The Future of Online Learning Is Offline

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Strava is a fitness app that allows people to log and upload their runs, bike rides, swims and other fitness activities. Using GPS data, a runner can track her route and pace, and then share the activity with friends. In 2016, Strava users uploaded 304 million activities, logged 6.8 billion kilometers, and gave each other 1.3 billion kudos on the platform.

I became a Strava user in 2013, around the same time I became an online course designer. Quickly I found that even as I logged runs on Strava daily, I struggled to find the time to log into platforms like Coursera, Udemy or Udacity to finish courses produced by my fellow instructional designers. What was happening? Why was the fitness app so “sticky” as opposed to the online learning platforms?

As a thought experiment, I tried to recast my Strava experience in pedagogical terms. I realized that I was recording hours of deliberate practice (my early morning runs), formative assessments (the occasional speed workout on the track) and even a few summative assessments (races) on the app. Strava was motivating my consistent use by overlaying a digital grid on my existing offline activities. It let me reconnect with college teammates who could keep me motivated. It enabled me to analyze the results of my efforts and compare them to others. I didn’t have to be trapped behind a computer to benefit from this form of digital engagement—yet it was giving me personalized feedback and results. How could we apply the same practices to learning?

I’ve come to believe that one of the biggest misunderstandings about online learning is that it has to be limited to things that can be done in front of a computer screen.

As my use of Strava surged, I transitioned professionally from designing online courses for medical residents at Stanford to designing online courses for social entrepreneurs at +Acumen. I observed that completion rates between these two groups of course participants were strikingly different. Medical residents were motivated to log into an online course almost daily to complete the practice tests because they were closely aligned with the board exams they would have to take to be credentialed as doctors.

On the other hand, +Acumen course participants were on the frontlines of social change work—leading nonprofits, setting up refugee camps, teaching in inner-city classrooms, implementing Peace Corps projects. They were incredibly hardworking people, but the ones creating the most significant social impact in the world were also often too busy to finish a MOOC. I could hardly blame them. There were no formalized links between the activities that they would do online and how they would be assessed in their roles offline. Completing the course on top of other priorities required an almost superhuman effort for sometimes limited external validation.

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This trend holds true across other online courses. The topics that have been most successfully taught online and attract large enrollments are ones where online activities can be tightly linked to real-world assessments—think computer science, data science and programming. It’s easy to teach coding online because the practice activities you’d do as a novice on the online platform resemble what you’d do on the job. If you end up with an impressive Github repository by taking a nanodegree program online, your odds of employability rise. Similarly, if you are in a profession like medicine that requires that you pass a multiple choice test to become certified, you’ll be motivated to complete an online test prep program because the online activities almost perfectly match the assessment.

However, if you’re trying to learn subjects that will require the execution of skills offline—sculpture, nursing, teaching, public speaking, food preparation, or leadership—the computer-based activities and the real-life application are at least two steps removed. Although there are some good online simulations that enable learners to do things like virtually tour an art gallery or perform hip surgery, they’re still missing the hands-on component. This makes these subjects both hard to teach online and hard to monetize for online learning providers.

Yet even as the future of work becomes more automated, we will still need to teach people tangible skills like how to administer vaccinations, prepare food in ways that comply with health codes, deliver speeches, assemble furniture, or create art. This means that even as our modalities for teaching shift to online platforms and virtual reality, we still need to thinking about the rich array of offline learning experiences that we want to incentivize and make sense of.

This is where Strava comes in. I’ve come to believe that one of the biggest misunderstandings about online learning is that it has to be limited to things that can be done in front of a computer screen. Instead, we need to reimagine online courses as something that can enable the interplay between offline activities and digital augmentation.

A few companies are heading that way. Edthena enables teachers to record videos of themselves teaching and then upload these to the platform to get feedback from mentors. DIY’s JAM online courses let kids complete hands-on activities like drawing or building with LEGOs and then has them upload pictures of their work to earn badges and share their projects. My team at +Acumen has built online courses that let teams complete projects together offline and then upload their prototypes to the NovoEd platform to receive feedback from peers. University campuses are integrating Kaltura into their LMS platforms to enable students to capture and upload videos.

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Still, learning management systems and online platforms have a long way to go to make these kinds of online and offline learning connections more seamless. In 2017, I hope that instructional designers and engineers focus on tightening the feedback loop between online activities and real-world applications. We need to focus less on building multiple choice quizzes or slick lecture videos and more on finding ways to robustly capture evidence of offline learning that can be validated and critiqued at scale by peers and experts online.

Instead, we need to reimagine online courses as something that can enable the interplay between offline activities and digital augmentation.

What might this look like? An anesthesiologist trainee in Somalia could use a mobile phone to record himself setting up an operating tray and then submit it for assessment to trained experts. A teacher in Pakistan could get feedback on lesson delivery from a colleague in Bangladesh. An aspiring plumber could log the number of hours he spends apprenticing and having those hours validated by his supervisor. These things are happening in fits and starts across various MOOCs and online courses, but we don’t yet have a seamless, Strava-like platform for learning and teaching. This next-generation platform will need a well-designed mobile interface, well-considered privacy settings, and intuitive social learning features.

Beyond Strava, the edtech field can also take a page from the other countless digital apps that connect an online experience to an offline one. Tinder is only as successful as the real offline dates its enables; Uber only works if it summons you a real-life car; Airbnb works when it gives you a real place to sleep at night; Seamless is designed to deliver you a container of hot Thai food in your office. The online interface serves as the launchpad but the heart of the experience happens in real life. It’s time we figured out how to make the same kinds of connections happen with similar elegance and scale in education.

Amy Ahearn (@amyahearn11) is an online learning columnist for EdSurge and a senior innovation associate for +Acumen. She holds an MA in Learning, Design and Technology from Stanford.

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Mangi Tshikomba is a technology entrepreneur, Founder & CEO of Things Technologies and founding editor of EdTechDojo.co.za. He is a OYW Ambassador, Queens Young Leader and Brightest Young Minds Alumni. He holds BSc(Hon) Civil Engineering from Wits University, Jhb and Leadership Certificate from certificate from Cambridge University, UK. His interests are in Entrepreneurship, EdTech and Early Childhood Development (ECD).