Five online learning myths

Five online learning myths

Online learning is, I remind myself, new and relatively uncharted—especially when compared to the hundreds of years of experience we have in teaching by traditional methods.

There’s a lot we don’t know about this novel way of learning. The growth in high-speed Internet connections, and the evolution of new computing devices including tablets, will encourage innovation and experimentation in online learning.
Yet there is some accumulated knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work for learners. We try to pass along what we’ve learned from our experience with students and their interactions with our courses and simulations.
As part of that effort, here are five online learning myths we’ve encountered along the way, and, some reasons why it’s time to retire them.

  • Myth #1. While a nice complement in the learning mix, narrative learning is less effective than more direct methods of teaching. We’d argue that effective learning can begin with narrative learning techniques (case studies, interactive scenarios, games, animated cartoons, graphic nonfiction stories and simulations). Narrative learning can help improve comprehension and mastery of concepts and challenge learners to analyze, synthesize, and make decisions. Story-telling will beat a dry, “just-the-facts” approach every time.
  • Myth #2. The longer the video, the better! The reality: research shows human attention spans typically top out at 15 minutes. So assuming that learners will give a 45-minute online video their rapt attention is a mistake. We recommend chopping longer video into more digestible chunks (with 15 minutes as the maximum length for a segment.)
  • Myth #3. Matching text with audio improves learner retention. Actually, it doesn’t. The research shows that learners don’t process well when they listen and read at the same time. That may come as a surprise to some who believe that presenting text with an audio voice-over reinforces learning. Apparently the brain isn’t designed to handle such a barrage of information, so it’s best not to employ this duplicative method of presentation.
  • Myth #4. Slide presentations easily convert to online learning. They often don’t. Here’s an irony: engaging slide presentations are harder to adapt to online learning. Why? Because a well-designed PowerPoint that conforms to the rule of six (no more than six bullet points with six words per line) relies on the presenter to fill in the details for the audience. Bullet points aren’t enough for online learning, however. Thus, having teaching notes or a presenter’s script in hand is vital for converting slide presentations for effective online use.
  • Myth #5. Asking learners to answer lots of questions is an unnecessary waste of their time. Research suggests just the opposite. Embedding numerous questions in a learning resource can improve retention and mastery. Some recent studies suggest that recall test-taking (what researchers call “retrieval practice”) works significantly better as a method of learning than repeated study or concept mapping.

These insights into what’s effective in online learning reflect what we’ve learned to date. Because online learning is an evolutionary field, we look to constantly revisit our assumptions about effective instructional design and the impact of changing practices on the Web. We also review learner feedback to see what techniques work in practice. Then we look to make whatever changes are called for to improve performance–ideally practicing what we preach.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders