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In my opinion

Online learning: confusions, conflations, and conundrums

Let’s make sure these mediated formats really are about facilitating students’ learning and procedural knowledge construction.


In his thought-provoking article in The Conversation, “The problem with online learning? It doesn’t teach people to think,” Robert Danisch argues that online learning focuses on “knowing that” at the expense of “knowing how,” and that the latter is not possible in a remote learning environment. Dr. Danisch’s article provides a good opportunity to unearth several common conflations, confusions, and conundrums regarding the increasing, if problematic, popularity of online learning.

In fact, my opening sentence above – which uses language in Dr. Danisch’s article, but terminology that is also rampant throughout the discourse on teaching and learning – already contains one example of terminological conflation and one of conceptual confusion, as I will explain. And, while Dr. Danisch’s conclusion – that we should be asking what opportunities for “knowing how” are eliminated by shifting courses online, rather than asking how we might put curricula online permanently – defines one important conundrum, I will offer another. But let’s start with the terminological conflations and conceptual confusions.

Information vs. knowledge

One of the more egregious conflations in the literature on learning involves the synonymous use of the terms “information” and “knowledge.” Dr. Danisch’s carefully drawn distinction between “knowing-that” and “knowing-how” partially disentangles the related but distinct concepts. Let me drill down a little further with a view to delineating their independence on the one hand and, perhaps paradoxically, their interdependence on the other, with the latter in no way supporting the common, problematic conflation of the two concepts.

Now, I will grant that there is one sense in which information is a form of knowledge, but in doing so, we need to consider information – essentially “knowing-that” – to be, at best, a form of what is often called “declarative” knowledge (a form of knowledge that at one end of the spectrum is very basic, though very well may be sophisticated and robust at the other end; more on that below).

And, if we grant that information is a form of knowledge, albeit of the “declarative”/ “knowing-that” kind, then Dr. Danisch’s distinction between “knowing-that” and “knowing-how” goes some distance in prying the concepts of information and knowledge apart. Notwithstanding Dr. Danisch’s prioritizing of “knowing-how,” the distinction between the two types of knowledge makes it possible to understand the interdependence of those two types of knowledge without conflating them.

That is, “knowing-how” – more commonly called “procedural” knowledge – actually requires some basic declarative knowledge (“knowing-that”): to “know how” to do something effectively, efficiently, safely, properly, etc., requires that the person undertaking that activity “knows that” such and such is the case, that if I do “this,” it could result in an unfortunate “that,” and so on. So it isn’t as if procedural knowledge is unrelated to, or generated without the benefit of, information (or varying degrees of declarative knowledge).

But in a curious way, the opposite is true as well: as there are many different levels of sophistication and complexity of declarative knowledge (“knowing-that”), getting to the stage of acquiring a deep level of declarative knowledge about something actually requires some form of procedural knowledge (“knowing-how”), some form of action, albeit of a cognitive kind, applied to lower levels of declarative knowledge – actions such as comparing, interpreting, analysing, synthesizing, and so on (some of which Dr. Danisch includes as examples of “knowing-how”).

So, apart from the more prized position held by procedural knowledge (“knowing-how”), it is important to acknowledge that it requires some degree of declarative knowledge (“knowing-that”) and, conversely, higher, more robust forms of declarative knowledge require more sophisticated processes of cognitive-procedural knowledge, or “know-how.” The two are interdependent, in other words.

However, notwithstanding my assertion of the interdependence between the two types of knowledge, I do agree with Dr. Danisch that “knowing-how” may be thought of as a higher form of knowledge and one, moreover, that is more difficult, though I would say not entirely impossible, to generate/create/acquire in online courses or those delivered remotely. But let’s first explore online and remote learning and delivery, as these terms present us with several confusions.

Remote learning vs. remote delivery

The terms “online/remote learning” and “online/remote delivery” are confused at best and misleading at worst. The term “online/remote learning” is misleading insofar as it suggests that the student-learning process (as opposed to the teacher-teaching process) actually takes place in those technologically mediated formats – i.e., during students’ sessions of working online or during a remotely delivered class. And while this may be partially true (depending on the type and degree of student engagement and activity during an online class), it is likely only minimally so. The reality – which, frankly, is not so different from the reality of learning in the context of in-person classroom settings – is that the bulk of actual learning must take place through activities beyond the context and timeframe of online/remote sessions (or, for that matter, beyond the context and timeframe of face-to-face in-class sessions).

And the term “online/remote delivery” is somewhat confusing if not wholly inaccurate, as it is not entirely clear what is being “delivered” – is it education, information, knowledge? “Delivery” makes it sound like the knowledge is bundled nicely, like a package from Amazon, and delivered to the metaphorical door of students’ minds while they blissfully watch a video, read notes and PowerPoint presentations online. At best, what the online/remote format delivers is none other than information, perhaps declarative knowledge of a basic kind, but not the robust “knowing-how” or procedural knowledge that is surely the goal of education.

Students’ “knowing-how” at this point – during their online reading or listening during a remotely delivered lecture – is “knowing-how” to listen and how to read, with the attendant capacity to remember what was heard and read; these are all necessary but insufficient for meaningful procedural knowledge construction.

These basic forms of “knowing-how” are greatly assisted by the instructor. Though Dr. Danisch suggests that imitation, engagement and interaction with students (and presumably among students as well) – all mechanisms by which some of the methods of “knowing-how” can be modeled and demonstrated by instructors, and tried out by students – are impossible in a remote setting. This is why he argues against the trend to move so much education online.

I’m not convinced that modeling “knowing-how” is impossible, at least in hybrid formats. But as we quickly moved to putting our courses “online,” there may not have been enough time to do this in ways that maintained a modicum of modeling of thought process by instructors, much less trial-and-error (procedural, application) time for students. And this, finally, brings me to a two-pronged conundrum, though not quite the one that Dr. Danisch identifies.

Going beyond the ‘delivery’ of information

The more pressing conundrum I see is that, given the likelihood that at least some courses will continue to be offered online or through remote-hybrid formats, we must build mechanisms for “knowing-how”/procedural knowledge construction for meaningful, deep learning into remote platforms. That is, there must be ample time to go beyond the delivery of information, to allow for the modelling of procedure and the practice of process, all with a view to providing the basis for students’ work beyond the online/remote class.

Enter the other prong of the two-pronged conundrum – the albatross of content coverage. As long as courses have as their sole mandate to cover (whatever that means) copious amounts of content (a.k.a. information or very basic-level declarative knowledge) there will never be enough time, energy, or patience to get even remotely close to the realm of “knowing-how” or the process of generating meaningful procedural knowledge.

It takes no more time – though it does require fancier technology – for an instructor to demonstrate some procedure remotely than it does on a white board in class; similarly, it’s not impossible to pause in a remote format and ask the students to imitate the procedure that was demonstrated, but apply it to a new problem.

No, it’s not ideal, but it’s neither impossible nor necessarily ineffective, if the context allows, and if enough thought has been given. It seems to me that a shift is required, from a marathon-like “delivery of information” view to a curriculum structured on the triumvirate of a necessary degree of declarative knowledge (information), an instructor-led demonstration/modelling of procedure (analysis, comparison, synthesis, interpretation, etc.), and a preliminary, participatory student application (a first attempt at “knowing-how”).

That would set students up to continue the learning process – actually practise the “knowing-how” processes – beyond the timeframe of their engagement online. It’s nothing more (and nothing less) than the old-fashioned concept of “homework!” Since when did that disappear?

My point is that the work at home doesn’t simply follow an hour of passive listening to someone deliver information; it comes after students have seen a procedural demonstration and have had a go at it themselves, all under the guidance of the instructor (and possibly TAs), who can then correct procedural errors in advance of students “practising” – and thus reinforcing – those errors as they continue their pursuit of procedural knowledge at home.

And while not arguing for wholesale shift of courses to an online format, or even a remote-hybrid format, I do think there is room for a rethink in terms of what we do when we have our students’ attention, whether on a screen or in a room. With the pandemic we have heard so often “I can’t wait to go back to the way things were.” Well, while technologically mediated teaching is not a panacea to education’s challenges, it is here to stay. Let’s at least make sure that these mediated formats, when employed, really are about facilitating students’ learning and procedural knowledge construction.

Charles Morrison is retired professor of music theory who taught at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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