Residential Online Learning: Supporting Independent, Lifelong, Self-Directed Learners

November 10, 2014

I first came across the term “residential online learning” on Jim Groom’s blog, Bavatuesdays. The word sounded familiar. It sounded like something I’d done myself. But a Google search for the keyword “residential online learning” turned up little more than Jim’s blog and a 2012 blog post by Mike Caulfield titled “Residential Online: A Reintroduction,” to which Jim also refers. And that’s about it.

This was surprising. Maybe residential online learning is just something that no one does, so no one talks about it. Or maybe it’s something that lots of folks do but don’t talk about because it’s just so ordinary.

Reading Jim’s blog, I’d instantly recognized what he was talking about — or thought I did. It was what I’d been doing for years and what I know a lot of other people are also doing in one form or another.  The first “residential online learning” tool I’d used was Edmodo, a free web-based service built to help primary school teachers support their face-to-face students online. Edmodo has grown a lot over the years, but even in 2008, it had a large and healthy user community. I certainly didn’t feel like an innovator or iconoclast; I was just a teacher using the tools I had available.

In his blog post about residential online learning, Mike Caulfield focuses on the supposed threat that online learning poses to residential learning at American universities and says, “I believe there are multiple possible futures for education, and that many of these futures will in fact exist at once. There’s no single future for education.” Mike is right. Education today takes many possible forms, and teachers and students are quietly creating new forms all the time. We may not hear a lot about this, though. Practicing teachers often avoid theory and just do stuff. Because they avoid theories and theorizing, they don’t need names like “residential online learning.” Sometimes, not having a name can also be an advantage. In the accountability-obsessed environment of American public education, many teachers may be reticent about what happens in class. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

My own adventure in residential online learning began around 2007 and grew out of my interest in technology-enhanced learning and my commitment to institution-wide learning objectives to promote independent and lifelong learning. This was at a private university in Saudi Arabia. Although these objectives were mostly buzzwords, I take them seriously and put them at the center of my teaching practice.

We had a learning management system in place and free wifi throughout the facility. All students had multiple networked devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops). There were also networked computers in all classrooms with LED projectors connected to them. All I had to do was to start to use what was available to everyone. I used these resources to address our institutional objective of supporting independent and lifelong learning by using these tools to grow students’ control over their learning space and time.

Most students responded to this well, and my role in the classroom began to change as students slowly took control of what they were doing and when they were doing it. Many appeared to be more engaged and better motivated, and many were encouraged to continue, to go deeper. They stopped asking about tests and started to explore their own limits and to push those limits back. Testing is a stop sign.

At the end of class, I would leave the room, but students would often stay later, sometimes as long as an hour later, working together. As their authority in the classroom grew, mine diminished. The steady erosion of my control and presence in the classroom was the most difficult thing for me to deal with, and it took me several years to become comfortable with it.

Most of my classroom time was spent watching students, talking to them about what they were doing, and getting to know them as individuals. You can observe a lot just by looking around, and I looked around a lot. I started to learn new things. I was beginning to grow as a teacher. I became more engaged and better motivated and was encouraged to continue, to go deeper. I explored my limits and started to push those back.

Most of my “real work” was outside of class: planning and writing assignments and activities, writing feedback, and meeting with students. I found that residential online teaching was a great deal of work, though anyone who came to observe my class would wonder what I was doing in the room at all.

Education has multiple possible forms. My version of residential online learning is a residential course, conducted as though it were online. The opposite is also possible, an online course conducted as though it were residential.

In both iterations — and in everything in between — one common feature is that students and instructors know one another in the real world and interact face-to-face on a regular basis. This approaches blended or hybrid models so may address the concern to preserve the “traditional residential student experience” in American higher education, something ultimately linked to the defense of liberal arts. But this is another matter entirely.

There are lots of reasons to support residential online learning, but one of the most important is that this model gives students growing control over their learning space and time, and once this happens, we are able to extend this control to other areas of the curriculum to better support the development of independent, lifelong and self-directed learners. This goal of independent self-direction is, and has always been, at the heart of American liberal arts education, and this goal is what distinguishes the liberal arts tradition from competing commercial- and training-oriented models designed to create a nation of consumers, not of producers.

|Written by Clemson Online’s Mark Johnstone, Online Language Education Specialist.




Caulfield, M., (2012). Residential Online: a reintroduction. Accessed Oct 10, 2014.


Groom, J., (2014). First Wire 106 lunch. Accessed Sept 11, 2014.

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