Myths About Online Learning: It’s Not the Emergency Remote Instruction Your Kids Received This Spring

As the next school year and college semester approach, many parents and students wonder about the effectiveness and value of online instruction. Myths about online learning are taking hold because people are equating it with the emergency remote instruction given to kids and young adults this spring.

Let’s debunk the myths about online learning effectiveness

Emergency remote instruction is not the same as online learning. Teachers and professors had only a few days or weeks to translate their classroom instruction into online instruction. No wonder it was subpar. Don’t be scared off by those experiences.

When a new a course or educational program is designed for a digital format from the start, your association can provide a much more effective and enjoyable learning experience than the one provided to kids and college students this spring.

It’s the method, not the medium, that matters

Jeff Cobb and Celisa Steele of Tagoras addressed the online learning effectiveness myth recently in a Leading Learning podcast episode—you can read a recap on their blog.

They quote internationally recognized experts in the field of e-learning, Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer, who said when comparing e-learning to classroom instruction:

“What matters is not the medium used—that is, whether it is on a computer, face-to-face, or even delivered with printed text—it is the instructional methods. So methods, not medium, matter.”

Will Thalheimer, an instructional designer and learning researcher echoed those findings: “What matters, in terms of learning effectiveness, is NOT the learning modality (elearning vs. classroom); it’s the learning methods that matter, including such factors as realistic practice, spaced repetitions, real-world contexts, and feedback.”

myths about online learning

Educate the educators

When you think about it, the methods mentioned by Thalheimer—realistic practice, spaced repetitions, real-world contexts, and feedback—are often missing in traditional conferences and classrooms.

When planning upcoming virtual conferences and online courses, you can build these methods into the program design. But this may require you to take more control over program design than you have in the past. You can’t let instructors and presenters upload a PowerPoint and lecture for 45 minutes. That’s never been effective, not in a hotel meeting room and not in a virtual venue.

Online courses and learning programs must be designed from their inception for the digital format. They can’t just be a recording of the in-person workshop or course.

The same guidelines apply to virtual conferences. Many associations simply replicated the schedule and content of their cancelled conference. But what would that attendee experience feel like? Sitting through one webinar-like session after another is neither exciting nor effective. That’s one pandemic silver lining: virtual conferences have revealed the educational shortcomings of in-person conferences and courses.

Get on the right track by providing training and support for staff in charge of designing programs—virtual conferences, online courses, and other e-learning programs—and for virtual instructors and presenters too. Teach them how to succeed in a virtual meeting room or classroom. Encourage (and incentivize) them to take an online course so they can see what online learners experience.

Design an experience for online learners

For years, adult learning experts have been begging professors, instructors, and presenters to stop giving lectures. Instead, the experts encourage instructors to break lectures into spaced-out chunks and give learners frequent opportunities to reflect upon, recall, and apply new information. The Khan Academy found great success with this instructional approach: a series of short videos, usually no longer than 10 minutes each.

Recently, we’ve seen experts advise virtual presenters to think like a news show producer. Use a variety of media and guests to hold your online audience’s attention.

The learning experience is about knowledge transfer: the learner takes in new information, reflects upon it, recalls and applies it, and continues to practice it over time by recalling and applying it again.

Consistency in regular engagement with the new information is what matters, not the length of time spent engaging with it. You can encourage this consistency by supplementing live sessions with self-study: readings, videos/podcasts, online discussions, and assignments.

myths about online learning

Emphasize the human factor

After colleges classes went online in the spring, students and parents cried out for refunds because the online learning experience wasn’t nearly as good as the on-campus experience. Of course it wasn’t—professors had no time to prepare. However, professors who regularly teach online didn’t get the same complaints because they know how to design effective online courses.

Now, we’re hearing complaints about the tuition students are expected to pay for virtual learning this fall. You can’t blame them. They’ve already been burned by the spring’s mediocre emergency remote instruction. They know the value of a college education is not just found in the content, but in the entire campus experience:

•    Hanging out on campus or in dorms with fellow students
•    Eating meals together
•    Belonging to study groups
•    Attending campus events
•    Participating in campus activities
•    Meeting with professors and advisors
•    Taking breaks together from studying

In the recap of their podcast, Leading Learning said, “There’s something like a ‘proximity bias,’ it seems, that makes us believe that the physical closeness of other human beings automatically improves learning.”

Physical closeness isn’t required, but the human or social element must be built into online course or program design because it enhances the learning experience. Effective programs do this in a number of ways:

•    Regular feedback loop between the instructor and learners
•    Instructor office hours via web conferencing
•    Instructor video check-ins and announcements
•    Group discussions via web conferencing and breakout rooms
•    Online community discussion forums exclusive to participants
•    Group assignments
•    Study groups

Good online course instructors build a learning community—an environment of psychological safety and inclusion—in which they can foster relationships between learners. This social element is a necessary value-add for association e-learning programs.

A feeling of belonging increases learner motivation and helps them stay accountable and on track so they get the expected value out of the program. During these stressful times, with competing and distracting responsibilities and uncertainty about the future, a learning community provides a peer support network as well.

In their recap post, Jeff Cobb and Celisa Steele at Leading Learning shared another reason to appreciate the impact of online learning programs.

“Instructional effectiveness doesn’t do you much good if you aren’t able to reach the people whom you hope to impact. And arguably, this is an area in which e-learning has the potential to leave traditional classroom-based instruction in the dust.”

Online learning gives you the ability to reach a much larger audience than your traditional in-person conferences and educational programs ever did. The quality of e-learning instruction can be just as effective, if not more, when you design programs from the start for virtual learning.

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