Why online learning is not online learning

James Clay headshot
James Clay

Many universities this term have reportedly moved away from in-person teaching back to delivering online because of the rise in covid cases. But is the return to teaching online synonymous with pre-pandemic online learning?

A student learns from her lecturer online.

Across the media, government and the sector, this move to web-based teaching has been termed online learning, blended learning, or remote learning. These terms have been used interchangeably during the numerous lockdowns. However, to use such broad terms without defining their meaning or contextualising them could lead to continued misunderstanding and further confusion.

Why is it not online learning?

The move away from in-person teaching could certainly be described as an emergency response to a crisis, or even simplistically, a pivot. However, the switch to remote and virtual delivery by universities this term is not online learning, even though it takes place online.

What we often saw during the pandemic and see now is a translation of existing in-person practices to online versions. This loses the nuances of what makes the in-person experience so valuable and does not take advantage of the affordances of what online and digital can bring to the experience.

What is online learning then?

Online learning, as delivered by many higher education institutions pre-pandemic, is systematically planned, designed and developed, with students provided with the structure and tools to learn effectively over the web.

It is designed from scratch and not about merely converting, translating or digitising an original in-person programme.

It is designed from scratch and not about merely converting, translating or digitising an original in-person programme. Effective online learning considers the needs of the student, the objectives of the course, the tools available and the constraints in place. This results in a holistic approach leading to better student experiences.

Technology can enhance student experiences

The different methods of delivery afforded by technology also allow for varying approaches by different courses, departments and tutors. Online learning should not be constrained by the physical requirements of an in-person programme, such as rooms and timetables. Likewise, it can use the opportunities of asynchronous activities that digital can offer to enhance student experiences.

University College of Estate Management (UCEM) is just one example of an institution that has successfully transformed its online delivery to create outstanding learner experiences. Over the last five years, UCEM has transitioned to be 100% online, and in doing so, has focused on developing its pedagogical approaches for a virtual environment and building courses to allow for flexibility of learning.

Delivering high-quality online learning

There is no doubt that universities are taking advantage of web tools and services to deliver teaching online, and that students are learning whilst online. However, to describe what is currently happening as online learning fails to do justice to what online learning really is.

To address the challenges in this space, universities will need to ensure future development of high-quality online learning is reflective of not just the current experiences of students and staff but also the successful examples of effective online learning that existed pre-covid.

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About the author

James Clay headshot
James Clay
Head of higher education and student experience

As Jisc’s head of higher education and student experience, I coordinate Jisc’s overall strategy for HE learning, teaching and student experience and have lead responsibility for promoting the total programme and value and impact of all HE learning, teaching and student experience products and services delivered by Jisc.