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(Part 1) Keeping the “Learning” in Online Learning: The Myths, the Value, and the Practice

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

I wonder if the inventors of online learning could have ever imagined or predicted this year’s intense, sudden, all-consuming thrust into the virtual world of education. Well, sometimes we just do what we need to do, right? We’re educators. We persevere and we find a way.

I was part of those early days, along with thought leaders in the field back in the ‘90s, experimenting with and pioneering distance learning methodologies, research, and tools – not only for students, but also with educators in online professional learning environments. So in case you thought you were crazy, you’re not. I can tell you first hand, this is not what we envisioned, either. Sitting in front of a screen all day is not online learning. It’s brain damage.

Indeed, virtual/online learning is different from in-person, but not really so very different. Both environments share 3 common principles:

  • We still need to consider how the environment influences the learning.

  • We continually want to keep a research-based vision for maximizing student learning at the forefront of our planning.

  • We always need to keep students’ strengths and needs at the core of our decisions.

Sometimes the third principle comes with a cost. Keeping students at the center may mean sacrificing comfort, tradition, opinions, influence, or other obstacles to pursuing creativity, leadership, and effective practice.

Myths about Online/Virtual Learning

Before we discuss strategy, let’s take a closer look at the purpose, nature, and value of online learning. For the sake of this conversation, the terms online, remote, distance, virtual, and other labels are used interchangeably.

Myth #1: The better the tools, the better the online learning experience.

Distance learning is not about the tools. In fact, online learning has nothing to do with tools. A tool is a means to an end. The outcome is learning. Here's a brief summary of what the research says about learning, in one hardly-adequate-yet-oh-so-accurate sentence: Learning, no matter where and when it occurs, is most effective when it is student-centered, applies multiple modalities, engages learners in social & interpersonal discourse, and promotes both cognitive and metacognitive reflection. To the extent that the tools support the learning, they’re useful, practical, and desirable. But virtual lectures are still lectures; drag-and-drop user-friendly software that reports student results in 10 seconds or less is still based on memorization. Don’t start buying and training teachers in tools and gadgets without crystalizing their fundamental conception of learning.

Myth #2: We need to re-think our assessments because of the online environment.

Well, not exactly… It’s not because of the online environment that assessment needs to change. Educational assessment and grading have been desperately craving a makeover for decades, but we yield ourselves as slaves to the system when we hold onto our traditional mindsets. If remote learning is the impetus for an overdue conversation, then by all means, seize the opportunity! The virtual environment can serve as a catalyst for examining and re-thinking our assessment practices. Let's just clarify that online cheating is an artifact of assessment design, not virtual tools. Don’t allow the learning environment to compromise universal research-based practices for any environment, including aligning learning targets to assessment types and engaging students in higher-order thinking to cultivate intellectual development.

Myth #3: Online learning doesn’t work.

The next time you hear people in fields outside of education say those words, ask this question, “Would you eat food that wasn't fully cooked?” They’ll stop criticizing in 2 seconds flat. How anyone expected every school in the country to implement a half-baked conception of online learning with hardly 2 days to prepare is beyond comprehension. No, the last few months was beyond online learning; it was history in the making. It was educators rising to the occasion as we always do, resiliently continuing to serve students and families, mentoring and modeling caring relationships even in the midst of crisis, and launching innovative ideas without much background but by sheer ingenuity. We cooked half a meal and it still tasted good. Ok, pretty good (not so good?). Anyway, let's not be so hard on ourselves. Crisis uncovers strengths we never thought we had. It's where educators shine. Pause for a moment in appreciation and celebration!

Looking ahead, though, as we strategize and plan for the coming year, now we refocus our lens. When you hear an educator within our field say, "Online learning doesn't work," ask this question, “What does online learning mean to you, and what have you tried so far?” Now that’s a worthy conversation. Online learning is an environment, just like a classroom, a field trip, a walk in the park, the supermarket, or your bedroom. People learn equally, or sometimes more, from nightly journal reflections before bed than watching a YouTube video. One is not better or more effective than another, but each has a purpose. It’s the way we craft learning environment(s), in alignment with the intended learning outcome(s) (i.e., how our purpose guides our decisions), that directly impacts the learning.

Online learning was never intended to stand alone (not to mention, not every definition or version out there qualifies). Our early research over 25 years ago indicated that a combination of face-to-face and distance learning modalities fostered a greater likelihood of academic and professional growth.

Enter Hybrid/Blended Learning, Stage Left

Oh, right, you know about this already? Hmmm… might a pandemic have something to do with it? Actually, many forward-thinking educational leaders and schools around the country have already been implementing successful hybrid/blended learning innovations. Again, we’re using “hybrid” and “blended” interchangeably here to simplify this discussion. Hybrid/blended learning integrates in-person with online environments into a more complete overall experience, both synchronous and asynchronous not because physical distancing guidelines keep us 6 feet apart, but because students learn better when immersed in a range of opportunities. Current public health requirements are opening the door to wider scale experimentation with hybrid learning – by default, not by choice. How ironic, yet fortuitous, that hybrid learning was the original methodology recommended by the research.

Since learning can happen anywhere outside or inside, at home or in-school, on the field or with a paintbrush, socializing with friends or in personal quietness and rest classrooms and computers/devices are not the only choices. Let's be bold and expand our view of blended learning to any environment. The more varied the learning environments, the more abundant the experiences, the deeper the learning.

This is our moment. Let’s transform our challenges into assets. Effective educational practice can’t be dictated by experts in other fields. We can heed their precautions without sacrificing the learning, by reconnecting with a renewed vision. When we maximize every opportunity for learners to engage, connect, apply, think systemically and critically, and grow socially and interpersonally, we'll nourish minds & hearts everywhere learning occurs.

~ Ronit Carter, President and Lead Consultant, Learning Lens

© 2020 Learning Lens. All Rights Reserved.

For more on effective learning environments, see Safety vs. Safe Learning Environments: We Got This!

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