March 24, 2017

Online learning for beginners: 8. Won’t online learning be more work?

Books lots! 2

This is the eighth in a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The previous seven are:

More work?

The short answer is, yes, of course, at least in the short term. This is because online teaching is the same as any other skill. When you first start, you have to learn a lot, and do things you haven’t done before. For instance, as I discussed in earlier posts, you have to think carefully about why you are using online learning, talk to colleagues and work with other professionals such as instructional and web designers, master the technology, such as video recording or a learning management system, and basically re-think and re-design your teaching. This will take time, and your first online course will undoubtedly be more work and more challenging than your most recent face-to-face course.

However, in the long run, there is no reason why online teaching should be more work than face-to-face teaching, all other things being equal (which, of course, they never are in teaching). As always, there are important conditions to be met, if you don’t want to be swamped with extra work. So let’s look at what these conditions are.

Re-design your teaching

In a previous post in this series, I warned against trying to move your face-to-face teaching online, by just recording lectures. Although this may seem to be a time saver when developing an online course, it can cause a lot more work down the line. There will always be some students who don’t understand parts of a lecture and if something isn’t clear all students may have the same problem. When this happens, watch the e-mails or phone calls or even tweets roll in from students – or watch the course completion rate take a dive.

The answer is to use what is called ‘learning design’ or course design: setting clear learning outcomes or objectives for the course, breaking down the learning into manageable chunks of time for the students, providing appropriate learning activities for online learners, for instance, online discussion forums, and ensuring that assessment and feedback is continuous throughout the course, all the time thinking of the context in which the online learner is working. The trick is to move much of the work of finding, analyzing and applying content, and development of skills such as independent thinking, critical thinking, and problem solving, from you to the students, but under your guidance.

For most instructors, this means spending a good deal of time preparing the course in advance of its actual delivery. This means having the weekly modules that students study ready well in advance of the opening of the course. Although there will always be the need for minor changes to content in subsequent years, the bulk of the design and development of the course is done in the first year of its offering.

Most instructors in fact find a time shift when they move to online teaching. The more time you put into the development of the course in the first year, the less time you find yourself spending on content delivery during the delivery of the course, because it is already there. Multiply this over several offerings of the course and the time shift can lead to either significant time savings for you, or, more likely, your spending your time better in working directly, if online, with students, such as monitoring and contributing to online discussion of the course content.

For this reason, many institutions now offer funding to enable you to ‘buy yourself out’ of a face-to-face class for one or two semesters in order to prepare your first online course. Once you have some experience in this more traditional form of online learning, you can move to more ‘agile’ designs later, but that is another matter altogether. The first time out, you and your students need a clear structure and framework for the course.

Also, it is at this stage of course development that working with other professionals such as an instructional designer and web designer is most valuable. They should be able to provide the necessary advice and above all a framework and timetable for your work in designing the course.

Managing class size

I mentioned earlier that online teaching should not be more work, all things being equal. However, sometimes the aim is to use online learning in order to handle large classes or take extra students. These pressures may be coming from the administration rather than from you – or alternatively you may be concerned about the quality of the teaching of large face-to-face classes when many are delivered not by you but by teaching assistants who have barely more content knowledge than those they are teaching and who in particular may not have good lecturing skills.

The general rule for the most appropriate numbers for an individual instructor to teach online is pretty much the same as for face-to-face teaching. Once the instructor:student ratio goes over 1:30, it becomes harder to individualize the teaching and the instructor’s work load increases, unless the course is focused mainly on quantitative or ‘objective’ outcomes that can be automatically assessed, through, for instance, computer marked assignments. It is generally the marking that leads to overload when classes get beyond 30 per instructor.

However, because with online learning the content is available at any time and any place for students, there is some scope for scaling up the teaching to handle larger numbers. In particular, if the teaching content on the course is well developed by a top quality professor or instructor, all students will receive the same quality of content instruction. This means then that learner support and student assessment (marking) can be supported by contract sessional instructors as class size increases.

The availability of funding for hiring additional sessional instructors will depend on the business model behind the online program. If you are merely moving students from an existing face-to-face course to an online course, then there will be no extra money from tuition fees. However, if the online program is attracting new students paying additional tuition fees, then the extra funding can be used to hire more sessional instructors. In many North American universities, the tuition fee once an online course is developed more than covers the cost of additional sessional instructors, even with ‘steps’ of 30 students (i.e. for every additional 30 students you hire another sessional). Much of this of course will depend on faculty agreements, but from your point of view, re-design of a large face-to-face course by moving it online can not only improve the quality but also enable you to manage your own workload better.

What I would advise against is the use of graduate students as teaching assistants for online courses. The re-design of online courses requires instructors who can go beyond the ‘recorded’ content of an online course and can push students in online discussion groups, for instance, to challenge ideas and go deeper than just the formal online content. This requires sessional instructors with a good understanding of content and good inter-personal teaching skills to handle the extra students as class size increases.

In summary then, managing your workload as online class size increases requires several conditions:

  • ‘core’ content of high quality that does not need to be changed a lot from year to year;
  • learning/course design that provides a strong structure for students so that it is clear what they need to do when studying;
  • professional instructional design and web/media design support;
  • flexibility to hire additional, well-qualified sessional instructors as class size increases.

In the end, this may mean moving to a team approach to teaching large online classes. In some cases, the senior instructor’s responsibility may not involve direct teaching at all, but being responsible for the curriculum/content, setting learning outcomes, designing assessments, and supervising the learning support and assignment marking provided by sessional instructors.

Shifting from content to skills development

What online learning can do is enable you, as an instructor or teacher, to move away from ‘sage-on-the-stage’, where you are responsible for choosing and delivering content, and assessing how well students have comprehended this content, to ‘guide-on-the-side’, where students find, analyze and apply content, and develop higher level skills through practice, often working with other students online, through discussion or project work, but always under your guidance, or under the guidance of a team of sessional instructors that you monitor.


  1. Such changes inevitably mean more work, and more challenges, initially, in moving to online learning, but the benefits in both the quality of what your students learn, and the quality of your own engagement with students, can be substantial.
  2. There are also strategies for managing your workload when teaching online, so that over time you can balance better your teaching, research and administrative responsibilities.
  3. But online learning is not something to be undertaken lightly. You need to do it professionally, or it will be both more work and very frustrating.


For more on the design of online courses, see:

Later posts in this series will go into more detail about providing support for online learners that will also enable you to manage better your workload.

Up next

How can I do online learning well?

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

Get the students to do the work!

Get the students to do the work!

Online learning for beginners: 7. Why not just record my lectures?

Why not just put your lecture capture lessons online? Image: MediaCore, 2014

Why not just put your lecture capture lessons online?
Image: MediaCore, 2014

This is the seventh in a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The other six are:

I gave a short answer to ‘Why not just record my lectures?’ in the fourth post in this series, but it deserves a fuller answer. It is natural that faculty and instructors want to use an approach to teaching that is not only familiar and comfortable, but has been used for hundreds of years, so has passed the test of time. However, there are several reasons why recorded classroom lectures are not a good idea for online learning, at least not as the main form of delivering online courses.

Start with the students

When designing online courses, you need to start by thinking about the context of the online learner. An online learner is usually studying in an isolated situation, without other students or the instructor physically present. There are many ways to overcome the isolation of the online learner (dealt with in later posts), but giving them recordings of 50 minute classroom presentations is not one of them.

In a classroom context there are many interactive cues or contexts – such as the response of other students, the look on students faces – that result in slight but important adjustments on the instructor’s part, and which help maintain student concentration and interest. Even if a live class was present at the time of the recording, these cues are usually lacking when students are studying a recorded video at home, in the library, or on the bus.

There is also research evidence that suggests for every hour of presentation, online students need to spend between two to three hours of additional time going over the recording, stopping and starting, to ensure they have fully understood. This is a good benefit of recording compared to even a live lecture, but it also ups the student workload, especially if there is other work to be done, such as readings, assignments, and practical work. Managing student workload is a key factor in ensuring high completion rates for online students.

Lastly, even when recorded lectures are strongly integrated with other activities, such as subsequent classroom discussions or assignments, students often skimp on the video preparation, either skimming the video or not watching it at all. The more isolated the student, the more likely this is to happen.

The changing nature of learning in a digital age

One of the main reasons for moving to online learning is to help develop the knowledge and skills needed in a knowledge-based society and particularly in a digital age. These new forms of knowledge – such as Internet-based sources and rapidly changing content – and in particular the skills required to master these forms of knowledge, such as knowledge management, independent learning and use of digital media – are not handled well through lectures. In particular the lecturer is doing the knowledge management, the modelling and the organization of content, not the students.

In other words lectures require a more passive approach from the learner which is not suitable for isolated learners who need to be active and engaged in their learning, as much for motivational reasons as for developing the knowledge and skills needed. (The same could also be true for classroom based students, incidentally.) Indeed, one of the principle reasons for moving to online teaching is to move away from the limitations of lecture-based classes, and to exploit the benefits of online study.

Video as a teaching medium

Asking ‘Why can’t I move my lectures online?’ is really the wrong question. It assumes that what I’m doing in the classroom will work equally well on video for online students. The right question though should be: ‘What is the best use of video for students studying online?’

In media terms, a recorded lecture is mainly a talking head, with, if students are lucky, textual illustration (e.g. Powerpoint slides). There has been a great deal of research on the best mix of voice, images, and text in video for teaching (see, for instance Mayer, 2009). To incorporate the factors that make the use of video effective for learning, the type of lecture usually delivered in a classroom would need to be considerably redesigned to make it more effective for remote learners.

In addition, there are many other, more creative and relevant ways than lectures for using video for teaching, such as demonstrations of equipment, experiments or processes, animation, and examples drawn from the real world to illustrate abstract concepts.

Successful uses of video for lectures

It could be argued that MOOCs, the Khan Academy, and TED talks are all examples of the successful use of lectures on video. However, they are not the typical classroom lecture delivered three times a week over a 13 week semester.

I have heard instructors say that their MOOC lectures are much better than their classroom lectures, because they put more time into the presentation. MOOC developers have learned to adapt the 50 minute lecture to better fit the online format, with shorter, 10-15 minutes videos, and shorter courses. This is fine for non-credit programming but does not fit the Carnegie-based 13 week semester model for credit programs. Costs for producing successful MOOC lectures run over $100,000 a lecture, production costs that are not sustainable for moving large numbers of classroom lectures online.

Sal Khan is an inspired lecturer who uses voice over combined with on-screen digital notes. His technique is not the same as recording a classroom lecture with whiteboard notes. For a start, the audio and screen quality is much higher, but it is also the technique of constructing teaching in appropriate chunks of recorded time that requires considerable thought and preparation. This is not to say that classroom lecturers could not do this, but it would require once again redesigning the classroom lecture.

Lastly, TED talks require a great deal of preparation and rehearsal, and again are much shorter than the typical classroom lecture.

So, yes, recorded video can work online, but it needs to be designed specifically to suit the mode of delivery. There are also other ways to design online learning that do not necessarily require so much work, and other uses of video for teaching that are more appropriate.

What are the alternatives?

Too many to list them all here, but one is to use an online learning management system, such as Blackboard, Moodle or D2L. These provide a weekly structure for ‘lessons’, organize content in the form of text or online readings, provide a forum for discussion on course topics, provide regular online activities and assignments, and could include links to short videos. Indeed, a short introductory video to a topic by the instructor is often a good idea, providing a personal link between you and your students.

I will discuss other possible online learning environments in later posts.


  1. A talking head delivering 50 minute lectures is in general not a good way to teach online learners.
  2. It is better in the long run to sit down with an instructional designer and build a course from scratch that is appropriate for an online learning environment, rather than try to force your classroom teaching online.
  3. Video is a good medium to use for online learning, but only if it exploits its unique pedagogical benefits.
  4. Talking heads are therefore useful only in particular contexts, and not as a way to deliver a whole course or program online.
  5. Developing quality video for online learning requires a professional approach involving lecturer, instructional designer and a multimedia or video producer.

Follow up

For a critique of the limitations of classroom lectures based on research by Donald Bligh, see Chapter 3.3 Transmissive lectures: learning by listening in Teaching in a Digital Age.

For a good summary of best design principles for developing video/multimedia for learning, based on research on the learning effectiveness of video, see the University of British Columbia’s Design Principles for Multimedia.

For a discussion of the pedagogical potential of video, see Chapter 7.4.2, Presentational features in Teaching in a Digital Age

If you want to follow up on the research and theory on which this post is based see:

  • Bligh, D. (2000) What’s the Use of Lectures? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia Learning (2nd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • McKeachie, W. and Svinicki, M. (2006) McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin

Up next

Won’t online learning be more work?

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

Online learning for beginners: 4. ‘What kinds of online learning are there?’

©, 2013

©, 2013

This is the fourth of a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The other three are:

In the third post, I pointed out that MOOCs were just one of the many different types of online learning. In this post, I will provide more detail about the various approaches to online learning, and will also provide a personal evaluation of each approach in terms of quality. This post will be a little longer than normal, as there are not only many approaches to online learning, but the field is also rapidly changing and developing.

Different approaches to online learning

In the first post, ‘What is online learning’? I pointed out that there is a continuum of teaching, from no use of online learning through blended learning, to fully online (or distance) learning. However, even within these categories, there are different possible approaches:

1. Online class notes


Students access Powerpoint slides and pdfs from a class web site which may be a part of an institution’s learning management system (see below) or it may be just a web site created by the instructor or made available by the institution. Usually the same slides or notes that are given to students taking an on-campus class are put up on the web site for online students, often on a weekly basis.  Online students access the relevant documents, and take the same assessments or exams as on-campus students, either remotely, in the form of computer-marked assignments, or on campus. If online students have questions, they can usually e-mail the instructor. Students usually work individually, although if a learning management system is available, there may be voluntary online discussion between students through the LMS’s discussion forum or social media.


This method is often used by novice online instructors. It requires, on the surface, little extra work for the instructor, once the materials are loaded.

The main problem is that such an approach is not adapted to the needs of online learners, who usually need more support than this model provides. The Powerpoint slides or pdfs do not allow for student interaction with the learning materials (unless they are re-written to do this). If there is a problem with the materials, in terms of the content not being clear, every student is likely to have the same difficulty. Instructors in this model therefore often find that they are overwhelmed with e-mail. If there are not activities (other than reading) scheduled for every week, students tend to get behind. Coming on-campus to do assignments or exams is also a problem for students who have chosen the online option because they have difficulty in getting to campus on a scheduled basis. Students in such courses often feel isolated and unsupported, and therefore such courses usually have much higher non-completion rates. And in the end, instructors find that this approach ends up being a lot more work than they anticipated.

2. Recorded lectures


The increased availability of technology such as lecture capture, which records classroom lectures on digital video and stores them for later downloading over the Internet, and desk-top cameras, has resulted in many instructors offering online courses built around recorded lectures. The lectures are usually the same as those for on-campus classes. Many MOOCs, as well as courses for credit, use recorded lectures as the main form of delivery.


This approach is again convenient for instructors, especially if they are giving a face-to-face lecture anyway and have technical help in recording and storing the lectures. However this approach suffers from many of the same problems as the class notes method above. An additional problem is that if the recording is of a normal 50 minute lecture, students often suffer from what is known as cognitive overload. Although students viewing a recorded lecture have the opportunity to stop and replay material, this can mean that a 50 minute lecture may take up several hours for an online student. MOOC designers, and TED talk designers, have realised this and often they have limited a single video to 10-20 minutes in length. Nevertheless this does not work so well in a full credit program with maybe 39 lectures over a 13 week semester. Providing transcripts of the lectures is not only time consuming and adds costs, but again increases the cognitive load for students. Lastly, there is considerable research that questions the value of lectures as a teaching method.

3. Webinars


These are ‘live’ sessions usually consisting of a lecture delivered over the Internet, supported by Powerpoint slides with opportunities for live online chat for the participants. Webinars can be recorded and made available for online access at another time. Again, ‘good’ webinars tend to be broken up into smaller 5-10 segments of presentation followed by either online voice or more commonly (for group management reasons) text comments and questions contributed by participants to which the lecturer responds.


Webinars come closer to mirroring a live face-to-face class than either class notes or recorded lectures, and need relatively little adaptation or change for instructors. While webinars tend to be more interactive than recorded lectures, again it is difficult to cover a whole curriculum through webinars alone. Also participants need to be available at a set time, which restricts the flexibility or availability for online students, although the availability of the recording can offset that to some extent. Webinars using a lecture format also suffer from the same pedagogical limitations for online students as recorded lectures.

4. Instructionally-designed online courses based on a learning management system

These are probably the most common form of online courses for credit and more importantly, they have proved themselves with high completion rates and quality learning.


A whole science of instructional design has been developed since the 1940s based on pedagogical theory, research on how students learn, the appropriate use of technology, and the evaluation of learning outcomes, and this approach has been applied systematically to the design of fully online and increasingly blended courses. Usually an instructor will work with a professional instructional designer to redesign a classroom course or even a new course for use by online, distance learners. The instructor will be asked to define desired learning objectives, or learning outcomes, the content will be chosen to support the development of such objectives, and organised into ‘blocks’ of study (weekly or more) so that the whole curriculum can be covered over the semester. Assessment will be linked to the desired learning objectives. Sometimes objectives are determined through an analysis of the assessment requirements for equivalent face-to-face classes, if these are not already formally defined. Decisions will be made about which media (text, audio, video, computing) to use in terms of their appropriateness for meeting the defined learning objectives. Particular attention is paid to providing regular student activities, and managing student and instructor workload. Online learning management systems are often used to provide a structure for the course, opportunities for instructor-monitored student discussion, and online assessment tools.


This approach has been used very successfully with the design of fully online courses, usually leading to high completion rates and good quality learning outcomes. In some cases, it has also been successfully applied to blended courses. It is from this approach that many of the best practices in online learning have been identified. It means working in a team, often consisting of a senior faculty member, and for large classes, sessional or contract instructors and/or teaching assistants, an instructional designer, and other technical support staff, such as web designers, that can be called upon as necessary. However, this approach appears initially to be more costly for an institution, and more work for an instructor. It can take up to two years to design and develop a large fully online course, although courses for small classes (less than 40) can be designed in a  much shorter period. However, if the course or program attracts new students, tuition and other revenues can offset many of the additional costs, for instance, paying for release time for faculty to work on course design and development.

This is an interactive infographic. To see more detail on each of the five stages, click on each stage in the graphic © Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

This is an interactive infographic. To see more detail on each of the five stages, click on each stage in the graphic
© Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

5. Designs based on open education and emerging technologies


This is a bit of a rag-bag category for a small but growing number of online course designs that seek fully to exploit specific characteristics of new media and open educational approaches. These might include:

  • connectivist MOOCs‘ that focus on the contributions of all participants in an extended online network;
  • courses built around social media tools such as blogs, wikis, and e-portfolios;
  • approaches that exploit open educational resources, such as open textbooks and content freely available over the Internet;
  • courses built around emerging technologies, such as virtual worlds, gaming, and augmented reality.

Common features of such courses are increased activity and choices for learners, more diversity in course designs, and ‘agile’ or quick design and development. In such courses, students are often encouraged to seek, analyse, evaluate and apply content to real world issues or contexts, rather than the instructor being primarily responsible for content choice and delivery.


The main rationale for such courses is as follows:

  • they are more appropriate for developing the skills and knowledge learners need in a digital age;
  • they are more active and engaging for learners, resulting in deeper learning;
  • they make better use of new technologies by exploiting their unique teaching potential;
  • these approaches usually result in quicker and relatively low-cost course development and delivery compared with the instructional design approach;
  • they are transforming teaching into a more modern, relevant methodology that better suits today’s learners.

However, such approaches require highly confident and effective instructors with experience in using new technology for teaching, combined with the team approach described earlier. Above all instructors need to have a good grasp of both pedagogy and technology, as well as subject expertise. Direct instructional design and technology support is also essential. Most of these approaches are so new that there is relatively little research on their effectiveness. They are therefore a high risk activity for an instructor, especially those with little experience of online teaching.

This is a very abbreviated description of fast-developing, constantly changing approaches to online learning. You are especially encouraged to do the follow-up reading below.


  1. It is generally a mistake to merely transport your classroom teaching to an online environment. Online students work in different contexts and have different needs to students in face-to-face classes. Online courses need to be redesigned to accommodate the unique requirements of online learners.
  2. There is a strong body of knowledge about how to design online courses well. You ignore this at your peril. Consequences of ignoring best practices may include poor learning results, a much heavier work-load than anticipated, and dissatisfied students and superiors.
  3. It is best to work in a team. Instructional designers have knowledge about teaching online that most instructors lack. While you will always be in control of content selection, assessment and overall teaching approach, instructional designers need to be listened to as equals.
  4. New technologies have the promise of radically changing teaching, making it more relevant, more engaging for students, and more exciting and challenging for an instructor.


This is a very simplified account of the different kinds of online learning. For a more extensive coverage, see:

For more on the effectiveness of lectures, see:

For more on cognitive load and online learning design, see:

For more on instructional design, see:

For more on designs based on open education and emerging technologies see:

For more on emerging technologies in online learning see:

Up next

When should I use online learning? (This will be much shorter, I promise!)

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

Online learning for beginners: 3. ‘Aren’t MOOCs online learning?’


What are MOOCs?

Just in case you don’t know what MOOCs are (massive, open online courses), they are usually courses that use video recordings of lectures from top professors from elite universities, such as Stanford, MIT and Harvard, and computer-marked assessments, sometimes combined with unmonitored online student discussions and peer review. MOOCs are made freely available to anyone who wants to sign up. The main platforms for MOOCs are Coursera, edX, Udacity and FutureLearn. There are also quite a different kind of MOOC, called connectivists MOOCs, that are more like online communities of practice

The first MOOCs attracted over 200,000 enrolments per course, although numbers in recent years are more in the 2,500 range. Nevertheless it is estimated that there are more than 34 million participants worldwide registering in MOOCs each year.

Since the first ones launched in 2008, MOOCs have been rapidly evolving.

MOOCs vs online credit courses

Given all the publicity and hype over MOOCs, you could be forgiven for thinking that MOOCs are all you need to know about online learning. However, you would be sadly mistaken.

Online learning existed as a serious part of education at least 15 years before MOOCs arrived on the scene. The following graph shows the increase in online courses for credit up to 2012 in the USA post-secondary education system, before the first MOOCs were launched:

Allen and Seaman, 2013

Allen and Seaman, 2013

By 2013 at least one in three students in post-secondary education was taking at least one online course as part of a degree program. At the moment according to the U.S. Department of Education somewhere between 8-15% of all university degree course enrolments are in fully online courses. Online course enrolments continue to grow at rate (10-20% per annum) much faster than enrolments for on-campus courses (2-3% per annum) (Allen and Seaman, 2016).

So what’s the difference?

  • MOOCs have much higher numbers of initial participants generally than online credit courses; MOOCs can have anywhere between 2,000 to 200,000 participants who sign up, whereas online courses for credit can have anywhere between 20 to 2,000 registered enrolments. Fully online courses for credit usually though have 100 enrolments per course or less;
  • MOOCs, with very few exceptions, do not provide credits towards degrees, although a certificate may be issued (for a price) for those that complete computer-based assessments. However, even the institutions offering MOOCs do not accept successful completion of their courses towards credit in their own institution;
  • MOOCs have very low successful completion rates (less than 10%, usually closer to 5%) whereas fully online courses for credit often have completion rates as high or just below those for equivalent face-to-face courses. For instance in Ontario in 2011, completion rates for all fully online courses for credit in the Ontario public post-secondary system were within 5% of completion rates for face-to-face classes in universities, and within 10% for two year colleges; in other words roughly 80% or more of students in fully online courses for credit will successfully complete;
  • MOOCs provide almost no personal learning support for learners from qualified instructors, whereas most successful fully online courses for credit have a strong instructor online presence;
  • MOOCs generally charge no fee to participate (although a fee may be charged for a certificate of completion); fully online courses for credit normally charge the same fee as, or slightly higher than, those for campus-based courses or programs.

In other words, MOOCs are just one, more recent, form of online learning. They are more like continuing education programs, except they are free. Think of them as a modern form of educational television.

MOOC participation Image: Phil Hill

MOOC participation rates Image: Phil Hill, 2013

The hype

Much has been made about MOOCs disrupting the higher education system (Christensen, 2010), being a solution to educational problems in developing countries (Friedman, 2013), and being a threat to the existence of universities. Leslie Wilson of the European University Association has commented that MOOCs have forced Vice Chancellors to focus on teaching and learning (which I find a somewhat sad comment: why weren’t they focusing on that before MOOCs came along)?

However, after all the initial publicity, MOOCs have settled down into an important but relatively small niche in post-secondary education, a form of continuing education that still struggles to find a successful business model that works for the universities that supply MOOCs.

Why then all the fuss?

Good question! There is a combination of factors that have resulted in the publicity and hype.

One of the most important is that the development of MOOCs was largely driven by faculty (and mainly computer-science faculty) from highly prestigious, elite universities such as Stanford, MIT and Harvard. This has resulted in a bandwagon effect of follow my leader from other universities. Whatever the faults or weaknesses of MOOCs, these elite universities have made online learning highly visible, whereas before, although online courses for credit had been slowly gaining ground, online learning was still seen as peripheral and slightly disreputable.

MOOCs also coincided with a time when states in the USA were making big cuts in higher education budgets due to the 2008 financial recession, leading to lack of tax revenues; many saw MOOCs as an alternative to high cost, campus-based universities. Over time, this argument has become less convincing, partly due to the lack of recognition for credit of successful MOOC completion, and partly due to the difficulties of developing the high level of skills needed outside the purely quantitative subject areas with so little learner support .


  • Most faculty will need, at least in the short-term, to focus on online courses, blended or fully online, for credit, not MOOCs. These for credit online courses will need different approaches in terms of course design and learner support from MOOCs, if high completion rates are to be achieved and high level learning skills are to be developed in students;
  • For some ‘star’ faculty in subject areas where the university is particularly or uniquely strong, MOOCs will still be an attractive proposition, boosting both the star faculty member’s reach and reputation, and the brand of the university;
  • MOOC design will evolve, probably converging towards the designs used for successful for-credit online courses, but this will likely increase costs; at the same time, the design of for-credit courses may also benefit from some of the lessons in ‘scaling’ from successful MOOCs;
  • there are many other forms of online learning besides MOOCs, and within online courses for credit there are many different approaches; it is important to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each of these variations in online learning, so the appropriate choices can be made. This is the topic of my next post in this series.


If you want to know more about MOOCs, and their strengths and weaknesses, here is some suggested further homework (if you read/watch it all, possibly 2 hours of reading/watching):

Up next

‘What kinds of online learning are there?’ (to be posted early in the week 25-31 July, 2016)

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.


Allen, L. and Seaman, J. (2016) Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States Wellesley MA: Babson Survey Research Group

Downes, S. (2016) Connectivism, MOOCs and Innovation, Stephen Downes, July 25

Christensen, C. (2010) Disrupting Class, Expanded Edition: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns New York: McGraw-Hill

Friedman, T. (2013) Revolution Hits the Universities New York Times, January 26

Online learning for beginners: 2. Isn’t online learning worse than face-to-face teaching?

Distance education: anyone sitting more than 10 rows from the front

Distance learning: anyone sitting more than 10 rows from the front

The short answer to this question is: no, online learning is neither inherently worse – nor better – than face-to-face teaching; it all depends on the circumstances.

The research evidence

There have been thousands of studies comparing face-to-face teaching to teaching with a wide range of different technologies, such as televised lectures, computer-based learning, and online learning, or comparing face-to-face teaching with distance education.

With regard to online learning there have been several meta-studies. A meta-study combines the results of many ‘well-conducted scientific’ studies, usually studies that use the matched comparisons or quasi-experimental method (Means et al., 2011; Barnard et al., 2014). Nearly all such ‘well-conducted’ meta-studies find no or little significant difference in the modes of delivery, in terms of the effect on student learning or performance. For instance, Means et al. (2011), in a major meta-analysis of research on blended and online learning for the U.S. Department of Education, reported:

In recent experimental and quasi-experimental studies contrasting blends of online and face-to-face instruction with conventional face-to-face classes, blended instruction has been more effective, providing a rationale for the effort required to design and implement blended approaches. When used by itself, online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction, but not more so.

However, the ‘no significant difference’ finding is often misinterpreted. If there is no difference, then why do online learning? I’m comfortable teaching face-to-face, so why should I change?

This is a misinterpretation of the findings, because there may indeed within any particular study be large differences between conditions (face-to-face vs online), but they cancel each other out over a wide range of studies, or because with matched comparisons you are looking at only very specific, strictly comparable conditions, that never exist in a real teaching context.

For instance the ‘base’ variable chosen is nearly always the traditional classroom. In order to make a ‘scientific’ comparison, the same learning objectives and same treatment (teaching) is applied to the comparative condition (online learning). This means using exactly the same kind of students, for instance, in both conditions. But what if (as is the case) online learning better suits non-traditional students, or will achieve better learning outcomes if the teaching is designed differently to suit the context of online learning?

Asking the right questions

Indeed, it is the variables or conditions for success that we should be examining, not just the technological delivery. In other words, we should be asking a question first posed by Wilbur Schramm as long ago as 1977:

What kinds of learning can different media best facilitate, and under what conditions?

In terms of making decisions then about mode of delivery, we should be asking, not which is the best method overall, but:

What are the most appropriate conditions for using face-to-face, blended or fully online learning respectively? 

So what are the conditions that best suit online learning?

There are a number of possible answers:

  • learners:
    • fully online learning best suits more mature, adult, lifelong learners who already have good independent learning skills and for work and family reasons don’t want to come on campus
    • blended learning or a mix of classroom and fully online courses best suits full time undergraduate students who are also working part-time to keep their debt down, and need the flexibility to do part of their studies online
    • ‘dependent’ learners who lack self-discipline or who don’t know how to manage their own learning probably will do better with face-to-face teaching; however independent learning is a skill that can be taught, so blended learning is a safe way to gradually introduce such students to more independent study methods
  • learning outcomes:
    • embedding technology within the teaching may better enable the development of certain ’21st century skills’, such as independent learning, confidence in using information technologies within a specific subject domain, and knowledge management
    • online learning may provide more time on task to enable more practice of skills, such as problem-solving in math
    • redesign of very large lecture classes, so that lectures are recorded and students come to class for discussion and questions, making the classes more interactive and hence improving learning outcomes

Even this is really putting the question round the wrong way. A better question is:

What are the challenges I am facing as an instructor (or my learners are facing as students) that could be better addressed through online learning? And what form of online learning will work best for my students?


However, the most important condition influencing the effectiveness of both face-to-face and online teaching is how well it is done. A badly designed and delivered face-to-face class will have worse learning outcomes than a well designed online course – and vice versa. Ensuring quality in online learning will be the topic of the last few blogs in this series.


  1. Don’t worry about the effectiveness of online learning. Under the right conditions, it works well.
  2. Start with the challenges you face. Keep an open mind when thinking about whether online learning might be a better solution than continuing in the same old way.
  3. If you think it might be a solution for some of your problems, start thinking about the necessary conditions for success. The next few blog posts should help you with this.

Follow up

Here is some suggested further reading on the effectiveness of online learning:

Up next

‘Aren’t MOOCs online learning?’ (to be posted later in the week July 18-22, 2016)

Comparing modes: horses for courses

Comparing modes: horses for courses