Image: Planet eStream, 2019

Wow, thanks to several readers for some great and speedy feedback on Discussing classroom-type online learning, a revision for the third edition of Teaching in a Digital Age.

As a result of the feedback I have revised considerably the last part of the section, and changed the topic heading from ‘classroom-based’ to ‘lecture-based’ online learning, which is a more accurate label.

Here are the changes to the latter part of the section, including a new activity and new podcast giving feedback on the activity (still time for more comments).

4.2.3 Strengths of the lecture-based model for online learning

Old wine can still be good wine, whether the bottle is new or not. If lecturing was considered good practice and effective in-person, then one might reasonably expect it to be equally effective online.

Secondly, in an emergency such as the pandemic, and with relatively easy to use tools such as online video-conferencing systems and lecture capture, instructors and teachers can make a rapid pivot to maintain student education even though neither students nor instructors can access a school or campus. In an emergency there is not time to re-design curricula or teaching methods, or to train teachers and faculty in alternative methods of teaching.

Third, recording and streaming lectures on demand not only allows more flexibility for students who have difficulty in getting to school or campus, but also allows students to replay, review and analyse the lecture more closely. In short it allows students to spend more time on task.

Fourth, once recorded the lecture can be used again with a different class in a different year. This can subsequently free up some of the instructors’ time for more interaction with students.

4.2.4 Weaknesses of the lecture-based model for online learning

First, all of the limitations of in-person, lecture-based teaching outlined in Chapter 3.3 are carried over and if anything magnified when lectures are moved online.

The most important limitation though of lecture-based online learning is that students studying online are in a different learning environment or context than students learning in a classroom, and the design needs to take account of this. In particular, students are working in isolation. As a result, for motivational reasons, they need more interaction online with the instructor and other students than in an in-person lecture. It is also unhealthy for students to be watching a screen for six hours a day (see Cross, 2022), if all classes are organised around transmissive lectures. This limitation of lecture-based teaching becomes more serious the younger the student, or the less self-disciplined the student. Students who struggle in an in-person teaching context tend to struggle even more in an online context where the lecture model is used (see, for instance, Figlio et al., 2013).

The need to re-design teaching for an online environment will be discussed more fully in the rest of the book, but if online lectures are used they need to be modified, and in particular the time spent on video lectures needs to be reduced, to allow time for students to work asynchronously and for the instructor to have more time for interaction with students.

Thirdly the lecture-based online learning design fails to meet the changing needs of a digital age. It is important then to look at teaching methods that make the most of the educational affordances of new technologies, because unless the design changes significantly to take full advantage of the potential of the technology, the outcome is likely to be no better and more likely much worse than that of the physical classroom model which it is attempting to imitate. This is discussed more fully in Chapter 7 and Chapter 8.

Lastly, the danger of just adding new technology to the classroom design is that we may just be increasing cost, both in terms of technology and the time of instructors, without changing outcomes.

4.2.5 Summary

Moving transmissive lectures online in March 2020 was a justifiable necessity. There was not time to do anything else. Doing the same thing in January 2022, nearly two years later, is not acceptable. There has been plenty of time to re-design online teaching to make better use of its strengths, particularly asynchronous learning that students can do online individually or in online groups.

In the school (k-12) system in particular, this requires a complete change of teaching methods for online learning. At the time of writing (January 2022) this has not occurred in most school systems, mainly because of failure to train teachers in online learning or to use specialists in online learning to help change curricula. Also younger children in particular need to be in school for a wide range of reasons. Online learning therefore needs to be used very selectively in the school system.

In the post-secondary system, the challenge has not been so great. Many universities and colleges already had experience of online learning before Covid-19, and had the specialist instructional designers and resources needed to train faculty in online learning. The main difficulty has been instructors’ reluctance to move away from the tried and trusted lecture method, and the difficulty of scaling up support for blended or online learning.

There is also enough flexibility in the design of learning management systems for them to be used in ways that break away from the traditional lecture-based model, which is important, as good online design should take account of the special requirements of online learners, so the design needs to be different from that of an in-person classroom model. We will look at other of ways to do this in the rest of this chapter.

Education is no exception to the phenomenon of new technologies being used at first merely to reproduce earlier design models before they find their unique potential. However, changes to the basic design model are needed if the demands of a digital age and the full potential of new technology are to be exploited in education.


Bates, A. et al. (2018) Tracking Online and Distance Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges: 2018 Halifax NS: Canadian Digital Learning Research Association

Cross, J. (2022) What does too much screen time do to children’s brains? Health Matters, New York-Presbyterian

Figlio, D., M. Rush and Yin, L. (2013) Is It Live or Is It Internet? Experimental Estimates of the Effects of Online Instruction on Student Learning Journal of Labor Economics, Volume 31, Number 4

Activity 4.2 Moving the lecture-based model online

1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of breaking up a 50 minute lecture into say five 10 minute chunks for recording? Would you call this a significant design change – if so, what makes it significant?

2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of reducing online lecture time and increasing the time that students spend asynchronously online?

3. Can you think of a simple alternative to using video lectures for putting your courses online?

For my response to these three questions listen to the podcast below (new for Third Edition):


  1. It is indeed not easy to redefine learning, and people are prone to resistance to change. But I think we are now witnessing a new world of education and that is online education. There are so many opportunities that this brings, we just need to redefine what we thought about what learning should look like.


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