The Medium is the Message (Part 2)

The State of Online Education Part 2

In the last post we looked at the state of online education using the product life cycle model. That was a business or management consultant perspective. In this post we’ll look at online education as a new medium. A medium is a way to store and transmit information. Online learning is a new medium because it is fundamentally different from the mediums used for education previously – books, lectures, tutorials etc. 

I touched on this in an earlier post: Early Signs of a Winning Project, when I said successful online learning products would take advantage of the unique capabilities of the online medium. This post will dig deeper into why this is true. 

But first let’s begin by looking at the history of mediums.

New Mediums

Whenever a new media format arises, the first thing people do is take something from an existing medium and put it on the new medium

In the early 1950’s as television was emerging as a new medium, some of the first television shows were adapted from popular existing radio shows. In fact, some of the earliest shows consisted of someone recording and broadcasting radio presenters as they spoke into microphones. Similarly when movies first emerged, some of the earliest films were recordings of stage plays.

But this is not what we imagine when we talk about television and movies today. Television is a new medium with its own capabilities. As people experimented with the new medium, they began to discover what was unique about the medium. When we think about modern day television shows, their characteristics include:

  • Shows that are pre-shot and edited ahead of broadcast
  • Camera movement like panning, zooming and tracking shots
  • Multiple angle shots (i.e. close ups and over the shoulder)
  • Voiceover narration or addition of music or soundtrack
  • The presence of TV audiences
  • Multi-angle replays for live broadcasts (e.g. sports matches)

These elements are easy to identify because we are talking about an established medium – television. The question is what innovations will evolve to define the online education medium. It’s hard to predict what the future will look like, BUT we can safely say what online education will not look like. It won’t stay as it is now – online textbooks and content dumps. The future of online learning will not be an online textbook.

Online education is stuck in this first stage of taking existing mediums and putting them online, best exemplified in how people use Learning Management Systems. LMS’s are filled with online versions of things that previously existed in the offline world:

  • Video lectures are recordings of a lecture delivered in real life
  • PDF readings replace prior paper handouts
  • eTextbooks replacing paper based textbooks

This isn’t online teaching. At best this represents educational content that just happens to be hosted online. 

What will great online learning look like?

What will great online learning look like?

In the future the best and most effective online courseware will take advantage of elements that make the internet unique. I’ll outline some promising areas for exploration below.

1. Online learning experiences not online educational content.

Great online learning will transition towards learning experiences where students are guided through a learning journey as opposed to today where students are handed a dump of content and expected to filter out what they need, by themselves. A learning experience also means stripping away all the superfluous information and presenting what a student needs at that point in time, guided and designed by instructors.

2. Diverse and rich media (combining text, images, video, simulations) to create a cohesive experience.

A modern user interface should be expected on today’s internet, but sadly most online educational technologies look like they did 30 years ago. i.e. a page of hyperlinks.

3. Learning by Doing and Feedback.

Students demonstrate their understanding by interacting and responding to questions instead of passively reading or watching a video. The system responds with feedback to help students understand whether they are wrong or right and why.

4. Bringing together a critical mass of students interested in niche topics.

The scale of the internet helps people with niche and specific interests find each other and build communities. More and more you will see great online learning emerge from previously niche topics such as how to write online or becoming a Youtuber, which are not part of any ‘traditional’ university or higher educational curriculum.  

5. The opportunity to create useful communities that persist across time. 

There are many examples of websites that are built around the development of useful communities – (subreddits, forums, Stack Overflow).

6. Using data analytics to improve the product in real time. 

Modern websites generate data on how users are interacting with their website (time on screen, attempts, user inputs etc), which can be used to improve and make the courseware more effective. These improvements will be deployed to new users or cohorts in a continuous manner. (We are talking in the manner of days, weeks as opposed to months and years).

For comparison, editions of textbooks are published every few years and the user feedback loop is long and slow or otherwise non-existent. Any possible improvements would need to wait until the release of the next edition. 

Every Medium Has Genres

If we look at the history and development of other mediums, every medium grows to develop sub-genres which offer different types of experiences. Games provide some obvious examples:

  1. Fighting games
  2. Real time strategy games
  3. Platformers
  4. First person shooters
  5. Sport simulations
  6. Rhythm games
The genres of gaming are well defined and easy to understand

The sub-genres of online learning are only starting to emerge now. These are just a couple of the types of learning experiences that we worked on and pioneered at Smart Sparrow.

Immersive Virtual labs

These are online activities or lessons that prepare students to undertake a task in real life such as working in a laboratory. They often feature immersive 3D environments and have students demonstrate their knowledge by manipulating and moving objects around like following experimental procedures.

Guided Exploration

A Guided Exploration are lessons crafted by instructors to explore some topic along with the student. Students have mixed modes of interaction from reading, watching videos and listening to audio to checking knowledge with questions and activities and summarising knowledge.

These types of lessons can be used as a standalone lesson or in a flipped classroom model where instruction takes place online and tutorial time is used for activities and feedback.

Choose-your-own-adventure style

In these lessons students often role play a situation, they make decisions and receive feedback. This can be applied to many different areas: making business decisions in a small company to study the effect of accounting systems, role playing taking a medical history from a patient or coaching an employee through a performance review. This type of lesson is great for many reasons:

  • Making choices is useful to allow students to model and demonstrate behaviours (e.g. asking for patient consent in a medical setting)
  • Receiving immediate feedback helps correct behaviours as they occur
  • Exploring the tradeoffs and relationships between different decisions (e.g. in how to run a business)

Sandbox simulations

Sandbox simulations allow students to replay and adjust the parameters in a preset scenario. This allows students to develop intuition around the topics instead of passively reading an explanation or worked example. This particular sandbox simulation helps students develop intuition around physics concepts of impulse and momentum (using a car crash).

This is still an emerging area and this is not an exhaustive list of the types of online learning and I’m excited to see what kind of experiences people dream up next.


“The media are not toys; they should not be in the hands of Mother Goose and Peter Pan executives. They can be entrusted only to new artists because they are art forms.” 

Marshal McLuhan Counterblast (1954)

Ultimately, the people who determine what online learning will look like are the practitioners and designers who design, produce and deploy learning experiences to students. 

In the next and final post we’ll talk about some pioneering companies and the most exciting and promising areas of online learning.