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Three Questions to Reframe the Online Learning Conversation

Is it time to change the online learning conversation? The debate about whether online courses are a good idea continues with most people still on one side or the other. Who’s right or wrong is overshadowed by what the flexibility and convenience of online education has offered institutions and students. Those features opened the door, and online learning has come inside and is making itself at home in most of our institutions. No doubt the debate over the value of online learning will continue, but perhaps it’s being judged by the wrong criteria.

Online learning and face-to-face instruction are routinely compared, in research and conversation. “Face-to-face and distance learning are more like pomegranates and tomatoes than easily comparable learning strategies whose shortcomings delegitimate one or the other for innovation and incorporation,” writes theology professor Lisa M. Hess in an article that explores the role of online instruction in theology curricula. She makes a valid point. Face-to-face instruction has features that online learning can’t have, but then online learning has advantages not possible in face-to-face instruction. What do we gain by continuing to compare things that are distinctly different?

I also think that there are three questions about online learning that should be more front and center in the research and our discussions.

1. What courses should be offered in the online format?

Whatever the students want and will take online—has that become the default answer? Shouldn’t the decision-making be started by consideration of whether the course learning objectives can be successfully accomplished in an online environment? Decisions about course delivery mode, face-to-face, blended, or online, can be made in very systematic ways. Brinthaupt, Clayton, Draube and Calahan (Journal of Online Teaching and Learning) have proposed a detailed course decision-making model. I’m not terribly optimistic about academic leaders or faculty having time for such deliberate decision-making, but the model makes clear how many course-related issues are relevant when we consider delivery mode.

Sometimes it seems the course content makes the answer easy and obvious. When certain skills are involved (starting an IV or conducting a chorus, for example), and when feedback is necessary for skill development, an online environment does not work … or does it? I recently read an article by two faculty members who developed and taught a pastoral care course online, something they were initially convinced could not possibly be done with course objectives preserved. Their creative design demonstrates that courses with unlikely content can be taught online, but only if they are entirely recreated versions of face-to-face courses.

2. Who should be teaching online courses?

What instructional strengths and weaknesses make a faculty a good or not so good choice for online courses? Is this an issue anyone is talking about or trying to address? We don’t have much history with these kinds of conversations or particularly commendable criteria. For example, tradition has ruled that capstones and senior seminars belong to the most experienced among us and that new teachers earn their stripes in large introductory courses.

I’d say we ought to be looking for faculty who realize the importance of instructional design (or who have access to professionals who do). Online courses need strong coherent structures. They must stand on their own more than face-to-face courses. Course materials matter more in an online environment. Online teachers should have the ability to convey their presence and create a sense of community without being physically present. Good written communication skills are more important than oral ones in online environments. What else would you add?

3. Who should be taking online courses?

Here we are getting some research answers. The most successful online learners are typically adults who are taking the course for a specific career path, are self-directed learners, and are often paying for the course themselves. That makes online courses a much riskier proposition for beginning students who don’t have clear educational goals and possess marginal abilities as learners. We can’t prevent students from taking online courses, but are we telling them what we know about students who succeed in those courses?

Sometimes our discussion of instructional issues gets mired in ruts where the conversation spins the wheels but we don’t end up going any place. I have that feeling about discussions of online learning, do you?