e-learning,  onlinepivot

It’s forever 1999 for online learning critics


One of the (many) things to surprise and disappoint me over the past couple of months has been the resurrection of so many bad takes on online learning that I had encountered in 1999 and thought we had moved on from.

There was a piece in Wonkhe that argued online worked against widening participation. Online, with assistive technologies, where the student can learn in their own environment and at their own pace was somehow much worse for WP than making people come to one physical location at set times and study in real time. Apparently only f2f can realise WP goals, which was certainly news to all the distance education universities set up over the world specifically to address the needs of people excluded by traditional education.

There have been the usual claims about the mystique of face to face lectures, for example Zimmerman claims remote learning leads to the death of charisma (no, seriously). There are also plain old prejudice takes such as:

And then there’s this car crash of an article in HEPI, which compares f2f lectures with students getting online streamed lectures and finds, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, that students prefer the f2f version. This operates solely on the assumption that the only way to teach is the lecture and that online must provide a poor replication of that. They also throw in ‘digital natives’ in case you doubted their 1999 credentials.

What most of these takes exhibit is a) privilege of the authors b) bias against any form of non-traditional learning c) ignorance of the past 20 years of online learning and 50 years of distance ed. So let’s look at some of those claims.

The first thing to note is that online learning has traditionally served a different audience. It has different affordances to f2f, particularly in allowing learners to partake asynchronously and structure their learning to their own convenience and preference. It is also worth stressing that f2f lectures aren’t all that, and indeed one of the complaints around the introduction of lecture capture was that it can lead to a decline in attendance of f2f lectures. I mean if they’re so great, why would this happen?

This may seem obvious but students who choose online prefer it, and those who choose f2f prefer that mode. So perceptions of quality are influenced by preference. This will be an issue come next semester when we will have large groups of students who have chosen and prefer f2f, being forced to study online.

Let’s look at concerns around quality and satisfaction. Sometimes distance ed comes out as preferable, and sometimes it’s f2f. The OU has been consistently high scoring in terms of student satisfaction, and our grade inflation is much lower than most conventional universities. Open University students are highly favoured by employers.

In terms of quality then and satisfaction, there is no discernible difference between modes when a reasonable comparison is made. Retention remains an issue however. This is difficult to compare, as I highlighted previously, but I’ll repeat again: Online learning is sometimes equated with MOOCs, where the completion rate is very low – about 10%. But in this case the learner has no investment in the course (they often sign up and never even attempt one element), and no human tutor or teacher support. For more carefully designed distance education courses where there is active human tutor support, the completion rate is much higher, but is still lower than conventional universities. Here there can be a number of other factors also. For instance, we operate open entry at the OU, so no entry requirements. This can mean people are not prepared for study and so completion rates are lower than for courses where there is a formal entry. But that is unrelated to the ‘online’ element.

Online and distance learning does generally require more self-motivation from the learner, away from the physical cues that prompt learning. It also requires more organization of their time and study environment and so retention may always be an issue compared to f2f. But it also offers opportunities for other forms of teaching. The least interesting thing you can do is replicate the not very effective model of the lecture. We had these discussions back in 1999, and people explored problem based learning, constructivism, collaborative learning, and then later connectivism and flipped learning. I’m not proposing any one of these approaches as a magic bullet, and some students will like them and others hate them. But different approaches are achievable and have been realised for a long time. Just because you’ve been dumped off your lectern and feel aggrieved, is no need for another ‘online learning sucks’ hot take.


  • Gavin Moodie

    Thanx for this most helpful post.

    Surely people’s skill in managing face to face learning is developed from primary school. So distance education doesn’t require *more* self management of learning (Gagné) but a different kind of learning management from that inculcated in 12 years’ of face to face education.

    R. M. Gagné (1985) [1965] The conditions of learning and theory of instruction
    (New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston).

    • mweller

      Hi Gavin, you are quite right, and that is probably why it’s a shock to people. But assuming we’re operating in the same system, it does require extra support for people to make the shift and the extra burden does mean it has a higher drop out rate generally. Maybe the online shift in schools will make that less the case for higher ed?

  • Gavin Moodie

    I agree. I have been hoping that schools would gradually develop pupils’ skills in hybrid and then online learning which hopefully would improve their retention in online higher education. Indeed, I think there is potential for a good pilot-research project there.

    Before covid19 the new Ontario conservative government required secondary school pupils to take 2 subjects online. The policy was adopted to save costs, and it was introduced peremptorily and clumsily, understandably so in part.

    Since mid March all Canadian schools have been teaching remotely. Children, parents and teachers are anxious to return to face to face education, but I wonder whether something might have been learned from our unwelcome experience of remote education.

  • Rina

    There are certain subjects that can’t be taught online or need labs. There are courses in Arts, film-making, ceramics, virtual reality.

    F2F learning facilitates social skills, learning etiquette to work with others, opportunities to interact with students at different levels and of varied disciplines. You develop friends and mentors for life,

    One mode is not better than the other. Each has its place. OU suits people who study part time. They don’t come to the OU for online learning but they come for the flexibility that they can study in their own time.

    Mocking colleagues who have lost their lectern may not be reasonable. They have had to struggle against various things including adjusting to work from home in the process of moving online. The support infrastructure at the OU has been set up over 50 years.

    • Cath Brown

      “F2F learning facilitates social skills, learning etiquette to work with others, opportunities to interact with students at different levels and of varied disciplines. You develop friends and mentors for life”

      You seem to be implying this doesn’t happen in remote learning.
      If you are implying that, you are wrong, as many many OU students would tell you, many of whom have made friends for life through their studies.

      I have made a far larger number, and far greater variety of friends through the OU than I did at my conventional university.

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