Talking Sensibly About Online Learning

By Jim Vanides
These are exciting times for online learning aficionados. The recent slew of massive open online courses (MOOC’s) has stirred our imaginations — and much of the recent debates — about the impact of online learning. The merits of learning via the Web are widely touted, but it is a topic that can be approached from many angles, some unfavorably. With new methods of online learning now appearing in both K-12 schools and in higher education, it’s an educational advance that comes in numerous “flavors,” each of which supports a different type of learning experience.

Online learning is an intriguing subject, and one that every educator should be talking about. Those who have taken or designed an online course know there are many elements and educational contexts that make the task of discussing and classifying online learning experiences especially challenging, so I’d like to invite you — online faculty, instructional designers, and interested educators — to respond, debate, and build on what I affectionately refer to as my “Taxonomy of Online Learning Modalities — v2.0,” which has the following seven dimensions:

  • When
  • Enrollment Size
  • Discussion Facilitation
  • Feedback
  • Cost
  • Credit
  • Required Technology


Whether we’re talking about a course offered for credit through a formal university or an experience offered by a free online provider, every course has its own rhythm, and each modality has advantages and disadvantages:

  • Synchronous –- Also known as “live”, these experiences require that everyone is online at the same moment.  Synchronous events include the ubiquitous “live webinar” hosted in an online meeting room, or even scheduled Tweet Chats that occur in Twitter (e.g. #edchat at 4pm Pacific every Tuesday)
  • Asynchronous Scheduled –- This is how I teach my Science of Sound course for Montana State University. No one has to be online at the same moment, but there is a schedule with homework and project due dates. Discussions occur in threaded “forums”, and take place over days instead of minutes.
  • Asynchronous On-Demand –- Also known as “self paced,” this style of online learning allows you you to create your own schedule.


To be sure, there are many people already discussing how large a crowd you need in order to call a course a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC). The exact numbers of participants are not what is critical here; it’s simply the idea that the experience is different, depending on how many people are actively engaged together. For example:

  • 1 -– Something you do by yourself
  • 10 -– An experience more analogous to a small study group
  • 30 -– A small class
  • 100 -– A large class
  • 100's -– A micro-MOOC
  • 1,000's -– A mini-MOOC
  • 10,000's -– A MOOC


This category may actually be “check all that apply,” but regardless, the experience will be quite different depending on how learners are “orchestrated” and who fields the learners’ questions as they arise:

  • Instructor/Expert Led -– A person or team serves as the de facto leader of the experience, and provides subject matter expertise.
  • Designated Moderator -– A designated leader is guardian of the discussion process, but not necessarily the subject matter expert.
  • Ad-hoc -– There is no designated leader, but one may arise among peers in an ad hoc fashion.
  • None -– You’re either on your own, or there is no apparent structure to the conversation.


As an online learner, how do you know that you’ve mastered the content? Feedback is essential in other learning scenarios, and online courses are no different.

  • Instructor/Expert Feedback -– A person or team with subject matter expertise provides you with direct feedback.
  • Peer-to-Peer Feedback -– Other learners provide you with feedback.
  • Automated Feedback -– Activities have embedded assessments that are fed back to the learner without human intervention.
  • None -– You’re on your own; there’s no feedback provided inside the experience.


While cost does not determine the quality or “character” of a learning experience, it is certainly a distinctive property that learners consider. In some regions, cost can be the number one factor that determines whether a student enrolls. As more of the world’s top universities offer online courses freely, important discussions and debates are underway that will shape the future of higher education. Should everything be “free and open”? What is the unique value of a residential on-ground experience? What kind of online learning will be considered so exceptional that it will garner paying customers? So while these discussions get sorted out, and the world of online learning continues to evolve, the “cost” characteristic is very much part of the taxonomy:

  • Free and Open -– If the public can participate
  • Free for Members -– Free, but bundled with other fee-based services, enrollments, or memberships
  • Low cost, Open -– Anyone can participate, but some nominal charges will be incurred (books, materials…)
  • Tuition-Based -– Requires formal enrollment


One of the most exciting trends in the evolution of online learning is the exploration of new options of recognition and pathways to accredited degrees. Learners often have more than just learning on their minds. Opportunities for jobs, new careers, or advancement are at the top of the mind for many; gaining credible recognition for their work is paramount. This means that instructional design is not simply about content, but it’s also connected to the learner's goals -– a broader sense of purpose:

  • Just for Fun -– Completion rates are not the measure of success for these learners. Matching the experience to the learner’s sense of entertainment or fulfilling the curious spirit that was piqued by the course description is what matters most in this case.
  • Informal Recognition -– Earn a badge or get a certificate of completion.
  • Formal Recognition -– A formal body recognizes your accomplishment, but the recognition does not lead to an accredited degree.
  • Accredited Units -– Credits from an accredited degree-granting institution.


This category is definitely one where any given learning experience may check multiple boxes. Suffice it to say, the tech requirement is an important characteristic of the experience:

  • Broadband (always on) Internet -– If you can only be engaged when you’re connected, this requires some form of “always on” connectivity.
  • Low-bandwidth (always on) Internet -– Remember dial up modems? They haven’t disappeared entirely.
  • Occasional Internet (for syncing) -– Some interesting examples of dock-to-sync are being applied where learners live in rural areas without connectivity, but can travel (or their memory cards can travel) to internet café’s for syncing up.
  • Desktop/laptop -– Any experience that requires a “full screen” and applications that may not run on other platforms
  • Tablet -– Any experience that can run on a smaller screen and is tablet OS friendly
  • Smartphone -– Is a really small screen and minimal typing OK?
  • Classic Mobile Phone -– There are some interesting experiments with SMS text based interactions, and now that you can search Wikipedia via text message, more possibilities come to mind.
  • Internet Connected Printer/scanner -– Yes, there are even experiments where a “computer” is not used, and the entire interaction (download and upstream) happens via an internet connected printer/scanner.


Of course, these seven dimensions are only one way to create a taxonomy for online learning. As this is a quickly evolving field, I welcome hearing your views on how we might organize and clarify our public discourse on online learning.

Jim Vanides is an educator and technologist who leads the vision, strategy, and design of education technology programs for the HP Corporate Affairs team. He is passionate about helping educators use technology to transform teaching and learning, and has been instrumental in launching over 1200 primary, secondary, and higher education projects in 41 countries. Jim is currently focused on “learning analytics” and “instrumenting the classroom.” He is the founder and contributing author for the HP blog, “Teaching, Learning, and Technology.”

In addition to his work at HP, Jim teaches online for Montana State University. He holds a BS in Engineering and a MA in Education, both from Stanford University. He tweets from @jgvanides.


Thumbnail CC BY-SA 2.0 by Nic McPhee via Flickr; image CC BY 2.0 by algogenius via Flickr

Very interesting construct!

Very useful approach, Jim -- love the reasoning behind it

Taxonomy of Online Learning

I find the idea of catagorizing and organizing these elements helpful ... I'd suggest an eighth catagory - content. 

  • content in the course
  • links to online resources
  • links to in-house resources (behind a firewall of some sort)
  • references to existing texts (ebook or physical hard copy)
  • media elements

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