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Adult learners have known about the benefits of online learning for some time, as it allows them to invest in learning alongside jobs and family obligations. There are many ways to upskill or learn something new.

But what kind of learning do you want? And which online learning format best matches your learning goals? Do you want to

  • know more about a topic? (knowledge)
  • learn how to do something new? (knowledge)
  • practice doing something new? (application)
  • be able to do something to a specific standard? (competence)

Different kinds of online learning have different purposes. When choosing online learning, first decide what you want to learn, then look for a delivery format that’s a good match for that kind of learning.

 

Online learning formats

Every online format has its strengths and limitations. Below is a list of online learning formats with explanations of what they do best, so you can find your best learning fit.

Characteristics

  • online lecture-style
  • involve telling with some showing
  • led by a presenter
  • often a slide presentation with live audio, but sometimes live demos
  • opportunities to ask questions via audio and chat
  • on a specific date at a specific time
  • low risk, low commitment

Best for

  • learning about a topic (knowledge)
  • learning how to do something (demos)
  • those who like lecture-style learning

Limitations

  • no opportunities for application or practice
  • may not be offered at a convenient time for you
  • can’t adjust the speed of the presentation, so it may not be accessible for people with hearing impairments

Example

Webinars offered by many professional organizations

Characteristics

  • usually involve showing you how to do something
  • video presentations with readable scripts
  • often closed-captioned to accommodate those who are hard of
  • hearing
  • viewers can pause or adjust the speed of the presentation to match their processing speed
  • low-risk, low commitment

Best for

  • short demonstrations
  • concepts that are best learned by watching and listening

Limitations

  • no opportunities to ask questions, unless there is a forum
  • usually one kind of learning (just videos)
  • can’t immediately assess what you’ve retained
  • if it’s a video lecture instead of a demonstration, viewers may become impatient, as they may be able to read the script faster than they can listen, or they may prefer to just listen without watching

Example

Software demonstrations, DIY videos

Characteristics

  • transmission-style learning (passive learning)
  • no instructor, but may have video introductions
  • work at your own pace
  • opportunities to ask questions of other course participants, if there is a forum
  • a mix of learning formats (instructions, videos, podcasts, readings, polls, quizzes, etc.)
  • feedback from quizzes (knowledge checks)
  • small tasks with answer keys
  • low-risk, low commitment

Best for

  • an introduction to a topic (knowledge intake)
  • trying something out (sampling)

Limitations

  • no personal feedback
  • mostly reading

Example

MOOCs offered by a variety of course providers

Characteristics

  • online learning platform (mobile-friendly)
  • work at your own pace within a time-frame (module deadlines)
  • opportunities to discuss course topics with peers and instructor
  • immediate response from instructor, as needed
  • a mix of learning formats (instructions, videos, podcasts, readings, interactive features, polls, quizzes, etc.)
  • try-it projects and assignments
  • active learning opportunities (e.g., case studies)
  • opportunities for peer feedback on projects and assignments (you can also see how your peers are responding to course content and learn from that)
  • graded assignments

Best for

  • practicing a new skill and getting feedback on that skill
  • helping you see how you measure against a standard
  • complex topics that may need instructor support
  • certificate and certification courses

Limitations

  • require commitment
  • require a time investment of several weeks or months

Example

Queen’s Professional Studies courses

 

Every kind of online learning has its purpose. Often, course designers will do a good job of matching learning goals with the best possible learning format. Sometimes the fit isn’t there. When choosing online learning, look for formats that meet your learning goals.