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Online Learning: More Than Technical Savvy

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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We posit that readiness for online learning has less to do with students' knowledge of technology and digital dexterity and more to do with their knowledge of how to learn and their motivation to engage fully in the process. Therefore, we submit that the introduction of online experiences for students should be consciously

engineered to best capitalize on their readiness for independent learning, and that the progression into the online learning environment be intentionally built into the undergraduate curriculum rather than simply offering students an open menu of face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online courses.




The posting below looks at the non-technical factors necessary for effective online learning. It is by Roxanne Cullen & Michael Harris of Ferris State University, in Big Rapids, Michigan. and is #46 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 18, Number 5, September 2009.© Copyright 1996-2009. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Best of Both Worlds: Infusing Liberal Learning

 into a Business Curriculum


Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Online Learning: More Than Technical Savvy


Too often student convenience or institutional profitability drives the decisions regarding what courses become part of the online curriculum and what prerequisites, if any, prepare students for the experience

rather than goals for student learning. The notion that students emerging from the K-12 system today, the

generation dubbed the millenials, have such technologically savvy that they can handle the rigors of fully

online learning is unfounded. Admittedly, today's students are, as Julie Evans of the Project Tomorrow Speak Up Survey on education and technology puts it, digitally "native" while their teachers, parents, and the rest of us appear to them as "immigrants" in their technology- rich world. She writes that students are functioning as a "digital advance team for the rest of us, adopting and adapting new technologies for increasing productivity beyond our expectations" (5). She calls on K-12 educators to rethink their hesitancy to embrace technology because of its potential as a means of promoting cheating, and to begin to consider new forms of learning and

assessment in this digital era.


Evans' views are based on data collected over the past six years reporting on the responses of over 1.5 million students, teachers, parents, and administrators about their use of technology. The interesting question that

this raises, however, in relation to online learning is why it is, then, that adult learners, the "immigrants" of the technological world, tend to perform better in fully online learning environments than their younger, "native" counterparts?


              Tweet, Yes, But Think?


We posit that readiness for online learning has less to do with students' knowledge of technology and digital dexterity and more to do with their knowledge of how to learn and their motivation to engage fully in the process. Therefore, we submit that the introduction of online experiences for students should be consciously

engineered to best capitalize on their readiness for independent learning, and that the progression into the online learning environment be intentionally built into the undergraduate curriculum rather than simply offering students an open menu of face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online courses.


The model of curriculum revision we envision is based on types of learning rather than on units of knowledge, with the goal being to integrate different types of learning as appropriate to the readiness of the learner. Placing types of learning at the center of curriculum review rather than types of knowledge (for example, hours of general education as opposed to hours in the major) provides new insight to the task of revising

curricula. A variety of learning opportunities enriches any curriculum by accommodating individual learners and approaching learning outcomes from multiple perspectives.


Miller & Seller (1990) define three types of learning according to the role of the learner. The first is

transmissive, sometimes called assimilative learning, which assumes knowledge is content, a transferrable

commodity to be gained by demonstration, telling, and modeling. Transmissive learning is the hallmark of the

instructional paradigm. The second type, transactional learning, assumes knowledge is constructed by

learners and is characterized by experiential activities, student-to- student collaboration, and acts of

discovery through active learning and team-based projects. In this learner-centered approach, the

educator is designer, one who facilitates learning. The third type, transformative learning, asks the learner to assess new knowledge in relation to existing knowledge, requiring considerable reflection upon the assumptions and biases that the learner has accepted as part of his or her existing knowledge.


                      Building Toward Androgogy


While these three types of learning cannot be fully integrated as they arise from opposing philosophies of learning, it is possible to build a curriculum that progressively shifts from transmissive or instructional-based pedagogy to the transactive and transformational learning that characterizes the active learning pedagogy of the learner-centered paradigm. This conception is consistent with the shift that Knowles (1984) identified

between teaching children (pedagogy) and teaching adults (androgogy), defining pedagogy as the art and science of teaching and androgogy as the art and science of helping others learn. Androgogy assumes that adults are self-directed learners and that their life experiences affect their learning both in regard to preconceptions as well as resources for future learning. Adults also have a strong sense of immediacy and

require relevance to motivate their learning. Traditional-aged college students are in a transitional phase

between pedagogy and androgogy, for while in some respects they can be considered adult learners,

unlike the adult learner who has a wealth of life experience and workplace knowledge to draw upon,

traditional-aged students emerging from high school do not have a substantial network of previous

knowledge from which to draw (Harris & Cullen, 2009). In other words, there is still a need for some

transmissive learning opportunities, particularly in light of the fact that less mature students tend to favor

surface learning and memorization.


New Scaffolding

We propose a model of curriculum review that attempts to infuse the three learning types, progressively reducing the opportunities for transmissive learning in favor of transactive and transformational experiences. In this more holistic approach, curricula are organized according to broad concepts and types of learning opportunities as opposed to a sequence of units of knowledge. Redefining curriculum in terms of depth of knowledge as opposed to information transfer holds the promise of transforming the undergraduate curriculum into an educational experience that focuses on the student's self-conscious attention to the process of learning, a curriculum that is intentional and learner-centered.


Can online learning support this kind of learning? A considerable body of research suggests that it can. Teaching online, whether web supported, hybrid, or fully online supports a learner-centered approach for the teacher. The teacher in the learner-centered class is a designer of learning opportunities, one who sets the

stage and then steps aside while the students engage in knowledge constructing activities. Particularly in asynchronous fully online delivery, the teacher has to assume the role of designer and create the avenues for students to actively engage with course material and their peers in order to learn, because there is no single point of contact between students and teacher that allows for the teacher to remain front and center, so to

speak. Weigel's 2002 book, Deep Learning for a Digital Age, offers a thorough examination of how online tools can be used to foster constructivist pedagogy and learner- centered teaching, though he does not advocate fully online courses for most institutions.


New Tools


The tools available for online learning lend themselves to community building, sharing information, seeking information outside the confines of the course. Simulations, group research projects, discussion forums, chat

and group functions, and wikis are the kinds of activities that foster deep learning and transactive learning experiences. Online learning by its very nature requires active participation on the part of the student and a great degree of learner discipline, motivation, and control. All of these facets of the online experience foster engagement, reflection, and create an environment where deep learning is possible.


But we must also acknowledge that online learning, whether fully online or blended/hybrid, presents challenges and even barriers for learners. While, of course, the online venue itself does not preclude courses

designed around the memorization and regurgitation of facts, the tools that are avail- able for online teaching are just that: tools. It is their use that makes a course learner-centered. For example, the assessment function can be used in a traditional manner or it can be used to automatically generate self tests for

students in order for them to begin to regulate their own learning. Discussions can fall flat face-to-face or online, but in the online environment it is much easier for the teacher to get full participation because of the ease of tracking and also the ease of privately encouraging individuals who need help, which is not always

easy in the face-to-face format. Tools like wikis are great for collaboration and the individual webpages for

students foster self-expression and engagement in the online community. The online environment also makes it

very easy for students to contribute material in addition to that provided by the teacher, which presents opportunities to examine the quality of information that is so readily available to them. Some suggest that teachers in the online environment resist the temptation to create a multitude of links for students and instead encourage students to discover the information outside the course as an active learning strategy.


If we are to revise curricula based on types of learning rather than types of knowledge, the issue of online learning must be addressed as part of that discussion, for the opportunities that online learning in its various formats can offer the learning environments are too robust to be left to chance. We need to keep in mind that not all students are ready for many learner-centered practices, so learner-centered strategies need to be introduced incrementally so that students are prepared for them. The same holds true for online learning. We need to prepare our students to engage in their learning using these tools, keeping in mind that independent learning is a learned behavior that develops over time. Reviewing curriculum comprehensively with a focus on types of learning holds the promise of creating an undergraduate experience that is transformational and prepares students for the challenges of today's workforce as well as a life of continuous




Roxanne Cullen, Ph.D.

Professor of English

Prakken 120

Ferris State University

Big Rapids, MI 49307

Telephone: (231) 591-2713





*  Evans, Julie. 2009. "High-Tech Cheating? Students See It Differently." Retrieved July 18, 2009,

from news/top-news/index.cfm?print&print&i=59609.

*  Harris, Michael & Cullen, Roxanne. 2009. "A Model for Curricular Revision: The Case of Engineering." Innovative Higher Education 34/1:51-63.

*  Knowles, Malcolm S. 1984. Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

*  Miller, John P. & Seller, Wayne. 1990. Curriculum: Perspectives and Practice. Toronto: CoppClark Pitman.

*  Weigel, Van B. 2002. Deep Learning for a Digital Age: Technology's Untapped Potential to Enrich Higher Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.