Getting started in online learning?
Every day, someone new either thinks about doing an online course, or is pressured into doing one.You may have quite a lot of prior knowledge about online learning (or think you do), or may have no knowledge at all. The most important thing to know though is that you probably don’t know enough about online learning, especially if you are just starting out (which defines you as wise, according to Socrates).
I have been teaching and researching online learning for nearly 30 years (yes, online learning started that long ago). Over that time, a great deal of research and evaluation of online learning has been done. Although much more could be done, and not all the work has been of high quality, nevertheless there is a great deal now known about what works and what doesn’t in online learning. Learning by experience is often a good way to learn, but it can also lead to frustration and, more importantly, students may suffer from the instructors’ lack of experience or ignorance. Thus at least knowing the basics before you start can save you not only a lot of time, but also will help you develop better courses from scratch.
I have written a 600 page, free online open textbook on Teaching in a Digital Age, which draws extensively on the latest research into online learning, and is meant as a guide for practitioners. To help you make the decision about whether you should make the effort to do it properly, I have also developed a series of 12 short (10-15 minute) videos that cover the main themes of the book, and a 37 page summary entitled ‘The 10 Fundamentals of Teaching Online for Faculty and Instructors‘.
So this is the first in a series of blog posts aimed at those new to online learning, particularly but not exclusively for those in the post-secondary education sector. I am hoping that these blogs will not only provide some of the basic knowledge you need before starting, but will also lead you to go further by digging into the parts of Teaching at a Distance that are relevant to you at any particular time.
Online learning: a definition
There is no Academie Française or Academy of Science or Technology that provides an ‘official’ definition of online learning. It is what people say it is, so I can only give you my personal definition, which is as follows:
Online learning is any form of learning conducted partly or wholly over the Internet.
However, with the emergency measures taken during the Covid-19 pandemic, commentators have made the distinction between deliberately designed online learning and the emergency measures used to move all instruction online in the spring of 2020:
- Emergency Remote Teaching: “is a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances. It involves the use of fully remote teaching solutions for instruction or education that would otherwise be delivered face-to-face or as blended or hybrid courses and that will return to that format once the crisis or emergency has abated.”
- Online Learning: A form of distance education in which a course or program is intentionally designed in advance to be delivered fully online. Faculty use pedagogical strategies for instruction, student engagement, and assessment that are specific to learning in a virtual environment.
My only problem with such a distinction is that there is an evaluative element to each, suggesting that ‘intentionally designed’ is preferable to a transfer of classroom methods to online. Although I tend to agree, from a learner perspective, it would be difficult to make that distinction, while it would not be difficult to see the difference between ‘online’ and ‘on-campus’.
I think that unfortunately online learning professionals will have to live with the fact that many faculty and students will nevertheless perceive emergency remote teaching to be a form of online learning, even while recognising that it could be done much better with more time for preparation..
The continuum of online learning
I have deliberately chosen a very broad definition of online learning, because it comes in many different varieties (there will be another blog post on the different varieties of online learning). My definition means that learners will use a computer, tablet or some other device for their learning, and it also means that at some point in their studying they have to go online – through the Internet – to access information or communicate with an instructor or other learners.