Do Not Judge Online Education by What We’re Seeing Now

Man studying in empty library

Earlier this week in my daily morning data scan, I saw an article talking about a poll of college students by College Reaction. One of the data points in the article was about distance learning. The reviews were pretty grim: 

  • 77% say distance learning is worse or much worse than in-person classes.
  • 13% say they would take time off from college if distance learning continues next year.

This tracks along with the reviews from my own kid—a 19-year old now at home for the end of his freshman year, an 18-year old finishing up her senior year, and a 16-year old sophomore. The experience has been pretty underwhelming. This is in no way a slam on high school or college educators who have done their best to get up-to-speed on new tools and techniques. They have had to flip their classroom styles in weeks and do this all amid a traumatic life event affecting students and faculty alike. 

Instructional Continuity v. Online Learning

What we are experiencing now, however, does not show the potential of true online learning. This is, what we like to call in higher-education, “instructional continuity.” The idea is we are trying to keep learning going. This means it is messy. Teachers and students are learning together. It does not show what it is like to be in a class that was constructed to run online. 

Online learning is a completely different method of delivery, teaching, and participation. It is like asking someone who played field hockey to suddenly play ice hockey. Yes, the overall framework is the same, but the equipment, the rules, and the pace are all different. You would never expect a player to make that leap in a few weeks and suddenly be a star performer. 

The Real Deal

At Georgetown, I have been fortunate enough to be involved in the development of more than 15 courses in an online environment. We typically spend 6-8 months developing these courses with a team of people including those who specialize in instructional design. This means every aspect, from assignments to participation, is developed to be consumed by a virtual audience. This is a very different process and requires different thinking and skills. 

I have taught both online, in person, and in a blended environment (a mix of both). I have students who are completing their master’s online at Georgetown who will never have stepped foot on our Washington, D.C. campus. They have access to a top-notch education from wherever they are. 

The power to deliver quality education remotely will truly be an equalizer. I am also studying online education in my Ph.D. program at George Mason University, so I am admittedly a believer.

The Future of Online Learning

While I am thrilled that online learning is happening in a way we would have never imagined before, please know that if your on-campus program suddenly went online, then you aren’t truly experiencing an online education. You are getting a look at some of the tools and techniques, but it is not showing you the full potential or the power of a class that is designed to be online or a teacher who has been trained to teach in that environment. 

Do not judge this time as an example of what online learning can be—think of it more as you have had a small taste. To truly decide if you like virtual learning, make sure you are trying something created with the best ingredients and by a chef who specializes in making that dish. I guarantee online learning is here to stay and I also think when you try it again in a class that is designed to be online, you may just like it a lot more than you think.