Universities and colleges need to understand the differences when evaluating emergency remote teaching and online learning methods.

May 07 2020

From Emergency Remote Teaching to Rigorous Online Learning

As schools have rushed to transition coursework to virtual classrooms, the terms “online learning” and “remote learning” have been used interchangeably. Education experts say that needs to change.

Amid talk of pandemics and economics, it may seem like a comparatively minor discussion to have: the difference between remote learning and online learning. 

But, with COVID-19 forcing schools around the nation to move their classrooms online and more and more scrutiny leveled at the sustainability of doing so, it’s a conversation that education experts increasingly insist should happen. Making the distinction, some say, could shape the future of online learning for years to come. 

“It matters, because unless we make the distinction, we could be talking about specific purposes and think that we’re communicating, but we’re actually talking about two different things,” says Malcolm Brown, director of learning initiatives at EDUCAUSE. “If we’re talking about cats, for example, I might be thinking of lions and you might be talking about house cats, and the conversation will start diverging.

“The term online learning,” Brown continues, “is one that’s really open to a variety of interpretations, and so it’s important to clarify our terminology.”

Why Distinguishing Between Remote Learning and Online Learning Matters

In the weeks and months since universities first began making the transition out of physical classrooms and into virtual ones, the terms “online learning” and “remote learning” have been used interchangeably. To the untrained observer, it might seem like a trivial distinction to make. But for education professionals who’ve spent significant time trying to promote online learning as a viable, sustainable, valuable method of teaching and learning, making that distinction is critical. 

“The temptation to compare online learning to face-to-face instruction in these circumstances will be great,” writes a group of EDUCAUSE researchers in a recently published report. “This is a highly problematic suggestion, however.”

“Online learning carries a stigma of being lower quality than face-to-face learning, despite research showing otherwise,” the authors continue. “These hurried moves online by so many institutions at once could seal the perception of online learning as a weak option.”

There is a difference, Brown says, between true online education and the sudden, stopgap shift in which higher education institutions are currently engaged. What’s occurring at present, he explains, is a rush job — an effort to mitigate the losses students and universities might experience were they forced to completely abandon a semester’s worth of work.

“Researchers in educational technology, specifically in the subdiscipline of online and distance learning, have carefully defined terms over the years to distinguish between the highly variable design solutions that have been developed and implemented: distance learning, distributed learning, blended learning, online learning, mobile learning, and others,” notes the EDUCAUSE report. “Yet an understanding of the important differences has mostly not diffused beyond the insular world of educational technology and instructional design researchers and professionals.”

What is occurring now, according to the report, is better termed “emergency remote teaching,” or, in other words, remote learning.

How Remote Learning Compares to Online Learning

“Many active members of the academic community, including some of us, have been hotly debating the terminology in social media,” write the authors of the EDUCAUSE report. “’Emergency remote teaching’ has emerged as a common alternative term used by online education researchers and professional practitioners to draw a clear contrast with what many of us know as high-quality online education.” 

At its most basic, remote learning is largely comparable to any other form of telework. Workloads that might normally be tended to in person and in real time are instead conducted online, with workers relying on mainstay collaboration tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Cisco Webex for videoconferencing, along with other team-oriented, multiuser platforms like Dropbox, Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive. Participants are, essentially, making do with the tools they have at their disposal, and they’re doing so on a dime. 

Online learning, on the other hand, involves significantly more planning and design — at least when done well and done right, Brown says. For a fully online university course, according to the EDUCAUSE report, typical planning, preparation and development typically ranges from six to nine months. Meanwhile, the success and effectiveness of such a course depends not only on the instruction, but also on other structures put in place to facilitate engagement and social support. 

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“In the best of all worlds, you would work with an instructional designer who has experience in designing online courses,” he says. “You would really develop a structure and a series of learning engagements that are fine-tuned to this totally online environment, with activities and assessments and projects all built around the idea that this is going to be completely online, with no face-to-face component to it, at least not in real time and in the real world.”

Designing such a course, Brown continues, can take weeks or even months. Some schools, such as the University of Central Florida, require faculty not only to participate in specific, rigorous training if they want to teach online courses, but to engage in detailed and time-consuming preparation work when designing the courses themselves.

UCF has been offering online courses for 24 years, says Kelvin Thompson, executive director at the school’s Center for Distributed Learning. More than 85 percent of the university’s 69,000-plus students take at least one online or blended course each year. “We’ve been doing this a long time, and it’s something in which we have a lot of investment,” Thompson says. 

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The online courses and programs chosen and selected have a design process. That’s not the case with remote instruction, and it’s not fair to expect the same design or outcomes.

Kelvin Thompson executive director, Center for Distributed Learning.

Quality online learning, Thompson continues, comes down to three important words: design, time and expectations. 

“The online courses and programs chosen and selected have a design process. That’s not the case with remote instruction, and it’s not fair to expect the same design or outcomes,” Thompson says. “And then there’s time. It takes time to prepare faculty to do that kind of design work. It takes time to develop online courses. That’s not a luxury that anyone thrown into this situation this year would have."

And then there are expectations, which are likely to differ between emergency remote teaching and rigorous, intentionally designed online courses. Outcomes of the two learning modalities, Thompson explains, are going to have expected, natural differences. Well-designed online courses, for instance, are likely to have lower withdrawal rates and better grade satisfaction. 

“It’s not fair to expect the same outcomes if you don’t lay the same foundation,” Thompson says. “If you don’t have a deliberate design process, you can’t expect the same results in the end.”

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