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Massage Today
January, 2014, Vol. 14, Issue 01

The Myths and Realities of Online Education

By Whitney Lowe, LMT

Over the last 100 years, a number of technological innovations took place which forecasters predicted would radically shake up the education world. First it was radio, then television, then videotape recording.

In each instance, a revolution of the education environment never materialized. Now, many of the same things are being said about online education and its potential to radically transform learning. But this time things are very different. We are witnessing the rapid emergence of what business visionary Clayton Christiansen refers to as a disruptive innovation, a change that fundamentally alters the way things have been done in the past.1

Online education doesn't merely have the potential to - it already is - fundamentally changing education. The massage therapy profession is experiencing the effects of this change, particularly in programs associated with higher education institutions. However, primary obstacles to greater integration of online education exist at both entry-level and in continuing education in the profession. These revolve around fundamental myths and misunderstandings about online education.

online education - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark Myth #1

"I'm really more of a kinesthetic or hands-on learner, so online education is not for me." Current research shows the theoretical models of "dominant learning styles" such as the "visual," "auditory" or "kinesthetic" are unfounded. We, in fact, learn through each of these three channels, they are integrated. What is far more important is the quality and type of instructional design and whether it is appropriate for the learning activity being used.

Massage technique emphasizes physical skills; the individual is learning to use their hands as tools. Thus, performing the actual techniques with supervision of an instructor is paramount in entry-level education. However, instructor presence may not always be imperative. For example, in continuing education, when a professional has experience and a degree of skill, they can often learn a technique through a well-designed video clip. In fact, they might be able to see the instructor better in a video than in a workshop full of a large number of people. There are many instances when a person could learn technique-oriented content through a distance learning strategy.

This myth assumes that all massage education is about hands-on activity, or at least that is what is most important. Yet, there is a vast amount of knowledge about how, when, why and where to use these methods appropriately and effectively that does not involve manual, but cognitive learning. (The tool is only as good as the knowledge of the tool user.)

There is nothing uniquely kinesthetic about sitting in a chair and listening to someone lecture. Yet, this is common in classroom environments (and admittedly many online classes as well). The fact that you're in the physical presence of others does not necessarily improve the educational experience. If you are only learning a technique, then it can make sense to be there in person (if, in fact, you have a good view, the class is small enough and you are actually learning something).

Other course work can be very effectively delivered online with high-quality course construction. I have found that those who claim to prefer a "hands-on" type of experience often thrive in my online courses since the courses are interactive, visual in the sense that they are full of multimedia learning elements and they engage the student. A really good online course is designed so that it is dynamic, active, engaging and interactive.

Myth #2

"Online learning is impersonal and I prefer to work directly with an instructor." A few basic entry programs are experimenting with online elements for their courses. But it is a rare online course in massage continuing education in which the instructor is directly involved in the course. The knowledge of educational technology and multimedia course design are beyond the skill base for a lot of CE providers.

However, when an instructor is involved, the course can be more rewarding, interactive and personal even more than a classroom experience. Many of my students routinely say they feel more comfortable speaking out in online discussions or communicating directly with me or other students because they can take the time to properly formulate thoughts and responses. The shyest student in a workshop who might never pose a question in that setting has far more freedom to express themselves and ask questions in an online course.

In a quality online class, coursework can be designed to be student-centric, with the instructor playing the role of facilitator. When students have an instructor interacting with them, the class can be a far more enriching learning experience. An active-style-learning design allows for greater opportunity for communication and collaborative learning between students, as well as between the student and instructor.

Course work, though, must be designed appropriately. There is a big difference between the skills needed to be a classroom teacher and those needed to teach online. Seasoned online instructors know how to leverage greater communication and interactivity throughout their courses. The course designer is crucially important in online education, and the more the designer understands proper content and instructional strategies, the better the course she or he can build.

Clearly, for the classroom instructor having an online element that involves more interaction with the student can be more time consuming (however, this is usually made up by more focused and efficient classroom time). This is true for continuing education where traditional online courses require minimal, if any, involvement.

A facilitated (instructor led) online course allows students to communicate with the instructor throughout the duration of the course. As students integrate the work and materials into their practice, important inquiries often arise. Having the instructor available at that point can be highly beneficial.

Myth #3

"Online learning seems too passive. I like a more engaged learning experience."

People attain this perception because the majority of what is called online learning in the massage profession is, in fact, passive. A recent article on online learning in massage referred to three styles - the webinar, text-based and video - as the three options available for online courses. That may have been what the author offered, but this hardly constitutes the bulk of online learning outside the massage profession.

Text, webinars or video can be all there is to an online course, with some kind of test at the end for the participant to receive CEs for answering. But more engaged courses use these as components and use educational design platforms that allow more active learning activities. Simply reading text, listening to a webinar or watching a video are passive learning experiences. The massage profession is burgeoning with these courses. But these courses represent the more remedial end of online learning course design.

Online education presents unique opportunities to produce activities that engage the student in applied, dynamic learning. There is a wealth of research on the advantages of engaged or active learning vs. passive learning. One of the biggest advantages of advanced online course design is the ability to move beyond the antiquated "text and test" model. Applied learning does not ask the student to recall or remember material; it requires the student apply that material in innovative, well-designed activities that cement the information into the student's repertoire of function.

Simulations, scenarios and problem-based learning strategies are just a few of the options that can be used in online education to produce a highly individualized learning path that closely mimics the way an individual uses their knowledge and skills every day. This type of design produces rich and interactive learning experiences that are not possible in a traditional classroom (or passive learning options).

These learning experiences are complex and challenging to build and require a good understanding of multimedia technology and learning theory to be truly effective. But when designed correctly, they produce better learning outcomes and a far more interesting and interactive learning experience for the student. Rather than asking if the style of learning is visual or kinesthetic, students exploring online learning options should evaluate if the course is active or passive; what does the course have you doing?

Myth #4

"Massage is unique and online education does not work in our field." This is one of the more frustrating myths I encounter. It is perpetuated by state licensing boards and other regulating agencies that refuse to acknowledge online education for entry-level training or for certain continuing education credits. The argument being, that there is something different about massage than every other healthcare field which has chosen to adopt online education strategies.

Most states have stringent limitations or outright prohibitions against any of the basic curriculum being delivered online. Yet, massage technique is only one portion of any curriculum or foundation of knowledge required for massage practice. Perhaps those in opposition should look at Stanford Medical School which has produced some of the most innovative online learning strategies available for medical students. Is it really true that anatomy and the sciences can be taught online at Stanford, but is not good enough for the massage therapy field?

Most states have limitations for how many continuing education hours can be earned through online education as well. The purpose of continuing education is to continue the professional development of the practitioner. This is the reason the National Certification Board allows online education now for their certification.

The University of British Columbia has a masters degree in rehabilitation science that is completely online. In many states, none of that coursework would qualify for continuing education credits for a massage therapist in the U.S. However, sitting in the back of the room in a workshop and texting would qualify me for more CE credits than one of their courses.

Myth #5

"Most online courses are not very good." There is some truth to this statement – in the massage profession. But, this statement is entirely dependent on the instructor, the course design and the content quality. Bad classroom courses can be found just as readily as bad online courses. Notably, you can have a bad course with a well-known instructor and a fabulous course with an unknown; a remarkable well-designed online course and a poor workshop experience with a star, etc.

It is so easy to throw a simple course up online that the massage profession is getting flooded with really low quality courses. Most online course creators do not either have the interest, time, design training or the investment in online course technology and platforms to produce high-quality courses. The fact is, moving beyond simply putting a test online to go with a webinar, video or PDF takes a serious time and financial investment from the instructor. And it requires either training for that course creator or a rather substantial investment to hire someone qualified to create this kind of learning experience for the student.

In online education, deciphering the good from the bad takes some investigation, just as it does with a workshop. Choosing the most beneficial and cost-effective course – either online or workshop – can be difficult. Wading through the marketing lingo to get at the truth of a course can be an investigative project. We all want to make the wisest investment into our professional development that we can.

Having taught in the classroom for 25 years and been involved in online education for more than a decade, I see tremendous potential for online learning. But I also see a lot of room to grow overall in our educational programs in massage. The discrimination against online education in the massage profession is akin to saying you must travel from point A to point B, but we will only recognize your arrival if you come in a Ford, not a Chevrolet.

The key is about the quality of instructional design and not the method of delivery itself. It's time to start focusing on developing high-quality learning experiences regardless of what vehicle we use to achieve our educational goals.


  1. Christensen C, Horn M, Johnson C. Disrupting Class. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2011.

Click here for more information about Whitney Lowe, LMT.


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