Structured vs. unstructured online learning

This post is part of an effort to explore how different online learning methods affect knowledge retention among students.

Structured learning

Also known as formal learning, structured learning usually indicates a course separated into modules with set assignments and deadlines. Students progress linearly through the course along with their class cohort.

Often, a structured offline curriculum is simply repackaged and put online to create an online course – not ideal. As Harvey Singh says in his Building Effective Blended Learning Programs:

The first generation of e-learning or Web-based learning programs focused on presenting physical classroom-based instructional content over the Internet… The experience gained from the first-generation of e-learning, often riddled with long sequences of ‘page-turner’ content and point-and-click quizzes, is giving rise to the realization that a single mode of instructional delivery may not provide sufficient choices, engagement, social contact, relevance, and context needed to facilitate successful learning and performance.

Unstructured learning

This is a more informal, asynchronous approach to learning, in which students have access to all resources from the start of the course and themselves take responsibility for their own progress and path.

It works for some students – those who prefer the “discovery” method of learning – but not for others, particularly those who lack self-motivation. It is generally agreed that in unstructured courses, real teachers should still assess student engagement and progress, set clear objectives and prod where necessary.

Harvey Singh, among others, indicates that a combination of structured and unstructured elements “not only offers more choices but also is more effective” – one use of the much-used term “blended learning.” See more information on blended learning.

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