Online learning for beginners: 9. How can I do online learning well?

August 12, 2016 Tony Bates

From this to this

This is the ninth in a series of ten blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The previous eight are:

Defining quality in online learning

OK, now you’ve looked at most of the pros and cons of online learning, you’re now ready to start. But you want to make sure that if you are going to do online learning, you are going to do it well. What will that entail?

First, let me define by what I mean by ‘doing online learning well.’ I define a high quality online course in the following way:

teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age.

Now of course that could equally define a high quality face-to-face or classroom course. Chickering and Gamson (1987), based on an analysis of 50 years of research into best practices in teaching, argue that good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty.
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Encourages active learning.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

These guidelines apply just as well to online learning as to face-to-face teaching. At the end of the day, the best guarantees of quality in teaching and learning fit for a digital age are:

  • well-qualified subject experts also well trained in both teaching methods and the use of technology for teaching;
  • highly qualified and professional learning technology support staff;
  • adequate resources, including appropriate teacher/student ratios;
  • appropriate methods of working (teamwork, project management);
  • systematic evaluation leading to continuous improvement.

However, because online learning was new and hence open to concern about its quality, there have been many guidelines, best practices and quality assurance criteria created and applied specifically to online programming. All these guidelines and procedures have been derived from the experience of previously successful online programs, best practices in teaching and learning, and research and evaluation of online teaching and learning. A comprehensive list of online quality assurance standards, organizations and research on online learning can be found here.

I’m not going to duplicate these. Instead, I’m going to suggest a series of practical steps towards implementing such standards. Chapter 11 of my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age,  sets out nine steps to quality online learning. Ideally, you should read the whole of this chapter before starting out on your first online course, but in this post I will provide a brief summary of each step.

I am assuming that all the standard institutional processes towards program approval for an online course have been taken, although it might be worth thinking through my nine steps outlined below before finally submitting a proposal. This would be a good way to anticipate and address any questions and concerns that your colleagues may have about about online learning. My nine steps approach would also work when considering the redesign of an existing course.

The nine steps are as follows:

  1. Step 1: Decide how you want to teach
  2. Step 2: Decide on mode of delivery
  3. Step 3: Work in a Team
  4. Step 4: Build on existing resources
  5. Step 5: Master the technology
  6. Step 6: Set appropriate learning goals
  7. Step 7: Design course structure and learning activities
  8. Step 8: Communicate, communicate, communicate
  9. Step 9: Evaluate and innovate

I am providing below a very brief description of each step. Just click on the heading for each step to see the full section in the book.

1. Decide how you want to teach

Of all the nine steps, this is the most important, and, for most instructors, the most challenging, as it may mean changing long established patterns of behaviour.

This question asks you to consider your basic teaching philosophy. What is my role as an instructor? Do I take an objectivist view, that knowledge is finite and defined, that I am an expert in the subject matter who knows more than the students, and thus my job is to ensure that I transfer as effectively as possible that information or knowledge to the student? Or do I see learning as individual development where my role is to help learners to acquire the ability to question, analyse and apply information or knowledge?

Do I see myself more as a guide or facilitator of learning for students? Or maybe you would like to teach in the latter way, but you are faced in classroom teaching with a class of 200 students which forces you to fall back on a more didactic form of teaching. Or maybe you would like to combine both approaches but can’t because of the restrictions of timetables and curriculum.

Considering using new technologies or an alternative delivery method will give you you an opportunity to rethink your teaching, perhaps to be able to tackle some of the limitations of classroom teaching, and to renew your approach to teaching. Using technology or moving part or all of your course online opens up a range of possibilities for teaching that may not be possible in the confines of a scheduled three credit weekly semester of lectures. It may mean not doing everything online, but focusing the campus experience on what can only be done on campus. Alternatively, it may enable you to to rethink totally the curriculum, to exploit some of the benefits of online learning, such as getting students to find, analyse and apply information for themselves.

Thus if you are thinking about a new course, or redesigning one that you are not too happy with, take the opportunity before you start teaching the course or program to think about how you’d really like to be teaching, and whether this can be accommodated in a different learning environment. The important point is to be open to doing things differently.

2. What kind of course or program?

In an earlier post, it was pointed out that there is a continuum of online learning.

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

From Chapter 11.4, Teaching in a Digital Age

Where on that continuum should your course be? 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/backgrounds of the students (or potential students)
  • the demands of the discipline
  • the resources available to you.

You will need to read Chapter 9 of Teaching in a Digital Age for help in making that decision.

3. Work in a team

Working in a team makes life a lot easier for instructors when teaching blended or online courses. Good course design, which is the area of expertise of the instructional designer, not only enables students to learn better but also controls faculty workload. Courses look better with good graphic and web design and professional video production. Specialist technical help frees up instructors to concentrate on teaching and learning.

Working in a team of course will depend heavily on the institution providing such support through a centre of teaching and learning. Nevertheless this is an important decision that needs to be implemented before course design begins.

4. Build on existing resources

The Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web, has an immense amount of content already available. Much of it is freely available for educational use, under certain conditions (e.g. acknowledgement of the source – look for the Creative Commons license usually at the end of the web page). Top universities such as MIT, Stanford, Princeton and Yale have made available recordings of their classroom lectures , etc., while distance teaching organizations such as the UK Open University have made all their online teaching materials available for free use. There are now many other sites from prestigious universities offering open course ware. (A Google search using ‘open educational resources’ or’ OER’ plus the name of the topic will identify most of them.)

But as well as open resources designated as ‘educational’, there is a great deal of ‘raw’ content on the Internet that can be invaluable for  teaching. The main question is whether you as the instructor need to find such material, or whether it would be better to get students to search, find, select, analyze, evaluate and apply information. After all, these are key skills for a digital age that students need to have.

Most content is not unique or original. Most of the time we are standing on the shoulders of giants, that is, organizing and managing knowledge already discovered. Only in the areas where you have unique, original research that is not yet published, or where you have your own ‘spin’ on content, is it really necessary to create ‘content’ from scratch.

Chapter 10, Trends in Open Education, in Teaching in a Digital Age is essential further reading on how to make full use of already existing resources.

5. Master the technology

Taking the time to be properly trained in how to use standard learning technologies will in the long run save you a good deal of time and will enable you to achieve a much wider range of educational goals than you would otherwise have imagined. There are many different possible technologies, such as learning management systems or video recording. It is not necessary to use all or any of these tools, but if you do decide to use them, you need to know not only how to operate such such technologies well, but also their pedagogical strengths and weaknesses.

There are really two distinct but strongly related components of using technology:

  • how the technology works; and
  • what it should be used for.

These are tools built to assist you, so you have to be clear as to what you are trying to achieve with the tools. This is an instructional or pedagogical issue. Thus if you want to find ways to engage students, or to give them practice in developing skills, such as solving quadratic equations, learn what the strengths or weaknesses are of the various technologies for doing this.

6. Set appropriate learning goals

An instructor (particularly a contract instructor or adjunct) may ‘inherit’ a course where the goals are already set, either by a previous instructor or by the academic department. Nevertheless, there remain many contexts where teachers and instructors have a degree of control over the goals of a particular course or program. In particular, a new course or program – such as an online masters program aimed at working professionals – offers an opportunity to reconsider desired learning outcomes and goals. Especially where curriculum is framed mainly in terms of content to be covered rather than by skills to be developed, there may still be room for manoeuvre in setting learning goals that would also include, for instance, intellectual skills development.

What this is likely to mean in terms of course 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.

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 the skills outlined above, 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.

7. Design course structure and learning activities

In a strong teaching structure, students know exactly what they need to learn, what they are supposed to do to learn this, and when and where they are supposed to do it. In a loose structure, student activity is more open and less controlled by the teacher. The choice of teaching structure of course has implications for the work of teachers and instructors as well as students.

‘Strong’ teaching structure is not inherently better than a ‘loose’ structure, nor inherently associated with either face-to-face or online teaching. The choice (as so often in teaching) will depend on the specific circumstances. However, choosing the optimum or most appropriate teaching structure is critical for quality teaching and learning, and while the optimum structures for online teaching share many common features with face-to-face teaching, in other ways they differ considerably. Chapter 11 looks at several specific areas where online learning requires a different approach to structure and learning activities from face-to-face teaching. It is probably in this step that the differences between face-to-face and online learning are greatest.

8. Communicate, communicate, communicate

There is substantial research evidence to suggest that ongoing, continuing communication between teacher/instructor and students is essential in all online learning. At the same time it needs to be carefully managed in order to control the teacher/instructor’s workload. Students need to know that the instructor is following the online activities of students and that the instructor is actively participating during the delivery of the course.

Chapter 11 sets out a number of strategies for ensure good communication with online students while managing instructor workload.

9. Evaluate and innovate

The last step emphasises the importance of both evaluating how well the online course or programs actually works, with a particular emphasis on formative or ongoing evaluation, and the importance of looking constantly for ways to improve or add value to the course over time.

Chapter 11 suggests ways to conduct both the summative and formative evaluation of online courses in ways that include evaluating specifically the online components.

Building a strong foundation of course design

The nine steps are based on two foundations:

  • effective strategies resulting from learning theories tested in both classroom and online environments;
  • experience of successfully teaching both in classrooms and online (best practices).

The approach I have suggested is quite conservative, and some may wish to jump straight into what I would call second generation online learning learning, based on social media such as mobile learning, blogs and wikis, and so on. These do offer intriguing new possibilities and are worth exploring. Nevertheless, for learning leading to qualifications, it is important to remember that most students need:

  • well-defined learning goals;
  • a clear timetable of work, based on a well-structured organization of the curriculum;
  • manageable study workloads appropriate for their conditions of learning;
  • regular instructor communication and presence;
  • a social environment that draws on, and contributes to, the knowledge and experience of other students;
  • a skilled teacher or instructor;
  • other motivated learners to provide mutual support and encouragement.

There are many different ways these criteria can be met, with many different tools.


Despite the length of this post, it is still a brief summary. You are strongly recommended to read the following chapter in full:

Indeed, you are now at the stage where are should be reading the whole book, and in particular the early chapters on epistemology and teaching methods.

Up next

Ready to go‘. This will be the last post in this series. It provides a brief summary of the previous posts and suggests further professional development activities that will better prepare you for online learning.

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

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