#remotelearning: Understanding the Current Environment and Moving Forward Effectively


Tanya Joosten, Ph.D.

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This is the first in a short series focused on topics addressing key issues for transitioning from emergency remote teaching to continuing to respond to the COVID-19 crisis while providing high-quality online learning. There are many challenges – and opportunities – that have resulted from the events of recent weeks. We’ll be covering a few of those here, and invite you to join in the conversation.  

Technical vector Illustration explaining how cloud computing enhancing our ability to learn and work anywhere. Isometric layout explaining the principle of teleworking at home through the cloud.

Postsecondary education just moved everything online in a very short amount of time and rarely used research driven effective practices in that move.  Faculty and instructors were led by the urgent need to figure out a solution to not being able to meet face-to-face, a desire and comfort to easily replicate their face-to-face instruction in the online environment, and the ease of use and access to synchronous or real time video web tools, such as Zoom.  Rightly so.  Instead of going to a classroom for an hour, three times a week, or going to a classroom for three hours once a week, faculty and their students clicked on a link and – presto.  They were all together, virtually, in real-time.  Problem solved.

Yet, there are decades of research and practice that illustrate failures of this approach to teaching at a distance or remote.  Some individuals have spent their careers developing online instructional and learning models, identifying effective active learning pedagogies for online courses, learning that technology is not the primary driver when considering what to do with your course to offer it online, realizing that online is just a mode and that instructional approach and pedagogy are the key factors that influence effectiveness of a course within the mode, and conducting research to provide evidence as to what works and what doesn’t to guide practice.  So, when the world quickly moves postsecondary education online, individuals in the field of online education are quick to note this difference.  

It is sort of like if all of the scientists in the world were asked to solve the pandemic and those without any experience in virology or epidemiology started implementing solutions without being informed by the theoretical, scientific, or practical knowledge of the phenomenon. 

Evidence of the discussion of this noted difference can be found on Twitter.  In early March, several of us who work in the field of online education in one capacity or another were discussing the need for another term.  We had decided on remote learning rather than online learning.  We started using the hashtag #remotelearning.

In addition to this discussion and agreement on Twitter, others had identified new names as well.  Others were calling it #remoteinstruction on Twitter and beyond, in part because postsecondary ed tends to focus on instruction rather than teaching and learning.  Melissa Woo, Michigan State University, had shared that they had landed on the term remote teaching already indicating some forward thinking universities felt the need to differentiate as well.  Daniel Stanford, DePaul University,  put together a document that aggregated university and college academic continuity plans and associated public facing web pages illustrating the varied terminology in remote learning, remote teaching, remote instruction, keep teaching, and more traditional terms.  Regardless of the term, the community noted the division, and national organizations did the same.  

One of those groups that quickly noticed this division between 1.) teaching at a distance or remotely as a response to an urgent need, and 2.) thoughtfully identifying effective practices to design a course and instruct online providing students a quality learning experience – was the newly formed National Council for Online Education (NCOE).  The organization includes several key organizations that have been involved in online education over the years, including Online Learning Consortium (OLC), Quality Matters (QM), University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), and WCET (the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies).  NCOE released a joint statement on March 12th, 2020, with a request “Don’t judge the effectiveness of online learning based solely on the outcomes of face-to-face courses migrated online in an emergency” (para 10) and advised readers to “[a]cknowledge differences in face-to-face courses migrating online in an emergency vs. courses designed to be online” (para 5).  Okay, lots of important people in the field felt that there needed to be differentiation, including in language or terminology use, and it related to effectiveness.  

Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust, and Bond (2020, March 27th) soon after shared an expanded argument as to why the difference is so important in a pertinent publication by another key organization who has supported online learning efforts through the years, EDUCAUSE.  Hodges et al. (2020) elaborate on why remote teaching should not be categorized with online learning.  One key point they make is that “‘Online learning’ will become a politicized term that can take on any number of meanings depending on the argument someone wants to advance” (para 3).  They continue by discussing how the inadequacies of remote learning could be confused as online learning creating negative perceptions of online learning in an area that already is battling a stigma and discuss evaluating remote teaching. It is a good read for all of us wrapping our head around the differences and areas for evaluation.

As I always say, there is good online and bad online just as there is good face-to-face and bad face-to-face (f2f). As Hodges et al. (2020) point out, online and f2f cannot be inherently bad or good.  

As a communication technology scholar, f2f and online are simply modes of communicating and interacting.  The effectiveness would be based on how the mode is used (or how interaction within the mode is structured), for what tasks or purpose, with what technologies or media characteristics, within what contexts or systems, and for what audience or agents.  Communication scholars have been examining mode differences for 100 years or more.  

So what is one key to effective learning in an online mode?  Faculty development programs, including workshops and seminars, help faculty and instructors prepare to address the areas of quality and effectiveness.  I was listening to Kelvin Thompson from University of Central Florida recently discuss the difference between online and remote instruction in a recorded webinar  (available on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrLYOKiAF5M).  Thompson identified several key instructional differences for your consideration.  For more on that, he and our colleague Patsy Moskal have an upcoming post in this series.  

When individuals and organizations use broad strokes to generalize online learning, there are potential implications, including misinformed national and local policy, lack of investment of funding and resources, and decreased access and equality for certain student populations.           


Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T. & Bond, A. (2020, March 27).  The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning.  EDUCAUSE Review.  Retrieved from: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning

National Council for Online Education (2020, March 12). Joint Response Regarding COVID-19 and Advice on Transitioning Face-to-Face Courses Online.  Retrieved from: https://www.nationalcouncil.online/news/joint-response-regarding-covid-19-and-advice-on-transitioning-face-to-face-courses-online

Thompson, K. (2020, April 12), Online and Remote Instruction Quality.  Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrLYOKiAF5M

Tanya Joosten, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist, the Director of Digital Learning Research and Development, co-PI and co-Director of the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements (DETA), and advisor to the Provost on innovation projects at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.  She is nationally recognized for her work and guides strategic digital learning efforts on her campus and nationally. Dr. Joosten is a member of the Board of Directors for the Online Learning Consortium.


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