I’ve had online learning on the brain lately: I’m taking a summer course this year—part three of a three-part specialist certification—and although I took the first two parts online over the past three years, I actually hoped to take it in person this time.

My last online experience was mediocre at best, and since I’m not doing camp this summer, I wanted a social activity. So, imagine my surprise when I learned that both of the two local universities that might run the course are offering only online versions!

How ironic that online learning is touted as this big money saver, and then they lose a local customer by not offering the live deal—I figured if I had to take it online anyway, I may as well go with the non-local university where I did the first two parts, since they have all my transcripts and info already and since I know their system by now.

Days after completing my registration, this article came my way via the alumni magazine of my alma mater, Queen’s University. Titled “Online Learning Comes of Age,” it profiles students taking online courses for various reasons: a mature student who plugs away at his course work via distance learning so he can continue to work at his job while he studies; an undergraduate who ‘economized’ during his final year by moving back in with his parents in another city and completing his remaining courses online; and people like me who take summer courses to upgrade their skills and enhance their professional portfolio.

The article points out that distance education is not as new a phenomenon as people make it out to be. Queen’s University, in fact, has had a distance education department since 1888! It’s only the format that has changed. I’m taking a hideous online training that involves a seemingly bottomless pit of video I must watch. (I don’t learn best this way, and it’s been torture.)

online learningAnd the University of Western Ontario, where I’ll be taking my summer course, as in the past supplemented the standard assignments with a participation component where you must post to a message board a minimum of every three days in order to pass the course. I don’t know what changes they’ve made in the two years since my last course, but I do know that the welcome email said there is no textbook for this one. The course material will be supplemented by ‘online readings’ which will presumably be provided later.

Another interesting take on online learning came my way via this article on Coursera, purveyor of open online courses for the masses. They are proposing using these ‘massive open’ courses as a way for live universities to save money via strategic partnership:

“For some partners, Coursera could enable various campuses within a system to pool resources, which could be particularly helpful as state schools face tighter budgets. For example, one campus could create an effective Introduction to Biology class, another could create an Introduction to Psychology and the courses could be shared by students across the system.”

Personally, I have yet to explore Coursera’s offerings much—I have limited my online course-taking to stuff for which I can get real-world credit. But I do see the appeal in developing these types of systems further. I have not been too thrilled with the online courses I’ve taken so far because I’ve found it’s hard to get the level just right. One was painfully simple, another was hampered by the worst online textbook in the world, and a third was torture because it was taught completely in French and I hadn’t yet learned how to make accented characters on the computer.

I’m not sure I’d want to take an entire degree this way, but I can see students building their degrees on a mix of efficient online offerings and more hands-on in-person stuff. It might bring the cost of a degree back down to manageable levels, and it will end the days of students not getting into a course they want to take simply because of the lack of a space in the building.

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"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."


  1. This past year, I underwent a self-guided summer learning session through Udemy, that I felt was highly useful. I have to agree with the author that online courses, do not produce the same life altering experiences that in-class sessions do. I am a big fan of continuing education, and even feel that online classes are best suited towards meeting these goals. I should mention explicitly, however, that solely relying on online courses for an undergraduate degree is akin to: “eating a hamburger without the beef.” The substance of what you do, is substantially mitigated.

  2. Since 1888, wow! Who would of thought..

    What bothers me at most online courses is the lack of interaction with the teacher, but some platforms like Udemy, encourage students to ask questions and instructors to upload quizzes and exercise files that enrich the experience and help you learn better.

    I recently created a course on SEO – it’s geared for beginners and if you’d like you can try it free until September using FREE4REVIEW coupon here: https://www.udemy.com/seo-course-for-beginners/ It’s true articles must be written for the readers in mind, but some search engine love certainly doesn’t hurt

  3. Online learning is a vast topic so we’re essentially retracing the steps of the six blind persons trying to describe an elephant. I’ve only been working on this since 1988 so I’m 100 years late to the party. Nonetheless, I continue to feel my way toward what I hope will be a better understanding of teaching and learning at a distance.
    Most recently, I taught an experimental course attended by college and university professors on producing video for online learning. Apropos your wish for greater interaction with classmates and professor, we used a conferencing system (Bb Collaborate) to have regular online meeting to discuss the homework assignments that everyone had access to. Participants could also use this system for ad hoc get togethers with or without me. This was the synchronous part of the course.
    The asynchronous part of the course was done in iTunes U which is free to anyone who wants to develop a course, even those unaffiliated with a university. You do need to have Apple gear though. The primary content was contained in six eTextbooks that I wrote expressly for the course. (Note to self: next time write the textbooks before class gets started) The eTextbooks were created with iBooks Author so contained many video clips and interactive elements in addition to text. The hope was that using text to frame the video would avoid that “drowning in video” feeling. Besides, video is not always the best way to make a point.
    At the end we had a film festival with awards and all that.
    I hope that I get the chance to teach this course again so that I can work on making it better.

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