A Defining Moment for Online Learning


Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer, Online Learning Consortium

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The COVID-19 pandemic has created a defining moment for online learning. With physical campus shutdowns, many faculty have had to rapidly pivot to offer their courses remotely. This is, of course, not a true online experience. Instead, what we are seeing is a mix of methods that allow instruction to continue, albeit in a less than optimal way. I, like many others, have cautioned that what we are experiencing now is remote learning and should not be equated with online learning. This is leading many to ask, “What is online learning?” 

I have heard many definitions for online learning and I believe it continues to evolve. Bates (2016) provided his personal definition as “any form of learning conducted partly or wholly over the Internet” (para. 5). This is a commonly used definition. However, I think there is a need to refine this definition, especially now, because online learning as we know it is not going to be successful unless we create a student-centric learning environment that focuses on opportunities for engagement, interaction, and includes strong connections to the learning. Sener (2015) shared that online learning is used to facilitate those interactions. 

In the current environment, we are seeing many novices to online learning making the transition to offering their courses remotely. This is typically happening with little to no training on best practices for creating an effective online learning environment. Many instructors are using the internet in some way to deliver content, but they do not have the knowledge and skills to effectively make use of all that online has to offer, such as robust and thoughtful discussions with participation from all students, potential to create a more inclusive and accessible environment through the use of universal design principles, and the ability to integrate a variety of diverse technology tools to better support the learner.  

Any comparison of learning in this environment to online learning that has been thoughtfully designed around the student experience in this modality would fall woefully short of expectations. It would be like saying that any learning that occurs face-to-face in a college classroom is good teaching. We know that is just not true, and it all comes down to how you construct the classroom experience.

Back to my original question, “What is online learning?” Here is how I would define it:

Online learning uses the internet as a delivery modality to offer thoughtfully designed, quality, student-focused learning experiences, built on proven best practices that create effective interactions between learners, peers, instructors, and content. 

When we look at online learning from this broader perspective, we get a more comprehensive picture of the complexities that make online learning a dynamic modality. So, while the current use of remote learning tools is not the ideal, it does not mean we can’t be better prepared for the next natural disaster or major crisis. COVID-19 created a scenario for us that many thought was not possible in our modern world. Unfortunately, the reality of the modern world is that these types of situations are likely to occur again. It is our responsibility to apply the lessons we’re learning during the current crisis, and take the steps necessary to advance the quality of the digital learning experience for students (and teachers) before the next disruption rocks our world.  



Bates, T. (2016, July 15). Online learning for beginners. 1. What is online learning? https://www.tonybates.ca/2016/07/15/online-learning-for-beginners-1-what-is-online-learning/

Sener, J. (2015, July 7). Updated e-learning definitions. https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/updated-e-learning-definitions-2/

Dr Jennifer Mathes

Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D
Chief Executive Officer, Online Learning Consortium

Jennifer is responsible for the development of OLC’s long-range goals, strategies, plans and policies. She also provides leadership in researching and planning strategic initiatives, special projects and partnerships that align with OLC’s mission, vision and goals. Dr. Mathes has nearly 20 years of experience in both public and private higher education where she has served as a faculty member and an academic leader.

She holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she wrote her dissertation on “Predictors for Student Success in Online Education.” She also has earned a Master of Science degree in Business Education and a Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications from Illinois State University.

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