Online Learning For Dummies
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Online learning is using the internet to learn. It is about connecting the learner to educational materials by way of the internet. Online learning can happen in a variety of forms and fashions, but the underlying use of the internet and its technologies are fundamental. Lessons, communication, and assessment (grading) all happen by way of the internet. The two major models for this communication and assessment are instructor-led and self-paced.

Instructor-led courses

An instructor-led course is just what you think it is: An instructor determines what happens with the content, pace of instruction, and evaluation. Here are a few distinguishing traits of this type of course, which is the most common type out there:
  • In an instructor-led course, students follow a distinct schedule, and the whole class works through the content at the same time. While you’re reading and completing activities for “module 2,” so is the rest of the class. Typically, you find the schedule posted as a calendar or within the class syllabus. If you’re a procrastinator, an instructor-led course can keep you on task.
  • Not only do you get to interact with your peers, but you also have regular communication with the instructor. The instructor is present and virtually “visible” by way of regular announcements and interaction in public discussions.
  • If youre enrolled in a synchronous course — real time, with a web conferencing component — it’s instructor-led. The instructor is present and “visible” by way of web conferencing software. This is common in business settings.

Be sure to read the regular announcements posted by the instructor. Doing so not only keeps you on task and on time but also helps you avoid looking silly by asking a question they may have already addressed.

You also see the instructor via private communication. As you complete assignments and turn them in, the instructor communicates with you and provides feedback. This may come via private email or the electronic grade book. This communication reminds you that the virtual classroom has a live instructor and that you aren’t alone.

  • You don’t see the whole course at one time. This fact may be one of the most distinctive features of an instructor-led course. Many instructors prefer to “time-release” the content according to when the students need it. In other words, if you’re in the fourth week of an eight-week course, you may not be able to see the content for weeks five and beyond. You see only the week you’re working on. This strategy keeps all students in the same place and prevents discussions from becoming disjointed and confusing.

If you find yourself in a course that uses the time-release method and you know in advance that you’ll be traveling, let your instructor know the dates you’ll be on the road. Ask whether it’s possible for you to view some of the content in advance so that you won’t fall behind if you experience technological difficulties getting connected to the internet.

The three basic components of an online course are content, evaluation, and practice. An instructor-led course is more likely than a self-paced course to have the practice component, because someone is available to check your homework and smaller assignments. Your learning can be evaluated by means other than traditional testing.

If you think about it, it takes the capacity of a real human to read someone’s essay and determine whether it makes sense. A computer can’t possibly evaluate that kind of assignment as well as an instructor can. If practicing what you’re learning is important to you, an instructor-led class is for you.

Sometimes online teachers are known as facilitators. In contrast to what you may think of as traditional education, with a professor lecturing and learners soaking up the information, a facilitator provides resources for learners to consider and then facilitates their understanding through a series of discussions or activities.

Although facilitation happens in traditional classrooms through face-to-face discussions, it takes on a special significance in online education. Typically, instructor-led courses require learners to interact with one another and everyone follows the same schedule, so they’re always aware that others are taking the course with them.

Not every opportunity to learn is tied to a formal program. If you’re taking a course by way of your local two-year college, we count that as formal. If you sign up for a four-week course by way of Udemy (an online self-paced education portal), that’s informal. Nevertheless, in both cases, you’re learning online.

In most cases, instructors are present in the online environment just as they are in a traditional one. However, what they do with their time in the environment might be a little different from what you would expect an instructor to do in a traditional classroom. Instead of lecturing, the instructor might post a series of narrated slides they created. Or, they might draw out additional responses in discussion rather than tell the class the answers.

Self-paced courses

In a self-paced course, you’re on your own to determine your schedule, so if you’re a self-starter, you may find this type of course to your liking. The content, or what you are to learn, is predetermined. When you access the course, you usually find that it has been divided into modules or units. You click on the first unit, read the content, and move through the course at your own pace. You can spend more time in the challenging areas and breeze through those that are easier for you.

In the business world, self-paced learning is the most common form of online education. A lot of corporate training is delivered by way of web-based programs that look similar to PowerPoint slides, sometimes with audio or video attached. At the end of the presentation, you typically find a self-test worked into the program. As the learner, you make the decisions and control the pace of the instruction with a simple click of the mouse.

In a business setting, self-paced courses are often prepackaged with simple software interfaces. The window loaded on your screen might look like the one here.

The interface of a typical self-paced course. Source: “Leadership: Effective Critical Skills,” PD Online course, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. ©2009 ASCD. Reproduced with permission. Learn more about ASCD at ASCD® and PD Online™ are trademarks of ASCD.

The interface of a typical self-paced course

These courses have navigational tools to help you move through the content. You’ll probably see arrows at the bottom to help you advance and a menu on the left. You use these tools to help you move through the content at your own pace.

In a self-paced course, you work at your own pace with little or no instructor input. In an instructor-led course, you follow an established schedule and interact with the other students and the instructor.

Even self-paced courses often have instructors assigned to monitor what’s happening. What you want to know is what that person does. Will you have regular contact throughout the course or just at the beginning or end? Can you call with questions? When you identify a potential self-paced course, see whether the instructor has an email address available and ask. If no instructor is assigned to the course, be wary.

What about evaluation? How does the person in charge know that you learned the content? In the business world, most often this comes via traditional testing. After you read or listen to a portion of the content, you take a short quiz that’s embedded in the program. These quizzes test your ability to recall or apply what you’ve just heard.

Is the course instructor-led or self-paced?

How do you know the difference between an instructor-led course and a self-paced course? This is where you need to drill down to course descriptions. See whether they include terms like instructor-led. If nothing is mentioned but the name of the instructor is listed, email that person and ask whether the course is self-paced. This information helps you succeed because you know what to expect. It also makes you look downright savvy in the instructor’s eyes.

Sometimes schools don’t mention that the courses are instructor-led, and a lot of students sign up thinking they’ll be taking independent-study courses. It’s worth asking about before you register so that you don’t waste time or money.

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