Virtuosity 11.11

Where words become worlds…

Online Education: Beyond the technology – Part 1*

And now a post that is very near and dear to my heart – online education!  I realize that Virtuosity touches upon a variety of topics, but at the core, my passion is teaching teaching.  Why?  Because if you can teach people how to teach, you’ve just empowered the world.

Anyways, when educators discover that I design and consult about online curricula, they start to ask me a lot of questions, or they tell me about their experiences in online education.  One of the most common situations that I’ve run into (especially with virtual educators) is: I have my students taking my online course, but they’re not (self-directed, motivated, performing, getting higher grades, participating, interacting etc…) as much as I thought they would in this environment.  People will also come to me and say, “Oh, I tried teaching online, and it didn’t work.”

Okay, let’s tackle the big fallacy underlying these two very common situations:

There is an assumption that technology or online (anything) is the silver bullet to teaching.

With the introduction of the Internet, along with lowered costs for personal computers in the 1990’s (Reiser, 2001; Harasim, 2000; Kapp & O’Driscoll, 2010), educators began jumping on the bandwagon – touting that the Internet’s capability to connect people to a world of resources would revolutionize education (Reiser, 2001).  Even now, we can still easily find articles on game theory, gamification, MOOCs and other emergent technologies that claim that a new educational paradigm is upon us – a transformative force that will move our society into a knowledge-based, information age.

This is all hype!  The Gartner Hype Cycle is wonderful model to explain the typical trends that emergent technologies make over time in our society.

As you can see from the figure, when technologies enter the scene, they do it because of “inflated expectations” (Gartner, 2003, p. 5) of what a technology may do (whether it is the promise of enlightenment, educating a world of people, or the instantaneous motivation of a classroom full of freshmen) – everyone jumps in, thinking that this will save the world.  Afterward, when all the pixels have settled, and we compare digital education to face-to-face traditional methods, we find that on average, most studies show no difference in student performance (Bernard, Abrami, Lou, Borokhovski, Wade, Wozney, Wallet, Fiset, & Huang, 2004**).  In fact, once everyone has jumped onto the bandwagon, we begin to see a windfall of literature that talks about how the technology sadly fell short of expectation.  Educators end up in the ‘trough of disillusionment,” where not only is technology is not what it was cracked up to be, but also, may be even worse than what we had before!  Unfortunately, there have been many occasions where educators and students stop here – embittered that technology did not fulfill its (false) promises to reform.  We have seen this happen several times with online education, and can follow this curve in the literature.  I’ve read about the hype cycle regarding Second Life, and now on MOOCs, as well (2012 was supposed to be the “Year of the MOOC“).  I would argue that this is actually the reason why many reform measures fail to work – we don’t hold out for the “slope of enlightenment” phase, where we actually learn when and how to use technology appropriately!

Just how do we arrive at the slope of enlightenment, you might ask?  (Well, maybe you didn’t ask, but I shall ask it for you).  First, we must reevaluate our assumptions about technology in education, and reconsider:

  1. You can lead a student to the Internet, but they still may not learn.
    • We must debunk our assumption of the “Net Generation” – that young people (I cringe at this term) are simply born with a keyboard in their hands and that they will not learn any other way.
    • The other assumption to this, is that the Internet is self-teaching.  This is largely due to Sugata Mitra’s infamous “hole in the wall” study*** – a study that has been critically examined, and unfortunately, myth busted.
  2. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” ~Albert Einstein
    • To clarify what I mean by this – I refer to several times when I have been invited to classes in Second Life, only to sit in a virtual chair, with virtual classmates, looking at a virtual board – with Power Point slides.  To use technology to do the same things we’ve always done sort of defeats the purpose.  Studies have shown that when instructors have adopted technologies in their classrooms in this way – to use technological superficially as a “new way” to do “old things,” it doesn’t stick or become incorporated effectively within their programs (Lankshear & Bigum, 1999).
  3. Online teaching requires online pedagogies that are very different from face-to-face teaching.
    • Teaching online using exactly the same pedagogies as face-to-face teaching is like using Power Point to teach a yoga class.  It doesn’t work.  Instead, we must develop, understand and use appropriate methodologies that are aligned with our teaching philosophy and learning goals.
    • Good teaching is good teaching, regardless of where or how you do it.  Good instructors adjust the “how” part, depending on “where” they are and what they are teaching!

So, I mentioned three assumptions.  Although they may seem small, each one is like opening a box of Sees Candies chocolates – full of wonderful surprises.  In future posts, I intend to unpack some of these assumptions for you!  In particular, I will address point #3, because this last one is, what I would claim, the Achilles Heel of the online teaching world.  When online teaching is done incorrectly, the results can turn both teachers and students away from it altogether.  One of my hopes as a curriculum consultant is that I can prevent that from happening!

Stay tuned fellow educators, grad students and intellectuals – I have a lot more to share on this subject.  However, if you have burning question for me about it, or a specific topic you’d like me to blog about, please leave it in comments, or contact me.  I’d be more than happy to help you!



* I am a huge believer in accessibility to all audiences.  Therefore, I have tried my best to link you to credible open sourced documents.  This has resorted in a simplification to my references – open sourced links will not be listed in the reference section, since you can click on the embedded links in the blog.  However, if you are eager to learn more, or would like further citations, please let me know.  One advantage to being in the middle of my comprehensive exams is that my brain has been thoroughly marinating in this topic for several months!

**There are many other studies I can cite that show this.  However, Bernard et al.’s meta-analysis is one of the most comprehensive reviews on the literature regarding online  versus face-to-face instruction.  Let me know in comments, however, if there’s others that you’d like to see!

***Check out Mitra’s talk, here: 


Bernard, R.M., Abrami, P.C., Lou, Y., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Wozney, L., Wallet, P.A., Fiset, M., & Huang, B. (2004). How does distance education compare to classroom instruction? Review of Educational Research.

Harasim, L. (2000). Shift happens: Online education as a new paradigm in learning. The Internet and Higher Education, 3(1), 41-61.

Kapp, K.M., & O’Driscoll, T. (2010). Learning in 3D. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.

Lankshear, C., & Bigum, C. (1999). Literacies and new technologies in school settings. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 7(3), 445-465.

Reiser, R. A. (2001). A history of instructional design and technology: Part I: A history of instructional media. Educational Technology Research and Development, 49(1), 53-64.


Single Post Navigation

4 thoughts on “Online Education: Beyond the technology – Part 1*

  1. Very interesting points here. I am thrilled to be following you as I think I will be able to learn a lot from the material you will continue to post. Thanks!


  2. Same to you, Alyssa! Glad I found your bloggy and I’m excited to exchange info with you!!! Thank you for dropping by and following!


  3. It’s easy to assume “oh online teaching/learning, it’s just posting stuff and reading at your leisure.” Thank you fornthe in-depth post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is really true, Karen. I admit that before I took my first online class, I also thought this, too. Afterward though, my understandings about online education have changed a lot. Thank you so much for reading and dropping by!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: