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Study abroad : Destination Guides

Making sense of online learning models

Much has changed for students in 2020 and we've turned our focus to one of the most significant developments, online learning. We take a closer look at what you can expect and what the key concepts are.

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With all of the changes that have occurred in the educational sphere and learning landscape since the start of the year, you can be forgiven for being a bit confused and struggling to keep up. This is especially true when it comes to one of the most significant developments, online learning. Many institutions are now offering various online learning models and options, but knowing what each is and if it would suit you can be tricky. From hybrid learning to blended learning, there are some important differences and subtle details.


That’s why we’re here. We’ve taken a close look at the major online learning models used, what each involves and what you’re likely to experience in various university scenarios. This way you’ll be well equipped to tackle new models of teaching and learning, keeping your academic journey on track for 2020 despite all that is happening. Let’s kick it off by having a look at some key definitions and what you can expect


Definitions of online learning 


It’s useful to get to grips with the most common terms you’ll come across when approaching or researching the topic:


  • Online learning: This is the umbrella or broad term that is used to describe teaching and learning activities that occur online and are accessed remotely via a device, like a tablet or a phone, on a website or via an app.
  • eLearning: A common term generally applied to describe the use of technology for the online delivery and teaching of a programme/ course, including online resources. 
  • Virtual learning: Virtual learning employs online tools and computer software to deliver an educational programme. Virtual learning may also incorporate a virtual learning environment (VLE). It often combines in-person and virtual elements.
  • Blended learning: This is a teaching and learning approach using a combination of online tools and resources with more traditional in-person educational methods. The online offering enhances the in-person experience. The balance for blended learning is roughly 75 per cent to 25 per cent, in favour of in-person instruction. 
  • Hybrid learning: Hybrid learning is the integration of face-to-face and online instruction into a structured learning experience, with a balance of about 50 per cent for each.
  • Remote/distance learning: This is a course or programme that is taken exclusively online with no on-campus modes of instruction. 


Online learning


There are a few other elements that you’ll need to understand when it comes to courses that have online delivery modes and these are: 


  • How online communication for the course is conducted. For example, is there the opportunity for interaction or simply the receipt of information?
  • How learning is structured, either with a focus on individual learning or collaborative working. Sometimes it may be a balance of the two. 
  • Content may be fixed or dynamic/adaptive. With fixed content, the curriculum, information and materials are standard and set, whereas with dynamic content material is altered and developed according to student objectives, needs, performance, abilities and knowledge.  
  • The timing of your interaction with instructors/teachers/ lecturers may differ. If it is synchronous you’ll interact and learn at the same time and in the same environment along with fellow students, while an asynchronous form means you’ll mostly learn and engage with materials independently, and meet with lecturers and fellow students outside of this. 


What are some of the common types of online learning? 


Now that you’re more familiar with some of the key definitions and elements of online learning it’s time to move on to the main forms these may take. It’s useful to bear in mind that there is often a bit of overlap or multiple modes operating in the same context, with many top universities opting for a blended learning approach and offering online courses. As technology and circumstances evolve learning models will likely do the same. However, some standard models are recognized and which you’ll likely encounter in a university setting. 


Wondering what online learning may mean for your career and post-study work options? Make sure to explore our guide on the topic. 

What is synchronous online learning?

You’ll participate in learning activities and classes online with other students and instructors. This can be in real-time through the use of online video platforms and chat tools. Communication is key here as you have the opportunity to ask questions and clarify information. This type of online learning is usually supported by online resources, assignments and tasks that are completed at various stages. This is the most common form of online learning used by universities. 


What is asynchronous online learning?

This model requires a much higher level of self-motivation and independence, as you’ll be studying at a different time to others with very little or no real-time interaction. The approach is considered to be student centred and more flexible with the facilitation of self-paced learning. 


What is adaptive online learning? 

Adaptive eLearning is a more recent model that has grown from the advances in both technology and learning research. The approach is designed to be more individualised and dynamic, tailored to the educational profile of a student. By using factors such as how a student performs, their abilities, knowledge and skills, a learning programme is developed and adjusted accordingly. It works particularly well in smaller class settings and at a postgraduate level, however can be used in laboratory and tutorial settings at an undergraduate level. 


What about computer-assisted learning? 

The use of computer software and artificial intelligence to manage student learning and assess performance is not unusual in a blended learning environment. It is broadly divided into two main approaches, namely, computer-managed learning and computer-assisted learning. 


In computer-managed learning, you’ll be interacting and working with a large database of information that presents structured modules of data for you to learn. Your input and engagement with the material are then measured using predetermined parameters, for example, a multiple-choice test, that will determine your level of knowledge. Computer managed learning can also be used to curate and present learning materials, recorded lectures, and store student data like grades. 


One of the more common approaches that employ the use of computer-based learning at universities is computer-assisted instruction. Traditional face-to-face teaching is used in combination with computer software to enhance and support learning.


Your classroom experience is supplemented by materials such as audio and video, and online quizzes. You may also have the opportunity to provide real-time feedback to your lecturer while in the classroom by using online tools, such as if you understand a concept or feel the teaching is helping your understanding. 


Online learning


What about online learning platforms and applications? 

Now that you’re up to speed with online learning approaches you’re likely wondering how materials and information are delivered online and what different types of platforms and applications there are. There are a significant number of online learning platforms and software available so it’s not possible to cover all of them. However, they are often similarly structured and can be broadly grouped and defined.

Learning Management System / Virtual Learning Environment

An LMS and VLE are both computer software applications that are predominantly web-based, to allow for 24/7 access. They both deliver course material and have in-built assessment and communication tools, including blogs. LMS’s tend to have more administrative and profile tools embedded, but this isn’t always the case. 

Managed Learning Environment 

An MLE incorporates the same elements as an LMS and VLE, however with additional administrative tools and controls. This may include student information, grades, registration details, course completion data and information on lecturers/staff. 

Personal Learning Environment 

With a PLE you are given the ability to manage and structure your own learning activities. This can mean using the tools that best suit your needs and accessing the most relevant content and services offered. 

Massive Online Open Course

A MOOC is a distance course or programme that is hosted on an LMS and is designed to cater for large numbers of students. The learning is often self-paced with a distinct curriculum or structure. The courses may not always offer academic credit but can lead to the earning of certificates or development of skills and further learning beneficial to employment. 


As you can tell, online learning has a variety of application and implementations. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of some of the core tenets of online learning and what to expect. A good approach to take is to communicate with your potential university about what models they are using. Do your research. You’ll likely find that this may incorporate elements of specific models that best suit a particular curriculum and programme.  Don’t forget that you can also get a better idea of who is offering online courses using our course matcher tool and keep up to date with the latest news from universities on our site. 


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