January 23, 2017

Initiating instructors to online learning: 10 fundamentals


Click to download the pdf

What? Not ANOTHER book from me? Well, no, not quite.

Teaching in a Digital Age‘ has been a great success but it appears it is being primarily used by faculty and instructors already committed to online learning, or on courses for post-graduate students, who don’t have much choice if it is set reading. That’s great, but even though it’s been downloaded over 40,000 times and is being translated into seven languages, there are still hundreds of thousands of faculty and instructors in North America alone who are either not interested in teaching online or are very nervous about it. The Babson 2013 survey for instance found that only 30 percent of chief academic officers believe their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education.  This rate is lower than the rate recorded in 2004.

One reason for this is that there are many misconceptions about online learning. At the same time, there are legitimate concerns about online learning being more work or about the quality of online instruction. Of course, reading Teaching in a Digital Age might help dispel the misconceptions and the concerns, but instructors resistant to online learning are not likely to engage with a 500 page textbook in the first place.

I therefore did a series of blog posts aimed at encouraging ‘resistant’ faculty and instructors to at least give online learning a try. The series was initially called ‘Online learning for beginners‘. Contact North liked the idea and suggested that the 10 posts should be re-edited into a 37 page booklet that can be given to faculty and instructors. This booklet is now available. It can either be downloaded as a pdf from the Contact North|Contact Nord website, or printed locally on demand and then can be physically given to instructors. Of course it is likely to be most effective if used in conjunction with Teaching in a Digital Age, but the booklet is written to stand on its own.

So I am hoping that you will find the 10 Fundamentals booklet useful, that you will pass it on or make it available to ‘resistant’ or undecided instructors, and that this will encourage them to seriously consider teaching online.

Let me know whether you think the booklet is likely to work, and, if not, what else could be done.

Online learning for beginners: 9. How can I do online learning well?

From this to this

This is the ninth in a series of ten blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The previous eight are:

Defining quality in online learning

OK, now you’ve looked at most of the pros and cons of online learning, you’re now ready to start. But you want to make sure that if you are going to do online learning, you are going to do it well. What will that entail?

First, let me define by what I mean by ‘doing online learning well.’ I define a high quality online course in the following way:

teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age.

Now of course that could equally define a high quality face-to-face or classroom course. Chickering and Gamson (1987), based on an analysis of 50 years of research into best practices in teaching, argue that good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty.
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Encourages active learning.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

These guidelines apply just as well to online learning as to face-to-face teaching. At the end of the day, the best guarantees of quality in teaching and learning fit for a digital age are:

  • well-qualified subject experts also well trained in both teaching methods and the use of technology for teaching;
  • highly qualified and professional learning technology support staff;
  • adequate resources, including appropriate teacher/student ratios;
  • appropriate methods of working (teamwork, project management);
  • systematic evaluation leading to continuous improvement.

However, because online learning was new and hence open to concern about its quality, there have been many guidelines, best practices and quality assurance criteria created and applied specifically to online programming. All these guidelines and procedures have been derived from the experience of previously successful online programs, best practices in teaching and learning, and research and evaluation of online teaching and learning. A comprehensive list of online quality assurance standards, organizations and research on online learning can be found here.

I’m not going to duplicate these. Instead, I’m going to suggest a series of practical steps towards implementing such standards. Chapter 11 of my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age,  sets out nine steps to quality online learning. Ideally, you should read the whole of this chapter before starting out on your first online course, but in this post I will provide a brief summary of each step.

I am assuming that all the standard institutional processes towards program approval for an online course have been taken, although it might be worth thinking through my nine steps outlined below before finally submitting a proposal. This would be a good way to anticipate and address any questions and concerns that your colleagues may have about about online learning. My nine steps approach would also work when considering the redesign of an existing course.

The nine steps are as follows:

  1. Step 1: Decide how you want to teach
  2. Step 2: Decide on mode of delivery
  3. Step 3: Work in a Team
  4. Step 4: Build on existing resources
  5. Step 5: Master the technology
  6. Step 6: Set appropriate learning goals
  7. Step 7: Design course structure and learning activities
  8. Step 8: Communicate, communicate, communicate
  9. Step 9: Evaluate and innovate

I am providing below a very brief description of each step. Just click on the heading for each step to see the full section in the book.

1. Decide how you want to teach

Of all the nine steps, this is the most important, and, for most instructors, the most challenging, as it may mean changing long established patterns of behaviour.

This question asks you to consider your basic teaching philosophy. What is my role as an instructor? Do I take an objectivist view, that knowledge is finite and defined, that I am an expert in the subject matter who knows more than the students, and thus my job is to ensure that I transfer as effectively as possible that information or knowledge to the student? Or do I see learning as individual development where my role is to help learners to acquire the ability to question, analyse and apply information or knowledge?

Do I see myself more as a guide or facilitator of learning for students? Or maybe you would like to teach in the latter way, but you are faced in classroom teaching with a class of 200 students which forces you to fall back on a more didactic form of teaching. Or maybe you would like to combine both approaches but can’t because of the restrictions of timetables and curriculum.

Considering using new technologies or an alternative delivery method will give you you an opportunity to rethink your teaching, perhaps to be able to tackle some of the limitations of classroom teaching, and to renew your approach to teaching. Using technology or moving part or all of your course online opens up a range of possibilities for teaching that may not be possible in the confines of a scheduled three credit weekly semester of lectures. It may mean not doing everything online, but focusing the campus experience on what can only be done on campus. Alternatively, it may enable you to to rethink totally the curriculum, to exploit some of the benefits of online learning, such as getting students to find, analyse and apply information for themselves.

Thus if you are thinking about a new course, or redesigning one that you are not too happy with, take the opportunity before you start teaching the course or program to think about how you’d really like to be teaching, and whether this can be accommodated in a different learning environment. The important point is to be open to doing things differently.

2. What kind of course or program?

In an earlier post, it was pointed out that there is a continuum of online learning.

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

From Chapter 11.4, Teaching in a Digital Age

Where on that continuum should your course be? There are four factors or variables to take into account when deciding what ‘mix’ of face-to-face and online learning will be best for your course:

  • your preferred teaching philosophy – how you like to teach
  • the needs/backgrounds of the students (or potential students)
  • the demands of the discipline
  • the resources available to you.

You will need to read Chapter 9 of Teaching in a Digital Age for help in making that decision.

3. Work in a team

Working in a team makes life a lot easier for instructors when teaching blended or online courses. Good course design, which is the area of expertise of the instructional designer, not only enables students to learn better but also controls faculty workload. Courses look better with good graphic and web design and professional video production. Specialist technical help frees up instructors to concentrate on teaching and learning.

Working in a team of course will depend heavily on the institution providing such support through a centre of teaching and learning. Nevertheless this is an important decision that needs to be implemented before course design begins.

4. Build on existing resources

The Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web, has an immense amount of content already available. Much of it is freely available for educational use, under certain conditions (e.g. acknowledgement of the source – look for the Creative Commons license usually at the end of the web page). Top universities such as MIT, Stanford, Princeton and Yale have made available recordings of their classroom lectures , etc., while distance teaching organizations such as the UK Open University have made all their online teaching materials available for free use. There are now many other sites from prestigious universities offering open course ware. (A Google search using ‘open educational resources’ or’ OER’ plus the name of the topic will identify most of them.)

But as well as open resources designated as ‘educational’, there is a great deal of ‘raw’ content on the Internet that can be invaluable for  teaching. The main question is whether you as the instructor need to find such material, or whether it would be better to get students to search, find, select, analyze, evaluate and apply information. After all, these are key skills for a digital age that students need to have.

Most content is not unique or original. Most of the time we are standing on the shoulders of giants, that is, organizing and managing knowledge already discovered. Only in the areas where you have unique, original research that is not yet published, or where you have your own ‘spin’ on content, is it really necessary to create ‘content’ from scratch.

Chapter 10, Trends in Open Education, in Teaching in a Digital Age is essential further reading on how to make full use of already existing resources.

5. Master the technology

Taking the time to be properly trained in how to use standard learning technologies will in the long run save you a good deal of time and will enable you to achieve a much wider range of educational goals than you would otherwise have imagined. There are many different possible technologies, such as learning management systems or video recording. It is not necessary to use all or any of these tools, but if you do decide to use them, you need to know not only how to operate such such technologies well, but also their pedagogical strengths and weaknesses.

There are really two distinct but strongly related components of using technology:

  • how the technology works; and
  • what it should be used for.

These are tools built to assist you, so you have to be clear as to what you are trying to achieve with the tools. This is an instructional or pedagogical issue. Thus if you want to find ways to engage students, or to give them practice in developing skills, such as solving quadratic equations, learn what the strengths or weaknesses are of the various technologies for doing this.

6. Set appropriate learning goals

An instructor (particularly a contract instructor or adjunct) may ‘inherit’ a course where the goals are already set, either by a previous instructor or by the academic department. Nevertheless, there remain many contexts where teachers and instructors have a degree of control over the goals of a particular course or program. In particular, a new course or program – such as an online masters program aimed at working professionals – offers an opportunity to reconsider desired learning outcomes and goals. Especially where curriculum is framed mainly in terms of content to be covered rather than by skills to be developed, there may still be room for manoeuvre in setting learning goals that would also include, for instance, intellectual skills development.

What this is likely to mean in terms of course design is using the Internet increasingly as a major resource for learning, giving students more responsibility for finding and evaluating information themselves, and instructors providing criteria and guidelines for finding, evaluating, analysing and applying information within a specific knowledge domain. This will require a critical approach to online searches, online data, news or knowledge generation in specific knowledge domains – in other words the development of critical thinking about the Internet and modern media – both their potential and limitations within a specific subject domain.

It is pointless to introduce new learning goals or outcomes then not assess how well students have achieved those goals. Assessment drives student behaviour. If they are not to be assessed on the skills outlined above, they won’t make the effort to develop them. The main challenge may not be in setting appropriate goals for online learning, but ensuring that you have the tools and means to assess whether students have achieved those goals.

And even more importantly, it is necessary to communicate very clearly to students these new learning goals and how they will be assessed. This may come as a shock to many students who are used to being fed content then tested on their memory of it.

7. Design course structure and learning activities

In a strong teaching structure, students know exactly what they need to learn, what they are supposed to do to learn this, and when and where they are supposed to do it. In a loose structure, student activity is more open and less controlled by the teacher. The choice of teaching structure of course has implications for the work of teachers and instructors as well as students.

‘Strong’ teaching structure is not inherently better than a ‘loose’ structure, nor inherently associated with either face-to-face or online teaching. The choice (as so often in teaching) will depend on the specific circumstances. However, choosing the optimum or most appropriate teaching structure is critical for quality teaching and learning, and while the optimum structures for online teaching share many common features with face-to-face teaching, in other ways they differ considerably. Chapter 11 looks at several specific areas where online learning requires a different approach to structure and learning activities from face-to-face teaching. It is probably in this step that the differences between face-to-face and online learning are greatest.

8. Communicate, communicate, communicate

There is substantial research evidence to suggest that ongoing, continuing communication between teacher/instructor and students is essential in all online learning. At the same time it needs to be carefully managed in order to control the teacher/instructor’s workload. Students need to know that the instructor is following the online activities of students and that the instructor is actively participating during the delivery of the course.

Chapter 11 sets out a number of strategies for ensure good communication with online students while managing instructor workload.

9. Evaluate and innovate

The last step emphasises the importance of both evaluating how well the online course or programs actually works, with a particular emphasis on formative or ongoing evaluation, and the importance of looking constantly for ways to improve or add value to the course over time.

Chapter 11 suggests ways to conduct both the summative and formative evaluation of online courses in ways that include evaluating specifically the online components.

Building a strong foundation of course design

The nine steps are based on two foundations:

  • effective strategies resulting from learning theories tested in both classroom and online environments;
  • experience of successfully teaching both in classrooms and online (best practices).

The approach I have suggested is quite conservative, and some may wish to jump straight into what I would call second generation online learning learning, based on social media such as mobile learning, blogs and wikis, and so on. These do offer intriguing new possibilities and are worth exploring. Nevertheless, for learning leading to qualifications, it is important to remember that most students need:

  • well-defined learning goals;
  • a clear timetable of work, based on a well-structured organization of the curriculum;
  • manageable study workloads appropriate for their conditions of learning;
  • regular instructor communication and presence;
  • a social environment that draws on, and contributes to, the knowledge and experience of other students;
  • a skilled teacher or instructor;
  • other motivated learners to provide mutual support and encouragement.

There are many different ways these criteria can be met, with many different tools.


Despite the length of this post, it is still a brief summary. You are strongly recommended to read the following chapter in full:

Indeed, you are now at the stage where are should be reading the whole book, and in particular the early chapters on epistemology and teaching methods.

Up next

Ready to go‘. This will be the last post in this series. It provides a brief summary of the previous posts and suggests further professional development activities that will better prepare you for online learning.

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

Online learning for beginners: 8. Won’t online learning be more work?

Books lots! 2

This is the eighth in a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The previous seven are:

More work?

The short answer is, yes, of course, at least in the short term. This is because online teaching is the same as any other skill. When you first start, you have to learn a lot, and do things you haven’t done before. For instance, as I discussed in earlier posts, you have to think carefully about why you are using online learning, talk to colleagues and work with other professionals such as instructional and web designers, master the technology, such as video recording or a learning management system, and basically re-think and re-design your teaching. This will take time, and your first online course will undoubtedly be more work and more challenging than your most recent face-to-face course.

However, in the long run, there is no reason why online teaching should be more work than face-to-face teaching, all other things being equal (which, of course, they never are in teaching). As always, there are important conditions to be met, if you don’t want to be swamped with extra work. So let’s look at what these conditions are.

Re-design your teaching

In a previous post in this series, I warned against trying to move your face-to-face teaching online, by just recording lectures. Although this may seem to be a time saver when developing an online course, it can cause a lot more work down the line. There will always be some students who don’t understand parts of a lecture and if something isn’t clear all students may have the same problem. When this happens, watch the e-mails or phone calls or even tweets roll in from students – or watch the course completion rate take a dive.

The answer is to use what is called ‘learning design’ or course design: setting clear learning outcomes or objectives for the course, breaking down the learning into manageable chunks of time for the students, providing appropriate learning activities for online learners, for instance, online discussion forums, and ensuring that assessment and feedback is continuous throughout the course, all the time thinking of the context in which the online learner is working. The trick is to move much of the work of finding, analyzing and applying content, and development of skills such as independent thinking, critical thinking, and problem solving, from you to the students, but under your guidance.

For most instructors, this means spending a good deal of time preparing the course in advance of its actual delivery. This means having the weekly modules that students study ready well in advance of the opening of the course. Although there will always be the need for minor changes to content in subsequent years, the bulk of the design and development of the course is done in the first year of its offering.

Most instructors in fact find a time shift when they move to online teaching. The more time you put into the development of the course in the first year, the less time you find yourself spending on content delivery during the delivery of the course, because it is already there. Multiply this over several offerings of the course and the time shift can lead to either significant time savings for you, or, more likely, your spending your time better in working directly, if online, with students, such as monitoring and contributing to online discussion of the course content.

For this reason, many institutions now offer funding to enable you to ‘buy yourself out’ of a face-to-face class for one or two semesters in order to prepare your first online course. Once you have some experience in this more traditional form of online learning, you can move to more ‘agile’ designs later, but that is another matter altogether. The first time out, you and your students need a clear structure and framework for the course.

Also, it is at this stage of course development that working with other professionals such as an instructional designer and web designer is most valuable. They should be able to provide the necessary advice and above all a framework and timetable for your work in designing the course.

Managing class size

I mentioned earlier that online teaching should not be more work, all things being equal. However, sometimes the aim is to use online learning in order to handle large classes or take extra students. These pressures may be coming from the administration rather than from you – or alternatively you may be concerned about the quality of the teaching of large face-to-face classes when many are delivered not by you but by teaching assistants who have barely more content knowledge than those they are teaching and who in particular may not have good lecturing skills.

The general rule for the most appropriate numbers for an individual instructor to teach online is pretty much the same as for face-to-face teaching. Once the instructor:student ratio goes over 1:30, it becomes harder to individualize the teaching and the instructor’s work load increases, unless the course is focused mainly on quantitative or ‘objective’ outcomes that can be automatically assessed, through, for instance, computer marked assignments. It is generally the marking that leads to overload when classes get beyond 30 per instructor.

However, because with online learning the content is available at any time and any place for students, there is some scope for scaling up the teaching to handle larger numbers. In particular, if the teaching content on the course is well developed by a top quality professor or instructor, all students will receive the same quality of content instruction. This means then that learner support and student assessment (marking) can be supported by contract sessional instructors as class size increases.

The availability of funding for hiring additional sessional instructors will depend on the business model behind the online program. If you are merely moving students from an existing face-to-face course to an online course, then there will be no extra money from tuition fees. However, if the online program is attracting new students paying additional tuition fees, then the extra funding can be used to hire more sessional instructors. In many North American universities, the tuition fee once an online course is developed more than covers the cost of additional sessional instructors, even with ‘steps’ of 30 students (i.e. for every additional 30 students you hire another sessional). Much of this of course will depend on faculty agreements, but from your point of view, re-design of a large face-to-face course by moving it online can not only improve the quality but also enable you to manage your own workload better.

What I would advise against is the use of graduate students as teaching assistants for online courses. The re-design of online courses requires instructors who can go beyond the ‘recorded’ content of an online course and can push students in online discussion groups, for instance, to challenge ideas and go deeper than just the formal online content. This requires sessional instructors with a good understanding of content and good inter-personal teaching skills to handle the extra students as class size increases.

In summary then, managing your workload as online class size increases requires several conditions:

  • ‘core’ content of high quality that does not need to be changed a lot from year to year;
  • learning/course design that provides a strong structure for students so that it is clear what they need to do when studying;
  • professional instructional design and web/media design support;
  • flexibility to hire additional, well-qualified sessional instructors as class size increases.

In the end, this may mean moving to a team approach to teaching large online classes. In some cases, the senior instructor’s responsibility may not involve direct teaching at all, but being responsible for the curriculum/content, setting learning outcomes, designing assessments, and supervising the learning support and assignment marking provided by sessional instructors.

Shifting from content to skills development

What online learning can do is enable you, as an instructor or teacher, to move away from ‘sage-on-the-stage’, where you are responsible for choosing and delivering content, and assessing how well students have comprehended this content, to ‘guide-on-the-side’, where students find, analyze and apply content, and develop higher level skills through practice, often working with other students online, through discussion or project work, but always under your guidance, or under the guidance of a team of sessional instructors that you monitor.


  1. Such changes inevitably mean more work, and more challenges, initially, in moving to online learning, but the benefits in both the quality of what your students learn, and the quality of your own engagement with students, can be substantial.
  2. There are also strategies for managing your workload when teaching online, so that over time you can balance better your teaching, research and administrative responsibilities.
  3. But online learning is not something to be undertaken lightly. You need to do it professionally, or it will be both more work and very frustrating.


For more on the design of online courses, see:

Later posts in this series will go into more detail about providing support for online learners that will also enable you to manage better your workload.

Up next

How can I do online learning well?

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

Get the students to do the work!

Get the students to do the work!

Online learning for beginners: 3. ‘Aren’t MOOCs online learning?’


What are MOOCs?

Just in case you don’t know what MOOCs are (massive, open online courses), they are usually courses that use video recordings of lectures from top professors from elite universities, such as Stanford, MIT and Harvard, and computer-marked assessments, sometimes combined with unmonitored online student discussions and peer review. MOOCs are made freely available to anyone who wants to sign up. The main platforms for MOOCs are Coursera, edX, Udacity and FutureLearn. There are also quite a different kind of MOOC, called connectivists MOOCs, that are more like online communities of practice

The first MOOCs attracted over 200,000 enrolments per course, although numbers in recent years are more in the 2,500 range. Nevertheless it is estimated that there are more than 34 million participants worldwide registering in MOOCs each year.

Since the first ones launched in 2008, MOOCs have been rapidly evolving.

MOOCs vs online credit courses

Given all the publicity and hype over MOOCs, you could be forgiven for thinking that MOOCs are all you need to know about online learning. However, you would be sadly mistaken.

Online learning existed as a serious part of education at least 15 years before MOOCs arrived on the scene. The following graph shows the increase in online courses for credit up to 2012 in the USA post-secondary education system, before the first MOOCs were launched:

Allen and Seaman, 2013

Allen and Seaman, 2013

By 2013 at least one in three students in post-secondary education was taking at least one online course as part of a degree program. At the moment according to the U.S. Department of Education somewhere between 8-15% of all university degree course enrolments are in fully online courses. Online course enrolments continue to grow at rate (10-20% per annum) much faster than enrolments for on-campus courses (2-3% per annum) (Allen and Seaman, 2016).

So what’s the difference?

  • MOOCs have much higher numbers of initial participants generally than online credit courses; MOOCs can have anywhere between 2,000 to 200,000 participants who sign up, whereas online courses for credit can have anywhere between 20 to 2,000 registered enrolments. Fully online courses for credit usually though have 100 enrolments per course or less;
  • MOOCs, with very few exceptions, do not provide credits towards degrees, although a certificate may be issued (for a price) for those that complete computer-based assessments. However, even the institutions offering MOOCs do not accept successful completion of their courses towards credit in their own institution;
  • MOOCs have very low successful completion rates (less than 10%, usually closer to 5%) whereas fully online courses for credit often have completion rates as high or just below those for equivalent face-to-face courses. For instance in Ontario in 2011, completion rates for all fully online courses for credit in the Ontario public post-secondary system were within 5% of completion rates for face-to-face classes in universities, and within 10% for two year colleges; in other words roughly 80% or more of students in fully online courses for credit will successfully complete;
  • MOOCs provide almost no personal learning support for learners from qualified instructors, whereas most successful fully online courses for credit have a strong instructor online presence;
  • MOOCs generally charge no fee to participate (although a fee may be charged for a certificate of completion); fully online courses for credit normally charge the same fee as, or slightly higher than, those for campus-based courses or programs.

In other words, MOOCs are just one, more recent, form of online learning. They are more like continuing education programs, except they are free. Think of them as a modern form of educational television.

MOOC participation Image: Phil Hill

MOOC participation rates Image: Phil Hill, 2013

The hype

Much has been made about MOOCs disrupting the higher education system (Christensen, 2010), being a solution to educational problems in developing countries (Friedman, 2013), and being a threat to the existence of universities. Leslie Wilson of the European University Association has commented that MOOCs have forced Vice Chancellors to focus on teaching and learning (which I find a somewhat sad comment: why weren’t they focusing on that before MOOCs came along)?

However, after all the initial publicity, MOOCs have settled down into an important but relatively small niche in post-secondary education, a form of continuing education that still struggles to find a successful business model that works for the universities that supply MOOCs.

Why then all the fuss?

Good question! There is a combination of factors that have resulted in the publicity and hype.

One of the most important is that the development of MOOCs was largely driven by faculty (and mainly computer-science faculty) from highly prestigious, elite universities such as Stanford, MIT and Harvard. This has resulted in a bandwagon effect of follow my leader from other universities. Whatever the faults or weaknesses of MOOCs, these elite universities have made online learning highly visible, whereas before, although online courses for credit had been slowly gaining ground, online learning was still seen as peripheral and slightly disreputable.

MOOCs also coincided with a time when states in the USA were making big cuts in higher education budgets due to the 2008 financial recession, leading to lack of tax revenues; many saw MOOCs as an alternative to high cost, campus-based universities. Over time, this argument has become less convincing, partly due to the lack of recognition for credit of successful MOOC completion, and partly due to the difficulties of developing the high level of skills needed outside the purely quantitative subject areas with so little learner support .


  • Most faculty will need, at least in the short-term, to focus on online courses, blended or fully online, for credit, not MOOCs. These for credit online courses will need different approaches in terms of course design and learner support from MOOCs, if high completion rates are to be achieved and high level learning skills are to be developed in students;
  • For some ‘star’ faculty in subject areas where the university is particularly or uniquely strong, MOOCs will still be an attractive proposition, boosting both the star faculty member’s reach and reputation, and the brand of the university;
  • MOOC design will evolve, probably converging towards the designs used for successful for-credit online courses, but this will likely increase costs; at the same time, the design of for-credit courses may also benefit from some of the lessons in ‘scaling’ from successful MOOCs;
  • there are many other forms of online learning besides MOOCs, and within online courses for credit there are many different approaches; it is important to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each of these variations in online learning, so the appropriate choices can be made. This is the topic of my next post in this series.


If you want to know more about MOOCs, and their strengths and weaknesses, here is some suggested further homework (if you read/watch it all, possibly 2 hours of reading/watching):

Up next

‘What kinds of online learning are there?’ (to be posted early in the week 25-31 July, 2016)

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.


Allen, L. and Seaman, J. (2016) Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States Wellesley MA: Babson Survey Research Group

Downes, S. (2016) Connectivism, MOOCs and Innovation, Stephen Downes, July 25

Christensen, C. (2010) Disrupting Class, Expanded Edition: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns New York: McGraw-Hill

Friedman, T. (2013) Revolution Hits the Universities New York Times, January 26

Building an effective learning environment

Learning environment 2

I was asked by the Chang School of Continuing Studies at Ryerson University to do a master class on this topic at their ChangSchoolTalks on February 17, based on Appendix 1 in my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

I was a little surprised by the request. I had moved what had originally been the second chapter of the book to an appendix, as I thought it was rather obvious and most instructors would already be aware of the key factors in an effective learning environment, so I was somewhat nervous about doing a master class for faculty and instructors on this topic.

As it turned out, I need not have worried. The master class was the first to be fully booked and the way the master class developed suggested that participants found the topic both stimulating and challenging. I think the reason for this is that my approach to building an effective learning environment is driven by a particular philosophy of education that is not always understood in post-secondary education. For this reason I thought I would share with you my thoughts on this in this post.

Learning as a ‘natural’ human activity

One premise behind building an effective learning environment is that it is inbuilt in humans to learn. If we had not been reasonably good at learning, we would have been killed off early in the earth’s history by faster, bigger and more ferocious animals. The ability not only to learn, but to learn in abstract and conscious ways, is therefore part of human nature.

If that is the case, a teacher’s job is not to do the learning for the student, but to build a rich environment that facilitates the kind of learning that will benefit the learner. It is not a question of pouring knowledge into a student’s head, but enabling the learner to develop concepts, think critically, and apply and evaluate what they have learned, by providing opportunities and experiences that are relevant to such goals.

Learning as development

A second premise is that knowledge is not fixed or static, but is continually developing. Our concept of heat changes and becomes richer as we grow older and become more educated, from understanding heat through touch, to providing a quantitative way of measuring it, to understanding its physical properties, to being able to apply that knowledge to solving problems, such as designing refrigerators. In a knowledge-based society, knowledge is constantly developing and growing, and our understanding is always developing.

This is one reason why I believe that one negative aspect of competency-based education is its attempt to measure competencies in terms of ‘mastery’ and limiting them to competencies required by employers. The difference between a skill and a competency is that there is no limit to a skill. You can continually improve a skill. We should be enabling students to develop skills that will carry them through maybe multiple employers, and enable them to adapt to changing market requirements, for instance.

If then we want students to develop knowledge and skills, we need to provide the right kind of learning environments  that encourage and support such development. Although analogies have their limitations, I like to think of education as gardening, where the learners are the plants. Plants know how to grow; they just need the right environment, the right balance of sun and shadow, the right soil conditions, enough water, etc. Our job as teachers is to make sure we are providing learners with those elements that will allow them to grow and learn. (The analogy breaks down though if we think of learners as having consciousness and free will, which adds an important element to developing an effective learning environment.)

There are many possible effective learning environments

Teaching is incredibly context-specific so the learning environment must be suitable to the context. For this reason, every teacher or instructor needs to think about and build their own learning environment that is appropriate to the context in which they are working. Here are some examples of different learning environments:

  • a school or college campus
  • an online course
  • military training
  • friends, family and work
  • nature
  • personal, technology-based, learning environments
A personal learning environment Image: jason Hews, Flikr

A personal learning environment
Image: jason Hews, Flikr

Nevertheless I will argue that despite the differences in context, there are certain elements or components that will be found in most effective learning environments.

In developing an effective learning environment, there are two issues I need to address up front:

  • First, it is the learner who has to do the learning.
  • Second, any learning environment is much more than the technology used to support it.

With regard to the first, teachers cannot do the learning for the learner. All they can do is to create and manage an environment that enables and encourages learning. My focus then in terms of building an effective learning environment is on what the  teacher can do, because in the end that is all they can control. However, the focus of what the teacher does should be on the learner, and what the learner needs. That of course will require good communication between the learners and the teacher.

Second, many technology-based personal learning environments are bereft of some of the key components that make an effective learning environment. The technology may be necessary but it is not sufficient. I suggest below what some of those components are.

Key components

These will vary somewhat, depending on the context. I will give examples below, but it is important for every individual teacher to think about what components may be necessary within their own context and then on how best to ensure these components are effectively present and used. (There is a much fuller discussion of this in Appendix 1 of my book)

Learner characteristics

This is probably the most important of all the components: the learners themselves. Some of the key characteristics are listed below:

  • what are their goals and motivation to learn what I am teaching them?
  • in what contexts (home, campus, online) will they prefer to learn?
  • how diverse are they in terms of language, culture, and prior knowledge?
  • how digitally capable are they?

Given these characteristics, what are the implications for providing an effective learning environment for these specific learners?


  • what content do students need to cover? What are the goals in covering this content?
  • what sources of content are necessary? Who should find, evaluate, and apply these sources: me or the students? If the learners, what do I need to provide to enable them to do this?
  • how should the content be structured? Who should do this structuring: me or the learners? If learners, what do I need to provide to help them?
  • what is the right balance between breadth and depth of content for the learners in this specific context?
  • what activities will learners need in order to acquire and manage this content?


  • what skills do students need to develop?
  • what activities will enable learners to develop and apply these skills? (e.g. thinking, doing, discussing)
  • what is the goal in skill development? Mastery? A minimal level of performance? How will learners know this?

Learner support

  • what counselling and/or mentoring will learners need to succeed?
  • how will learners get feedback (particularly on skills development)?
  • how will learners relate to other learners so they are mutually supporting?


  • how much time can I devote to each of the components of a learning environment? What’s the best way to split my time?
  • what help will I get from other teaching staff, e.g. teaching assistants, librarians? What is the best way to use them?
  • what facilities will the learners have available (e.g. learning spaces, online resources)?
  • what technology can the learners use; how should this be managed and organized?


  • what types of assessment should be used? (formative, essays, e-portfolios, projects)?
  • how will these measure the content and skills that learners are expected to master?

These questions are meant mainly as examples. Each teacher needs to develop and think about what components will be necessary in their context and how best to provide those components.

For instance, I did not include culture as a component. In some contexts, cultural change is one of the most important goals of education. Negative examples of this might include the culture of privilege encouraged in private British boarding schools, or the attempt to replace indigenous cultures with a western culture, as practiced in Canada with aboriginal residential schools. More positive cultural components may be to encourage inclusivity or ethical behaviour. Again, each teacher should decide on what components are important for their learners.

Necessary but not sufficient

Thinking about and implementing these components may be necessary, but they are not sufficient in themselves to ensure quality teaching and learning. In addition effective teaching still needs:

  • good design
  • empathy for the learners
  • teacher competence (e.g. subject knowledge)
  • imagination to create an effective learning environment.


The learners must do the learning. We need to make sure that learners are able to work within an environment that helps them do this. In other words, our job as teachers is to create the conditions for success.

There are no right or wrong ways to build an effective learning environment. It needs to fit the context in which students will learn. However, before even beginning to design a course or program, we should be thinking of what this learning environment could look like.

Technology now enables us to build a wide variety of effective learning environments. But technology alone is not enough; it needs to include other components for learner success. This is not to say that self-managing learners cannot build their own effective, personal learning environments, but they need to consider the other components as well as the technology.


  1. What other components would you add to a successful learning environment?
  2. Could you now design a different and hopefully better learning environment for your courses or programs? If so, what would it look like?
  3. Is this a helpful way to approach the design of online learning or indeed any other form of learning?