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Online Learning Is About Activities

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My clients often ask me what online learning means and what can be considered true online learning. Here is an attempt to define online learning the empirical way, proposing a table of possible online learning activities.

Online Learning Observations

Since Internet and multimedia boomed in the nineties, intellectual practice has evolved. People:

  1. learn alone in online courses.
  2. collaborate remotely on Wikipedia to write a collective paper on a dedicated topic;
  3. alternate face-to-face contacts and online interaction with a trainer or coach
  4. read online tutorials and practice alone;
  5. look for the answer to their questions in Google®;
  6. write blogs and try to clarify their own mind with the help third party comments;
  7. practice guitar by imitating Youtube® guitar experts videos;
  8. participate in sophisticated online training scenarios that take place in Learning Management Systems (LMS) where a coach accesses tracking data on their progress and helps them improve their skills through relevant feedback;
  9. play video games, serious games, online games, individually or collectively;
  10. send their productions to remote colleagues by email and expect feedbacks and corrections from them using for instance Ms-Word or Openoffice correction features;
  11. listen to corporate management conferences podcasts on their mobile phone in the train.

Although in variable extension, all these activities can be described as online learning because they provide some learning experience web browsers or applications.

“Online learning”, they say

Online because it takes place in many various devices like phones, tablets and computers, most of them involving interaction at your fingertips (digit meaning finger).

Learning is opposed here to “knowing” or “being informed about”. You can grab information from most websites. Learning starts when you add to information the opportunity to challenge your knowledge and experiment or practice in a way or another. This is why the shortest definition sums up to “online learning is about activities”.

As a consequence, online learning experts tend to replace “mental” descriptions like “knowing” or “understanding” with behavioral attitudes like “being able to list, match, order, exclude, include...”.

Instructional design

The advantage of the behaviorist definition is that it focuses on activities and feedback, hence suggesting a method for e-learning design. Truth is seldom simple but only simple ideas are usable.

Let's consider e-learning from the author's perspective. Publishing slides, PDF e-books, encyclopaedia articles does not mean I produce e-learning, as the criteria for e-learning does not lie in the resources I publish but in the activities I organize for the learners around these resources. E-learning starts when I switch from "I published my course online" to "my course takes place online".

Designing relevant activities to drive learners from passive reading, viewing or listening to dynamically improving their skills is not an easy job. I must first be able to describe the objectives of the course in terms of action. If I train on meeting management, I am not allowed to define my objectives by "they would know what meeting management is" or they would "get familiar with meeting management", because "knowing" is a mental skill : I cannot check it, I cannot propose activities to improve that, I cannot give feedback on how they know it. I should better describe things this way : "they should be able to list main meeting management theories" (because listing is an action and I can build activities with that) or probably "they should be able to manage a meeting" (and then imagine a role play game or any real-life based situation to practice).

If I train on how to pilot a plane, multiple choice is not an option. Just because I would not fly in a plane whose pilot learned this way. He would not get the skills. The relevant activity here will probably be closer to pilot a flight simulator. And the feedback should be on how the learner piloted the flight simulator: providing information on why he "crashed" the plane and how to avoid such a mistake.

Conclusion

How will we design the relevant activity in a course like:

  1. Meeting management;
  2. History of Art;
  3. English as a second language?

One might suggest that the relevant activities should be as close as possible to real-life situations:

(1) might lead to some group activities or role play.

(2) might include interpretation questions, categorizing questions, memory questions.

(3) might provide the learner with listening comprehensions, fill-in the gaps etc.

It is the job of the instructional designer or online learning consultant to imagine activities that fit with both practice and evaluation of the competence at stake.