Draft Primer on Online Learning


Forms of Online Learning (DRAFT–published in August 2012)

NOTE: I know I’m painting with a broad brush here.  There are obviously many variations on these concepts, things that depend on individual institutions and instructors.  And in some cases the categories overlap with each other.

NOTE 2: This overview is aimed at people who are not part of the ed tech world, so I’d like to identify those places where I’m wrongly making assumptions of terms, concepts that they would know.

NOTE 3: Currently this overview is also focused at UMW and our particular status, though much of the material applies more broadly.  Still, some of the points are very specific to our context.


A) “Old School” Online Learning — relatively standard classes, but online; often run in Learning Management Systems (LMSs) such as Blackboard or Instructure Canvas, or in proprietary systems  — University of Phoenix, American Public University, or as a separate segment of existing schools (University of Maryland–University College)

  • Strengths (or at least claims of supporters) — Scalability/efficiency (e.g., record lectures/create a class once, then just cut and paste for the next semester), convenience (location/time slots).
  • Weakness (or at least critiques of detractors) — really just 21st-century correspondence courses, not as cheap for students (room and board eligible for student loans?), many students don’t do well, high drop out rates of classes and programs, often taught by adjuncts/part time faculty who are not paid well, issues with quality of student-student and faculty-student interaction, susceptible to failures of technology at local or broader levels, potential for academic fraud.


B) MOOCs — Massively Open Online Courses.

  • MOOCs, Type 1 — original — broad based, connectivist, free/user supported, community building courses — Open course by George Siemens & Stephen Downes at U. of Manitoba in 2008 was first, and UMW’s CPSC 106 (aka Digital Storytelling or DS106) is often cited in discussions of these types of MOOCs now as well.  Course topics tend to lend themselves well to creating for and analyzing of the digital world.  Builds on online Do-It-Yourself culture seen in MAKE magazine and other creative online user communities.
    • Strengths — Strong participant interaction, blurring of lines of institutions, strong community of people interested in learning.  As much about the connections between people, about communal learning, as it is about the content (to paraphrase VCU Education Professor Jon Becker).
    • Weaknesses — Participants have varying levels of commitment, some drop out, limited assessment data of learning, different experiences for students taking class for credit and those taking for other reasons.
  • MOOCs, Type 2 — Newer version, emphasizes the “Massive” part of the name.   These MOOCs are large-scale classes (mostly in computer science so far) with some claiming over 100,000 students.  So far, these are being offered either by prestigious institutions or by for-profit companies — examples include MIT/Harvard’s EdX, Stanford professor Andrew Ng’s Coursera; another company started by three Stanford professors, Udacity.
    • Strengths (or at least claims of supporters) — Efficiency, scalability (100,000-200,000 participants?), free (at least for now), brand extension (for schools), access to knowledge not otherwise available (especially true for developing world, where many of students in these classes seem to be from).
    • Weaknesses (or at least critiques of detractors)
      • Really just big 21st-century correspondence courses.   With 100,000 students, teachers’ role is largely unidirectional.
        • Despite their founders’ claims, current courses in this category are critiqued for replicating many of the worst aspects of the sage on the stage model.  Having 100,000 people watch lectures and take quizzes or having 400 do it is just a matter of scale, not an improvement in pedagogy.  It might be fine to have one or two or three classes with that model, but it’s not a formula for a program of learning, for a program of education.
      • Only a small percentage of students actually finish.
      • What is the business model, especially in the longer term? Very expensive to create, maintain. Who is paying for it?

C) Flipped classrooms — The “flipped classroom” buzzword is pervasive in K-12 and Higher Ed pedagogy circles these days. The basic idea is that students will watch videos, listen to lectures, perhaps take assessments or do exercises outside of class, leaving class time for discussion of materials, exploration of areas for which students have problems. Although there are other approaches out there, the Khan Academy (with support from the Gates Foundation and Gates himself) with its explanatory videos on a wide variety of topics is typically cited as the example of materials to be used in a flipped classroom.

  • Strengths (or at least claims of supporters) — Potential to change straight lecture courses to use class time for focus on areas in which students are having problems, frees up class time for more in-depth discussion, focus on student areas of confusion, gets away from the sage on the stage approach, maximizes the impact of great teachers.
  • Weaknesses (or at least critiques of detractors)
    • Will students actually do the work? Is this the first step in outsourcing teaching, content? How does this differ substantively from existing teaching methods in many humanities classes?
  • See below for longer critiques of flipped classroom, at least as commonly discussed in edtech, media*

D) New School Online Learning — Entirely online classes which do more than simply replicate current teaching practices online.  They may well be taught by existing schools as part of their regular offerings, even for residential students. — Potentially what UMW’s Online Learning Initiative could be.

    • Strengths (or at least claims of supporters) — time shifting, opportunity to rework teaching practices for better student learning, way for institutions to meet student course needs in bottleneck classes and to avoid losing summer school revenue to other institutions.
    • Weaknesses (or at least critiques of detractors) — Needs to be done carefully to not replicate the issues related in the categories above.

E) Blended/hybrid learning — Classes which include both face to face (F2F) and online components and where part of the official meeting time of class is explicitly set aside for online interaction.  These classes may well be the same size as regular face-to-face classes.  [Some existing online UMW classes in business and education have followed this basic structure.]

  • Strengths (or at least claims of supporters) — Combines in-person interaction and convenience of online work.  Has potential to build on pedagogical opportunities offered by digital tools.
  • Weaknesses (or at least critiques of detractors) — many of these classes are built within LMSs like Blackboard or Canvas and suffer from many of the pedagogical limitations of those systems.


F) Digitally enhanced courses that still meet F2F as much as traditional courses — Digital and/or online components enriches traditionally scheduled F2F class through online discussions (blogs/wikis/tumblr/Flickr/YouTube), digitally enhanced writing or creation, and/or an outward facing approach to learning. — UMW already does many of these things.  UMW’s Faculty Academy program has many examples; so does the new list of digitally inflected courses compiled by the Digital Studies Working Group  (http://digitalstudies.umwblogs.org/digitally-inflected-courses/ ).  My own Digital History and History of the Information Age could fit into this category too.

  • Strengths (or at least claims of supporters) — new skills for students, builds on liberal arts and sciences strengths of innovation/engagement/collaboration, public aspect of social media tools encourages an outward facing perspective that connects students/faculty to larger world in important ways that challenge the disdained ideal of the isolated ivory tower.
  • Weaknesses (or at least critiques of detractors) — New skills take time to learn, pace of change can be intimidating to faculty on a 4-4 load and students on a 5-5 load, some say change doesn’t go far enough, others say such changes are just bowing to educational fads, doesn’t meet demand for students to take courses at times/locations more convenient to them.


G) Others:


  • Badges/competency completion requirements (testing competencies instead of requiring the completion of courses or programs of study).


H) Some combination of the above….



Key Themes/Issues When Considering Online Learning


  • Student learning outcomes (and how to assess them)
  • Level and nature of interaction between students and faculty, between students and other students
  • Accessibility for students (location shifting, time shifting)
  • Technical requirements (for students and faculty)
  • Learning curve for students and faculty (finding time, support, resources to facilitate that learning)
  • Cost of implementing and maintaining system (what’s the business model?)
  • Grant opportunities
  • Build on existing strengths and beliefs
  • Facilitating pedagogical innovation and student creativity
  • Maintaining academic rigor and accountability
  • Public outreach
  • Role as institutional branding/advertising
  • Goals of government and/or politicians at local, state, and federal level for higher education.


Very Preliminary Conclusions

  • It is possible to integrate various parts of these approaches to offer students a variety of ways to learn, in ways that are both more accessible and more pedagogically diverse.
    • One mistake for us would be to buy completely into any of these, especially in a knee-jerk reaction to hype.  None of these are educational panaceas.
    • At the same time, we do need to evaluate which ones make the most sense for us to investigate and to invest time and precious resources into.
  • We also need to be promoting and highlighting the successes that we already have: DS106, UMWBlogs, numerous student projects, and Domain of One’s Own.
    • In doing so, our focus going forward should emphasize how UMW’s online learning efforts are aimed at building on our greatest strengths: strong teacher/student relationships, and facilitating student learning and creation of knowledge on and offline.


Sources and further reading





* “Flipped Classroom” as a new concept seems particularly annoying to those who work in the humanities who are used to having students prepare for regular class discussions by reading before they come to class.  In the flipped classroom they’d watch a video instead, take a quiz beforehand, but to these faculty, the difference is not substantial.  Still, edtech colleagues in the sciences and math swear that this concept is transformative for pedagogy in their disciplines.  Maybe so, but they may soon find that students still have to actually watch and process the videos/readings/pre-class work they assign, something those who assign reading regularly know is far from a guarantee….

The bigger problem with the flipped classroom argument as used by the supporters of the second form of MOOC (and Ng makes this same argument in multiple places, including in the Ars Technica article cited above), is that it is presented as the counter argument to the notion that these super-sized classes are largely one way.  They say, oh no, online course lectures would free up class time for discussion of those issues.  Two problems with that argument in the context of advocacy for these private and Ivy-level institutional MOOCs: First, that’s not how these courses are being promoted or used.  They are being presented as complete packages, complete courses, in and of themselves that don’t require attendance in an actual classroom (or, in some cases, any substantive interaction with actual people).  And second, if these course lectures/quizzes are being used that way and still offered for free (or even at a small fee), how would they be different than any other set of resources professors would assign in their classes.  In other words, how is this truly transforming higher education if we could just use them as the equivalent of a text book or movie or document reader that professors assign? 

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