Online Courses are not textbooks

Online Courses are not textbooks

Coffee and A Book by @sincerelymedia (Unsplash)

As many of us move towards the reality of teaching online, potentially for a longer duration than we ever expected to, it’s important to consider what an online course actually is.

In the 1990s when online learning was new, online courses were considered artefacts – something to create – that required technical expertise. Designing and developing online learning experiences amounted to hard-coding a website and designing its navigational structure from scratch. Love them or hate them, Learning Management Systems were created to assist instructors in this task, by removing some of the technical skills necessary to create a course with varying degrees of success.

Over time, LMS’s and their philosophical successors, the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) removed this barrier further, so that entire courses, including learning materials, formative learning activities, summative assessments and classroom management tools could all be handled by the instructor, albeit with some training.

As a trained learning designer and instructor, I’ve heard many in leadership positions over the years continue to refer to online courses as something that is akin to a textbook – an artefact to be created and disseminated to students. This notion of an online course as a textbook hasn’t been the reality for almost three decades, yet it still persists.

Perpetuating the myth that an online course is something to be authored is misrepresentative of the work involved in designing a course or learning experience, and speaks to an aged view of teaching and learning itself. It can lead to a misallocation of support resources, a lack of much-needed professional development for instructors, and a misunderstanding of how to support student learning.

What’s in a book?

When you think about a book and how we as individuals engage with it, it is a largely lonely and passive experience. We as individuals hold it, turn the pages, interpret and read every word in different ways becuase we all have different experiences. Reading can be a social endeavour, with many readers discussing a book with friends and family either when we read it, or perhaps afterwards. In some circumstances, book clubs and reading circles, allow for books to be a more social experience, however the this is usually a unidirectional means of information transfer, meaning the author is simply spitting information at the reader, with no back and forth.

Textbooks are more often than not, an overpriced collection of chapters either written by many authors on the same topic with no cohesive or laddered structure, or they are written by a select few experts who scaffold learners over many chapters to give them novel information they may or may not have already acquired.

All in all, engaging with a book or textbook is a very passive experience. While some textbooks now provide multimedia materials and online quizzes and homework assignments, a spade is still a spade, and this work is rarely done collaboratively. While it’s true that we read, we study information, absorbing it as best we can and perhaps make notes for ourselves in an attempt to integrate this new information into our existing structures of knowledge and understanding.

A book does not give us feedback. A book does not challenge us through sharing multiple perspectives (unless that is the topic of the book, of course). A book does not let us ask its author questions. A book can change our outlook on something or transform us, but this is wholly up to our own interpretations of the information we passively absorb.

A book is written and produced to be static, unless of course a new edition comes out 2 years later with minor changes and an increased price tag.

What’s in a course?

Researchers have, for many years, explored learning design – the practice of designing learning experiences as well as the artefacts that come out of the process as a means to document and share these designed learning experiences. This area of research explores the processes involved in developing learning experiences, noting that the processes involved in such an endeavour are more akin to design fields such as architecture and engineering, with creativity, logical and critical thinking and design thinking playing a critical role.

A course, when well designed, is not a passive experience, but an active one – in which learners are given a physical or virtual space to explore and engage with new ideas together.

This is a living space, that allows learners to rewrite narratives that have been previously written in static form. In the 21st century, the notion of ‘learning objects’ is now a distant memory, being replaced by discussions, live chats, video, GIFs, annotated web sites, interactive eBooks, mini-games, peer feedback and review, instructor videos, shared notes, shared and collaborative documents and many other engaging activities. Even the use of web 2.0 technologies such as blogs and wikis are now considered passé by many educators. Learners are now given more agency over their learning experience, by becoming co-creators of their own knowledge, and co-constructors of their understanding of new concepts.

The courses of 2020 are living, breathing, learning spaces that foster constant community building, engagement and dare I say it, fun.

A textbook, by comparison, cannot be rewritten by its reader, and is wholly owned and under the control of its authors and publishers.

Teaching from a textbook?

It used to be common for a textbook to BE a course. The instructor would use the textbook as a schedule of topics, cover these topics and assess learner understanding of these topics from papers and/or exams. It’s possible that this teaching style is where the notion of online course as textbook came from – deferring pedagogy to a collection of pages that sometimes had a teacher’s edition with activities and assessments, and sometimes didn’t.

As we learned more about the underlying factors that lead to learning, a focus from content knowledge to problem solving, and skill-building has taken place. Without an emphasis on knowledge transfer, courses could then grow beyond the basic information dump and exam model to something completely different. This change has not been universal, however.

While it’s true that many instructors teach the way they were taught due to a lack of pedagogical training, or a lack of human or other support needed for the design of robust learning experiences for their students, COVID-19 has highlighted, among many other things, the value of these approaches.

The nature in which we engage with the world through shared ownership, shared responsibility and shared and intersecting communities is now misaligned in many ways with how learners are taught in many contexts. Our goal should be to ensure that learning experiences represent the world in which they are situated, not a world where we engaged with information in an isolated and passive way.

A different mindset

Youtube videos, ad-hoc instructional videos, social media and memes are all valid ways of learning. The notion that a course is something to be written and set in stone for a few years, then, passively absorbed and learned from by individuals needs to change. To perpetuate that an online course is nothing more than a list of readings, collected or authored, within the titles of 3 summative assessments and no described learning activities does not fully capture the design of a learning experience and does not represent contemporary practices, current research findings and student needs when it comes to learning in an technology-enabled environment.

A course is not simply a collection of words, pictures, and videos.

A course is a learning experience and the space designed specifically for that experience. It is intentionally designed, adapted and one that evolves over time.

A path forward

Those in leadership positions who are charged with stewarding collected courses, degrees, programs and certificates in all contexts should allow the staff hired to support instructors to lead efforts in this area from the ground up.

A priority should be made to shift away from a paradigm of working with instructors in a factory model where online courses are treated as projects to work on, much like a publisher editing and printing a book.

Instead, providing professional development opportunities in the basics of learning science and theory, facilitation, principles of technology-enabled and online learning, and common tools used to design learning experiences can be a good start. Through these new literacies, and continual consultation with expert support staff, learning experiences in online and other technology-enabled spaces can finally evolve beyond the textbook.

It should also be noted that units that support online learning should probably not have ‘technology’ in their name anymore. Such a convention may reinforce the aged notion that technology-enabled learning requires technical skills. Instead, a focus on teaching, learning, pedagogy and all orbiting topics should be the focus now. Issues such as student privacy, accessibility, inclusivity and equity are not technical skills, and are now woven into most designed learning experiences.

This is design and knowledge work, not factory and typesetting work. One is the past, the other, the future. It’s time we let go of the concept of ‘authoring’ an online course.


  • Kieran Forde
    Nov 4, 2020 at 2:22 pm Reply

    That second last paragraph is a belter Stoo.

    “Instead, a focus on teaching, learning, pedagogy and all orbiting topics should be the focus now.”

    In the rush to move teaching and learning online, much work involved an attempt to simply transfer and replicate what was done F2F into the online format so that “business as usual” might continue. In many cases, the pedagogical approach was also simply transferred and applied to a setting where it did not work – square peg, round hole.

    We’ve transitioned through the scramble of 𝘁𝗿𝗶𝗮𝗴𝗲 𝘁𝗲𝗮𝗰𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗴 (March-Sept) through to 𝗽𝗮𝗻𝗱𝗲𝗺𝗶𝗰 𝗶𝗻𝗳𝗼𝗿𝗺𝗲𝗱 𝗽𝗲𝗱𝗮𝗴𝗼𝗴𝘆 (Sept -Dec) and, as your piece says, we are hopefully looking at 𝗽𝗮𝗻𝗱𝗲𝗺𝗶𝗰 𝘁𝗿𝗮𝗻𝘀𝗳𝗼𝗿𝗺𝗲𝗱 𝗽𝗲𝗱𝗮𝗴𝗼𝗴𝘆y in 2021 where what were once considered technical skills are simply 𝑎 𝑔𝑖𝑣𝑒𝑛 in how learning experiences are designed.