Online Learning

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Online Learning

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Online Learning, also commonly referred to as Distant Education [1] and Digital learning, is learning accompanied and aided by technology [2]. Digital learning has a spectrum of implementations, resulting in many variations of the practice. In recent years, online learning experienced a surge in implementation due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This increased relevancy led to an increased amount of coverage and increased visibility to the public eye [3], resulting in Digital Learning being the subject of many debates on its efficiency in comparison to traditional classroom learning.


As the world has grown more digitized over the years, education has accompanied it in terms of digitization. [4] Some key moments and inventions include:

  • One of the first recorded examples of technology being incorporated into the education sphere was developed by a professor of psychology at Ohio State University, Sidney L. Pressey. While Pressey's teaching machine was "originally developed as a self-scoring machine... [it also] demonstrated its ability to actually teach."[5]
  • Another significant milestone was the development of PLATO in the mid-1960s. "PLATO, a networked and interactive teaching system that introduced concepts such as online chat rooms, multiplayer gaming, and e-newsletters"[6] was spearheaded by Donald L. Bitzer, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • CompuHigh, the first accredited high school to be completely online, was established in 1994.[7]
  • In 2002, MIT started offering their lectures and class materials online for free through their OpenCourseWare project.
  • As of 2020, approximately 90% of US corporations use online learning in some capacity. [8]
  • Due to the coronavirus pandemic, education systems shifted towards incorporating more digital learning strategies than ever to avoid in-person instruction in order to reduce the spread of the virus. [9]

Types of Digital Learning Methods and Applications

Some online learning is merely an enhancement of in-person instruction, while other variations have all of the instruction being done through some sort of technology[2]. Some examples of instructional methods using technology include blended/hybrid learning, fully online learning, flipped learning, digital tutoring, personalized learning, gamification, and other variations. Digital tools can also be utilized to create online learning experiences by non-instructors with students individually seeking out instructional and learning materials through technology.

A wide variety of digital learning methods have been developed and implemented, with some common ones defined below. All digital learning methods can be broken down into two different types: synchronous and asynchronous [10]. “Synchronous classes run in real time,” [10] operating with all involved parties being online and participating in the learning process at the same time. Methods falling into the asynchronous category operate “with students accessing class materials during different hours and from different locations” [10] and do not require the real-time participation seen in synchronous environments.

Blended learning

Blended learning, also sometimes referred to as hybrid learning or technology-mediated instruction [11], is a method of construction that mixes or “blends” together with traditional instructional techniques with technology, incorporating the technologies into the instruction[12]. Clifford Maxwell of the Blended Learning Universe breaks blended learning down into three parts: a degree of student control, a supervised physical location to learn in, and an “integrated learning experience” [11]. A modern example of blended learning is traditional brick-and-mortar schools incorporating material and activities provided on educational websites like Khan Academy.

Collaborative learning

Collaborative learning, a shortened version of the term Computer-supported collaborative learning (often abbreviated as CSCL), is described by Dillenbourg and Schneider as a method distinctly separate from cooperative learning. While cooperative learning is described as “… a protocol in which the task is in advance split into subtasks that the partners solve independently,” they define collaborative learning as situations “… in which two or more subjects build synchronously and interactively a joint solution to some problem.” [13] The marker of Computer-supported collaborative learning is the interaction and collaboration between both instructor and student as well as between students and their peers[14]. In this variation of education aided by technology, the learning is done through social interaction based on and supplemented by technologies such as websites, blog posts, virtual posting boards, and other types of technological support.[15]

Flipped Classrooms

The idea of flipped classrooms existed before digital learning filtered into the educational sphere but have since been built upon by technological advancements. The flipped classroom model operates on the belief that active learning is a more effective use of time in classrooms rather than educating through direct instruction. In these environments, students are given more agency and control than in traditional classrooms. [16] Lectures in flipped classrooms are “replaced by out-of-class delivery of streaming video, reading materials, online chats, and other resources.” [17] Class time is then dedicated to group interactions between students and high-level cognitive work.

Fully online learning

There are digital learning methods that are entirely online, often referred to as e-learning, which can also be seen spelled as elearning or eLearning. In these models, all instruction and learning is delivered entirely through electronic means. While most of the previously mentioned takes on digital learning required some amount of real-time participation, the e-learning structure supports both synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Asynchronous programs can include "pre-recorded lecture content and video, visuals, and/or text, knowledge quizzes, simulations, games, and other interactive elements." [18] Alternatively, e-learning can be delivered synchronously through things like live training modules or virtual classrooms led by instructors. Technology allows synchronous online instructors to make use of tools like screen sharing, chats, and polling to serve as avenues for real-time participation from students. While online learning has steadily been on the rise in terms of usage in the past decade [19] the usage and relevance of online learning shot up due to the COVID-19 pandemic forcing physical school buildings to shut down. [20]


The definition of gamification is "the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service." [21] In terms of digital learning, Gamification can come into play in game-based education by using technology in order to "gamify" what would otherwise be direct teacher instruction. Some examples of gamification could include digital educational games to learn new content and gain skills, having students earn virtual "points" for achievements, and having virtual classroom scoreboards to encourage competition. [22] Professional opinions on gamified digital learning are contentious, with some saying it is "a successful strategy to engage [and motivate] users" and others believing these systems may do more harm than good and impose unnecessary extra stressors on students. [23]


The Association for Educational Communications and Technology (commonly abbreviated as AECT), “a professional association of instructional designers, educators and professionals who provide leadership and advise policy makers in order to sustain a continuous effort to enrich teaching and learning,” [24] defines educational technology as "the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using and managing appropriate technological processes and resources" [25].

[26] There are many technologies that can be utilized for digital instruction. Tools like video conference technology have particularly contributed significantly to the practice of online learning, as they are one of the tools making distance learning a possibility[27].

The logo for Zoom, one possible video conferencing platform available for use. (source:

Zoom, Bluejeans, Google Meet, and other video conferencing tools

For educational environments where some aspect of remote synchronous interaction is required, video conferencing software is often used. [28] Some reasons listed for using video conferencing software are[28]:

  • They provide a way to stay connected. For some instructors, this includes the ability to interact with and talk to parents of students who may have busy schedules that make them unable to attend in-person conferences.
  • They encourage collaboration. Students are able to collaborate and work with their peers by using video conferencing software without needing to coordinate transportation and without needing to factor in travel time.
  • Host virtual field trips (also referred to as online field trips or digital field trips)
  • Share resources. By providing a way to connect without having to physically be in the same location, instructors can share resources and provide support for their students.
  • Increasing engagement. Video conferencing allows for teachers to encourage engagement using tools like screen sharing, chats, polling, breakout rooms, class reactions, and other tools.

Examples of video conferencing tools used in educational environments include Zoom, Skype, Google Meet through Google Classrooms, BlueJeans, FaceTime, Microsoft Teams, and others. [29] As of 2020, Zoom was listed as the most used video conferencing platform. [30] The use of these tools has seen a significant rise in usage overall due to a "greater emphasis for distance teaching and learning (DTL) and communication" due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic leading to a need for tools to make online learning accessible and possible. especially given the demands being made due to the COVID-19 pandemic. [31]

Learning Websites

Websites like Khan Academy, Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, and others are often used either to supplement learning or to serve as the actual "instructor" through programs made to further education. There are both free and paid options on many of these platforms. Some websites often serve as ways to introduce the gamified learning experience.


YouTube is often used in several types of digital learning methods explained above. The website serves as a video platform that provides access to videos for free. The website can be used for both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Educational videos are available to supplement instruction. Videos can also serve as a way to carry out a fully online learning experience, with the video or playlist of videos serving as the instructor. [32] With YouTube being available online, it allows for students to access it from anywhere, including both brick-and-mortar schools as well as from home or remotely by using a mobile device. YouTube is often incorporated into blended learning environments for its visual and audio learning properties and its availability. [33] Since no special equipment is needed other than a working internet connection and some sort of digital device, teachers are able to integrate the tool into classrooms and use the videos and resources provided on it. [32]


Ebooks, in pdf, epub, and other formats, are available for students to use so they are able to access information digitally. They can use technology like computers, phones, or e-readers like the Kindle and Nook to read materials without needing the physical copy. They are preferred by many due to them being cost effective. [34]

Reactions to Digital Learning

Digital learning has been met with both positive and negative reactions. The benefits and disadvantages of different types of digital learning are often debated and brought up and, as many aspects of digital learning are semi-recent developments, research and studies are still being done. Many results of these studies are used to support both sides of the debate.


One point brought up by those in favor of digital learning tools and systems is that they save money and cut costs for institutions. A paper written for The Center by the Executive Director of the Center for Academic Transformation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Carol A. Twigg) revealed that "thirty institutions reduced costs by about 40 percent on average, with a range of 20 percent to 84 percent." [35] Reasons listed for the cut costs include saving money on staffing by forgoing the need for staff to maintain physical classrooms, saving money on materials, and being able to employ alternative staff who may not have professional training but are able to provide support for students and supplement the online learning materials.

Another benefit mentioned is that digital learning is more conducive when it comes to the education of non-traditional students. For those who are parents, do not attend school full time, or reside in geographical areas where educational opportunities are limited, getting an education and a degree is made possible by going online.[36] As of 2010, internet access was available to over 70% of American households[37] and almost 80% of Canadian households[38]. Proponents of digital learning say that with the internet already being widely available and on the rise, using digital learning tools and technologies is becoming a possibility for more people than before. They believe this availability should be taken advantage of and used to the full extent.

Studies show that integrating technology with education led to improvements in "student-centric, cooperative and higher-order learning, writing skills, problem solving, and using technology."[39]

Technologically aided learning is also lauded for its accessibility, especially in regards to learners with disabilities. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, "specialized technology promotes independence and decreases the need for other support" [40] Tools like speech to text, word processing systems, headphones, and digital displays allow for students with disabilities to participate in their learning environments more than they are able to in traditional classrooms without technological tools there to provide accommodations. ‌


Opponents of technologically enhanced learning argue that it "does not guarantee effective learning" and can, in fact, stand in the way of effective learning and achieve the opposite result.[41] A book published by the committee on developments in the science of learning uses psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience to back up their claims that digital education is not conducive to actual learning. [42] They write that, despite the benefits of using technology such as the ones listed above, "Technologies do not guarantee effective learning, however. Inappropriate uses of technology can hinder learning— for example, if students spend most of their time picking fonts and colors for multimedia reports instead of planning, writing, and revising their ideas. And everyone knows how much time students can waste surfing the Internet."

In response to digital learning supporters, those with a negative opinion on the subject cite research that shows only 3% of people from low-income countries register for online courses. In addition, they point to the evidence that only 5-10% of these registrants complete the course.[43]

Overstimulation is also pointed to as a reason to resist incorporating technology into the educational sphere. Their claims are that students are being "wired for distraction" by technology, subjected to information overload, and easily distracted by the available sources of entertainment, data streams, social media apps, and other features available on the same tools they use for educational purposes.[44] Privacy is also cited as another reason to avoid digital learning. [45] Including name and date of birth, other data collected and stored about students include

  • browsing history
  • search terms they use
  • their location data
  • contact lists of the student
  • and other behavioral information.

This argument is especially touted by parents of underage students who disagree with the monetization of their children's information. They argue that despite their data being bought and sold to "further learning technologies," they believe the business of selling students' is unethical.[46]

Another argument made against digital learning is that it widens the digital divide. [47] They say gap between those who have access to the technology and resources and those who do not (due to reasons like socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, geographic location, gender, etc.) is widened by digital learning. They claim that those on the bottom of society, already lacking access to these tools, will be pushed down further as those who do have access are able to advance.


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