online learning trends


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The online learning field is constantly changing, with new ideas appearing all the time. Here we look at the major trends in online education over the past year. Appification of online teaching The very first online courses were hosted on email. With no real collaboration between students, they were little more than rehashed versions of the old correspondence courses. The first real LMS was WebCT, set up by Murray Goldberg, a computer science professor at the University of British Columbia. He wanted to give faculty a way of putting their courses online without having to learn html. The system also introduced discussion boards and thus brought community to online education. The licensing cost of WebCT in the early days was almost comical—somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 cents per student per semester. The development team was almost apologizing for having to charge anything, pleading that their institution required that they cover their own costs, and so they had to charge something. Of course, the LMS market has become a for-profit field, with large players mixing it with open source systems and start-ups. As a result, one major trend is moving away from the LMS in favor of apps for hosting online content and interaction. This is partly due to cost, as many apps are either free or nearly free. But it is also in response to the “one size fits all” feeling than many faculty and administrators have gotten with systems that are designed to serve hundreds of institutions. An “appified” online education system allows users to choose exactly the functions that they want for their courses, which is especially helpful in blended environments. If the instructor only wants an online discussion board, then TodaysMeet or ViewChat might do the trick. Maybe the instructor just wants to host content, in which case systems such as Versal or Edmodo are fine for that purpose. If the instructor just wants to allow students to collaborate on online projects, then a wiki-like system such as Padlet could be the answer. If you want to have your functions integrated, then Google is your best bet. While companies such as Facebook and Amazon organize their offerings around a central website, Google has shown that you don’t need a mothership as long as you have a constellation of integrated apps. With a free Google account you have email, video hosting on YouTube, shared document editing with Drive, blogs on Blogger, websites on Google Sites, etc., all of which can be connected together to allow sharing of content between groups. Google has even gone further to serve educators with its Google Classroom. Any institution can get a free account, which provides unlimited storage and the ability to centrally manage student accounts. Google Classroom is becoming the norm in the K-12 world, and some colleges are also starting to see the benefits of using a highly flexible, powerful, reliable, and free system for hosting online activities. It might be worth asking your institution about signing up for this service. Open education The high costs of textbooks have resulted in a significant percentage of students simply not buying books for their courses. In response, a number of sources have recently emerged providing free textbooks. OpenStax (formally Connexions) is a pioneer in this field, offering free digital textbooks in a wide variety of fields. They do it through an interesting licensing method that uses in-textbook ads rather than customer purchases to pay for the books. Free course resources also extend to videos and complete online lessons. A good starting point for finding these resources is Find OER (, which will link you to everything from textbooks to videos, images, podcasts, lessons, complete courses, simulations, and animations. California Open Online Library for Education ( is another great resource paid for by the California State University System. You might also want to look at resources that target particular content niches. Forgotten Books publishes thousands of classic works in the public domain, and of course Google Books is working to put basically everything you can find in a library online (yes, there are a few copyright hitches with that one). Mobento provides a place to search for free educational videos, as does the aptly named 100 Incredibly Useful YouTube Channels for Teachers. Also consider taking a peek at Free Documentaries TV to see if any of its more than 1,700 free documentaries can contribute to your course. Shared course content  An interesting new development is universities collaborating to share online course content. Canvas, the increasingly popular LMS, created Canvas Commons to enable users to share course content. Anyone working at a university using Canvas can search the repository for content, and when something is found, that person can bring it into his or her own course with a few clicks. This is an important development, because faculty often think that they must create their own course content. But as José A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, put it so well, “Having each instructor create their own course content is like having each instructor write their own textbook. If that were the case, 95% of textbooks would be terrible.” As I like to say, “If someone can say it better than you, then let them.”  This should draw more users to Canvas. Adaptive learning   “Adaptive Learning” has become a bit of a catchphrase in conference brochures as of late. The idea makes perfect sense. Instead of giving everyone the same content, give students content personalized to their learning needs. Implementing adaptive learning requires a system for both assessing where the student stands and providing the student with content based on his or her needs. A system such as Articulate Storyline is good for this purpose. Storyline allows you to construct online content in text, video, and sound form, along with assessments and branching scenarios based on student choices and how they do on the assessments. A student who aces the rotational inertia exam can now be taken to new content, whereas the one who struggles can be taken to alternate exercises that explain the concept in different terms. The result can be integrated with your LMS, or offered as stand-alone content to be accessed online. Mobile learning  Mobile learning is another catch phrase that has come to dominate conference agendas. Mobile learning is being integrated into education in two ways.  The first is designing online content that can be played on mobile devices. This allows students to access the content while riding the bus, eating, or walking between classes. Most learning management systems claim to be “mobile friendly,” but the degree of mobile friendliness depends on the content. Take a look at Steven Crawford’s “Making Your Course Mobile Friendly” in the July issue of Online Classroom newsletter to learn how you can ensure that your course content can be accessed from different mobile devices. The second form of mobile involves students using their devices to create content. For instance, students in an architecture course could be required to take photos of buildings in their city and label the architectural features they embody. “Augmenting Education in the Online Classroom” in the September issue of Online Classroom newsletter provides an interesting extension of this assignment using augmented reality apps and Google Maps. Games  Finally, we have seen more and more talk over the past year of incorporating games into education. Games are ideal learning devices due to their low cost of failure and immediate feedback. But faculty are understandably puzzled by how to “gamify” their courses without having to find $20 million to hire professional game programmers. The secret is to design an online course around gaming principles, rather than try to develop separate games. Robert Prince explains how he gamified his journalism course by designing it as a story related to a struggling newspaper, and the student needing to save it, in the June issue of Online Classroom newsletter. Kevin Bell offers a number of suggestions for gamifying a course in our November issue. Use these suggestions to incorporate gaming elements into your online courses.