Is there really such a thing as a fully online course? Many formal learning organizations grapple with how to support and make sense of different learning environments. Who supports the face-to-face students, the blended learning efforts, and the fully online learning initiatives? Because of the unique needs and contexts of learners who study primarily at a distance, many organizations create specialized offices for the online programs. These might include dedicated instructional designers for online courses, faculty training programs, student advising and academic support staff, dedicated online admissions people (or contracted services to cover much of this), distinct technology support for online learners, as well as people to help remote learners with library services, tutoring, and accessibility issues.
In an effort to make sense of these real and important issues, there are often lines drawn to separate services for learners in different environments. In fact, these lines can become so strong that they begin to shape the way schools, programs and instructors go about designing online learning. One problem with this is that the convergence of mediums is the future of learning.
Some of the most fascinating and promising technological developments blur the lines between the physical and the digital. We already see products that augment physical reality with a digital overlay. Consider this educational example. Similarly, medical technology blends the traditional doctor visit with devices that patients (or soldiers) wear or embed in their clothing, allowing for constant monitoring and tracking of data critical to an individual’s health and physical well-being. More home technologies are on the market that allow physical devices to interact with one another, the web, and people. Think of the refrigerator that scans the products (through ID tags) for various items and informs someone when it is time to buy more eggs or milk, or when something is about to expire. This may seem like science fiction, but augmented reality and the digital overlay of the physical life is already underway. People have experimented with it for well over a decade. Looking ahead, in less than a decade, we will see this having significant implications for learning environments.
Some of these ideas may seem too distant from your current experiences in education. The general concept, however, is not. Consider that there really is no such thing as a fully online learning experience. The reason is obvious. It is because learners still live in the physical world, even if they are participating in class via a computer or mobile device. Learners physically interact with devices to learn and they are brokering their attention between diverse physical spaces while learning (the online student taking a quiz on a mobile device while riding the subway home, or the instructor texting back and forth with students while watching a movie at home with the family). Online learning is largely popular for the very reason that it does integrate with an individual’s needs with regard to time, space, and place.
Some of the best and most effective online learning offices and organizations acknowledge this fact and design courses in a way that strives to take advantage of it. An online environmental science course that requires students to do all of their work by sitting at a desk in front of a computer misses a huge opportunity. Why not instead design learning challenges and experiences that require learners to get away from the computer, grab their phones, ipads, or cameras and head out to local green spaces. They can experience, analyze, collect visual and other data, and collaborate with classmates from around the world. Why not integrate challenges and assignments that invite learners to get into the community, observing, interviewing, shadowing, and collecting digital data to share back with the class? This is far from a fully online learning experience. It is leveraging technology to integrate formal learning with diverse physical spaces.
Many instructors work with instructional designers to create their courses. Unfortunately, instructors somethings come to believe that the instructional designer’s role is just to help them learn how to use the learning management system. That may be rooted in an assumption that the learning management system is where all the learning “magic” takes place. And yet, a good instructional designer will resist this role, often avoiding the learning management system altogether in the first half of the design process. One of the reasons for this is because a LMS restricts one’s thoughts about the possibilities. Online learning is about free range, unleashed, integrated, experiential, active, engaged, and participatory learning. It has the power to extend learning across multiple physical spaces, all woven into a unified and transformational learning experience. To fully capitalize upon this vision, it requires that we accept and embrace the fact that there is no such thing as a fully online course.