Online for learning? A quick checklist for online courses

Online for learning? A quick checklist for online courses


Neil Selwyn

female_user_PCOnline courses are a growing feature of K12 schooling.  Many Australian schools are beginning to experiment with online provision for some classes, following the lead of the United States where it was reckoned in 2009 that over one million high-school students were taking at least one online course each year. With various elements of Australian schooling set to soon go digital – not least NAPLAN tests in 2016 – online courses are not a matter of ‘if’ but a matter of ‘when’.

It therefore makes sense for even the most technology-shy teachers to start thinking about their digital practice. Yet this is not a simple matter of directly exporting ‘what works’ in the conventional classroom onto the internet. Here, then, are five basic considerations for anyone gearing up to teach online ….

[1]  Is your course truly ‘digital’?

As Edinburgh University’s Manifesto for Teaching Online states, ‘the best courses are born digital’. In other words, an online course is not a digital dumping-ground for pre-existing learning materials and lesson plans.  Avoid thinking of this as an ‘online version’ of traditional classroom teaching. Instead, this is an opportunity to support new forms of learning through different digital applications and practices. Key aims for online teaching should include the idea of ‘produsage’ (i.e. the combination of production and usage of content by students), large-scale participation and collaboration, coupled with asynchronous and synchronous communication. It is crucial for any online teacher to be clear what these concepts mean for teaching and learning.

[2]  How open is your online course?

When teaching online there is an understandable temptation to recreate the manageable, ‘closed’ model of the traditional classroom. Yet the main educational benefits of online environments stem from their ‘openness’ – in other words the capacity to link different bits of content together and support free, flexible interactions between users. An online course therefore has to strike the right balance between legitimate concerns over ‘safety’ and excessive levels of protection or control. Successful online teaching certainly involves showing a fair degree of trust in students. So what other online content are you going to link your teaching and learning to? What will students be allowed to ‘bring in’ from other parts of the internet?

[3]  Is your online course a nice place to be?

A crucial aspect of online education is design. This not only includes pedagogic design (i.e. arranging the teaching and learning that you want to take place), but also aesthetic design. While it is easy to neglect what an online course looks, sounds and ‘feels’ like you should remember that your students will be accustomed to hanging-out in a variety of high-spec digital environments. While online courses don’t have to mimic the appearance of Facebook or Habbo, neither do they have to be monotone, garish or just plain un-engaging.

[4]  Who are the main beneficiaries of your online course?

Two of the key questions underpinning any online course are: (i) why is this course being provided online; and (ii) who is meant to benefit? If the answers to these questions are primarily the teachers or the school, then the course is unlikely to work as well as it could. There are many obvious institutional benefits of teaching online – not least in terms of cost, time, space, replicability and accountability. Yet these ‘supply’ side advantages need to be balanced against any likely ‘demand’ side costs. So how are your students really gaining from this course being online? What is the genuine ‘added value’ to learning? If you are struggling to think of any substantial learning benefits then perhaps it is time to think again.

[5] Are you prepared to put even more work into teaching?

Finally, don’t be fooled into thinking that online courses are an easier ride than traditional classroom teaching. If anything, online courses demand extra preparation, effort and vigilance from teachers. While a good online course should be learner-driven and self-directed, the teacher still plays a key role in initiating and supporting interactions between learners. Online teaching is not a simple case of ‘facilitation’, but an ongoing process of stimulation, encouragement and subtle behind-the-scenes orchestration. Online teaching is definitely time-consuming and tiring, but ultimately should be worth it!

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Note:  A revised version of this article appeared in the ‘Technology’ supplement of ‘Australian Teacher’ magazine – term one of the 2013 Academic Year