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A social approach to learning

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By Craig Marsh
Advancements in the field of information technology have allowed online learning to become more sophisticated and diverse. As universities around the world boast more online students than ever, traditional ways of learning are transforming.

In the last decade, Nigeria has experienced massive institutional growth in its university education sector.

However, demand for higher education still outweighs supply. According to the Registrar and Chief Executive of the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB), over 1.4 million candidates sat the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) in 2015; but there were fewer than 800,000 places available at tertiary institutions across the country. With similar challenges faced across the globe, increasing numbers of students are choosing to study online to strengthen existing skills and expand capabilities while maintaining family and career responsibilities.

Increased awareness of online education, improvements in computer literacy and the growing democratisation of the internet are also speedily driving interest and participation in online learning among Nigerians. These factors have led to wider acceptance of the merits of this learning platform and its power to increase people’s access to learning. More and more individuals are realising that, instead of replacing classroom-based learning methods, online education is an alternative that adds value to their skill development and careers.

Designed for the working professional

There are several other factors contributing to the growth of online learning; its flexibility appeals to more mature students, for example.

It also allows people who may not be able to commute to a university, or who have a work schedule that doesn’t allow them to physically sit in a classroom at a set time, to earn their degree. Available 24 hours a day, the online classroom is delivered asynchronously, which means students are not required to be in class together at a specific time.

Programme content is also adapted to suit the working professional: modules are broken into smaller learning units that contain individual assignments and shared activities to offer students even greater flexibility to decide where and when they will study.

In addition, the online classroom is truly global and connects students and faculty members from all over the world, making it possible for learners to collaborate and share resources in an approach that did not exist a decade ago. By contrast, traditional classroom settings tend to have more of a local or regional focus.

Building communities online

Contrary to the belief that online learning is a solitary learning experience, several online learning institutions (such as the University of Roehampton, London Online) have developed networking platforms similar to popular social-media channels to help students build communities among their peers. Despite the thousands of miles between them, a social platform can connect students with faculty members and with each other to share best practices for their course and their careers.

This creation of an academic environment that supports personal engagement both inside and outside the classroom has become an integral part of the online postgraduate learning experience.

Faculty members are key to supporting an integrated and interactive approach to learning, where students complete assignments by engaging in creative online discussions. Faculty members make the experience more personal by being available and in regular contact with the students, using videos, blogs, wikis and discussion forums to actively promote critical thinking and problem-solving.

Using digital technology to deliver education is not only increasing access for millions; it’s also helping to improve learning. It has been estimated that students who do study online have a 60% faster learning curve than those who attend traditional programmes.

Research has also shown that, in terms of learning outcomes, there is no difference between online and traditional learning formats. Both require planning, study, student participation, and feedback from both students and faculty members.

There is no doubt that there will continue to be a place for the classroom and the traditional student–teacher interaction, but as technology continues to evolve, so naturally will the way in which we learn. Online learning has provided access to quality education from around the world, helping more people fulfil their potential by strengthening and developing their skills.

The innovation social technology brings to the online learning experience is something that I believe enhances the student experience and will continue to minimise “distance” between peers.

Dr Craig Marsh is the Vice President of Academic Innovation at the University of Roehampton, London Online

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