The Student Experience of Online Learning Presented by Kevin Bell
Kevin Bell is the Executive Director for Online Curriculum Development and Deployment at the College of Professional Studies (CPS). Bell leads Northeastern University’s efforts toward the goal of high-quality, professional online programs based on industry and academic standards.
Bell’s heads the team at Northeastern within CPS that aims to make online programs challenging and engaging while increasing the means by which students retain and internalize information and competencies. Bell’s team works with Northeastern faculty and deans to adapt programs to an online format.
Northeastern has been a pioneer in web-based delivery of programs since 1998. Northeastern offers 51 online degree programs across a wide range of disciplines and in 48 states. There are currently 10,000 online and hybrid students across 8 colleges.
The U.S. Department of Education in 2010 completed a study titled “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online” that combined more than a thousand previous studies into one report. One key finding was the fact that students who took all or part of their course online performed better on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction. As Bell outlined though, thoughtful course design and student focus and effort are still much-needed components.
The Northeastern online model takes into account elements of cognitive science – a field attempting to understand how the human brain assimilates and stores information. Bell’s team’s goal is to develop a model that dramatically increases the efficiency and effectiveness of students’ learning, memory, and application of concepts.
Northeastern is piloting and pioneering innovative work in adaptive learning. Using new technologies and industry partners, the team at Northeastern are leveraging current computing power to adapt the presentation of educational material according to individual student learning needs, as indicated by early responses to questions and tasks. In an adaptive system, learners study carefully sized “chunks” of information before checking their understanding through interactive tests. The pace of a student’s progress through materials can be moderated based on their performance with these low-stress, evaluative but not evaluated tests. Students needing further practice can be directed to specific topics to review – confirming that the solid foundations of knowledge are in place before they progress to the next challenge.
Bell’s team is also using data analytics to improve courses and delivery techniques. Student, and faculty, behavioral data is reviewed and shared in order to propagate and encourage behaviors that are typical of successful participants. Data about the class in general is also sent back to curriculum designers for evaluation and discussion with faculty to in a “continuing improvement” model for materials and course content. Through these means, online education is moving from “One size fits all” to “Individualized Instruction”, with learning captured and confirmed rather than simply assumed based on a form of attendance and persistence beyond course end dates.
Bell’s team is also focused on developing new forms of Online Experiential Learning (OEL), based on the cornerstone of the Northeastern educational model. Most deliverables are real world based, including on occasion efforts to include unique circumstances and environment changes, as might happen in the real world. As Bell explained, often the essential ability gleaned from “experiential” is the experience developed to abstract and reapply knowledge and strategies to many, diverse situations as opposed to rote learning with one fixed set of rules.
Finally the group discussed criteria that promote student success in online learning. The main elements discussed by the group were:
- Self-Motivation – the will to direct the learning experience, fulfill course requirements, and achieve individual academic success.
- Independent learning –an understanding of the online environment, how it facilitates learning at an individual pace, and how this pace relieves the stress of feeling pressured thus promoting an enjoyable learning experience.
- Computer Literacy – while advanced computer skills are typically not necessary, basic knowledge of electronic email, the Internet, and keyboarding skills are needed.
- Time Management Skills – an ability to organize and plan the best time to learn is needed. Students who are able to organize consistent, regular work sessions tend to have better results than those who fall behind or assume they can put in 12 hour days at some point in the future.
- Effective Written Communication Skills – since communication with peers and instructors is accomplished via the use of electronic formats, the ability to communicate ideas and assignments clearly and concisely is important to student success.
- Personal Commitment – sustained success in learning and attaining knowledge and skills via online courses requires a strong commitment to participate, and as much as possible, empathy and support from family, friends and colleagues!