The Great Onlining of 2020: How adult education theory can inform optimal online learning.

Picture of a laptop with Zoom gallery view on the desktop.
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

When I designed a 10-week online graduate course called Learning Environment Design for Northwestern University in 2015, I created one week-long module entitled, “Preparing for the Apocalypse: Using the Internet to Survive Downtime.” In my introductory video of the week’s subject matter to the class I said, 

“I know the title of this Module sounds very dramatic and I wanted it to be. Being an educator and learning environment designer in the information age requires some careful and critical reflection about how we view technology and the relationship of people to technology.”

Little did I know how prophetic this title would turn out to be, although the rest of the module did not venture into the realm of a global pandemic. I was only thinking at the time about school web systems. 

“When instructors ask me what they should do if the LMS or school web site goes down, I point out that the Internet was designed to have multiple channels operating simultaneously to limit disruption of information sharing.” 

I never dreamed it would be the actual school itself that would be shut down, but in both scenarios the message that the internet operates as a communications safety net holds true.

As I designed IDS 425, I tried to incorporate adult education theories wherever possible. The entire course was constructed with a learner-centered approach. From the very first week of class, I wanted students to determine their own expectations, not only for themselves, but also for me. I created a Community Charter assignment, not a new concept in online learning, but what was new for my students was that they had nothing to work from. It was entirely from scratch and with people they did not yet know. Throughout this process I encouraged students to listen and work together but did not intervene at all. We examined roles and responsibilities and then students were broken into groups to develop their own case studies that they would use throughout the course for various assignments. Students also were asked to provide items for our weekly optional sync sessions agendas. Lastly, I built in periods of self-reflection near the beginning and near the end of the class. This provided an opportunity to connect one to one with each student and form not a student/teacher relationship, but rather a collaborative/learner relationship. I even included readings from Malcolm Knowles and Jack Mezirow during discussions on adult learning and transformative learning theory.

I was teaching the last two weeks of the winter iteration of IDS 425 when it became clear the pandemic would force all courses to be conducted online. I was still grading final projects as we prepared to train over 1,000 faculty members in little over a week how to move their course content and start teaching online for the spring quarter. We were witnessing the great onlining of 2020, as George Siemens called it on Twitter. 

And it wasn’t just Northwestern that moved rapidly, according to a survey conducted by Bay View Analytics and published in Inside Higher Education (2020), 90% of American colleges and universities had about a week to move their courses, instructors, and students online. As a result, the quality of instruction took a hit. For example, 80% of instructors used synchronous video to teach, while 48% said they lowered their expectations for the amount of work students would be able to do. Another 32% said they had “lowered the expectations about the quality of work that my students will be able to do”

There appears to be consensus among many academic researchers and scholars that the move to emergency remote teaching, now commonly referred to as ERT, has created a two-tier system of online education. ERT courses and properly designed online courses. I would like to place ERT on the lower tier and Optimal Online Learning (OOL) on the upper tier. The speed with which thousands of courses are being moved online as we speak is staggering. Development cycles that are normally 6 months are being reduced to mere weeks. While ostensibly only a temporary, or emergency fix, this will lead to the inevitable comparison between online learning and face-to-face learning. Some educators are warning that the term “online learning” itself will become politicized. Already “trollish” articles are appearing with sweeping and uninformed headlines. The usual theme is that distance learning does not work or is inferior, but there is also often an underlying theme undergirded by fear of change and incompetence.

According to Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust, and Bond (Educause Review, 2020), 

“Online learning carries a stigma of being lower quality than face-to-face learning, despite research showing otherwise. These hurried moves online by so many institutions at once could seal the perception of online learning as a weak option, when in truth nobody making the transition to online teaching under these circumstances will truly be designing to take full advantage of the affordances and possibilities of the online format.” 

Courses that are designed using sound online education guidelines and taught by experienced online educators offer an experience as good, or even better than traditional on-ground lectures. However, ERT courses are often neither well designed for online learners, nor taught by experienced online instructors. 

Yes, learning how to teach online takes time and training. 

Many universities are now scrambling to ramp up their online preparedness by mandating summer bootcamps for full and part-time faculty. These boot camps are intended to address the obvious deficiencies in ERT courses. However, despite these efforts, there is still a gap in the underlying practice of online instruction that has become exposed under these extraordinary conditions. 

Even under the best of circumstances, how can online learning possibly fill the needs of undergraduates yearning human contact and a sense of college community? While virtual teaching can cover the curriculum, how will schools address the social, emotional, and experiential needs that real campuses offer? What is missing from ERT? Below is a short list of some of the missing components:

  • Student-centered learning 
  • Community building
  • Experiential learning opportunities
  • Opportunities for Critical Thinking
  • Meaningful self-reflection
  • Transformative learning

While many educators may shrug their shoulders at this dilemma, leading adult educators and philosophers have long extolled the virtues of community building and creating learner-centered cultures in virtual communities. Challenging undergraduates to not only participate in, but create and lead virtual communities can fill some of the void laid bare by empty campuses and non-existent student groups. By leveraging extensive research conducted on the roles of online learners and teachers, and by making self-governance and action learning new pillars of online learning, we may be able to turn adversity into a new age of online adult education.

How can ERT be converted to OOL using adult education theory?

Despite the challenges, however, many teachers are adopting the new age of online learning with enthusiasm and an open mind. In doing so, they are discovering a whole new world of opportunities for learners and teachers.

  • ERT classrooms often resort to Freire’s (2010) “banking model” by relying on synchronous “Zoom lectures”.
  • OOL classrooms nurture facilitated asynchronous “discussions”.
  • ERT classrooms lack opportunities for open dialogue & exploratory learning.
  • OOL classrooms can leverage bell hooks’ (1994) “teaching to transgress” model.
  • ERT classrooms pay lip service to the community of online learners.
  • OOL celebrates communities and individual learners, their life-stories, and builds on Knowles’ (1980) idea that learners like to solve specific problems that are relevant to them and allow them to be part of the planning process.
  • ERT classrooms tend to be outcome driven and critical thinking is viewed as too difficult to achieve.
  • OOL values critical thinking and strives for “transformative learning” by having students openly share their unique perspectives, challenge one another respectfully, and through self-reflection. Disorienting dilemmas are welcome (Mezirow, 2000).

Manya Whittaker (2020), in an article entitled, “What an ed-tech skeptic learned about her own teaching in the covid-19 crisis”, lists 16 things she has adopted since starting to teach online. It is well worth a read.


Freire, Paulo. (2010). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. 

Hodges, Charles., Moore, Stephanie., Lockee, Barb., Trust, Torrey., Bond, Aaron. (2020). The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Retrieved from

hooks, bell. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY.: Routledge. 

Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall/Cambridge. 

Lederman, Doug. (2020). How teaching changed in the (forced) shift to remote learning. Retrieved from

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation: critical perspectives on a theory in progress (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc. 

Ralph, Nate. (2020). Perspectives Covid-19, and the future of higher education. Retrieved from

Whitaker, Manya. (2020). What an ed-tech skeptic learned about her own teaching in the covid-19 crisis. Retrieved from

Published by

David Sharrard Noffs

I have spent most of my life designing innovative and experimental learning environments, from my early work with hi-tech mobile classrooms in Australia’s rural communities, to over ten years as an instructional technologist and designer in the Center for Innovation in Teaching Excellence at Columbia College Chicago. In 2015 I began teaching Learning Environment Design at Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies and then joined the Distance Learning team as a full-time Learning Designer in 2017. In this role, I am able to do what I love most; help educators make learning a productive, enjoyable, and transformative experience.