I’ve been involved with online learning for twenty years. During that time, much has changed, but the same five myths persist.
1. Online learning is about technology.
Technology makes online learning possible, but that is not the focus. Online learning is about people. The reason we have online learning is because there are people who want or need to learn something new, but they need to do it in a way that fits with their other important callings and responsibilities in life. A working mom with three kids may sense a calling to move into leadership in a business, and the knowledge acquired through an MBA can help her do that. She is willing to work just as hard for that degree as someone in a traditional, face-to-face program, but the time she has available is nine p.m. to midnight (after the kids are in bed). Online learning allows universities to accommodate such needs, while maintaining the same high academic standards expected of all students. One exciting aspect of online learning is that this format of teaching and learning offers a way to honor the many callings in a person’s life, while promoting increased access and opportunity to high-quality college degrees.
2. Online learning is all online.
Unless the movie Tron becomes a reality, this isn’t possible, because the learner lives in a physical world. During online courses, some learning happens online, but well-designed online courses also invite students to engage with the world around them. This comes through talking about what they are learning with family, friends, and colleagues. It also happens through creative assignments that might require students to do interviews, observations at a business or the natural world, service learning, or dozens of other possible activities in the physical world. If this myth was a reality, fully-online courses don’t exist very often.
3. Students don’t learn as much online.
Now that online learning has been around for over twenty years, we have a body of research to help us address this myth. Look at resources like NoSignficantDifference.com, and you will find countless studies showing that there is frequently no significant difference between how much students learn from one delivery system to another. What matters is the quality of the course design, the commitment of the learner, and the mentoring of the teacher. When those are present, learning happens–whether it is face-to-face or online.
4. All online courses are the same.
We hear comments about online learning versus face-to-face learning, and we often treat online learning as if all online learning experiences are equal. We know that isn’t true for face-to-face courses. There are hundreds, even thousands, of ways to design and teach online courses. If one style or approach doesn’t work for you, don’t be too quick to rule out online learning; that would be like deciding to never walk into a school again, because you had one unpleasant teacher or course.
5. Online learning is impersonal.
It is unquestionable that the interaction with your teacher and classmates is different in an online class, but that doesn’t mean that it is impersonal. As many online learners will tell you, the communication and interaction with others can be rich, personal, and substantive online. It is true that online learning has different ways of communicating and interacting with other people. These differences are better than traditional classes in some ways and not as good in others. For example, when is the last time that you were in a face-to-face course where every student in the class contributed 500-1000 words of comments in a class discussion? That is common in an online course, but rare in a face-to-face class. At the same time, you can’t usually read the body language or nonverbal messages from others in the online class. That doesn’t mean that it is impersonal. It is just that you need to develop a different approach to building and maintaining relationships.
These five myths persist about online learning, but with your help we can dispel them. How can you help? You can start by sharing this article with others. You can go even further by inviting people to talk about these myths and by taking the time to get first-hand experience with the many different types of online learning. You might want to try a couple of massive open online courses, or sign up for one of Concordia’s many credit-based online courses. Or, if you are already taking online courses here or elsewhere, take the time to talk about your experiences with the people around you. In my own research, I find that online students often report having an academically challenging, meaningful, and personally rewarding experience.