What is online learning? Thinking in 4 dimensions

As the technology evolves, so do the options for learning online. Here, then, are my musings about what online learning is, or can be. Elearning is electronically-assisted learning, but for those outside the industry, what that actually looks like can still be a mystery.

You can learn online by taking a complete course, a short professional development programme, a day workshop or you could access self-paced stand-alone learning units. It can also be delivered as just-in-time bite-sized units through social media and video channels. More informal online learning takes place all the time through professional communities of practice and networks of like-minded individuals.

Some people think of online learning as a poor relation to face-to-face and a necessary evil in times of financial constraint. If your only experience of online learning has been a content dump of second-rate powerpoints with no structured learning process or support, this is understandable. This, though, is not learning, in just the same way as a face to face workshop would never be rated as learning if the instructor simply distributed some out-of-date handouts and left you to decipher their meaning, only to come back to test you with some multiple choice questions.

For me, online learning is not a second-best option but instead brings exciting new possibilities for re-designing how we learn, share and organise our access to knowledge, creativity and new ideas. I’ve come from a background in traditional distance learning, which compared to what is happening now in online learning is like landing on the moon after travelling by horse and cart. I have seen online learning work, I’ve experienced it for myself and I network with others who are doing amazing things that would not have been possible even five years ago. In good online learning the technology becomes invisible; it is the interaction with the subject matter, the other people on the course or programme, learners’ own efforts and engagement with the materials and, in some cases, the tutor/instructor/facilitator that help learning to take place. In other words, the human element is what makes it tick.

Just as an aside here, I should mention that there is a backlash in the industry about using the term ‘elearning’ – it should, some argue, just be about ‘learning’. This misses a trick though, because learning online offers opportunities for global interaction and access to expert knowledge that we are only just beginning to appreciate. I shall return to this in another post.

When a client asks me about online learning, these are the questions I have in mind. If you  are commissioning online learning, you may find it helpful to think about what you need in each of these four dimensions (click on the image to see it full size):

mindmap of the 4 dimensions

4 dimensions of online learning



There are all kinds of ‘blends’ that can work well – for example, integrating synchronous technologies such as Skype or online classrooms or webinars, as well as blending face to face work with online discussion groups or content delivery. One of the big questions is whether your learning is going to be facilitated or whether the learner will be expected to be purely self-reliant and self-directed in their learning. Facilitation may take many forms, from the traditional ‘expert-led’ approach to a more ‘guide on the side’ style of support. Peer support or buddying can also be effective but this usually needs some facilitation to maintain momentum. If learners are learning alone, it is important to think about the context of this and perhaps organise cohorts of learners that can provide offline support to self-study, or to set up an online forum elsewhere for learners to discuss and share.


An obvious, but often overlooked, consideration is who are your learners? What would make them want to engage in this learning? What’s in it for them? What will be the challenges they face? What time do they have available (is it in small chunks or one larger chunk one day a week?) What is their current level of expertise? When and where will they be able to access the materials or forums?


What is the organisational purpose? Does it align with the motivations of the learners? If it is about compliance or reaching competence how can the needs of the learners be brought into alignment with the needs of the organisation? For me, the answer to this often lies in the quality of the support that is offered, which is why facilitated courses or modules are often more successful. Budgets are of course important, but much can be accomplished on small budgets with clear design principles from the outset.


The questions here are often driven by the organisational purpose. Is the learning accredited, part of ongoing professional development, integrated into the workplace or designed to match specific industry-led competencies? Whatever the context, these drivers are the building blocks of any learning design because they will inform decisions about the need for assessment of learning, tracking of learner activity and the extent to which learners are able to influence and co-construct their learning experience.

I hope these thoughts will help you when you are next designing a learning project online, or commissioning someone else to do it. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

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