The 3 Secrets That Online Courses Can Teach Traditional Schools

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When I first started learning to code using courses, I stayed up nights finishing lessons and working on building an app. I had no looming deadline for when I needed to learn the information. There was no test in this course. There wasn’t even a teacher to “manage” me–just a voice behind a screen recording.

How could I be so motivated to learn from an online course when there were none of the typical motivators that teachers think have an effect on students? You know: due dates, grades, classroom management.

In his groundbreaking book Drive, Daniel Pink  shows that external motivators fail when work involves creativity and critical thinking. And we want students doing creativity and critical thinking in our classes, so it looks like the external motivators should be out. Teachers, students and parents in traditional schools will tell you that this is hardly the case, though.

The impact of online courses

So what was it about an online course that had me motivated to learn? Can that experience be replicated in a traditional classroom?

I’ve realized that online learning environments encourage the elusive “growth mindset” and cultivate the intrinsic motivation that creates lifelong learners.

Here, some teachers might argue that they can’t embrace concepts from online courses because their schools don’t have enough technology. Embracing the flipped, in-class flip or blended learning model isn’t possible they’ll say, because we don’t have access. And that’s understandable.

But I’m not suggesting that the best practices from online learning courses are based on use of technology. Each suggestions I’ll make can be implemented in a class with no Internet connected devices at all.

So, teachers already have all they need to create a learning environment that is built on intrinsic motivation and growth. It’s just a matter of changing their mindset and doing some planning.

3 Secrets that online Courses Can Teach Traditional Schools

1-Online courses put learning in the context of a product or an audience.

When learning a programming language, the course is often centered around asking students to create an app or a website. This works because students a tangible (well, digital) product in mind. They want to learn the content and skills so that the app works or the website looks good. Then it can be shared with others. This is a strong motivator.

Using the backwards design philosophy, teachers can design learning tasks for students that involve them sharing their writing with a public audience or solving problems for their local community. This creates the same sense of meaning and higher stakes that motivate student to own their learning and not just complete their work.

2-Online courses create environments for self-paced learning where students refer to instructional materials as needed.

Online courses often use a mixture of downloadable activities, visual graphics, and screencasts to deliver content. The student reviews the course materials by watching a video on a new concept, then applies the concept to their project when they are ready. This is a back and forth flow between learning and applying that is often missing in traditional school settings, but is essential for mastery of content and skills.

A teacher can print up writing mini-lessons and file them based on topic. These can be digital, print or both. Then, set students free to work on their writing and ask them to find, refer to, and implement the lesson that they think will help them with their challenge when one comes up. I’ve had success doing this with Kaizena by leaving students links to websites on their essays and asking them to visit the site, learn the concept and apply it to their writing on their own.

3-Online courses allow the teacher to give personalized feedback instead of delivering whole-class instruction.

When I’ve taken online classes, there were dedicated teachers who are there just to answer students’ questions (I’m sure they do plenty else, but I like to imagine them there, waiting at the computer, hoping to receive a question from an eager learner like me). If these teachers were stuck delivering the lectures to each student who signed up for the online course, this type of help via email or Skype would never be possible.

Jing video coverI think that some teachers feel that they’re not teaching unless they’re talking to at least a group of students. A better measure of teacher effectiveness in my opinion is the extent to which students can manage their own progress when working on a task, checking in with the teacher for direction or clarification.

How can educators achieve this utopian-sounding classroom arrangement? In order to provide personalized feedback instead of delivering whole-class instruction, the students must be doing meaningful work that they find intrinsically motivating, and the students must be working at their own pace so that the teacher does not have to direct the learning of all students at once.

At this point, the teacher becomes the learning coach, working alongside students, instead of being a “sage on the stage.”

This is a change that students will learn from and, even better, appreciate.

Is this idea Brilliant or is it Insane? Tell us in the comment section below and why share with your friends and ask them what they think.

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Gerard Dawson

Gerard Dawson teaches English and Journalism to high school students in New Jersey. He shares resources for teaching and learning in a connected world at

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