Current Myths and Future Trends in Online Teaching and Learning

Curtis J. Bonk, Indiana University

Slightly over a year ago, I completed a report, “Online Teaching in an Online World” (Bonk, 2001) that attempted to summarize the state of e-learning in higher education (see for a free copy).  This report captured the needs, experiences, preferences, and activities of 222 college instructors who were early adopters of the Web.  It also recorded key support structures that they required as well as the constraints and obstacles they commonly faced.  At the end of the report, several implications were offered related to online learning pedagogy, tool development, instructional design, and research.

Some of these early adopters alluded to both the problems they faced online (poor quality materials and courseware, lack of administrative support, constant student demands, etc.) as well as the joys they experienced (e.g., ease of access and use, unique cross cultural mentoring, inter-university collaboration and pooling of resources, etc.).  It is unfortunate, however, when the successes or difficulties of online instruction are overgeneralized and become myths or barriers to online instruction.  It is vital for those teaching online as well as those considering it, to sift through the various myths and dispel or at least qualify them.  In response, I point to some of the myths of online learning that the data from our survey report allows us to respond to.  After discussing some of these myths, I will point to technologies on the horizon that, while enhancing online learning, will likely expand the prevailing myths.

Ten Myths of Online Learning in Higher Education
As indicated above, there are a myriad of myths related to teaching online in higher education.  Rumors are rampant about the time requirements and constraints, the lowered quality of student learning, the ease of taking an online course, and the lack of interactivity and engagement.  As detailed below, the findings of our survey report will help lay a few of these myths to rest while perhaps simultaneously planting the seeds for new ones to sprout up.

1. Web instruction is an either-or decision.  There are numerous forms of Web instruction and integration (Bonk, Cummings, Hara, Fischler, & Lee, 2000).  In fact, in our survey, forty percent of the respondents had experience teaching partially online or blended courses, 18 percent had taught fully online courses, and 19 percent had done both.  The remaining quarter of respondents had posted syllabi or course resources to places such as MERLOT or the World Lecture Hall, but had not yet taught on the Web.  From this vantagepoint, it is clear that the Web is often not the sole source of learning.  In fact, a blended approach to learning--some live, some online--is often the most prominent and beneficial (Barbian, 2002; Hoffman, 2001).

2. Pedagogical tools exist to teach online.  Our respondents pointed to a huge need for tools for critical and creative thinking on the Web as well as performance tools, lab tools, and simulation and demonstration tools.  At present, most institutions of higher education are simply struggling with what course management tool to purchase.  While there was a nearly even split between Blackboard and WebCT use in our survey, many survey respondents indicated that their organizations acquired two or more courseware platforms and let faculty decide which one(s) to teach with.

Despite these options, none of the online courseware available today offers what we need to teach and learn online.  There are no comprehensive courseware platforms that offer useful tools or options for online debates, role play, comparison and contrast, or brainstorming (other than chat tools).  And there are no timeline tools, no taxonomy templates, and no concept mapping tools either.  How can college instructors teach without such critical teaching support?  Well, we have three choices: (1) we can protest online learning as many college faculty members have done rather unsuccessfully in the past; (2) we can partner with the e-learning corporations and new ventures to develop better tools; or (3) we can wrap sound pedagogical activities around these inferior tools. As indicated in many of my writings (Bonk & Dennen, 1999, in press; Bonk & Reynolds, 1997), I opt for the latter option as have many others (Oliver, Omari, & Herrington, 1998; Paulsen, 1995).

3. College instructors will flock to sophisticated technologies. As many other studies show (Peffers & Bloom, 1999), instructors tend to use technology that is simple to navigate and use.  Instead of using rich multimedia and interactive simulations, most rely file uploading and downloading tools, discussion forums, synchronous chats, and tools to post syllabi and lecture notes.  The lack of audio and video content is not too surprising given the limited broadband access in the United States.  At the same time, the role of online chats or the posting of one’s syllabus should not be downplayed.  Posting a syllabus may be a low level of Web integration, but it also is a means to market and share one’s ideas and teaching techniques (Bonk et al., 2000).

4. College instructors simply need a little more training to teach effectively on the Web.  Our survey of early Web adopters indicated that college instructors need many forms of training and support.  The key support they requested was release time, followed by instructional development grants and stipends, technical support staff, time to learn about the Web, instructional design support, and training on how to use the Web in teaching.  Other high need areas included increased access to the Web and other technology and time for course preparation.

5. College instructors will not place their work on display for others to critique.  While I often hear this complaint when I travel the globe training instructors how to teach online, there is definitely a growing trend to share resources online.  It really does not matter if I am in New Zealand, Australia, Korea, Canada, or Denmark, I hear people say that college instructors in their particular country do not like to share what we do with others.  In each setting, there is a concern about opening up one’s teaching practices to the Web.  In stark contrast, over half of our respondents considered course sharing as important to their personal and professional growth.  In return, some hoped to get pedagogical ideas, answers to teaching problems, and expert advice from online instructor communities.

6. If we ignore this long enough, online learning will go away.  While teaching online was approximately a one-fourth of their current teaching load, our respondents anticipated that this will increase to about half of their load within five years and over half by the year 2010.  Importantly, a parallel survey we conducted in the corporate training world (Bonk, 2002) showed the same trends, though the numbers were even more striking as corporate trainers and instructors perceived that over two-thirds of their instruction would be online in ten years.

7. College instructors are loyal.  Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of our survey occurred when we inquired about freelance instruction.  Only 16 percent had been freelance instructors or hired guns on the Web in the past, but nearly 75 percent of those we surveyed anticipated teaching freelance or as online adjunct instructors in the next five years.  Perhaps these findings are skewed somewhat by a more experienced survey sample, many of whom anticipate retiring from their institution in the next few years but still want to maintain a foot in teaching.  Or perhaps it is due to a perceived need to experiment with one’s teaching.  Or perhaps they simply need to make more money.  Interestingly, these findings were replicated in our follow-up survey of corporate trainers and instructors.

8. The institution will own the online course.  Only 16 percent of the respondents to the higher education survey felt that their institution owned their online courses.  In addition, 63 percent of respondents indicated that their institution did not have clear ownership policies or guidelines.  Another 20 percent were unsure about ownership policies at their institution.  Certainly, for online learning to grow, this is an issue that requires significant institutional attention.  In contrast, our corporate survey respondents felt strongly that the corporation owned the online courses and course materials.

9. College instructors can teach the same way that they teach face-to-face.   In many open ended comments, our respondents noted that their instructional role was changing.  Several indicated that they needed to shift to more of a facilitator or moderator role online.  In fact, research from my colleague, Vanessa Dennen (2001), indicates that less effective online instructors lack flexibility, do not provide qualitative and quantitative guidelines related to student contributions, maintain didactic approaches of traditional instruction, and do not allow students to share perspectives.  She found that more successful instructors fostered student collaboration, interactivity, and engagement online.  Additionally, the effective instructor is more of a peer and co-learner than typically found in face-to-face settings.

10. Shhh…if you don’t say anything, college instructors will just do this for free. Actually, most instructors want some type of compensation for teaching online.  Many of those we surveyed felt that additional salary, royalty, stipends, release time, or other forms of recognition might be highly appropriate.

Ten More Myths
11.    Online learning is mainly about putting classroom instruction on the Web.
12.    Online learning is cheaper (or more expensive) than traditional instruction.
13.    Online learning is better (or worse) than traditional instruction.
14.    Profit is the key motive.  Learning is the key motive.  Access is the key motive.
15.    Our organization or institution is unique and needs to create its own online learning tools.
16.    Young instructors are the main ones teaching online.
17.    Time needed for online learning is equal to traditional instruction.
18.    Higher learner dropout and attrition is a fact of the online learning world.
19.    Online learning will not impact me.
20.    The Web is just like any other technology.

Future Technology Trends and Myths
Given the recent emergence of online teaching and learning, the range of myths and rumors concerning online learning is somewhat astonishing.  For the most part, such myths are limited to the technologies that are currently available for online learning.  But what happens when any one of dozens of possible new technologies are further developed or merged with existing ones?  For instance, what happens to these myths as wearable and wireless technologies continue to shift learning from set physical locations to a series of physical and digital alternatives?  Entire cultures (e.g., working, living, and learning) will change as we are immersed in new forms of online learning experiences.  Of course, myths will arise about the time needed to learn to use wireless technologies, the costs of wearable technologies, student access to such technologies, and the degree of training needed to effectively integrate them in teaching.

As history points out, the location of distance learning will only be limited by the boundaries of human travel and associated communication networks.  While distance learning at the end of the twentieth century included explorations at the poles, in the oceans, and out to space stations, in the coming decades, interplanetary chats with explorers and astronauts as well as remote views from distant satellites or spaceships will enhance and intrigue learners.  But what happens when humans begin to settle on Mars, the Moon, or other planetary systems?  With interplanetary chats, online mentoring is bound to take on new meaning!  Myths will certainly arise regarding the capabilities of these systems, the forms of mentoring offered, and the application of such mentoring to real world jobs back here on Earth.

Whether we colonize other planets or not, in the near future, licenses will be available for global online mentors.  In addition, global instructor interactivity ratings will be posted for those offering their services online.  As instruction becomes globalized, myths will arise about the skills needed of an effective global teacher or mentor (e.g., cultural sensitivity, fluency in multiple languages, task flexibility, instructional innovativeness, and ability to build relationships and individualize motivational techniques, etc.).  And you can count on renewed myths about the death of the traditional college instructor and university.

With wearable technologies, there will be an explosion of opportunities to offer live insights into cultural, historical, educational, and work-related events.  At the same time, developments in simulations and virtual world technology will shift the focus of distance education from lecturing and memorization to performance examinations in true-to-life situations (Aldrich, 2000, 2002).  Younger generations, in fact, will enter the online arena expecting interactivity, visual effects, and rapid access to information.  They will likely be ecstatic to find their electronic books embedded with interactive simulations and scenarios to be played on demand.  As these events unfold, myths will emerge about the quality of student learning as well as the transfer or generalization of skills learned during simulated or virtual experiences.

These are just some of the technologies that are emerging to alter or enhance online learning.  There are dozens more.  For instance, what happens to the rumor mill when reusable learning objects are standardized and exchanged across campuses?  What happens when peer-to-peer technologies for data sharing and work group collaboration are a more prevalent than cross-campus music exchanges on Napster, iMesh, or Kazaa?  And what myths will be circulated when intelligent agents start guiding students through their online experiences?  Will those who utilize them be considered smarter or dumber than their peers?  Will agents be prohibited during online examinations as pocket calculators were decades before?  Still other improvements in existing technologies are now forecasted to impact the online learning scene.  For instance, speech and handwriting recognition will soon offer new opportunities for entry into and success within online learning environments (Humer, 2002; Webb, 2001).

Online learning technologies currently are in their infancy. Yet, instructors and learners are already faced with a myriad of myths to consider and respond to.  As this manuscript attempts to point out, most often these myths do not match reality.  But when courseware is enhanced by electronic books, online mentoring programs, wireless access, online communities, or other new technologies and approaches, there will be an explosion of new myths as well as old ones to revisit.  Times such as these will be simultaneously exciting and challenging for college instructors as well as for us myth busters.

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Bio: Curtis J. Bonk, Ph.D., CPA ( is associate professor of Educational Psychology as well as Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University (IU).  He is a core member of the Center for Research on Learning and Technology at IU where he co-directs a rural teacher technology integration program called TICKIT (  Dr. Bonk is also a Senior Research Fellow with the Army Research Institute.  He received the Burton Gorman teaching award in 1999, the Wilbert Hites Mentoring Award in 2000, the “CyberStar” award from the Indiana Information Technology Association in 2002, and is in demand as a conference keynote speaker.  He is President and Founder of and can be contacted at

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