Saturday, June 7, 2014

What do we mean when we talk about "online learning"?

This post started with a tweet from @ClaireHMajor:

Good question! I responded:

We're living in unique times. A large percentage of teachers at all levels are teaching online, or preparing to teach online, or thinking about teaching online, and thinking about how to avoid teaching online. But the vast majority of these teachers have never taken an online class, or if they have, they probably haven't take a good online class. Can you imagine trying to learn how to give an in-person lecture to a class, or lead a classroom discussion, if you'd never had your own experience as a student in lectures and class discussions? It's only natural to assume that the way you've seen it done before is the "right" and only way.

But twenty years from now the situation's going to be a lot different. We know that something like 50% of college students take one or more online course - see, e.g. - and the numbers keep climbing. Twenty years from now, most newer teachers will have had quite a bit of experience using online tools to learn. These teachers won't view online as a special case, but rather part of the mix of what it means to learn.

Which brings me to the term "online learning". Does anyone really "learn online"? Learning takes place within a learner, and the learner interacts with people, books, online tools, video, and the world in the course of the learning process I think the term "online learning" is a carryover from "distance education" which became "distance learning" and then "online learning". There was a well-meaning idea behind this - we should remember that the goal is learning, not teaching or education. But really, while "online teaching" makes sense to me as a description of a teaching strategy or modality, "online learning" really doesn't. The learner is not "online", rather they are using online media in the course of the learning process.

Perhaps we'd be better off dropping the terms "face to face learning", "hybrid learning", and "online learning" and just talk about learning via "face to face instruction", "hybrid instruction", etc. As one my heroes, Alan Kay, said, "the music is not within the piano; and likewise, the learning is not within the network or the computer, it takes place within the student. Strategies and media change rapidly but the fundamental processes of learning are deeply ingrained in our nature and change slowly if at all

Thanks Claire for stimulating this line of thought.

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