What’s missing from a lot of online education? The education.

What’s missing from a lot of online education? The education.

For years we’ve heard about the capacity of online learning to level the playing field, reduce costs and give people around the world access to a top-notch education. But somehow the technology—and our seemingly endless need to turn everything into a vehicle for celebrities or celebrity-making—has gotten in the way of the most important thing: the learning itself.

Sample just a few of the thousands of available massive open online courses (MOOCs) and you’ll see that many are very engaging and entertaining (and often make star faculty more famous), but often aren’t designed to enhance learning outcomes. The danger is that this could lead people to believe that this is actually quality online education.

To save online education from itself, we first need to define what it isn’t. It’s not about learning management systems or streaming video. It’s not about production values that rival the evening news. And it’s definitely not about asking megawatt A-list celebrities to teach a course on something they know nothing about.

EdX has considered hiring actors like Matt Damon to teach its classes, further disconnecting MOOCs from the goals of online learning. Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters vis slate.com.

So what is online education? The same thing education has always been: great content, strong faculty, solid teaching methods and a deliberate and well-conceived learning plan. That may not sound as sexy as asking Matt Damon to teach Thévenin’s theorem, but that’s what it takes to help students really learn.

In fact, despite the new technology at our fingertips, the principles behind good teaching and learning haven’t really changed. In her book How Learning Works, my colleague Susan Ambrose presents the science behind effective and compelling learning. For example, she makes the point that

goal-directed practice, coupled with targeted feedback, offers students the largest learning gains. This is a human structure, not a technological one.

So how do we apply technology so it enhances learning, rather than simply making it look better? Quality online education starts with an intellectually honest and sophisticated thought process of how to present information. This is hard work. It is not uncommon to have faculty spend months mapping a course: defining the curriculum, and testing ideas, methods and expected outcomes. And because a solid course design can be enhanced by technology, online components and production values are added, but often in the last stages of the process—not the first.

As someone who has been working in online education for a long time, the new technological innovations are a welcome arrival. MOOCs have brought a new level of engagement and interaction with our students that can—and already has, millions of times over—added tremendous value to the learning experience.

However, if we become overly enamored with the technology, flashy production and star-making, we run the risk of forgetting about the art and science of teaching and learning. In forgetting these fundamentals, we will take a step backwards rather than a step forward.

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