Best Practices in eLearning Teaching and Designing

Online learning has the potential to become a productive and far reaching method for sharing and acquiring knowledge. However, criteria and practices for successful online teaching and learning must be founded on solid learning theory (Haythornthwaite, 2011). Technology alone cannot meet the needs of a learner (Kingwee & Kidd, 2010). Teachers cannot merely upload content from their bricks and mortar classroom and expect success. Superb online learning will require a collaboration of theorists, teachers, and technologists (Koohang, Riley, & Smith, 2009). The process of learning is integrated and complex, often debated by those who want to establish a clear route for creating knowledge (Wang, 2012). Yet, one learning theory does not adequately address the needs of all learners, and thus behaviorist, cognitivist and constructionist learning theories all have a place in defining good practices for online learning (Haythornthwaite, 2011).

Andragogy, as proposed by Malcolm Knowles, is considered the scholarly view of adult learning that embraces the theory and practice that adults are self-directed learners and that teachers and adult learners are more equal (Knowles, et al., 2005).  Teachers do not passively administer information, but more aptly facilitate learning (Miller, 2011). This strategy aligns well with constructivist learning theory, in that adult learners are building upon knowledge they have already acquired (Koohang, Riley, & Smith, 2009). Adult learners usually know what they need to learn and are motivated to understand concepts that help them in real world situations (Knowles, et al., 2005).

Effective practices in online learning --

1. Establish and maintain presence and connectedness between instructor and learners.
2. Communicate clear goals and high expectations
3. Establish community and collaboration among students
4. Encourage active learning with varied activities to meet andragogy frameworks
5. Give consistent and prompt feedback
6. Acknowledge diverse talents and experience

 Establish and Maintain Online Presence to Promote Connectedness

One of the obstacles in online teaching is the lack of presence (Ravenscroft, 2011). Teachers and students cannot interact in the same way as in the traditional classroom. If constructivist learning is to be applied to online learning, there must be a flow of information between mentor and learner (Sung & Mayer, 2012). The instructor is the guide that provides resources and direction. Students want to know that the instructor knows what he/she is talking about and has experience that is valuable and accessible (Knowles, They want a real instructor online with disclosure, feedback, a feeling of relationship, and even humor (Reupert, Mayberry, Patrick, Chittleborough, 2009). Student surveys reveal that they want teachers who are engaging, approachable, patient, and understanding (Reupert, e. al., 2009).

The theory of transactional distance is applicable to online learning, in that the student and instructor are separated by time and space, which must be circumvented in order to achieve presence and learning (Falloon, 2011). One of the initial contacts that an instructor makes is with a welcome letter or video. Although a written communication reveals pertinent data and even character through voice, a video captures more real life mannerisms and bridges the transactional distance (Reupert, et. al, 2009).

In many MOOCs, the instructor video is the introduction to the course and the selling point for enrolling. Professor Donald Dingwell, from the University of Munich uses collaborative dialogue, "join me, as we try to figure out what makes volcanoes work."

Professor Kretschmer uses connectivist language when he says that "we will look at .."

Professor Cramer introduces himself by his first and last name -- "My name is Chris Cramer..." which supports the strategy of andragogy by approaching the learners more as equals (Knowles, et al., 2005). He also uses similar inclusive language, "we.. did this" and then uses a visual demonstration to explain the goals of the course. The instructor sets out the plan of study in a friendly tone thereby shortening the transactional distance between himself and his learners.

Although technology provides the delivery of online courses, instructors need to understand that andragogy, not technology that will determine the success (Shieh, Gummer, & Niess, 2008). Instructors can utilize asynchronous online discussions, emails, and live synchronous webcasts to connect with students establish their role as facilitators and mentors (Knowles, et al., 2005). If learning is to be constructive, then all parties in the model need to have a presence in the course, but instructors are the ones instigate and maintain this presence (Keengwe & Kidd, 2010). Online instructors need to facilitate discourse and share responsibility by reading and commenting on posts, thus sustaining the social presence needed to reinforce learning (Keengwe & Kidd, 2010).

Instructors also need to set a time of availability for conferencing with students -- similar to having office hours. This is especially true since online courses tend to be available at any time of the day or night. The current generation is used to immediate answers, facilitated through the advances in technology. A students expectations of how and when he/she can converse with the instructor should be part of establishing an online presence (Sung & Mayer, 2012).

Communicate Clear Goals and Expectations and Acknowledge Diverse Learners

Andragogy specifies that adult learners need to understand the purpose of their learning (Knowles, et al., 2005). Goals and expectations can be emphasized in the beginning of the course through video and written dialogue. But it is essential for instructors to establish agreed-upon learning objectives so that students have a clear picture of their goals (Nkonge & Gueldenzoph, 2006). Online learning is an interaction between students, teachers, content, and technology to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge for a needed purpose (Nkonge & Gueldenzoph, 2006). Students also appreciate expectations about time needed per week for study and what to do when questions arise (Boettcher, 2011).

Examples for communicating goals in online courses can be drawn from MOOCs such as Coursera.org and Canvas.net. These items are available to potential students along with the video introduction of the instructors. For example, this course, called Creativity, Innovation, and Change, offered from Penn State University, is introduced with all the material that meets andragogy strategy: how the course will empower learners, recommended background, format, and a frequently asked questions section. The instructors clearly state that they expect you to create, but that they will "guide" you there, indicating an experiential learning format (Hirumi, 2011). Also within this list of goals and expectations, the instructors identify their understanding of their students varied interests and commitments to learning, as they define three groups that might be taking the course: Adventurers, explorers, and tourists. This is not a common inclusion in traditional brick and mortar classrooms, where all students are commonly treated on the same level. Constructivist learning theory and andragogy is clearly exemplified in recognizing and including these diverse learners which may be better served in online courses (Falloon, 2011).

Establish Community and Collaboration Among Students and Yourself

Online instructors need to provide methods where students will become part of a community of learning where academic discourse can take place (Nkonge & Gueldenzoph, 2006).  Constructivist learning theory requires opportunities for students to build upon their knowledge. According to students, teacher feedback is vital to a successful online learning experience (Getzalf, Perry, Toffner, Lamarche, & Edwards, 2009).  While this may, at first seem unsettling to instructors who are used to lecturing in person, and taking note of their students’ involvement, online feedback has the potential to be just as effective if not more so. Online instructors must respond to students' questions about assignments and course materials, but this direct method also gives them space and time to comment on progress and give further direction (Gallien & Oomen-Early, 2008).  Asynchronous learning such as email, discussion boards, and voice mail are opportunities to make successful connections while conforming to sound theories of online learning (Espasa & Meneses, 2009).  The concept of "presence" in an online course, feeds into the theory of connectivism and collaboration as instructors take opportunities to establish community. Moore's theory of transactional distance addresses the need for instructors to provide ways to shorten that distance and open the space for cognitive and constructive learning (Falloon, 2011). Although there seems to be some interest in setting up small groups of students for online discussion and collaboration, the successes have not been fully documented (Boettcher, 2011). In one online course, the instructor had attempted to organize the students into small groups, only to find out that class size had become too much to handle for the structure chosen.

One strategy is to set up an introduction discussion forum, where the instructor first introduces himself, and then asks specific questions for each of the students to answer in a type of introduction (Palloff & Pratt, 2007). A good example where an instructor encourages community discussion is in the following Canvas.net course on "Game Elements for Learning":

Canvas.net, Game Elements for Learning, 2013

Encourage Active Learning with Varied Activities to Address Adult Learning Strategies of Andragogy

Learning activities should meet the course objectives and outcomes (Boettcher, 2011). Even though adult students are usually intrinsically motivated, active learning should include a variety of activities (Knowles, et al., 2007). Teachers can use asynchronous and synchronous activities, written as well as visual formats, reading and listening and watching provide multiple learning opportunities that cover a broad range of preferences (Gueldenzoph & Nkonge, 2006). Activities can be more collaborative in nature, where students set-up meeting times and spaces to discus ideas (Brindley & Walti, 2009). Students need to move from passive learning to active learning and then reflective learning, with activities in each of the categories (Horton, 2006);

The best strategies address andragogy and learning theories that cover a broad spectrum of learning preferences as exemplified in this online course at Canvas.net, called Game Elements and Learning. Activities include readings, video, questions, discussions, polls, and synchronous meetings (Canvas.net, 2013)

Most of the videos presented in these MOOCs are broken up into seven to ten minute sessions with an embedded quiz to follow, supporting cognitive theory of memory (Miller, 2011). Learning is spread out over a variety of activities which can be accessed over variable times and spaces, encouraging long term memory (Miller, 2011).

Give Consistent and Prompt Feedback to Your Learners

According to students, teacher feedback is vital to a successful online learning experience (Getzalf, Perry, Toffner, Lamarche, & Edwards, 2009).  While this may, at first seem unsettling to instructors who are used to lecturing in person, and taking note of their students’ involvement, online feedback has the potential to be just as effective if not more so. Online instructors must respond to students' questions about assignments and course materials, but this direct method also gives them space and time to comment on progress and give further direction (Gallien & Oomen-Early, 2008).  Asynchronous learning such as email, discussion boards, and voice mail are opportunities to make successful connections while conforming to sound theories of online learning (Espasa & Meneses, 2009).  

Teachers should always strive to give personalized feedback to their students, though this may be difficult in large MOOCs. It has been shown that students do better academically when they receive personalized feedback (Gallien & Oomen-Early, 2008). Students also report more satisfaction when the instructor responds in a timely manner than the feedback received on assignments (Gallien & Oomen-Early, 2008). Positive feedback motivates learners and keeps them connected, as well as guiding them along constructive learning theory (Keengwe & Kidd, 2010).

Feedback was examined for content and process to reveal five themes (Getzalf, Perry, Toffner, Lamarche, & Edwards, 2009):

Student Involvement and Individuation
Effective feedback is a mutual process involving both student and instructor.
Being Positively Constructive
Effective feedback provides constructive guidance that builds confidence
Gentle Guidance
Effective feedback guides through explicit expectations and ongoing coaching
Timelines for effective feedback are mutually established and met.
Future Orientation
Effective feedback is applicable to future situations

Online learning presents problems but also opportunities to advance learning (Haythornthwaite & Andrews, 2011).  It is critical that the efforts to design online courses include more than content and technology (Boettcher, 2011). Learning does not just center around the teacher as the giver of knowledge, nor around the content to be passively delivered (Boettcher, 2011). Constructivist learning theory employs collaboration, cognitivism, transformation, and connectivism as a means to design and provide online courses based on a strategy of andragogy and pedagogy (Keengwe & Kidd, 2010). Students are being encouraged to contribute as collaborators in learning through online discussions and activities (Boettcher, 2011). The best eLearning practices are those that are fluid and embody a transparency where instructors, technologists, and learners share what works and what does not work as education pushes outward from the traditional brick and mortar classroom, student, and teacher.


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Horton, W. (2006). E-Learning by Design. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

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1 comment:

  1. Excellent again.
    While I find that the theory of transactional distance is useful in some respects, when I tried to test some of the elements in my dissertation research I found that sometimes, some people were less interested in reducing their perceived distance than controlling the distance they felt.
    I found that people choose online or distance education because they wanted more distance rather than less distance from instructors and/or fellow students. They wanted to interact with the knowledge only or they wanted to be able to choose who they interacted with. I used the grounded theory methodology and the results were recently published.
    Gatin, G. (2013). Keeping Your Distance. Grounded Theory Review, 12(1). Retrieved from http://groundedtheoryreview.com/2013/06/22/keeping-your-distance/

    On another point, be sure to investigate the difference between the original conception of MOOCs and the form of MOOCs currently being promoted in institutions of higher education.



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