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Whither online education?

According to The Wall Street Journal, online learning will change the face of education in 2014. How is South Africa participating in this global revolution?

Read time 4min 20sec
Jacques Steyn, Monash South Africa, says the online learning model challenges the very core of what universities have been doing for over 1 000 years.
Jacques Steyn, Monash South Africa, says the online learning model challenges the very core of what universities have been doing for over 1 000 years.

Online learning is being embraced by top traditional educational institutions, putting them in a position to challenge all educational systems by making location and tuition far less of a barrier to receiving the information, training and knowledge people need to succeed in a rapidly changing world.

Because it's cost-effective and can be done independently, online learning has been touted as a convenient solution to skills development in the workplace.

Shaun Rozyn, executive director of executive education at Gordon Institute for Business Science (Gibs), says the business school recognises the disruptive capability that online learning presents for education and that Gibs has responded by experimenting with its application.

"We're confident that a blended learning approach is the best formula for executives and business leaders," he says. "The flipped classroom is one method that Gibs is testing. It gives students exposure to new material outside of class first, through videos, for example, and then uses actual class time to do the harder work of assimilating that knowledge, through discussion and debate."

This means comprehension is done outside of class, while analysis and application takes place in the classroom. In essence, students do the homework first, hence 'the flipped classroom'. The knowledge is acquired online and through social network platforms, while synthesis and embedding of the knowledge takes place in face-to-face and group time.

Online skills portal

With the development of its online learning platform completed, the next frontier for Gibs, says Rozyn, is to tightly integrate technology-enabled learning with social collaboration.

Dr Madelise Grobler, MD of learning solutions company Bytes People Solutions, agrees that online leaning on its own is not the answer. "We have made ongoing learning a reality by giving our employees the opportunity to develop their skills through our online skills portal," she says. "But we believe that in the corporate world, online learning and assessment should be part of an intervention within the company and linked to a specific objective. In our experience, people generally prefer to be taught, than to learn on their own, which is why there's a significant amount of change management required to really encourage online learning."

Different generations respond differently to online learning, but there's also the simple fact that most of us want choices - it's about learning 'my way', and not everyone is comfortable with the online way.

Dr Madelise Grobler, Bytes People Solutions

Brushing off the dearth of high-speed broadband in South Africa, Rozyn says Gibs has applied the flipped classroom model in projects with Standard Bank, Ericsson and Nokia to deliver online content in a frugal manner, by producing low-res videos no longer than five to six minutes, and using variations of Adobe Acrobat to compress big files.

"What would normally have taken 15 to 20 days of contact time between lecturer and student took between nine and 12 days to achieve the same outcomes. It's a model that provides an equally rich and impactful learning experience, with the benefits of minimal disruption, lower cost of delivery and a lower carbon footprint."

The graduate connection

Social networks are becoming a valuable tool for job hunting, particularly if they're locally based. In South Africa, the recent launch of Graduate Hub, a social and business network that connects students in a closed community, allows them to discuss studies, jobs, bursaries, lifestyle and other interests.

The social business platform is easy to access on a desktop, tablet or mobile phone using native apps for each technology environment.

"It's safe and conversations are focused on topics that are relevant to the students, and will help them make decisions about their studies and their future," says Gys Klappers, CEO of Wyzetalk, which is behind the launch of the network." Companies can also use the Graduate Hub to speak directly to these students about internships, bursaries, work opportunities, freelancing, on-the-job experience, and student loans."

"We created a place for serious study and intellectual engagement for individuals and groups and coupled this with an academic centre for obtaining information," says Ranthekeng Modisenyane, CEO of The Graduate Hub. "The aim is to grow it into a national network for all tertiary students."

Jacques Steyn, head of the school of IT at Monash South Africa, says that until there's a technology breakthrough that enables computers to assess essay-type answers, lecturers' jobs are still safe. "However, the online learning model challenges the very core of what universities have been doing over the past 1 000 years," he says.

Rozyn concurs and says he believes that over the next two decades, public universities will have to think hard about their business models. "With learning becoming available from tons of online platforms, universities will have to do more than just accredit study programmes. They will have to create their own compelling value proposition."

Rozyn says online learning is particularly suited to reflective learners, people who gain understanding most thoroughly and efficiently when they are allowed time to reflect. These are people who tend to develop critical thinking, self-awareness and analytical skills.

"They're also more disciplined than other types of students, which is key because it's extremely difficult to study online if you don't have the discipline to work alone," he says.

"The more advanced online learning becomes, the more focus there will be on bringing people together in the online experience. To learn efficiently, human beings need to have contact and connection. That's why global companies still have leadership days where their executives get together face to face. Despite all the technology available, people still want to look each other in the eyes."

At executive level, you're also dealing with an audience that grew up with little technology, but the challenges run deeper than just Gen X versus Gen Y. "Different generations respond differently to online learning, but there's also the simple fact that most of us want choices - it's about learning 'my way', and not everyone is comfortable with the online way," says Grobler.

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