The Rationale for Online Learning

People are learning online. Your organization has a lot to teach the world.

So it makes sense to integrate an educational program into your online presence. But how do you get there?

Start with a good rationale. Hopefully this will help get your own creative juices flowing to create a relevant mandate for your own organization. With a rationale in hand, you can then make a plan that is grounded in purpose and fits your organization’s culture.

You don’t need a lot of money or even technological know-how to create an effective digital education program. Crafty videos, great writing, slideshows, podcasts – it’s never been easier to develop content that can serve as learning objects to deepen understanding amongst your people. Throw in some commitment to user experience (UX) and design and you’re golden.

Of course, money and know-how sure help. But with good multimedia design principles and a positive attitude, any organization of any kind, size and resources can weave an effective online learning program into their ongoing digital space. Creativity trumps money.

The fact is, your organization’s leadership and governing body need to know how your membership or constituency can benefit from cultivating social learning with digital tools. Your organization will tell its story better, engage your people better and advance learning objectives.

You can help make the case with some of the material laid out in this rationale.

New learning, new organizations

The rise of digital infrastructure has made new forms of organizing and collaboration possible, bringing profound implications for organizational structure and process. The era of digital connection and “crowdbeing” has opened up decision-making and power sharing, and gives rise to natural self-organizing and collaboration amongst workers, workers and supporters.

More transparent, collaborative and empowering organizations and workplaces are in the offing if we embrace a social digital where learning is about sharing – or at least more effective organizations, as even businesses are discovering.

Teamwork is driving new forms of organizational learning, breaking down hierarchies and connecting formal silos,[i] as Maggie Starvish writes in Forbes. Starvish quotes Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson:

“We’re in a new world, and our old management models don’t fit as well as we would like. Those organizations that aren’t harvesting and using the knowledge and ideas and questions of their members are not going to remain viable compared to competitors that do.”

It’s not an overstatement to say that the future, health and viability of your organization hang in the balance.

People are learning and exploring online. The question for decision-makers, leaders, members and staff is: Will our organization be a source of that learning and exploration or will people turn elsewhere?

Why should organizations integrate online education into their overall digital strategy?

There are 3 good reasons, for starters:

  • The way people learn is changing
  • Nonprofit voices must become louder in a forprofit world
  • Stay relevant – or perish

The way people learn is changing

This video might overstate the case – it was produced by Blackboard, the largest commercial provider of online learning management systems (LMS). Still, it bears viewing if only to get a glimpse into how certain education corporations imagine their main customer persona: all into sharing and connection on the one hand, a cloying sense of entitlement on the other:

Let’s allow that the learner’s voice in this piece is a corporate construction. The wider technological context is real enough, even if the individualistic flavour is dubious. Digital “me firstism” aside, it’s true that organizations and institutions of all kinds are deep into figuring out how the cornucopia of nonformal learning opportunities engendered by the web can align with their formal learning objectives.

“When I’m more connected, I’m more interested,” says our narrator. And fair enough.

The Economist noted in 2012 that about 30% of US college students are learning online, up from less than 10% in 2002. In 2013, US colleges reported that online learning enrolment continued to grow.

A useful info-graphic documenting the rise of online learning and the reasons people cite for engaging in it can be found here.

There are some surprisingly humane benefits to distance and online learning. Researchers in the UK have found that distance learning and online support mechanisms can genuinely help students with disabilities or mental health challenges who might otherwise be precluded from participating fully in in-person learning.[ii]

Academic results might also surprise some of us. Australian researchers examined student performance comparing face-to-face and online learning (EL, or e-learning, as they have it) and found that, on average, students did slightly better in EL contexts. Their research:

[P]rovides some assurance that student performance is at least as good as, if not slightly better in EL mode when compared to F2F delivery…consistent with other studies that have reported differences in learning outcomes between F2F and EL delivery modes. When a high degree of pedagogical thought goes into the design and delivery of EL, and is supported by adequate resources, positive educational outcomes can be achieved by students.[iii]

Of course, it’s not the tools that make the difference, it’s how these tools are used, as Dominic Kiraly writes in the blog:

Leveraging online teaching tools increases opportunities for learning, but they don’t necessarily guarantee a good learning experience. Sound instructional design and effective pedagogy are needed for both F2F and online instruction. No online tools, no matter how flashy or expensive, can rescue a poorly designed or delivered class- either F2F or online…

The important message here is that the medium itself is not necessarily what increases the effectiveness of learning – it is the effective use of online tools. Online tools enable increased opportunities for collaborative learning, particularly for learners separated geographically. E-learning tools also offer students new opportunities for self-directed learning outside of a physical classroom.[iv]

Emerging learners are connected in digital webs (whether we always like that is another matter). Fittingly, “connectivsm” has emerged as a theory of learning for the digital age. Connections and networks form the “integrated whole” that is today’s context. Connectivist theorist George Siemens writes:

Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories. Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing….

Including technology and connection making as learning activities begins to move learning theories into a digital age. We can no longer personally experience and acquire learning that we need to act. We derive our competence from forming connections…[v]

This connectedness has profound implications for how people parse information and understand how to understand:

Connectivism is driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired. The ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital. The ability to recognize when new information alters the landscape based on decisions made yesterday is also critical.[vi]

Your organization’s members or supporters are now living in this world where a sense of connectivity is becoming the norm. Developing an online learning program can help your organization be part of that norm.

Your talking points to make the case – The way people learn is changing:
  • People are learning differently. We need to teach differently – online.
  • More and more courses and classes are offered online – ours should be among them.
  • Our members are online. We should share our knowledge with them in creative ways that they are already familiar with.
  • If we don’t help them learn online, someone else will.

Nonprofit voices must become louder in a for-profit world

We have the chance, if not the imperative, to foster openness as a social value in the face of technology corporations dominating our lives.

The digitization of society continues apace and nonprofit sectors need to be skilled practitioners who empower people to use these tools – to learn, to grow, to organize – or we will drown in corporate content. Without openness, without nonprofit organizations counterbalancing forprofit voices in education and elsewhere, the learning and storytelling in our society will be very, very one-sided indeed.

Sound dramatic? Keep reading.

US media historian Robert McChesney’s book Digital Disconnect explores how “capitalism is turning the Internet against democracy”. He points out that technology companies have unprecedented power in collecting information about us, information they sell to advertisers without anything coming close to our full and informed consent. Worse, these companies work closely with governments and national security apparatuses in countries around the world. Google complied 93% of the time when asked by law enforcement and national security agencies to hand over users’ data in 2011 – and they received over 10,000 such requests.[vii]

Actually existing capitalism has created monopoly control over the Internet, just as it did when other technologies emerged in society, McChesney writes. Interviewed on Democracy Now, he says:

“The Internet is, arguably, the biggest generator of monopoly in history. Every place you look, from Google to Apple to Amazon to Facebook to Twitter, network economics lend themselves in such a way that one company runs the table and nobody else can get a peep in. These monopolies then generate massive profits which they use as the basis to generate empires…gobbling up other enterprises to build even larger digital empires.”

Quick facts:

  • In 2012, four of the ten largest US corporations (measured by market valuation) were Internet corporations: Apple, Microsoft, Google and AT&T
  • The 30 largest would also include Verizon, Amazon, Comcast, Disney, Intel, Cisco, Qualcomm, and Oracle as well – making 13 of the largest 30 companies tech corps
  • Google holds 70% of the search engine market, and 97% of the mobile search market
  • Microsoft’s operating system runs on 90% of the world’s computers
  • Apple’s iTunes controls 87% of all digital music downloads
  • Apple and Samsung account for 90% of all smartphone profits
  • Amazon sells between 70 and 80% of both physical books and ebooks[viii]

And the kicker: the digital boom has accelerated, not diminished, the extreme concentration of wealth in the US, not dispersed that country’s national wealth in some decentralized Net utopia.

McChesney documents the super-charged nature of digital monopoly capitalism, contrasting its rise with the simultaneous rise of skyrocketing economic inequality, noting that the income share of the top 1% in the US has gone from about 10% in the mid 1970s to about 20% by 2008.[ix]

This is the world that nonprofits raise their banners in. Can they organize themselves to educate, inform and inspire in the face of this headwind?

What choice do they have?

Being nonprofit (or even anti-profit) in a for-profit digital world clearly presents new challenges for volunteers, community organizations, social mission organizations, unions and people as a whole. Community-minded groups need to do more than pay attention. They need to take charge of their own online learning and contribute to an open culture of learning.

The good news is that the Internet has also given rise to a growing and connected movement for open learning. Open Educational Resources and Creative Commons are two prominent examples of this global school of thought that advocates for the open and public sharing of information and learning.

This is the kind of global culture that nonprofits, even (or especially) local or community-based ones, can participate in, sharing their knowledge and learning with the world as well as with its members, neighbours and communities – and pointing to a more equal and balanced society.

Your talking points to make the case – Nonprofit voices must get louder:
  • Forprofit voices are crowding out nonprofit, community-minded voices.
  • Technology corporations increasingly dominate our economy and our culture, making it vital for community-minded organizations to share and teach.
  • Economic inequality is growing. Nonprofits must take charge of our own learning and teaching to promote values of inclusion and justice.
  • Nonprofits can contribute to the growing global renaissance of openness in education and learning. 

Stay relevant – or perish

If the above doesn’t sway you, then consider creating an online learning program for the most selfish of reasons: to stay relevant.

Organizations that don’t create some kind of online learning program will risk being overlooked. They will be seen to be unable to share their knowledge or even tell their own story in the era of unprecedentedly powerful communications tools.

Your story won’t be the only thing to perish – your organization will, too. It will not be able to attract upcoming generations to work for it or to pick up the torch of its social mission. So-called digital natives[x] won’t know how to relate to your organization’s culture or expectations, its decision-making process, or even how to talk to you because you won’t really be speaking the same language.

Your talking points to make the case – Stay relevant – or perish:
  • We need to stay relevant and connect with our members online.
  • We risk being passed over if we don’t share our knowledge online in a way that people actually want to engage with.
  • In fact, over time, the viability of our organization might be at risk. How do we pass the torch if we can’t connect with emerging generations?



[i] Maggie Starvish, Why Leaders Need to Rethink Teamwork,, 2013.

[ii] Tinklin, T., Riddell, S., & Wilson, A. (2005). Support for Students with Mental Health Difficulties in Higher Education: The Students’ Perspective. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 33(4), 495–512.

[iii] Richard K. Ladyshewsky. (2004). AJET 20(3) Ladyshewsky (2004) – e-learning compared with face to face – postgraduate business students. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, (20(3)), 316–336.

[iv] Is e-Learning Inferior to Face-to-Face Instruction?, 2013.

[v] George Siemens. (2005). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Retrieved August 5, 2013, from

[vi] Ibid

[vii] McChesney, Robert, Digital Disconnect, 2013, the New Press, p. 131.

[viii] Ibid, p. 167.

[ix] Ibid, p. 34.

[x] Digital natives is a contentious term, and I use it here only for convenience. Age doesn’t matter – I can be young and uninterested in digital; I can be a baby boomer and tech whiz. The point is that today’s children are swimming in digital waters in a society whose economic, social, cultural and communications infrastructure have gone digital.