The most important need in the online learning environment is that it can be done anytime and anywhere. Four walls cannot keep in check the online learning environment like the traditional classroom environment. The online learning environment requires a mobile flexibility that is not necessary in the classroom. Ally (2008) states, “Online learning allows participants to collapse time and space (Cole, 2000)…The delivery method allows for flexibility of access, from anywhere and usually anytime, but the learning must use sound instructional design principles.’ (16). Online learning breaks down the walls of the traditional classroom. This flexibility of anytime and anywhere allows students to be able to work and not have to adjust their lives to revolve around school. Instead school is worked into students’ daily lives becoming a part of it. School is not a destination, but a life style choice. For example, as I am writing this paper I am riding in a van on my way to Anchorage for an AWANA conference with a small group of youth. Normally I would be working on my school work from the comfort of my home, but circumstances this week require me to be able to take my school with me and be able to access it from anywhere and anytime. If I had to report to a building for school this would not be possible. My online learning environment has made it possible that my classroom for the next several hours is on four wheels, which highlights the fact that online learning needs to be mobile.
Even when online learning requires a synchronous session it can be done anywhere. Ally (2008) describes this by stating, “For learners, online learning knows no time zones, and location and distance are not issues. In asynchronous online learning, students can access the online materials anytime, while synchronous online learning allows for real-time interaction between students and instructors’ (17). Last week I had a synchronous session for my other online class this semester on Wednesday evening, which in my life means I am at the church getting ready for AWANA that starts at 5:30pm. Because it is an online learning environment I was able to attend my class while at the church before AWANA and leave it just in time. I did not have to go to a classroom or have to leave early in order to get to my evening commitment or cancel. The flexibility of the online learning environment allows me to continue my work with K-12 aged children while attending college. Where as if I had to attend a class in Fairbanks I would not be able to be a game time leader in AWANA or be able to live in Healy for that matter. A four hour round trip drive for one class is just not cost or time effective.
This leads to the other distinct need of the online learning environment, the reality of the human and machine relationship, which is highlighted in the learning theory of connectivist. As Ally (2008) explains, “What is needed is not a new stand-alone theory for the digital age, but a model that integrates the different theories to guide the design of online learning materials’ (18). This is what the connectivist learning theory aspires to accomplish, but what sets it apart is this learning theory relies on technology. In the online learning environment students must interact with technology and realize that they are not just learning from a distant instructor, but from the technology itself. For example, autocorrect is not the instructor helping you compose a message it is a machine, the technology. GPS is another example or the assignment reminders and alerts on BlackBoard telling you something is due or the instructor/fellow student made a comment. This is a distinct need in the online learning environment. Students need to be able to learn, interact, and adapt to a machine being part of the learning experience.
Lastly, unlearning is a unique need of the online learning environment. Ally (2008) describes the need for the unlearning process in the online learning environment:
Some information and procedures become obsolete because of changes in the field and innovation; learners must therefore be able to unlearn old information and mental models and learn current information and mental models. The information that is valid today may not be valid tomorrow. (34)
This is not to say this does not take place in the classroom when curriculum is updated or new technology is introduced. In the online learning environment material, software, and programs are constantly being updated. If you do not update your computers software you may not be able to attend a synchronous session successfully. Two years ago I was taking an online class and the synchronous sessions were not required, but attending them was always beneficial and developed a sense of community. I thought I had updated everything and even tried to connect to the eLive session on BlackBoard way before the session started. I tried for hours to figure out what I was doing wrong. It ended up that my Java was not updated and when I went to download the update I had further issues. In online learning it is a need to be always checking for updates and it is not just an instructor’s responsibility, but also the students. In a classroom the students do not have to worry about updating the textbooks or other learning materials.
To sum up Ally (2008) describes the online learning environment as where:
…learners must be allowed to connect with others around the world to examine others’ opinions and to share their thinking with the world. Mobile learning promises to help learners function in a networked world where they can learn at any time and from anywhere (Ally, 2005). (34)
Online learning equals anytime from anywhere. It also requires you to adapt to technology being a part of the learning experience and sometimes part of the teaching too. This is what makes online learning truly distinct from the traditional classroom environment. The online learning classroom takes place in cyberspace, at home, in a van, and anywhere your computer or Internet is available. Anytime. Anywhere.
Ally, M. (2008). Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning. In Theory and Practice of Online Learning (2nd ed., pp. 15-44). Athabasca University.