The Uncharted Waters of Learner-Driven Online Learning

The dominant online learning of today is more than a digital expression of face-to-face learning. Over the last twenty-five years of online learning (I designed my first online course in the early 1990s), we have witnessed a distinct body of research, theories, models, and frameworks for designing online learning experiences, courses, and degree programs. While some persist in thinking about online course design in terms of replicating what they know and value about face-to-face learning, the field as a whole has moved well beyond that. Even what might seem like the simple recording of a lecture is now understood to be a fundamentally different learning experience (you can’t pause, fast forward, rewind, and share an in-person lecture; nor can you benefit from instant closed captions and other accessibility features).

The use of face-to-face metaphors still dominate the discourse when we talk about online learning, however. Even though online threaded discussions are fundamentally and qualitatively different from in-class discussions, we still hear people refer to them as discussions. Then we hear references to lectures, assignments, tests, quizzes, and other features that are not unfamiliar to us in face-to-face classes. As such, the persistence of face-to-face metaphors to think about and describe online learning might allow people to easily transfer their knowledge from one context to the next, but it also limits our thinking.

That is how metaphors work. They have the power to expand our thinking, to focus our thinking, or to clarify our thinking. They also have the ability to narrow or thinking, hiding new and promising possibilities from us. Consider this simple exercise. To say that online learning is like a digital classroom is to use the metaphor of the face-to-face classroom. It conjures the memories, emotions, and constructs that we use to think about traditional classrooms. What if we shift that metaphor? Instead of calling it an online classroom, what if we called it an online learning collaborative, remove learning co-op, a virtual mentoring platform, a networked learning platform, a digital gym for the mind, or an online group coaching forum? Each of these will lead us to think about the experience and possibilities in new ways.

The use of the physical classroom is not the only dominant construct for online learning today. We’ve also brought along the other trappings of the traditional school environment. We’ve brought letter grades, syllabi, instructor-led environments, required readings, assignments & papers, quizzes & tests, and much more.

Yet, there is a long tradition of face-to-face learning environments that don’t use any or most of those traditional schooling technologies. While many people don’t know about the long history of higher education experimentation with learner-driven education, it is still flourishing, even if in small pockets. And while there are a few exceptions, it has not yet ventured into the online space in any significant way.

Consider schools (k-12 and higher education) that don’t use letter grades, students get to establish some or all of their own learning goals, there are few or no required readings, students co-create projects and other expressions of their learning, and there is deep and ongoing mentoring from faculty. These are communities where the school exists to help nurture and celebrate learner voice, choice, ownership, and agency; and they are doing it within a school that doesn’t force students to do it within the narrow restraints of traditional grades and courses.

This is a niche approach to education that will likely never be the dominant format. Too many people like the safety and securing of being told what to do for that to happen. There will always be human interest in more teacher-directed and prescribed learning pathways, but these other learner-driven communities continue to play an important role in society. They foster a different type of learning, thinking, and being. They honor, support, and celebrate the goals, values, priorities, experiences, and voices of learners in ways that are rarely accomplished in legacy school environments (online or face-to-face). They create spaces for people to flourish, people who sometimes found legacy school construct to be stifling and inhibiting the learners from truly and fully blending their life beyond school with what they are learning in school.

This, I contend, represents largely uncharted waters in online learning. I say largely because some of the early connectivist experiments with MOOCs ventured into this space, but there are very few examples of schools that have taken their full vision of a learner-driven community and converted or re-imagined it for online learning. This is an incredibly promising and exciting space to work and research. I only hope that I’m fortunate enough to be among the early explorers of this new and promising digital frontier. No, that was too subtle. I can’t wait to be part of the community that helps create models and exemplars for what is possible when you blend online learning and learn-driven education.

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Five Possibilities for the Future of Online Learning

Where is the future of online learning? Which providers will grow and which will diminish? In a regulated industry like education, it is often hard to predict. Yet, there are certain potentials futures that are far more likely than others. As I review the landscape and the developments over the last twenty years, I suspect that there are four especially strong potential futures. There may well be a blend of these four, but each represents a strong trend that is likely to traction.

Also, before I get started, I should explain that referencing these five is not necessarily a claim that all other forms of online learning will cease to exist in the future. Rather, I’m referring to futures where certain forms dominate over others. This is a matter of emphasis more than existence. You might even find it helpful to think in terms of market share. With that important caveat, here are for strong potential futures for online learning.

Regional Influencers

One possibility that seems to have gained significant attention in the last few years is the idea of the online learning regional influencer. In contrast to the national and international brands in online learning, many regional non-profit state Universities and private higher education institutions have captured market share. People resonate with and trust these schools, and that is extending to online learning. These may be online programs of hundreds or thousands, but they are often not the massive populations that we see with some of the past online programs. Some of these schools are also marketing their online programs nationally and internationally, but they get the majority of students in their own backyard and through a robust alumni network that extends beyond the region.

This is a promising future because regional online programs can find far less expensive ways to recruit students. They don’t necessarily need to spend the countless millions on digital campaigns across the country to get traction. More people already know them in the region, so a small but focused mixed channel marketing effort can be all that is needed to connect degree seeking student with their online programs.

A Few Massive Providers

At the same time, there are some for-profit and non-profit providers who might have started with a regional focus, but they have definitely extended their influence nationally and internationally. These programs have awareness, large marketing budgets, impressive and sizable teams (on the recruitment/marketing and academic side), and they are striving to set the bar for innovative programming.

There is the possibility that these will continue to grow and gain market share, pushing out many of the others who dabble with online learning. This could happen with some of the known and established online Universities today. It could also happen with elite Universities that choose to leverage their brand to establish a low-cost portfolio of online programs. While distinguishing these programs from their face-to-face counterparts, these schools could potentially pass by existing groups, using their longstanding brand reputation to become online program providers of choice. Granted that such schools establish cutting edge research to inform their design and practice, this would be a powerful force in the online space, allowing them to recruit large numbers with a limited marketing budget, simply because of the strong brand awareness.

Storefront & Partnerships

Then we have the large MOOC providers like Coursera and EdX. While they are not moving quickly into offering degree programs, the way in which they are set up could be preparing them to eventually becoming providers for small and massive online courses and programs. Universities could partner to offer courses that contribute to a shared degree, or one could take individual courses with a single University.

The MOOC providers have a compelling storefront model that has interesting possibilities. Instead of people simply conducting broad searches to find the right online degree, imagine a future where there are a few massive storefronts. Now imagine corporate and other partners playing some sort of role in this, providing pathways to certain jobs, aligning professional programs more closely with the needs of specific employers, and much more.

This approach is a strong possibility amid the unbundling experiments that we are seeing in education. Challenges with accreditation and inconsistency across organizations prevents a more such shared programs today, not to mention competitive element. Yet, if a storefront provider were to establish some sort of cross-organization standard, it is not hard to imagine a situation where there is greater transferability from one organization to the next. We could see programs created out of courses or even smaller curricular units from a few or even a dozen organizations. This future downplays the differentiation and distinctions from one organization to the next. It is a stronger possibility in ares of study where there is already a great deal of standardization due to external regulatory bodies. For example, this could work in a healthcare field where you have pretty much the same outcomes and courses regardless of where you study.

This future requires a type of partnership that is less common today in the degree-seeking world, but if an organization is successful in creating a well-known storefront, we could see a future of online learning that is not unlike the grocery store experience, only with courses and degrees. This leads me to a distinct but related idea, the competitive marketplace approach.

Competitive Marketplace

Another potential future is the Amazon model of online higher education. Imagine a future where you could go to a marketplace not unlike Amazon.com to search for online programs. We certainly see sites that collect and present many online options today, but those are largely simple sites with inquiry forms. These companies make money by charging schools to advertise their programs on the site. It is a basic business model.

We’ve not yet seen the growth of more advanced versions of this concept in education, truly bringing to reality a marketplace approach to searching for degree and non-degree training. Yet, there are some influential voices and organizations interested in creating something like this. It could begin with a regional partnership among 5-10 large state Universities, for example. Unlike the last example, where it might include more collaboration among course providers, this is mainly a storefront. It certainly could include collaboration, but it doesn’t need to. People can shop for courses and degrees across organizations.

The Free & Open Online University

We see open universities outside of the United States, but there are emerging financial innovations and political moves that may well drive a new type of online degree program, namely a free and open one. This could be government funded, but there are other possibilities for funding a completely or almost free online degree provider. Given the growth of the open learning movement combined with some political interests pushing for tuition-free college, this type of massive and online degree option has a possibility of coming into existing in the next decade.

Again, futures in education are influenced by a myriad of factors, and regulatory changes make it a challenge to see too far ahead. Yet, these four possible futures are rooted in some clear, persistent, and growing trends in the online learning space. I am confident that we will see one or more of them gain significant traction in the upcoming decade and beyond.

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When does an Online Course Stop Being an Online Course?

What is an online course? When does an online course cease to be an online course? Since my days in graduate school, I’ve been drawn to a simple but helpful exercise to get at the “essence” of something. It consists of asking three questions. What is essential? What is important? What is merely present? Asking these three questions helps find out the attributes so significant that removing them causes that item to become something else. Amid the growth of online learning and talk about “online courses”, perhaps it is time to use this exercise to consider the essence of an online course. What are the attributes that are so central to an online course that removing them causes it to no longer be appropriately labeled an online course?

To illustrate how this works, consider asking these three questions about a ball. What are the essential attributes of a ball? Some people start by talking about its shape, that a ball must be round. Yet, we need to adjust that definition to consider something like a football. As such, we might revise our first statement to say that it must be round on one plane. From there we go to the second question. What is important? These are the attributes that impact its use and purpose but it remains a ball. Shape, size and weight fit into this category. Finally, we ask about those attributes which are merely present. These are the traits that do not significantly impact the use or purpose. In many cases, the color might be such an attribute. By going through such an exercise, we don’t just come to better understand the essential attributes. We also develop an overall, deeper, nuanced, and more multi-faceted perspective on whatever we are studying. Let’s apply this to the idea of an online course, a concept that continues to evolve.

If you go the route of studying the history and etymology of the word “course”, you will likely end up with something like a “planned series of study.” In the United States, we tend to use “course” to describe a part of a larger program, but “course” is used to describe the entire program in other parts of the world. What people call a degree program in the United States, people in parts of Europe might call that a course or course of study.

If you are speaking with people in a K-12 or traditional University setting in the United States, it is easy for people to describe what they think of as a course. It is something led and organized by a teacher for a group of students. It has a start and end date. There is a teacher. There are students, planned lessons, assessments, and assignments. There might be lectures, larger and small group activities, projects, quizzes and tests, discussions, homework, papers, readings, and dozens of other elements. Which are essential? Which are important? Which are merely present? What are the attributes of a course that make it a course and not something else?

One of the difficulties with educational innovation and the adoption of new practices is that we get used to and comfortable with certain constructs. Whether they are better or worse than an innovation, their familiarity gives them superiority in our minds. We are quick to defend them even when we are something unhappy with them. I suspect that this is part of the reason why we run into problems with the changing idea of a course, especially an online course.

There have been innovations to challenge or stretch our idea of a course for many years. Self-paced or correspondence courses, for example, conflict with traditional ideas of a course. There may be a teacher, but not one that fulfills the same role that we think of in traditional courses. There may be no scheduled time when people gather together, and the start and end dates for the course vary by learner. There is also likely like to no student-student interaction. Yet, we still call it a course. At the same time, because it is new and suspect, it is common for these new ideas of courses to be given lower status or credibility, at least among the most mainstream people in a given domain.

In the digital world, this becomes even more complex. Scan the web for what people call courses and you will find countless models. A course might be a series of three or four webinars led by one or more different people followed by a short quiz. It might be 3-credit class in a learning management system, part of a larger degree program. It could be non-credit or credit-based, offered by a school, a company, a government agency, even an individual. Students might have scheduled activities, readings, assignments, and graded participation in weekly discussion groups. We use “online course”  to describe a MOOC led by one or a few people, largely consisting of short videos and readings with a few quizzes or peer-reviewed exercises shared among hundreds or thousands of learners. An online course might also be something like what you often see on a site like Udemy, largely made up of a bunch of small video recordings, possibly with some quizzes or checks for understanding and a Q & A area. Sometimes there is an “instructor.” Sometimes there is not. Sometimes there are assessment of learners, but not always.

With such a broad use of the term, is there anything essential to an online course? Yes, but it is still important to recognize that it is a rapidly expanding term. With that caveat in mind, consider the following traits. Despite their differences, each of these examples includes a planned course of study. Whether explicit or implicit, something was established to be learned, explored and/or studied. Resources and/or activities were included in that plan. The other part, of course, is that these resources or activities relied upon online resources and/or environments.

That is all that I can come up with for essential attributes of an online course in today’s world. The rest is important or merely present. This includes whether or not it is for-credit, part of a larger program, includes student-instructor interaction, includes student-student interact, the nature of the learning activities, whether it is teacher-directed, learner-directed, or peer-directed and organized. The same is true for the length, complexity, and host/provider for the course. These all play an important role in how the course is valued, how it is experienced, and the impact of the course. Yet, people can implement diverse experiments with these attributes while still calling it an online course.

I’m sure there are many implications for such a broad and popular use of the phrase “online course”, but one comes to mind for me. Because people use the phrase so widely, it is not adequate to make broad assumptions about the idea of an online course. Blogs and other media sources report and reflect about online courses and online learning, but they sometimes jump from example to example without recognizing the distinctions. Studies come out about online learning, but people do not always take the time to consider the type of online courses represented in the study. This has led to widespread confusion, sometimes unnecessary debates, misrepresentations, and often overly general statements about online learning.

Consider the example of MOOCs. As soon as people started writing about MOOCs, most failed to compare them to more traditional online courses. In fact, some wrote about MOOCs as if they were the beginning of online learning, ignoring decades of practice and research that preceded MOOCs. Instead, people compared MOOCs to traditional college courses leading toward traditional degrees. It created a debate that led to a more guarded and often dismissive tone to the conversation instead of allowing us to just be curious about the affordances and limitations of this new construct. This was likely intensified by using the word “course” and people’s pre-existing notions of what constitutes a course.

MOOCs were not, however, the first alternative use of the word “course.” Long before MOOCs we used, people used the word “course” to describe a vast array of online learning experiences. Many of these mentions didn’t have the widespread media attention of MOOCs, so people skipped over them, missing the chance to compare MOOCs to multiple concepts of courses. If this happened early on, it could have transformed and expanded our thinking about MOOCs, their benefits, limitations, and positive potential use moving forward.

What is an online course? It is a course that relies heavily upon online resources, activities and experiences. What is a course? Now that is the important question. Its’ essential attributes involve planning and learning, but in the evolving use of the term, a course can be almost anything. Until we recognize these developments, we will continue to miss promising possibilities, talk past one another, and fall prey to overly simplistic understandings of learning in a connected world.

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Online Learning is the Real Disruption, Not Online Degrees

The real coming education disruption is online learning, not online degrees. Some argue that online degrees will disrupt traditional degrees. That is a possibility for some targeted areas, but that is not yet a certainty. I can see one potential future where the majority of people with a college degree earned half or more of it online. However, for us to see the potential for true disruption, we are wise to broaden our view. It might be online learning that disrupts, not online degrees.

Online learning encompasses more than online degrees. The phrase “Online degrees” is one that refers specifically to degree programs that are typically offered by regionally and nationally accredited higher education institutions. Online learning can refer to that as well, but it also includes informal online learning, self-directed learning, non-credit and continuing education offerings, offerings by non-universities and the increasingly common experience of people who mix and match online resources and experiences to achieve personally and professionally meaningful learning goals.

Disruptive innovations, as described by Clayton Christiansen, gain traction by providing an unmet need via what is often seen as an initially inferior product. Over time, as a customer base grows and the product gains refinement, this innovation begins to take market share from what was previously the gold standard offering. While many have followed the growth of online degrees since the 1990s (developing out of a much older tradition of distance and correspondence education), it is the online learning beyond courses, degrees and programs that has grown the fastest.

Consider the growth of online learning more broadly compared to online degrees. Yes, online degree programs have grown, but during that growth, Khan Academy grew from nothing to well over 10 million unique visitors per month. Youtube, a source of ubiquitous informal learning and the second largest search engine on the web,  grew to over 1 billion monthly users since its start in 2005. Countless communities of practice have emerged online. The concept of the “personal learning network” emerged. We saw the rapid growth of online book clubs, Twitter chats, open courses, low-cost and inexpensive non-credit courses from individuals and organizations, and thousands of companies have started that focus on educational products and services for individuals…not just providers of materials for schools.

This is a potentially larger disruption than online degree programs. These online learning options do not commonly lead to degrees (that can change and is changing in some circumstances). They do lead to something that has always been more important than degrees…learning and progress toward expertise. As concepts like multiple learning pathways, informal learning, and self-directed learning continue to grow in popularity, so will the interest in the broader world of online learning, that which extends far beyond the walls of formal schooling and accredited schools.

What has yet to occur is a clear understanding of how people will show their work, provide evidence of their increased expertise, and leverage that as a means of accomplishing personal goals. Yet, this is the space for a next and emergent round of education startups, innovators, and scholars willing to come to the table. Expect to see much progress in this area over the upcoming years. As it does, more people will begin to recognize that the great disruption in modern education might be online learning and not just online degrees.

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5 Myths About Being an Online Learning Expert

Completing an online program doesn’t make you an online learning expert. It doesn’t even necessarily make you deeply informed about the field of online learning, neither does having a certificate or degree in online learning. Each of these can be valuable as one progresses toward expertise, but true expertise requires something else. It requires moving beyond some common myths about online design and teaching. As I’ve attended and presented at conferences, had informal conversations, followed the discourse in social media, and generally tracked how people talk about online learning in popular media, I’ve noticed a some common perspectives and patterns that can, if one is not careful, turn into pitfalls. With that in mind, here are five common myths about online learning practices.

Online Learning Expert Myth #1 – My perspective represents the whole of online learning.

Sometimes having an experience as an online learner can give you greater understanding for what it looks like to design or teach online learning, but remember that your experience is only a small slice of the online learning pie. There are far more possibilities than you have experienced. We know that people will naturally teach how they are taught. To broaden your portfolio of approaches, that takes some intentional searching, studying and learning.

Online Learning Expert Myth #2 – My program or training source’s perspective represents the whole of online learning.

I went through a very well-respected training program for online learning design and leadership many years ago. It was a good experience and I learned several new strategies and approaches. Yet, in the end, it was largely based on the 15-20 most common strategies and approaches to online learning. I’ve met people with master’s degrees and doctorates in distance learning or online learning that have also presented a somewhat narrow view of what it means and looks like to design or facilitate online learning experiences. There is a common vocabulary and perspective, but again, that is still only a small slice. There are thousands of models and approaches, and new ones are emerging all the time.

Online Learning Expert Myth #3 – Best practice is always best practice.

Education is changing. Learners are changing. What was best practice in dentistry in the 1800s is certainly not best practice today. What was best practice in online learning 5 or 10 years ago may not necessarily be best practice today. This is a field that is evolving quickly and that means constantly looking and learning from the new developments. I’m not just talking about the technological developments. I’m also talking about the new models, strategies, approaches and frameworks that are developing from expected and often unexpected sources, which leads me to the next myth.

Online Learning Expert Myth #4 – Experts and luminaries are leading the way and we need to follow them.

There are many well-known figures in the distance and online learning world. We can learn from them, but they are not the only groundbreakers. There are people joining the online learning space every day, some with little or no prior knowledge or experience. Sometimes they have no familiarity with the research literature but they are doing online learning, and some are doing it exceedingly well. People are learning and highly satisfied with what they are learning.

This is common in innovation. People outside the standard discourse or community sometimes bring fresh approaches and perspectives ignored or missed by the “experts.” That is why a commitment to moving the field forward means including and learning from these helpful and passionate newcomers. Some of them may be your boss some day soon. There are many Salman Khan -like people out there who are doing great work and helping us discover new possibilities. Most of them are not know names like Khan, so it takes some persistence and searching to find and learn from them.

Online Learning Expert Myth #5 – There are certain steps or recipes to good online learning. Follow them for the best results.

Steps, guides, tutorials, and online design or teaching recipes have a place. However, they often represent proverbial truth, not some absolute bible to guide your way. This is where some in the filed can become too mechanistic in their sure recipe to cooking up the best online course. I’ve used many of them with great results. At the same time, some of my greatest successes have come from tweaking them or even setting them aside altogether. For the sake of those coming after you, when you do starting building your own recipes, record what you do and how it works so the rest of us can learn from your experimentation.

This ultimately goes back to my common birdhouse analogy. How do you build a birdhouse? If I ask you that, you are likely to list necessary materials like wood, a hammer, nails, a drill, and a saw. That is certainly one way to build a birdhouse, but there are thousands of other ways. I’ve seen people turn an old boot into a functional birdhouse. People do it with gourds, glass, old plastic bottles, and countless other materials. And the important fact is that these others can be as or more functional than the “traditional” birdhouse. This same thing is true when we start talking about designing and teaching online learning. Let’s continue to be open to new and emerging possibilities, not just because they come from some established expert, are found in the right publication, or are endorsed by a given organization. Let’s keep the doors to the future of online learning design and teaching open, learning from anyone and everyone who joins us.

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The Value of Newbies & Naysayers in Online Learning Innovation

I’ll admit it. I can be a snob about some things, which is why I need daily reminders that the novice perspective can sometimes lead to greater innovation than that of person who has years of experience in a domain. For example, I’ve been exploring the affordances and limitations of online learning since the middle 1990s, so when I read a news article about this “new” development called online learning, I get a little frustrated. Or, when people write about MOOCs as if they are the birth of online learning, I become suspicious about the veracity of their “research.” I get a little irritated when people miss the fact that distance learning is centuries old, that online learning is decades old, and that there is a substantive body of research about both. That is why it is humbling but important for me to remind myself that we really need the newcomers and what might seem like “the uninformed” to imagine the future of blended and online learning.

Consider this conversation that I’ve probably had with more than a hundred people over the years, people who are new to online learning as a student, teacher, or some related role. They bring up critiques or concerns that I’ve settled in my mind a decade ago, but their concerns remind me that they are not settled for them. It isn’t enough for me to say, “Well, that is a great question, but we’ve already looked at that and it isn’t an issue.” Of course it is an issue. If 100+ people bring it up, it doesn’t matter how much I want them to think or feel differently, or to not consider it a worthwhile problem.

Take the use of live video in online courses as an example. How many times have I talked to new faculty or students who tell me how the course can feel less personal, and how we could address this by making the course more centered around live video interactions. I’ve heard countless people tell me that they think online learning will take off once the video conferencing technology reaches a certain level of quality. I’m tempted to point out that there are completely different paradigms for looking at the design of online learning that make little to no use of streaming video. If only they would read the great research about the promise and value of threaded discussions, asynchronous online collaboration tools, and dozens of online teaching strategies that are exceptional at helping students learn as much (or sometimes more) than they might have in a traditional face-to-face course. I can look at the sheer number of comments about how streaming video would make online learning better and more personal, and chalk it up to mass ignorance and being uninformed about the research. Or, I can get really curious about this trend. Why do so many people keep coming back to this? What is it about streaming video that draws so many people to it as an affordance? Maybe it isn’t just trying to apply a face-to-face teaching mindset to the online space. Maybe there is more to this, something that truly does have the potential to amplify both formal and informal online learning. Maybe it would lead to greater adoption and engagement because perceptions can influence reality for the online teacher or learner.

I have learned so much from so-called novices and online learning newbies. I’ve learned just as much from critics. They look at blended and online learning with lenses that are not standard to me. They see what I miss. They feel what I don’t. They ask questions that I rarely or never considered. They propose solutions that sometimes seem absurd to me, but when they try they, they actually work sometimes.

That is why I believe that students and teachers new to online learning, curious outside observers, and entrepreneurs with no background in the field may well be the future of the field. Some of the most promising and disruptive ideas might come from these groups. They don’t self-censor their way to inactivity. They are not simply building incremental changes based on past research and practice because they know very little about those things. They have the advantage of looking at the field with a fresh perspective, uninformed by the educational ruts of past practice and dominant policy. The humility to listen and learn from these people, to partner with them, to invite their candid input and critiques may well be the source of the next great developments of education in a connected world.

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Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 6 of 6)

Great graduate programs challenge and stretch people. They are more than the accumulation of new knowledge. They are not meant to simply be quick, convenient, and an easy way to a pay increase at work. I’ll confess that I’ve met graduate students in my field (education) who treat their graduate study this way. As such, they want to know what they have to do to pass the class, complete the program, and get the degree. Great graduate programs, whether they’re online or face-to-face do not allow that. This doesn’t mean that they are rigid, inflexible or unwilling to honor the distinct situations and abilities of each learner. I’m referring to programs that honor the learners, but that also challenge all of us in the learning community honor the discipline enough to give it our best.

There are a small number of online diploma mills that market themselves as the least expensive, easiest, most convenient programs around. Sometimes they boast about how quickly you can finish. However, what really matters in a graduate program is a high level of intellectual challenge. People should be stretched to think in new ways, grapple with concepts and ideas that sometimes feel beyond their reach, and that help them reach levels of insight and performance that they never thought possible.

Graduate study is not about general knowledge. It is more specialized. It is about deep learning, exploring a smaller number of topics at a level of depth rarely matched on the undergraduate level. Sometimes it isn’t just about deeper content, but it is also about a higher level of performance or the ability to apply the concepts.

To build this depth, all good graduate programs help students get at the foundations of a subject. That is why they often study the historical, philosophical, and theoretical foundations of the disciplines. It is also why they usually get into the contemporary issues and problems in the discipline, the gray areas and the messier side of the content.

What is distinct about the online graduate program when it comes to challenge? Nothing. This is a universal part of all great graduate programs. However, online learning brings with it other challenges. The design of the course or learning moduels and the technologies used can either help or hinder the desire to helps student dive deep into a discipline. When there is a poor or unnecessarily complex design, that gets in the way of this challenge. When the technology is unreliable or “buggy”, that takes precious mental and emotional energy away from getting lost in the wonderful complexities of the discipline. As a result, great online graduate programs have simple but elegant designs. Technology is reliable and supports deep learning. And students are challenged, invited, and supported as they are stretch, challenged, and guided through fascinating, unchartered, and sometimes tumultuous learning journeys.

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Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 4 of 6)

The design of effective learning is not a secret. There are five simple questions that should be asked and answered. When this is done, the learning experiences tends to be effective. These same questions apply in virtually all forms of formal education, but they are especially important in online learning programs. With that in mind, good online graduate programs constitute courses and/or learning experiences that are designed in view of the following five questions:

1) Who are the learners?

Answering this question is key to all good teaching and learning. What is the background of the learners? What prior knowledge or experience do they bring to the table? What are the pre-requisite skills needed to be successful in the program and how do these match with the intended learners? What is a typical day in the life of the intended learners? What technical skills and attitudes characterize the intended learners? What cultural factors of the learners need to be considered? What expectations, beliefs, values, and convictions do the learners bring to the experience? There are certainly many similar questions that must inform the design of courses and the entire program. In instructional design, we call this the audience analysis.

Skipping this step can result in a wonderful but highly ineffective experience.

2) What do we want them to learn?

This question applies to the development of overall program outcomes, course-level outcomes and/or objectives, as well as objectives for individual lessons/modules/units. It can be answered without the entire program looking like a rigid form of training or mastery learning, and I am not suggesting that a specific format is necessary. Traditional behavioral objectives, essential questions, or substantive targeted goals can all be effective ways to answer this question.

Skip this step and the program or course lacks direction.

3) What is the very best evidence that students have learned what we want them to learn?

I usually suggest that one start with the ideal, and then slowly back down to what is realistic in a given environment. Whatever the case, answering this question requires us to clearly articulate what it will look like when a student has reached the stated goals.

Skip this step and question 2 tends to disappear also. When this happens, we see courses with stated objectives, but then the assignments, quizzes, and other assessments have little or no connection to these objectives. Any of us who have experienced this as learners can attest to how such an experience is frustrating and unhelpful. It leaves learners struggling to figure out how they are supposed to devote their precious time and energy.

By the way, if we take this question seriously, then the main course assessments rarely end up being multiple choice, matching, or other traditional forms of tests. These tests or quizzes may be present, but they simply serve as a source of feedback, a way to help students discover how they are or are not progressing (more about that when I get to question five). Serious answers to question number three usually lead us to the wonderful world of authentic assessments.

4) What resources and/or learning experiences can help students provide this evidence?

This may be in the form of recorded lectures, case studies, role plays, examples, illustrations, group discussions, scavenger hunts, webquests, digital stories, multimedia projects, labs, interviews, observations, reflective writing, tutorials, research projects, readings, virtual tours, or a wealth of other powerful and potentially effective learning experiences. However, all of them should help the learners work toward providing the evidence that we noted in question three. If it doesn’t help students progress to a point where they can eventually provide the evidence mentioned in question two, then get rid of it or move it to the margins of the course or program. Otherwise, it is likely to be a distraction or even a hindrance to student learning.

Skip this question and you have a course or program rich with busy work that may have limited value for the learner.

5) How can I ensure that students get frequent and meaningful feedback throughout the learning experience?

Without feedback, how are students going to know if they are progressing toward the goal? Too many poorly designed learning experiences don’t give students feedback until it is too late. Students work for weeks on a paper or project, submit it, get a poor grade, and then are instructed to “move on” with no chance to redo or refine their first attempt. How does that help students meet the stated goals? How does that help them progress? Why not give them feedback throughout the learning experience so that learners get a sense of how they are doing, what requires further attention and practice, as well as where they are excelling?

Skip this question and we get five common results: student frustration increases, student anxiety increases, student satisfaction decreases, student learning decreases, and student retention plummets.

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Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 3 of 6)

Online learning is not simply online…learning. In fact, all good online learning is blended learning. Conduct a quick Google search for “online learning” AND “definition”. You will find statements suggesting that online learning is where content is delivered via the web or some other electronic means. These types of definitions are not adequate. They usually imply that online learning is about one-way delivery of content, possibly also including electronic communication and collaboration among learners. While it is true that these are common aspects of online courses, there is no reason that it needs to be limited to the electronic world. In fact, virtually all good online courses are actually blended learning, a combination of electronic and non-electronic learning experiences. Most definitions of blended learning don’t simply focus on the blending of electronic and non-electronic experiences, but that is one aspect of a potential blended learning experience, and one that is the focus of my reflections.

It is the rare online graduate program that is simply equipping a person for life in the electronic world. Rather, it is about equipping one with knowledge, skills, and abilities that may be used both online and in the physical world. The quality online experience itself must help promote transfer into the physical world. Imagine an online graduate nursing program that did nothing to equip nurses to actually work with patients in the physical world. Or how about an online MBA program that only applied to conducting business online? Or, what if one got an online graduate degree in special education, but it did nothing to equip the teacher to work more effectively with a student in a one-on-one physical environment? None of these would be examples of good online learning. As with all learning, transfer is key. It is of limited use to learn a skill than can’t transfer to a variety of situations. The best graduate programs equip one with skills, knowledge, and abilities that transfer to a wide variety of circumstances and environments.

What do I mean when I state that all good online learning is blended learning? I’ll admit that I’m playing with words a bit, but consider the following potential aspects of an online course experience:

  • Read books,
  • Interview people,
  • Engage in observations,
  • Have informal conversations with colleagues and family about what you are learning,
  • Create class projects that you then use or try out at work or other physical environments,
  • Take e-learning courses with colleagues and have study groups or collaborate at the local coffee shop,
  • Attend professional conferences during one’s program and present with classmates or professors,
  • Go on fields trips or capture audio/images/video to share as part of one’s online classroom (I’ve seen great examples of this in an online environmental education course. Participants around the country took pictures and used them to discuss the various ecosystems.).
  • Participate in summer or weekend residencies that afford students the chance to engage in labs, face-to-face collaboration and discussion, team-building, networking, etc.
  • Attend optional (or required) face-to-face class sessions in some courses or as part of an introductory/culminating experience.
  • Student are required to present work or research at a conference, to a group of colleagues, or another similar environment.

This is a short list of physical elements that are present in many great online graduate programs. There are plenty of other examples, but I will conclude with one that we often overlook. I’m likely to get a few eye rolls over this one, indicating annoyance at my far too liberal toying with terms and phrases like physical, electronic, hybrid, and learning; but I’ll continue nonetheless. Learning occurs as a result of our interaction with things outside of ourselves, but there there still quite a bit that takes place inside of us. In fact, the actual learning is taking place in our brains. That is physical. If changes are not taking place in the brain as a result of the e-learning experience, then it is not quality learning. It isn’t even learning.

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Traits of Great Online Graduate Programs (Part 2 of 6)

At its best, online learning is an educational conspiracy, challenging the monopoly of traditional face-to-face graduate study. Online learning often gets the scrutiny that is deserved of all learning. Is a one hour lecture to a group of 30+ students truly the most effective way to help students master the stated course objectives? Is it superior or more effective than other methods? Or, is it simply an unquestioned higher education tradition? Online learning, in some cases, serves as a challenge to such traditions. For that reason, it may well be a mechanism to not only increase accessibility to higher education, but to challenge, improve, and transform what takes place in traditional face-to-face graduate programs.

While certainly not an exhaustive list, here are five other ways that online graduate programs challenge the superiority of traditional face-to-face graduate study:

1. They challenge the notion that one must move or travel large distances in order to obtain a high quality graduate education.

2. They challenge the notion that one must submit to often inflexible schedules of courses and offerings in order to obtain a quality graduate education.

3. In some cases, they challenge the notion of a one-size fits all graduate education (although many of the best face-to-face programs join in this challenge).

4. In other cases, they challenge the premise that graduate courses are best designed and taught by a single person. In many cases, online learning promotes a team-based approach to course design that may include a combination of subject-matter experts, instructional designers, graphic designers, computer programmers, and a variety of other specialists. In fact, the role of instructor is just one of many factors in some good online learning course designs. While not devaluing the role of a good teacher, what makes the role of instructor so sacred? The only essential role in effective learning is the role of learner.

5. They challenge the idea of the closed-door, no questions asked approach to courses. In place of that, many online courses and programs receive ongoing careful scrutiny. Furthermore, all course activities are perfectly recorded and available for post-course review and evaluation. Imagine if every classroom interaction, every instructor comment, every student comment, and every student artifact of learning in a traditional face-to-face course were available for careful review as part of a course improvement process. That is already the case with many online courses. This is not to suggest that all online programs use this data, but when the data is available, there is an option to use it.

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