer to maximizing the potential of asynchronous online learning environments — to provide equitable access to quality learning to secondary and post-secondary learners, anytime and anywhere.
Realizing this potential for asynchronous online learning environments is particularly important in light of recent disruptions caused by COVID-19. Now, more than ever, we must get rid of the assumption that online learning environments mean that students aren’t getting the high-quality, participatory, and interactive personal learning experiences they need for successful learning outcomes. Experiential learning works in asynchronous online learning environments and creates successful learning outcomes for students while also providing equitable access.