Yes, online learning can teach you to think

The idea that online learning ‘doesn’t teach people to think’, which was suggested by one of our peers recently, is short-sighted and false


Queen's University
14 Jul 2022
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With the disruption caused by Covid-19 to the way that higher education institutions operate, many are forecasting long-term changes to the structure of education (such as increasing online programmes and course delivery options) and their operating budgets. Investments and shifts to online education have been, and are likely to continue to be, a key focus for many higher education institutions. The question is, how can we ensure that educational standards, of cultivating and inspiring students who meet critical job-ready skills, are maintained during this shift?

Robert Danisch recently argued that online learning “doesn’t teach people to think”, highlighting the importance of teacher-learner imitation for learning, and how such imitation is “impossible” in online settings. Online learning cannot possibly encourage the “wrestling and questioning” of concepts and build important “know-how” skills, he continued.

We contend that this view is short-sighted, that online courses can build such skills and more, specifically through quality online course design that reflects active learning principles. In fact, online courses can arguably do so more effectively than would be feasible in face-to-face settings.

When learners play an active role in the learning process, rather than being passive recipients of information, they learn more effectively and develop the higher-order thinking skills that Danisch mentioned, such as analysis, synthesis, evaluation, critical thinking and problem-solving. The research is clear: learning is most effective when it is active, when learners engage in hands-on activities and when learners are engaged in the cognitive processes of enquiry, investigation, discovery and interpretation.

Learners need to reflect on their learning for deep information processing to occur, and they need to engage in behaviours designed to develop specific skills, in addition to simply reading and reflecting on information related to skill development.

There are numerous innovative ways that active learning can be implemented in online settings. Not only is it possible to design online courses with active learning in mind, it is actually considered best practice for online course development.

There are many ways to ensure that learners have opportunities to develop important “know-how” skills in online courses. For example, many STEM and behavioural science courses provide opportunities to find new evidence, test hypotheses and critically evaluate data by having learners complete online lab or field simulations. Labster offers a number of virtual lab experiences, such as having students neutralise an acid lake, explore space, experiment with bacteria, store renewable energy and assist with a cancer biopsy.

In these labs, learners engage in critical thinking and decision-making, hypothesis testing and evaluating and interpreting their findings. This experience is possible using innovative edtech tools, including virtual reality, and it could certainly be argued that these virtual simulations of field experiences can be even more engaging than labs experienced in the classroom as learners are immersed in environments that they may otherwise not be able to experience in person for reasons such as feasibility, safety or lack of resources.

Instructors can also use live-action videos or embedded 360° images so that students can virtually explore environments or locations pertinent to learning in their field that may otherwise be deemed unsafe (for example, a mine), inaccessible to the public (such as parts of the land that emphasise Indigenous teachings) or simply not feasible due to resources (exploring ancient churches in Eritrea, perhaps). In fact, edtech tools that allow learning activities to be performed exclusively online can make activities more efficient and streamlined.

Learners can also easily “interact with diverse others” and “perform an analysis of source material” online, for example by creating virtual museum exhibits. Using peer-review platforms such as Feedback Fruits, students can submit digital exhibit curations that reflect an analysis of source material, anonymously tour one another’s works, provide feedback and then write a reflection based on their experience that incorporates connections to larger course themes. Imagine the logistics involved if this activity was done in-person. Finally, through rich, well-designed online discussion forums, learners can perform an analysis of source material and then, in discussions with peers, ask thoughtful questions and collaborate with diverse others.

One of the most notable benefits of online learning is the diverse perspectives it welcomes, as learners from all over the world can collaborate and build a supportive and accountable learning community. It can also help engage learners who are not comfortable vocalising their thoughts in person and allow learners time to reflect on their peers’ contributions and synthesise their ideas.

Online learning can undoubtedly reach far beyond a focus on abstract theoretical knowledge and truly allow learners to “wrestle and question” and develop important “know-how” skills. In fact, we argue that in some cases online learning activities can be more engaging and sophisticated relative to their in-person counterparts due to innovative edtech. Our examples highlight how online course development and delivery teams can achieve active learning in the hope of inspiring further discussion and practices for innovative course design in this post-pandemic era.

Valerie Wood is an instructional designer and curriculum designer with Arts and Science Online at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. She also is an experienced lecturer in psychology for the Royal Military College of Canada.

Laura Shannon is an instructional designer and curriculum developer with Arts and Science Online at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. She is also an instructor for Loyalist College in Ontario, teaching courses on health psychology, diversity, communications and wellness.

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