This Guest Lecture was prepared for Online Learning: An Overview, December
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
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
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).
- Collaborative and active learning
- Access to real-time information
- Bringing together/blending isolated bits
From Paradigms to Instructional
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,
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
4. Plan the instructional events
5. Plan use of media
6. Determine feedback and communication
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?
Characteristics of the World Wide Web
b. Do students study at home, at
night, along with parenting and wage
c. Will students be learning with
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
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
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
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
2. Identify an instructional
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
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
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
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
a. Class/group discussion covering
issues generated by either the instructor or students
6. Determine feedback and communication techniques
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,
g. Assigning practical electronic
exercises (e.g., making library requests, subscribing and
participating in listservs, exchanging files or retrieving
information from databases).
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
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
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]:
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.
- 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
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.
The specifics of self-directed
--L. Leach, (personal
communication, July 13, 2000)
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,
(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
college teachers, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Boettcher, J. V. & Conrad, R.
(1999). Faculty guides for moving teaching and learning
the web. (Available from League
the Community College <http://www.league.org>,
Mission Viejo, CA 92691).
Carlson, R. (September 1999). Migrating
your course to the online environment.
Chickering, A. W. & Gamson, Z.
F. (March, 1987). Seven principles for good practice.
Bulletin, 39, 3-7.
Dick, W. and Cary, L.M. (2000). The
systematic design of instruction, 5th ed.
IL: Scott, Foresman.
Gagne, R. M. & Briggs, L. J.
(1979). Principles of instructional design. New York:
Keller, J. M. (1987). Development
and use of the ARCS model of motivational design.
of Instructional Development, 10(3), 2-11.
Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed
learning: A guide for learners and teachers.
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.
from the Centre for University Extramural Studies, Massey University,
Moore, M. G. (1989). Distance
education: A learner's system. Lifelong Learning: An
of Practice and Research, 12(8), 8-11.
Seels, B. & Richey, R. (1994).
Instructional technology: The definitions and domains of
field. (Available from Association for Educational Communications
Smith, P. L. & Ragan, T. J. (1993).
Instructional design. New York: Macmillan
Wolcott, L. L. & Burnham, B.
R. (1991). Tapping into motivation: What adult learners
motivating about distance education. In Proceedings of the 7th
of Distance Teaching and Learning (pp. 220-227). Madison,
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