What Makes Online Learning Work?

Forget best practices. Forget online learning theories. Forget what the ‘experts’ say for a minute. What really makes online learning work? The best person to ask is a student.

My entire IDT program was online. I am done with all my coursework (just working on the thesis), and I learned a lot about what good online education looks like by the mere fact that I have been an online student for the past few years.

Of course, instructional design and technology programs should be using best practices in online learning (and mine does). Having the background in instructional design and technology now allows me to reflect upon the subtleties that really make online education motivating and effective.

So what does make online learning work? What makes students come back week to week and semester to semester, and not drop out? I’ll tell you what worked for me, and why it worked, and why what worked for me does happen to fall under the best practices in online education. Here it goes:

Synchronous learning. If you’ve taken an online course, you probably recognize that most are asynchronous in nature. However, offering synchronous sessions throughout a semester (and it doesn’t have to be every week) is much more motivating because you get an opportunity to discuss readings and work live as a class.

I took one course that was asynchronous (and granted it was poorly designed – not an IDT course), but if I hadn’t had the experience of taking synchronous courses prior to this one course, I would’ve seriously considered dropping out of the program. It was that awful. When you take an asynchronous course, you feel like you’re learning in a vacuum, especially when no sense of community is supported by the instructor.

Synchronous learning is a best practice in online education.  And for some people, especially those who are not naturally self-motivated, the requirement to show up at a certain time and place (even online) can go a long way to keep the learner going. Synchronous learning also helps support a greater sense of community among students.

Sense of community. Sense of community is an important characteristic of a positive and motivating learning environment. And while synchronous learning is one way to support that sense of community, it isn’t the only way.

For me, one of the ways I’ve connected with other students in my program is through a Facebook group. It’s not a highly active group, but it is a social networking group nonetheless. And it’s been a good way to keep in touch with what’s going on in my program, as well as what’s going on with fellow students. It makes me feel more connected to other students, in ways that the LMS just can’t do. The other way I’ve connected with students is through a listserv, but in terms of sense of community, I think Facebook (or other social media) is a more effective tool.

Great discussions. As an online student, I can say it is an effective practice to have experience in both live discussions as well as online discussion forums. Discussion is a way to demonstrate your understanding, analysis, and evaluation of a given topic (and discussion forums also have the added benefit of improving your writing skills). I found that the online discussions helped me to learn how to craft my arguments better in the live discussions.

Part of discussion is developing argument literacy skills (and I see argument literacy as very closely related to information literacy because you really need to use information effectively to make a good argument). And argument literacy, like all literacies, is situational. Oral and written argument require different sets of skills. Developing written argument skills can help hone the oral argument skills. So discussions in both an asynchronous as well as synchronous format effectively support the development of both types of argument literacy. This is equally true for fully online courses and hybrid courses.

What makes a good discussion? An open-ended question that prompts the student to to do more than just regurgitate information to support an argument. The question should also require students to read more deeply and extrapolate upon a given reading. The role of the instructor in great discussions should be minimal. They are there just to steer the discussion in a fruitful direction.

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6 thoughts on “What Makes Online Learning Work?

    • As a previous online learner, I definitely agree with you. When you are in an online class with others it opens the opportunity to have real discussions and participate. Having experienced both platforms, I found that I had to be super organized for the asynchronous classes. It made me feel like going class was like going to the gym, a choice.

  1. Great Post! I love your first person perspective. As a student, I`ve personally only had one online course (asynchronous) which i unregistered from 2 weeks in due to how different it felt to the traditional classes i had taken. I`ve yet to sign up for another online class due to that experience. I can definitely relate to Pamela`s comment of asynchronous classes feeling like a `choice.`

    I will be reblogging this next week on the blog site i am responsible for: http://academiczonelms.wordpress.com/ and would love your feedback when it is posted 🙂

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