What Is Online Learning?

In the wide world of the world wide web, online learning can be just about anything we want it to be.

Online learning can take many forms – but ultimately it should be integrated with your organization’s overall content publishing, communications, member engagement and development strategies.

You have choices. Organizations can meet all sorts of learning goals by using digital tools to create useful, informative and compelling content as learning materials – from videos to webinars to interactive web content. More formal learning outcomes can be met using a learning management system (LMS) that is open source or proprietary, whichever meet your goals and criteria.

And whether we consider it “educational” or not, we are already engaged in de facto informal digital learning whenever we communicate with or mobilize our members online – even if we don’t consider it “online learning” per se.


If you’re online reading or watching something, or engaging in commentary or discussion, you’re essentially doing digital learning that is informal. This kind of learning is virtually ubiquitous these days. It’s what we engage in pretty much any time we go online to read, watch or otherwise learn about something.

The wider world of informal digital learning can include the use of social media as educational strategy. It can include simply linking a series of videos for consumption anytime, anywhere. And it can definitely include unstructured, casual noodling around on the Internet, which is a major way – if not the most common way – that people learn new things today, including your members.

If that’s where your members are, meet them there.

Nonformal learning is more structured. You might follow an online course, with modules and lessons, or some other kind of sequence. You might be there for training, or for a desire to attain personal mastery of a subject without a formal degree or certification from an accrediting body like a college or university.

formal online learning program will by definition be more refined, structured and governed. In a formal program, learners will acquire acquire accreditation of some kind, for example a university or college degree or certificate. Formal online learning may well have a place in your organization – an excellent place – as it does in many groups. But it may not be the default or “go-to” mode, and it’s not the only learning mode to consider.

Go wide. Align your digital strategies. Explore.

Go “wide” when thinking about “online learning.” A wider digital learning approach takes into account everything else your organization is already doing to create online content.

This means your “online learning” program becomes part of your overall content strategy.

This is a good thing.

This wider approach helps you create a more integrated and coherent overall digital universe for your organization as you develop your overall digital strategy. Going wide allows you to connect your teams (or silos!) and make the best educational use of whatever digital content you are creating.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Rather, you need to identify your educational needs and integrate your learning opportunities into your existing digital outputs (your website, its content, your social media, special publications and micro-sites, etc). You can amend or change as needed with new platforms or tools that are culturally relevant.

Of course, if you’re building a for-certification digital learning program, a customized LMS may be your only real option, and that’s fine. The trick is to connect that effort with the rest of your digital publishing and put to use the digital content you’re already creating.

Open the discussion. Involve your members, staff, volunteers. Find out what kind of digital learning program people want, what they want, and what they will be excited about. Start by creating a program based around what people say they need, not what you think they need.

Above all, keep your best adult education principles intact as you move education strategies online.


Still wondering how to proceed? Consider applying the Content Spiral framework.

The Spiral says:

  1. Begin your explorations with Purpose. Why do you want to create an online educational program? What spirit is informing this endeavour? Ask these questions before looking into platforms or tools, before looking into the “How” or the “What”.
  2. Next, articulate your Goals, whether they are to boost member engagement, deepen understanding, meet political needs or others.
  3. Your Story is at the heart of it – what you want to learn/share and what your organization’s learning needs are.
  4. From there, the “what” and “how” follow, where you can make informed choices about what Platforms and Tools you actually need.
  5. Then make or curate the kinds of Content that brings everything to life.

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