Online learning is not simply online…learning. In fact, all good online learning is blended learning. Conduct a quick Google search for “online learning” AND “definition”. You will find statements suggesting that online learning is where content is delivered via the web or some other electronic means. These types of definitions are not adequate. They usually imply that online learning is about one-way delivery of content, possibly also including electronic communication and collaboration among learners. While it is true that these are common aspects of online courses, there is no reason that it needs to be limited to the electronic world. In fact, virtually all good online courses are actually blended learning, a combination of electronic and non-electronic learning experiences. Most definitions of blended learning don’t simply focus on the blending of electronic and non-electronic experiences, but that is one aspect of a potential blended learning experience, and one that is the focus of my reflections.
It is the rare online graduate program that is simply equipping a person for life in the electronic world. Rather, it is about equipping one with knowledge, skills, and abilities that may be used both online and in the physical world. The quality online experience itself must help promote transfer into the physical world. Imagine an online graduate nursing program that did nothing to equip nurses to actually work with patients in the physical world. Or how about an online MBA program that only applied to conducting business online? Or, what if one got an online graduate degree in special education, but it did nothing to equip the teacher to work more effectively with a student in a one-on-one physical environment? None of these would be examples of good online learning. As with all learning, transfer is key. It is of limited use to learn a skill than can’t transfer to a variety of situations. The best graduate programs equip one with skills, knowledge, and abilities that transfer to a wide variety of circumstances and environments.
What do I mean when I state that all good online learning is blended learning? I’ll admit that I’m playing with words a bit, but consider the following potential aspects of an online course experience:
- Read books,
- Interview people,
- Engage in observations,
- Have informal conversations with colleagues and family about what you are learning,
- Create class projects that you then use or try out at work or other physical environments,
- Take e-learning courses with colleagues and have study groups or collaborate at the local coffee shop,
- Attend professional conferences during one’s program and present with classmates or professors,
- Go on fields trips or capture audio/images/video to share as part of one’s online classroom (I’ve seen great examples of this in an online environmental education course. Participants around the country took pictures and used them to discuss the various ecosystems.).
- Participate in summer or weekend residencies that afford students the chance to engage in labs, face-to-face collaboration and discussion, team-building, networking, etc.
- Attend optional (or required) face-to-face class sessions in some courses or as part of an introductory/culminating experience.
- Student are required to present work or research at a conference, to a group of colleagues, or another similar environment.
This is a short list of physical elements that are present in many great online graduate programs. There are plenty of other examples, but I will conclude with one that we often overlook. I’m likely to get a few eye rolls over this one, indicating annoyance at my far too liberal toying with terms and phrases like physical, electronic, hybrid, and learning; but I’ll continue nonetheless. Learning occurs as a result of our interaction with things outside of ourselves, but there there still quite a bit that takes place inside of us. In fact, the actual learning is taking place in our brains. That is physical. If changes are not taking place in the brain as a result of the e-learning experience, then it is not quality learning. It isn’t even learning.