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6 Myths of Online Learning Education Programs in International Development

By Mary Burns on February 14, 2019

Online education learning training

Online learning is not new. And it’s been a round a long time. Yet, if my work in international education development is any indication, there are a number of persistent myths that color understandings of online learning – among donors, policymakers and implementing agencies.

These views about online learning, often fixed and frequently categorical, ultimately undermine both effective policymaking around and the design and delivery of online learning.

The next two posts address some of the more persistent online learning myths I have encountered over the years. This first post addresses the policy aspects of online learning.

Myth 1: Online learning is cheaper than face-to-face training

It can be. Eventually. But if there’s no online learning system in place – if there is no platform, program, trained personnel, digital content, back-up services, server, policies, etc. – then these components of online learning must be created first. And creating them costs money – a lot of money.

Online learning does begins show cost-effectiveness once the system is built. At this point, whoever is creating the online system (Ministries of Education, educational organizations, universities, etc.) can begin to add more students (to a point) at marginal cost. However, as will be seen in Myth #4, the majority of online learners have to successfully complete the course for online learning to be cost-effective.

Myth 2: Online learning is fully automated learning

I hear this one a lot from policymakers dreaming of a fully automated, technology-based professional development system sans trained instructors.

While it’s true that learners can take self-paced courses, online learners who participate in cohort-based classes (i.e., an online class with the aforementioned pesky humans or “classmates”) lead by a trained and active facilitator (Another human! They’re everywhere!) are far more likely to complete an online course than their counterparts who take courses that lack an instructor.

In another bit of bad news for the “Get rid of the humans in online learning” side, satisfaction with online learning is also highly correlated to perceptions of and relationships with the online instructor and online classmates. And, in one last show of support for humans, as annoying as they may be, they are required to design all those online courses.

Key Take Away: Humans are still required for online learning

Myth 3A: Online learning is better than face-to-face training

Myth 3B: Online learning is worse than face-to-face training

There is a growing body of rigorous research that asserts that the quality of online learning is as effective as face-to-face learning (Means et al. 2009). The key is to consider “equivalence.” This means that online learning is better for some things (like learning content) than for others (like learning teaching behaviors).

It’s difficult to directly compare courses in general, even in the same modality, because they vary by topic, number of students, types of instruction and academic level. It’s even harder to compare online and face-to-face courses directly because they are different modalities. But where there is equivalence, and we compare online and face-to-face courses, all things being equal, online learning holds up to face-to-face learning (Allen & Seaman, 2016).

Design quality is also key. Quality online learning demands the same inputs as quality face-to-face learning – good content, good teachers, and effective teaching and learning experiences (Burns, 2011).

Myth 4: If you build it, they will come

They might come, but they won’t necessarily stay. Attrition (dropout) is the greatest menace to online learning. Though we don’t have exact data on online attrition, research suggests that attrition can often range between 40-60% (Holder, 2007).

In some open universities, attrition rates have been documented to be as high as 90% (Latchem & Jung, 2010). Learners who work alone online without colleagues and instructor are more likely to drop out, especially when they encounter a problem.

To illustrate the danger of attrition, imagine your program has launched an online class for 20 health workers. An online class with a 40% attrition rate, only 12 finish the course. At 60%, only 8 finish the course. As you lose learners, the quality of learning suffers – there are fewer people for discussions, fewer new ideas, fewer people sharing, fewer people supporting each other.

Attrition also threatens the program’s quality, viability, and cost effectiveness (See Myth #1). This is where the humans many want to sideline come in – support for online learners, especially novice learners, by both online classmates and the online instructor is critical to reducing attrition (Burns, 2011).

Myth 5: Internet isn’t good enough here for online learning

Undoubtedly, many countries suffer from poor Internet access and the digital divide is real. Internet issues often typically involve “last mile” connectivity, but there are promising ways to deliver content and connectivity to such areas, and progress, though slow, is happening.

We now see widespread use of Wi-Fi and 3G, 4G and now 5G mobile connectivity so online learners can access their online courses via wireless networks. Mobile and fixed broadband are both expanding and getting cheaper in even the “hardest to wire” places, like Sub-Saharan Africa. Some countries are looking at using TV whitespace for Internet access.

This doesn’t dismiss the problematic state of the Internet in so many locations. However, in considering whether online learning makes sense for a particular place or project, it’s important to remember that generally speaking, Internet (and especially mobile) access continues to improve. It might be bad today but that doesn’t mean it will be bad 3 years from now.

Myth 6: A few online courses is a learning program

I hear this one a lot, too, usually from policymakers who don’t have (or want to spend) the time to plan their online learning program. Online learning is a system. Like any system, there are multiple components. The courses themselves are just one, albeit highly important, component of that system.

Ministries of Education or other entities who want online learning need to build their online learning system before – and with – their online courses. They need to have a vision of what they want their online program to be and do.

They need to budget for fixed and recurrent costs; develop policies, plans, programs and procedures. They need to identify, train and support skilled designers and instructors. They need to assess their programs and fix what doesn’t work. Just as one would if designing a face-to-face professional development system.

By Mary Burns, Education Development Center


Allen, I. E & Seaman, J. (2016). Online report card tracking online education in the United States. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED572777

Burns, M. (2011). Distance education for teacher training: Modes, models and methods. Retrieved from http://go.edc.org/07xd

Holder, B. (2007). An investigation of hope, academics, environment, and motivation as predictors of persistence in higher education online programs. Internet & Higher Education10 (4), 245-260. DOI:10.1016/j.iheduc.2007.08.002.

Latchem, C., & Jung, I. (2010). Distance and blended learning in Asia. New York, NY: Routledge.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009, June). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Washington, DC: United States Department of Education

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Mary Burns works in the areas of teacher professional development, online learning, instruction, curriculum development, and educational technology at both Education Development Center and as an advisor to the Millennium Challenge Corporation
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2 Comments to “6 Myths of Online Learning Education Programs in International Development”

  1. DERICK ODEMBA says:

    This is a very informative and well researched article. My experience studying online corroborates your findings that online courses that are instructor led and where a learner has peers are likely to have higher completion rates. The reason for this is that learners find support a key necessity in the learning process. And this is even more critical with less technology savvy online learners.

    I am of the view that both online and traditional classroom learning should be appropriately invested in to ensure the best possible learning outcomes for students. Online learning serves an important role in education today that cannot be ignored by governments and policy makers.

  2. Learn More says:

    Great article. One point re Myth 5: There’s a difference between theoretical internet access rates and actual internet access (and actual speed). Huge sections of the world are way behind the others in regards to both.