Reimagining Online Education

It's time to rethink motivation, learning acquisition, the student experience, and assessment.

December 14, 2015

As long as aviation pioneers tried to mimic birds, controlled, heavier-than-air human flight proved impossible.

Along somewhat similar lines, it is only by breaking decisively from traditional face-to-face models that it will be truly possible to create the kinds of immersive, social experiences in online education that will truly engage students and promote high levels of attainment among broad profiles of students.

If online learning is to be more than a pale imitation of the face-to-face experience, educational innovators must rigorously address and radically rethink four key facets of online education: Motivation, learning acquisition, the student experience, and assessment.

In designing our online experiences, the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and our faculty partners have adopted an approach that is outcomes-driven, modularized, personalized, gamified, and activity-based (and also bilingual).

It is an approach that is highly supportive of social learning, including cohorting, peer mentoring, and collaborative problem solving. It scaffolds student support, to ensure that students are never lost or alone. It is also analytics rich, to personalize learning pathways and pace, target interventions, and continuously improve the learning experience.

The first issue that we have sought to tackle is how best to motivate students and keep them on track. If they are to persist, many students need courses with a clear value proposition and clearly delineated progress markers.

Unlike courses that emphasize topical coverage, our competency-based programs reconceive each course in terms of proficiencies that are defined by professional associations, accrediting agencies, or industry.

In designing the curriculum, we take the existing curriculum, deconstruct it, and construct a competency map with each learning objective aligned with specific academic or workforce needs. We also establish benchmarks for attaining these.

To sustain student motivation...

  • We gamify the curriculum.
  • We envision each course segment as a journey with a well-defined arc.
  • We also map student progress with points, successive levels of achievement and difficulty, and micro-credentials to celebrate gains in proficiency.
  • We are also working on ways to make it easy for students to post these accomplishments publicly.

The second issue we address is how best to maximize the growth of student knowledge, competencies, and higher-order thinking skills.

Our activity-based approach stresses learning by doing, and seeks to foster deep understanding through structured inquiry, discovery-based learning, and student-created knowledge.

Activity-based learning takes place through interactive simulations, problem-solving and project-creating activities, and a host of collaborative activities.

In addition, through the frequent use of diagnostics and by disaggregating instructional resources, we can personalize pace, content, sequence, and learning trajectories.

The third crucial issue we face is how best to create a learning experience that addresses core challenges facing students in distance education: isolation, pace, and confusion.

The social dimension in too many online classes is largely confined to discussion threads where conversations tend to be artificial. Alternatives include collaboratively developing a case analysis, mapping concepts, participating in a debate or a role playing exercise, or taking part in a brainstorming or study or practice sessions. 

Our programs also create many avenues for communication and provide students with a community of care. Students are informed when classmates are also online and can reach out to a life coach or an instructional facilitator or a fellow student at any time with a click of a mouse.

The fourth key issue we confront is how best to evaluate learning so that we really understand a students’ ability to apply knowledge and skills.  Our goal is to create a multi-tiered assessment ecosystem. We begin with checks for understanding, proceed to activity-based assessments, and culminate with team-based projects and collaborative problem-solving activities.

In this way, we seek to address all levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and ensure that students demonstrate the “soft skills” of communication and collaboration that are essential to success in today’s workplaces.

Whether we are dealing with a stand-alone online class or the online component of a hybrid course, the online experience needs to incorporate a wide range of high-impact learning practices complete with scaffolds, supports, and mechanisms for monitoring student progress.

Students are voting with their feet. Many are embracing online learning as a way to maximize the number of credit hours a semester.

But it’s our challenge to ensure that these are learning opportunities that involve more than correspondence courses featuring digitized lectures.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press just published his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood.

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