Online Learning Demystified

Online learning is still pretty mysterious to many people, including some experienced educators.  A common question is, “How does that work, anyway?”  One notion is that online learning is an alternate method for delivering content knowledge.  Somewhat more sound is the idea that it is an alternate method for delivering a learning experience.  Many believe it relates only to virtual schools.  Educators are aware that online learning can be useful for home-schoolers or credit recovery.  Some people imagine that online learning means that a student sits alone at a computer working through digital content at his own pace instead of working in tandem with peers and a classroom teacher.  It is often assumed to be asocial or to involve a weak substitution for face to face interaction.

These ideas, while they can occasionally be accurate, are partial understandings of online learning that miss it’s fundamental importance. Here is my short, overview of online learning for beginners.  I hope I can illustrate that online learning is not primarily about offering an alternate delivery method for learning.  Learning online is an important element of all learning, and of becoming literate in our electronic age.  New online networking tools are enhancing personal connections for learning and mentorship.  For those who have not yet experienced learning online first hand, I will offer a description of the many ways that learning online “works.”

What is Online Learning?

Fundamentally it is about using the internet for learning.

It may involve:

  • accessing information, knowledge and resources, including text and multimedia
  • discussion and collaboration in electronic group forums and wikis
  • student writing in blogs and multimedia presentations in digital portfolios
  • students connecting globally to learn with others and building networks that support their learning goals
  • synchronous communication (at the same time, such as using Skype)
  • asynchronous communication (similar to email), allowing individuals to log in to electronic forums at different times of day to contribute to discussion or collaborative work.

Why is Online Learning Important?

1. The internet is a primary tool for accessing information and for communication today.

Check out this short video: Did You Know 2.0

2. The internet has changed the nature of Literacy.

The “New Literacies” include learning how to:

  • research, evaluate, organize, store and share online resources
  • use the internet safely and responsibly
  • comply with copyright and creative commons licenses
  • read, write and publish in a variety of online formats
  • consume and produce communication in a variety of media
  • create products with others via online tools
  • form and sustain networks for education and business
  • work productively amongst diverse perspectives and cultures

These videos may be interesting too:
Example of Social Bookmarking
Wikis in Plain English
What’s the Big Deal About Blogging?

3. The electronic revolution has caused a profound change in how we work, communicate, and learn, and this has implications for education.

  • Much learning has already moved outside school walls and hours: home-schooling, virtual schools, workplace training and certification programs, web communities of interest, open education.
  • U.S. “high school graduation rates – stuck at about 70% – have dropped from first in the world to the bottom half of industrialized nations.” (Darling-Hammond, 2010)
  • Trends suggest that schooling needs to be networked to remain relevant to the way we live and work in the electronic information age.

How does online learning work?

1. There are many styles of online learning – it is not one style.

Here an is example of what learning might involve at each end of the instructional design spectrum.  (Keep in mind that most instruction combines many strategies along a continuum.)

Classroom Online
Traditional *Instructor delivers lecture
*Students quietly take notes
*Practice & memorization
*Achievement tests
*Minimal social interaction
*Student sits at computer
*Reads/views digitized content
*Submits homework by email
*Online assessment & tests
*Self-paced, minimal interaction
*Students use variety of learning resources
*Socratic seminars
*Heterogeneous groups with differentiated instruction
*Content applied to real world projects
*Standards woven into interdisciplinary units
*Multiple measures of proficiency
*Student portfolios
*Students access, evaluate, organize, resources with online tools
*Use online forums to engage in sustained, in-depth discussion
*Write in blogs for audiences and get feedback
*Form networks of contacts that share learning interests and resources
*Collaborate in wikis to apply content to real world projects
*Develop cultural competency through global digital connections
*Develop web-based portfolios

2. Classroom and Online Learning are not mutually exclusive.

Online learning is an important component of learning in regular classrooms as well as for students learning from a distance.  Most learning environments will involve a blend of physical and virtual space.

Selected Resources:

Articles About Changes in Work, Communication and Learning in the 21st Century

Cookson, Peter W. “What Would Socrates Say?” Educational Leadership. September 2009, Vol. 67:1

Richardson, Will. “Chapter 9: What it All Means.” Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms,  Second Edition, Corwin Press, (2008) p.129 – 136.  (Overview of “new literacies” and important “shifts” due to the electronic revolution.  To read in Google preview: click on “Contents” and then on “What it All Means”)

Richardson, Will. “Footprints in the Digital Age.” Educational Leadership. November 2008, Vol. 66:3.

Collins, Allan and Halverson, Richard.  “Chapter 1: How Education is Changing.”  Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology. (2009) Teachers College Press, NY (Read page 1-6 in Preview)

Darling-Hammond, Linda.  “Chapter 1: The Flat World, Educational Inequity, and America’s Future.” The Flat World and Education. (2010) Teachers College Press, NY.  (Read page 1-6 in Preview)

Herrenbruck, Denise.  “A Strategic Vision for Online Learning.” The Oregonian. December 4, 2009

Standards for 21st Century Learning:

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills
Framework for 21st Century Learning identifies core knowledge, skills, and infrastructure needed for 21st century education.

The International Association for K-12 Online Learning
Non-profit association provides research, professional development, and networking.  Find summaries of current practices, online learning standards, state level policies.

“The NTCE Definition of 21st Century Literacies.” National Council of Teachers of English. (February, 15, 2008)

Quality Online Learning:

Henry, Jim and Meadows, Jeff.  “An Absolutely Riveting Online Course: Nine principles for Excellence in Web-Based Teaching.” Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology. Vol. 34:1 Winter, 2008

Moorman, Honor.  “Adventures in Web 2.0: Introducing Social Networking into My Teaching” Horace. Summer 2009, Vol. 25 No.1

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