January 20, 2018

A bill of rights for online learners?

Morris, S.M. and Stommel, J. (2013) A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age Hybrid Pedagogy, January 22

I’ve just caught up with this (work keeps getting in the way of blogging, damn it) so forgive me if you’ve already seen it. This statement has been developed by a group meeting in Palo Alto, California, and has some well-known names attached, such as John Seeley Brown, Audrey Watters and Sebastian Thrun.

It’s really in two parts, the first setting out a collection of rights for learners and the second a statement of principles for providers of online learning. You will need to read the full article to get a more detailed description of each, but here is a very brief listing:

Rights (of learners)

  • to access: ‘Everyone should have the right to learn.’
  • to privacy
  • to create public knowledge
  • to own one’s own personal data and intellectual property
  • to financial transparency
  • to pedagogical transparency
  • to quality and care
  • to have great teachers
  • to be teachers

Principles (to which online learning should aspire)

  • global contribution: ‘Online learning should originate from everywhere on the globe, not just from the U.S. and other technologically advantaged countries.’
  • value: ‘The function of learning is to allow students to equip themselves to address the challenges and requirements of life and work.’
  • flexibility: ‘Ideally, they [the best online programs] will also suggest and support new forms of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary inquiry that are independent of old gatekeepers such as academic institutions or disciplines, certification agencies, time-to-degree measurements, etc.’
  • hybrid learning: ‘online learning should …. be connected back to multiple locations around the world and not tethered exclusively to the digital realm. ‘
  • persistence
  • innovation: ‘Online learning should be flexible, dynamic, and individualized rather than canned or standardized.
  • formative assessment
  • experimentation
  • civility
  • play


I have to admit being somewhat puzzled, not so much by the rights and principles themselves, but why it is thought necessary to codify and then publicize them.

First, would not most of these rights and principles be subscribed to already by most people that support public higher education, at least in North America, Europe and Australasia?  (I can’t speak for the Chinese or North Korean governments.)

If that’s the case (and it may be worth discussing this more), then the issue then is not the goals but the means to achieve the goals. Online learning is one, but in no way the only, means to some of these rights and principles. It is also true that while many working in or supporting public higher education would subscribe to these rights and principles, we often fall way short of implementing them, for a variety of reasons, such as lack of adequate resources or a poor choice of priorities. But that’s another discussion.

The question then comes to my mind as to why it has been necessary to spend time discussing and agreeing on principles and rights that most people in public education already accept.

One reason I suspect is a concern that developments in online learning outside formal, public education have the potential to run roughshod over these rights and principles. For instance, highly selective, campus-based, elite universities, at least until very recently, have not subscribed to some of these rights and principles, yet are now ‘discovering’ open learning through MOOCs, while still denying many of these rights to potential on-campus students.

Also, there is probably concern that MOOCs themselves are being exploited, at least by some organizations, for commercial reasons and this may result in some of these principles or rights being ignored or trampled on.

However, it could also be that some working in elite institutions have discovered God, and He is open, and so they need some commandments or a bible.

Thus having a statement of such rights and principles may be valuable, although how these rights or principles can be enforced is not at all clear to me – and what’s the use of a right if it can’t be protected?

Over to you

Do you think setting out these rights and principles is valuable?

Do you think public higher education generally subscribes to or adheres to these?

Why do you think such a statement has been made? Is it trying to say more than it does?

Don’t just tell me: join the conversation at https://twitter.com/search?q=%23learnersrights

See also: Kolowich, S. (2013)’Bill of Rights’ Seeks to Protect Students’ Interests as Online Learning Rapidly Expands Chronicle of Higher Education, January 23



Who benefits from online learning?

Di Xu & Shanna Smith Jaggars (2013) Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas New York: Community College Research Center, Columbia University

The study

Using a dataset containing nearly 500,000 courses taken by over 40,000 community and technical college students in Washington State, this study examines how well students adapt to the online environment in terms of their ability to persist and earn strong grades in online courses relative to their ability to do so in face-to-face courses. 

The hypothesis

Some populations of students—for example, those with more extensive exposure to technology or those who have been taught skills in terms of time-management and self-directed learning—may adapt more readily to online learning than others. In addition, some academic subject areas may lend themselves to highquality online learning experiences more readily than others

The methodology

Primary analyses were performed on a dataset containing 51,017 degree-seeking students who initially enrolled in one of Washington State’s 34 community or technical colleges during the fall term of 2004. These first-time college students were tracked through the spring of 2009 for 19 quarters of enrollment, or approximately five years.  The dataset, provided by the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC), included information on student demographics, institutions attended, and transcript data on course enrollments and performance.

The results

  • In descriptive terms, students’ average persistence rate across courses was 94.12 percent, with a noticeable gap between online courses (91.19 percent) and face-to-face courses (94.45 percent). For courses in which students persisted through to the end of the term (N = 469,287), the average grade was 2.95 (on a 4.0-point scale), also with a gap between online courses (2.77) and face-to-face courses (2.98).
  • While all types of students in the study suffered decrements in performance in online courses, some struggled more than others to adapt: males, younger students, Black students, and students with lower grade point averages. 
  • Regardless of a particular student’s own adaptability to the online environment, her performance in an online course may suffer if her classmates adapt poorly. English and social science were two academic subjects that seemed to attract a high proportion of less-adaptable students, thereby introducing negative peer effects.
  • Older students adapted more readily to online courses than did younger students.
  • [Also] students who were more disposed to take online course also tended to have stronger overall academic performance than their peers  



First, it is encouraging to see a detailed quantitative assessment of the types of students taking online courses, and their relative performance. This report needs to be read in full, and carefully. It is good that it is based on a significantly large enough sample that one can have confidence in the generalizability of the results (at least in the U.S. two-year college sector). The study was very well carried out and is a model for quantitative analysis of student differences.

Furthermore, I am not surprised or even concerned about these findings. For instance, from my own experience of online teaching, I would agree that ‘students are not homogeneous in their adaptability to the online delivery format and may therefore have substantially different outcomes for online learning.’ Online learning doesn’t suit everyone, and it is valuable to have some research that helps identify the more ‘at-risk’ online learners.

One can put forward a number of reasons why online students, on average, are likely to struggle compared with face-to-face students. Students who choose an online course are likely on average to have less time for study that those attending regularly on campus. Second, for many online students, the mode of study will be unfamiliar, which means making more adaptation to a different way of learning.

My one quibble is that, although the results are clearly significant statistically (as is almost inevitable in large samples), the differences are quite small (96% vs 91% completion rates, for instance.) Thus I do challenge the authors’ conclusion that ‘most students had difficulty adapting to the online context.’ If 91% complete the course, then most students did not have difficulties sufficient to deter them from completing successfully their courses. That seems a pretty good adaptation level to me.

I also have a concern that these results will be misinterpreted. This should not mean that men, Blacks and young people should be discouraged from taking online courses, but that we should be taking more care to ensure that students who do take online courses are better prepared, with particular attention being paid to those likely to be at most risk. This may mean, for instance, gradually introducing students to online learning in a deliberate way throughout a program. This study does suggest those most likely to be at risk.

Further reading

Lederman, D. (2013) Who benefits from online Ed? Inside Higher Education, February 25


Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 8: Communicate, communicate, communicate

© Care2, 2012

In this post I stress the importance of ongoing, continuing communication between instructor and students in an online environment, and in particular for this to be carefully managed in order to control the instructor’s workload.

This is the ninth 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 eight 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

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 6: Set appropriate learning goals

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 7: Design course structure and learning activities

A condensed version covering all the main posts in this series can be found on the Contact North web site: What you need to know about teaching online: nine key steps. (French version: Ce que le personnel enseignant doit savoir sur l’enseignment en ligne: neuf étapes clés‘)

The ten posts are also being translated into Portuguese by Professor Luis Roberto Brudna Holzle, Federal University, Brazil, available at Science Blogs: Nove passos para uma aprendizagem on-line de qualidade

Instructor presence and the loneliness of the long distance learner

Research has clearly indicated that ‘perceived instructor presence’ is a critical factor for online student success and satisfaction. Students need to know that the instructor is following the online study activities of students and is actively participating during the delivery of the course.

The reasons for this are obvious. Online students often study from home, and if they are fully online may never meet another student on the same course. They do not get the important non-verbal cues from the instructor or other students, such as the stare at a stupid question, the intensity in presentation that shows the passion of the instructor for the topic, the ‘throwaway’ comment that indicates the instructor doesn’t have much time for a particular idea, or the nodding of other students’ heads when another student makes a good point or asks a pertinent question. An online student does not have the opportunity for a spontaneous discussion by bumping into the instructor in the corridor.

However, a skilled instructor can create just as compelling a learning environment online, but it needs to be deliberately planned and designed. It also has to be done in such a way that the instructor’s workload can be controlled.

Setting students’ expectations

It is essential right at the start of a course for the instructor to  make it clear to students what is expected of them during the delivery of the online course. Most institutions have a code of behaviour for the use of computers and the Internet, but these are often lengthy documents written in a bureaucratic language, and are more concerned with spam, general online behaviour such as ‘flaming’ or bullying, or hacking. Consequently I tend to  develop a set of specific requirements for student behaviour that is related to the needs of the particular course, and deals in particular with the academic requirements of studying online. I give some examples below:

  • all students on the course are expected to read and contribute comments in the instructor-set online discussion topics within the specified timescale for each discussion
  • discussion topics are related to marked assignments; thus students who fully participate in the online discussions are more likely to be better prepared for the assignments
  • always respect other students’ contributions. If you think that someone else’s comment is dumb, politely provide an alternative view
  • when commenting, always add something new to the discussion, rather than merely agreeing or disagreeing
  • keep on topic; if you want to discuss something else, establish a new discussion topic or thread, or establish a blog or wiki. If you want to discuss topics outside the course, use Facebook or the student online ‘cafe’ that goes with the course.
  • if you have a question, post it in the appropriate discussion forum, so that other students as well as the instructor can contribute to the answer.
  • if you want to discuss something privately, send the instructor an e-mail
  • use quotations from other sources to support your point where appropriate, but always fully reference material taken from another source (with examples of how to do that, including web-based material and quoting other students’ comments). Lay out the consequences of plagiarism in terms of institutional policy and show how easy it is to detect plagiarism.
  • before posting a question, check that the answer is not already there within the course materials – you may have missed it on the first reading (and direct the student to it if they still can’t find it rather than answer the question yourself.)
  • the instructor will respond to questions and e-mails within 24 hours, except over weekends and public holidays.

I usually set a small task in the first week of a course that enables students to immediately apply these guidelines. For instance I may ask them to post their bio and respond to other students bio posts, or ask them to comment on a topic related to the course and their views on this before the course really begins, using the discussion forum facility in the LMS. I pay particular attention to this activity, because research indicates that students who do not respond to set activities in the first week are at high risk of non-completion. I always follow up with a phone call or e-mail to non-respondents in this first week, and ensure that each student is following the guidelines. I find it useful to do this, no matter how experienced students are in studying online. What I’m doing is making my presence felt. Students know that I am following what they do from the outset.

Different courses may require different guidelines. For instance a math or science course may not put so much emphasis on discussion forums, but more on self-assessed computer-marked multiple choice questions. It should be made clear whether students must do these or if they are optional, or how much time should be spent as a minimum on doing such non-graded activities, and their relationship to activities that are graded or assessed. They should get such an activity within the first week of a course, and the instructor should follow up with those that avoid the activity or have difficulties with it.

Lastly, instructors should follow their own guidelines. Your comments should be helpful and constructive, rather than negative. You should actively encourage discussion by being ‘present’ and stepping in on a discussion where necessary – for instance if the comments are getting off topic.

Teaching philosophy and online communication

Instructors who have a more objectivist approach to teaching are more likely to focus on whether students are not only covering the necessary content but are also understanding it. This often requires students going back over content, providing misunderstood or difficult content in an alternative manner (e.g. a video as well as text), and instructor or automated (computer-based) feedback. Most LMSs will provide summaries of student activities, and it is important to track each individual student’s progress. Instructors with a more constructivist approach are more likely to emphasize online discussion and argument.

Whatever your approach, students want to know where you stand on some of the topics. Thus while it is necessary often to present content objectively with an ‘on the one hand… on the other…’ approach, students usually feel more committed to a course where the instructor’s own views or approach to a topic are made clear. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as a podcast on a topic, or an intervention in a discussion, or a short video of how you would go about solving an equation. These personal interventions have to be carefully judged, but can make a big difference to student commitment and participation.

Choice of medium

There is now a wide variety of media by which instructors can communicate with online students, or students can communicate with each other. Basically, though, they fall into two categories: synchronous or asynchronous communication media. Asynchronous media would include e-mail, text or voice messages on mobile phones, podcasts or recorded video clips, online discussion forums within an LMS, Twitter, and Facebook. Synchronous media would include voice phone calls, text and audio conferencing over the web (e.g. Blackboard Collaborate), or even video-conferencing.

I much prefer asynchronous communication for two reasons. Students are often working and have busy lives; asynchronous messages are more convenient for them. They are permanent and can be accessed at any time. Also, they are much more convenient for me as an instructor. For instance I can go to a conference even in another country yet still log on to my course when I have some free time.

However, asynchronous communication can be frustrating when complex decisions need to be made within a tight timescale, such as deciding the roles and responsibilities for group work, the final draft of a group assignment, or a student’s lack of understanding that is blocking any further progress on the topic. Then synchronous communication is better. I also sometimes use Blackboard Collaborate to bring all the students together once or twice during a semester, to get a feeling of community at the start of a course, to establish my ‘presence’ as a real person with a face or voice at the start of a course, or to wrap up a course at the end, and I try to provide plenty of opportunity for questions and discussion by the students themselves. However, these synchronous ‘lectures’ are always optional as there will always be some students who cannot be present (although they can be made available in recorded format).

Managing online discussion

Whole books have been written on this topic (see the end of this post for a list of references). However, there are some basic guidelines to follow.

  • Use the threaded discussion forum facility in the LMS (in some LMSs the instructor has to choose to switch this on). I like to use the LMS forum discussion tool because I can organize the discussion by separate topics (a forum for each topic). In a threaded discussion, a student comment on someone else’s post on a topic is posted next to the post, allowing either the student making the original post or other students to respond to the comment. This way a ‘thread’ of comments linked to a specific topic can be followed. The alternative, comments posted in time order, makes it difficult to follow a thread of an argument. A well chosen topic or sub-topic will often have 10 or more threaded comments, and the instructor can tell at a glance which topics have gained ‘traction’. Also I like to keep a least some of the discussion ‘private’., i.e. just between the students on the course, as I am using the discussion forum to identify areas of misunderstanding and to develop skills such as critical thinking and clear communication.

Example of a threaded discussion topic

  • have clear goals for discussion forums. This will vary from subject to subject, but I use discussion forums to identify misunderstandings, to encourage active participation of students, to raise topical issues related to the course, to develop student communication skills, and above all to enable students to increase deep understanding or ‘knowledge construction’ through the testing of ideas and the questioning of the content, the instructor and other students. Even in numerical or science-based courses, there is often scope for discussion of experimental results, theory, or the relationship of the course topics to real events (e.g. discussions around recent research on the Higgs boson, the collapse of a mall roof in engineering).
  • choose topics that lend themselves to discussion, or which avoid a ‘yes/no’ or ‘I agree or disagree’ response. The topic should require students to draw on the course content, but also to go outside the course content and relate the topic to external events, either in their own lives or in the news. The topic should allow students to draw from their own experience as well.
  • the topic should directly relate to assignment or assessment questions for which students get a grade. I don’t assess the discussion contributions themselves; I prefer the students to see the intrinsic value to them of participating. However, many instructors do give a grade for discussion contributions.
  • don’t hog the conversation. It is a mistake for the instructor to respond immediately to every comment. This prevents other students from making their own contribution; they will wait until they see your reaction. Also it increases the workload. Encourage other students to respond and build a ‘culture’ of the students being in control, while knowing that you are there, watching and stepping in where necessary.
  • give students clear roles. For instance ask them to take it in turns to summarize a discussion. You may ask some students to moderate a discussion, but keep an eye on it in case it gets out of hand.
  • ensure that all students contribute to discussions in some way. I keep a spreadsheet of all students and when they contribute to a discussion. Some LMSs will now do this for you automatically. I use phone calls or private e-mails sometimes to prompt students or to check if there is a problem. The discussion forums are an excellent way to track whether students are ‘missing’ or not keeping up with the course.
  • I try to be ‘present’ in each discussion topic at least once a week, more often if possible. I allow at least one hour a day to track discussions.
  • you need a minimum of 20 students at graduate level to get good discussions going, and 30 at undergraduate level. Over 50 students in a group is probably too many.

Take a look particularly at Gilly Salmon’s book ‘e-Moderating’ and the Paloff and Pratt books for more guidance on handling online communication.

Cultural and other student differences

The most interesting and exciting courses that I have taught have included a wide range of international students from different countries. However, even if all the students are within one hour’s commute of the institution, they will have different learning styles and approaches to studying online. This is why it is important to be clear about the desired learning outcomes, and the goals for discussion forums. Students learn in different ways. If one of the desired learning outcomes is critical thinking, students can achieve that in different ways. Some may do a lot of reading, seeking out different viewpoints. Others may prefer to work mainly in the forums. I don’t really care how they achieve the learning outcomes so long as they do. Some students learn a lot by lurking but never contribute directly. Now if you are trying to improve international students’ language skills, then you may require them to participate in the online discussions, and will assess them on their contributions. However, I try not force students to participate. I see it as my challenge to make the topic interesting enough to draw them in.

Having said that, much can be done to facilitate or encourage students to participate. I taught one graduate course where I had about 20 of the 30 students in my class with Chinese surnames. From the student records and the short bios they posted I noted that a few students were from the Chinese mainland, several more were living in Hong Kong, and the rest had Canadian addresses. However even the latter consisted of two quite different groups: recent immigrants to Canada, and at least one student whose great grandfather had been one of the first immigrants to Canada in the 19th century. Although it is dangerous to rely on stereotypes, I noticed that the further away ‘psychologically’ or geographically the student was, the less they were inclined to participate online. This was partly a language issue but also a cultural issue. The mainland Chinese in particular were very reluctant to post comments. Fortunately we had a visiting Chinese scholar with us and she advised us to get the three mainland Chinese women on the course to develop a collective contribution to the discussion and then ask them to send it to me to check that it was ‘appropriate’ before they posted. I made a few comments then sent it back and they then posted it. Gradually by the end of the course they each had the confidence to post individually their own comments. But it was a difficult process for them. (On the other hand, I had Mexican students who commented on everything, especially the World Cup soccer tournament that was on at the time).


This is a big topic and difficult to cover adequately in one blog post. However, I cannot overemphasize the importance of instructor online presence in getting students to successfully complete an online course. (Incidentally I suspect that the lack of instructor online presence in the MIT and Stanford MOOCs is one reason so few students complete the certificates. It is probably not unconnected that Udemy, one of the platforms used to support MOOCs, has recently completely redesigned its web interface to allow for more interaction between the instructor and students).

There is an unlimited number of ways in which you, as an instructor, can communicate now with online students, but it is also essential at the same time to control your workload. You cannot be available 24×7, and this means designing the online delivery in such a way that your ‘presence’ is used to best effect. At the same time, I find communication with online students the most interesting and satisfying part of teaching online – but then that is a result of my philosophy of teaching.

Further reading (this is just a small sample of many publications on this topic)

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 5, No.2.

Baker, C. (2010) The Impact of Instructor Immediacy and Presence for Online Student Affective Learning, Cognition, and Motivation The Journal of Educators Online Vol. 7, No. 1

Garrison, D. R. & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 19, No. 3

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J. and Haag, B. (1995) ‘Constructivism and Computer-mediated Communication in Distance Education’, American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp 7-26.

Paloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2007) Building Online Learning Communities San Francisco: John Wiley and Co.

Salmon, G. (2000) E-moderating London/New York: Routledge

Sheridan, K. and Kelly, M.  (2010) The Indicators of Instructor Presence that are Important to Students in Online Courses MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 6, No. 4

The market for MOOCs

Kolowich, S. (2012) Who takes MOOCs? Inside Higher Education, June 5

Article about a survey of 14,000 participants in Stanford’s Andrew Ng’s course on machine learning. It should be noted that the response rate is around 14% of all those that enrolled. The most common reason was that participants were curious about the topic. Relatively small numbers said they were doing it specifically for career advancement.

One important result though was that the vast majority of participants were from outside the USA (a similar phenomenon reported by Coursera and Udacity with almost three quarters of participants from abroad:

It may turn out that MOOCs from elite U.S. institutions might pose the greatest disruptive threat to foreign universities, says Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University. “It’s a bigger play, perhaps, in Asia than in the U.S.,” he said.

Maybe: it would be interesting to see what the demographic is for other MOOC’s such as Change11 that are not from US elite universities.

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

© 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.