If you lived in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1728, you may have witnessed the birth of distance learning. It was there where teacher Caleb Phillips placed this ad in the Boston Gazette:
“….persons in the country desirous to learn this art [shorthand], may by having the several lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston.’’
Suppose you walked into a local coffee shop in Boston today. In that case, you may see a college student or professional staring intently at a phone or tablet, completing bite-sized lessons for academic credit or career advancement. These lessons may be enhanced by AI (Artificial Intelligence) and have shorter, more focused assessments.
Distance learning has come a long way since that Boston Gazette ad, and in recent years, eLearning has continued to evolve at a frantic pace.
Today, we’re going to look at some of the latest developments in online learning that are shaping the future of this medium.
Mobile Learning (mLearning)
Mobile devices are everywhere. Want to know the weather? Look at your phone. Need to capture the moment? Take out your phone? Did someone ask for the time? Turn on your phone.
Online learning brings education out of the classroom and to the learner where the learner is. However, the software was designed to be viewed and used on a desktop or laptop screen.
Mobile Learning, microlearning or mLearning, is designed specially to be viewed on mobile devices, negating the need to be tethered to a desktop computer or a laptop in a computer bag. It is a ‘professor in a pocket.’ The class content is visually engaging on a cell phone or tablet because designers use bite-size pieces of information, limited character counts, and expressive emojis. Audio and video examples are time-limited. Content is narrowly focused. With these constraints, educators streamline complex content to the basics; lessons are often completed in five minutes or less.
Students enrolled in ‘micro-classes’ enjoy the flexibility of completing coursework anywhere there is a Wi-Fi connection without needing a desk, a comfortable chair, or even a cup of coffee. The lesson or course is often finished before the need to fidget or sip sets in. Picture upskilling at 30,000 feet or completing mandatory job HR compliance training while waiting for an oil change. mLearning gives students back valuable time. Seat time is irrelevant.
Arist is a text message-based mLearning platform that was established in 2018. Their goal was to deliver entrepreneurship classes to war-torn parts of the world, where high school students had little access to computers, yet many had cell phones. With character limitations and international text messaging charges, Arist quickly learned to be concise. Today, Arist is used by Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits to deliver management training, HR compliance, and other critical, time-sensitive information to employees.
The Duolingo model is the standard bearer for successful mLearning. As of 2023, the platform is barely a decade old and has had over 500 million users arounds the world. Duolingo has more active users than Netflix, Apple Music, and Amazon Prime users combined.
As this article from Maestro Learning summed it up, “Duolingo recognized that people learn best, and enjoy it, when it is fun! That’s why they took a gamification and microlearning approach to language learning. In just 5-20 minutes a day, you can gain proficiency in a language. …(Duolingo) is for the in-between moments. The moments when it is too short to do anything for a long period, and yet there is enough time to fit something in while you wait for a lunch order or for a friend who is notoriously late.”
Assessment in Online Learning
Formative assessments are eclipsing the importance of summative assessments. To understand how formative assessments are incorporated into online learning, let’s look at why formative assessments have replaced summative assessments in measuring student mastery.
The way we assess students is an integral part of a quality education. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, standardized tests were considered the most critical summative assessment. These high-stakes exams often determined student placement, impacted the teacher’s performance review, and affected the district’s ranking within the state.
Pandemic school closures forced educators to rethink how we assess students; the spring of 2020 saw almost no schools administering summative assessments. How would stakeholders fill in the gaps this missing information caused?
Formative assessments were a familiar idea in 2020. Educators, however, placed less importance on them. The conditions in spring 2020 showed teachers the value of ‘assessing while learning’–the smaller, more frequent check-ins while content delivery was in progress. After educating students online during the pandemic, school districts slowly realized summative assessments would not occur as usual. A collection of formative assessments substituted for the year-end data.
In retrospect, administrators and teachers realized the value of the quick course correction formative assessment provides. Formative assessments support students by giving real-time feedback, allow teachers to tailor responses to individual needs, and save time closer to the summative assessment by correcting misunderstandings and confusion early on. As students returned to in-person learning, formative assessments became a more permanent and frequent measure of student and teacher success.
Colleges and universities are placing less importance on SAT and ACT scores, two of the most popular summative assessments in the country. This trend is likely to grow stronger in 2024 and beyond.
Last year, my oldest son began his college application journey. Many of his ‘target colleges’ accepted applications as ‘test-optional,’ meaning he could choose whether or not to send SAT and ACT scores. I inquired, not as a parent, but as a researcher, what data will replace these scores?
“General trends in high school grades and mid-year marks,” one high school advisor told me. “Mid-year marks are considered the formative assessment of the high school journey; if you look at high school as a four-year block with the SAT or ACT being the summative assessment, midterms or finals are the smaller assessments along the way.”
A college admissions officer responded: “We no longer place high importance on a single, three-hour test that is supposed to tell us how prepared a student is for university-level learning at the end of high school; we [our specific university] are more interested in seeing academic improvement in each student, and the grades achieved along the way.
Colleges and universities now see formative assessment as a better indicator of student success than summative assessment.
In the digital space, formative assessments are created and completed simply and efficiently. Examples include the ‘Exit Ticket,’ which can be a message blasted to a class consisting of 1-3 questions. An online educator I work closely with sends this Exit Ticket often: “What do you know about this topic that you didn’t know when you came to class today?” He consistently receives valuable feedback that informs his students’ understanding of the lesson. A variation of this exit ticket is, “What is one question you have about today’s lesson?”
In a hybrid, secondary learning environment where I taught, our LMS supported a chat function called QuikChat. From my laptop, I could ‘Create A Ticket” in the last five minutes of class which would send a character limited message or question to the class at one time. In under a minute, I could create, send, and receive the answers to a formative assessment based on that days’ lesson. To increase engagement, I varied my exit ticket queries with true/false or multiple choice questions, polls, opinion seeking (a student favorite!), and ‘create a question.’ When the exit ticket asked students to create a question, the student became the teacher and asked a question for another student to demonstrate understanding.
Daniel Fitzmaurice, former Chief of Staff at Americans for the Arts, recently stated in an interview, “Artificial Intelligence in education is neither good nor bad; it is inevitable. It is simply another tool we must master and then teach our students how to use properly in our educational setting.”
The keys to using AI effectively in the classroom are teacher understanding of the tool, and teaching students at all levels how to use this new tool appropriately. Many online educators, especially ones who have supported distance learning from its earliest days, were at first distrustful of AI.
“AI is going to make our students lazy,” one colleague recently lamented.
“How will we know things are not copies and pasted?” asked another. “We have ways of checking if writing is plagiarized from other online sources, but not necessarily AI.”
Understanding how AI works is the first step to embracing it and using it efficiently in your class setting. ChatGPT, for example, answers a search by collecting information from dozens of other searches and creates a well written narrative response. However, that response will lack any emotional voice or connection to the student you know personally. Forging relationships with your students before assigning work that includes AI is critically important.
Next, online teachers who use AI in their lessons get the best results when they review expectations up front with their students. Have a conversation with them. Ask your students how they plan to use AI in the assignments. What do they think are the pros and cons?
Ultimately, AI can be used effectively as an assistant for your students. Start by assigning a task that could not be completed without using AI as an assistant. For example, an online Spanish teacher I spoke with told me she “…gave a group project that culminated in a novelette, replacing a 500 word essay. Many opinions and perspectives had to be considered, and there was a reflection piece involving peer review. AI could not generate that, but could support their research and give them time to create a more substantial product.”
An Exciting Time for Online Learning
Whether you are a passionate educator in the digital era or a distance learner, this is an exciting time. Technology continues to grow and expand. These developments lead to improvements in education, online or in-person.
“eLearning is changing. And, we will see new models, new technologies, and designs emerge. So, let’s drop the “e” – or at least give it a new and wider definition.” — Elliot Masie