Dr. Tony Bates
Chang School of Continuing Education,
Ryerson University and Research Associate
The main rationale for online learning in most institutions has always been that it increases access and flexibility for students: learning anytime and anywhere. This rationale will always be important, but there is another increasingly important role emerging and that is the use of online learning, and more broadly, digital learning, to facilitate the knowledge and particularly the skills students will need on graduation.
Even today, content presentation, and testing of memorization and comprehension, are the focus of much teaching and learning in post-secondary education. However, I challenge this focus, when there is more content in any subject discipline that anyone could absorb, and when students can pretty much look up instantly any content that they need. What we should be teaching students is where to find information, how to evaluate it, analyse it and apply it to specific tasks. We should also be teaching students how to choose and use digital tools to best do this.
If we look at the 21st century skills most in demand, both by employers and more importantly citizens, they will include online inter-personal communication, digital literacy within a subject domain (knowing and evaluating what digital tools are most appropriate for particular tasks), virtual teamwork, critical thinking and problem solving. To develop such skills (see Humans Wanted for a full list), students will need to learn digitally. We also know that to develop any skill, practice and timely feedback from an expert are both essential. Online and digital learning can provide opportunities for both.
The challenge then is to design the learning experience for students so that required skills are carefully identified, opportunities to demonstrate, practice and give feedback on such skills development are available, and to design assessments that are authentic and skills-focused. It is therefore no longer enough just to convert existing face-to-face courses online; instead we need to leverage the unique affordances of digital learning for 21st century skills development.