Underlying Messages and Myths about Online Learning

Barbara Brown and Michele Jacobsen

There are many underlying messages about online learning that we have been noting in the communications and decisions related to school re-entry plans. We thought it might be helpful to provide some trustworthy information and research citations to help counter some of these myths:


  • Myth#1: Online learning is less effective than in-person learning
  • Myth #2: Online learning implies less interaction than in-person
  • Myth #3: More time should be spent on synchronous activities in online learning


Myth#1: Online learning is less effective than in-person learning

Online learning designs have been proven to be effective for learning. In fact, research occurring during the pandemic demonstrated that even during a crisis-response and rapid transition to remote teaching, this mode of learning online can be effective for a diverse range of learners. The promise and possibilities for robust online learning designs increase when instructors have ample lead time to collaborate and design digital learning plans and strategies for their students.


  • According to Donovan et al. (2019), blended and hybrid learning have been proven to be an important part of Canadian post-secondary education prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • Online learning is accepted (e.g., online credentials are as respected as face-to-face credentials)
    • Demonstrated Student Satisfaction (e.g., Students are as satisfied with online courses as they are with face-to-face course)
    • Online learning designs often promote innovations in teaching
  • Barbour et al. (2019) indicated that approximately 300,000 K-12 students in Canada were engaged in distance and/or online learning in 2018-19. In March 2020, educators and students across Canada pivoted from in-person classrooms to educating over 5 million students remotely in less than two weeks.
  • During the pandemic, researchers shared many examples of effective teaching, technology and teacher education during the pandemic (Ferding et al., 2020). Some key findings that help support the notion that even a rapid transition to online can be effective:
    • 50 – research shows eLearning presents challenges for parents, teachers and administrators, argues for field placements online, professional development for teachers, and additional research is needed for a thoughtful digital learning plan
    • 67 – a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning activities, collaborative tools, can be supportive for students with diverse learning need and can provide equitable access when approaches are grounded in patience and flexibility
    • 78 – classes that were using technologies pre-COVID found it a seamless transition to fully online and using the same technologies
    • 94 – social interactions are important and this can be achieved online
    • 132 – relationships and professional collaboration can be achieved online


Myth #2: Online learning implies less interaction than in-person

Some presume there is less interaction in online courses when compared to in-class, face-to-face teaching and learning (Watts, 2016). However, it has been proven that interactivity, engagement and strong social and community presence can be fostered in online courses for students and instructors (Garrison, 2017; Young & Bruce, 2011). Contemporary learning technologies enable teachers and learners to connect, collaborate and communicate effectively in diverse ways using an intentional blend of “live” (synchronous) and teacher or self-directed (asynchronous) learning designs (Jacobsen, et al., 2013; Tucker, 2020). For example, a teacher can collect, curate and assign relevant podcasts, videos, and textual resources to be accessed and viewed by learners prior to a real-time or live modelling session the teacher leads with the entire class. Known as flipped instruction, this approach to blending asynchronous and synchronous learning experiences and opportunities is an effective pedagogical approach teachers are using to design online learning experiences that are highly interactive (Mazur, et al., 2015).


Myth #3: More time should be spent on synchronous activities in online classes

  • Both self-directed asynchronous learning tasks and activities, and scheduled synchronous activities and interactions, are important for learning in online courses.
  • Asynchronous activities provide students with time to reflect and think before interacting with their peers in discussion groups. Students can view multi-media educational resources at their own pace with accessibility options. These are important elements of active and engaged learning in online courses (Lee & Brett, 2015; Watts, 2016)
  • Synchronous activities, such seminars, webinars and conversations with instructors, peers and expert guest speakers, are also important for learning in online courses (Martin et al., 2017; Watts, 2016).
  • Live interaction matters but relying on too many synchronous activities can promote inequities for those unable to connect/attend scheduled events (Banna et al., 2015)
  • An appropriate range and blend of asynchronous and synchronous activities using communication applications for collaborative knowledge building (Brown et al., 2013; Brown & Eaton, 2020; Watts, 2016) are ideal with flexibility for individual student needs, circumstances, and access to reliable technology.




Banna, J., Grace Lin, M., Stewart, M., & Fialkowski, M. (2015). Interaction matters: Strategies to promote engaged learning in online introductory nutrition course. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 11(2), 249-261.


Barbour, M., & LaBonte, R. (2019). State of the Nation: K-12 E-Learning in Canada.



Brown, B. & Eaton, S. E. (2020). Using a community of inquiry lens to examine synchronous online discussions in graduate courses (Chapter 10). In L. Wilton, & Brett C. (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Online Discussion-Based Teaching Methods (pp. 229-262), IGI Global. https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-7998-3292-8


Brown, B., Eaton, S. E., Jacobsen, M., & Roy, S. (2013). Instructional design collaboration: A professional learning and growth experience. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(3). http://jolt.merlot.org/vol9no3/brown_0913.htm


Donovan, T., Bates, T., Seaman, J., Mayer, D., Martel, E., Paul, R., . . . Poulin, R. (2019). Tracking online and distance education in Canadian universities and colleges: 2018. Canadian National Survey of Online and Distance Education, Public Report. Canadian Digital Learning Research Association. https://onlinelearningsurveycanada.ca/


Ferding, R. E., Baumgartner, E., Hartshorne, R., Kaplan-Rakowski, R., & Mouza, C. (2020), Teaching, technology, and teacher education during the COVID-19 pandemic: Stories from the field. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). https://www.learntechlib.org/p/216903/


Garrison, D. R. (2017). E-learning in the 21st century: A community of inquiry framework for research and practice (3rd ed.). Routledge.


Jacobsen, M., Brown, B., & Lambert, D. (2013). Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments in Higher Education: A Review of the Literature. Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. November, 80 pages. URL:  http://hdl.handle.net/1880/52244


Lee, K. & Brett, C. (2015). Dialogic understanding of teachers’ online transformative learning: A qualitative case study of teacher discussions in a graduate-level online course. Teaching and Teacher Education, 46, 72-83. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2014.11.001


Martin, F., Ahlgrim-Delzell, L., & Budhrani, K. (2017). Systematic review of two decades (1995 to 2014) of research on synchronous online learning. American Journal of Distance Education, 31(1), 3-19. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923647.2017.1264807


Mazur, A. D., Brown, B., & Jacobsen, M. (2015). Learning designs using flipped classroom instruction. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 41(2), 1-26. DOI: https://doi.org/10.21432/T2PG7P


Tucker, C. (2020). Asynchronous vs. Synchronous: How to Design for Each Type of Learning. https://catlintucker.com/2020/08/asynchronous-vs-synchronous/


Watts, L. (2016). Synchronous and asynchronous communication in distance learning: a review of the literature. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 17(1), 23–32. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1142962


Young, S., & Bruce, M. A. (2011). Classroom community and student engagement in online courses. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(2). http://jolt.merlot.org/vol7no2/young_0611.htm



This co-authored blog post has been cross published by both authors; please access Dr. Michele Jacobsen’s post here:


School-at-Home…Two weeks later

Over the past couple of weeks dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, we have experienced both high and low points and a range of energy levels and emotions in our home.  Some of the low points included clearing out desks and lockers at school and realizing this may go on for longer than we originally expected. Discussing the new reality that we are at home now and there will be no playdates or inviting friends over during this time. Cancelling extracurricular activities, lessons, sport events, family events all at once has certainly been difficult.  Some of the high points included receiving messages from teachers and surprise messages from friends, gifts left at the doorstep and planning a virtual birthday party. Getting into somewhat of a rhythm for accomplishing schoolwork and engaging in activities such as dance lessons or piano lessons online has been positive. Connecting with family and friends online has also been an important part of the day for everyone but I also noticed the kids seek off-screen family time.  We look forward to cooking and eating dinner together.  This simple pleasure seemed like such a luxury only two weeks ago and is now part of our daily routine.  After dinner we play some games and I was even surprised to hear the kids preferred playing a board game instead of a video game since they already spent so much time online.


Here’s some further thoughts about learning-at-home and parent suggestions:

What’s a realistic home learning routine? Should we try to duplicate the school routine, or is the home routine a different thing?

Routines may look different and not the same for all families. Consider what might work best for your child and family.  For example, your teen may benefit from sleeping in and rising a bit later. I’m certain mine has grown in height over the past couple of weeks with some extra sleep.  I don’t think it’s necessary to duplicate the school routine at home and parents do not need to feel they are replacing the teacher at home.  Schools have been working hard to put together resources and supports for students at home.  Use the resources that work best you and your family. Also, take the time needed to rest and come to terms with what is happening.  Last week was also spring break for many students in Calgary and they are now starting to receive messages and instructions from their teachers and schools.


For some students, home learning is going to demand a higher than normal level of self-discipline. How do parents support their kids in getting their work done without falling into a pattern of nagging?


Have a conversation with children and make a plan together for what works best for you and your family.  Find a rhythm for balancing learning and family time.  We all need to adjust to a different working pattern then what we had before.  The reality is that children are not going to be able to sit and do work all day long.  Similarly, adults may not be able to work full 8-hour days from home.  There needs to be some flexibility and understanding from employers for parents working at home and likewise there needs to be some flexibility for children and learning time at home.  I also think it’s important parents remain as advocates for their children and if the work is too much for your child, then communicate with the teacher and together find ways to best support your child.


The Alberta mandated assignment time will work out to only an hour or 2 hours per weekday for elementary and junior high kids and three hours per week per course for high schoolers. How can parents support students doing their own self-directed learning to occupy the rest of the day?


Parents can support their children by helping to prioritize learning.  For example, working with your child to set up a work space. Let the child set up the work space.  Maybe it will be the same place they normally do homework or maybe it’s a different space.  Maybe it’s a shared space or moving space.  Have your child create a schedule.  Some children prefer to work on one task and for an extended time, while others may prefer to work on tasks for shorter periods of time.  Even young children can help make a schedule and can let you know what they would like their day to look like. Discuss how your child would like you to check-in.  For some this might be regular check-ins throughout the day or maybe one check in later on in the day.  This is also dependent on the age of your child.  Staying home and taking care of a young child is a full-time job.  Be kind to yourself and don’t expect to continue working at your normal pace for your full-time job while at home and also taking care of a toddler.  In regards to learning, a goal I learned from one of my child’s teachers was to be sure children are happy and learning.  Learning can be informal and can be connected to activities you are already doing around the house.


How important is it to draw a line between school time and play time?

I think families need to determine a routine and schedule that works best in their home. I don’t think there’s one single right way to do this.  The important part is to make sure there is play time and lots of time for breaks. Learning will go on through informal learning opportunities provided at home and formal learning suggestions provided by the teacher and the school.  This is an unprecedented time and will be forever remembered by our children.  Inspired by a twitter post I saw recently, we had a conversation with the kids imagining what our future selves would remember about this time period in future.  For my children, I want them to remember how much closer we became as a family, how we had family meals together and played board games in the evening, how we went for walks together, built puzzles, baked cookies, invented new smoothie flavors and even planned a virtual birthday party together. What will your future self and your child’s future self say about this time period?


A big part of school is the social part– how can students feel connected to their teachers and classmates when everyone is at home? 


I have been teaching online classes for the past 8 years and at first I was skeptical about developing relationships and connecting with students in an online environment as I had previously done in a classroom.  What I soon realized is that connections are possible in both physical and online spaces. Teachers may send out a quick video clip to students to provide a personal message.  Younger and older students appreciate seeing and hearing their teacher even briefly.  My child’s teacher sent a video clip the other day from inside her car.  She said it was the only quiet spot she could record a message.  My daughter loved the video.  Another teacher I know posted a Tik Tok video he created where he was lip syncing a song and doing some dance moves.  Teachers may send messages to students using tech systems they have in place for communications and sharing information.  I know some schools are phoning kids to make connections.


Student-to-student connections were already happening outside of school.  For example, in a recent study with 9-to-11 year olds, students reported using social media regularly outside of school to keep connected with their friends.  Have a conversation with your child to find out how they are keeping connected with friends.  It is important to keep connected and let your friends know you are thinking about them. Even though we need to be physically distant, it’s important to keep connected socially with friends and family.

Moving to Online Classes

In light of the recent requests for resources and help with moving to online classes, I thought I would share some freely accessible videos and links to publications.

Article about providing audio/video feedback to students:

Brown, B. (2019). One-take productions for student feedback. Education Canada, 59(2), p. 10. Retrieved from https://www.edcan.ca/articles/student-feedback/

Article about instructional design in online courses:

Brown, B., Eaton, S. E., Jacobsen, M., & Roy, S. (2013). Instructional design collaboration: A professional learning and growth experience. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(3). http://jolt.merlot.org/vol9no3/brown_0913.htm

Article about using a flipped model that can also be useful for designing online coursework:

Mazur, A., Brown, B., & Jacobsen, M. (2015). Learning designs using flipped classroom instruction. Canadian Journal of Learning Technology, 41(2), 1-26. https://www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/view/26977

Chapter in eBook offers suggestions for designing group work that can also be applied to fully online environments:

Brown, B. & Vaughan, N. (2018). Designing group work in blended learning environments. In R. J. Harnish, K. R. Bridges, D. N. Sattler, M. L. Signorella, & M. Munson (Eds.). The Use of Technology in Teaching and Learning (pp. 82-97). Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site: https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/useoftech

Resource prepared to help support a themed conversation about designing active learning in online environments:

Brown, B. & Ayala, J. (2018, February). Active Learning in Online Environments. Teaching Academy Themed Conversation, University of Calgary, Calgary, AB. https://prism.ucalgary.ca/handle/1880/106409

Videos about teaching online created in Adobe Connect transferrable to other programs used for synchronous sessions:

  • Schroeder, M., & Brown, B. (Producers). (2016). Adobe Connect in Action, Part I: Teaching in an Online Classroom, in collaboration with Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. https://vimeo.com/151657311
  • Schroeder, M., & Brown, B. (Producers). (2016). Adobe Connect in Action, Part II: Teaching in an Online Classroom, in collaboration with Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. https://vimeo.com/151659058



Start your MEd degree with 4 courses in Leading and Learning in a Digital Age

Learn with instructors and invited guests who are internationally recognized in the educational technology field and experience a highly interactive online learning environment. This is not what might be considered a typical distance-learning course where students work on their own through a packet of resources.  Meet with your instructors and peers in a variety of online spaces, including live sessions where you will see and hear everyone through an easy-to-use web conference platform. Engage in weekly asynchronous activities during times you choose and when convenient for you. Take risks and learn how to use innovative technologies, develop your social learning network, and critically examine the literature and research in the field. Plan to make a difference in your work context to help others navigate the complexities of living and working a digital world. This topic attracts teachers and professionals in educational environments as well as professionals in other fields and disciplinary areas. Instructors will encourage you to make the learning tasks applicable to your work environment.

Through four interconnected fully online courses, students will: (i) examine the implications for designing and leading interdisciplinary and technology-rich learning; (ii) strengthen competencies in technological literacies; (iii) explore ethics in technology-enhanced learning environments; and (iv) lead and empower citizenry in a participatory and digital age.

Program Goals:

  • Develop and critically assess authentic interdisciplinary and technology-rich learning designs and environments
  • Demonstrate technological fluency and competencies in technological literacies
  • Advocate for high quality digital learning environments informed by understanding of current trends and issues in the field
  • Develop empowering and proactive teaching and learning practices in schools or other work contexts that promote active citizenry in a participatory and digital age

Target Audience

  • Teachers/instructors with an interest in designing and leading digital learning environments in primary, secondary or post-secondary environments or other work contexts
  • Educators and consultants who work with supporting technology use
  • School and district leaders

More information about the program – https://werklund.ucalgary.ca/graduate-programs/topics/leading-learning-in-digital-age

Apply by March 16th 2020!


Advice for parents in supporting girls’ utilization of contemporary technologies

I find there is tension between wanting kids to be adequately experienced in using contemporary technology and at the same time worrying about kids being socially disadvantaged if technologies are limited. There may also be worry about excessive use causing distraction and impacting children’s growth and well-being. Some advice columns may suggest parents access resources and become more informed.  Sites I commonly suggest include Media Smarts – http://mediasmarts.ca/ and Common Sense Media – https://www.commonsensemedia.org/


Advice may also include guidelines or rules for using technology.  For example, banning devices from the dinner table or requiring children hand-in their devices before bed time. Setting guidelines is important. But, what else can parents do?  I will admit that I don’t have any quick- fix tips for you.  As a researcher in this area, I also experience difficulties in this area and struggle with these tensions as well.


One key piece of advice beyond becoming more informed and setting guidelines, is to have conversations with your child by asking questions. Research indicates that having a strong parent-teen relationship and having regular discussions with children can reduce risky online behaviors and impact adolescent’s decisions. Depending on the age of your child, you may need to adapt the questions.  Also, don’t wait until there’s an issue to have the conversation and ask questions. Technology is continuously changing, so continuous communication is necessary with our children. Here’s some examples of questions I use:

  1. How can I best help or support you to use technology?
  2. How are you monitoring your own screen-media usage? How do the reports help you?
  3. What is your perception of gender differences at home/school/or other places in the community regarding use of technology? Do you have any examples of gender differences?
  4. How are you using technology in school? How are you using technology for consuming information or creating? How do you wish you were using technology in schools? How do you think technology could be used to help you learn?
  5. How do you perceive my actions/modeling of use of technology? Give me two stars and one wish for how I currently use technology.


You might find some of the responses surprise you or may not be exactly what you expected. We need generative conversations to develop a contemporary image of technology use for learning and we need to involve our girls in leading this conversation. What other questions would you suggest?


Should cell phones be banned from classrooms?

I was invited to respond to a school ban on cellphone use in a CTV two Alberta Primetime interview this week.

The interview was prompted by information about a Toronto middle school ban on cellphones in classrooms – http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/toronto-school-bans-cellphones-from-classrooms-1.3295140

I learned this type of interview is called a double-header interview. In this case, the interviews occurred at the same time but in different locations. I was interviewed at a studio in Calgary and the other participant and host were located in the Edmonton studio.  This meant I was in a broadcast room in Calgary looking at a camera and could not see the host or other participants during the interview.  I could only hear the audio through an earpiece.

As I prepared for the interview, I tried to think of key messages that I wanted to communicate.  Here’s some of the key messages based on research that I have been involved in over many years as well as professional experiences in teaching and leading in K-12 and post-secondary environments:

  • A balanced approach is needed with a focus on learning.
  • Allowing students to use mobile devices and particularly their own mobile devices in schools requires intentional design by the teachers and school administrators.
  • There are benefits for learners of all ages. In research I have been involved in from K-12, we have observed when students are intellectually engaged, they use technology in meaningful ways. Likewise, when students are disengaged in learning, they use technology for non-educational purposes.
  • Learning can be scaffolded where learners are provided with increasing responsibility in using the tools of their day. As educators we have responsibility in designing learning opportunities that are meaningful in a digital age.  We have a responsibility to coach students when they encounter difficulties in learning. We can’t expect students will automatically know how to use technologies responsibly without providing any opportunities for learning WITH technologies in school.
  • When we ban cell phones, we are not promoting balance and we are not promoting learning for today’s students with today’s tools for learning.
  • The fear of managing situations arising from the use of cell phones often moves a school to making decisions such as completely banning these devices instead of dealing with the structural causes or other underlying causes of the misbehaviors and helping youngsters, teachers, school leaders and parents learn from the situations. Banning cell phones avoids the issues.  We can spend time patrolling to make sure the rules are followed or we can spend time designing meaning learning opportunities. Banning cell phones eliminates opportunities for learning and this includes opportunities for learning from our failures.
  • We miss critical learning opportunities both when we ban cell phones and when we allow for unguided and unlimited use. Let’s aim for a balanced approach where we make learning the focus and use the tools in meaningful and ethical ways.


Here’s a link to the video:



How has technology changed back-to-school preparations?



It’s that time of year again!  As a parent, I help my kids prepare for back to school and as an online instructor, I prepare for teaching Fall term graduate courses.


One of my fondest memories about back to school time as a child was shopping for school supplies and buying new clothes. My kids will likely have a similar memory about back to school but instead of remembering the journey to the mall and returning home with a bag of supplies and new runners, they will remember searching online stores and anticipating deliveries arriving at on the door step. I love to shop at the mall but notice my children do not share the same enthusiasm for crowded malls at this time of year; they love to shop in online spaces.


I also remember back to school as a time to organize my room and desk at home, and organize dividers and binders for my school subjects.  I noticed my son taking time this week to organize his digital files. In addition, he’s making sure his laptop is ready for school, backpack loaded with appropriate cableshttp://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploadsconnectors and digital texts are accessible.


Along with the excitement associated with back-to-school preparations there is also some anxiety.  I recall not sleeping the night before school started as I worried about which teachers I would have and which students would be in my class.  Similarly, kids today anxiously wait to find out who they will be working with for the year.  In some schools parents have individual login accounts and can check on the class allocations through online systems. In other cases schools post class lists outside of the building so kids find out on the first day.   I also know of some schools that send postcards or welcome letters via regular mail. My kids receive a phone call home directly from the teacher a few days before school begins.   A phone call home is a nice personalized touch and can work well to alleviate anxiety for those receiving the calls. However, students who do not receive calls remain anxious until the call finally comes in or the first day of school.


I previously taught face-to-face courses and now teach online. My preparation as an online instructor involves preparing the course syllabus and adding content to the online space for the course. I need to think of ice-breakers and ways for my students to get to know each other and how I can begin fostering relationships with each of my students.  For example, in an online course, discussion forums can be used for self-introductions.  Students can use use text, photos, audio or video to post their introductory note. It is important for the instructor to also post an introduction. Students can also provide introductions during the synchronous online sessions through elevator introductions. Students are asked to imagine they are meeting a group for the first time on an elevator and have about 30-60s to provide a brief introduction about their professional and research experiences.  The #SoMe activity described by Lisa Nielsen at http:http://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploadshttp://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploadstheinnovativeeducator.blogspot.cahttp://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploads2014http://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploads08http://www.drbarbbrown.com/wp-content/uploadsits-some-great-back-to-school-activity.html is a great example of an introductory activity that can be used in face-to-face or online classes providing students with a creative way to introduce themselves to their classmates.


Have you observed other ways technology is changing how we prepare for back-to-school or deal with the excitement and anxiety of back-to-school time?