Reflections on Online Learning from the (Digital) Coalface

Much has been written on the merits of online learning, with much of the debate bifurcated between rabid technophiles who reflexively salivate over the latest online learning technologies and old-school devotees of face-to-face learning who champion the intellectual and social benefits of bricks and mortar education. There has been an increasing attention payed to blended learning as a middle ground between these two positions, which describes a spectrum of potential learning strategies combining complimentary elements of online platforms and face-to-face learning.

I was first exposed to online learning as a sessional tutor in the early 2000s, when online subjects consisted of a set of readings and a discussion forum. This initial wave of online subject delivery was sub-standard due to its one-dimensional mode of content delivery—set readings without the lecture component enjoyed by the face-to-face subjects of the day—and use of discussion forums in a manner that attempted to replicate tutorial class discussions. From this experience I learned the golden rule of online learning: never attempt to replicate the face-to-face classroom experience in an online learning environment. This golden rule is now reasonably well understood, however there remain a number of traps that online learning practitioners fall into when designing the delivery of online subjects.

Since my initial foray into online subject delivery in the early 2000s I have taught a number of blended learning and fully online subjects to students from many disciplines and across all campuses at La Trobe University. I am an active blogger and producer of audio-visual material for both academic and popular audiences across a suite of social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud and YouTube. My observations below represent the hard won lessons of my experience toiling at the digital coalface.

Is automated teaching good teaching?

The rise and fall of the MOOC phenomenon is illustrative of a trend in the production of information that does not appear to be well understood across the teaching fraternity: the near-zero marginal cost of production of information.

Imagine a scenario in which the operating logic of the capitalist system succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest expectations and the competitive process leads to “extreme productivity” and what economists call the “optimum general welfare”—an endgame in which intense competition forces the introduction of ever-leaner technology, boosting productivity to the optimum point in which each additional unit introduced for sale approaches “near zero” marginal cost. In other words, the cost of actually producing each additional unit—if fixed costs are not counted—becomes essentially zero, making the product nearly free. If that were to happen, profit, the lifeblood of capitalism, would dry up.

Jeremy Rifkin, Zero Marginal Cost Society[1]

The marginal cost of production is the addition to the total cost of producing additional units of a good, over and above the initial cost of producing the first unit. In higher education, like other information-provision industries, the marginal cost of production of information has declined to essentially zero as a result of digitisation and online technologies. In effect, information is now infinitely replicable, an outcome which has significant implications for knowledge transmission and the provision of online education.

Many online learning proposals miss the point of the infinite replicability of information. Often they are employed by university managers as labour productivity tools to de-skill lecturing work and save money on labour costs. As an outgrowth of this productivity agenda, automated assessments are also often promoted by teaching and learning departments as a time-saving teaching short cut to increase the “efficiency” of assessment. As a university teaching and learning boffin remarked to me recently, “You could mark all of the assessment items, but then, who wants to do that?”

This leads to two questions, one commercial and the other pedagogical: If information is infinitely replicable online, what is the value-added component of online learning that makes it work paying for? What online learning models maximise the value-added component of online education when information is infinitely replicable?

Asynchronous (slow) learning is powerful

I argue that the automation of teaching online is based on dubious pedagogical foundations and tends to diminish the value-added experience for the student, undermining the business model for the educational product. On this basis, I suggest that the most effective online learning designs incorporate asynchronous (slow) learning activities that incorporate creative and varied modes of content delivery, and maximise the opportunity for real-world interactive learning away from the screen while minimising real-time interaction at the screen.

What the current conversation about designing the classrooms of the twenty-first century misses is that innovations do not take place outside of the political economy; they are part of it. What we call technology and what we create with it is determined by the social and political landscape in which it is created.

Megan Erickson, Edutopia

Academic research indicates that teaching techniques which engage students in collaborative learning practices—experiential learning—raise the level of student excitement about learning activities and better engage students in the class environment. Experiential learning promotes a deeper conceptual understanding of subject matter by allowing students to play with ideas, which in turn helps them to make linkages between theory and real-world examples,[2] leading to the critical engagement necessary for internalisation of key principles.

Through asynchronous discussion boards, there can be increased interaction, both in quantity and quality, with and among students. These class discussions are not constrained to a small window of time but can transpire over a week or two. This environment allows all students to engage and actively participate in the discussion.

Erik Fredericksen, Is online education good or bad?

The challenge of the online delivery mode is to provide experiential learning opportunities in a virtual space. In political science, debates have raged over the relative “reality” of the online world versus the physical world in the context of activism and political engagement. For example, does online activism constitute a tangible political act, or does it need to be augmented by boots-on-the-ground action? This question can be transposed onto online education; do online learning platforms provide an adequate opportunity for experiential learning to occur, or does it need to be augmented physical-world interactions? In both cases I tend to the view that both online and real-world action need to occur in a simultaneous, symbiotic process to achieve an optimal outcome. In the political sphere, online activism is most effective when accompanied by mutually reinforcing actions of protest that pressure key institutions and targeted economic interventions that impact on the economic power of those institutions. Similarly, experiential learning is most powerful when online content delivery and interaction is combined with physical-world social interactions and problem-solving activities.[3]

The simple fact of the matter is that education requires two participants in the process, with the student arguably being the one that at the end of the day is required to put in the most effort. This is not a process that can be sped up or done in the absence of that effort.

David Glance, The devil’s bargain of online learning that technology can’t change

In my experience, this combination works best when I ask students to undertake learning activities away from the screen, using the relevant online platform as a place to report back to peers and teachers on those learning activities. These kinds of activities lend themselves to asynchronous (slow) learning, rather than real-time interaction. Asynchronous learning provides students with the space to craft well-researched, considered engagement in their learning activities, which also applies to their responses to contributions by their peers.

The real-time interaction chimera

Conversely, attempting to cram the entire learning experience into the limited domain of the online environment often proves to be unwieldy, depending on the platform of interaction. Facilitating real-time interaction online with any online application, particularly with large class groups, usually requires the scheduling of interaction times. This seems disingenuous, given that the scheduled interactions inhibit the time flexibility that the online medium affords (and which is a major selling point for online subjects in university marketing). While this can be done, it is not clear to me that the payoff from real-time interaction justifies the time required to coordinate scheduling. However, our discussion of real-time interaction requires more nuance. If we consider real-time interaction via video, the cost-benefit analysis changes according to the number of participants involved.

One-way video communication (presentation to a passive audience, such as a remote screening, lecture recording or documentary movie) represents the optimal use of video technology in terms of efficiency and buffering against technology failure. Because there is only a requirement to broadcast at one end and receive at the other, one-way video communication has the lowest technology requirements and as a one-way communication of information it need not occur in real-time at all.

One-way online communication via video
One-way online communication via video

Two-way video communication is more prone to technology failure and/or human error because both ends of the interaction have to broadcast and receive. Many of us will have experienced the frustration of a Skype call that has buffered out due to bandwidth restrictions at one end, or an office video conference in which one party has forgotten to turn on their microphone. Yes, these issues can be overcome but again the question has to be asked, does the payoff from the real-time interaction justify the time wasted stuffing around with the technology? If the answer is yes and the technology is solid (smart phone technology has helped in this regard), two-way video conversations can be a wonderful medium for overcoming the tyranny of distance.

Two-way online communication between individuals via video
Two-way online communication between individuals via video

The difficulty comes when the group of participants in a video interaction expands beyond two. Video is at best a two-way medium, akin to communicating through a tube. This is not how people communicate in groups, where the interaction is a networked one in which multiple simultaneous interactions are possible. Simultaneous networked interaction is not possible through a two-way medium. With varying degrees of success, apps such as Blackboard, Collaborate, Zoom etc attempt to filter group interaction through the two-way medium by facilitating ordered two-way interactions one at a time across the group. Again, while it is possible to run an online class this way, this mediated interaction process is painfully slow, which once again begs the question as to the relative payoff to be gained from this unwieldy technology.

Two-way online communication between multi-party groups via unwieldy model
Two-way online communication between multi-party groups via video…an unwieldy model

Being creative with content delivery

One of the central concerns for successful online teaching is the mode of content delivery, which in the online medium must necessarily be different from face-to-face delivery formats. For a start, asking students to watch a 60+ minute lecture recording is bordering on masochistic. A more creative (and merciful) content delivery suite can incorporate a series of shorter documentary-style audio-visual formats such as short documentary videos and audio podcasts. Documentary-style videos, for example, maximise the expanded possibilities for communication of ideas available in the video medium through informative graphics, video footage, background music and crisp editing.

Research into the use of film as a teaching aid in international relations courses indicates that films and documentaries can help students to contextualised and improve their understanding of important international relations theories.[4] Indeed, many students arrive at university with under-developed textual analytical and writing skills, but with great capacity to comprehend and critique visual images. This is likely to be the result of the bombardment of visual imagery that young people encounter in their daily lives through television and internet media.[5]

I also use social media platforms Twitter, YouTube and SoundCloud as vehicles to reach students with subject-relevant information and useful links to academic research material, including my own. As I explained in my recent presentation Social Media 101 for Community Groups, social media are the online environments in which young people reside and if you want to reach them, you have to become comfortable operating in this terrain. When used carefully and thoughtfully, social media platforms can be an excellent means of facilitating student engagement.

As a teaching tool, my blogs Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga (2010-2012) and Dr Benjamin Habib: Thoughts on International Relations and Australian Politics provide experiential learning opportunities for motivated students as an outlet for publication of original opinion pieces, outstanding academic course work, and publication of student-produced audio podcasts, as well as an avenue for training in the editorial process.  Aside from nurturing the professional skills of participating students, the blog aims to nurture the intellectual and cultural consciousness of local youth by encouraging them to take pride in being intelligent and making a positive contribution to public affairs.

As an integrated suite, creative content delivery combined with complimentary social media platforms designed around a series of innovative, non-traditional assessment activities tie together the experiential learning, student engagement and social agency objectives of the subject with the university’s graduate capabilities, in addition to giving students an opportunity to succeed no matter what their personal learning style.[6]

The Key Lessons

Online teaching done poorly is a crime for which students are rarely forgiving. I have learned to move beyond superficial online pedagogy through trial and error, crystalising as the hard-won lessons from the digital coal face that I have shared in this article. To recap…

  1. Online teachers should never attempt to replicate the face-to-face classroom experience in an online format.
  2. In an era of infinitely replicable information, it is the value-added component of online learning that is its most valuable attribute, not the information itself.
  3. Slow learning in the online medium can be more powerful as a teaching strategy than real-time interaction.
  4. Real-time interaction online is often chimerical and not worth the time and energy spent getting it to work.
  5. Creative content delivery combined with innovative assessment and an integrated suite of social media applications can maximise the learning potential of the online medium.

Please contact me if you would like to share your own hard-won lessons from the digital coal face.Ben Habib   ( )


[1] Rifkin, Jeremy. 2014. The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, The Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 3.

[2] Jeffrey Lantis, “Ethics and Foreign Policy: Structured Debates for the International Studies Classroom,” International Studies Perspectives, 2004, Vol. 5, No. 2, p. 119; Gibbs, G.. Improving the quality of student learning: Based on the Improving Student Learning Project funded by the Council for National Academic Awards. 1992. Bristol: Technical and Education Services; Candy, P. (1991). Self-Direction for Lifelong Learning: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, p. 9.

[3] Alexander, Shirley, & Boud, David, “Learners still learn from experience when online,” in Stephenson, John (ed.), Teaching & Learning Online: Pedagogies for New Technologies, 2001, Routledge, Abingdon, p. 6.

[4] Simpson, Archie, & Kaussler, Bernd, “IR Teaching Reloaded: Using Films and Simulations in the Teaching of International Relations,” International Studies Perspectives, Vol. 10, No. 4, 2009, p 414.

[5] Weber, Cynthia, “The Highs and Lows of Teaching IR Theory: Using Popular Films for Theoretical Critique,” International Studies Perspectives, Vol. 2, No. 3, 2001, p. 282.

[6] Gardner, Howard, Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century. 1999, New York: Basic Books.

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