The Challenges and Promise of OMO Education
KK Tse

With the pandemic sweeping through the globe, businesses of almost every sector have come to a standstill. There are some notable exceptions, one of which is Online Education.

Yes, Online Education. This is of course not something new. But its importance seems to have been heightened out of proportion because of the pandemic. Major demands on at least three fronts are most noticeable:

First, with virtually all educational institutions cease to open their doors to students, everyone is scrambling to turn to online delivery of some of the contents;

Second, with a sizable portion of the population having an unexpectedly large amount of leisure in their hands, they have a high inclination to take up learning via the internet to acquire new knowledge or skills for personal or career development;

Third, with most corporations having a much lower level of business activities, it represents a golden opportunity to invest in online programs that could enhance the staff’s productivity and capabilities.

In short, there is a sudden surge of interest and demand for online learning programs of various kinds.

Learning from MOOC
2012 was a landmark year for online education when MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) made their debut like a wildfire. Almost overnight, a large number of online, free courses delivered by world-class professors and scholars were within the reach of large number of learners across the globe. Today, we witness a proliferation of online learning programs covering a huge number of subjects and leveraging a bewildering variety of platforms.
To begin with, online educational programs generally suffer from a low completion rate. According to the Wikipedia, the dropout rate of most MOOC courses is over 90%.

Sebastian Thurn, founder of Udacity, one of the three original MOOC platforms, was greatly disappointed when he witnessed the depressingly low completion rate of typical MOOCs. He changed course quickly and focused instead on designing online training programs for corporates. The results were more encouraging although, despite his innovativeness and creativity, the completion rate was just around 30 to 35%. He realized that a lot more still needed to be done to bring out the full potential of online education.

Fast track to 2020. If you do a 3-hour search on the literature of online education, you are likely to come to the conclusion that over 90% of the potential of online education is yet to be realized.

Below are some salient factors to address.

1.  Online education is far more than delivering lectures over the internet
We must abandon the idea that online education is little more than online delivery of lectures.

Especially in the past few months when the pandemic was rendering all classroom activities suspended, schools, universities, and other educational institutions have been scrambling to put teaching online. The assumption seemed to be that online delivery of lectures or classes could be a substitute for classroom teaching. This is a fatal mistake.

Online education entails first of all a comprehensive use of online resources to assist and facilitate learning. In most cases, this would render lecturing unnecessary or irrelevant.

It is instructive to take a lesson from the early development of movie industry. In 1888, Edison had invented the ‘motion picture’ technology. But it took over twenty years before this technology was being employed to produce movies. The initial deployment of the motion picture technology was confined primarily to recording live operas and then showed them to audiences elsewhere. It was major breakthrough for sure. But it took a long time before people saw the potential of this technology in creating movies as we know of them today.

If we just equate online lecturing with online education, we would be repeating the mistake of the early development of movie industry.

2.   O-M-O will become the norm

O-M-O stands for Online-Merge-Offline, meaning integration of online resources and offline activities. Any programs that are only online – with no offline components – are unlikely to achieve the optimal educational results.

Just like retailing, O-M-O is inevitable.

A LinkedIn article summarises the trends in retailing as follows:

2018 is an interesting year. This year China retail market has entered a new era – OMO. OMO stands for Online-Merge-Offline. This will be the future of retail.

The education sector is moving at a much slower pace, but the trend is equally noticeable. The future is in O-M-O.
3.  The Flipped Classroom approach revolutionizes teaching and learning

With O-M-O as the infrastructure, the Flipped Classroom approach is likely to flourish. This approach means that the classroom will no longer be used for ‘lecturing’ or ‘teaching’. All the informational or inspirational materials are communicated to the students in advance so that they could be studied at home; the classroom will be ‘freed’ for Q & A, discussions, exchanges,
applications, exercises, and even assignment preparation.

This approach has gained ascendancy from 2000 onwards and is now widely practiced among educational institutions from all over the world.

The Flipped Classroom and O-M-O approaches blend in perfectly with the use of online resources for preparation and assessment, and offline activities to deepen learning and application.

4.  High Tech and High Touch go together
One of the most widespread and devastating shortcomings of conventional online educational programs is the lack of human interaction. In almost all studies of the effectiveness of online education, the most common issue is the demotivating effect of the ‘lonely learner’, who is receiving hardly any attention to individual needs, learning difficulties or support.

In O-M-O programs, the roles of the teacher (as Chief Learning Facilitator), teaching assistant (Learning Facilitator), student (Active Learner) are radically redefined.

The Chief Learning Facilitator is the mastermind of the course, and is characterized by three attributes:

     a) systematic and deep knowledge of the subject matter;
     b) appreciation and practical mastery of online educational technologies; and
c) expertise in designing learning journey that is exciting, relevant, educational and enjoyable.

The Learning Facilitator has a pivotal role in an O-M-O program. In most online educational programs, there has been a lopsided emphasis on scale. It was assumed that with the application of technology, all is required is great contents made accessible to the largest number of people with minimum cost. This is in fact the primary cause of the unacceptably high level of dropout rate.

The introduction of Learning Facilitator looking after small groups of individual learners (ideally in teams of 4 to 6) would mean additional costs. But it is a question of whether or not you want to achieve a completion rate of less than 10% or over 80%.

Online technology is a godsend for educators; but it is only when High Touch and High Tech go together that we could reap the full benefits of online education.

The student’s role has also to be changed to an Active Learner. The abundance and richness of online resources provide a golden opportunity for self-directed learning. But the learners have to take an active part to leverage these resources. High level of self-motivation and self-discipline is the key. It is depressing to notice that some participants of online classes have come up with innovative ways to ‘fake’ their presence, such as posting a photo to pretend their presence in class.

In this context, we might as well say something about the issue of so-called ‘spoon-feeding’ commonly found in some educational settings. Spoon-feeding refers to the practice of relying on the teachers to spoon-feed knowledge into the students, or what is sometimes called the ‘banking approach’ to teaching: you deposit knowledge into students’ brains and expect them to withdraw them for use in examinations.

If we are not careful, it is totally possible to have a new form of spoon-feeding using online technology.

An opportunity and a challenge

All in all, O-M-O education design and delivery is a great opportunity and challenge. There are not too many examples of O-M-O courses around to date.

It takes no less than a total rethink of the design of the entire learning journey of the students, from defining the roles of the Chief Learning Facilitator, Learning Facilitator and Active Learner, to the screening and acceptance of self-motivated learners, fee structure, assessment methods, continuous feedback mechanisms, etc.

The pandemic has created a major shock to almost every sector of the society, including education. For a while, almost everyone is engaged in some form of online education, as teachers, students, parents, or as providers, enablers, observers, etc.  In the process, both the shortcomings and potential are revealed for all to see.

The O-M-O approach represents a promising alternative to the current mode of online education. Let’s make it work for all of us.