Online Learning: Let Students Learn Where They Are

The COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges and universities to move their face-to-face courses to remote and online formats. Instructors heroically worked to ensure continuity of learning for their students. Considering this shift online, Mark Porcaro, the Executive Director of Online Learning at Wichita State University and WCET Steering Committee member, reflected that learning isn’t all about where it takes place. He shares these thoughts with us today.

Thank you to Mark for this thought provoking post on learning experiences.

Enjoy the read and stay healthy!

Lindsey Downs, WCET


a grey stone garden wall
Image by Schmidsi from Pixabay

For over two decades, we have created a walled garden for online learning. K-12 and higher education have operated online learning as a separate entity from their “regular” in-person learning.

We have come at an inflection point because of the outbreak of COVID-19.

We need to stop treating online learning as an alternative to “traditional” learning. Learning is learning.

Pivoting Online – Dramatic Shift and Time to Shine

This spring, millions of K-12 and higher education students were forced into remote and online learning classrooms to complete their school year. In many cases, this made learning more difficult because educators had little time to prepare for the drastic shift, students and/or teachers didn’t have access to educational technology tools, and many lacked experience with those tools or didn’t know how to teach or learn online and/or remotely.

For those who did have the tools, skills, and experience this was their moment to shine. Hybrid courses quickly moved online, well-designed online classes kept up their original pace, and some ingenious faculty came up with effective ways to support learning at a distance, often through the simplest means. 

What this recent experience should tell us is that we all are able to work together toward a unified approach to be effective educators, regardless of the modality. We have demonstrated that education is about what students learn, not how they learn.

How Do You Learn Something New?

When we need to learn something new, how many of us turn to a book or a video to do that? Did we learn what we wanted to learn that way? For me, the answer is yes.

Of course, not everything can be taught remotely, but then again, we all know that we don’t have to just be in-person to learn.

If we are to evolve in education (and by all accounts we must), we should embrace the best of both worlds and treat learning the same regardless of the modality.

For example, we could:

  • Put durable educational materials into a video. Corporate trainers have long learned that this is a viable way to present information consistently and broadly. I still remember sitting in a new hire training over thirty years ago watching a training on a video tape. I’ve also been to some in-person training that could certainly have been delivered via video or documentation. It would have been more effective and engaging that way.
  • Use the in-person classroom to have learners engage in a different way than they would during a lecture. Engagement ideas for in-person class time include:
    • hands on activities,
    • small group work,
    • guided learning,
    • just-in-time topic exploration,
    • and so forth.

We have known that the “flipped classroom” has proven to be more successful at helping learners meet expected outcomes and embracing this model can help us become better at what we do.

A Single Learning Experience

We need to stop thinking that there are two separate student bodies: our online program students take in-person classes, and our face-to-face students take online classes. Online and remote learning is an option, not a way of life.

How many of us have professional development programs that only in-person learners have access to? How many of us have a separate on-boarding or orientation process? Do we have the same outcomes for both? If the outcomes are the same, does it really matter whether it’s online or in person?

Instead of separate processes, one for in person and another for distance learning, we should create a single experience that can then be deployed in a variety of modalities: text, video, audio, branched learning, and in-person lesson plans. The different modalities support a range of learners who need to learn content in diverse ways. The outcome is the same: helping students to learn successfully, regardless of the modality.

Why do we, nearly two decades into teaching online, still treat online learners differently because some have the means to be in person where and when we are, while others can’t? Is a student’s ability to come to our campus really the deciding factor about who gets the most attention and resources?

Instead, we should all treat them the same: they are all there to learn from us. If they didn’t value what we had to offer them and all learning was the same, wouldn’t everyone just get it from the most convenient source for them? That is what they are doing. Unfortunately, in some cases, they aren’t getting our full attention and they are not getting the same experience, not because online learning is inferior, but because we treat it as a second stream.

It is now time to bring online into the fold. It is clearly a part of the way people learn in the twenty-first century, and COVID-19 has laid that truth bare. Maybe it’s time that we all realize that and embrace online learning for what it does well: teach when, where, and how the student needs it.


Mark Porcaro head shot

Mark D. Porcaro 
Executive Director of Online Learning
Wichita State University 
WCET Steering Committee member


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My name is Lindsey Rae Downs. I am the Assistant Director of Communications and Community for WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. I work remotely from beautiful Helena, MT.

3 thoughts on “Online Learning: Let Students Learn Where They Are

  1. It’s good to see that finally, the universities are thinking this way! As a person who accessed both online and in-person classes to earn my degree, it was often a disappointment that the online classes seemed like such and afterthought type of teaching– a “second stream” as the writer stated, with little concern for the real life reasons for taking a class online, zero tolerance policies that seemed designed for the in class experience rather than the online experience, little concern about how technology was supported, and a limited selection of classes. So much more was and is possible, but the underlying message — in class experiences were what educators cared to put more time and effort into, and online was simply a last resort or an afterthought. I look forward to seeing what higher education will look like 10 years from now.

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