Debunked: four myths about online learning

Isolating? Boring? Not so fast.
Sarah Laing
Woman sitting on couch with computer with two kids playing on either side

Chances are, even before 2020 turned it into a ubiquitous topic of conversation, you had some ideas about online learning. Maybe you thought that learning via a computer screen would be hard to get into. Perhaps you liked the flexibility, but worried that you’d be left to fend for yourself if you had questions. Or—and this is the really honest one—you thought it’s just, well, inferior to studying the same subject matter the traditional way. 

Headshot of Dr. Neil Fassina smiling on campus
Dr. Neil Fassina

Athabasca University (AU) president Neil Fassina has heard all those objections—and many others particularly since the pandemic threw many people into online learning overnight. “It’s funny,” he laughs over video conference from the university’s HQ in Alberta, “it’s a hot topic now, but years ago I couldn’t get people to talk about it!” Starting as a mail-based learning experience (think videotapes of lectures sent via Canada Post) in 1970, AU went virtual in 1994, creating the world’s first online MBA, using dial up internet access and 56K modems. With more than 50 years in distance education (26 of them digitally focused), and upwards of 43,000 learners in any given year, AU is the Canadian expert in this space–so who better to bust some of its biggest myths? 

#1 It’s just watching pre-taped lectures

In other words, exactly like what happened in the old days when you missed a lecture at university, and the professor uploaded a lo-fi recording of the slides for you to watch afterwards. This is not even close to today’s reality, explains Neil Fassina. “True, purpose-built online learning is not just a digitization of what happens in person.” Instead, it’s higher education built for an online learner. It takes into account the fact that your attention span may wander when you’re sitting at your desk alone, and creates an interactive, engaging learning experience to keep you focused. For example: In a traditional lecture, your professor talks for an hour-and-fifteen minutes, says Fassina. That’s it. If you’re learning online, your professor might give a one minute intro to the topic–let’s say it’s maple syrup–and then you’d do a quick assessment to see how much you might already know about it. Then you might jump into a game that teaches you some of the fundamentals of maple syrup, then hear from the world’s foremost maple syrup expert before closing with a fireside chat with the CEO of a company that makes it. “In an hour and fifteen minutes, you’ve had about 19 different learning experiences,” says Fassina. 

#2 You’re just a faceless data point, floating out in space 

“The myth that online learning is learning alone needs to be dismantled,” says Fassina. “When it’s designed with an online learner in mind, it can be engaging, interactive and social.” The isolation of online learning is one of many people’s biggest fears or hesitations, and there’s a perception that it’s mostly transactional, and highly impersonal. This is something AU recognizes, and works to combat. “You’ve got an entire system working in the background that recognizes that you’re having that feeling,” says Fassina, pointing out that peer-to-peer and peer-to-prof interaction is built into the system. 

Take, for example, the fear that you’ll be missing out on those robust, lively seminar-room debates you see in the movies. Setting aside the fact that this is an idealized experience not often found in the 400-person lectures common at traditional universities, Fassina points out there’s actually an upside to learning online. “In a digital space, there’s much more equal opportunity for discussion,” he says, adding that those in-person debates tend to favour extroverts, and can exclude those with different learning abilities. “When you’re posting on a discussion board, or messaging the group via chat, it actually democratizes the conversation.” Nor are you not limited to rigid office hours if you do want to have a direct conversation with your instructor. “In a digital world, office hours are 24/7,” he says. “It might take time for your tutor to get back to you because of time zones, but it’s there all the time. You aren’t waiting a whole week for those office hours to come around again.” Fassina also points out that many learning cohorts choose to create their own Facebook groups, and find other ways of socializing and supporting each other virtually. 

#3 It’s only for super-disciplined, self-starters

There is some intrinsic motivation required for online learning–but it’s not all on you. “It’s a combination of the learner and the system,” says Fassina. “You have to create the time and dedication, but the system is also there to remind you.” For instance, if you start a course and then you go quiet, AU has technologies that message you, as well as real humans who reach out and see how you’re doing. Fassina says there are other ways you can set yourself up for success as an online learner, including setting aside a dedicated place to study, whether it’s a room in your house or the coffee shop down the road. To help you stay on track, Fassina suggests sharing your education journey with those around you. “If you tell your friends or family that you’re taking an online course, they’ll keep you accountable,” he says. There are also many resources to access if you need a nudge or some help – they are there to support your learning goals, from downloadables to coaching. 

#4 It’s a “second choice” learning experience

One of the ongoing perceptions around choosing an online learning experience over traditional higher education is that it’s somehow a lesser option, although that’s changing, says Fassina. “We’re seeing an evolution in online learning,” he explains. “At the creation of the medium, it was there to dismantle barriers,” to help people who chose an online course because of the flexibility it offered, or because they couldn’t physically get to a location. “Now, especially as more people grow up with ‘on demand’ everything else, it’s becoming a choice.” For a generation who live online anyway, this is just a natural extension of their online world. “It’s them saying, ‘I actually really like what online offers, and I’m going to make it my first choice.” 

Fassina only sees this trend growing, particularly during the pandemic. The online delivery approach doesn’t affect the quality of the learning. In fact, AU is home to eight research chairs and is one of only four comprehensive academic and research universities in Alberta.