Let’s stop confusing what just happened with true online learning

During the pandemic, decades of research and practice were tossed aside in a matter of days, says Ali Carr-Chellman

Ali Carr-Chellman's avatar
University of Dayton
9 Jun 2021
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We must stop confusing the emergency use online learning we've been relying on during the pandemic with real, well-designed online learning

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Balancing the needs of students, faculty and institutions when designing online courses
Illustration of remote learning

To be clear, what we’ve all just been through with “online learning” is not online learning at all. It is emergency-use online learning (EUOL). We should be careful to call it what it is. Pretending that what we’ve experienced is online learning is akin to pretending the burger you just ate was filet mignon. Well, they’re both meat.

It’s already well established that the pandemic has upset all levels of education. We no longer need to explain that teaching and learning underwent a complete shift. But I do want to point out that how this shift occurred was far from normal. I would, in fact, argue that the shift to EUOL has undermined an entire field of education − ignoring research, defiling proper practice and, unsurprisingly, resulting in poor outcomes.

During “normal” times, here’s how online learning works. First, an instructional designer, along with the institution − be it a K-12 school, a corporation, a university, community college or a non-profit − would look carefully at the learning problem, asking: “Does this problem, population and setting lend itself to online learning?” Some things are well matched to online learning, while others are decidedly not. There’s a great deal of research pointing to which areas are well suited to online and which aren’t. None of this research was considered in the emergency situation that faced us in the spring of 2020 − match wasn’t important; it was an emergency. Once it’s been decided that online learning makes good sense, an entire process − a complicated, time-intensive, well-researched practice of instructional design − is undertaken.

Instructional design is an intentional process that includes careful analysis of the learning need, design of solutions, development of learning environments, implementation and data analytics/evaluation to see if the design worked or not. Depending on the type of project, this process takes months or sometimes years. In the pandemic, we didn’t have that kind of time, and the entire process was simply discarded. My concern isn’t that we did what we had to do, it’s that we’re still calling this EUOL by the more colloquial “online learning”. This is misleading at best.

Please don’t misunderstand. This is not an effort to suggest that the hard work of our classroom teachers is not heroic. In fact, the Association of Educational Communications and Technology is recognising these amazing efforts through their Hero Awards this year. Rather, I ask that we all appropriately distinguish between online learning and EUOL.

When I joined the field of instructional design more than 30 years ago, it was an unknown field. Designers went about their jobs, adding value to learning environments with aplomb, toiling in relative anonymity. Today, instructional designers are more well known, with job ads for them popping up everywhere. It’s clear that the need for instructional designers has not abated due to the pandemic’s impacts, since online learning has become both much used and much maligned – and instructional design brings with it a wealth of research about the best ways to help humans of all ages learn with technology.

Last year, during the pandemic, decades of research and practice were tossed aside in a matter of days. Spring break of 2020 was a decision point for many universities that waved goodbye to their learners in the flesh and welcomed them back via screens. The impact has been clear; there have been numerous reports on the impact of EUOL on parents (particularly women) who facilitated home-based learning, the “lost learning” of this past year and, ultimately, evidence that online learning wasn’t working and that few enjoyed it.

It’s not surprising that EUOL didn’t function as effectively as well-designed, intentional online learning. EUOL arrived on our doorsteps without learning objectives or goals, without plans or analyses, without feedback or pilot trials.

As a practising instructional design consultant and the dean of a school of education and health sciences, I also feel that the studies emerging about the effectiveness of online learning from the past year are of limited use. While the studies are of contemporary interest, they will have rare applications going forward. Suggesting that online learning is “less than” face-to-face learning ignores the decades of research that demonstrate that there has been no significant difference between the two modalities when both are carefully designed.

As we transition to our much-vaunted new normal, and the pandemic fades in the rear-view mirror, I believe we will grow to appreciate the lessons learned during our year of EUOL as well as its limitations. I’m hopeful that we will also be able to see that what happened during this unusual time does not represent the larger field. In the meantime, it would be helpful if we all stopped confusing our burgers with filet mignon.

Ali Carr-Chellman is dean and professor at the School of Education and Health Sciences at the University of Dayton in Ohio, as well as president-elect of the Association of Educational Communications and Technology.


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