Four Things You Need To Know About Online Learning

(Image Source: Hype Cycle CC BY SA 3.0)


Here’s how the hype cycle works: something new comes out and everyone jumps on the bandwagon proclaiming its the ‘next big thing.’ Enter the doubters: the luster fades and the new tool is widely derided. Later (after much thoughtful debate) the tool may be adopted, though often in ways we didn’t at first expect. Online learning, MOOCs and flipped classrooms are the hype du jour. So when I had the chance to attend the Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools (OESIS) last week I was a little skeptical. As I walked past MIT, Microsoft and Google to the Kendall Square Marriott I counted myself among the doubters slipping into the trough of disillusionment. But I was willing to be wrong and I was most excited to hear what other practitioners had to say.


Here are my top four take-aways from the cutting edge thinking around online learning.


Online will never replace ‘onground’

Independent school has never really been about content. We’ve always been about the experiences, relationships, challenges, hardships, and victories that occur in the space between what we do and how we do it. When MIT gave away all its lectures online for free it was making this perfectly clear. The least interesting part of an MIT education is the content, it’s the experiences on campus among people that create value.


Tuition dependent independent schools are under enormous pressure

Ours is a declining industry. Every head of school and Board of Trustees are asking themselves three questions:

  • How many parents will be able to afford our tuition in ten years?
  • How do we differentiate ourselves from the competition?
  • How do we remain relevant without compromising our history?

Is online learning the answer to all three issues? Perhaps we can use online classes to create efficiencies as a small number of teachers can work with a larger number of students? Perhaps this cutting-edge, 21st-century, global initiative will drive students to our doors both on campus and around the world? Does online provide us the room to innovate and generate revenue so we can comfortably continue to do what we’ve always done on campus? That takes me to my next point.


There is no magic bullet

Everyone is trying to figure this out but so far I haven’t seen anyone who claims online education is the answer to all three questions above. At worst online education bandwagon jumpers are going to quickly crash into the trough of disillusionment and move onto the next ‘next big thing.’ At best online education can fill some important roles:

  • Supplement on campus course offerings by providing classes online you can’t afford to conduct onground (think hard to fill AP classes like Physics C or quirky one-offs like Applied Cryptography)
  • Provide students the chance to make up a class or to get ahead
  • Promote your school to students and parents who don’t know about you yet
  • Prepare students for the online classes they may need to take in college
  • Possibly generate revenue by offering premium online courses to secondary markets like China and India

Can you find useful ways to leverage online learning to make your school a better place? You bet, but don’t expect it to fix all your problems overnight.


Blended is the Killer App

If online doesn’t replace onground is there a role for these tools in education? Absolutely. The resounding response from the educators I spoke with at OESIS was that some type of blended learning is really resonating with independent schools. Blended learning is this idea that some class activities can (and should) be completed on a web site or app, while other activities should stay inside the classroom in the context of a relationship between a student and a teacher. Blended (also known by several other names including ‘flipped’ teaching) is gaining traction precisely because it acknowledges something teachers have always known: lecturing is a waste of time.


But training students in the core skills they need to be successful isn’t. So can we differentiate between training and education and outsource the training to effective tools while keeping the education in-house. If some aspects of common teaching practice are ineffective or can be shown to squander valuable human-to-human time shouldn’t they be replaced? For more on this see the recent Phillips Academy / Khan Academy partnership.


So what now?

On the whole I’m much more positive about online learning now than I was before the conference. Perhaps OESIS helped me start my long climb up the slope of enlightenment? For now I’ll be helping my school start an online pilot program to see how these ideas play out on our campus and with our teachers, students, and parents.


What about you? Are you launching an online pilot program? Have you ever taught or taken an online course? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.


Hans Mundahl

Hans Mundahl

Director of Technology Integration at New Hampton School

I've been an educator since 1995 when I first stepped into the classroom as a Fulbright exchange teacher in the former East Germany. Since then I've been an Outward Bound instructor, a teacher, tutor, admission officer, house head, evening administrator on duty and I ran the experiential learning program at New Hampton School for almost ten years. Today I focus on technology integration centered on values-driven technology integration and 1:1 iPad initiatives. Recently I had the chance to help New Hampton School become an Apple Distinguished School and I co-authored the iBook Teaching with the iPad (available on the iBookstore). Now I'm the founder of a scrappy little company (one employee!) called Hans Mundahl and Associates, inc a digital strategy consultancy for schools and non-profits. My free time is usually spent with my family but I'm also passionate about the outdoors and protecting the environment. I'm on the Board of Trustees at the Newfound Lake Region Association and when I have the chance I'm an active hiker, climber, and paddler. My writing appears on and I speak frequently at technology and education conferences.