The 7 Deadly Sins of Online Learning (And 7 Ways to Repent)

Digital Learning

The 7 Deadly Sins of Online Learning (And 7 Ways to Repent)

By Sydney Johnson     Apr 6, 2017

The 7 Deadly Sins of Online Learning (And 7 Ways to Repent)

Education technology is riddled with temptations and false promises. But if you ask Mark Brown, a professor and director of the National Institute for Digital Learning at Dublin City University in Ireland, problems such as falling for hype around new technology is an absolute moral dilemma. He’s caved in before. “I have a personal confession,” Brown admitted in his keynote address at OLC Innovate happening this week in New Orleans. “I am a very big sinner.”

Yet like any confessional, Brown also offered ways to repent from what he called “the seven deadly sins of online learning.” Feeling a bit guilty ourselves (and perhaps inspired by the home of the Saints), we caught up with Brown afterwards for some advice on ways to return to the righteous path.


Sin: The glitzy gadgets, bandwagons and buzzwords are easy to latch on to. But they aren’t always meaningful, and can limit innovation by pigeonholing people to old ideas and ways of thinking about online learning. “In the past, I have been guilty of being seduced, perhaps mesmerized by the hype of new technology,” Brown said. “I have to remind myself that real sustainable innovation isn’t about the magic of marvel; it goes deeper than that.”

Repent: Take a close look at the research before giving in to flashy brands and the latest-and-greatest, Brown warned. “There are too many generalizations—online and blended learning isn't a single entity. We have wonderful case studies of innovation, but when you remove the novelty after time the impact isn’t the same. We must be able to skillfully read the research.”


Sin: Brown is weary of the so-called thought leaders and loud talking heads in the community. These people can be easy to latch onto, he said, and limit the level of input others can contribute when crafting goals and plans. “We are told vision is crucial to planning sustainable change, to structural innovation. But the problem is not a lack of vision, but rather whose vision, and where is the vision coming from?”

Repent: Instead of focusing on a single vision, Brown thinks real innovation lies in the ability to create more leaders and with that, add diverse perspectives. “The world we are living in is so fluid and dynamic, you have to build an environment where everyone is able to contribute to the vision.” As an example, Brown pointed to his own university, which last week ran a 24-hour live brainstorming exercise that invited anyone to share their ideas about what the college should be working on. “We had thousands of people contribute and everyone had the chance to see themselves in the vision.”


Sin: Call this one Gilligan’s fate (at least, that’s what Brown does). Islands emerge when products, solutions and ideas exist isolated from others either in their development, implementation or purpose. Brown bears witness to this personally. “I have created islands of innovation that have been disconnected to my wider institution or beyond. I didn’t place enough attention on planning for sustainable change beyond the innovation, and many innovations that I have been involved in failed after the funding ended.”

Repent: Getting around the silos of innovation can be a bit of a paradox.“In some cases it's really desireable to create an island where you can innovate,” Brown said. Key to getting around that, he suggests, is to create an island that can welcome back innovation, meaning it can continue to reinvent and work with new ideas from outside. An example he points to is the way his university approaches MOOCs. “Our investment in MOOCs has nothing to do with branding or trying to generate a pipeline of students. MOOCs are a place to try things out and we are deliberately designing them to try new things and almost subversively to have an influence on regular curriculum.”


Sin: Conflicts, challenging opinions, scrappiness, sweat and complete failures are all part what makes innovation, well, innovation. Too often though, Brown said from experience, creators will try to avoid tension instead of embracing and, more importantly, learning from them. “I have been guilty of taming the technology. I have forgotten how important to remember innovation isn’t a single entity.”

Repent: “The missing edge of innovation is something we need to embrace,” according to Brown. A few things that can always help manage, but not necessarily erase the messy nature of innovation he said are (unsurprisingly) “dedicated funding,” as well as re-evaluating the way institutions check and report on innovation and projects. “I’m all for a light touch, trusting people and less of a culture of accountability and compliance,” he continued. “I have seen institutions with a great amount of funding for innovation but then they wrap it into a framework that might constrain that. It’s getting that balance right.”


Sin: Spending, funding, investments and returns can’t be ignored when developing a new idea or tool. But Brown feels that these factors can quickly and wrongly become the primary decision-maker. “I have fallen into the trap of focusing too much on budget,” he shared. Brown believes paying attention only to the decimal signs and commas leads to too much “overpromising and under-delivering” when it comes to actual innovation outcomes.

Repent: Brown believes the real cost of innovation lies in human resources and bandwidth. He doesn’t deny the need for funding, but stressed what’s important to recognize is the amount of flexibility (read: time) faculty, educators and even entrepreneurs need to not only try something new, but to implement it well. “Everyone at western universities worldwide is suffering from the intensification of their workload. Institutions are often solving that problem by contracting teaching to TAs… I want to take a long-term view of the cost.” How long is long enough? Brown said it varies, but “one year isn’t enough.”


Sin: When entrepreneurs and innovators talk about impact, what does that actually mean? The word gets tossed around so much that’s its purpose can get diluted, according to Brown. “When I think of the legacies of innovation that I have been involved with, we still don’t understand what that means and it’s a great challenge.”

Repent: Brown has his own impact framework he turns to when evaluating impact of projects and initiatives. In particular, he said he tends to take a close look at the undesired outcomes. “Some impact is negative and it’s important to understand that side because those are the failures,” he said. In addition, he underlined the importance of “quiet impact,” like small policy changes in an the institution that could have long term effects.


Sin: “The problem of culture is that culture is very conforming,” said Brown. “And if you have a culture that is conforming, where is the innovation really going to come from?”

Repent: Culture, which subsumes just about all of the previous six sins, isn’t easy to change. What’s harder—and more crucial—Brown argued, is recognizing and fostering the subgroups that make up a culture. “There are all these subcultures and often they are competing with each other. That can be quite dynamic, and you can value disagreement and conflict.” Incorporating all opinions when decisions have to get made at the end of the day isn’t easy, Brown recognized. But one way to start is by listening and working to understand resistance as it happens. “We often hear people talk about the laggers, and how they’ll come on board eventually. Actually, they won’t. And if you don’t understand why they are resistant—and that they probably have very good reasons to resist—then you‘re doomed to fail."

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