What is Online Learning

Not easier, just more convenient.

In its broadest of terms, online learning means to gain knowledge or acquire a skill while on the Internet. In this context, we can only say online learning is environment specific (online). However, learning is a process that can occur through different means. Because the term “online learning” utilizes two common words, its most general definition can refer to any learning that is accomplished online. Online learning can occur in both a structured and unstructured format. Structured means that the instruction is designed according to a lesson plan and is often supervised in some way. Unstructured forms of learning might occur when we are reading the news online, watching random YouTube videos, or scrolling through a social media feed. In other words, much of what we learn in life can occur while we are simply living life and interacting within our environment. Since a significant amount of our lives is spent online, we are in fact learning online practically everyday.

Additionally, if we wanted to define online learning in the context of educational institutions, we can’t just state online learning is any structured and planned learning content that may be supervised. There are many different types of structured and planned learning, and some are supervised while others are not supervised. For instance, I’m following a blogger who plans out and is taking his followers through the process of building a home from the ground up. On one occasion, I downloaded his instructional step by step document on the process of building a bathroom vanity. He also enables comments on his posts, and responds to comments, much like an instructor provides feedback within an online class. There are many how-to videos, websites, and documents that can be viewed and/or downloaded. However, these planned and structured learning materials differ from the “online learning” term because they are micro-lessons. I can select the instruction on building a bathroom vanity without having to go through the entire blog site on building a house. In other words, we can define online learning, in an educational institutions’ context, as a planned sequence of structured lessons.

Additionally, there are many tutorials and training opportunities online that enables a learner to acquire knowledge as a selective option. For example, someone working in a photo editing app may search for tutorials on resizing the image, without having to watch tutorials on other effects and edits. I consider these online learning methods more similar to a buffet-style learning or on-demand learning. Learners can select the knowledge or skills they need to achieve their immediate goals. In other words, these on-demand type of micro-lessons and tutorials would not fall under the “online learning” category that is typically attributed to higher education.

When “online learning” is used in higher education, it is typically being used to define an environment. It is one of three standard methods used to teach educational courses:

  1. Face-to-Face
    This is your traditional classroom. Students most likely see their professor on a weekly basis.
  2. Hybrid (also referred to as Blended)
    Most college courses are spread out over 15 weeks, meeting a total of 15 times. In a hybrid course, the students only attend some of the classes. For example, if the course would normally meet 15 times, the course is split between some time in the classroom and some of the time online.
  3. Online

For schools, an online learning course is a course that has been designed for distribution in an online learning environment, instead of the tradition classroom environment. The course should be just as rigorous as the traditional course. In other words, the amount of time, content, and learning objectives should be the same as what you would find in a traditional classroom course. However, the students no longer attend their class on a campus.


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