Online learning enhances success

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds sometimes perform better through online learning, because they can study when they want to and how they want to.

This revelation has led to a suite of online courses, launched last month by the commerce faculty at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Called Across Africa, this is an initiative that will allow students from across Africa to earn UCT qualifications by the blended-learning mode – a combination of face-to-face and online instruction.

Across Africa is a partnership with GetSmarter, an online education company that works with both universities and industry. The company has developed an immersive and pedagogically rich virtual learning environment that, when paired with UCT’s content and quality assurance, ensures the highest-quality online education.

Scepticism about online learning is widespread, thanks to the proliferation of Moocs (massive open online courses) in recent years. Moocs have low completion rates, with students tending to drop out after a few weeks.

Furthermore, Moocs are seldom recognised for university credits and not consistently acknowledged in the workplace, making it difficult for students to sustain their motivation for taking these courses.

But comparisons between Moocs and Across Africa’s qualifications are inappropriate, except for the fact that the medium of instruction is similar. We are offering credit-bearing UCT qualifications, fully equivalent to their conventional versions.

High completion rates
Second, GetSmarter’s “high-touch” support model – which involves real-time support from instructors, engagement with analytics about student interaction to provide support preemptively, and lively interaction with a virtual community of students – has resulted in completion rates above 90% in the short courses we’ve been offering with GetSmarter for a number of years now.

When we began planning Across Africa in 2011, I volunteered to convert my first-year course, evidence-based management, into blended-learning mode as a pilot project, for us to determine how well this mode could meet the needs of residential UCT students. Alongside that, the capstone business science course – strategic thinking – was also piloted in blended mode.

Both Dale Williams, the convenor of strategic thinking, and I were delighted with the results of the pilots. Student engagement was far in excess of our anticipation, and course evaluations – and crucially, results – indicated that students were enjoying, and also benefiting from, the new mode of delivery.

During last year’s first semester, I was responding to an average of 80 discussions a week in the course forums. This was not because of student confusion, but rather because the online mode is arguably a far more natural environment for a student in the 21st century than sharing a room with 400 other students.

My course is taught to 1 000 students in the first semester, which traditionally meant repeating the same lecture – three times in a row – to groups of 300 or more students. In that environment, it’s difficult for a student to ask a question, never mind for me to hear the question over the background noise.

But online, when you’ve had the chance to read the course material and watch the lectures in your own time, it’s easy to ask the question that you want to ask – and to find students who are interested in discussing the same issue.

I’d often find them solving their own problems, only needing to log in to post congratulations for their having done so.

Blended learning entails a combination of online and face-to-face teaching, and both Dale and I offered “live” lectures and tutorials to supplement the online material, and of course to help with the student transition to virtual learning.

To my surprise, though, towards the end of the semester, these sessions ended up consisting of discussion and debate only tangentially related to the course material – students were getting all they needed (in terms of examinable content) online.

The thing many of us were worried about, particularly in the first-year course, was the so-called “digital divide” and what impact a shift to blended mode might have on students who were less technologically adept.

The face-to-face sessions were intended to cover for this, and we also ran a week of tutorials dealing simply with the technology of the virtual learning environment.

Our concerns ended up being unfounded.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds performed equally well ­ in some programmes – better than they had in previous years.

Exaggerated concerns
Part of the reason for this might be that our concerns about the digital divide were exaggerated, but for me the answer lies in the fact that when you can work to your own schedule, as blended learning allows, it’s possible to watch, and re-watch, a lecture as often as you like, making notes and asking questions in your own time.

In a class of 300 or more students, there’s no time to reflect, and you’re often simply trying to keep up.

Of course, not all courses, and not all students, will be as good a fit for the blended-learning model. We’re not planning to turn our classrooms into boardrooms, or to offer a blended-learning version of all of our courses. But where the fit works, it can work very well.

We believe that blended learning has the potential to increase access to education exponentially, and that offering these qualifications is another way that UCT can contribute to alleviating developmental challenges on the continent.

So next year, if you hear talk of our postgraduate diploma in management in marketing or the advanced diploma in business project management, that’s a sense of the context from which these courses originate, and of the value we place in Across Africa as a resource in – and for – the future.

Jacques Rousseau lectures in the University of Cape Town commerce faculty’s school of management studies


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