There is no doubt that the internet has done much to improve the experience of distance learners. There are a wide range of quality learning experiences available via massively open online courses (MOOCs); online learning environments in schools, colleges, and universities; and specialist online learning providers who deliver a range of products from vocational short courses to postgraduate degrees.
As with any online environment there is the need to consider the safety of those who are using the systems and to ensure that students themselves can make the most of the opportunities, free from any threat.
Every online learning platform comes with its very own characteristics and potential safety issues that are important to consider.
MOOCs represent a fantastic opportunity to access quality education opportunities provided by some of the worlds’ most prestigious universities. It is even possible to pay for accredited qualifications and learn online.
These learning communities, such as Coursera and EdX, are regulated and administered effectively, and it can be considered a positive that no lower age limit is applied.
Online learning offers the true democratisation of learning, giving people of all age access to education opportunities. This means that young people can access MOOCs and learn alongside older students.
Whilst no evidence of anything untoward has been presented, it is worth considering that these environments are not administered by people that parents know.
Administrators are always available on these platforms and they can be contacted in case of concerns related to online behaviour, but it would not be possible to go and see someone to discuss them in person. For young people to be truly safe when using this type of environment, supervision is necessary.
School and college online learning
These environments offer a much safer place for young people to access online learning. Schools and colleges have used systems such as Moodle as repositories for learning materials for many years, and are now starting to move towards delivering active learning through them as well.
In some cases this is provided as a replacement for classroom contact, and in other cases it is an additional resource. As these operate within a monitored and walled environment they can be considered as much safer.
The groups of users are known to the school or college, and the system is only open to those directly involved. An issue with this approach is the often heavy reliance on external links to supplementary, or replacement material.
The argument is logical: why reproduce something that is already available on YouTube, or on an external website? However, this forces young people to leave the safe, walled online ecosystem to go in search of information.
It is akin to a teacher sending a group of young people out of school, unsupervised, to wander around to find things out in the hope that nothing bad will happen.
Specialist online providers
Taking the concept of the enclosed system one step further are specialist online providers, such as Arden University, who provide learning opportunities that do not rely heavily on external material.
These providers invest in high quality materials that they design themselves, meaning that all interactions within the learning space are monitored and safe. Such approaches are more cost intensive and tend to result in products that need to be purchased, but the peace of mind for parents is greatly increased.
The use of online learning platforms is likely to increase significantly in the coming years. As an academic I often refer university students to MOOCs to develop specific skills and knowledge that will be of benefit to their programme of study.
What institutions that work with young people need to be aware of, is how the learning opportunities that they provide are developed, and the use of external materials within online lessons.
Just because something is branded as “learning” does not make it inherently safe and immune from some of the difficulties that plague the online world.
What online learning does provide is an opportunity for education providers to develop high quality learning that can be administered in a controlled and monitored environment to help keep young people safe.
Dr Ben Silverstone, course leader for postgraduate computing at Arden University