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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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