© 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.


  1. Tony,

    “Classroom Aids?” Ugh. Don’t like that name. Yes, it is more work. I agree with that.

    But in a mode where classroom time is not reduced, nor is saving money or space in any way the motivator, but rather the Instructor is expanding their classroom beyond its walls, making provision for 24/7 learning, and perhaps ‘flipping’ the classroom time from lecture to interactive activities, we can’ really call the strategy “hybrid.” Most of the literature I’m exposed to calls it “blended.” Comment?

    • Hi, Laura

      I agree on your definition of blended, rather than hybrid, for the activities you describe.
      The problem is that as hybrid in particular (defined as reduced classroom time, deliberately redesigned to exploit the best features of both campus and online) is still rare, there are no agreed definitions. This kind of discussion we are having is necessary for that very reason, so that terminology becomes clarified and ‘shared’.

  2. […] Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 2: Decide on what kind of …May 10, 2012 … Deciding on a teaching philosophy has been discussed in an earlier post (see Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 1: Decide how you … […]

  3. I am a teacher in a hybrid distributed learning school. I work with some of my students weekly face to face where as others I may meet with once or twice face to face and then the rest is through online.

    I started teaching in the school’s first year. We have come a long way over the last 9 years. The development of a number of our courses came about in relation to the needs of students. We have developed most of our courses from scratch, so from the ground up using a LMS. Over the years we have worked on upgrading our courses for a number of reasons. A few are: as we come to see what other tools are out there to make the courses more engaging, as we realize as teachers that we are not happy with way the course material/assignments are being completed and in response to student feedback.

    We have learned over the years as the research has shown that there are certain students that are more successful in online learning then others. A number of our students are referred from their neighborhood high schools to take one or two courses with us. Over time I have seen a progression, more educators are becoming aware of who would do well in an online course.

    I have seen over time more teachers who teach at a bricks and mortar school becoming more accepting of the opportunity for students to take some or all of their courses through online learning. I am wondering what your thoughts are on the acceptance of this style of learning.

    Thank you,
    Jane Jacek

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