The changes in learning approaches or learning media have been caused by various push and pull factors, some of which include; the need for efficient learning resources delivery, the need to reach a broader audience, cost effectiveness, and the exploration of more efficient teaching and learning experiences.
Online learning platforms allow for learners to access learning materials at anytime, anywhere. Online learning approaches have the potential to instigate efficient communication between the lecturer and the students, and thus improve student learning. The advantage over traditional classroom or snail mail distance learning is that the enhanced access increases learner engagement and interaction. In online learning, there are no geographical limits and learning is not restricted to the four walls of the classroom. This benefit is directly linked to financial benefits for both the students and the institution. The institution increases its revenue by enrolling more students, whilst the students save on accommodation, travel and other related costs. The convenience and flexibility of online learning programs appeal to students who are having part time or full time jobs and often, demanding family responsibilities. Nonetheless, authors show that the traditional classroom still dominates the learning industry since it allows face to face interaction amongst the students and educators. In essence, there are certain disadvantages that come with online learning. Learners with low motivation or bad study habits are more likely to dropout than the face-to-face classroom counterparts. The lack of learning guidance and support may result in students feeling isolated. Learners without internet access and/or with a slow internet connection will not achieve the envisage learning benefits. On the institution’s side, online learning is dependent on high technology infrastructure which needs various expertise to maintain and manage. Simulation of certain learning activities is not always easy in online learning platforms.
The future of online learning is bright however it cannot cater for all the learning styles and student different personalities. Pure online learning in its current state is more suitable for the disciplined adult learners and not learners straight out of high school. It has also been characterised by a high failure and dropout rate. Most learners are from a structured classroom environment of learning and they are used to being given instructions and monitored regularly to ensure that they do the readings homework and any other learning activity. Although virtual classrooms do provide some sort of structure for meetings online and participation it is often seen as distant, unemotionally connected environment and therefore the positive drive of taking school work seriously by some students is neglected. It would probably not be ideal for a first degree or first qualification students who are embarking on higher education for the first time to attempt online learning, unless they are given a preparation offline course on the topic “online learning”. It is also important to note that, if a traditional classroom is not well implemented, it may result in students rendering similar discontent as that felt in pure online learning. On the financial side, it might be claimed that online learning is comparatively affordable than traditional universities and colleges, however third world countries such as South Africa still have high internet access costs and the coverage is still minimal. Therefore in such countries, governments must work hard towards internet access development so that online learning can be experienced by in remote towns and villages. In addition internet provision is not a panacea to successful online learning, the computer devices and skills to use the computers are an additional pre-requisite.
Despite the benefits and drawbacks of online learning, the debate has long moved from whether or not to go for online learning, rather to how best institutions can implement online learning with the goal of improving student learning success rates. Many institutions have come up with different versions of blended learning, to enhance the student learning experience. The institutions have created departments with teaching and learning designers to continuously investigate and implement pedagogically sound learning environments for the students. Instructional Designers, in particular have a got a huge task at their hands, with reference to improving online line learning experience.