Beginning at the beginning, one might ask, “What is online learning?” Simply put, this involves using an electronic medium for learning which can range from one to one situations, like a correspondence course on email for example, to a highly collaborative and interactive environment using many different technologies appropriate for the learning goals.
This resource uses an approach to online course development that emphasizes strategies to increase interaction and promote learning and knowledge building. In my experience working in a university environment with faculty taking on the challenge of integrating technology into their teaching and developing distance education courses, there is a tremendous emphasis on the “technical” side of the technology. In part this is a natural response to the anxiety and uncertainty beginning to work with technology can provoke.
In conjunction with this there is an, often implicit, assumption that the learning will take care of itself if the technology is in place. I don’t believe this assumption is accurate. Additionally, while there is a lot of talk about the centrality of learning and the importance of constructivism, and how one shouldn’t get caught up with too many bells and whistles in the technology itself, what actually tends to happen in day to day practice, is exactly that.
If you check out the course offerings related to online learning at most universities they are almost entirely devoted to acquiring expertise in one or more web-based technology or application which can be used to develop online learning materials. Every one of these courses contains useful knowledge that comes in very handy for developing the materials. However, there are few courses offered in design based on understanding of cognitive, adult or discipline-based learning principles, rather, the ratio weighs heavily in favour of technology skills taken outside the communicative context.
We know from prior research that technology needs to be infused into practice before it can be successfully incorporated into creative instructional use (e.g. Woodruff, Chakavorty & Smith Lea, 1997). That doesn’t mean technology must be the focus, it means that before you can have creative and maximally effective uses of technology in your teaching you need to have reached a level of ease and comfort with that technology precisely so that you can see its instructional possibilities.