Online but Off Course - Revisited

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Are learning styles still relevant to the course developer or should we look past individual differences when designing today's online learning program?

It's been 20 years since my seminal paper “On-Line but Off Course” was published in the International Journal for Leadership in Learning. I thought it would be fitting to revisit some of my initial observations on what elements make an eLearning course able to accommodate all students—and their preference for learning—equally.

It is especially germane to discuss the construct of learning styles when the very notion of learners possessing such qualities—especially in eLearning—is currently under the microscope in the industry. Some authors have even gone so far as to declare learning styles a dead concept (see

For the purposes of this blog, I am not going to argue if learning styles are dead or alive; what I do wish to revisit is the premise of my article from 1998: As course designers and educators, we need to ensure that we are engaging as many senses (or modalities) of our learners as possible and creating what I termed “tolerant learning environments” that endeavor to reach first—and then teach—learners in the way that suits them best.

Instead of focusing on testing for learner differences at the outset of a course and then designing custom course learning paths for each style of learning (a concept that had some traction in the late 90s), I am a firm believer that every online course we design as eLearning professionals should touch upon each learning style that may exist so that all students are able to learn (at least in part) in the modality of their choice.

Examples of this concept include:

  • Designing simulation-based learning opportunities that allow kinesthetic learners to drag and drop elements or interact with content;
  • Allowing auditory learners at least some opportunity to hear curriculum spoken when possible;
  • Giving visual learners the chance to watch YouTube videos or animations of content; and
  • Providing social learners a chance to engage with others in threaded forums, chat rooms or reading others’ blogs.

The course designer does not need to test learning preferences of every student who is enrolled, but rather, simply has to realize there are distinct preferences that exist in every group of students. As such, each course must provide students with as many opportunities as posible to learn in the way that suits them best.

A course that provides a rich online experience for all learners is the best way to ensure we remain both online and on course!

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