Have IT Your Way
with Online Learning

© 1998, Jamie McKenzie,
All Rights Reserved
A version of this article first appeared in
eSchool News, October, 1998

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When it comes to technology, we need big changes in how we offer professional development, and we need them fast.

When we see little return on investment, we look for change.

When it comes to technology, we need big changes in how we offer professional development, and we need them fast.

We are hastening toward crisis as thousands of schools install networks. Installations completed, these schools are prone to repeat the mistakes of the past 20 years. They offer training and classes in modes that have been discredited. Despite a documented track record of failure and minimal impact, we continue to deliver staff development that does not work.1

Fortunately, a promising new strategy is now available to support the learning of teachers in these newly networked schools. Online learning may well become the delivery system of choice for corporations and schools alike.


----------- Driving Forces --------------

To appreciate the import of the new strategies, note the context and the driving forces that brought us to a place where online learning has become especially attractive.

A Poor Track Record

Even though we have been trying to bring technology into classrooms for two decades, much of the staff development has been ineffective. The track record is unimpressive. Most reports show a failure to penetrate daily practice in an integrated manner. Educational technologies remain tangential to most classrooms. Many teachers and schools earnestly seek new models that might lead to more impressive results.

Too Much Training

The professional development offerings have been slim, at best, and are usually dominated by a training model rather than a learning model. We run folks through a linear sequence designed to introduce them to all the neat functions they can perform with the tool at hand. We may even offer practice. What we rarely do is show them how the tool might improve student learning in social studies, science or math.

The training model also suffers from the way it treats the learners. The trainer takes most of the responsibility. The participant makes few choices and exercises little autonomy. The workshop leader determines the pacing. There is little customization. "One size fits all."

Too Much Technology

For too long we have emphasized how to use the technology. We have shown teachers the features of software applications but left out the most important issue of all . . . how to use the technology in support of student learning, thinking and problem solving.

For too long we have trained teachers to use technology for technology's sake, as if good spreadsheet skills were an important component of good classroom instruction. It turns out that spreadsheets can help us crunch complex number sets, but "crunching" only helps teachers in their classrooms if number "crunching" is part of the curriculum.

Resource Issues

Adults grow increasingly impatient with sitting in classes. They seek other pathways and methods to develop skills and competencies . . . delivery systems to suit their busy life styles. They look for learning that can take place on the run, at any time and in just about any place. No more judging progress by counting the hours of seat time. Competency based learning is rapidly replacing the old model.

In competency based learning, the learner persists until the concept or skill is mastered before moving on. Pretests protect against relearning material already mastered. Post-tests certify when it is time to move forward.


Web browsing programs such as Netscape or Internet Explorer provide support for a new kind of learning. The central metaphor for this approach is "learning as journey." Web pages provide a series of steps for the journey while suggesting side trips and excursions. In addition to enjoying a rich menu of choices, learners control the pacing and customize the experience to match skill levels and style preferences.

-------------- Examples --------------------

Online learning is emergent. While quite a few software companies are rushing products forward to support the development of online learning for corporations and higher education, K-12 examples are just now appearing.

Web Quests

The WebQuest site funded by PacBell provides online resources that show teachers how to construct their own web-rich research units. No need to attend class. Visit for all the tools and skills you need to build your own unit. [screen shot?]


Formed by early Microsoft founder, Paul Allen, Asymetrix is a high tech think tank that has created a product called the Librarian. Librarian greets a learner when logging onto a web site and helps them complete their own personal learning journey. The software "interface" keeps track of progress, provides a rich menu of choices and offers tests at key check points when the learner is ready to demonstrate competence or understanding.

While much of the Asymetrix effort is focused upon corporate and higher ed learners, the company has its eyes on the K-12 learner, developing prototypes to support Advanced Placement courses, for example. [screen shot?]

From Now On

During the past 24 months I have been creating online professional development modules for school districts and several of these can be found at

1) Module-Maker - A self-instructional, online course showing how to create student online research modules.

2) Bilingual Online - Creating Online Resources to Support Bilingual and ESL Programs

3) 500 Miles - Setting Up Year Long Research Projects for Students

OZ - Australia

In part because of the huge distances separating cities and developed regions in Australia, distance learning has flourished.

The Center for Teacher Librarianship at Charles Sturt University have provided virtual classrooms using a combination of e-mail and MUDDs.

There is also an excellent Australian e-mail newsletter devoted to online learning: The ONLINE-ED newsletter.

--------------- Prime Characteristics ----------------------

While there are quite a few attempts to exploit Web-based strategies for adult learning, many of these are poorly disguised old ventures dressed up for the Internet. In order to distinguish between the more promising and the least valuable of these efforts, it pays to apply criteria that filter out the tired old models in favor of dynamic new designs.


Online learning relies upon modules to provide "chunks" of learning that eventually fit together into a comprehensive and coherent whole. The modules work a bit like LEGO blocks, connecting and interlocking as the learner "constructs" a new skill and knowledge base.

Modules work especially well because they offer the busy adult an opportunity to pick up new ideas and competencies in "bite size" pieces well suited to the highly pressurized life styles of most teachers.

In many instances, modules can stand on their own. In some cases, as when skills must be built upon prior skills, a particular sequence of modules may be required.

Linked Resources

Thanks to the Web and other networked electronic resources, the developer of online modules can quite easily enrich the learning by linking participants to great treasures. The older technologies, because they often relied on physical objects, were necessarily less generous in their offerings.


Formal classrooms allowed for little exploration. Our teachers often did the sorting, sifting and selecting for us. Information was delivered already packaged like processed cheese.

Online experiences encourage the learner to roll up sleeves and get messy. The theory is that knowledge sticks when the learner is able to delve fully into the material.

Curiosity and great questions drive exploration. The better the questions . . . the deeper and more engaging the exploration. The basic goal is to make sense of the most important concepts and generalizations, to "chew" on these new understandings until the learner can "digest" them.


The purpose of online learning should be clearly stated up front. It is not "seat time." In most cases online learning is meant to equip the participant with skills, attitudes and new understandings, all of which may be measured.


The journey metaphor captures the dominant theme of independence and choice. While the destination may be chosen for us, the best online learning allows us considerable choice regarding the path we may follow.

The route may wander and weave about as much as a river meandering through a delta, seemingly lost but intent upon reaching the sea. Learning of simple skills may be structured, but the development of conceptual understanding often requires a less linear route.

------------------ Advantages -------------------

Online learning has dramatic advantages over the delivery systems that we have tried and found lacking in the past.

Learning vs. Teaching

The prevalent emphasis upon teaching will shift to learning. We will have less "sage on the stage" and more "guide on the side." Online learning is especially suited to this shift, as control passes from teacher to learner. No more "leave the driving to us." It's time to take the wheel and the gearshift firmly in hand. Time to steer our own path, teaching ourselves as we move on down the road.

Independent of Time & Place

For too many years many folks have acted as if all learning must occur within a rectangular space with rows of seats or tables. We are beginning to see new delivery systems that are much less dependent upon formal schedules and spaces. The classroom may occupy less and less of our time during the next century. Learning takes place in our minds, not in classrooms, and our minds can perform this work in many different locations . . . whether it be alongside a stream, in a museum, or online.

This is welcome news to teachers who find they have little "wiggle room" in their busy lives to travel an hour to sit in some brick building.


The learner decides just how fast to proceed and what route to take toward competency. There are many choices and little outside pressure. Online learning puts responsibility on the learner. Ready to sprint? Then sprint. Eager to stroll? Then stroll.


Given the richness of offerings made possible with online learning, each learner can build an experience to match preferences and appetites. The availability of Web resources vastly increases the options available as learners may take Web excursions to enjoy paintings or photographs or electronic books from some of the great museums, libraries, archives and collections of the world.


What matters is skill and understanding. One moves forward on the journey when able to prove competency or knowledge. Check points along the path require periodic demonstration of ability before movement is permitted. As part of this approach, no one is required to waste time on topics, skills or concepts previously mastered.

No heroes

Online learning can produce great results without heroic staff developers, charismatic presenters or especially talented trainers. Properly designed, these experiences allow for a high degree of independence. While the learning is often well served by dialogue, no teacher or leader need be present. Quality results are achieved without the tremendous expense associated with "train the trainer" models.


Even though online learning provides many more choices for learners, they may also deliver a uniform level of quality control through the assessment measures built into the journey. No one moves forward unless they can show they have attained a solid level of mastery.

Cost Effective

While launching the original version of an online learning offering may prove somewhat costly, the price per participant declines rapidly as more and more participants are allowed to move through the lessons without the need of further lesson development and with little need for costly instructors. There will certainly still be tutors and teachers, but they will be playing more of a guiding and supporting role than previously.


This article was first published in eSchool News, October, 1998


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