The online learning renaissance… in progress

As the office/hybrid/remote work debate rages, the online education renaissance quietly tries to figure itself out.

Everyone, from individual creators to universities to massive corporations are looking at online learning as a way to connect with a like-minded audience and increase revenue.

Interchangeable terms for online learning

Anne-Laure Le Cunff, in a systematic review of the terms used to describe online learning, points out how interchangeably we use the different terms and offered some definitions for “distance learning”, “e-learning”, “online learning”, and “virtual learning”. She explains each term by associating it to where and how the learning process happens. So, distance learning is about location, e-learning is about device, online learning is about delivery, and virtual learning is about communication. This way of looking at the definitions separates them, but Le Cunff does mention the mixing of onsite lectures and online activities to create a blended learning approach.

Dimensions of blended learning

And a while ago, some colleagues and I did some work into defining the different dimensions of ‘blended learning’. We came up with 6:

  1. Delivery – Live vs. self-serve.
  2. Medium – Virtual vs. in-person.
  3. Availability – Wide vs. narrow.
  4. Pastoral support – Team vs. partner.
  5. Platform – Owned vs. third-party.
  6. Content – Owned vs. partner content.

We use these dimensions to design blended learning experiences that best achieve the outcomes of the learners balanced with a pragmatic viability. So, for example, one aspect of a course could be live, virtual, tailored to a particular audience, with support provided by our colleagues, on a platform we built, using content provided by a partner. And another part of the course could be the same except for the content dimension is changed to use content we’ve created. The number of variations offers lots of flexibility for creating learning experiences and comes from the recognition that a ‘one size fits all’ approach actually means it’s unlikely to fit anyone.

What the two models have in common is the means of delivering communication. Le Cunff calls it synchronous/asynchronous and we call it live/self-serve, but essentially we’re talking about the same thing: are the teacher and the learner present at the same time. This is question for lots of course creators. Pre-recorded video courses don’t rely on the presence of the teacher and so can be available at a time that suits the learner and scale in a way that live teaching can’t. Live video sessions create social connection between teacher and learner and offer the opportunity for the learner to ask questions in real-time and so perhaps achieve a higher quality learning experience.

What type of knowledge gets transferred

The decided between these formats is in the nature of what is being taught. Back in the fifties and sixties, Michael Polyani talked about the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge. Tacit, or implicit, knowledge is the things we know but can’t explain. It’s knowledge that can’t be formalised or codified to be written down. Explicit knowledge can be codified, and so transferred between people via means like pre-recorded videos quite easily. Even the medium of live video sessions struggle to convey tacit knowledge but if done well, with discussion for fast feedback, live video lessons can effectively provide the foundations for later experiential learning where tacit knowledge is built.

The difference between explicit and tacit knowledge transfer is the difference between teaching someone to fix a bike or ride a bike. How to fix a bike can be written down as a set of instructions, whereas how to ride a bike can only be taught through offering suggestions and guidance and changing that feedback based on the experience of the learner. Problems occur when there is confusion about the subject and content of the lesson, and the medium and method it is taught. Using pre-recorded videos, for example, to teach someone how to ride a bike is unlikely to reach successful outcomes for the learner. And not through any fault of their own, but because they are trying to gain tacit knowledge via explicit knowledge transfer. Getting these aligned is essential for effective online education.

The learner’s approaching to learning

Pedagogy is the method and practice of teaching, of conveying information, transmitting learning content. It’s the dominant practice in the majority of educational establishments across the world. Most of the people providing online learning, by whatever means, and whether they know it or not, are using a pedagogical approach. They have the knowledge, and their intention is to convey that knowledge to the learners. But that doesn’t mean it’s what the learner wants.

In contrast to pedagogy is andragogy, a term used to explain the differences in how adults learn compared to children. An andragogical approach to education recognises that learners have experiences that can provide useful learning content, that they want to learn things that are applicable rather than merely for the sake of learning, and that they should be self-directed in achieving their learning outcomes.

Thinking about the difference between the two approaches, it may be less useful to think of them less as what works for children and what works for adults, and more about how learners approach learning. A pedagogical approach can work well where learners don’t know what they need to learn. In order to achieve some educational outcomes they rely on an expert to define the curriculum, choose the content, and deliver it in a way that helps them engage. An andragogical approach might work better where learners have some experience of the topic and want to participate in defining what and how they learn.

Understanding the application of these different methods and practices is important for the online learning creator seeking to engage with their learners in the most appropriate and relevant way. Teaching a new technique to a group of experienced experts is going to require a very different approach to teaching an established body of knowledge to those completely unfamiliar with it.

So, when is the renaissance?

Perhaps calling this a renaissance might be over-cooking it, but the online learning space still has a great deal to think about and figure out to avoid a ‘lift and shift’ approach of just taking how education works offline and trying to make it work the same way online, it’s important to question many of the concepts and assumptions our understanding of education is built upon.