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“Online Learning” is Not Just One Thing

A recent article in Educause Review points out that what is happening in schools and colleges across the world should not be considered “online learning” anymore than consulting WebMD should be considered a trip to the doctor.  

That’s because “online learning,” in the sense that educators mean it, is actually a series of deliberate and intentional practices designed to best convey information in a digital format.  What’s happening in schools and colleges everywhere is, through no fault of anyone’s, a massive rush to quickly get everything online as fast as possible using people who haven’t been trained and who often never intended to teach online, for classes that weren’t designed to be taught online. 

That’s not the same thing.  The authors of the Educase Review article call this “Emergency Remote Teaching,” and say it’s critical to understand how different this is from designed and tested “online learning” programs.

This is absolutely true.  But more than that, it illustrates a point that we’ve been trying to make since all this began:  “online learning” isn’t just one thing.  Or even one kind of thing.  Much in the way talking about “education” can mean Montessori school or Stanford computer science, and graduate seminars in mathematics aren’t organized the same way a high school choir is, “online learning” is not necessarily a useful phrase when you want to discuss what school and colleges actually might do, and who it might help, and whether it’s going to work.  

Among some of the more basic questions:

  • Is the “online learning” designed to be taken by a cohort of students at the same time, or by individual students on their own time?
  • Is there an instructor leading the class?  (As opposed to recording lectures and curating reading lists.)  If so, how involved are they?  If not, how is the class structured?
  • Does it include elements that make it “blended learning” (like class meetings, occasional in-person seminars, or lab work that needs to be done physically)?
  • How are the learning objectives measured and evaluated?  
  • How is feedback provided?

Then, of course, there are questions about who the course is for, and what are the barriers to entry?

  • Does the course require prerequisites?
  • How much does it cost?
  • How much time will it take, in terms of class time, homework, and independent study?
  • Is there support for students who are struggling?

… and many others.

These distinctions are extremely relevant to an online community college like Calbright, because we were established to serve very specific populations:  working adult Californians seeking upward career changes for whom conventional colleges are impractical or out of reach.  Our classes, our coursework, everything we do, must be specifically designed to support that population if we are going to fulfill our mission.  

Many approaches to “online learning” that are very good for other populations do not support these potential students at all.  And that’s true of many different populations, and many different kinds of online learning.

These distinctions are therefore also extremely relevant to the educational system as a whole:  even if more and more classes at conventional schools and colleges end up online, that doesn’t mean they will be serving the population we do.  If they want to do that, they’ll have to design for it across the board, from entrance requirements to administration to student support and (of course) classroom instruction.  And much more.  

Implementing “Emergency Remote Teaching” on a mass scale is incredibly difficult right now.  A move into true “Online Learning” is going to require a lot more deliberate thought if it’s going to actually help anyone, and that will include the realization that “online classes” can’t be all things to all people.  

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