Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Online & Blended Learning: 5 Misconceptions

I spend most of my time teaching online to students in a brick-and-mortar school, so I also spend a great deal of time clarifying what it is and isn’t (or at least, what it can be and shouldn’t be). Since we have all come to grips with the foremost misconception, that online learning is a thing of tomorrow, and recognize that it is upon us immediately and for all students, I thought I would share my other observations on the biggest misconceptions in online and blended learning.

Misconception #1: It’s (Physically) “Distant” Learning
It is unfortunate that the first term used to describe online learning was “distant learning” as it has carried into today’s structures, not all of which are physically distant at all. The spectrum of blended environments is so broad right now that online or blended can range from a teacher/student connecting across seas solely in a virtual space to a “traditional” environment with some online experiences and teacher interactions. In our school, we have four models right now:
  • 50/50 Where we use a language program to deliver curriculum and face-to-face, teacher-led environments to supplement and provide rich applications to language acquisition.
  • 75/25: I live in NYC and teach for a brick-and-mortar school in Florida. I spend 3 weeks a month in an online environment, in real-time, and 1 week a month on site.
  • 100%: We have some students who are enrolled in virtual programs through Florida Virtual School. We help monitor their progress, give them a learning time/space, but other than that, are hands-off in the process as the students are engaged with their online teachers.
  • Integrated: In several classes, teachers use online environments like Facebook walls, Google Docs, and blogging spaces to extend the classroom learning beyond the school walls.

Misconception #2: It’s (Emotionally) “Distant” Learning
Online or blended learning does not have to be physically distant, and it most certainly is not, by nature, emotionally distant. I often hear questions like, “How do you get to know and talk with your students?” The truth is we do a great deal of “talking” in today’s world without ever seeing each other so that the lack of the latter does not preclude the opportunity for the first. In fact, I was admittedly fearful of not being able to connect with my students online, but I have found the opposite to be true. I actually feel more connection with several of my students in the online environment than I have in a traditional classroom. I think this has to do with the frequency of individual communication I have with them in chat, Skype, or email. There are simply more ways to talk once we have removed time and space boundaries. Additionally, I have found that many students who would refrain from raising a hand to ask for help will very easily send me a private chat message.

Misconception #3: It’s Busy Work, Canned Curriculum
I’ve taken some online classes which were completely comprised of transactional busy work. I was delivered the assignments, and I subsequently completed and delivered them back to the instructor. Ideally, this is not the case, and the more online and blended environments come to resemble virtual versions of live classrooms, what we should see (and have already seen) is the opening of real-time interactive learning spaces and the presence of true discussion and collaboration. The work is still somewhat transactional, except that it can be accompanied by screencasts and videos ala the “flipped model”, and even live discussions.

Misconception #4: It’s Delayed
Real-time class collaboration is sometimes prevented by geography, but the notion that we cannot learn in the same space at the same time, and through interaction, is a thing of the past. Just in the last year, I attended a handful of virtual conferences. While there were a few lacking in interaction, the best ones involved a presenter leading a discussion, soliciting and answering questions, while simultaneously a chat took place between attendees commenting and expanding the discussion. I can recall the last traditional class I sat in and listened to a speaker talk without interacting with him or the audience. It was boring. I found that in the last RSCON3 sessions, I was constantly trying to pay attention so as not to miss anything. It was overstimulating because so much was happening at once, but it was great! In my classes this year, video chat, IM, and group chat within Docs and Facebook have proven valuable tools for generating discussion, and just last week we set up our first Google+ hangout in my senior English class. I used to consider five days to be a reasonable response time when I took an online course, but my students expect one within five seconds!

Misconception #5: It’s Easy for Kids
Some students may know how to use some technologies with more proficiency than some adults, but assuming that students will know how to interact within an online environment when they have to do so in college or beyond is fallacious and irresponsible. Students know how to tweet and tumble...but barely. They have no idea how to create, share, and organize a document, nor do they really ever read anything, especially directions. And as we all know, they have little idea of the nuances of social interaction online, including how to engage in academic discussion and collaborate in a virtual environment.  

In a recent post by Adam Twyman,  “Facebook: Are we creating a Lord of the Flies?”, Twyman compares the world of Social Media to a kids-only island where we have allowed children to set the standards while we refused to set foot on the island ourselves. Last year, we made a decision to open up Facebook and other media usage to students so that we can inhabit the space with them, and now we are working to restructure an existing, somewhat chaotic mode of being. Students may know how to gossip, post pictures, even complete impressive tasks like teaching themselves how to photoshop or contribute to a writing community, but saying that these are indicators of online communication and collaboration skills mastery is akin to saying a student knows how to scuba dive just because he has been swimming in the ocean. Similarly, we cannot hope to teach digital citizenship skills without forming a digital community of which we are all a part. I would echo Twyman’s sentiments and ask, if we do not create environments with structure for students to learn the mores and responsibilities of interacting and learning online, how will this happen and when?  


  1. Tiffany--I really enjoyed your post and your observations. I totally agree! I just this semester am offering an online course for The University of Richmond School of Continuing Studies. It's a course for teachers called "Using Drama Across the Curriculum." So far, I have been so impressed with my student' in-depth responses to our Discussion Boards. We are using WebEx software to meet online every other week, so we actually get to see each other and hold real time discussions. The other benefit for me is that the online course is forcing me to assemble my videos and photos of student work into formats that I can share with my online students. This will serve me for years!
    Rosalind Flynn

  2. Thank you for the comment Rosalind! I hope that as more teachers engage in these types of experiences as learners, they will bring a new mode of discussion to their classes. Drama across the curriculum sounds like a great class!

  3. Tiffany, this excellent post is so tremendously helpful in laying out common frameworks for online learning. There is no longer (if ever) a monolith online experience. The myth-busting around kids as "digital natives" who automatically "get it" by virtue of youthful inexperience and immaturity needs reframing (as your post somewhat suggests) as a worrisome adult viewpoint that may mask adults' refusal to fully engage in the full spectrum of digital citizenship as part of the educational experience. See "Is It Okay To Be A Technologically Illiterate Teacher?" from 2007

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