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 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.” (direct quote from Erasmus paper:
  • 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.

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


  1. Ken D. asks: Is e-learning the same as online learning?
    Tony replies:
    Good question, Ken!
    In practice the two terms are often used inter-changeably, but once again there is no ‘correct’ answer to your question.
    e-learning is in my view a slightly older term (by about 10 years), and tends to be used a bit more in corporate training than in formal education.
    Perhaps more importantly though I see e-learning as broader than online learning, encompassing both online learning and other forms of technology-enabled learning that do not necessarily make use of the internet. For instance, augmented reality that makes use of still relatively expensive headsets in a classroom setting might be considered e-learning but not online learning, where generally the student or learner can access the learning from wherever they can get an Internet connection. Thus some forms of e-learning may be place-specific, whereas online learning tends to be any time and anywhere
    But that’s just my opinion. What do others think?

  2. Hi Tony,

    I have found that the continuum of online learning graphic is very useful but sometimes can be mis-leading or misinterpreted. The graphic implies a straight forward arithmetic progression on the use of technology scale but I don’t think this is necessarily true. In an online course, instructors who want to use teaching approaches and methods that support meaningful learning through interaction or create more authentic learning experiences often require the heavy use of a learning management system combined with multiple supporting technologies, e.g., video, blogs. What the graphic doesn’t show is the significant jump in commitment and understanding from the instructor to learn, apply and maintain online technologies. As a result, instructors can be unprepared for the amount of learning technology knowledge and skill involved with developing a high quality online course. Instructors who take on producing an online course on their own can find it slow and frustrating and it takes away from their focus on teaching and learning and their initiative to innovate. In addition, Deans and Department Heads who see this simple progression on the use of technology scale from classroom to blended to online can think that instructors should be able learn and apply best practices for the use of online learning technologies and later be able to maintain and revise their courses – all without the support of instructional design support team.

    My thought is that online learning technology with its heavy demands on learning management systems and other supporting learning tools requires a significant increase in technological sophistication and pedagogical understanding from the instructor and it should have the support on an instructional design team. As you move to the right of on the scale these increases are on an exponential not arithmetic scale. (I realize that’s kind of fuzzy math.)

    Finally, although the continuum applies to technology, ‘technology’ is often loosely substituted with ‘teaching’, implying that it is a simple step to go from a blended classroom to fully online instruction, quite unaware of the significant shift in the ways online students engage with online courses.

    Many thanks for doing this series.


    • Thanks, Chris.

      You are absolutely right: there is a major change needed in the approach to teaching as one moves along the continuum. I agree with all the points you raise and I hope to address them all in later blog posts.
      My main purpose in this blog post was to get over the idea that online learning comes in many forms, but your reminder that it is not an easy or simple progression is important.

      Best regards

  3. This is really helpful especially that many educational institutions have shifted to full online learning because of the threat of the covid-19 pandemic. Here in the Philippines, educators are preparing for this shift and many of us are still not fully confident of the use of e-learning in the delivery of our lessons. Thank you for sharing this.


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