Online Learning Rocks!

It’s not surprising to see a drastic change in the way students do their academic work today compared to when I was in school. After all, access to all kinds of information is just a mouse-click away. And with almost everyone, young and old, glued to their screens and connected on social networks, online work has become the preferred way to get things done.

I’m an English as a second language teacher, and a new one at that. I’ve noticed an interesting trend among my students: They all have smartphones and prefer to chat with me about their problems over Facebook messenger, Skype, and WhatsApp rather than raise their hands during class. I found this rather odd at first, but am now used to it.

Gradually, I also noticed that my students perform better and find it easier to understand topics by doing additional research online. I was impressed by their ability to research and their eagerness to know more when they have access to a world of digital resources at their fingertips. As a student myself not all that long ago, I could understand this behavior and considered giving online lessons a try. When I brought up the idea with my students, they were excited to try the experiment.

It took me two weeks to prepare the lessons and set up a private classroom using Wistia, a video hosting platform. And then, finally, came the day of my first live online class.

My students were just as thrilled as I was, since they could hear me and see my course materials play on their screens. We spent the first five minutes ensuring everyone was present. I could see their online status on my screen, and our voices were heard clearly across the platform.

I wanted to keep an audio cum chat environment with just the course slides to avoid any distraction. It worked really well, as they concentrated better and stopped me whenever they wanted to discuss a doubt. It was a good start.

And the Results?

The first thing I noticed was that all my students logged in on time for class. To my surprise, every student was active on the forum with questions and solutions. Even the silent ones who never spoke in class discussed their thoughts with everyone online. It turned out to be a remarkably active session.

My classroom lectures generally go for two hours, after which I have a Q&A for 15 minutes. On most days, I get just a few questions from a couple of students, while the rest never really participate. However, after my online classes, Q&A time has extended to over 30 minutes, with almost everyone having something interesting to ask and discuss with me. It’s a joy to see such lively participation and to field their questions and ideas. It’s also easy for me to read up on anything right there and explain it better.

I share useful links during class, which the students access straight away, helping them seal their understanding of the concepts or topics discussed that day. I also share my notes as PDFs that they can download after class. The lectures are video recorded, and the students play them whenever they want to review the material or if they miss a class.

All in all, I have received positive feedback from my students and occasionally even managed to squeeze in an extra hour of instruction over weekends, when many of them have more time available for study.

It has been three months now, and I am already seeing astonishing results in the way my students perform in tests. I can see that their answers show a good conceptual understanding of the content, and they use more relevant examples than before.

My students seem proactive now, and their thoughts impress me as more diverse. I now spend more time designing online course materials to better suit their improved thought and research processes.

My Research

The results I saw got me really excited. I wanted to know more about how online courses have affected students around the world.

I stumbled over this research published by MIT in 2014 and understood that online learning has proved more effective for students struggling more than their peers. Of my students, four native Spanish speakers in particular now understand the concepts better than before and are performing well in the class compared to their earlier struggles.

There are also numerous blogs and effective online discussion forums that students can access to research and discuss topics that remain unresolved. It has become a daily routine for me to ask the class about some of the new articles, essays, and research papers they have found and read on these different websites. Even I have started following a couple of amazing blogs after my students asked me for my opinion on them.

I also read a few papers that debate the pros and cons of online learning versus traditional classroom learning, with some negative conclusions. After consideration, I believe everyone has a comfort zone that influences their opinion. My comfort zone leads me to believe that online learning has had positive effects for my students. And me.

A Few Interesting Numbers

The research I did, coupled with my own experience, showed me some phenomenal numbers. The e-learning industry ended 2015 with a staggering $107 billion in revenue and is expected to breach the $150 billion mark in 2016.

The trend is not limited to rich countries, as more developing nations are surging ahead with the technology. China showed a remarkable growth in e-learners of 52 percent, Romania 38 percent, Malaysia 41 percent, Brazil 26 percent, Poland 28 percent and India 55 percent. What’s more, students can now access their courses on their mobile devices while travelling or waiting at a coffee shop, for example. This shows why the mobile learning market reached $8.7 billion last year. These numbers suggest that online learning has become an integral part of the student curriculum.

My research ended after I completed the recent study published by International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (IRRODL) about online learning performance and behavior. After reading through some of these published papers, I learned a great deal on how to make my classes better still.

My Final Say

While online learning has seen a considerable rise in popularity, many still hold the opinion that classroom learning is more effective. However, I think online learning is the way forward for many if not all students and encourages creativity in thinking and acquisition of multiple skills. Looking at my students, I’d say the online classes have made their recent assignments more compelling and interesting to read. Their ability to interpret situations and improvise has impressed me. My little experiment has been a success!

I’d like to conclude by drawing on my personal experience. I have fond childhood memories of classroom sessions and fun with friends. But with changing times and technological advancements, it is important to embrace new trends and keep track of what works best with students. The benefits for my students are too obvious to neglect the digital space in favor of traditional face-to-face classrooms. We must pace learning and alter our teaching styles to make the best of current situations. For me, that means online teaching.

Ethan Miller is a private ESL teacher who also works as an online tutor. Apart from his passion for teaching, he loves to write and holds a degree in creative writing. When he is not teaching or writing his book, Miller loves to blog and is a huge fan of educational technology. You can follow Miller on Facebook and Twitter and check out his blog.

© 2016 Ethan Miller. This EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.