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What Is Holding Online Learning Back?

Curriculum Planning and Development

What Is Holding Online Learning Back?

MOOCs have been derided in higher education circles as a poor substitute for real, institutional academic courses. But in reality, they are well ahead of much of academia in their teaching methods because they embody principles of the neurology of learning in a way that institutional online course do not. Here I take a look at how MOOCs integrate learning principles, the underlying structures that are holding online education back, and what needs to be done for academic online education to reach its full potential.

The MOOC teaching format

Coursera’s “Learning How to Learn,” launched in 2015, is a good example of the MOOC teaching format. It has been taken by over three million people and received widespread praise from participants. Its lessons are delivered through short videos of the instructors speaking in a simple, informal, and engaging manner that connects to the viewer. These videos also include imagery to illustrate and amplify the message as well as frequent pauses during which the viewer must answer a question about the material to move on.

This is the general format of MOOCs and is based on the understanding that learning requires information to first be stored in the learner’s working memory, which is the memory used to do immediate tasks and can be likened to computer RAM (Oakley & Sejnowski, 2015). Like RAM, it is limited—in humans’ case, to four or five items. Once it’s full, any new content must push out existing content to make room for itself. Also like RAM, it is not preserved after use. To preserve the memory, the user must engage the material in some way, such as by answering a question about it, to move it to long-term memory, where it is retained. This is why MOOCs teach through short videos interspersed with questions.

By contrast, most academic online courses are modeled on the traditional face-to-face format of delivering long blocks of content as lectures, along with big blocks of readings (whether textbook chapters or articles) and lengthy exams every few weeks. This format violates principles of learning because it does not provide the pauses for interaction that are needed to move information from working to long-term memory.

Moreover, the typical academic video format often still consists of instructors reading aloud bullet points from PowerPoint slides, as if their students were illiterate. Bullet points actually distract learners as they read ahead while the instructor is speaking. It’s a bit like listening to a song being played at two different speeds at once. Learning expands when the narration is matched with images that amplify the message. The footage of penguins in the movie March of the Penguins, for instance, do not distract from the narration; they provide a visual analog to the spoken message that improves understanding and retention.

Structural changes needed to move academia forward

Given that an understanding of the neurology of learning has been around for many years, we should ask why academia has not followed the MOOC example in its own online courses. It’s certainly not due to fewer resources. Most MOOCs are developed by volunteers without pay or support. The developers of Learning How to Learn shot their videos in a homemade studio in one of their basements, and they added imagery using simple video editing software that any instructional designer will know. MOOCs are created with far fewer resources than most academic online courses. The real problem is in how online courses are developed in academia.

Those who develop most MOOCs do it out of a labor of love and understand the power of MOOCs for teaching. They are focused on producing learning, not fulfilling contracts, and they understand the neurology of learning. Barbara Oakley and Terry Sejnowski, who developed Learning How to Learn, are both experts in the neurology of learning.

By contrast, the vast majority of online courses in academia are developed by instructors hired for their subject matter expertise, not their understanding of learning. They learned their trade in the lecture-driven face-to-face classroom and assume that online education is about reproducing this format. They do not understand the shortcomings of the traditional lecture model for learning. This would not a problem if these subject matter experts were taught the fundamentals of learning, but they rarely are. Often course developers are merely given a list of deliverables and a timeline, not instruction in the fundamentals of learning.

To make matters worse, online course developers are universally underpaid and given too little time to develop quality courses. People in the corporate sector tell me that their developers are paid around 10 times as much as those within academia, which conforms with my own experience of working in both sectors. This might be because higher education pays not for developing face-to-face courses, only teaching them, and so upper administrators do not understand the pay scale and needs of course development when creating the budgets for their online course programs.

Additionally, course developers are usually given to little time to create the content. Developing quality online courses takes much longer than most people, including course developers, expect. When course developers discover this, they tend to simply do the minimum needed to meet the deliverables schedule.

The result is that most course developers take a “content-dump” mindset to development. They think in terms of the content they will develop, not producing learning. They focus on delivering 14 weeks of content, with around 75 pages of reading, a short quiz, and one or two discussion questions per week. Often they find a textbook and simply assign chapters out of it, throwing in a few extra readings as well as a few words to introduce each week. While course developers can and should draw from the world of quality outside resources, the content-dump mentality leads to the content determining course design when, in reality, learning should drive it. Developers need to think in terms of connecting with students and guiding them on a learning journey, as do MOOC developers. A deliverables-based approached leads to teaching subjects, not students.

Online programs try to compensate for the lack of course developer expertise in learning principles by hoping that development managers or instructional designers will restructure the content into something that better applies learning principles. But this is too little, too late. An understanding of learning principles must guide the content design; it cannot be injected into the content afterward.

Online programs also try to impart quality into their courses by applying standards such as Quality Matters. While they have their purpose, these standards focus on formatting topics, such as course navigation, not learning itself, and thus they do not address the quality of the course. The purpose of a course is to produce learning. If it produces learning, then it is a quality course. If it does not produce learning, it is not a quality course.


I am not claiming that all academic online courses are bad; many are quite good. My point is that the common development structure does not facilitate quality. I am also not putting all the blame on online programs, which are often at the budgetary mercy of an administration that sees online courses as a cash cow. I am saying that the quality of online education in general will be improved by institutions doing the following:

  1. Recognizing that a fundamental understanding of the neurology of learning is needed to guide content development. Quality cannot be imparted later. This means that institutions need to invest in training online course developers in the principles of learning.
  2. Recognizing that quality online course development takes time and thus budgeting the pay and time to make that happen. For instance, nearly all institutions have studios set up, often by marketing, but these are rarely used for online course development. Instructional designers have the talent to add imagery to studio videos, but this talent is rarely used, often due to time and budget constraints.
  3. Recognizing that the measure of the quality of a course is whether students learn. Even post-course surveys tend to dance around this question by asking format questions. The most important question to ask students is “Did you learn anything, and if so, what did you learn?” Pre-launch quality control is generally on format topics, such as whether the citations follow APA. A better measure of quality is to have someone who is not familiar with the subject go through the content to see whether they understood and learned from it.

Despite existing for more than 25 years, academic online education has still not truly implemented the lessons from the neurology of learning. Only when it addresses issues in the structure of course development will it reach its full potential.


Oakley, B., & Sejnowski, T. (2015). Learning how to learn [MOOC]. Coursera. https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn

John Orlando, PhD, edits articles related to online learning and teaching with technology for The Teaching Professor.


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