Being An Online Learner Taught Me These 10 Lessons

Being An Online Learner Taught Me These 10 Lessons
Branislav Nenin/
Summary: I design and teach online courses. Every now and then, I get to take one. I did take one recently and thought back on various experiences I've had over the years as an online learner.

10 Lessons I Have Learned From Being An Online Learner

This article is a cumulative reflection of those experiences. As an online learner, I need:

1. Structure, Structure, Structure

The less structured the online experience, the easier it is for me to "drop out", especially in the face of competing for professional and personal demands. Synchronous discussions, scheduled video chats, required numbers of posts per week (enforced), working with a partner, would all help build such a structure.

2. Dedicated Time So I Can Participate

Teachers are busy professionals (though those of us who design programs and policies that impact them often forget that). Time is a zero-sum game—if I have to give up on something, it is easier for me to abandon a task involving people with whom I do not come into physical contact every day.

3. The Right Mix Of External And Internal Incentives To Ensure My Ongoing Participation

I am more willing to be an active online participant if I receive something (certification, a stipend, official recognition) and if I feel this experience really adds value and meaning to what I do in my daily professional life.

4. Simple And Reliable Technology

There is a maxim in developing reading materials that you write everything for a 4th-grade reading level. We need a similar maxim for technology. Technology can bring us together (as in the case of this forum) and if it doesn’t work as it should, it also hinders and discourages discourse and learning (as we also experienced). As an online learner with competing interests, not a lot of time and in a program that may not offer incentives, if the technology isn’t straightforward, I am so out of here!

5. Ongoing, Skilled Facilitation

I want to interact with a caring expert from whom I can learn things, who motivates me, who keeps the conversation flowing, summarizes learning, helps me with technical problems, responds quickly, and who ensures everyone’s participation and commitment.

6. To Be Part Of An Online Community

But only if it is well organized and nurtured so I can actively construct knowledge, receive social support, and participate in professional discourse. But online communities are hard to develop—they demand time, resources, structure, and participants who understand and are committed to being active online participants.

7. Just-In-Time And Just-As-Needed Tech Support

If I get stuck on something, if I can’t get my ιnternet connection to work, if I have trouble navigating a baroque website, I will need immediate help. I don’t want to feel alone when I have problems.

8. Pre-Course Preparation For What Is Expected Of Me

How many hours a week am I supposed to spend on this course? How long should my posts be? How exactly do I reply to a discussion thread? If I don’t like to write or don’t write well, do I have another means of expressing myself? What are the criteria for success? Who is in my online class, and how do I interact with them? Without understanding what is required of me, I may be overwhelmed by time- and information-management issues and a list of responsibilities I was not aware I needed to fulfill.

9. Well-Crafted Discussion Prompts

I would like to participate in meaningful, rich discussions with peers. How will I learn otherwise? But I can only do this if prompts provide me with some background knowledge of the question being asked (so I have something to latch onto) and if questions are phrased in such a way that there are room more multiple perspectives but also specific enough so I actually answer the question being asked.

10. Online Learning Ain't There Yet

Until the above issues (#1-9) of design, delivery, and support are broached and corrected, I'll still take face-to-face learning session over an online one any day. Until issues 1-9 are addressed, the impact of online learning will be minimal, and its potential seductive but ultimately unfulfilled. This is the bad news.

But there is good news...

The good news is that all of these lessons learned are eminently fixable if those of us who design, fund, regulate, and promote online learning design ensure that our learners have experiences that adhere to what we know about learning in general and online learning in particular.

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