Remote vs. Online Learning: It Makes a Difference

Laptop and phone with zoom app open

The Emergency Response

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, FIU transitioned over 400 face-to-face classes to remote learning. It was no small task. Success not only depended on the cooperation of different FIU administrative bodies, but the patience, ingenuity, and creativity of faculty, students, and instructional designers. 

To observers of higher education, the current health crisis adds new urgency to old debates about online learning. Some writers hope the mass transition to online learning will expedite education’s inevitable future. Others worry over the quality of that learning. In the K-12 world, remote learning has exposed worldwide technology divides as some students at home prioritize away their schooling

What’s the Difference?

Many instructional designers believe these conversations ignore an important distinction: the difference between remote learning––meaning the ad hoc transition of a face-to-face class to an online environment––and online learning proper. Like so much about our current moment, we’re learning as we go. Though instructional designers can fluently compare online learning to the traditional classroom, most resist easy comparisons with the emergency transition. 

In a recent Forbes interview, Colorado State University-Global Campus president Dr. Becky Takeda-Tinker suggests we let the outcome of remote learning surprise us. “These programs,” Takeda-Tinke says, “do not have the intentional planning, thought, tools, content, and interactivity needed to provide an engaging environment for today’s students.” Likewise, distance learning expert Thomas J. Tobin advises online learning newcomers to withhold their judgment for now. 

All Hands on Deck

Once statewide mitigation responses to COVID-19 were set, the university immediately greenlit its emergency academic continuity plan. With impressive foresight, FIU Online instructional designers prepared well for a rapid increase in their workload. Though FIU Online instructional designers are avowed innovators armed with a full-blown organizational strategy in support of the university’s academic continuity plan, no one could anticipate what the mass remote transition would mean to them as educators. 

Are you prepared for the transition to online learning; decorative image of laptop computer

But now that we’re over a month into social distancing, what can designers say about the difference between remote learning and online education? Insider tapped two FIU Online instructional design leaders for answers. 

Thinking Aloud

Working During a Crisis

Karina Ocampo, Instructional Design Manager at FIU Online, describes emergency remote learning as “much more reactionary and retrofitting in its approach. On the other hand, a fully online course allows the instructor to thoughtfully prepare course content and student assessments, and leverages what the online space can do.” 

We are not just working from home; we are working from home during a crisis. This crisis should not be considered normal.

Karina Ocampo

Ocampo hopes remote instructors who are new to distance learning realize the vast difference between what her team can offer and emergency socially-distanced courses. “It’s like that idea floating around right now. We are not just working from home. We are working from home during a crisis. This crisis should not be considered normal. It’s not what online learning could be.” 

Defining the Difference

Gaby Alvarez, FIU Online’s Director of Learning Design & Innovation, raises a similar point. “The innovative online learning experiences we deliver are meaningfully different from our emergency remote courses,” she says. 

Meaningful interaction has to be planned and coordinated.

Gabriela Alvarez

Alvarez holds that remote courses are a temporary shift in instructional delivery. “That’s because remote courses adhere to the fundamentals of face-to-face courses. Only this time some elements are digitally enabled.” She maintains that well-developed online courses assume instructors and students are separated by time or space. “Meaningful interaction has to be planned and coordinated.”

By contrast, remote instruction assumes a classroom dynamic: students and instructors in the same “place” at the same. As a result, Zoom has become the crowning jewel of the emergency transition. 

FIU Online Group Celebrating 20 Years

At FIU Online, instructional design has always transcended course-craft. “Our current model,” Alvarez says, “includes consultation, faculty development opportunities, content development, LMS training, and creating multimedia.” FIU Online instructional designers are eager to impart their expertise to FIU faculty, whether newcomers to distance learning or seasoned online instructors. 

Looking Ahead

As head of the FIU Online learning design force, Alvarez presses the instructional designers to value their expertise. “Our profession,” she says, “is backed by decades of research studies, theories, models, and standards to support quality online learning.” Alvarez believes her team will seize every opportunity to apply their skills during the emergency transition. “We can learn new skills, too.” 

Once the current health crisis passes, online learning professionals may encounter new paths forward. What insight might the socially distanced classroom add to online learning as we know it? FIU Online will work and watch for what emerges––from a safe distance, of course. 

To keep up to date with the latest information on FIU’s remote learning endeavors, review the information on FIU’s Academic Continuity page.

Michael A. Martin is an instructional designer and writer for the Continuing and Professional Education team at FIU Online. He is also an adjunct lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at FIU.

Related posts