Reflection: Online Learning Sucks & It Always Has

I taught my first hybrid online class at Sam Houston State University in 1997, the year popular webmail services like Hotmail & AOL made their appearance. It very well may have been the first online class of any variety taught at that university . . . it certainly won’t be in any record books because no one knew what to call it or if it was even "allowed"; we just did it because there was no one to say "no."

Around the year 2000, when USB flash drives came on the scene, my high school English students used a system called First Class, which had discussion conferences, to turn in work and write to each other. They were the first students in our school district, and probably very early in the United States overall, to have email accounts. None of the things other adults feared would happen happened, and soon-ish, all students had accounts.

Around 2003 (give or take), the year camera phones were declared “here to stay” by Time magazine, I was teaching my first online course at a local community college

through the first LMS (Learning Management System) I ever used. By that time, I was a certified “Online Instructor” through the Region 4 Education Service Center program, and I had also been educated and certified at Texas A&M as a Distance Learning instructor. I had no idea what I was doing, why, or if what I was providing had much value at all. The students had to take English, and I needed the cash to buy a camera phone, so we made it work the best we could.

None of these experiences revolutionized education. None of them made learning much, if any, better.

The most revolutionary of the experiences was the discussion board back in 2000, and that was because it got students interested in writing as a social activity; the audience was no longer just one.

As a professional adult education provider since iPods (mine was green) and PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants, in case you weren't born until the 90s) were big on the scene, I’ve wondered and worked on how to provide quality online learning experiences that people who want to learn something could engage with meaningfully. Honestly, I had never experienced it myself. Even discussion boards, as revolutionary as they once were, had been overused into irrelevance by college professors who seemingly had no other ideas on how to incorporate learning exercises that could occur using technology outside the four walls of their brick and mortar classrooms except to “write three reflections” which literally no one ever read.

I worked at the Texas region center that developed the system used by most school districts in the state for compliance training like “Bloodborne Pathogens,” where you learn how to clean up contaminated blood without getting Ebola, which you’re led to believe you’ll do on a weekly, if not daily, basis as an educator, or “Integrated Pest Management” where you’ll learn that if you put crumbled up granola bars in your desk, you’ll get ants and roaches no matter how much poison you spray around. I mean, the courses are as good as they can be, but let’s face it, no one . . . NO ONE . . . needs or wants to learn these ‘valuable skills’ year after year and there is NO WAY to make them exciting, unique or valuable as learning experiences.

So I continued to wonder, “When is online PD going to stop sucking, and how am I---and we as a company and learning organization--going to be part of that?” I couldn't answer the question until early this year in 2019, the year we may look back on as one where locks with facial recognition became broadly available and left us wondering if they should be when our cat can potentially unlock our phone using similar software. This year, we opened our online school which we call friEd Online . . . .

I got a question about friEd Online a few weeks ago that frankly went ALL over me for a few seconds until I realized that the person asking it did me a huge favor by voicing what most people are going to be thinking. She said,

What’s the difference between just watching some videos on YouTube and reading some free help documents and taking one of your online classes?

After I regained my voice, I managed to say, though I didn’t really yet believe, “THIS is a really good question.” (I probably went to grad school with the woman, and I bet she’s written her fair share of reflections about PDFs which were helpfully photocopied from a book, then scanned and uploaded to a Learning Management System.

The answer to her question is really why friEd Online exists, because for the most part, until now, the answer would have been, “Not much.” Maybe there were some videos you couldn’t find on YouTube or some text that would’ve been hard to find except behind a paywall, but not much else of value was there in those online courses we’ve all dutifully taken. This is not the case with friEd Online.

Since then, I settled on an answer for her and future clients, even the ones who don’t want to ask because they are afraid of being rude, and it’s this . . . .

  • There’s a huge difference between Googling something and participating in a Learning Experience.

  • A learning experience, like those you get in our online courses, is the interaction between our brains and yours.

  • We are thinking about what you are going to DO in order to learn, not just what you’re going to see or read.

  • We’re also thinking about what you need to learn and in what order it will make the most sense.

  • We’re figuring out how we will make it memorable and why you would want to know what we’re teaching.

  • We’re also thinking about what we know now that we wish we’d have known at your place in our own learning journeys.

There’s no perfect learning experience because a learning experience has to accomplish so much for so many different people, but what’s different about it is that we are putting in the hours and hours of hard work to figure out how to convey information in a way that will make the most sense to the most people in the least time with the least misery possible, and after all these years, that's still unique.

Hopefully, you’ll use our online courses (like this FREE one on Google Keep) to learn something new, get yourself a new job, or make your daily life easier to manage. I hope after you take one of our courses you can say more than, “That didn’t suck,” but even that will be a high compliment.

And hey, if you’re missing those reflections from grad school, send them my way in case I’m feeling nostalgic for the way online learning used to be.

Love of Learning to You,

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