This Guest Lecture was prepared for Online Learning: An Overview, December 6th, 2000.

Planning and Designing the Online Learning Environment

The online learning environment is probably different from what you have experienced in education up till now. You've no doubt realized the importance of descriptive text and visuals in this online orientation. Reading with understanding (and without interruption), persistence, and motivation takes on new meaning as you strive to complete the modules and assignments.

Creating online learning modules involves thinking in new ways and discovering new techniques. I've developed these lecture notes around the theme of envisioning a new learning environment. You will be asked to envision several scenarios as we proceed. 

First, think of your best experiences with students. How did you know when a student had a breakthrough in understanding? Was it in a class discussion? Was it evidenced in his or her paper? Did you see the student's eyes brighten with the "ah-ha" while you were talking one-on-one? Or did a group project take students (and you) into a new area of inquiry and discovery? Chances are active learning was going on at the time. 

Imagine next a teaching environment where active learning takes place all the time. The Internet and WWW have literally opened up classrooms to tremendous resources and collaborative opportunities. Research, current events, unique teaching applications, subject matter experts, and sources of diverse opinion and dogmas -- all can be found online.

We're fond of identifying paradigms to frame our experiences. New web learning paradigms are plentiful, but the following are central to "envisioning a new learning environment." Carlson (1999) names these three paradigms of online learning in a recent issue of Syllabus magazine:

  • Collaborative and active learning
  • Access to real-time information
  • Bringing together/blending isolated bits of content
Paloff and Pratt (1999) emphasize the importance of building learning communities, because "the learning community is the vehicle through which learning occurs online" (p. 29). They visualize the task as fitting together jigsaw puzzle pieces: (a) shared goals and outcomes with buy-in from everyone; (b) collaboration with faculty facilitation; (c) teamwork with faculty guidance; and (d) active creation of knowledge and meaning by interaction and feedback (pp. 17-20).

From Paradigms to Instructional Design

What I hope to do from here is create a bridge between what you know very well how to do and what you may think is daunting. That is, you know how to design a traditional course for a classroom setting. Now  you want to migrate it to a web address, and create and guide learning opportunities for students whom you may never see in person. The planning and design process we use for both learning environments is instructional design. Instructional design, simply put, is "an organized procedure that includes the steps of analyzing, designing, developing, implementing, and evaluating instruction" (Seels & Richey, 1994, p. 31).

Researchers and educators have identified basic instructional design steps as you develop course plans (Boettcher & Conrad, 1999; Dick & Cary, 1999; Smith & Ragan, 1993; Gagne & Briggs, 1979). Using the short list below,  I'll develop descriptions of these eight steps, set in the context of web-assisted or distance education. 

1. Visualize the environments in which students will be learning
2. Identify an instructional team
3. Plan for student engagement and motivational strategies 
4. Plan the instructional events
5. Plan use of media
6. Determine feedback and communication techniques
7. Implement the course
8. Re-think course requirements and grading policies

1. Visualize the environments in which students will be learning

Envision the new learning environment provided by the Internet and web course tools -- think of the learning "space" in terms of your students (e.g., interacting with a computer is an independent activity, yet access to the WWW enables collaborative learning and research). Some questions to answer initially are these:

a. Will students have their own computers or 24-hour access to computers?
b. Do students study at home, at night, along with parenting and wage 
        earning responsibilities?
c. Will students be learning with others?
Characteristics of the World Wide Web

The following terms have been used to describe the World Wide Web (M. Chambers, personal communication, March,1998). The descriptions are my own.

Unboundedness -- openness, can get to multiple, diverse information sources. Navigation guides will be critical so learners don't get lost in cyber space!

Foreshortened Time -- instantaneous response is possible, and expected. In the learning context, "newbies-online" can quickly sense they're behind. Having time for reflection and creative thinking ought to be factored in to the time frames set up for online assignments.

Decentralized Control -- the locus of control may fall to you as the facilitator of learning with such a wide-open vista as the WWW; decentralization means that anyone can create a web site and learners can access everything (or so it seems). 

Multi-dimensional Space -- you can see video in real time or asynchronously; you can audio- or videoconference via the WWW; you can share documents and creative projects with the world. If you envision a learning activity, you can probably find some talented programmer to create it for you!

Unfiltered Searchability -- ill-defined searches yield too much stuff. And, sometimes, have you been unsuccessful in finding the simplest of information? There is much to be learned about using web browsers and search engines effectively and efficiently.

Dynamic Real-time -- because of the dynamic nature of the WWW, web pages disappear. The plus side is that you can access current events and "see" them unfold as they happen.

Evolving Technology -- improvements and new versions of software permit ever-expanding educational opportunities. Do you sense that "the good news is...the WWW, and the bad news is the WWW"?

2. Identify an instructional team

Other professionals may be needed to help facilitate learning via computer and the Internet. People who might be included on your instructional team are technical and content experts (system administrator, instructional designer, graphic designer, and web developer).

Online mentors, in addition to you and teaching assistants, might be willing to assume specific responsibilities for a certain time period. Their practice or research could be a valuable resource for your students. As an example, I plan to seek out an educational technology coordinator in one of our school systems to moderate the online discussion of the practice of K-12 technology leadership in my Summer 2001 online course. 

3. Plan student engagement and motivational strategies

Instruction, to be motivating, should emphasize the personal benefits, clearly spell out requirements for success, enthuse students, and provide frequent feedback according to a study by Wolcott and Burnham (1991). Keller's ARCS model (1987) sums up the essential stages of motivational design: attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction. 

a. Gain student's attention: tie into student experiences, current events, provocative questions or stories, introductions; "humanize" and personalize the course

b. Make it relevant: answer '"What's in it for me?" Appealing to students' self-interest, as well as planning authentic learning activities tied to a practitioner's use of the course content is important

c. Increase confidence: incremental and guided learning, anticipating problems and supporting students wherever possible, is key

d. Increase satisfaction: encourage self-reflection and be open to the individual learner.

 4. Plan the instructional events

Activity, or more precisely, "interactivity" theory (Moore, 1989), asserts that students must be engaged with the instructor, with the content, with one another, and with the technology in order to learn. This requires planning and preparation of materials and strategies for the following:

a. Balance interactions between learner and faculty, learner with other learners, learner with subject matter and resources, and learner with the technology

b. Balance types of resources used (e.g., print, audio, web-based)

c. Balance activities that introduce, apply, reinforce, and extend concepts.

 5. Plan use of media

Design the learning space. Plan to use features of the delivery media that help your students accomplish the learning goals you or they have set. Ask, "What is the lowest common denominator in both skills and computing equipment I must plan for?" Habitual use of web sites must be nurtured. Update the web pages when needed and create interactive options (e.g., self-assessment, pre-test/ post-test, or polling). Scaffold information to meet individual learning interests or needs. Identify valid and reliable electronic resources in your field of study. Give students a means (criteria and measures) for evaluating online resources.

Practitioners have tried a variety of electronic activities. You will find excellent ideas in your own field's professional meetings and journals. To get you started, Mercer (1994) has delineated seven types:

a. Class/group discussion covering issues generated by either the instructor or students

b. Class/group tutorial focused on understanding course material and testing comprehension

c. Group analysis and paper writing

d. Role playing critical incidents

e. Polling among class members or others outside of class

f. Involving guest lecturers, and

g. Assigning practical electronic exercises (e.g., making library requests, subscribing and participating in listservs, exchanging files or retrieving information from databases).

6. Determine feedback and communication techniques 

Lack of nonverbal and visual cues creates a real problem for both instructor and students in the online environment. There are ways to maintain contact and actually get better acquainted, report many instructors. Frequent feedback mechanisms, such as classroom assessment techniques (Angelo & Cross, 1996), may be easily implemented with the quiz/survey feature in current web course tools, such as Blackboard™ and WebCT™. Don't forget about emoticons <|;-). They can also be used to personalize text.

An important caveat about communication: "It doesn't just happen!" You as instructor must model the online behaviors you desire.  Personalize yourself by sharing little-known facts -- hometown, hobbies, likes and dislikes. Create purposeful discussion threads. Set time limits for individual discussions. Design online seminars and team projects. 

Consider authentic, performance-based learning assessments. Ask yourself, "What is it that readers, writers, biologists, users of math, or speakers of Spanish do as they use their skills?" Examples of assessments include essays, open-ended questions, portfolios, hands-on problems, sample of tasks, and self-assessment. Self-directed or contracted learning works very well with the open and worldwide context of the Internet.

7. Implement the course

What happens if access is limited by the student's location? Develop backup plans (hard copy available; text-only option for web sites; redundant personal web sites). 

Make adjustments as needed. Group work may require additional time to complete. Provide extra training or explanations in using web-based resources (e.g., process of transferring electronic documents). Answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) are useful for your students. You will develop creative and time saving approaches, as you teach an online course. Be ready to share insights and documents with others at your institution or at professional meetings.

8. Rethink course requirements and grading policies

Pioneering instructors in the online environment suggest that there be multiple ways to assess students' learning, rather than relying solely on quizzes, exams, and papers.  Students need well-defined reasons to work online. The grades students earn should reflect the type and quantity of electronic participation you expect from them (e.g., course requirements should spell out specific numbers as well as what constitutes "quality" postings to a discussion board). Develop participation points and percentages for online discussions, group work, and evaluation of electronic resources, for example.

Learning contracts can be effective in the online environment. Instructors set up the criteria and measures for earning specific grades and students "contract" themselves to the grade they would like to earn. Read the testimonial below provided by an innovative online professor.

Here's how I use learning contracts

After experimenting with raising points for the additional online work I required in a 400-level course, it has become a contracted class. And, I'm a lot happier with it. There's going to be a slow process of acceptance as students get pushed to be more active learners. Here's the minimum for an A [along with quality standards]:

    • Take all the quizzes, online. 
    • Do the midterm and final exam, and paper
    • Answer and post study questions for each module
    • Participate in 9 out of 12 discussion forums (9 because we all have a bad week here and there!)
    • Get 2 out of 3 A's on the exams/paper combination, and a B on the other
    • Create a resource booklet for one specific constituency
There were some students who did all the above work, but earned mostly B's, and they earned a B for the course grade. I wanted to show them that quality is as important as quantity, and it wasn't just a matter of jumping through the hoops. 

Students recognize they are learning critical thinking skills. They are working harder, but they are getting something out of it, too. If I increase my standards, I believe they increase their standards. 

--L. Leach, (personal communication, July 13, 2000)
The specifics of self-directed learning

A second tactic that works well in the online environment is self-directed learning. Self-directed learning is defined as "the process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes" (Knowles, 1975, p. 18). Knowles defines the role of the instructor as the essential educational broker -- "...a linker of learners with the most effective resources" (1986, p. 246).

I'm digesting two different types of self-directed learning for an individual and team with the following summaries from his book, Using Learning Contracts (1986).

Whatcom Community College offered an alternative learning experience that put learners and instructor together in developing the learning contract. The learning contract "enables you to develop a course(s) specifically related to your own academic, career, and life interests," according to the introduction (Knowles, p. 76). Steps in the development include: 

(1) Specify learning objectives 

(2) Specify learning activities (for accomplishment of each objective) 

(3) Specify how you will demonstrate learning (e.g., research paper, demonstration, learning journal, oral evaluation, case study, product assessment, self-evaluation, project, examination), and, the criteria for demonstrating quality of learning (e.g.,"completion of all learning activities with mastery of the subject and ability to demonstrate understanding of the general theory) 

(4) Supply bibliography 

(5) Propose amount of credit, and, 

(6) Negotiate the contract with mentor, complete with approval signatures.


At the University of Nebraska, the option for team contracting was available. Interested students were required to develop learning objectives in common, as well as individual learning objectives. The learning project and grading criteria was developed in a proposal format. In this case, the instructor retained the grading function, but collaborative literature suggests that self-assessment and peer assessments are logical for team projects (Knowles, 1986).

Download the "Learning Contract Forms" (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader ) to view suggested formats. I thank my UMSL colleagues in Adult Education, Dr. John Henschke and Dr. Mary Cooper, for sharing the forms they use with students.

I've challenged you to envision the learning space that online tools provide you and your students. In the process we have considered eight steps for the design of instruction. Active learning is what you and your students will do together. I encourage you to begin with communication and collaboration activities, so that your online (and traditional) students experience the potential of web-assisted, lifelong learning.  As for the essential nature of guiding and facilitating online learning, I'll conclude with this engaging thought from two leading educators:

Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in class listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences, apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves (Chickering & Gamson, 1987, p. 3).


Angelo, T. A. & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook 
       for college teachers, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Boettcher, J. V. & Conrad, R. (1999). Faculty guides for moving teaching and learning
       to the web. (Available from League for Innovation 
       in the Community College
<>, Mission Viejo, CA 92691).

Carlson, R. (September 1999). Migrating your course to the online environment. 
       Syllabus, 20-24.

Chickering, A. W. & Gamson, Z. F. (March, 1987). Seven principles for good practice. 
       AAHE Bulletin, 39, 3-7.

Dick, W. and Cary, L.M. (2000). The systematic design of instruction, 5th ed. 
        Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.

Gagne, R. M. & Briggs, L. J. (1979). Principles of instructional design. New York: Holt,
        Rinehart, and Winston.

Keller, J. M. (1987). Development and use of the ARCS model of motivational design. 
       Journal of Instructional Development, 10(3), 2-11.

Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers. 
        Chicago: Follett Publishing Co.

Knowles, M. S. (1986) Using learning contracts. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 

Mercer, A. (1994). Introducing Mass-email for extramural courses: A how to guide
        (Available from the Centre for University Extramural Studies, Massey University, 
        Palmerstown, New Zealand).

Moore, M. G. (1989). Distance education: A learner's system. Lifelong Learning: An 
        Omnibus of Practice and Research, 12(8), 8-11.

Seels, B. & Richey, R. (1994). Instructional technology: The definitions and domains of 
        the field. (Available from Association for Educational Communications and 
        Technology, Washington, D.C.).

Smith, P. L. & Ragan, T. J. (1993). Instructional design. New York: Macmillan 
         Publishing Company.

Wolcott, L. L. & Burnham, B. R. (1991). Tapping into motivation: What adult learners 
         find motivating about distance education. In Proceedings of the 7th Annual 
         Conference of Distance Teaching and Learning (pp. 220-227). Madison, 


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