When does an Online Course Stop Being an Online Course?

What is an online course? When does an online course cease to be an online course? Since my days in graduate school, I’ve been drawn to a simple but helpful exercise to get at the “essence” of something. It consists of asking three questions. What is essential? What is important? What is merely present? Asking these three questions helps find out the attributes so significant that removing them causes that item to become something else. Amid the growth of online learning and talk about “online courses”, perhaps it is time to use this exercise to consider the essence of an online course. What are the attributes that are so central to an online course that removing them causes it to no longer be appropriately labeled an online course?

To illustrate how this works, consider asking these three questions about a ball. What are the essential attributes of a ball? Some people start by talking about its shape, that a ball must be round. Yet, we need to adjust that definition to consider something like a football. As such, we might revise our first statement to say that it must be round on one plane. From there we go to the second question. What is important? These are the attributes that impact its use and purpose but it remains a ball. Shape, size and weight fit into this category. Finally, we ask about those attributes which are merely present. These are the traits that do not significantly impact the use or purpose. In many cases, the color might be such an attribute. By going through such an exercise, we don’t just come to better understand the essential attributes. We also develop an overall, deeper, nuanced, and more multi-faceted perspective on whatever we are studying. Let’s apply this to the idea of an online course, a concept that continues to evolve.

If you go the route of studying the history and etymology of the word “course”, you will likely end up with something like a “planned series of study.” In the United States, we tend to use “course” to describe a part of a larger program, but “course” is used to describe the entire program in other parts of the world. What people call a degree program in the United States, people in parts of Europe might call that a course or course of study.

If you are speaking with people in a K-12 or traditional University setting in the United States, it is easy for people to describe what they think of as a course. It is something led and organized by a teacher for a group of students. It has a start and end date. There is a teacher. There are students, planned lessons, assessments, and assignments. There might be lectures, larger and small group activities, projects, quizzes and tests, discussions, homework, papers, readings, and dozens of other elements. Which are essential? Which are important? Which are merely present? What are the attributes of a course that make it a course and not something else?

One of the difficulties with educational innovation and the adoption of new practices is that we get used to and comfortable with certain constructs. Whether they are better or worse than an innovation, their familiarity gives them superiority in our minds. We are quick to defend them even when we are something unhappy with them. I suspect that this is part of the reason why we run into problems with the changing idea of a course, especially an online course.

There have been innovations to challenge or stretch our idea of a course for many years. Self-paced or correspondence courses, for example, conflict with traditional ideas of a course. There may be a teacher, but not one that fulfills the same role that we think of in traditional courses. There may be no scheduled time when people gather together, and the start and end dates for the course vary by learner. There is also likely like to no student-student interaction. Yet, we still call it a course. At the same time, because it is new and suspect, it is common for these new ideas of courses to be given lower status or credibility, at least among the most mainstream people in a given domain.

In the digital world, this becomes even more complex. Scan the web for what people call courses and you will find countless models. A course might be a series of three or four webinars led by one or more different people followed by a short quiz. It might be 3-credit class in a learning management system, part of a larger degree program. It could be non-credit or credit-based, offered by a school, a company, a government agency, even an individual. Students might have scheduled activities, readings, assignments, and graded participation in weekly discussion groups. We use “online course”  to describe a MOOC led by one or a few people, largely consisting of short videos and readings with a few quizzes or peer-reviewed exercises shared among hundreds or thousands of learners. An online course might also be something like what you often see on a site like Udemy, largely made up of a bunch of small video recordings, possibly with some quizzes or checks for understanding and a Q & A area. Sometimes there is an “instructor.” Sometimes there is not. Sometimes there are assessment of learners, but not always.

With such a broad use of the term, is there anything essential to an online course? Yes, but it is still important to recognize that it is a rapidly expanding term. With that caveat in mind, consider the following traits. Despite their differences, each of these examples includes a planned course of study. Whether explicit or implicit, something was established to be learned, explored and/or studied. Resources and/or activities were included in that plan. The other part, of course, is that these resources or activities relied upon online resources and/or environments.

That is all that I can come up with for essential attributes of an online course in today’s world. The rest is important or merely present. This includes whether or not it is for-credit, part of a larger program, includes student-instructor interaction, includes student-student interact, the nature of the learning activities, whether it is teacher-directed, learner-directed, or peer-directed and organized. The same is true for the length, complexity, and host/provider for the course. These all play an important role in how the course is valued, how it is experienced, and the impact of the course. Yet, people can implement diverse experiments with these attributes while still calling it an online course.

I’m sure there are many implications for such a broad and popular use of the phrase “online course”, but one comes to mind for me. Because people use the phrase so widely, it is not adequate to make broad assumptions about the idea of an online course. Blogs and other media sources report and reflect about online courses and online learning, but they sometimes jump from example to example without recognizing the distinctions. Studies come out about online learning, but people do not always take the time to consider the type of online courses represented in the study. This has led to widespread confusion, sometimes unnecessary debates, misrepresentations, and often overly general statements about online learning.

Consider the example of MOOCs. As soon as people started writing about MOOCs, most failed to compare them to more traditional online courses. In fact, some wrote about MOOCs as if they were the beginning of online learning, ignoring decades of practice and research that preceded MOOCs. Instead, people compared MOOCs to traditional college courses leading toward traditional degrees. It created a debate that led to a more guarded and often dismissive tone to the conversation instead of allowing us to just be curious about the affordances and limitations of this new construct. This was likely intensified by using the word “course” and people’s pre-existing notions of what constitutes a course.

MOOCs were not, however, the first alternative use of the word “course.” Long before MOOCs we used, people used the word “course” to describe a vast array of online learning experiences. Many of these mentions didn’t have the widespread media attention of MOOCs, so people skipped over them, missing the chance to compare MOOCs to multiple concepts of courses. If this happened early on, it could have transformed and expanded our thinking about MOOCs, their benefits, limitations, and positive potential use moving forward.

What is an online course? It is a course that relies heavily upon online resources, activities and experiences. What is a course? Now that is the important question. Its’ essential attributes involve planning and learning, but in the evolving use of the term, a course can be almost anything. Until we recognize these developments, we will continue to miss promising possibilities, talk past one another, and fall prey to overly simplistic understandings of learning in a connected world.

The Value of Newbies & Naysayers in Online Learning Innovation

I’ll admit it. I can be a snob about some things, which is why I need daily reminders that the novice perspective can sometimes lead to greater innovation than that of person who has years of experience in a domain. For example, I’ve been exploring the affordances and limitations of online learning since the middle 1990s, so when I read a news article about this “new” development called online learning, I get a little frustrated. Or, when people write about MOOCs as if they are the birth of online learning, I become suspicious about the veracity of their “research.” I get a little irritated when people miss the fact that distance learning is centuries old, that online learning is decades old, and that there is a substantive body of research about both. That is why it is humbling but important for me to remind myself that we really need the newcomers and what might seem like “the uninformed” to imagine the future of blended and online learning.

Consider this conversation that I’ve probably had with more than a hundred people over the years, people who are new to online learning as a student, teacher, or some related role. They bring up critiques or concerns that I’ve settled in my mind a decade ago, but their concerns remind me that they are not settled for them. It isn’t enough for me to say, “Well, that is a great question, but we’ve already looked at that and it isn’t an issue.” Of course it is an issue. If 100+ people bring it up, it doesn’t matter how much I want them to think or feel differently, or to not consider it a worthwhile problem.

Take the use of live video in online courses as an example. How many times have I talked to new faculty or students who tell me how the course can feel less personal, and how we could address this by making the course more centered around live video interactions. I’ve heard countless people tell me that they think online learning will take off once the video conferencing technology reaches a certain level of quality. I’m tempted to point out that there are completely different paradigms for looking at the design of online learning that make little to no use of streaming video. If only they would read the great research about the promise and value of threaded discussions, asynchronous online collaboration tools, and dozens of online teaching strategies that are exceptional at helping students learn as much (or sometimes more) than they might have in a traditional face-to-face course. I can look at the sheer number of comments about how streaming video would make online learning better and more personal, and chalk it up to mass ignorance and being uninformed about the research. Or, I can get really curious about this trend. Why do so many people keep coming back to this? What is it about streaming video that draws so many people to it as an affordance? Maybe it isn’t just trying to apply a face-to-face teaching mindset to the online space. Maybe there is more to this, something that truly does have the potential to amplify both formal and informal online learning. Maybe it would lead to greater adoption and engagement because perceptions can influence reality for the online teacher or learner.

I have learned so much from so-called novices and online learning newbies. I’ve learned just as much from critics. They look at blended and online learning with lenses that are not standard to me. They see what I miss. They feel what I don’t. They ask questions that I rarely or never considered. They propose solutions that sometimes seem absurd to me, but when they try they, they actually work sometimes.

That is why I believe that students and teachers new to online learning, curious outside observers, and entrepreneurs with no background in the field may well be the future of the field. Some of the most promising and disruptive ideas might come from these groups. They don’t self-censor their way to inactivity. They are not simply building incremental changes based on past research and practice because they know very little about those things. They have the advantage of looking at the field with a fresh perspective, uninformed by the educational ruts of past practice and dominant policy. The humility to listen and learn from these people, to partner with them, to invite their candid input and critiques may well be the source of the next great developments of education in a connected world.