Where Online Learning May Lead

by Hap Azizthumb

Several years ago, I attended a CIO conference in Orlando, Florida, and the topic of the day’s sessions focused on the development and delivery of online education. The keynote speaker had done some research on Gen Y and Gen Z student attitudes regarding the online learning experience, and he had brought 14 students for a Q&A session with the CIO audience. While I wasn’t a CIO, my role at the time involved working with CIOs to help them design and implement both the systems and process infrastructures to support online learning initiatives at higher education institutions representing a variety of strategic enrollment and learning outcomes goals.

After a number of questions that skirted around the core matter of interest were asked, someone got directly to the point. “How many of you think online learning is effective?” Of the 14 students sitting on stage, one student raised her hand in the affirmative.

I looked around the room and read the overall reaction to be surprise on the mild end of the spectrum to what I’d most charitably identify as confusion on the other end. The students’ response was unexpected, and I’m sure there were more than a few people rethinking their investment of time and treasure in the online market. I thought to ask a follow-up question.

“How many of you use the Internet to learn new things?” Fourteen hands were raised in response.

My insight was that I understood the difference between “formal” online learning experiences designed according to some theoretical framework and the more informal approach of using the Internet to find information presented in a variety of formats that engage the learner across multiple learning styles. What was revealed in the subsequent conversation was a very simple message. Institutions often develop online learning with very little consideration of drawing the learner into a meaningful interaction.

Learners have discovered how to leverage content on the Internet to construct their own learning experiences. Google, YouTube, Instagram, Facetime—all of these are services and content repositories that provide immediate access to an almost limitless amount of information as well as instruction on how to make use of that information. Do you want to know how to tile a floor? Watch any number of YouTube videos. Need help visualizing the Golden Ratio? Look it up on Pinterest. Interested in finding out what Leonardo da Vinci’s top 10 inventions were? Check out the Stuff of Genius blog.

It’s important to remember that institutions of higher education are not simply “How-To” resources, and applying measures of quality for online courses is an essential way of achieving the outcomes that we educators desire as well as the outcomes that learners deserve. In my blog entry “The Quality of Learning,” (https://hapaziz.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/the-quality-of-learning/) I take the Online Learning Consortium’s Five Pillars of Quality Online Education and modify them slightly into these four categories:

  • Framework – Here we consider the quality of technology infrastructure and support across an institution. How well equipped, for example, is the academic technology group in order to provide exemplary levels of service to the various end users?
  • Content – The quality of course design process has a direct impact on the actual materials and media that both educators and learners will interact with during the duration of a particular course. You might think of the difference between a well-curated academic journal and a tabloid pseudo-news publication.
  • Experience – When we think of the quality of faculty and student end-user experience, we need to consider both the end-to-end experience as a service as well as a product. What will students say after they have taken the course? The answer often comes back to how they felt about what they experienced throughout.
  • Design – Program design quality includes components of the three other quality measures, but it is also an overarching theme that spans an entire program of study rather than individual courses. This means that individual course quality measures “interact” in the learner’s mind–so a single poor experience might negatively impact the whole program experience.

On top of these vertical pillars I superimpose four horizontally-spanning themes that are common across all measures of quality:

  • Ethics involves topics from intellectual property policies and considerations to online harassment and bullying.
  • Resources addresses the way in which institutions provision their online operations, hopefully positioning themselves for success.
  • Constituents is all about audience: who is participating, and what is important to them.
  • Measurement is the ever-present need to understand how well we are executing to our goals at every level of the institution from leadership to department to individual instructor.

The resulting composite model looks like this:


Once we’ve established a way of ensuring (and measuring) quality, we can take a look at some of the characteristics of online learning that add value to the learner such as accessibility, the ability to present content that aligns with particular learning styles, and the capacity to provide a multisensory learning experience for improved engagement. In fact, since online learning is a specific flavor of technology-mediated learning, the advantages that technology brings in general to learning are often specifically addressed by online learning and the expansions educators have made to the modality.

In another one of my blog entries, “The Seduction of the Senses,” (https://hapaziz.wordpress.com/2015/12/24/the-seduction-of-the-senses/) I discuss how “traditional” education has been limited by the technology of the alphabet. That is, we have developed a system of learning that first requires mastery of coding and decoding of symbols that represent the real world. While this model has brought education “to the masses,” it has forced us to adjust the way we learn into an artificial process. Online education (along with its variations of blended learning and supplementation of face-to-face learning) offers a pathway for people to learn as we were originally built to learn: through the simultaneous application of all our senses. We’re not all the way there yet, but despite the professional skepticism, the immature state of data-sharing standards, and the uneven application of tools across the K-20 education landscape, online learning brings us a step closer to an ideal state.

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Filed under Hap Aziz, online learning, Online Learning Consortium

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