How Does Online Learning Really Work?: A Conversation with Mitch Albom

Online learning graphic representation
In celebration of our 20th anniversary, we hosted four panel discussions on Mitch Albom's radio show on WJR 760. In this segment, Mitch Albom explores the day-to-day realities of virtual education in depth with a panel of our online teachers and students.

When it comes to online learning, most people have a lot of questions, like:

  • What is online learning?
  • Is there a teacher?
  • Is online learning as effective as face-to-face learning?
  • How do you help keep students on task in their coursework?
  • How do I know if online learning is a good fit for my student/child?

These are fair questions, and the answers are, of course, complicated.

Online learning can be super helpful for some individuals in some contexts while not being helpful for others. The truth of the matter is that not all online learning is created equal. The success of the student depends both on the individual’s situation and motivations, as well as the quality of the online learning program.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out the findings from our research institute’s large-scale study on the effectiveness of Michigan’s online learning during the 2016-17 school year.

Here are some of the advantages of online learning for students:

  • Flexibility in scheduling
  • Access to a wider range of courses
  • Anytime, anywhere access to class content
  • Personalized instruction and feedback

For instructors, one of the most significant benefits of switching from a face-to-face classroom to an online one is:

Because students complete lessons and assignments at their own pace, instructors have the privilege of spending the majority of their time interacting with students, answering questions, providing feedback, differentiating instruction and building relationships.

For many, this one-on-one time is liberating. It reminds them of why they fell in love with teaching in the first place.

In celebration of our 20th anniversary, we hosted four panel discussions on Mitch Albom’s radio show on WJR 760. In this segment, Mitch Albom explores the day-to-day realities of virtual education in depth with a panel of our online teachers and students, including:

Watch the 8-minute video below or read the abridged transcript to learn more about how online learning really works.

Want to hear more from Mitch’s conversation with Michigan educators and students? Check out his other panel discussions on our state’s literacy crisiswhat factors have historically impeded progress in Michigan education and how methods of delivery in instruction have changed dramatically to meet the needs of today’s students.


Mitch Albom (MA): Our final segment here on education is going to deal with online learning and the benefits and challenges of learning online. We have four new panelists to join us, although several of them are still in high school. . .  First of all, let’s not assume that our listeners even understand what online learning is, for the older ones of them. Maybe William, could you just explain quickly: How does online learning actually work? 

William Springer (WS): Sure. People ask me that all the time. They’re like, “Oh, are you on Skype? Or are you video lecturing?” It’s not like that at all. Basically, class is running 24/7. The content’s there. Likely, people in Renee’s class are online working right now as we’re on the radio. All the lessons, activities, homework, all that is online. It could be video format, reading, activities that they can do any time, any place. They submit assignments or ask questions that come to me, whenever I’m ready to grade that the next day or when I’m online and I give feedback or answer their questions that way. There’s a lot of interaction between student and teacher, but —

MA: But it’s not simultaneous. 

WS: Not necessarily. Though there sometimes are elements of that, but it doesn’t have to be.

MA: Let me ask the young people here. You obviously are in school, so you’re going to what we call “traditional” classes, but you’re also supplementing it with online learning. To you, what are the advantages or what do you enjoy about the online element that you’re not able to get in a traditional environment? 

Renee Brumm (RB)For me, it would definitely be the convenience. Because like he said, I could pull it up anywhere, in the car, wherever I want. It makes it much more convenient and easier to access.

MA: How about you, Brian? 

Brian Gross (BG): For me personally, it’s the pacing. Because I can either go try to get everything done, or I can really go in depth and make sure I fully understand every little detail.

MA: And are you able to concentrate when it is broken up that way? That’s something I always wondered as someone who didn’t grow up with this kind of system. We went traditionally, okay, you start your hour of math, and for the next hour, you’re just going to be on math. We didn’t have the opportunist to do ten minutes of math, and then take a phone call. Then do twenty more minutes of math. Then, come back at night to the back of the car, as you said. How are you able to keep the consistency of learning going with that? 

RB: Well, it’s definitely a self-motivation thing. If you’re a slacker, then definitely do not aim for online learning. It will not work out well, especially when the end date comes up, and you have two assignments done.

MA: So self-motivation is a big part of it, you think, Brian? 

BG: Yeah, yeah. I think all of it comes from self-motivation. Because it’s very easy to think, “Oh, it’s five weeks away. I don’t have to do it.”

MA: And you don’t have a teacher constantly saying, “Come on, come on, come on, come on, come on.” Although, I will say that what you are describing is college. I mean, that’s what you find out when you go to college. The professors aren’t calling you at home and saying, “Did you do your homework tonight?” If you’re not ready when the final comes, you fail. That’s it. It’s up to you to grow up and do it. So, in many ways, it’s good training for that. 

Jaclyn, what are some enhancements that are offered because of online learning that you don’t necessarily get in a traditional environment? 

Jaclyn Hartman (JH): When I’m teaching online, I really connect with each student, individually, one at a time. When I was in the face-to-face classroom, I would have 32 students at once. For me to give each student individual attention during the one hour that I had them, they would get less than two minutes of my time a day. When I teach online, I can take time and really think about what that student needs from me and take the time to find it and grow it and get it off to that student. I have the thought time to do it. I have the intentionality time to do it. I can focus on just one student at a time, and that’s a gift that we can’t get in the traditional classroom.

MA: And not to state the obvious, but, I mean, discipline issues and noise and all the rest of it, William and Jaclyn, that disappears with online learning, right? The one-on-one thing? You’re just dealing with the work.

WS: You don’t have fire drills. You don’t have snow days. Although, sometimes we miss that a little bit. But it is focused on the learning. It’s focused on the relationship one-on-one with students, which is awesome.

MA: And is most of the online enrollment for kids who are really motivated to enhance their education, or kids who need some more rudimentary help in getting caught up? What’s the state of online learning here in Michigan? 

JH: I would say it’s everything. I have students who are running the entire gamut. I have one student in particular that shared with me that science wasn’t a strong suit but really wanted to learn. So, we really took some intentional time to build some skills at the beginning of the semester. I’m really happy to report that this student is really grasping science and really flourishing and feels proud of the work that’s been accomplished and how much has been learned. I have that. I have students who are in AP because they have exhausted their school’s curriculum, and the school would like to offer them more but doesn’t have the personnel or the funding to do it. So, they get to take an online class through Michigan Virtual, and so we’re meeting those needs and that desire to learn. We really run across the gamut, and I wouldn’t say it’s leaning more one way than another in the state of Michigan.

MA: Well, I know that Michigan Virtual offers a lot of AP classes, and they offer languages. I was knocked out by at least 200 plus classes or whatever that they offer. We’ve had a chance to see some of the by-products of that in the young people, as well. Congratulations to all of you in what you’re doing. It’s, if I remember correctly. Is that right? Am I accurate? This much I remember. Okay. I don’t remember much, but I remember that. Thank you all for joining us on this. We appreciate it. William, Renee, Jaclyn and Bryan. Good luck to all of you, young people. 

Nikki Herta

Nikki Herta

Nikki’s love for writing, editing and pedagogy brought her to Michigan Virtual as their Content Creator/Editor. A Michigan native, she studied writing at Grand Valley State University before continuing on to the University of Minnesota for her master’s degree. While there, she also taught first-year writing to college freshman. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, playing table-top board games, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book and her sassy, ancient cat, Princess Eugene.

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Limited Course Capacity

We’re sorry to inform you that we have reached capacity for several of our Semester 1 and Trimester 1 courses. You’ll notice when attempting to enroll students in our Student Learning Portal that some courses are unavailable. While we are no longer accepting new enrollments for these courses at this time, many courses continue to remain open for enrollment.

With many students across the state 100% remote, demand for our online courses is greater than ever before. Because every course we offer is taught by a Michigan-certified teacher, this high volume of enrollments has created capacity issues for our teachers who provide each and every student with individual feedback.

While the Michigan Virtual team anticipated and planned for significant increases in student enrollments this Fall, the increased demand we’ve experienced has been unprecedented. As a result, we are taking steps to hire even more part-and full-time teachers to support larger numbers of student enrollments for Semester 2 as well as for Trimester 2 and 3. 

For schools that still need online learning options this year, please fill out the form at the bottom of our virtual pathways page to meet with someone to discuss other solutions. While some of our teacher-led courses are full, we may still have the capacity to help you in upcoming terms or can discuss timing to implement a whole-school or collaborative program in which local teachers from your school/district use our online course content to teach students. We also have free course content and resources available for you to use.

We know this is an incredibly stressful time for all, and we’re sorry if the courses you’re looking for are unavailable. We never want to turn away a student who wants to learn from us. Our top concern, however, is student success, and we have a policy to not take on additional enrollments if we cannot guarantee that all students will have a quality online learning experience. 

We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate the unusually high volume of enrollments we are receiving.