img via flickr by docpopFor all the great advantages of online learning, there is one big downside, which is not necessarily the fault of online learning but of the way people relate to it:

There exists a wide-spread deception that using tools can replace teaching or learning for that matter, and while few people would admit actually believing this, the number of blogs and articles about techno-centric education prove the opposite.

Their approach is built on the valid understanding that tools can be used as an extension but then goes overboard until the learning itself becomes completely shrouded in never-ending talks about tools, technologies, apps, etc.

All of this obscures the fact that while people like to talk about education and be seen as philanthropists their understanding of what learning actually means might be limited.

Will it Blend?

Here’s an example: In the online learning scene, you’ll hear people talk a lot about Blended Learning“. It’s supposed to refer to the “mixing of different learning environments” (wiki) but can mean a variety of different things, depending on who uses it. In most of the cases, though, it is used to describe learning situations where traditional and digital forms of learning are mixed. This could mean mixing face-to-face learning with Internet forum discussions between lessons or other asynchronous, as people like to call them, learning modalities.

Needless to say, terms like these are very popular. Why? Because, although seemingly very meaningful, they are essentially empty. Everybody can dress himself in them and fill the buzzing shell with his own gobbledygook. Furthermore, the more importance people ascribe to concepts like these, the higher the likelihood that they have no clue what they are actually talking about.

But enough of my assertions. Here’s an illustration, instead:


Paper is a medium. A pencil is a tool which can be used to store and edit information in the medium.

The same is true for the blackboard and chalk. They are technologies. Primitive as they may appear they are part of the evolution which led to the printing press and ebook readers. And they are all still in use!

Would you go to a conference about the “revolutionizing role of pens and blackboards blended with face-to-face communication and asynchronous homework assignments”? No? Then what’s the deal with “Blended Learning“? Isn’t learning always “blended learning”? Isn’t natural learning (as we see with children for example) always a “mixing of different learning environments”? Do terms like “blended learning” actually improve learning or do they just reveal our own deficiencies to understand either learning or technology?

Ok, well. The new technologies are not like pen and chalk. The new media are not like paper and blackboard. And while there may be a huge difference in terms of technology and usage, they nevertheless are just that: tools.

And I’ve said it many times before, but according to the widespread confusion in “online learning” discussions, there is evidently a need to repeat it over and over again:

Tools and toys can assist in the learning process but they don’t equate with learning.

So, instead of swamping the debate with more talks about technology, both teachers and students might benefit more from taking a closer look and begin a re-evaluation of their notions of learning from a more common-sense perspective, which is briefly outlined here:

A Common-Sense Approach to Learning

At the basis there are a few questions one has to ask:

  1. Why to learn?
  2. What to learn?
  3. How to learn?
  4. When to learn?

While all of them are important, the What and How are the most practical ones, on which I want to focus here.


The What at first seems to be the choice of an individual, or at least it should be, many of us feel. But we all know it’s not. Much of traditional education is not necessarily based on learning which is chosen by the individuals, it is instead prescribed by governmental education plans or the “job market”.

Nevertheless, an important but evidently underrated question is what is worthwhile to learn and what is not? Far from asking about the reasons for learning something (the why – e.g. gaining respect, a promising job, etc.) – what is actually worth learning?

Considering the fact that everyone will answer this question differently, the varieties of learning as known from schools and universities are surprisingly flat and similar!

Online Learning here can help, not because of its gadgetry but because it can be used in a more specialized, targeted and individual way. Meaning: If you want to learn something very specific you can directly hook up with a teacher who teaches exactly that!

This specialization is enabled by certain technologies like search engines and VoIP but they don’t have much to do with the actual learning! In fact, they become irrelevant at the point where real learning starts!


After having chosen something, the question poses itself: How to learn it? This is the most important question for it determines your progress like no other factor.

Several answers are possible:

– You can learn from a teacher

– You can learn through self-study

There seem to be many more answers, but they can all be grouped into these two categories. Either you learn on your own (with the help of books, the Internet, people who are on the same level (study group), or simple trial and error) or you learn from someone, meaning a person who has already gone through everything you aspire to learn and thus can “pull you up”, as it were.

It is this pulling up which can be called “true teaching”. Books can be teachers, too – in this respect. Especially in the beginning students can collect a bulk of basic and necessary information simply from information media. But a teacher can do something that none of these technologies can do: A teacher intervenes spontaneously, creatively and with appropriate insight as to where you are in the process as a whole.

A comprehensive training course which can teach teachers those skills has yet to be seen.

There are even people who believe it can’t be taught. Then there are further complications like that those willing to teach aren’t always those most qualified and those who would be qualified aren’t always willing.

However difficult these issues may be, dealing with them seems to be more worthwhile than just hunting hype after hype and collecting buzzwords for your next podium presentation.


Whereas a beginner can learn a lot from simply studying on her own, eventually after all the knowledge is soaked up, further progress can only be reached through mutual work with a teacher. No matter what you are learning, whether it’s sports, piano, languages or martial arts, no technology in the world will change that.

Interestingly this concept is mentioned by virtually all learning traditions in the East, whereas in the West we have historically tended to rely more on knowledge and technologies than on the learning relationship.

But it’s not that this idea is absent in the West (or that the East always lives up to its own standards, either). In the ancient European tradition of artisans you can still see the same apprentice system, for example, which at its core is a relationship between two (or more) people through which understanding and knowledge is being transferred.

This is where true learning/teaching happens.

A lot can be done by reading, playing with interactive applications, etc. But nothing beats working with a qualified person.

Yes. A person. Not a machine.

Interacting with a machine or interacting with a person through a machine is not the same.

img: CC BY-NC 2.0 by docpop