Six Myths (and Realities) of Online Learning

(We posted a slightly different version of this at the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning site.)

Online and blended learning are being embraced by many schools and states, as discussed in Evergreen’s recent reports, commissioned by the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, titled “Why do students choose blended and online schools” and Teaching with Technology: Educators’ Perspectives and Recommendations for Successful Blended Instructional Strategies. Despite the growth of online and blended learning, and even though digital learning has been offered in schools for decades, several myths surrounding its benefits and challenges persist. Most of these myths are understood as being incorrect by educators experienced with digital learning, but the myths persist in the media, and among both advocates and critics. This post attempts to dispel six of the most common misconceptions, adding a dose of reality to each. Read on to see if you’ve heard (or have bought into) any of the following ideas, or feel free to share your own in the comments section below.

Myth #1: Digital learning is exploding, and private companies are driving the adoption of online and blended learning.

Reality: Digital learning is growing, but not “exploding,” and is being driven just as much by innovative schools, districts, and states as by private providers.

Good data are hard to find, which is why the “exploding” narrative is so often accepted without challenge. But a recent NCES report suggests that only 21% of US high schools offer online courses, which hardly seems like the outcome of fast growth two decades after online courses were first introduced. Similarly, the population of students attending fully online schools appears to be somewhere around 500,000, and growing at low single-digit rates.

Private providers supply a mix of online courses, teachers, content, and technology. But the large majority of online and blended learning is in schools operated through traditional structures, or in non-profit charter schools. 

Myth #2: Teachers are being replaced by technology.

Reality: There is no sign that technology is replacing or will ever replace teachers, despite its advances. In Evergreen’s 17 years of working in this field, we have seen no sustainable, scalable, successful examples of education technology without teachers being extensively involved in critical roles.

Myth #3: Students are comfortable with technology and want to learn with it.

Reality: Their “comfort” with technology isn’t always educationally appropriate.

Students overall tend to be comfortable with technology, but often they are not familiar with how to use technology for learning. It’s one thing to watch videos on your tablet; it’s another to learn from that video, to take notes, to stop it and practice math problems, or ponder ideas.

Schools implementing digital learning usually find they must orient students to learning with technology. And it’s not just the standard concerns about appropriate use—which aren’t primarily a digital learning issue—it’s about how to really engage and learn.

Myth #4: Cheating is easy in an online class. Online learning is easy.

Reality: Online is one modality of learning that can be harder, easier, or the same level of difficulty as face-to-face instruction. There is nothing inherently easier or harder about online learning, face-to-face instruction, or blended learning.

Some online and blended learning programs have received reputations for being easy, especially some credit recovery programs. But making these easier than they should be serves nobody well, including students.

Cheating is easier in an online class if the assessments are based on answers that are easily found in Google searches. If that’s the case, it’s a failure of good instructional design, not a failure of online learning. 

Myth #5: Taking online courses in high school will negatively impact my college application. 

Reality: This is becoming an outdated view as an increasing number of colleges offer their own online course and so many post-secondary institutions want students who can stand out and contribute in a variety of educational environments.

Students’ experience with online coursework demonstrates that; it also shows that they’ve committed to learning by challenging themselves through non-traditional courses.

Students can be negatively impacted if the online courses they take are not NCAA-approved, or in California, a-g approved for entrance into the University of California system. Most online providers and schools recognize these issues and have received the relevant approvals, although not all have done so. 

Myth #6: Digital learning will save money.

Reality: This is a fairly common view—but the evidence doesn’t support it, or at least it is mixed.

This is partly because the initial investments are expensive. Computers, learning management systems, digital content, and initial professional development are all expensive., and all have upkeep costs.

But most importantly, remember how teachers are central to digital learning? Well, teachers also happen to be a major cost of education. In fact, people—teachers and administrators, but mostly teachers—represent the main cost, because they aren’t ‘scalable’—and they shouldn’t be.

There may be cost savings in some online and blended programs. But anyone who begins such a program with a main goal of saving money, in the absence of goals related to improving student outcomes, is likely to hurt student performance in the short run and lose money in the long run.