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.
“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.