Professional Growth

5 Keys to Understanding Online Learning

7 min. read

Leveraging online learning to support the training and development of your employees.

The keys to understanding online learning

You’ve probably heard a lot of terms around online learning like synchronous and asynchronous, on demand, blended, eLearning, and if you’re really paying attention, LMS and SCORM. It probably feels like a lot to learn for something that’s just an augmentation to face-to-face learning, right?

Well, maybe not. The truth is that making sure that you select the right type of online learning to support your online education organization is critical to getting the most benefit out of it.

#1: What Are the Benefits of Online Learning?

There are very specific reasons that organizations around the world have opted to include online learning for teachers and other employees. The benefits of leveraging online learning that works include:

  • The ability to provide your teachers with targeted and personalized professional development
  • Access to a variety of topics to cover gaps in available learning
  • The ability to provide on demand courses that are flexible to staff schedules
  • Affordability — online learning typically saves cost
  • Online learning is easy to use
  • It is a trackable form of learning, giving administrators the accountability they need

#2: What Are the Terms?

Terms that you should understand when considering online learning options include:

  • Synchronous – Examples include webinars, Google Hangouts, Skype, forums, chats and discussions.
  • Asynchronous – These are on-demand courses that are self-paced.
  • Instructor-led – Courses that have instructors. Not necessarily synchronous.
  • Course – A true lesson with learning outcomes, instructional activities and assessment. Can include any media including audio, video, animation and simulation.
  • Video – Not a course. A video is a recording and is not instructional without additional prompts or assessment.
  • LMS – Learning management system, the delivery system for online courses.
  • SCORM – The protocol that allows courses to plug and play in any LMS as well as track learner progress.

Understanding these terms will help you to select online learning that is the right fit for your learners’ needs.

#3: Learner, Access and Topics

There are three critical components one needs to consider when selecting online learning to fit your needs:

Who is the learner?
Any provider of online learning always starts the creation of online courses with this question in mind. The learner might be a licensed teacher or administrator, or she might be a nurse, food service or transportation worker. What’s important to understand when selecting online learning courses is, “Does this provider understand the learners in my organization? Have they provided similar online courses to similar learners in the past? Is the length of the courses appropriate? Is the navigation straightforward?” And ultimately, “Will my learners be able to use these courses?”

How will learners access the technology?
Are your learners all going to access the online courses from the workplace, or will they sometimes access them from home? Is the provider a cloud provider whose courses are available 24/7 from any location? Are the courses accessible on a mobile device as well as a desktop or laptop? Is the technology they will be using the latest and greatest, or is it a little older? Can the provider’s courses handle that kind of range in delivery needs? It’s important that a provider’s courses have all the bells and whistles that contribute to the learning experience, while excluding those that aren’t useful or that will weigh down your technology infrastructure. Just because an online course is jazzy doesn’t mean that it’s going to provide the best learning opportunity for your employees.

Do the topics offered cover our needs?
You have to ask yourself which employees will be using the course libraries. Will it be only a subset that needs a very specific topic or will it be everyone? Does the provider you’re considering have the courses that you need? In the K12 world, topics include: safety and prevention, onboarding of new employees, substitute teacher training, educational technology and educator professional development covering everything from classroom management and instructional strategies to content areas to working with diverse groups of students. You’ll need a provider library that covers all the online training and learning topics that your learners need.

#4: Compliance vs. the Learning Experience

Now let’s move on to discuss an important and often confusing issue: compliance vs. the learning experience.

The most common question for administrators considering online learning is, “How will I know that my employees did the work?” This is a reasonable question given that you typically need proof that learners have taken courses for compliance reasons or so you can issue professional development credit. A good online course should provide you with peace of mind that the learner actually engaged with the course and understood the material. This leads to courses that are fairly constrained, with navigation that prevents learner “click-through,” pages that are tracked, and in most cases some form of assessment that the learner must pass. This kind of course architecture provides administrators with incontrovertible proof that the learner did the work. In other words, from a compliance perspective, you’re covered.

But such constrained courses may not offer the ideal learning experience. As we know, learners differ and some may want to “jump around” the lessons or skip material that is already well-understood. They may want to be able to enter their own information or reflections that can be exported or saved and studied later. They may even want to have different information served up to them based on their answers to assessment questions.

Unfortunately, over the past decade of online learning, compliance and this type of robust, open learning experience have been fairly mutually exclusive.

The good news is, that’s all about to change, and Frontline Education is right at the forefront of the changes to come.

#5: The Future of Online Learning

We’re at a very exciting time for online learning. There is a revolution taking place involving a new API called the “Experience” or “xAPI.” Put simply, the xAPI makes it possible for us to gather much more behavioral data about a learner’s interaction with a course, even if the course is not constrained.

  • For example, you can gain insights about how employees navigated courses: “Hey, it seems like most teachers really spent a lot of time on this topic. I wonder if we should make this a focus for the entire district?
  • You’ll also be able to gauge assessment results: “The newer teachers seem to struggle with the courses on UDL. Perhaps more mentor involvement in lesson planning could help.”
  • You can see if a teacher is being asked to complete material he or she already knows: “Hmmmm… this teacher didn’t really read most of the material, but she passed the quiz with flying colors. Maybe this wasn’t exactly the course that she needed.”

And these are just a few examples of what we’ll be able to know and do using xAPI.


For learning organizations looking to support the professional growth of their employees and impact their students, it’s more important than ever to pay attention to what’s happening in the world of online learning for teachers and all K-12 employees.

Rachel Fisher

Rachel Fisher brings fifteen years of expertise in eLearning and online content development as well as over a decade of experience working exclusively with K12 including online and live curriculum development. In addition, she served in the classroom teaching 6th and 7th grade science.