Online Educational Technology
What kind of technology goes into online learning?
Most learning management systems (LMSs) used for online courses simply require a good Wi-Fi connection, a laptop with a webcam and keyboard, a set of earbuds and, depending on the program, a phone to dial in.
Some students will also want to access course materials through mobile or portable devices, like an iPad. Again, depending on the program, you may be able to conveniently download some of your asynchronous content, like homework readings and lecture video, on the go.
Laptops are preferred for doing homework (such as answering discussion questions) and for participating in live sessions, where you’ll want to be able to contribute to chat conversations, take notes or share your screen.
But what about the technology that makes online learning effective?
Educational technology has adapted quickly, enabling online programs to be better than ever for 21st-century learning. Built-in cameras and microphones in our computers, the ability to quickly and easily watch video, “Web 2.0” structures that allow for discussions and exams — these are all basic technologies that most people have access to, and the best online master’s degree programs should be putting these technologies to use.
A strong online program should have the following:
- Virtual Live Classes
- A Good Learning Management System
- Interactive Course Content
- Access to Tech Support
- Mobile Access
Virtual Live Classes
The earliest forms of online learning were fairly “static”; much of the course content was in writing, and even the few videos or other interactive content were all designed for individual use.
Now, an engaging online program can and should have live classes that facilitate real-time discussions on a high-quality, easy-to-use platform.
Live classes give students the ability to:
- Listen to the professor in real time and interact with other students as the lecture happens.
- Be visible via webcam (which holds students accountable to paying attention and engaging in the lecture). As with real-life classes, participation makes for better online learning.
Live classes also tend to keep class sizes limited because it’s easier for students to participate with fewer than 15 or so people per session.
Another important capability is the ability to “break out” into smaller groups for discussion. You may think group projects are relegated to in-person classrooms, but a good LMS should allow for instant, randomized creation of small groups for discussion.
A Good Learning Management System
Online courses are made possible through LMSs, which are the software application platforms that deliver educational technology content. That content should be diverse, including videos, charts, slides or files of the professor’s live session notes and other media, like links to reading material or outside media.
Because an LMS is also used for live sessions, a good learning management system is key to making things easy for the professor, who will need to quickly and clearly share media without too many technical issues. Students, too, will want a simple, reliable system for contributing their own notes, discussion threads, and most importantly, tests and assignments.
Interactive Course Content
If you’ve ever sat through hours of lectures with only a few page-turns in your textbook to entertain yourself, you’ll appreciate one advantage online learning has over brick-and-mortar classrooms: interactivity.
Online classes have evolved, and simply reading assigned content is a thing of the past. LMSs should allow for quizzes, discussion questions and real-time features, like chat, to keep conversations lively and learning active.
The best online colleges will make content interactive whenever possible to help you learn, or to recognize what you’re not quite understanding yet.
Access to Tech Support
Navigating a technical platform may be most people’s biggest fear about online learning. If you’ve never been technically savvy (and really, most of us who aren’t IT people don’t seem to have that magic force field that compels tech to behave), computer-related issues can be a real concern.
Even beyond issues with the LMS, your own computer may act up, thwarting access to live sessions, submission of assignments or proper display of content.
Good programs understand this and provide their own tech support staff. This resource is also available to professors, who will want immediate help should their PowerPoint presentations crash during class time. Removing this burden from teachers allows them to focus on their lessons, while students can rest easy knowing there’s help for any issues they may encounter.
For working people — a large percentage of online users — the ability to access content offline can make all the difference in making going back to school a real possibility. Being able to watch a lecture on a lunch break, the train ride home or even while traveling for work can be a huge benefit, and one that the best online programs should offer.