5 Myths About Being an Online Learning Expert

Completing an online program doesn’t make you an online learning expert. It doesn’t even necessarily make you deeply informed about the field of online learning, neither does having a certificate or degree in online learning. Each of these can be valuable as one progresses toward expertise, but true expertise requires something else. It requires moving beyond some common myths about online design and teaching. As I’ve attended and presented at conferences, had informal conversations, followed the discourse in social media, and generally tracked how people talk about online learning in popular media, I’ve noticed a some common perspectives and patterns that can, if one is not careful, turn into pitfalls. With that in mind, here are five common myths about online learning practices.

Online Learning Expert Myth #1 – My perspective represents the whole of online learning.

Sometimes having an experience as an online learner can give you greater understanding for what it looks like to design or teach online learning, but remember that your experience is only a small slice of the online learning pie. There are far more possibilities than you have experienced. We know that people will naturally teach how they are taught. To broaden your portfolio of approaches, that takes some intentional searching, studying and learning.

Online Learning Expert Myth #2 – My program or training source’s perspective represents the whole of online learning.

I went through a very well-respected training program for online learning design and leadership many years ago. It was a good experience and I learned several new strategies and approaches. Yet, in the end, it was largely based on the 15-20 most common strategies and approaches to online learning. I’ve met people with master’s degrees and doctorates in distance learning or online learning that have also presented a somewhat narrow view of what it means and looks like to design or facilitate online learning experiences. There is a common vocabulary and perspective, but again, that is still only a small slice. There are thousands of models and approaches, and new ones are emerging all the time.

Online Learning Expert Myth #3 – Best practice is always best practice.

Education is changing. Learners are changing. What was best practice in dentistry in the 1800s is certainly not best practice today. What was best practice in online learning 5 or 10 years ago may not necessarily be best practice today. This is a field that is evolving quickly and that means constantly looking and learning from the new developments. I’m not just talking about the technological developments. I’m also talking about the new models, strategies, approaches and frameworks that are developing from expected and often unexpected sources, which leads me to the next myth.

Online Learning Expert Myth #4 – Experts and luminaries are leading the way and we need to follow them.

There are many well-known figures in the distance and online learning world. We can learn from them, but they are not the only groundbreakers. There are people joining the online learning space every day, some with little or no prior knowledge or experience. Sometimes they have no familiarity with the research literature but they are doing online learning, and some are doing it exceedingly well. People are learning and highly satisfied with what they are learning.

This is common in innovation. People outside the standard discourse or community sometimes bring fresh approaches and perspectives ignored or missed by the “experts.” That is why a commitment to moving the field forward means including and learning from these helpful and passionate newcomers. Some of them may be your boss some day soon. There are many Salman Khan -like people out there who are doing great work and helping us discover new possibilities. Most of them are not know names like Khan, so it takes some persistence and searching to find and learn from them.

Online Learning Expert Myth #5 – There are certain steps or recipes to good online learning. Follow them for the best results.

Steps, guides, tutorials, and online design or teaching recipes have a place. However, they often represent proverbial truth, not some absolute bible to guide your way. This is where some in the filed can become too mechanistic in their sure recipe to cooking up the best online course. I’ve used many of them with great results. At the same time, some of my greatest successes have come from tweaking them or even setting them aside altogether. For the sake of those coming after you, when you do starting building your own recipes, record what you do and how it works so the rest of us can learn from your experimentation.

This ultimately goes back to my common birdhouse analogy. How do you build a birdhouse? If I ask you that, you are likely to list necessary materials like wood, a hammer, nails, a drill, and a saw. That is certainly one way to build a birdhouse, but there are thousands of other ways. I’ve seen people turn an old boot into a functional birdhouse. People do it with gourds, glass, old plastic bottles, and countless other materials. And the important fact is that these others can be as or more functional than the “traditional” birdhouse. This same thing is true when we start talking about designing and teaching online learning. Let’s continue to be open to new and emerging possibilities, not just because they come from some established expert, are found in the right publication, or are endorsed by a given organization. Let’s keep the doors to the future of online learning design and teaching open, learning from anyone and everyone who joins us.

Distance Learning is Older Than Multiple Choice Tests, the Carnegie Unit, & Learning Objectives

If a tree falls in the the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a century of practice and research on distance learning is around and no one reads it, does it exist? I’ll confess that this is a persistent challenge and personal frustration when discussing distance learning and the 25-year-old sub-category of online learning. There continue to be people thinking that the MOOC developments of the last five years represent the birth of online learning, when it is a field that goes back to the early 1990s. Even prior to that we have a century-old field of study dedicated to research on the effectiveness of distance learning as a whole. Yet, people new the field frequently critique online learning without taking the time to review the rich, growing, and long-standing body of literature in a field that is older than some academic disciplines or sub-disciplines taught by some of the critics. Consider the following select facts (far from exhaustive, leaving out many other significant developments between each of these items).

My point is simply that distance learning (and online learning) is not new. There is a longstanding tradition of philosophy, theory, empirical research, and codifying of best practices.  We have a solid base of research that is as or more robust than many unquestioned and widespread practices in traditional classroom education. Yet, there continues to be a level of scrutiny and critique that far exceeds untested and largely unquestioned practices in face-to-face instruction.

I welcome the challenge and strong critiques. Yet, it seems to me that these critiques are best accompanied with a willingness to study the large body of existing literature. After all, distance learning practices are older than many standard educational practices in schools throughout the United States and beyond. Distance learning is older than the use of multiple choice tests, the Carnegie Unit, the use of behavioral learning objectives, or the widespread use of academic standards. Of course, just because something has been around for a hundred years doesn’t necessarily mean that it works, but it probably calls for us to approach the subject with a recognition that we are exploring a 100-year-old practice informed by a formal body of research that goes back decades.

Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 6 of 6)

Great graduate programs challenge and stretch people. They are more than the accumulation of new knowledge. They are not meant to simply be quick, convenient, and an easy way to a pay increase at work. I’ll confess that I’ve met graduate students in my field (education) who treat their graduate study this way. As such, they want to know what they have to do to pass the class, complete the program, and get the degree. Great graduate programs, whether they’re online or face-to-face do not allow that. This doesn’t mean that they are rigid, inflexible or unwilling to honor the distinct situations and abilities of each learner. I’m referring to programs that honor the learners, but that also challenge all of us in the learning community honor the discipline enough to give it our best.

There are a small number of online diploma mills that market themselves as the least expensive, easiest, most convenient programs around. Sometimes they boast about how quickly you can finish. However, what really matters in a graduate program is a high level of intellectual challenge. People should be stretched to think in new ways, grapple with concepts and ideas that sometimes feel beyond their reach, and that help them reach levels of insight and performance that they never thought possible.

Graduate study is not about general knowledge. It is more specialized. It is about deep learning, exploring a smaller number of topics at a level of depth rarely matched on the undergraduate level. Sometimes it isn’t just about deeper content, but it is also about a higher level of performance or the ability to apply the concepts.

To build this depth, all good graduate programs help students get at the foundations of a subject. That is why they often study the historical, philosophical, and theoretical foundations of the disciplines. It is also why they usually get into the contemporary issues and problems in the discipline, the gray areas and the messier side of the content.

What is distinct about the online graduate program when it comes to challenge? Nothing. This is a universal part of all great graduate programs. However, online learning brings with it other challenges. The design of the course or learning moduels and the technologies used can either help or hinder the desire to helps student dive deep into a discipline. When there is a poor or unnecessarily complex design, that gets in the way of this challenge. When the technology is unreliable or “buggy”, that takes precious mental and emotional energy away from getting lost in the wonderful complexities of the discipline. As a result, great online graduate programs have simple but elegant designs. Technology is reliable and supports deep learning. And students are challenged, invited, and supported as they are stretch, challenged, and guided through fascinating, unchartered, and sometimes tumultuous learning journeys.

Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 4 of 6)

The design of effective learning is not a secret. There are five simple questions that should be asked and answered. When this is done, the learning experiences tends to be effective. These same questions apply in virtually all forms of formal education, but they are especially important in online learning programs. With that in mind, good online graduate programs constitute courses and/or learning experiences that are designed in view of the following five questions:

1) Who are the learners?

Answering this question is key to all good teaching and learning. What is the background of the learners? What prior knowledge or experience do they bring to the table? What are the pre-requisite skills needed to be successful in the program and how do these match with the intended learners? What is a typical day in the life of the intended learners? What technical skills and attitudes characterize the intended learners? What cultural factors of the learners need to be considered? What expectations, beliefs, values, and convictions do the learners bring to the experience? There are certainly many similar questions that must inform the design of courses and the entire program. In instructional design, we call this the audience analysis.

Skipping this step can result in a wonderful but highly ineffective experience.

2) What do we want them to learn?

This question applies to the development of overall program outcomes, course-level outcomes and/or objectives, as well as objectives for individual lessons/modules/units. It can be answered without the entire program looking like a rigid form of training or mastery learning, and I am not suggesting that a specific format is necessary. Traditional behavioral objectives, essential questions, or substantive targeted goals can all be effective ways to answer this question.

Skip this step and the program or course lacks direction.

3) What is the very best evidence that students have learned what we want them to learn?

I usually suggest that one start with the ideal, and then slowly back down to what is realistic in a given environment. Whatever the case, answering this question requires us to clearly articulate what it will look like when a student has reached the stated goals.

Skip this step and question 2 tends to disappear also. When this happens, we see courses with stated objectives, but then the assignments, quizzes, and other assessments have little or no connection to these objectives. Any of us who have experienced this as learners can attest to how such an experience is frustrating and unhelpful. It leaves learners struggling to figure out how they are supposed to devote their precious time and energy.

By the way, if we take this question seriously, then the main course assessments rarely end up being multiple choice, matching, or other traditional forms of tests. These tests or quizzes may be present, but they simply serve as a source of feedback, a way to help students discover how they are or are not progressing (more about that when I get to question five). Serious answers to question number three usually lead us to the wonderful world of authentic assessments.

4) What resources and/or learning experiences can help students provide this evidence?

This may be in the form of recorded lectures, case studies, role plays, examples, illustrations, group discussions, scavenger hunts, webquests, digital stories, multimedia projects, labs, interviews, observations, reflective writing, tutorials, research projects, readings, virtual tours, or a wealth of other powerful and potentially effective learning experiences. However, all of them should help the learners work toward providing the evidence that we noted in question three. If it doesn’t help students progress to a point where they can eventually provide the evidence mentioned in question two, then get rid of it or move it to the margins of the course or program. Otherwise, it is likely to be a distraction or even a hindrance to student learning.

Skip this question and you have a course or program rich with busy work that may have limited value for the learner.

5) How can I ensure that students get frequent and meaningful feedback throughout the learning experience?

Without feedback, how are students going to know if they are progressing toward the goal? Too many poorly designed learning experiences don’t give students feedback until it is too late. Students work for weeks on a paper or project, submit it, get a poor grade, and then are instructed to “move on” with no chance to redo or refine their first attempt. How does that help students meet the stated goals? How does that help them progress? Why not give them feedback throughout the learning experience so that learners get a sense of how they are doing, what requires further attention and practice, as well as where they are excelling?

Skip this question and we get five common results: student frustration increases, student anxiety increases, student satisfaction decreases, student learning decreases, and student retention plummets.