Nobody learns anything online or at a distance. Nothing at all. You are always learning it where you are now. All learning is in-person learning, and it all takes place within a physical environment, part of which (only a part) may include whatever technologies you might be using to talk with people, read, watch, listen, and so on.
But there’s a distance component to all in-person education, too. People who learn with teachers in a physical space are almost always also interacting with other participants in the teaching role at a distance, usually in time and space – authors, classroom designers, editors, illustrators, timetablers, curriculum designers, and so on. And, for ‘in-person’ institutional learners, most of the learning itself also usually occurs at a distance, outside the classroom. This is most tangible in the form of assignments and homework but, if teaching works, sense-making connections always occur after the lesson is over, and continue to do so long after (sometimes decades after) the teaching event, almost never in the same place that the lesson originally occurred. So all learning is distance learning, in the sense of occurring somewhere and somewhen other than where and/or when teaching occurred.
It is not surprising, therefore, that no significance difference is normally found between online and in-person learning outcomes because they are essentially the same thing.
That doesn’t mean that there are no consistent differences between the experiences of what we describe as online and in-person learners: very far from it. Some of those differences are inherent in the medium, whether online or in-person. But the big differences that actually make a difference are not in learning: they are in teaching.
There are (or should be) huge differences between distance/online teaching and in-person teaching. The most important differences are not technological, as such, nor do they lie in the physical distance between learners and teachers. Michael Moore very usefully talks of distance in terms of structure and dialogue to describe the transactional distance that matters more but, as I observed in my first book, from a system dynamics perspective, transactional distance is mainly a measure of the locus of control, not structure or dialogue as such. There are other differences that matter, but control is the big one.
Control in in-person teaching
Pedagogies are solutions to problems, and the physical context is rife with problems, most notably that it makes it far more likely that teachers will control much of the process. There are a great many reasons for this, most of which have nothing at all to do with pedagogical intent: it’s mainly physics, economics, and biology, and the consequences that follow. Though many teachers try to avoid it, doing so is a seriously upstream struggle. It causes immense problems, primarily because of the great harm it does to intrinsic motivation. Learners lack autonomy and are often over-challenged or under-challenged (thus undermining the two central foundations of intrinsic motivation) because, by default, everyone is forced to follow the same pace and method, determined by the teacher. Good in-person pedagogies compensate for these inherent weaknesses, by allowing (emphasis on allowing) learners to personalize their own learning, by engaging in dialogue, by building communities, by helping learners to find their own motivation, and so on.
Control in online teaching
Without significant coercion, the learner is always far more autonomous in almost any online or distance teaching context. Students don’t need to follow the teacher’s plan because they are not bound to a scheduled classroom, with all the problems of being heard, being present, and working in lock-step together that arise from it. Unfortunately, far too many online teachers assume that they have the same level of control as their in-person counterparts and, usually, it becomes a partly self-fulfilling assumption through coercive methods like frequent grading, draconian scheduling, and tests. They consequently often make use of very similar pedagogies to those of their in-person counterparts, struggling to find simulacra or workarounds for the affordances of physical spaces that are no longer available, and vainly believing that the learner is going to follow the path that they have determined for them. An unfortunate unintentional consequence of in-person teaching is thus too readily accepted as teaching’s central motif.
To make matters more difficult, educational institutions impose other stupid ideas that are side-effects of teaching in physical classrooms like fixed-length (or multiples of fixed lengths) courses, deadlines, and failure (what the heck?). I think this picture helps to illustrate my feelings about this:
Dealing with this kind of problem may require some big changes at an institutional level because teachers too rarely have much choice as to how long their courses might be, or whether students should receive grades for them, or how they are scheduled, and so on.
Outside of arbitrary institutional constraints, online courses do not have to be a particular length, because more complex scheduling is possible (and easily automated) and, if they are self-paced, there’s no good reason for them to have any schedule at all, nor for them to end on a particular date, as long as they can be funded. Credentialing and learning are two completely different processes that (thanks to the motivational impacts) are in many ways mutually exclusive. They must therefore be decoupled, as much as possible. It makes no sense to talk definitively about failure when you are learning: learning is either accomplished or not accomplished yet, and failure is an integral part of the process of accomplishment (ask any gamer). And, though they might not always get a credential on the first try, students never need to irrevocably fail to get them: they can just keep going until they succeed, or until they lose interest, much as we do for driving tests.
Distributed in-person teaching
Such issues highlight the fact that it is not just the designated teacher who teaches. Obviously, the main teacher in any learning transaction is the learner, sometimes followed by the designated teacher or writer of a textbook, but the rules, structures, processes and methods that define the educational context also teach. So do other students, especially in an in-person context thanks to the fact that they are all forced to be in one place at one time. In an in-person context, from the simple fact of having to turn up at a particular place and time to the structures of courses, assessments, classroom spaces, cafes, and schedules, the institutional context controls the learning process in profound ways.
Again, for teachers, good pedagogies have to compensate for the problems that such things cause, as well as to take advantage of the positive affordances the physical context provides. There are many of those. A great deal of learning can be assumed to occur in journeys to and from classrooms, in canteens, in common rooms, in libraries, and in other shared spaces, for example. Combined with the fact that a great deal of the organization is done by others, and that institutional credentials motivate (not in a good way), institutions (not just teachers) themselves teach through their physical, temporal, and organizational form. Combined with the many other teachers involved in the process (the learners themselves, textbook authors, illustrators, designers, etc) this means that in-person teachers don’t actually have to teach very well in order for their students to succeed. The systems mean that students are drowning in a sea of teachers.
Distributed online teaching
The online teaching context is, in principle though not so much in practice, more malleable, diffuse, and affording of learner control, but it almost always lacks much in the way of controllable infrastructure that learners can safely be assumed to inhabit, so teaching generally needs to be pretty good because, without care, that might be all there is. However, there are ways to help provide a bit more of the structure that also teaches. Some people try to create simulations of the in-person infrastructure, such as learning cafes, less formal social spaces (such as Athabasca Landing), etc but, though they can help a bit, they seldom work very well. Partly, this is because of the too common focus on explicit outcomes and grading found in most institutional teaching together with failure by students and teachers to recognize the critical role of in-between spaces in learning. Mainly, though, it’s because it’s not just there: students aren’t going to pass it on their way to somewhere else or be there for other reasons (like a need for rest or refreshment). They have to intentionally visit, typically with a purpose in mind but, as the main value of it is its purposelessness, that’s not often going to happen. It would be better to embed such spaces in the intentional teaching space, to allow informal interaction everywhere, but too few teaching systems (notably none of the mainstream LMSs) support that.
It can help a little to make the need for such engagement more explicit in the teaching process: to tell students it is a good idea to engage beyond the course. It doesn’t have to be virtual, or planned, or catered for by the institution or teacher. We could just suggest that learners talk about what they’ve learned with someone they know, or that they should visit a place where people do talk about such things, or share via social media. But we can and should provide social spaces where they can interact with one another beyond the course, too.
Another way is to acknowledge the physical and virtual context of the learner, and to design flexible learning experiences that allow them to apply what they are learning to where they are, or to make use of what is around them (virtually and physically) to support the learning process. This is a pedagogical solution that, for some subjects, fits very well. For instance, I can rely on nearly all of my students working or studying in a context that can be used for analyzing and building information systems. It’s harder in the case of subjects that are much more abstract, or where engaging directly with the subject might be dangerous or prohibitively expensive (e.g. nuclear physics or medicine).
Really, though, the big problem is one of perspective. It’s that we see our virtual institutions as analogues of our physical institutions, not as something really very different. Even quite enlightened edtech folk talk of students bringing their own devices, or bringing their own networks to the learning space. That’s laudable, in a way, but it’s completely the wrong way round. Instead, online and distance students bring their own institutions (plural), or bring their own courses into their own spaces. The need to go to an institution is a side-effect of the physics that co-determines how traditional teaching occurs. Students shouldn’t need to go to an online institution; institutions should come to them. That is, in fact, the reality of learning through online means, but almost everything we do works on the assumption that it is the other way round: that they visit us.
We (the teachers) are not, cannot be, and should not try to be the sole arbiters of how our distance/online students learn. Unless they want it, we should not even be managers or leaders of it. Instead, we should think of ourselves as parts of their support networks, available to provide help and direction as and when it is needed. If they want to delegate some of the control of the process to us then that’s great, because it keeps us employed and we’re often pretty good at it because it’s our job, but we should not take it unbidden.
We really need to let go of the notion that learning only takes place when and where our teaching happens, and that we are the sole directors of it. We need to acknowledge everything that learners bring with them, in prior learning, in digital and physical systems, in networks, and in pedagogical tools. But it’s not about bringing stuff to us: it’s about bringing it to their own learning. Above all, we need to recognize that online students do not come to institutional environments, but that they bring those institutions into their own environments. From that simple shift in perspective, myriad improvements follow.