October 24, 2016

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

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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 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.

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.


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.


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

Recording of webinar on choosing modes of delivery

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What makes face-to-face teaching pedagogically unique - if anything?

What makes face-to-face teaching pedagogically unique – if anything?

This morning I gave my third webinar in the Contact North series based on my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. There were 95 participants from 16 different countries.

In this webinar, which focused on Chapter 9 of Teaching in a Digital Age, I discussed with participants:

  • the continuum of technology-based learning and its conceptual and practical usefulness;
  • the key factors to consider when choosing appropriate modes of delivery;
  • how to move to blended/hybrid learning;
  • identifying the unique educational benefits of the campus compared to online learning.

A recording of the webinar, including discussion and participants’ comments, can be accessed here: https://contactnorth.webex.com/contactnorth/lsr.php?RCID=9a1a2cc8600d2c07a6426d4b15d7f9bd.

The next webinar, on quality in online and blended learning, will be at 1.00 pm EST, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. There will be a final, fifth webinar on the future impact of open educational resources on higher/post-secondary education later in 2016 (date to be announced).

For more details, and to access recordings of the two previous webinars, go to: http://teachonline.ca/teachingwebinars

How to get started in blended learning: an interview with Tony Bates

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Click on the image to play the recording (just under 10 minutes)

Click on the image to play the recording (just under 10 minutes)

Following my keynote at the ‘Dé Onderwijsdagen’ conference in the Netherlands this week (a blog post about my presentation and a video recording of the full presentation will be available shortly), I was interviewed by Zac Woolfitt from Inholland, a large multi-campus Hogeschool (University of Applied Science) in the Netherlands.

Inholland is just embarking on implementing blended and hybrid learning, and is using my book as a guide for faculty and instructors.

This is a short (under 10 minutes) edited recording of the interview (click on the image above or here to play the recording).

Here are the questions I try to address in the interview:

  • how should an organisation take the [necessary] steps into blended learning?
  • how are institutions using the book [Teaching in a Digital Age] for faculty development?
  • could Inholland use my book for a teacher training course?
  • what advice would you give to teachers? Is there an approach you would recommend (for blended learning)?
  • are there trends that are pushing [online learning]?
  • what advice would you give our Board of Governors about the right way to move forward?


MIT introduces credit-based online learning

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MIT entrance

Bradt, S. (2015) Online courses + time on campus = a new path to an MIT master’s degree MIT News, October 7

MIT is famous for its non-credit MOOCs, but now, for the first time, it is offering a credit program at least partially online.

The one year Master in Supply Chain Management will consist of one semester taking online courses and one semester on campus, starting in February, 2016. This will run alongside the existing 10 month on-campus program. The online classes that make up the first semester will cost US$150, while the exam is $400 to $800. The second semester on campus will cost at least half what it costs for the yearlong program, which would mean about another $17,000. Students will still need to meet MIT’s academic standards for admission. It is expected to take about 30 to 40 students a year into the new program. The program will be offered using MIT’s own edX platform.

Since many other universities have been offering a mix of online and campus-based programs for many years, perhaps of more interest is MIT’s announcement of a new qualification, a MicroMaster, for those that successfully complete just the online portion of the program. MIT states that those that do well on the MicroMaster will ‘significantly enhance their chances of being accepted to the full master’s program‘.


First, congratulations to MIT for finally getting into credit-based online learning. This is a small but significant step.

It will be interesting to see how much the Master’s online courses differ in design from MOOCs. Will there be more interaction with the MIT faculty in the Master’s program? Will MIT use existing best practice in the design of credit-based online learning, or will they use a different model closer to MOOCs? If so, how will that affect the institution’s willingness to accept credit for MOOCs? All interesting questions.

Lessons about researching technology-enhanced instruction

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Meiori, Amalfi Coast

Meiori, Amalfi Coast – when it’s not raining

Lopes, V. and Dion, N. (2105) Pitfalls and Potential: Lessons from HEQCO-Funded Research on Technology-Enhanced Instruction Toronto ON: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

Since it’s raining heavily here on the Amalfi Coast today for the first time in months, I might as well do another blog post.

What this report is about

HEQCO (the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario) is an independent advisory agency funded by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities to provide recommendations for improving quality, accessibility, inter-institutional transfer, system planning, and effectiveness in higher education in Ontario. In 2011, HEQCO:

issued a call for research projects related to technology-enhanced instruction…. Now that the technology studies have concluded and that most have been published, this report draws some broader conclusions from their methods and findings.

What are the main conclusions?

1. There is no clear definition of what ‘technology’ means or what it refers to in many studies that investigate its impact on learning:

One assumes that the nature of the tools under investigation would have an impact on research design and on the metrics being measured. Yet little attention is paid to this problem, which in turns creates challenges when interpreting study findings.

2. There is no clear definition of blended or hybrid learning:

The proportion of online to face-to-face time, as well as the nature of the resources presented online, can both differ considerably. In a policy context, where we may wish to discuss issues across institutions or at a system level, the lack of consensus definitions can be particularly disruptive. In this respect, a universal definition of blended learning, applied consistently to guide practice across all colleges and universities, would be helpful.

3. Students need orientation to/training in the use of the technologies used in their teaching: they are not digital natives in the sense of being intuitively able to use technology for study purposes.

4. Instructors and teaching assistants should also be trained on the use and implementation of technology.

5. The simple presence of technology will rarely enhance a classroom. Instead, some thought has to go into integrating it effectively.

6. New technologies should be implemented not for their own sake but with a specific goal or learning outcome in mind.

7. Many of the HEQCO-funded studies, including several of those with complex study designs and rigorous methodologies, concluded that the technology being assessed had no significant effect on student learning.

8. Researchers in the HEQCO-funded studies faced challenges encouraging student participation, which often led to small sample sizes in situations where classroom-based interventions already limited the potential pool of participants.

9. The integration of technology in postsecondary education has progressed to such a point that we no longer need to ask whether we should use technology in the classroom, but rather which tool to use and how.

10. There is no single, unified, universally accepted model or theory that could be applied to ensure optimal learning in all educational settings.


I need to be careful in my comments, not because I’m ticked off with the weather here (hey, I live in Vancouver – we know all about rain), but because I’ve spent most of my working life researching technology-enhanced instruction, so what appears blindingly obvious to me is not necessarily obvious to others. So I don’t really know where to start in commenting on this report, except to say I found it immensely depressing.

Let me start by saying that there is really nothing in this report that was not known before the research was done (in other words, if they had asked me, I could have told HEQCO what to expect). I am a great supporter of action or participant research, because the person doing the research learns a great deal. But it is almost impossible to generalise such results, because they are so context-specific, and because the instructor is not usually trained in educational research, there are often – as with these studies – serious methodological flaws.

Second, trying to define technology is like trying to catch a moonbeam. The whole concept of defining a fixed state so that generalisations can be made to the same fixed state is entirely the wrong kind of framework for researching technology influences, because the technology is constantly changing. (This is just another version of the objectivist vs constructivist debate.)

So one major problem with this research is HEQCO’s expectations that the studies would lead to generalisations that could be applied across the system. If HEQCO wants that, it needs to use independent researchers and fund the interventions on a large enough scale – which of course means putting much more money into educational research than most governments are willing to risk. It also means sophisticated design that moves away from matched, controlled comparisons to in-depth case studies, using though rigorous qualitative research methodology.

This illustrates a basic problem with most educational research. It is done on such a small scale that the interventions are unlikely to lead to significant results. If you tweak just a little bit of a complex environment, any change is likely to be swamped by changes in other variables.

The second problem in most of the studies appears to be the failure to link technology-based interventions to changes in learning outcomes. In other words, did the use of technology lead to a different kind of learning? For instance, did the application of the technology lead students to think more critically or manage information well rather than reproduce or memorize what was being taught before? So another lesson is that you have to ask the right kind of research questions that focus on different kinds of learning outcomes.

Thus it is pointless to ask whether technology-based interventions lead to better learning outcomes than classroom teaching. There are too many other variables than technology to provide a definitive answer. The question to ask instead is: what are the required conditions for successful blended or hybrid learning, and what counts as success? The last part of the question means being clear on what different learning outcomes are being sought.

Indeed, there is a case to be made that it may be better not to set firm outcomes before the intervention, but to provide enough flexibility in the teaching context to see what happens when instructors and students have choices to make about technology use. This might mean looking backwards rather than forwards by identifying what most would deem highly successful technology interventions, then working back to see what conditions enabled this success.

But fiddling with the research methods won’t produce much if the intervention is too small scale. Nineteen little, independent studies are great for the instructors, but if we are to learn things than can be generalized, we need fewer but larger, more sophisticated, and more integrated studies. In the meantime, we are no further in being able to improve the design of blended or hybrid learning than before these research studies were done, which is why I am depressed.