Bridging contemporary theory with online practice: The sustained impact on student identities
Higher Education (HE) Institutions that offer online programs seek to connect their training promises with the kind of learning and learners 21st century workplaces demand. Fulfilling these objectives implies promoting empowered, collaborative, and self-directed identities in learners during their formal learning and beyond. While learning theories and societal demands might support such identity development in individuals, ensuring these goals are met and importantly sustained has been problematic for institutions. Putting theory into practice becomes a greater challenge when the training process is completely mediated online. This inquiry is one of a four-part longitudinal study aimed at aligning the instructional design, pedagogical practices, and use of social learning-based technology tools in all programs with 21st century goals and contemporary theory of e-learning at a fully online technical HE institution in Chile. In the first three studies, we examined the impact of this alignment across all programs on the learner identities of students: 1) at the outset of their programs (n=2,300), 2) after 5 months (n=14), and 3) through the perspectives of faculty (n=82). Findings in all three studies suggested that many students in the institution, most from socially and academically disadvantaged backgrounds, transitioned to clearly evident 21st century learner behaviours. In the present investigation, our aim was to gather a deeper understanding of these changes and the implications of the design/practice/technology alignment after one year. We focussed on the same students (n=14) to uncover evidence, if any, of sustained changes as they graduated and moved back full time to their respective workplaces. A qualitative methodology was employed where data collection involved individual interviews, field notes, observations, and online digital activity. Findings reveal student identities with significantly increased confidence in their abilities and skills, placing important value on life-long learning as a means to transform their present and future lives and positively influencing their workspaces. This study provides strong empirical evidence of sustained changes that an instructional design based on social learning and mediated by technology generated in our students. At the same time, it contributes valuable and practical answers for overcoming the challenges that still beset many online programs in higher education.