Is Online Learning Living Up to Its Potential?

Is Online Learning Living Up to Its Potential?

Last week I attended a total of 23 hours of online classes. 15 of those hours, divided into five threehour live webinars, were devoted to learning how to set up and use HTTP server software. The remaining eight hours consisted of one nonstop class on California’s traffic laws. As one might imagine, I expect I have retained at least a third of what was presented. The rest is well-documented in an online handout, provided at the beginning of each session, where I wrote notes. As for the eight-hour class, the best I can say is that I fulfilled the attendance requirement. Two days afterwards I cannot remember 90 percent of what was presented, but at least my car insurance won’t go up.

If one ignores the obvious difference in motivation, one experiences when voluntarily attending a challenging class versus attending online traffic school, this risible comparison does illustrate some reasons why online learning (and its close cousin, distance learning) may not yet be living up to its potential. Recent examples run the gamut between the two extremes.

One of the grandfather projects is MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative, in place for more than a decade. While considered dry and not engaging, by 2010 it had logged more than 100 million visits. A recent example is in the April 2012 issue of Wired Magazine, which profiled what may be the next phase; a program known as the “Stanford Education Experiment,” in which two professors offered a free online course in Artificial Intelligence. They expected 2,000 students but attracted 100,000, and intend to turn the experiment into a for-profit enterprise. And despite the “homespun” quality of the AI course videos, the author points out the winning difference. “…[It’s a] technique of intimate, direct instruction. It’s a stark contrast to MIT’s OpenCourseWare videos, which mostly depict professors from afar, scribbling on blackboards.”

Which brings us back to the online traffic school. From the on-screen timer that turns red if an insufficient period of time has been spent on a section of material, to the fundamental text-based nature of the presentation, the experience is far from engaging. There are no handouts to encourage note-taking, and the only interactivity consists of section quizzes.

On the other hand, the multi-session live webinars from subscription-based are a much different affair. The presentation uses a standard GoToMeeting application to display the instructor’s screen, while a live chat room is active on a page of’s site. The chat room contains a link to the day’s handout before the presentation begins, and links to a downloadable Google document. The instructor uses three screens to make it all go; one for the display that feeds GoToMeeting, a secondary display on the same computer where the instructor stages browser pages which can then be dragged to the main screen at will, and a third display for the chat room, which he monitors constantly. During the presentation, the instructor is recording the video and voiceover audio from his primary screen using video capture software (in this case, ScreenFlow). When the presentation is done, he exports the video to the company’s branded Vimeo channel and embeds that video on a membersonly page.

Subscribers log in to GoToMeeting and to the chat room, where they can type questions and comments. Rather than taking questions later, the instructor answers them during the presentation, which allows him to re-state a concept for clarity. After the presentation is over, the video of the instructor’s screen and voiceover soon becomes available on the webdesign. com site, along with links to the handout and a log of the entire chat.

There’s nothing here that is difficult from a technological perspective; it’s all off-the-shelf hardware and software. The winning difference here is the live, fast-moving feel of the presentation, backed up by the available materials after the show is over. It works, and works well judging by’s roughly 20,000 paid subscribers.

Steve Cunnigham is an assistant professor of practice at USC’s Thorton School of Music.