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Can we learn online?

Published on 03 August 2012
Updated on 19 March 2024

Somehow, online learning re-appears in the global media every summer. Last year, there was a lot of excitement about Udacity, an MIT initiative. The year before, it was Peer-to-Peer University. Do newspapers opt for online learning in the absence of other content (this was before the London Olympics)?

In July, the New York Times published two articles with opposing views about online learning. The first one, ‘Universities Reshaping Education on the Web’, announces a revolution in university education in the form of the Coursera online learning initiative. The second article – ‘The Trouble with Online Education’ – questions the very possibility of learning anything online.  These two articles are indicative of the confusion that exists in the current discussion on online learning.

The first article (hype) sounds like a business promotion for Coursera, a new startup from Silicon Valley, which delivers online courses in cooperation with leading universities, including MIT and Harvard. When it comes to methodology, the article does not provide any strong argument that massive online learning can work. The article cites huge numbers (40.000 students have downloaded one professor’s videos) and future-oriented rhetoric (change the way we learn). In order to experience it directly, Diplo’s educational director, Hannah Slavik, attended one course to get a first-hand impression of what can and what cannot be taught in this way. Paradoxically, based on Hannah’s experience, Coursera courses are better than they appear in the NYT article.  Yet, like all massive online learning, it can work for motivated people with good time management (still a minority in the world). The interaction, which is the key for effective online learning, is weak. For a more comprehensive evaluation see Hannah’s blog post.

The second article (skepticism) was written by Professor Mark Edmundson, who is obviously annoyed by the Coursera hype. He raises some very valid issues, including the social nature of learning, and the need for trust in the learning process. Effective teaching requires dialogue, not monologue, which he associates with online broadcasting learning models such as Coursera. He provides powerful arguments for the importance of social and emotional context for learning. After carefully analyzing what is needed for a successful learning experience, his arguments fall short by saying that such an experience cannot be created online.

Our experience, at DiploFoundation, from more than 15 years of online teaching, shows the opposite to be true. One can create the environment of trust and community necessary for online learning, by having a small groups of maximum 25 students. The process has to be carefully nurtured, sometimes moving more into coaching than teaching. Our experience from Diplo online learning shows that a surprisingly high level of bonding can be established in an online classroom. As in traditional classrooms, online learning requires time, interest and passion.  On the learning path – online or traditional – there are no shortcuts. There are no online substitutes for empathy and social bonding which, very often, make or break our learning experience. 

Have you experienced any online learning? Did it work for you? Do you think it can be achieved in a classroom of a thousand people? 


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7 replies
  1. Charles Oloo
    Charles Oloo says:

    Can online learning work? Of
    Can online learning work? Of course. I have an attempt at it this year, and I would say it is the best training program I have attended so far. The standards were high and the lecturers focus was on every student. The aim is simple. Provide virtual, classroom learning experience. To me, the objective was achieved and provided an opportunity for quality training.

    Technology is here to change our lives and the way we do things, and we must appreciate the power of the internet. How many people are locked out there simply because they cannot afford to undertake training or access learning due to distance, cost and other factors?

    History has it that no matter how loud a teacher shouts in class, there are fellows who still fail exams. Pass or fail has nothing to do with the teacher’s presence, rather, interest, intellect and the urge to learn. The best thing with online study are the terms. Accepting to attend the course in its entirety before one enrols or begins. So there is some level of commitment. This makes the course succeed because anyone who is not in a position to finish the course will not commit himself/herself in the first place
    To me the other objections to online learning are secondary and insignificant. It would be better if we could focus to enhance the whole concept as well as advocacy to improving the Internet infrastructure and connectivity, as these are the primary mediums of online courses delivery.

    I’m just wondering how long it would take to replicate a program similar to Diplo’s, to educational systems in the developing countries, to provide learning opportunity platforms for the disadvantaged.

    Keep it up Diplo.

  2. Zoniana IGCBP alumni
    Zoniana IGCBP alumni says:

    THankd Dr Jovan for your
    THankd Dr Jovan for your article.For my case, I think Diplo course is one of the most vibrant online course I ever took.The materialisation of the achievement of succesful students with their stories creates emotional values among learners, like the IGCBP Book is an unique idea.

    From MAdagascar

  3. seiiti
    seiiti says:

    Indeed, Jovan. Agree with you
    Indeed, Jovan. Agree with you about the different expectations – a negative effect that I imagine for institutions like Diplo, who add more emphasis in intense dynamics and high quality interactions, is that the average student will look and think “oh, another online course where you download a bunch of videos and there is a forum without moderation”. That would be bad. Accordingly, Diplo and other institutions will have to continue making good communication and marketing to make very clear that there is a big difference in approaches.

  4. Jovan Kurbalija
    Jovan Kurbalija says:

    Hi Seiiti. Thank you for a
    Hi Seiiti. Thank you for a good point that there is no one solution for online learning that fits all learning needs. Life is learning. We learn a lot in informal setting. Quick chat, coffee exchange, good joke, blog, tweet, … You name it and you have it. The question gets more complicated in places and contexts where learning is the main activity (e.g. universities, training courses). How can one ensure effective learning? … or when institutions/individuals have to gain specific knowledge and skills. Let us take our example with IG courses. Transfer of information (how IG works) is as important as learning by osmosis (linking online learning to policy making, fellowship in the Secretariat, simulation exercises, participation in the meetings). Coursera will provide a new dynamics and alternative approaches to online learning. However, we should be cautious about inflated expectations. We tend to look for “short-cuts” in the learning process and we tend to see technology as a solution for non-technological questions (time needed for learning, pacing in learning, reflections, internalisation of knowledge). This caution will be healthy for the realistion of a new opportunities created by Coursera and similar initiatives. Many thanks for introducing new aspects in our discussion.

    • Hannah
      Hannah says:

      Jovan, I was struck by one
      Jovan, I was struck by one phrase here: How can one ensure effective learning? I think this may be the key to the two different approaches we are discussing (Diplo courses vs mass open online courses). In our courses (and those run with a similar high interaction/small group model) we seek to ensure effective learning. We – the institution and the instructors – take responsibility. In an MOOC setting, course participants are simply offered the materials and tools for effective learning – but it is up to the individual enrolled in the course to ensure his or her own effective learning. In theory this should work with adult learners – but it’s a question of degree. Everybody has different levels of experience with learning, and online learning in particular – and in many cases, extra assistance, encouragement, and building of trust are needed to overcome technical problems and create the right environment for learning, especially early in an online course.

      • Jovan Kurbalija
        Jovan Kurbalija says:

        Hannah, you pointed to the
        Hannah, you pointed to the core issue: responsibility for learning. In the common sense approach it should be on students. But as we know common sense is not so “common” and we are complex creatures with complex motivations, competing priorities and ideas, tendency to procrastinate when we face problems, etc. Ultimately, as we – I hope – learnt from the economic crisis, humans are not rational “machines” aimed at optimizing their interests (well-being, earning money). Our complex nature makes life beatuful, but also gives headache to anyone who tries to “automate” human reality, especially in a very delicate fields such as human cognition. We need a lot of help and scaffolding while we are building our knowledge and understanding. It could be professors’ or fellow students’ memorable joke, visual explanation, funny mistake, smile, … . Social and emotional aspects are as important as “transfer” of knowledge and information. Can we experience this socio-emotional bonding in the massive online classrooms? Can trust by developed by “invisible learning hand” (only through interaction by participants)? I would be on the cautious side, but open to be convinced that it can work.

  5. seiiti
    seiiti says:

    Thanks for the post, Jovan!
    Thanks for the post, Jovan! All choices depend on which values and purpose the institution is pursuing. While Diplo’s model has unique results for engagement, course completion and, finally, real learning and multiplication of results… would it be as scalable as Coursera? Training trainers requires much effort and the process needs a lot of money.

    A classroom of a thousand people seems feasible if the expectations are low, if people are motivated and can learn on their own. If they know how to digest a massive amount of information, should there be a forum with a thousand participants. Yes, I think it is possible but will not have the same proportion of satisfied alumni as the Diplo model has achieved.

    If we can call the Coursera actual learning or just hype, it is much about definitions and nomenclature. Would offering a blog with a random collection of ideas “learning” or “effective teaching”? I certainly did learn a lot from a few blogs, and even from some tweets of people who share their 140-character insights. Of course I never expected a classroom-setting or dynamic in these spaces.

    Seems that more and more we will see different modalities to learn and relearn. Different flavors for different tastes, needs and time/money they can afford. An open Coursera class seems a great first level, low-friction entry point for those willing to further explore issues, maybe in more classroom, effective teaching settings.

    Thanks again for this excellent discussion!


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