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Why what we mean by “online learning” matters

When talking about technology enhanced learning, terminology ends up being pretty important. For Tom Clark, we need to be alive to the nuances of language.
This article is more than 3 years old

Tom Clark is a Lecturer in Research Methods at the University of Sheffield.

As higher education institutions plan for what will happen as we move slowly towards more students being on campus, there is continuing chatter about the form that teaching and learning will take.

This includes how best to deliver it and how to communicate what this might look like.

In all of this discussion, there has been a proliferation of words like “remote learning”, “digital learning”, and “hybrid learning” – and these terms have largely been taken for granted in respect to their pedagogical nuance. But if the preferred solution to the problems created by the pandemic in the first semester was “blended learning”, as we tumble through a second semester it would appear that the HE sector is beginning to settle on its next term of preference – “online learning”.

What’s in a name?

There is, of course, nothing particularly new about the terms blended learning and online learning, and discussions about what they actually mean are well developed. Similarly, the challenges and problems of delivering them are also well discussed.

At the most basic level, blended learning is taken to be something of a mix between face-to-face and online delivery – and this is usually how it is understood by those unfamiliar with the actual intricacies of pedagogy. But as the literature is at pains to ask, what exactly is being “blended”? Does the learning need to be more substantive than what might amount to a series of digital acetates and some online office hours? Or do mediums of delivery need to be flexibly designed so the total learning environment enables the achievement of student-led, personalised learning?

Online learning, on the other hand, is usually taken to refer to teaching and learning that is delivered remotely via digital platforms, with courses often designed to be taken “anytime, and anywhere”. But again, beyond that vague introduction, its meaning often quickly evaporates into questions concerning the specifics of delivery, the levels of interaction, the types of assessment, and the quality of learning taking place.

Trying to understand what, exactly, is meant by these terms is not mere pedantry. Indeed, given that UK Universities are continuing to appeal to the technological innovation and expertise suggested by both terms, how they are experienced in practice is not without consequence.

Language games

There are (at least) three related problems of taking the terms “blended” and “online” for granted. The first issue concerns staff preparedness. It is one thing to drop an online discussion forum into a virtual learning environment and hope students engage with it. However, it is quite another to get the majority of students to use these tools in meaningful and sustained ways that reflect the learning objectives. It is similarly easy to record a lecture, but it is very time-consuming (and expensive) to design and create high quality audio-visual material, and constructively align engaging synchronous activity within it. And this is all before discussing the problems of the technology itself, which can take substantial expertise to use at even a basic level. Designing, developing, testing, and delivering digitally-enhanced content is not easy – if it were, the majority of lecturers and teachers would already be experts in doing it.

Secondly, there is a well-rehearsed literature that demonstrates that students are not simply “digital natives”, who are naturally at ease with online platforms. Instead, the evidence clearly suggests wide disparities in how students use technology in relation to learning. Again, if students did have these interests and abilities, then there would not be as much concern about their capacity to fulfil the digital needs of the future workplace. There are, quite clearly, many benefits of digital learning platforms for students – not least in terms of widening participation – but as a number of surveys are demonstrating these benefits cannot, and should not, be taken for granted.

The final problem is the zeal at which university managers appear to be embracing all this capacity for the digital. Not only has working from home provided a top-down opportunity to rethink how HEIs might use university (office) spaces, if staff and students are quickly able to take advantage of the tools and capabilities offered by digital platforms, there is also the potential for general movement toward more distanced pedagogies. To cut a long story short, digital methods of teaching might appear to be an opportunity to increase income associated with recruitment and decrease expenditure related to delivery.

Language matters

So, if none of these understandings really relate to what has conventionally been associated with online or blended learning, how should HEIs describe their current provision? The truth is that there is no established term for the problems presented by teaching and learning in the pandemic. But in using pedagogical terms so loosely, the danger for HEIs is that students will associate digital learning technologies with the sketchy and changeable delivery of the pandemic; an increasingly tired and demoralised staff may also look at the time and energy spent on producing content that was all too fleetingly engaged with and for little reward; while university management will continue to talk up the technology-enhanced provision as if it is necessarily both desirable and useful, and in spite of the reality of having to sustainably invest in it over time. All of which is likely to constrain, rather than facilitate, a more sustained engagement with digital technologies for the purposes of learning and teaching in the future.

2 responses to “Why what we mean by “online learning” matters

  1. I am not convinced that ‘on campus’, ‘online’ and ‘hybrid’ are pedagogical terms in the sense of referring to methods of teaching-learning such as didactic, problem based, discovery learning, etc. Rather, ‘on campus’, ‘online’, ‘hybrid’, ‘distance education’ and similar terms designate study modes, each of which may support a range of pedagogies. Thus, didactic pedagogy may be presented on campus, online, or hybrid.

    While study modes should be defined precisely for the purposes of data collection and evaluation, considerable flexibility and indeed variability in their implementation is desirable to encourage exploration and experimentation.

  2. Thanks, Tom. In the interests of robust debate…

    My fear is that you’ve fallen into the trap of assuming that “blended learning” and “online learning” are pedagogical terms: that is to say labels for pedagogical methods.

    Kirschner and Hendrick’s iconoclastic How Learning Happens reminds us that it is the message and not the medium that really defines pedagogical methods. So, its worth noting that “online learning” is NOT really a pedagogical method but rather a construct created by certain types of managers and educationalists to justify their ideological vision for progress in teaching and learning. And, so, yes, I think Gavin Moodie is right here.

    You talk of “digital methods of learning” – but the digital platforms which facilitate learning do not constitute a method of learning as such, so I am not sure what you mean. Yes, language matters.

    I was struck by how your blog lacks suitable context. Some of the newest universities have promoted “blended learning” since the early 2000s as a means of undertaking teaching responsibilities with limited physical/ financial resources. “Blended learning” has also been mobilized to champion agendas in inclusion and engagement. At the beginning of the academic year 2020–21 much of the chatter around “blended learning” was about how universities could justify a model with enough hybridity to continue to charge rents and academic fees etc.

    “Online learning” was very much in the lexicon early 2020 and before, so there’s not necessarily a linear progression from “blended” to “online” learning in terms of how things are developing. Indeed, as semester 2 has been characterized by full or partial lockdowns it stands to reason that the talk is about fully “online learning”.

    If we are interested in pedagogy, then we should really talk about “learning online” and NOT “online learning”. You may find my own Wonkhe blog instructive:

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