The ‘e-learning’ methodology is growing unstoppably, but some students still think that it is of lower quality than face-to-face learning and that it condemns them to study alone
Like many students, Manuel Domínguez landed in the world of e-learning out of obligation. This teacher at a school in Arenas de San Pedro, in Ávila, wanted to study a master’s degree that combined technology and education, but enrolling in a face-to-face university was not a viable option. With Ávila 80 kilometers away and Madrid another 160, he opted for online, an alternative that continues to grow in Spain, but that still has to get rid of some myths and fine-tune certain details. Thus, while many students still believe that it is a lower quality option than face-to-face training, educational centers are striving to turn it into a personalized experience and to address its two main weaknesses: how to maintain student motivation and how to help organize your study.
Taking a course, a master’s degree or even an online degree is no longer a rarity. MOOCs ( Free Open Online Courses ) have proliferated in recent years as a quick and cheap option to learn; 100% online universities do not stop growing and diversifying their offer; and the face-to-face ones begin to incorporate digital methodologies in their physical classrooms , while launching to offer their first online degrees . » E-learning is advancing towards its extension, both by volume and because the range of types of students is opening up», says Lluís Pastor, director of the eLearn Center of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya ( UOC ).). «Life and the profession are going to demand more and more smaller, continuous and integrated training. This model is here to stay».
The profile of the digital student, at least for now, is well defined: an adult between 30 and 50 years old, with a job, who seeks to improve their job opportunities and needs a flexible method to combine study with their family and professional obligations. In a changing environment, where every day a new technology or skill is born that the market demands to master, online is emerging for many as the perfect option to continue training in this era of lifelong learning . «We do not see it as a substitute for face-to-face training, but as a complement that provides agility, personalization and dynamism to help increase the quality of training and that more people are trained», explains Joan Ramón Castelló, director ofmarketing and co-founder of the educational platform Emagister .
In the 2015-2016 academic year (latest available data), Spanish non-face-to-face universities had 228,574 students enrolled in their bachelor’s and master’s programs, according to the Ministry of Education. And the online option is gradually gaining muscle compared to face-to-face training. For example, figures from Emagister —which hosts the training offer of 100,000 educational centers— show that if in 2015 online training represented 54% of the training offered on its platform, this year it already reaches 67%.
But despite this growth, there are still certain myths surrounding the idea of studying online . Students tend to approach e-learning as a second option —because they do not have time to go to face-to-face or it is far away, for example— and, for this reason, the belief persists that it is a lower quality education. Added to this are the main doubts faced by the distance learning student: fear of loneliness, ignorance of the methodology and tools, and the need to self-motivate and carry out a well-planned study routine.
Here are five practical tips to study a course, master’s degree or even an online degree and not give up trying.
1. Before you start: what are you going to find
«That is the first fear of the students, who are used to the model of face-to-face classes,» says María del Carmen Ortega Navas, director of the University Institute of Distance Education of the National University of Distance Education ( UNED ). «There is still the belief that studying online is being alone at home with a manual, then going to take an exam and that’s it. But that’s not the case at all,» adds Paloma Coronado, coordinator of master’s degrees at the Distance University of Madrid ( UDIMA ), which has been in online training for almost three decades and assures that the advancement of technology has been «brutal».
The clash with traditional methodology and certain outdated ideas about what it means to study at a distance fuel unfounded fears. To counteract this, the experts stress the importance of learning and clarifying, before starting, all the details about the center and its teachers, but especially about the methodology: what syllabus is going to be studied, what the activities that have to be carried out consist of , what are the evaluation criteria and what does it consist of, how much time will you have to present the work and when will you have to examine yourself, what channels of communication are there with the teacher and the rest of the students…
2. The first steps: make the most of technology
The need to use technology as a basic tool for studying is not usually an impediment for distance students, but it is necessary to become familiar with and know all the resources that will be available throughout the course: videoconferences, digital whiteboards , virtual classrooms, live classes that can later be consulted at any time… Technology has given such a turn to online training that it barely has the name of what it was in its beginnings. The digital learning adventure began more as ereading than as an e-learning experience, with pdf documents that teachers uploaded to rudimentary virtual platforms where students later handed in their assignments, so that the teacher could correct them and publish their notes several days later.
«The real revolution appeared with moodles and virtual synchronicity, which allowed real-time interaction with teachers and classmates,» explains José Luis Medina, the rector’s delegate for research, innovation and improvement of teaching and learning at the University of Barcelona ( UB ). «From working alone, with little multimedia and asynchronous work, it has gone to collaborative, synchronous work with a wide variety of resources», adds the expert.
3. Fight loneliness: yes, online you also have partners
It is one of the recurring criticisms of online learning : the loneliness that students face. Without classes to go to or classmates to face, studying can be very difficult. The centers that offer this type of training deny the majority. «There is no student more lonely than the one who is in the faculty without being able to talk to the classmate next to him because he is busy taking notes», exemplifies Lluís Pastor, from the UOC.
The need to generate a feeling of accompaniment and community among students is, however, one of the main concerns of distance learning centers. And all seem to have found in the figure of the tutor a key pillar to accompany the student in their online journey . «The dropout rate has not suffered a decrease in line with technological development and the average time to complete the studies is always greater than that stipulated in the programme», argues José Luis Medina, from the UB. «The ubiquity of online is also its drawback. The secret is to follow up with tutors who are experts in the field and who are also capable of motivating.»
In addition to relying on the tutor, experts recommend building bridges with peers to share experiences and, above all, because it is common to have to work in a group . The centers usually offer forums and official communication channels, although the resources are unlimited: Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, meetups… «The important thing here is to learn to communicate online and know, for example, how to participate in a forum,» he points out. Cristina Villalonga, director of the Global Campus of Nebrija University .
4. Time to study: learn to organize yourself
The defenders of online training say that this type of learning does not only propose a change in methodology, but also a paradigm revolution. The student, they say, stops being a passive subject to become the protagonist of their learning, capable of deciding what to learn, when and how to do it. «The engine of learning ceases to be the teacher or the center to become the student», sums up Lluís Pastor, from the UOC.
The problem is that this flexibility is a double-edged sword, since it requires the student to take responsibility for all their learning and be able to set a study routine… and stick to it until the end. Here, organization and discipline are essential. And every student looks for tricks from her. To Tomás García-Roldán, who for two years combined two master’s degrees and his work, what worked for him were the calendars. «I know people who have a lot of discipline and work hard every day, but I’m more dispersed and I only had weekends off to study,» he says. With weekly assignments and continuous assessment tests every three weeks, he chose to design a calendar with all the due dates to organize himself and distribute the work in the few available hours he had to study.
Regardless of whether you study better in the morning or at night, during the week or on days off, the key is to maintain continuity. José Luis Medina, from the UB, gives the example of two online students who spend 30 hours studying a month, but one does it constantly every day and another binge eats in a week. «When the second wants to go back to study the following month, of those 30 hours they will need five to remember what they have already learned. And then it will be 10. They enter a vicious circle and that is when they leave it: not because they do not produce, but because they do not are organized.»
5. When the forces weaken: remember your motivation
As with face-to-face education, in online teaching the difficult thing is not to start, but to stay. Motivation is usually through the roof in the first stages of the course, but it declines as soon as the first difficulties appear, which in this case are aggravated because the distance student usually combines his studies with other obligations, work and family. «Anyone is qualified to take an online program , but it is true that extra motivation is needed. Not because it is more difficult, but because you usually do not have time,» explains Josu Ahedo, vice-rector for students at the International University of La Rioja ( JOIN ).
The first piece of advice for not falling behind is to remember the reason why you started studying: that promotion or that opportunity to retrain works as an incentive, especially in the case of distance students , who usually return to study with a very clear motivation . The second recommendation is to set realistic goals, especially when deciding if you want to finish the program in the stipulated time or if it is preferable to extend it a bit to be able to combine it with work and reach everything. «In any case, we encourage them to complete the full enrollment to maintain their enthusiasm and desire,» says Paloma Coronado, from UDIMA. «But it’s important to set goals. Otherwise, the study takes forever and never ends.»