Complexity over simplicity in online classes

road to the hamlet A student goes into Online Class A for the first time. They see a list of items by type (syllabus, readings, lectures, discussion). They see a syllabus, listing the dates for when each of these content type items is due, and what constitutes them being done (i.e. complete this quiz, post one posting and two replies, submit this essay). They buy their textbook, and follow it, with chapter readings listed clearly on the readings page. At the end, they take a final exam that goes over the entire course content.
forest Another student goes into Online Class B. They see a list of weeks, or topics. There is a syllabus laying out the goals of the course: exploration, discovery, production of assignments, community. Readings are provided, but may not be required or there may be a choice. Perhaps there is a learning contract instead of a syllabus. Forum postings may be focused on what the student has discovered by following research instructions, scaffolded to adapt as the student’s work changes. Assignments may emphasize skills rather than content. The final exam is a video project where their unique research is shared and peer evaluated.

Given the dozen or so years a student has spent in traditional classes prior to college, Class A may seem more familiar, comfortable, and simpler. Class B may be perceived as difficult, or disorganized. Data on student clicks and questions asked may show some confusion, some cognitive challenges that need to be overcome. More questions may be emailed to the instructor, or posted to a forum.

Recent efforts to “improve” online course “integrity” have led to various rubrics, standards, and evaluative tools, wielded by administrators and instructional improvement teams. These assess the “quality” of an online course. The ones I’ve seen, and the faculty I’ve talked to who have been subject to them, note that the rubrics clearly prefer the Online Class A model: content-based, simply laid out, clearly expressing not only expectations but overall outcomes. Complexity is seen as “cogitive overload” and is discouraged.

The result is an unexpected (and for the admins, often unintended) standardization. Although the teams and projects deny that the intention is to standardize online classes, to make them “cookie cutter”, that is the likely result. The instructor’s role is to guide students through the material in an organized way, and to use insightful discussion prompts and exam questions to assess deeper thinking about the content. If the content they used has been structured to clearly align everything the student encounters with particular learning outcomes, so much the better, privileging textbook publishers who create such programs for profit.

How do faculty respond to this push for simplicity, when we know that teaching is inherently complex? In my years heading the Program for Online Teaching, we have always seen a tendency for any instructor new to online classes to automatically follow the Class A model. The reasons for this are varied. In most cases, the instructor has not examined their own pedagogy in the traditional classroom, or does not use online communities and resources for their own learning. Some are intimidated by the technology and throw their own classroom pedagogy out the window, having been guided by instructional designers and other support staff to simply fill in the blanks of the LMS.

Since many faculty new to online teaching are under time pressure to develop a class, the cognitive dissonance in their own learning becomes overload very quickly. The easiest thing to do is opt for the simple path – upload a syllabus in Word or pdf, upload readings the same way, set up a weekly discussion post with a question requiring a response, and create some exams. Many, many students complain that their online classes are impersonal, that they feel like they’re just learning from a computer instead of a person (and in the case of instructors who adopt course cartridges, that is often true). Students come to believe that this is what an online class is – a list of tasks to be completed and graded, rather than a learning experience.

simplemaze complexmaze1
This maze looks complex, but it is actually simple – there is only one path. You will learn little by attempting it.
This maze is complex, so you will need to make choices.

This is why POT has focused on helping instructors understand their own pedagogy, assess their teaching strengths, and build online classes that emphasize these strengths, calling this “Pedagogy First”. We encourage models that break away from “type listing” to create a unique interactive syllabus. And we want faculty to explore models that encourage students to think critically, express their learning creatively, and utilize the affordances of technology. If the supported LMS doesn’t fit what they want to do, we want them to link out or adopt a different venue. If they excel at student-directed learning, student-developed content, constructivism, or connectivist learning, we want them to have the freedom to build their classes around those models.

That’s because we value faculty creativity, originality, and pedagogical goals. We also believe that only by offering various pathways and options to explore learning about online teaching can we help teachers excel as the professionals they are.

Unfortunately, a trend has begun to cast those of us who were early adopters of online technologies, and originators of our own online pedagogies, as outliers instead of guides and modelers. We are being told that the days of “cobbling” our own systems together are over, that we need to join the “community” of large initiatives designed to create more accountable and approvable online classes. There is head-shaking about the learning we had to go through “back then”, and reminders that such efforts (like learning html, or exploring different online tools) are no longer necessary. We now have everything laid out for us; all the features we need are inside the mandated LMS. We must step down from our role as innovators and join the parade, marching together. We must realize that it is time to, in a word, simplify.

The temptation is appealing, but what is lost when we shift from complexity to simplicity? When instead of exploring and discovering, we are given the tools and the platform? Do we wish to encourage that sort of simplification for our students, when employers have made it clear that what they want is workers who can actually learn? Are such industrial models appropriate in a post-industrial world?

The only solution, as I see it, is to continue to encourage complexity, in both the development of faculty talents and student potential. POT will continue to encourage the reassessment of the Class A model, and continue to question content-based, standardized, simplistic classes both online and in the classroom. We will view ourselves as people of value, with knowledge to contribute to the discussion. We will treat our fellow faculty as creative, self-actualized human beings, lifelong learners who want to express their teaching goals through any of the myriad of available tools and approaches. And that task, like the work we all do, embraces complexity.

8 thoughts on “Complexity over simplicity in online classes

  1. I love this, Lisa. I do wonder if describing it simple vs complex carries some connotation, but the idea is so there.

    For a year I have been hoping to write a paper-ish thing on the idea of having courses driven by something other than a syllabus, like a course long narrative, theme, metaphor, or just a higher order idea than “the content”. It’s not to say a syllabus is not a worthy frame, but it’s like the map getting mistaken for the territory.

    I bet if you ask most people about their most memorable, influential teachers or school experiences, more would be from box B than box A. Who ever would say 10 years after university, “That Ms Lane, her class was great because it was so clearly structured and met the competencies!”


    1. Hi Alan! In some POT workshops for beginners, we do discuss what ones Guiding Force is for the class, using this worksheet ( For some it is indeed the syllabus or content, but for others it is community or getting students to explore. I totally get your analogy about the map being taken for the territory. And I like paper-ish things if you’re interested!

      Yeah, there are connotations, which is why I used “complex” rather than “complicated”, which implies a set solution to multiple factors. That might not cover it, though…

      “That Ms Lane, her class was great because she never could really decide which cool things to do….” Uh oh.


  2. Lisa, I think you see “teaching” as an art or craft that is unique to each faculty/learner. It does seem that faculty are pushed to create sameness, or templates, that are seen to reduce the “complexity” or uniqueness of the course. Most of them, I think, want to be artists. I am reminded of Harrison Bergeron and the Handicapper General. ( )

    “All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”

    Maybe all them administrators/politicians are versions of the Handicapper General?

    I think the idea behind my damn “Easy Button” talk was that easy is not better. Ever. And I’ll say to faculty, just as Heinlein said to parents, “Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy.”

    I think many still want to separate “the content” from the structure of the delivery. I hear faculty say, “I don’t want the technology to get in the way of the content.” I see them as inseparable. I get what they mean, and those that are the “they” are often the very ones I might say have lower levels of literacy. Notice how I did not say “digital” literacy. If I had to name that literacy it might be “learning literacy” or learning/teaching literacy.”

    Our only strength is in our diversity and our ability to learn to adapt. And adaptation is the very process of living and the very essence of schooling, not a consumable moment/fact/subject that is separate of surroundings and unbound from time.

    I think that is what I think anyway 🙂


    1. Handicapper General – I like it!

      I think “content” has gotten a bad rap. I think of it as everything I want/need the student to be exposed to, in whatever form. In my case, that would be certain basic facts of history, more of what one might have called cultural literacy before that term got corrupted also. The factual base content can likely be aquired anywhere – we use textbooks because they are compilations of factual/current content more than anything else.

      I have more trouble, frankly, with the word “delivery”, which suggest packaging. The artist/teacher should be the one to create the package, which can be made of content, activities, searches, making, whatever.

      But I don’t understand “I don’t want the technology to get in the way of the content”. How could it even do that? Isn’t the technology what’s making the content accessible, usable, available to online students in the first place?


  3. I completely agree Lisa. From my own work on emergent learning, we (my co-authors and I) believe that it is in complex environments that this happens (i.e. emergent learning) and it is also in complex environments that learners are most likely to find themselves in liminal spaces where transformational learning occurs. If learning is about ‘becoming’ and identity, then this is surely exactly where we want them to be. So we need to look at the balance between structure and agency in the design of any given learning environment, so that there is enough or just enough complexity to support transformational learning 🙂
    This is a great post. Good to here that POT will not be cowed by the status quo.


    1. Thank you, Jenny – this provides me with some excellent vocabulary for further research-based justification. I think there is a divergence in the definition of learning, and certainly in articulating the goals of education. Learning to many is about the acquisition of content. The next step seems to be an understanding that it is also about the acquisition of skills. Transformative learning is not understood, I think, in many quarters.


  4. While simplicity might make the process easier for everyone, it fails to present the challenges and diversification required for lifelong learning and comprehension. I agree that the work of educators does embrace complexity.


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