Context matters: A description and typology of the online learning landscape

Lowenthal, P. R., Wilson, B., & Parrish, P. (2009). Context matters: A description and typology of the online learning landscape. In M. Simonson (Ed.), 32nd Annual proceedings: Selected research and development papers presented at the annual convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. Washington D. C.: Association for Educational Communications and Technology.


The field of online learning faces a challenge: While we speak of online learning as a single entity, it tends to look very differently depending on the context of delivery. K12 and higher-ed learners, for example, might expect a fixed-pace, instructor-led course, whereas corporate learners see a greater mix of self-paced tutorials. Differences in setting, audience, techonlogy, pedagogy, and subject matter make generalizations and comparisons extremely challenging. Just as instructional designers often neglect the context of instruction (Tessmer, 1990; Tessmer & Richey, 1997; Tessmer & Wedman, 1995), practitioners and researchers of online learning rarely place enough emphasis on the context of their practices and models. And context changes everything. This is a happy problem of course, part of the growing pains of a successful infusion into established institutions. As online learning enters mainstream practice (Allen & Seaman, 2006, 2008; Lokken, 2009; Picciano & Seaman, 2007), we need more nuanced descriptions and specifications in order to guide practice and understand appropriate uses. This paper responds to that growing need by reviewing, synthesizing, and expanding on past classifications of online learning in an effort to develop an initial framework that presents key variables of the online learning landscape as well as a typology that can be used to classify specific instances of online learning. Our intent is to develop a framework to provide a more precise language for research, and help practitioners targeting quality assurance and program improvement.

Keywords: Online Learning, Typology, Context, eLearning, Distance Education

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