Online learning for beginners: 1. What is online learning?

July 15, 2016 Tony Bates

Student at computer at home 2

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 500 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. Unfortunately, though, there are very few short guides to online learning, to help you make the decision about whether you should make the effort to do it properly.

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.

The continuum of online learning

I have deliberately chosen a very broad definition of online learning, because it can be seen that it comes in many different varieties. 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.

I therefore see teaching as a continuum:

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

  • at one end, there is teaching with no use of technology, which therefore is NOT online learning, but ‘pure’ face-to-face teaching. However, teaching without any technology is very rare these days, at least in formal education;
  • then there is the use of technology as a classroom aid, which may or may not be online learning. For instance an instructor using a projector and Powerpoint slides would not be using online learning, but students being directed to use a device such as a laptop, tablet or mobile phone to look at a web site during a classroom lesson would be a form of online learning, but the classroom would remain the main means of delivery. However this could be considered a sub-branch of online learning, called blended learning;
  • so, as with most continua, we get to a point where definitions become a little less precise, and this is blended learning, which again can mean a number of things, but in general means a combination of face-to-face teaching and a significant use of online learning, especially outside the classroom. This can take a number of forms:
    • a flipped classroom is one where student do preparation online before a classroom session (for instance watching a pre-recorded video lecture, and/or online reading);
    • hybrid learning is one where the whole classroom experience has been redesigned to focus on what the instructor thinks is best done online and what is best done face-to-face; in hybrid learning students may spend 50 per cent or more of their time learning on line;
  • lastly, fully online learning, where students do not come to campus at all, but study entirely online, which is one form of distance education.

Note though that online learning can include learning with or without an instructor physically present, and that a computer lab where everything is already pre-loaded on the computer would not be online learning. (This form of learning is still found in some countries with poor or no Internet access).

The important thing to remember is that online learning is primarily a mode of delivery, a way of delivering education to learners, NOT a particular method of teaching. Online learning can support a wide range of teaching methods. For instance lectures can be delivered in class (face-to-face) or over the Internet, as can experiential learning, constructivist approaches and many other teaching methods. This will be a topic of later posts.

We shall also see that online learning, like face-to-face teaching, can be done well or it can be done badly, but that too is a topic for another post.

Implications

With the increased use of online learning, every instructor now has to ask themselves two important questions:

  1. Where on the continuum of teaching should my course be, and on what basis should I make that decision?
  2. How do I decide, in any form of blended learning, what is best done online, and what is best done face-to-face?

Teaching in a Digital Age attempts to help you answer such questions, but in order to answer those questions well, you will need to read a lot of the book.

Follow-up

So in the meantime, if you want to know more about what online learning is, here is some suggested further reading (no more than an hour). Just click on the link:

  1. From the periphery to the centre: how technology is changing the way we teach, Chapter 1.7, Teaching in a Digital Age
  2. The continuum of technology-based learning, Chapter 9.1, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Up next

‘Isn’t online learning worse than face-to-face teaching?’ (to be posted in the week July 18-22, 2016)

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or just plain disagree, please let me know.

Students in small group online 2

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