January 27, 2015

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 2: Decide on what kind of online course

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© Bates, A. and Poole, G., 2003: Creative Commons license (non-commercial use; acknowledgement)

This is the third in a series of 10 posts on designing quality online courses. The first two posts (which should be read before this post) are:

Nine steps to quality online learning: introduction

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 1: Decide how you want to teach online

The continuum of online learning

Online learning can be used in many ways. It can be used in the form of:

  • classroom aids, i.e. supporting regular classroom teaching (extra homework for students, in essence), such as putting course materials such as Powerpoint slides, course readings, assignment questions and deadlines, and class ‘news’ online, usually through a learning management system such as Blackboard or Moodle. The students may also post assignments as Word documents through the LMS, and student grades can be submitted via the LMS. Instructors often call this ‘blended’ learning. It should be remembered however that this is all likely to be extra work, both for you and for the students, on top of a full classroom load, and the extra reading and sources to follow up on can accumulate over time and cause overloading of work for students.
  • hybrid learning: this is where face-to-face class time is reduced, but not eliminated, to allow for more time to be spent by students working online. This can take many forms:
    • Vancouver Community College runs a course for apprentices in plastic car body maintenance where students spend the first 10 weeks studying entirely online, then come to the college for the last three weeks of the course to do practical work. On the first day in class they are tested on their skills. Because many are already working under supervision, up to one third will already have reached the practical skills standard on the job. These are then accredited and then go back to work immediately (much to the employers’ relief). This allows the instructor to focus on bringing a smaller group of students up to the required skill standard over the next three weeks in the workshop or lab.
    • Royal Roads University near Victoria, British Columbia, which focuses more on lifelong learning, uses another hybrid model. Students take up to two semesters fully online, but spend the third semester on campus.
    • The most common model though is to reduce lectures from three hours a week, to one classroom session and the rest done online. We will discuss below how to use these two times to best advantage.

These models of hybrid learning are not yet found to any great extent on university or college campuses, but some people, including me, believe that hybrid learning will eventually become the ‘standard’ model of teaching on campus-based universities, as instructors become more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of both online and face-to-face teaching.

  • fully online: this is where all the course is delivered fully online, i.e. it is a distance education course. It is estimated that approximately 15% of all post-secondary course enrollments in North America are currently in fully online courses, and the numbers are growing rapidly (at a rate of roughly 10-20% per year).

The challenge now for every instructor is: where on the continuum of online learning should my course be?

Will hybrid learning work for this student?

How to decide

There are four factors that should determine what kind of online course you should be teaching:

  • your teaching philosophy
  • the kind of students you are trying to reach (or will have to teach)
  • the requirements of the subject discipline
  • the resources available to you.

Your teaching philosophy

Deciding on a teaching philosophy has been discussed in an earlier post (see Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 1: Decide how you want to teach online) but it is not a simple decision made before you start designing an online course. It is likely to be modified as we work through the remaining steps, but having a clear set of values and beliefs as to how best to teach your subject should provide a guide to the kind of decisions you will be required to make.

Who are (or could be) the students?

We now know quite a lot about which kinds of student best learn online, and which find it difficult or a struggle. Here are some guidelines:

  • lifelong learners wanting further qualifications or upgrading. These are often working with families and really appreciate the flexibility of studying fully online. They often already have higher education qualifications such as a first degree, and therefore have learned how to study successfully. They may be engineers looking for training in management, or professionals wanting to keep up to date in their professional area.They are often better motivated, because they can see a direct link between the new course of study and possible improvement in their career prospects. They are therefore ideal students for online courses (even though they may be older and less tech savvy than students coming out of high school). The most rapid area of growth in online courses is for masters programs aimed at working professionals. What is important for such learners is that the courses are technically well designed, in that learners do not need to be highly skilled in using computers to be able to study the courses.
  • independent learners. Online learning, particularly fully online, requires good self-discipline and good generic study skills. Independent learners can be found at any age, but it is a teachable skill, and we will discuss later in this post how to use online learning to move students from being dependent learners to independent learners. As a general rule, though, many students straight from high school are often not ready to plunge fully into an online course, and need a process of transition.
  • full-time students needing flexibility. A surprisingly large proportion of online learners are full-time, campus based students. At the University of British Columbia, over 80% of all distance enrollments are third or fourth year students taking the online version of a course that is also offered on campus. There are several reasons for this. Many so-termed full-time students are in fact working also, in part-time jobs to keep down their tuition debt. (The higher the tuition fees, the greater the pressure to take part-time work). Online learning provides more flexibility and avoids the clash of work commitments and face-to-face timetables. Another reason is that increasingly, the face-to-face classes are capped and students can’t get admitted to them. Taking the online version allows such students to complete a degree within four years rather than coming back for an extra semester or year (and incidentally helps to keep down face-to-face class size).
  • remote and isolated students. Certainly in Canada, there are such students and the ability to study locally rather than travel great distances can be very appealing. However, it is worth noting that the vast majority of online learners are urban, living within one hour’s travel of a college or university campus. It is the flexibility rather than the distance that matters to these learners, and really remote and isolated students may not have good study skills or broadband access. Thus they may need to be introduced gradually to online learning, with often strong local face-to-face support initially.

An on-campus student wanting more flexibility

It is therefore very important to know what kind of students you will be teaching. For some students, it will be better to enroll in a face-to-face class but be gradually introduced to online study within a familiar classroom environment. For other students, the only way they will take the course will be if it is available fully online. It is also possible to mix and match face-to-face and online learning for some students who want the campus experience, but also need a certain amount of flexibility in their studying. Going online may enable you to reach a wider market (critical for departments with low or declining enrollments) or to meet strong demand from working professionals. Who are (or could be) your students? What kind of course will work best for them?

Determining the requirements of the subject discipline

Experience suggests that almost anything can be effectively taught online, given enough time and money, and certainly more than most face-to-face instructors will imagine. Nevertheless there are some subjects, or more accurately some elements of subject areas, that are more difficult to teach online. Determining the needs of the subject area and their appropriateness for online teaching requires both a deep knowledge of the discipline and an open mind to doing things differently. Thus it is not possible for me to make this decision for most instructors; but I can suggest some guidelines to help you do this. To do this, I will take a subject area that does not look at first sight to be an easy topic to teach online, hematology, the study of blood.

Content or skills?

I find it useful in the design of online learning to differentiate between what I call content and skills when defining the desired learning outcomes from a course..

Content covers facts, data, hypotheses, ideas, arguments, evidence, and description of things (for instance, showing or describing the parts of a piece of equipment and their relationship). In hematology, content will include the description of the physical components of blood, descriptions of the relevant parts of cell biology, the equipment used to analyse blood and how the equipment works, principles, theories and hypotheses about blood clotting, the relationship between blood tests and diseases or other illnesses, etc.

Skills describe how content will be applied and practiced. This might include analysis of the components of blood, the use of equipment (where ability to use equipment safely and effectively is a desired learning outcome), making hypotheses about cause and effect based on theory and evidence, diagnosis, problem-solving and treatment.

There are now many ways to deliver content online: text, graphics, audio, video and simulations. For instance, graphics, a short video clip, or photographs down a microscope can show examples of blood cells in different conditions. Increasingly this content is already available over the web for free educational use (for instance, see the American Society of Hematology’s video library). Creating such material from scratch is more expensive, but is becoming increasingly easy to do with high quality, low cost digital recording equipment. Using a carefully recorded video of an experiment will often provide a better view than students will get crowding around awkward lab equipment.

So first, break down the content that must be delivered and decide how this can best be done online. In many cases, it can be better delivered online than in a classroom or lab. What is NOT a good way to deliver content over the Internet is through recorded lectures. Studying online is often done in short bursts of study, and providing materials in a modular form provides greater flexibility and more manageable learning ‘chunks’ to digest. With online presentation you can include material that is more ‘authentic’ than students would get in a classroom lecture. Thus it is important to think through the content of a course and how best it can be delivered online. In most cases, content delivery will not be a major problem. It just needs to be presented through the best media available and properly organized.

Developing skills online can be more of a challenge, particularly if it requires manipulation of equipment and a ‘feel’ for how equipment works, or similar skills that require tactile sense. (The same could be said of skills that require taste or smell). In our hematology example, some of the skills that need to be taught might include the ability to analyse analytes or particular components of blood, such as insulin or glucose, to interpret results (content), and to suggest treatment. The aim here would be to see if there are ways these skills can also be taught effectively online. This would mean identifying the skills needed, working out how to develop such skills (including opportunities for practice) online, and how to assess such skills online. At the end of the analysis, it should be possible to draw up a table along the lines of Figure 1 below (although the list of outcomes would be much longer).

Figure 1: analysis of learning outcomes by mode of delivery

It can be seen in this example that most of the content can be delivered online, together with a critically important skill of designing an experiment, but some activities still need to be done ‘hands-on’. This might require one or more evening or weekend sessions in a lab for hands-on work, thus delivering most of the course online, or there may be so much hands-on work that the course may have to be a hybrid of 50% hands-on lab work and 50% online learning.

With the development of animations, simulations and online remote labs, where actual equipment can be remotely manipulated, it is becoming increasingly possible to move even traditional lab work online. At the same time, it is not always possible to find exactly what one needs online, although this will improve over time. In other subject areas such as humanities, social sciences, and business, it is much easier to move the teaching online.

It can be seen that these decisions have to be relatively intuitive, based on instructors’ knowledge of the subject area and their ability to think creatively about how to achieve learning outcomes online. However, we have enough experience now of teaching online to know that in most subject areas, a great deal of the skills and content needed to achieve quality learning outcomes can be taught online. It is no longer possible to argue that the default decision must always be to do the teaching in a face-to-face manner.

Thus every instructor now needs to ask the question: if I can move most of my teaching online, what are the unique benefits of the campus experience that I need to bring into my face-to-face teaching? Why do students have to be here in front of me, and when they are here, am I using the time to best advantage?


A good workman needs the right tools and the necessary time to do a good job. The same is true for online teaching. So let’s look at the resources you need to support a move to online learning.

1 Your time. This is the most precious resource of all. Time to learn how to do online teaching is especially important. There is a steep learning curve and the first time you do it will take much longer than subsequent online courses. The institution should offer some form of training or professional development for instructors thinking of moving online. Ideally instructors should get some release time (up to one semester from one class) in order to do the design and preparation for an online course. This however is not always possible and in some of the other steps we will look at how you can best manage your time when developing and teaching an online course. However, one thing we do know. Instructor workload is a function of course design. Well designed online courses should require less rather than more work from an instructor. Thus we will spend time in later steps looking at how good design can enable you to control the workload.

2. Learning technology support staff. If your institution has a service unit for faculty development and training, instructional designers and web designers for supporting teaching, use them. Such staff are often qualified in both educational sciences and computer technology. They have unique knowledge and skills that can make your life much easier when teaching online. I will discuss their role in more detail in step 3.

3. The learning management system Most institutions now have a learning management system such as Blackboard or Moodle. Other common LMSs are Desire2Learn, Sakai or Instructure. Use the existing institutional LMS. In particular, when starting don’t get drawn into LMS ‘wars’ about whether your institution has the ‘best’ LMS. Most LMSs have very similar functionality and enough flexibility to allow you teach in the way you would like to teach, at least at the start. An LMS will give you a structure and format to follow to get you started quickly. Again, if the institution doesn’t have an LMS (or has its own very peculiar brand) then don’t even think of going online, unless you also have good web design skills and are willing to do a lot of extra work maintaining the course web site.

4. Colleagues experienced in online teaching It really helps if you have experienced colleagues in your department who understand the subject discipline and have done some online teaching. They will perhaps even have some materials already developed, such as graphics, that they will be willing to share with you.

The extent to which these resources are available will help inform you on the extent to which you will be able to go online and meet quality standards. In particular, you should think twice about going online if none of the resources listed above is going to be available to you.

Who should make the decision?

While individual instructors should be heavily involved in deciding the best mix of online and face-to-face teaching in their specific course, it is worth thinking about this on a program rather than an individual course basis. For instance, if we see the development of independent learning skills as a key program outcome, then it might make sense to start in the first year with mainly face-to-face classes, but gradually over the length of the program introduce students to more and more online learning, so that the end of a four year degree they are able and willing to take some of their courses fully online.

Certainly now every program should have a mechanism for deciding not only the content and skills or the curriculum to be covered in a program, but also how the program will be delivered, and hence the balance or mix of online and face-to-face teaching throughout the program.


To summarize, 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 of the students (or potential students)
  • the demands of the discipline
  • the resources available to you.

ALL instructors now need to make this decision about the right mix of online and face-to-face teaching for a course. Although an analysis of all the factors is an essential set of steps to take in making this decision, in the end it will come down to a mainly intuitive decision, taking into account all the factors. This becomes particular important when looking at a program as a whole.

Next step

In the next post in this series, I will discuss the benefits of working in a team when designing an online course.

CIDER session: let’s hear it for the self-paced student

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This session in the winter series of free online CIDER sessions features a presentation and discussion with Dr. Steve Weiland from Michigan State University.

Title: A Case for the Self-Paced Online Course

At a time when the conventions of online teaching and learning favour student interaction in a variety of synchronous and asynchronous design features, what could sound more out-of-step than the self-paced course organized around autonomy and the isolated student? But claims for the value of online “learning communities” can be overstated, and the preferences of adult students overlooked. The self-paced course in which students work on their own to complete a sequence of activities (like reading texts, viewing and listening to digital media, exploring websites, and completing writing assignments) may actually satisfy the needs of adult learners as much (or more) than online courses reflecting one version or another of social constructivism in design. This presentation explores historical, theoretical, and practical dimensions of the self-paced course and concludes with evidence for success in using the format in a fully online MA program.

When: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 – 11am to 12noon Mountain Time (Canada)

Where: Online through Adobe Connect at: https://connect.athabascau.ca/cider/

CIDER sessions are brought to you by the Centre for Distance Education, Athabasca University: Canada’s Open University




More for less: why Ontario students are complaining

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Pin. L., Martin, C, & Andrey, S (2011). Rising Costs: A Look at Spending at Ontario Universities. Toronto: Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

This is another excellent and well-researched publication from the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, and this post is not unrelated to my previous post on British academics rejecting systematized training in teaching.

“Per-student funding increased more than $3,000 over the last five years due mostly to increases in government contributions and student fees well above the rate of inflation. Students wanted to know how much went to improving the quality of their learning experience,” said Sean Madden, President of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (OUSA). 

Good question, Sean. The report notes:

More than 70 per cent of the increase in funding from 2004-05 went to salary, pension and benefit costs largely for existing full-time academic faculty and administrators, as well as increased use of part-time instructors.

Paul (2011, p. 143) notes: ‘the continuing trend to higher faculty salaries and flat university funding is just not sustainable over the longer term’. Basically students (and taxpayers) are having to pay more for less.

There is now a pressing moral obligation on universities to improve quality and/or reduce costs by doing things differently – how about training in teaching for a start?

IRRODL June 2011

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For the very few readers of this site who are not already subscribers, the latest edition of the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning is now available.

First of all, congratulations to Terry Anderson and his team at Athabasca University for gaining recognition of IRRODL by its being indexed in Thomson’s Social Science Citation Index (SSCI), apparently essential for authors if they are to be recognized for their publications by tenure and promotion panels. It shouldn’t really be necessary, because it is the outstanding journal in its field, in terms of the quality and frequency of its publications.

There is no single theme in this edition so I will plagiarize (sorry: reference) Terry Anderson’s own editorial to summarize what’s in it:

Research articles in this issue cover

We also include a research note on the value of start-of-class surveys and a book review that looks at the impact of e-learning on globalization of higher education.

As always, issue 12.5 features contributions from many countries. There are three articles from the USA, two from Sweden, and one each from Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Ghana, and Spain.


How does the University of Phoenix measure up?

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University of Phoenix (2010) 2010 Annual Academic Report University of Phoenix AZ: University of Phoenix

This is third academic annual report from the University of Phoenix (UofPx).

There are at least three different ways to assess the University of Phoenix, besides the obvious one of making money, which it does by the bucket: $1.04 billion profit in 2009 (before tax), which is more than the total operating budget of most research universities. (The profit figure comes from a different report, the Apollo Group Annual Report, 2009, p. 52)


One way to look at the University of Phoenix is to ask: does it provide a needed service?

In its 2010 Annual Academic report, UofPx compares its student profile with that for the rest of the United States higher education system and concludes:

Close to half of the University’s enrollment consists of students from underrepresented racial or ethnic communities.’

In particular:

  • 2% are classified as ‘non-resident alien’ (for those readers outside the United States, aliens are non-USA citizens, not creatures from Mars), compared with 9% in the rest of the system.
  • 18% are Black/Afro-American compared with 12% in the rest of the system
  • 35% are white, compared with 58% in the rest of the system
  • 69% are female, compared with 57% in the rest of the system.

In other words, UofPx is providing the same role that many publicly funded open universities fulfill in the rest of the world: providing an alternative route to higher education for disadvantaged minorities. Unfortunately, UofPx suffers from the stigma of being ‘for-profit’, which is somewhat ironical, given the value system in the USA that generally favours privatization, whereas, at least in the European countries, publicly funded open universities such as the UK Open University and the Open University of Catalonia often have a higher degree of public acceptance than the UofPx.

The question I have is: why are not the public sector institutions in the USA making more effort to accommodate these disadvantaged students? There are several obvious answers:

  • these are often ‘unwanted’ students, since they are not generally high-flying students who will go on to become full-time research students,
  • they require more effort from instructors to teach successfully;
  • there is little incentive from state legislatures to encourage the traditional system to accommodate such students;
  • the institutions would need to change their way of working to accommodate such students, because such students are working and require more flexibility.

I don’t think any of these is an adequate reason for a publicly-funded university not to provide services to such students. Such students have every right to access to public higher education – or should higher education be barred to such students? And why should disadvantaged students, usually on much lower incomes, have to pay full cost to a for-profit when other students are more highly subsidized in public institutions? (UofPx students do generally qualify for federal financial aid, but they still end up paying a lot more than if they were at a public institution.)

In terms of meeting a real need, in terms of the market it serves, I would give the UofPx an A+ compared to the rest of the system.

Quality assurance

It has some interesting things to say about measuring academic quality. (Regrettably, neither the Annual Academic Report nor the Apollo Group financial report make any distinctions between online and face-to-face programs, although more than half the students are online at the UofPx.) In particular, it makes the claim that the University of Phoenix should not be measured in terms of graduation rates:

Most of the current measures of academic quality are those applied to full-time on-campus students, who make up only about one quarter of the total college enrollment in America. These students go directly from high school to college, attend classes full time, and experience residential life on campus. They then proceed to the world of work. For these students there is an orderly progression that can be tracked and quantified institutionally by
such measures as graduation rates, job placement rates, or lifetime earnings.

However, some three-quarters of all students in America today do not fit this mold. They are older; they work full or part time and have family responsibilities, including financial obligations. …. Their progression is not linear or orderly and is complicated by a variety of life factors (i.e., risks), and yet access to higher education is vital. For these students, measures such as graduation rates are not the best indicators of institutional success.

As a result of the needs of the new majority, and because technology has advanced to a point that anyone can attend class at any time and almost anywhere, delivery methods have evolved and the appropriate metrics to measure quality have yet to be defined.

The University of Phoenix has determined that academic quality must be discussed from two perspectives: as a measure of internal integrity in which key indicators that tie academic outcomes to student success are a part of a system of continuous improvement, and as a set of measures by which institutions can be compared in regard to student achievement.

It argues that:

defining the knowledge and skills students are expected to possess upon graduating with a degree in a given discipline has been at the core of both the curriculum design and the assessment process at University of Phoenix for several years. It is, in fact, one of the major ways that the University believes academic quality can be engaged, ensured, and evaluated for improvement.

So how well does the UofPx do in terms of measuring success in developing ‘the knowledge and skills students are expected to possess’? It provides some interesting comparative data, comparing UoP students’ scores with students from universities that offer bachelors through to masters, on the following scales:

  • NSSE (the National Survey of Student Engagement),
  • SAILS (Standardized Assessment of Information Literacy Skills)
  • ETS proficiency profile (formerly MAPP)

In general, UofPx students were equivalent to or outperformed other groups on these measurements.

Of course, this does not answer the question whether UofPx students will make better graduate students, or better students in American literature, or better students in physics ; probably not, because their focus is on skills required by employers. But does it give these students what they want, in terms of learning outcomes? From surveys of those that graduated, apparently so, but of course there is always an element of cognitive dissonance in such ratings.

In terms of quality, and allowing for some degree of selection in the methods chosen by UofPx to measure quality, I would give a B-.

In particular, an effort was made to measure academic outcomes and benchmark them. I think the UofPx could improve on this a great deal, but then this is a challenge for the whole post-secondary system, not just the UofPx.

Graduation rate

Of those who completed at least three credits, 34% graduated within six years, compared with 53% nationally.

This is for me is the Achilles heel of UofPx. I realise that many taking UofPx’s programs are working, and one would expect them to take longer to graduate. However, I think it is a scandal that students in traditional universities need to take six years or more to graduate at the bachelor’s level. It is true that many working adults already with a degree may be less interested in acquiring another degree when returning to university, but this is not UofPx’s primary market. Most students want a degree at the end of their studies, and this applies especially to UofPx’s students, most of whom do not have a first degree.

Just because the rest of the system is inefficient is not an excuse for UofPx. It should be finding a way to get more students graduated, especially given the high level of fees that UofPx’s students are paying, and the financial aid students are getting through Federal grants. On this I would give UofPx a D grade. (But then I would give more or less the same to public institutions on this measure).


Overall, I would give the University of Phoenix a C+. It meets a real need, and sets and achieves realistic academic goals for the students it attracts, as far as it goes. However, it does not succeed in giving the majority of students who enroll what they are seeking, a degree in a reasonable amount of time.

The prejudices against the University of Phoenix are misplaced. The fact that it is successful is a criticism of the failure of public higher education policy in the USA to accommodate fully disadvantaged minorities within the public system. The UofP is filling a massive hole in the US post-secondary education system vacated by the public institutions and more so by their state governments. In an ideal world, there should be no need for the University of Phoenix, but since it is not ideal, the University of Phoenix is providing a service that the rest of the system is failing to deliver.

See also Doug Clow’s excellent blog on the Apollo Group and especially their acquisition of the UK private Law and Business School company, BPP.