Adventures in Online Learning: Software Issues

Online learning technology has come a long LONG way in the past few years. We are able to engage virtually in a way that we couldn’t do even 5 years ago. In some ways this is awesome! It lets us deal with emergencies, like a global pandemic, without loosing some of the most valuable aspects of our education. But with advances in technology come bugs. In your online learning adventure, you’re going to come across software issues.

As colleges and universities have moved to embrace more online learning models, they have been presented with a variety of platforms from which to choose. Some of these platforms are better than others. But they all have software issues. The reason is because in many ways, all of these platforms are still in the beta stages. Widespread online learning is still not the norm for many schools. This creates two interrelated issues.

Software Design

First, many of these platforms try to accomplish several tasks all at the same time: they attempt to be a supplement for in person courses and they try to be a platform that supports asynchronous course delivery (an online only model). These two tasks are often at odds with one another.

As an instructor, I’ve had the opportunity to use multiple digital platforms to supplement my teaching (including blackboard, canvas, and Sakai). Sometimes a platform (take Blackboard for example) is set up really well as a supplement platform for in class learning. Blackboard’s structure is ideal for posting readings, recording grades digitally, and sharing announcements or reminders with students. Other times a platform is better formatted to serve as an online only learning model (take Canvas for example). Canvas’s structure is well organized around individual lessons, which students can self pace through, teaching themselves the material in an asynchronous manner. However, try to use either platform for the other major purpose, and it causes no end to frustration! Currently, I use canvas as a supplement to my in person classes. It simply doesn’t function nearly as well for that purpose—it’s too cumbersome because I don’t need each individual lesson to have its own space. At the same time, I can imagine using blackboard to try and make it through a self paced course would be very frustrating as it’s not organized well to accomplish that task.

The problem is that universities choose their software package based on what they expect that majority of their professors to need because it is too expensive to purchase more than one site license. (And honestly, you’d probably be upset if they raised your tuition to do purchase two different software programs!). BUT, this means that the software you are trying to use in your online class may not be well suited to an asynchronous learning environment.

Software Development

The second issue you’re likely to face is that online learning software hasn’t been adopted widely enough to be able to identify and fix all of the design flaws. Consider when any software you use comes out with a new version. Take apps on your phone for example: after a new software update, it takes several iterations for developers to identify and address multiple bugs in the newest version. Course delivery software is no different—it will take developers time to identify and fix bugs within the system. However, for course delivery software, this is process is likely going to take longer than it does for your phone. The reason is that online learning is not universal: it has far fewer users than you might expect given the size of the college/university industry. Most universities (and most professors) still specialize in face to face classroom interaction. Fewer users mean fewer opportunities to report problems to developers. Few reported problems mean a longer lag time in between software releases and the eventual fix.

In today’s world, where nearly all universities have abruptly moved online, these bugs are going to become more apparent a lot faster. The bad news is: this could be a rough semester (for you and your professors!) The good news is that when life returns to normal, everyone is likely going to have an easier time using online supplements or complete course delivery platforms. So in the meantime, think of yourself as a beta tester. It won’t solve every problem, but with that mindset, you’re less likely to pull your hair out in frustration.

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