In this post I argue that you need to think about what kinds of goals could best be achieved in an online course, rather than just doing the same as in a classroom course..

This is the seventh in a series of 10 posts on designing quality online courses. The nine steps are aimed mainly at instructors who are new to online learning, or have tried online learning without much help or success. The first six 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

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

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 3: Work in a Team

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 4: Build on existing resources

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 5: Master the technology

A condensed version covering all the posts in this series can be found on the Contact North web site: What you need to know about teaching online: nine key steps.

There is also a version in French: Ce que le personnel enseignant doit savoir sur l’enseignment en ligne: neuf étapes clés

Learning goals: the same or different?

In many cases, it will be appropriate (indeed, essential) to keep the same teaching goals for an online course as in a similar face-to-face course. Many dual-mode institutions, i.e. campus-based institutions who also offer credit courses online, such as the University of British Columbia, Penn State, University of Nebraska, offer the same courses both face-to-face and online, particularly in the fourth year of an undergraduate program. Usually the transcript of the exam grade makes no distinction as to whether the course was done online or face-to-face, since the students take the same end of course exam, and the actual content covered is usually identical in each version.

At UBC, there’s an express bus that runs every four minutes along Vancouver’s Broadway corridor to the university, each bus packed with up to 200 students. I too took the bus to work at UBC when I was Director of Distance Education – when I could get on it. Students were often sleeping on the bus, so we put the following advertisement on the buses: ‘Same instructor, same course, same exam, no bus ride: take a distance education course.’ Our numbers went up and it made it easier for me to get on the bus in the mornings!

However, it is really important before moving your face-to-face course online to do the kind of analysis recommended in Steps 1 and 2. In most humanities/arts/social science/education/business courses/computer software design, etc., there will be no problem. The learning goals will transfer easily. There will usually be an alternative way to reach the same goal online. For instance, online discussion forums, when properly designed and monitored, can achieve just as well if not better many of the learning goals of face-to-face class discussions.

However, in nursing, dentistry, medicine, science, engineering, and computer hardware design, and some aspects of education (such as teaching practice) it will very much depend on the type of course, and in particular the need for hands-on practical work. Even some of these goals can be achieved online, but it may be too difficult or expensive for it to be practical. In these cases, you may be looking to design more of a hybrid than a fully online course (see Step 2).

In some cases, some goals in the campus-based class may be sacrificed for different but equally valuable goals that can be achieved better online. These will be discussed in more detail in the next section of this post.

Lastly, it is important to remember that although it may be possible to achieve the same goals online as in class, the design of the teaching will likely have to be different in the online environment. Thus often the goals remain the same, but the method changes. This will be discussed further in Steps 7 and 8.

Different goals for online learning?

Although learning goals often transfer well from face-to-face to online, it is worth thinking about what kind of learning goals or outcomes are particularly well suited to online learning and building these into your online course, even if they are not currently in your face-to-face course. A new course or program – such as an online masters program aimed at working professionals – offers an opportunity to exploit fully the potential benefits of online learning.

21st century skills

Online learning is particularly appropriate for developing what are generically called 21st century learning skills. Because of the nature of the Internet, online learning lends itself to learning how to manage knowledge: how to find, evaluate, analyse, and apply information within a specific knowledge domain. It’s not possible these days to cover all the knowledge a student will need in a particular subject domain within a four year undergraduate program or even after another four years graduate study in a subject such as medicine. New knowledge – such as new drug treatments, new software design and products, new data – is expanding almost daily and will continue to grow long after students have graduated. The challenge then is to develop lifelong learning skills that will enable students to continue to ‘manage knowledge’ long after they have graduated.

21st century learners: a small design team contracted by Volkswagen Motors

However, as with all learning goals, the teaching needs to be designed in such a way that students have opportunities to learn and practice such skills, and in particular, such skills need to be evaluated as part of the formal assessment process. What this means in terms of online learning 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.

Good communication skills

This is another key 21st century skill. Students now need to be able to communicate in a variety of ways in the 21st century. Writing and speaking skills remain critical, but increasingly the ability to communicate through modern media such as social media, YouTube, blogs and wikis are particularly important in areas such as business, journalism, health and education. Online learning offers many opportunities to develop such skills.

Independent and inter-dependent learning

The ability to learn on one’s own or increasingly as part of informal, professionally related groups is increasingly in demand. For instance, in a small, start-up company, the workers are often the ‘bosses’, or the control hierarchy is very flat, meaning each individual is responsible for their own learning related to their work. The ability to go on learning, either individually or through informal peer networks, is critical for knowledge-based organizations. Online learning, by its nature, requires students to take increasing responsibility for managing their learning. Again, this is a skill that can be taught. Students often enter post-secondary education as dependent learners. A gradual introduction to online learning, initially in a classroom setting but building eventually to hybrid or fully online courses, is a good way to develop independent and inter-dependent learning skills.

Domain-specific IT skills

In whatever subject area, students increasingly need to know how to use IT tools that are specific to their subject area. Examples may be Excel spreadsheets in accounting, geographical information systems in mining engineering or even real estate, simulations and computer aided design in engineering, etc. These IT tools are often integrated or available over or through the Internet and can be embedded within the design of an online course. Thus a key learning goal may be for every student to leave the course competent in the selection and use of relevant digital tools.

Bring in the outside world 

Figure 11.8.2 Using social media during the Arab Spring
 Using social media during the Arab Spring

Lastly, one great characteristic of teaching online is the opportunity to bring in the world to your teaching. You can direct students to online sites, students themselves can collect data or provide real world examples of concepts or issues covered in the course, through the use of cameras in mobile phones, or audio interviews of local experts. You can set up a course wiki that both you and the students contribute to, and make it open to other professors and students to contribute, depending on the topic. If you are teaching professional masters or diploma programs, the students themselves will have very relevant wold experiences that can be drawn into the program. This is a great way to enable students to evaluate and apply knowledge within their subject domain.

There are many other possible goals that are either impossible to meet without using the Internet, or would be very difficult to do in a purely classroom environment. The art of the instructor is to decide which are relevant, and which in particular are key learning goals for the course.

Assessment is the key

However, 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 21st century skills, 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.


In some ways, with the Internet (as with other media), the medium is the message. Knowledge is not completely neutral. What we know and how we know it are affected by the medium through which we acquire knowledge. Each medium brings another way of knowing. We can either fight the medium, and try to force old content into new bottles, or we can shape the content to the form of the medium. Because the Internet is such a large force in our lives, we need to be sure that we are making the most of its potential in our teaching, even if that means changing somewhat what and how we teach.


  1. I really like what you are talking about here. I have been involved with inquiry based learning in the ‘brick and mortar’ school and I am now transitioning over to the ‘distance learning’ side of things and trying to include as many 21st century skills as possible. I can really relate to your post where you said “If they are not to be assessed on 21st century skills, they won’t make the effort to develop them.” My students and I worked on developing these skills and having them see why the skills are such a valuable thing to have and when it came time to hand in assignments they knew it was an ongoing loop of feedback and revision until they came to a final product that they were happy with. Why not allow students to revise and revisit assignments, if they are going to put in the extra work to make revisions, can we not make the allowance for them to better their assessment?

    What I am still trying to focus on is what you said near the end. “Lastly, one great characteristic of teaching online is the opportunity to bring in the world to your teaching.” Having my students live so far away it is hard to check in and see how broad their horizons are as I am accustomed to having my students in front of me and seeing what they are doing in real time. I am interested to read more on this and see where my readings take me. Thank you for your great post.

  2. I really like your ‘Bus’ anecdote. I am confident that if more people knew about the option to take the same course online, they would jump at the chance. I know that many of us currently enrolled in VIU’s new Online Learning and Teaching Graduate Diploma program, are just delighted by all of the fringe benefits of interacting in this manner. We are saving gas, allowed to work around our own schedules and at the same time feeling a strong sense of connection to both our instruction and each other.

    I tend to agree with your statement that OL is better suited to 21st Century Learning and as a F2F teacher I am constantly trying to figure out how best to give my students that same type of experience within our ‘brick and mortar” environment. I am almost tempted to set up some ‘homework’ time where we spend some time during the evenings on a program such as Blackboard Elluminate.

    Have you seen this done by teachers, and if so has it been successful?

    Andrew Ferneyhough
    VIU OLTD 501

    • Hi, Andrew

      I don’t want to get into the argument about whether homework should be banned as in France, but I’m not sure using Elluminate for homework is a good idea, as it’s just another lecture for students. There are better things they could be doing online. Have you thought about ‘flipping’ a class, so that the students do some of their reading and activities online (or otherwise) at home, then use the class time for discussion, peer review and dealing with misunderstandings? Just a thought



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