Mindset Matters: It’s Learning Online, Not Online Learning

Higher Ed Sumer 20 / August 23, 2020

– Dr. Thomas Mennella –

Sometimes you have an epiphany at the unlikeliest of times. My massive realization came while presenting as part of a panel of experts during AALAS’s Second Wave Summit in July. I think you’ll agree this single thought illuminates a path through perhaps the biggest problem we all faced during the overnight transition to online learning. Completely unprepared, unscripted and off the cuff, I described pandemic-learning as “it’s learning online, not online learning. Decide what you want your students to learn first, and then plan how to deliver that online. Not the other way around.” Read on to learn how this simple phrase – it’s learning online, not online learning – can be used to frame all of your preparation for the upcoming academic year.


Before the pandemic, I’d been using Flipped Learning for years, and, as a result, my courses were hybrid by necessity. I leveraged my LMS (Canvas) extensively with robust online pre-work for my students to complete remotely, at home, in their individual space. Class time was used for group work, including activities that refortified learning and comprehension. When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, we all scrambled to migrate our instruction online. For some, this transition was challenging, and for others, it was very, very challenging. But it was easy for no one.  


Was my transition to online learning smooth? Easy? “Clean”? HA! Far from it. But it was seamless, in the sense that everything my students were used to doing before the pandemic they were still doing in the midst of it. There was continuity, familiarity and structure. These were invaluable for my students and me as we faced unknowns and uncertainty like never before.


The how of my transition to online learning is not worth sharing here. What worked for me may not work for you; each class is different. What is important is the method of planning for online instruction. My first priority was recreating the ‘magic’ of our classroom work – the group space – online. This required me to sit down and reflect on the why of my group space activities: What did I want my students to get out of each experience? What were the learning objectives of each activity? What was the point? Once I had identified those, only then did I begin to consider how to recreate that experience in the LMS. It’s learning online, not online learning. I reflected on, planned around, and was driven by the learning – and then I designed for remote learning, not the other way around. 


But some others have gone in a different direction. In speaking with and hearing from instructors from around the world, I hear an emphasis on the online aspect of online learning far too often and too little attention being spent on the ‘learning.’ The two missteps I hear most often is trying too hard to recreate the classroom online (e.g., lecturing over Zoom instead of lecturing in the classroom) or trying too hard to innovate for online in a hurry (e.g., changing everything about a course in an effort to use every bell and whistle in your LMS’s arsenal; every ‘best practice’ that’s found online). The common thread here is “trying too hard.” Remote instruction is not face-to-face instruction. Lecturing over Zoom reduces student engagement and compromises their learning. And over-innovating brings with it a sense of academic clutter, increases the chances that things won’t work and may overload/overwhelm your students.  


I don’t know how you should teach your courses online. I don’t know what will work best for you or your students. I don’t know your passions, strengths or approaches. And so, I will not presume that I know what’s best for you. All I know is that ‘it’ is learning online, not online learning and how you plan for remote instruction is critical. The best practice is to focus on the learning first, and then figure out how to accomplish that learning in your online environment. So as this summer winds down and you begin to prepare in earnest for an uncertain academic year that promises to be ‘normalish’ and fluid, consider following these guidelines to build a learning online experience for your students:


  1. What are each week’s learning objectives? What do your students need to learn to move on to later topics?
  2. How will you chunk the artifacts that they need to accomplish that learning (readings, videos, review, practice, assessment)?
  3. Which of those activities can students complete on their own? Which will need your guidance and coaching? Where is group work needed?
  4. How will each of those artifacts be built or implemented in your LMS? What tools will you need for that implementation?


Note that, in the guidelines above, learning is considered at Step 1 while online brings up the rear in Step 4. Little did I know that, when put on the spot as a Second Wave Summit panelist, I’d articulate something that was so deeply rooted in my teaching philosophy: learning first, all else second. You’re going to be fine. Your students are going to be fine. It’s going to be an amazing year because you are an educator. Your specialty is facilitating learning, and it’s learning online, not the other way around.

Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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