This is the fourth of a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The other three are:
In the third post, I pointed out that MOOCs were just one of the many different types of online learning. In this post, I will provide more detail about the various approaches to online learning, and will also provide a personal evaluation of each approach in terms of quality. This post will be a little longer than normal, as there are not only many approaches to online learning, but the field is also rapidly changing and developing.
Different approaches to online learning
In the first post, ‘What is online learning’? I pointed out that there is a continuum of teaching, from no use of online learning through blended learning, to fully online (or distance) learning. However, even within these categories, there are different possible approaches:
1. Online class notes
Students access Powerpoint slides and pdfs from a class web site which may be a part of an institution’s learning management system (see below) or it may be just a web site created by the instructor or made available by the institution. Usually the same slides or notes that are given to students taking an on-campus class are put up on the web site for online students, often on a weekly basis. Online students access the relevant documents, and take the same assessments or exams as on-campus students, either remotely, in the form of computer-marked assignments, or on campus. If online students have questions, they can usually e-mail the instructor. Students usually work individually, although if a learning management system is available, there may be voluntary online discussion between students through the LMS’s discussion forum or social media.
This method is often used by novice online instructors. It requires, on the surface, little extra work for the instructor, once the materials are loaded.
The main problem is that such an approach is not adapted to the needs of online learners, who usually need more support than this model provides. The Powerpoint slides or pdfs do not allow for student interaction with the learning materials (unless they are re-written to do this). If there is a problem with the materials, in terms of the content not being clear, every student is likely to have the same difficulty. Instructors in this model therefore often find that they are overwhelmed with e-mail. If there are not activities (other than reading) scheduled for every week, students tend to get behind. Coming on-campus to do assignments or exams is also a problem for students who have chosen the online option because they have difficulty in getting to campus on a scheduled basis. Students in such courses often feel isolated and unsupported, and therefore such courses usually have much higher non-completion rates. And in the end, instructors find that this approach ends up being a lot more work than they anticipated.
2. Recorded lectures
The increased availability of technology such as lecture capture, which records classroom lectures on digital video and stores them for later downloading over the Internet, and desk-top cameras, has resulted in many instructors offering online courses built around recorded lectures. The lectures are usually the same as those for on-campus classes. Many MOOCs, as well as courses for credit, use recorded lectures as the main form of delivery.
This approach is again convenient for instructors, especially if they are giving a face-to-face lecture anyway and have technical help in recording and storing the lectures. However this approach suffers from many of the same problems as the class notes method above. An additional problem is that if the recording is of a normal 50 minute lecture, students often suffer from what is known as cognitive overload. Although students viewing a recorded lecture have the opportunity to stop and replay material, this can mean that a 50 minute lecture may take up several hours for an online student. MOOC designers, and TED talk designers, have realised this and often they have limited a single video to 10-20 minutes in length. Nevertheless this does not work so well in a full credit program with maybe 39 lectures over a 13 week semester. Providing transcripts of the lectures is not only time consuming and adds costs, but again increases the cognitive load for students. Lastly, there is considerable research that questions the value of lectures as a teaching method.
These are ‘live’ sessions usually consisting of a lecture delivered over the Internet, supported by Powerpoint slides with opportunities for live online chat for the participants. Webinars can be recorded and made available for online access at another time. Again, ‘good’ webinars tend to be broken up into smaller 5-10 segments of presentation followed by either online voice or more commonly (for group management reasons) text comments and questions contributed by participants to which the lecturer responds.
Webinars come closer to mirroring a live face-to-face class than either class notes or recorded lectures, and need relatively little adaptation or change for instructors. While webinars tend to be more interactive than recorded lectures, again it is difficult to cover a whole curriculum through webinars alone. Also participants need to be available at a set time, which restricts the flexibility or availability for online students, although the availability of the recording can offset that to some extent. Webinars using a lecture format also suffer from the same pedagogical limitations for online students as recorded lectures.
4. Instructionally-designed online courses based on a learning management system
These are probably the most common form of online courses for credit and more importantly, they have proved themselves with high completion rates and quality learning.
A whole science of instructional design has been developed since the 1940s based on pedagogical theory, research on how students learn, the appropriate use of technology, and the evaluation of learning outcomes, and this approach has been applied systematically to the design of fully online and increasingly blended courses. Usually an instructor will work with a professional instructional designer to redesign a classroom course or even a new course for use by online, distance learners. The instructor will be asked to define desired learning objectives, or learning outcomes, the content will be chosen to support the development of such objectives, and organised into ‘blocks’ of study (weekly or more) so that the whole curriculum can be covered over the semester. Assessment will be linked to the desired learning objectives. Sometimes objectives are determined through an analysis of the assessment requirements for equivalent face-to-face classes, if these are not already formally defined. Decisions will be made about which media (text, audio, video, computing) to use in terms of their appropriateness for meeting the defined learning objectives. Particular attention is paid to providing regular student activities, and managing student and instructor workload. Online learning management systems are often used to provide a structure for the course, opportunities for instructor-monitored student discussion, and online assessment tools.
This approach has been used very successfully with the design of fully online courses, usually leading to high completion rates and good quality learning outcomes. In some cases, it has also been successfully applied to blended courses. It is from this approach that many of the best practices in online learning have been identified. It means working in a team, often consisting of a senior faculty member, and for large classes, sessional or contract instructors and/or teaching assistants, an instructional designer, and other technical support staff, such as web designers, that can be called upon as necessary. However, this approach appears initially to be more costly for an institution, and more work for an instructor. It can take up to two years to design and develop a large fully online course, although courses for small classes (less than 40) can be designed in a much shorter period. However, if the course or program attracts new students, tuition and other revenues can offset many of the additional costs, for instance, paying for release time for faculty to work on course design and development.
5. Designs based on open education and emerging technologies
This is a bit of a rag-bag category for a small but growing number of online course designs that seek fully to exploit specific characteristics of new media and open educational approaches. These might include:
- ‘connectivist MOOCs‘ that focus on the contributions of all participants in an extended online network;
- courses built around social media tools such as blogs, wikis, and e-portfolios;
- approaches that exploit open educational resources, such as open textbooks and content freely available over the Internet;
- courses built around emerging technologies, such as virtual worlds, gaming, and augmented reality.
Common features of such courses are increased activity and choices for learners, more diversity in course designs, and ‘agile’ or quick design and development. In such courses, students are often encouraged to seek, analyse, evaluate and apply content to real world issues or contexts, rather than the instructor being primarily responsible for content choice and delivery.
The main rationale for such courses is as follows:
- they are more appropriate for developing the skills and knowledge learners need in a digital age;
- they are more active and engaging for learners, resulting in deeper learning;
- they make better use of new technologies by exploiting their unique teaching potential;
- these approaches usually result in quicker and relatively low-cost course development and delivery compared with the instructional design approach;
- they are transforming teaching into a more modern, relevant methodology that better suits today’s learners.
However, such approaches require highly confident and effective instructors with experience in using new technology for teaching, combined with the team approach described earlier. Above all instructors need to have a good grasp of both pedagogy and technology, as well as subject expertise. Direct instructional design and technology support is also essential. Most of these approaches are so new that there is relatively little research on their effectiveness. They are therefore a high risk activity for an instructor, especially those with little experience of online teaching.
This is a very abbreviated description of fast-developing, constantly changing approaches to online learning. You are especially encouraged to do the follow-up reading below.
- It is generally a mistake to merely transport your classroom teaching to an online environment. Online students work in different contexts and have different needs to students in face-to-face classes. Online courses need to be redesigned to accommodate the unique requirements of online learners.
- There is a strong body of knowledge about how to design online courses well. You ignore this at your peril. Consequences of ignoring best practices may include poor learning results, a much heavier work-load than anticipated, and dissatisfied students and superiors.
- It is best to work in a team. Instructional designers have knowledge about teaching online that most instructors lack. While you will always be in control of content selection, assessment and overall teaching approach, instructional designers need to be listened to as equals.
- New technologies have the promise of radically changing teaching, making it more relevant, more engaging for students, and more exciting and challenging for an instructor.
This is a very simplified account of the different kinds of online learning. For a more extensive coverage, see:
- Chapter 4, Methods of teaching using an online focus, in ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’.
For more on the effectiveness of lectures, see:
- Chapter 3.3, Transmissive Lectures: Learning by Listening, in ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’
- Chapter 3.4, Interactive Lectures, Seminars and Tutorials: Learning by Talking, in ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’
For more on cognitive load and online learning design, see:
- van Merriënboer, J. and Ayres, P. (2005) Research on Cognitive Load Theory and Its Design Implications for E-Learning Educational Technology Research and Development, Vol. 53, No.3
For more on instructional design, see:
- Chapter 4.3, The ADDIE model, in ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’
For more on designs based on open education and emerging technologies see:
- Scenario F and ‘Agile’ design: flexible designs for learning in ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’;
- Chapter 10, Trends in Open Education, in ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’
For more on emerging technologies in online learning see:
- Veletsianos, G. (ed.) 2010 Emerging Technologies in Distance Education Edmonton AB: The Athabasca University Press
When should I use online learning? (This will be much shorter, I promise!)
If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.