Love Letter to Online Learning

As I connected this morning, I learned about a new research study from MIT that has discovered that humans are more important than technology in the context of learning.  While you may be wondering why we needed research to discover this, I felt energized by the findings of this study, as I perceived it to be a validation of the importance of a present, engaged instructor in the experiences of online students. However, after examining the article more closely, it became apparent to me that it is more evidence of a general misunderstanding about what “online learning” can be. The Inside Higher Ed article notes, “Online education can offer personalized pathways through course content with short lecture videos and well-timed quizzes that help students retain knowledge, the report reads, but it is most effective in a blended setting where students regularly interact with faculty members face-to-face.” This description diminishes the uniqueness and benefits that online learning can deliver and indicates that blended learning is as good as online gets.   This is a gross mischaracterization of online learning, which was noted by @HFMudd in the comments of the article, and evidence of the rhetoric that taints mainstream perceptions about online teaching and learning.

The nature of online classes varies dramatically, much like face-to-face classes. But, in both scenarios, the teacher matters and the teaching matters. When an online class is taught by an engaged and empathetic instructor who seeks to be aware of the needs of her students, the asynchronous nature of online learning may become a benefit to students, not a disadvantage. This is contingent upon the design of the course, which is where instructional designers or “learning engineers” can play an important role.  Many instructors, however, play both roles — and those who do are often the professors who experience deep transformations in their face-to-face classes as a result of what they learned from teaching online.

Learning is a process that unfolds over time. In a face-to-face class, the actions in a classroom are a valuable part of that learning, but students don’t instantly “learn” upon receipt of instruction. This is something that teaching online can help faculty to recognize and lead them to enhancing their face-to-face instruction with opportunities for students to interact and reflect online between class sessions. An online class that is designed with scaffolded opportunities for students to engage in low stake, formative assessments provides learners with an environment that can align more closely with the rhythm of their learning. The rhythm of learning is highly variable and this is another reason why online classes can be so empowering for students, especially those who feel left out and disengaged in traditional instructional settings. The opportunity to engage with media in a variety of modalities multiple times or to read or listen to peer conversations more than once, and the ability to revise one’s thoughts over time by adding on to a conversation, engage with diverse opinions and perspectives from individuals beyond the course roster — these are unique qualities of online learning that benefit students.

The finding from the study that encourages institutions to invest in people and processes over technology is powerful. But we need to be careful about how we frame this.  While faculty/teachers are central to meaningful online class experiences, faculty must feel inspired to teach online.  Teaching online is not easy and the luxurious visions that faculty have of teaching in pajamas or from the beach quickly fade away. Teaching online well takes a lot of time and many iterations.  But it also requires faculty to make a mind shift in order to see the unique and beautiful opportunities that an online class opens for learning. While some may begin by asking, “How will I do this without a classroom?” after teaching online many start to realize, “I could never do this in a classroom!”

Despite this, too often we hear about the online students who go weeks without a response from a professor, describe their class as a series of tasks, and have no sense of who their peers are or even what their instructor looks like or sounds like.  These classes are not taught by inspired online instructors. These classes are most likely taught by faculty who do not feel they’re doing something important.  And when we examine the rhetoric about online classes in mainstream higher education discourse, it’s not surprising. The perception that an online class can’t be  transformative or memorable trickles down within the structures of our organizations — it’s there, but we may not see it.  In the past two weeks, I’ve traveled to two higher education events. Here are two comments that have stuck with me about online learning:

I teach online, but my dean told me not to tell anyone in my program. He’s concerned that everyone will want to do it.

We offer online classes at our institution, but they are all taught by part-time instructors. Full-time faculty can teach online, but only as overloads.

These comments demonstrate just a couple of ways organizational processes marginalize teaching online.  I share these to help convey that a warm body teaching an online class is not necessarily going to result in an effective learning experience for students.  Yes, humans are more important than technology, but inspiring faculty should be our goal. Our organizational cultures need to embrace online learning as unique. We need to be supporting faculty by immersing them in engaging, meaningful online classes as part of their preparation to become great online instructors. When our organizational practices convey a hierarchy between face-to-face and online classes, that hierarchy will translate into the attitudes of the instructors who teach those classes.

How different would things be if teaching online was a badge of honor, as opposed to a dirty little secret?

13 Comments to “Love Letter to Online Learning”

  1. Sherri Spelic

    This post takes me by surprise – the surprise being that I want to know more, learn more, do more. You’ve just made me ask the question – could *I* be an inspiring online instructor? What presence, inclinations, experiences might I bring to the process to make it not only engaging for students but designed for mutual growth – where teacher and learners overlap & intersect? Your post makes me wonder again about the potential in instructional design and how online learning can be so much more than personalized worksheets and video libraries. Thank you for providing a spark.

  2. Sherri, thank you for your comment. Asking these questions is the perfect way to delve deeper and experience new dimensions in your online classes. And…I encourage you to always survey students at the end of your class, because you may discover just how inspirational you are. 🙂

  3. Wendy

    This post echoes my thoughts when I ran a blended-training inhouse session for staff this week. I don’t mean blended as online and f2f but blended as in I was running this training with a colleague and we are 1200km apart. We had training presentation/demo presented via technology (me) and a trainer present in the room with participants to support practical session component and other questions. The training was designed this way, not just having remote staff dial in as a tokenism to inclusiveness. If staff only ever participate in f2f CPD or sit-and-listen sessions from beamed-in guest presenters, how can they design, with empathy, their online teaching? Like taking away the “e” from this type of learning we can remove “remote” from academics located in other campuses.

    1. Wendy, thank you for sharing. We have something in common. I work 500 miles from CSU Channel Islands. My team makes extraordinary efforts to pull me in via Zoom regularly. We also use the Kubi telepresence robot. These practices have provided all of us on my team with unique viewpoints and have helped us to develop an inclusive faculty development and support model. We open nearly all of our campus faculty development and support sessions to faculty who are not on campus by providing a ZOOM link. It’s important to model how effective practices can be when they don’t require people to be together in a physical room. We also develop ongoing online resources so faculty can help themselves. Here is our site:

  4. There is an increasing common assumption that online learning is comprised of 5 year old Youtube clips and some peer reviewed article pdfs that you have to discuss in a forum following an ‘ice breaker’ activity where you tell your group what animal you would be if you were an animal. I have seen this, too.

    But I have also run group Google Hangouts across 8 time zones, Skype tutored students who ran into trouble with their project, supported a Teheran based student via email only during the political freeze, so I support your passionate call to make many adventurous forms of online learning happen – with contributions from students of course. The more ownership students take in this scenario, the better.

    1. Hi Carl. Thanks for your comment. What type of asynchronous activities do you use to engage students? I’ve found that synchronous interactions are very difficult when teaching community college and lower division general ed courses online, as students often work full-time and have many other responsibilities.

  5. > after teaching online many start to realize, “I could never do this in a classroom!”

    Yep! Well, not that it could never be done, but it couldn’t be done in the current system. Or would require too much effort.

    > Teaching online well takes a lot of time and many iterations.
    Sounds accurate, whether it’s online or off…
    However, something online teaching has taught me is to let go. In some ways, it’s the hardest thing. When you care so much about the learning, you run the risk of “forcing the dose”, of doing more effort than is required. Maybe because you fear being judged as lazy.
    Was teaching intro sociology to registered nurses in Texas, shortly after moving back to Montreal. The course was fully online (never set foot on campus), purely asynchronous, and most activities were done through forums. Again, these were registered nurses taking an intro course outside their field. Tony Bates and others have been making the case that online courses can be counterproductive for first-year learners. But these learners were already professionals.
    These were Summer sessions, so only eight jam-packed weeks. The school was very keen on making sure nobody was falling off the map. So part of the job was monitoring the online activities. In this sense, it required a more constant effort through the week as compared to most face-to-face classes (although, my offline classes all have an online component with activities through the week).

    One of my first semesters teaching this online course, occasionally felt a bit guilty about my lack of involvement. Though the effort was relatively constant, it wasn’t that much of an effort. And then, this one week, went on a trip with my partner. Was still checking emails on a regular basis, but wasn’t constantly prompting people or nudging them.
    As you might expect, this is a week people chose to give me positive feedback. Not only did the learners not notice my lack of engagement, but they were themselves engaged more deeply in the material. Registered nurses may need a lot of help to grok sociology. But most of them don’t need much handholding. My week of semi-absenteeism actually gave them more agency.

    Learnt a lesson at the time and applied it in other courses. Years later, it’s still very hard to detach myself from my teaching, to refrain from engaging too actively. But it’s worth it. Especially when your empathy levels are so high that you feel for learners any time they struggle with anything. Pushing them to be more autonomous is often an efficient way to get them to learn more efficiently.

    Never adopted a completely hands-off approach. But, thanks to online teaching, was able to perceive the value of “letting go”.

    1. Hi Alex. Thanks for your candid reflections about your online class. I agree that it’s important for online instructors to be able to respond to the level of presence their students need throughout a term. It’s really an art form, as there is no formula for this and, as you note, it will vary based upon the group of students in the class. I think a lot about Tuckman’s 5 Stages of Group Development. Typically, I can sense when the forming and storming phases are over and the norming begins — that’s when I can phase out a bit and expect students to work together more effectively.


  6. Jane

    Great article! I have completed my MBA online four years and now am working on a graduate HRM certificate, also online. Since I have taken so many online courses already I have had a number of professors I will want to model myself after. Unfortunately, there were some very bad apples there.

    I am going through training to teach my first online course next semester. I appreciate the points you made in your article. Professor engagement, interest in his/her students and genuine desire to help them make such a big difference!

  7. Anthony William Gibbs

    I have a personal comment about online learning that I feel I must share before I comment on the article:

    I did my Ed.D. training all online. I had to find my own internships, my own sponsor for the doctoral project, and such. I often thought I might have had an easier time if I was actually on a campus getting that professional polish that goes along with the classwork and the project. I am glad I finished it and such, but all online I don’t think is where it is at.

    Now, I am appreciative of the fact I was able to cobble it around my life. I had instructors that were inspired and super helpful. I had some tough ones too. I think the spirit of that professor can shine through if that person puts enough of themselves into it. Ultimately, the online classroom is a place where the student is an explorer and you help guide their search, with the goals of the rubric to be found.

  8. Andrew S McCullough

    I appreciate your perspective. My online teaching so far has felt somewhat remote at times, but others I have felt quite engaged. What I see here is that I need to explore a variety of ways to present information, and present myself as a resource in my students’ learning processes.

    Thanks for writing!

  9. Michelle Pacansky-Brock is an influential figure in the realm of Virtual Education. Her innovative contributions have reshaped online learning, fostering engaging and inclusive virtual learning environments. Through her work, she has demonstrated a keen understanding of leveraging technology to create meaningful educational experiences. Michelle’s expertise in virtual education is truly inspiring, driving the evolution of remote learning and its potential to connect learners worldwide.


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