Mark Twain once remarked, when asked about issues related to plagiarism, “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources;” and so it goes with online learning.  Is there such a thing as a new model for online learning?  After all, online learning has been done, in a number of mediums, ever since video was first able to be recorded and shared.

I believe, like with anything new, the new models for online learning are essentially all “second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from…outside sources…” But what may be the most striking fact about online learning is just how popular the term, and the practice, has become: when I searched on Google for “online learning,’ I received 2,570,000 responses. Wow!

Perhaps what is most intriguing about online learning models is the growing sophistication of their design, use of learning analytics in “closed loop fashion” (where a student’s online learning behavior is reviewed and, based on what worked and what didn’t, the class or lesson is iteratively improved to be more effective for the next learner) and the use of technology to scale with quality to meet the needs of many learners – be they in one class, one school, one state or beyond.

Many of the new models are developed out of necessity (“I was trying to find time to reteach lessons to students who were absent, so we spent $50 on software that helped us record, annotate and post lessons online. Turns out not only the absent students appreciated…what they missed, so did students who hadn’t missed class and used the online material to review and reinforce classroom lessons” – Bill Tucker, Education Sector), borne of the belief online learning can match or best traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ approaches to instruction (OLI and the Hewlett Foundation), or propelled by a desire to scale to meet more than the needs of a classroom full of students (Sebastian Thrun and the 2011 launch of his Online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence MOOC).

What is the common thread? It’s an ability to take risks and a willingness to lead, a required thread for any new online learning model. I believe successful new models will “learn” from the students who take them, will scale artfully for matriculating and non-matriculating students, will have lecture capture capabilities that securely store and make lessons accessible on any device, and will acknowledge that sometimes the best instruction comes from other outside experts, not only a faculty member. These experts can come from near or far, as with high-definition video they can be secured from nearly any corner of our planet.

The results will help free up time for faculty to work more one-on-one with students, will challenge students to think more deeply, can create new opportunities for research, and ultimately write yet another chapter in education’s long history of fascination with new instructional approaches. Most importantly, these models can enable improved outcomes for more learners – both near and far.

What do you think about how online learning is evolving?

Stay tuned for next week’s #HigherEdThursdays post, and please visit Cisco’s Higher Education page for success stories and solutions. Happy #HigherEdThursdays!


Ian Temple

No Longer at Cisco