An Evaluation of Learning Models for Online Learning


 Learning is an active process that should be sustainable, immersive and productive. Because learning is highly dependent on the learner’s desire, the teacher is more than the deliverer of knowledge. An effective learning method will even elicit interest in a subject that was deemed difficult or boring (Graff, 2011).  However, students gain greater benefits if they have a need to learn, with a clearly defined result or goal (Horton, 2012). Educators have employed learning models for years, even before the advent of eLearning. Yet, successful instructional design requires the use of learning theories and objectives (Horton, 2011).  Too many times teachers and educators are asked to simply take their current course and turn it into a digitally delivered class. The idea of just dumping information into this format often does not take into consideration the models of learning that have been employed in the classroom. Also, the educational field is likely to produce new learning models as the demand for online learning increases and universities embrace eLearning. Competition for students will likely increase as more courses are offered in an open format – called massive open online courses or MOOCs (such as Coursera and Canvas).
Instructional Design Models for eLearning focus on helping instructors make successful courses. Although it is possible to adhere to only one model, designers may actually use a combination. Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction, Keller’s motivational model of ARC, Wiggins McTighe’s Understanding by Design, and Anderson’s and Krathwohl’s Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy are options to consider.  The best design will support and align with a teacher’s learning model and create the enthusiasm needed to provide successful online learning.  Because most of the earlier design models were established before eLearning, designers of online courses must alter the models to fit this new technology (Horton, 2012).  
Some schools develop their own instruction design models for online courses, such as California State University, Humboldt (Van Duzer, 2002).   In this model, effective instructional design is broken down into five criteria:  (1) Interaction and communication, (2) course goals,  (3) learning objectives,  (4) multi-modal activities, and  (5) critical thinking and problem solving activities (Van Duzer, 2002).   Within each of these categories, educators evaluate course design as exemplary, effective, or baseline (Van Duzer, 2002).   For the first criterion, courses that offer only a limited opportunity for communication between students and instructors and content would be deemed baseline (Van Duzer, 2002).  Exemplary courses would offer many opportunities.  The goals of the course constitute the second criterion used to judge an exemplary online course, with those that are clearly defined and aligned with learning objectives to be rated the highest (Van Duzer, 2002).  If a course is designed without an understanding of the ultimate goal, it will be less effective.  The third criterion addresses the learning objectives of the course, which should be identified and supported with learning activities.  The fourth criterion includes evaluating the multi-modal activities.  These include multiple activities to enhance the learning experience by supplying visual, textual, kinesthetic and auditory activities.  The final criterion analyzes critical thinking and problem solving activities.  These types of activities push students to use their newly acquired information or skills to solve problems (Van Duzer, 2002).
Online course design can be developed around Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction, which has been utilized by the University of Florida’s Center for Instructional Technology and Training (University of Florida, 2013).  Even though Gagne’s model was first published in 1965, instructors can effectively use it to design online courses.  The nine events are steps that are based on effective learning:   (1) Gain attention,  (2) inform learners of objectives,  (3) stimulate recall of prior learning,  (4) present the content,  (5) provide “learning guidance,”  (6) elicit performance (practice,)  (7) provide feedback,  (8) assess performance, and  (9) enhance retention and transfer to the job (University of Florida, 2013).  When applying these steps to an online course, a designer has options available to traditional classes as well as to eLearning classes.  
            One of the first steps for effective online learning is to capture your audience, in this case, your students (University of Florida, 2013).   Not addressed in Gagne’s model, and yet highly important for online courses, is the ease of navigation through the course, and especially an effective homepage.  This would be part of the step titled “gain attention.” In fact, all of the steps listed in Gagne’s events of instruction could be assessable from the homepage, giving the online course structure and ease of use.  For an exemplary course delivered online, the student’s ability to use the Internet and technology needs to be addressed. Although most students have familiarity with computers and mobile devices, easy access to an explanation of the necessary skills should be included and sufficient time to master these before the official start of the class.        
            An example of a homepage on the Canvas platform identifies key elements (Canvas Network, 2013).  The use of a visual start button in this homepage is an effective way to guide students through the learning process and avoid confusion from the initial opening of the course. The left side bar clearly identifies key resources for the course, including the “home” button, announcements, discussions, and modules. A simple outline of things to do are listed on the right, and if completed, checked off. While this is not outlined in Gagne’s list it does fulfill the requirements listed in the California State University list to promote interaction and communication (Van Duzer, 2002).  The homepage is the first step to gaining a learner’s attention. Even before enrolling in an online course, the description is paramount. Massive open online courses offer a short explanation and video from the instructor. For example, the MOOC, coursera.org uses the format of a video introduction and text written by the professor about the course to gain attention. Also, the necessary prerequisites if any should be listed for optimal success. Other universities use homepages to grasp the attention of students from the initial stages.

Step two in Gagne’s list is to inform the learner of the course objectives (University of Florida, 2013).   This step provides direction and the need for learning new information.  If the objectives meet the student’s need, they will be more focused and goal oriented. These can be listed on the homepage, but should also be included in each activity. The third step in the learning process is to stimulate recall of prior learning (University of Florida, 2013).  This addresses the theory of constructivism, in that students build upon information they already have acquired (Horton, 2012).  Every learner approaches a course with some prior understanding that often lends to a collaborative effort of shared knowledge. Discussion boards provide this avenue, as well as polls or surveys. As the course progress, opportunities to use the information from a previous screen or module will stimulate recall and reinforce knowledge.
            The fourth instructional event in Gagne’s design is the process of presenting in a variety of methods – video lectures, readings with links, activities, projects, discussion boards, wikis, and podcasts (University of Florida, 2013).  Although the theory of constructivism addresses the understanding that students build upon prior knowledge, it does not provide the need for what Gagne terms “learning guidance.” This is an important part of learning and keeps learners from becoming frustrated looking for information and building upon incorrect facts. The idea that great men/woman stand on the shoulders of others fits into this model of learning. One method is to include a rubric for projects and writings. Another way to address this issue is to encourage interaction with other students in discussion activities. This method will embrace the learning theory of connectivism (Stahl, Koschmann, & Suthers, 2006).  However, once again, this could lead to misinformation. Instructors should be available to direct students to online locations to find information, which alleviates the frustration of searching for applicable and reliable sources.
            The Sixth step requires a learner to practice and apply knowledge and skills that have been learned (University of Florida, 2013).  This can be done with writing assignments, quizzes, projects and activities. A Coursera.org course had students write short essays that were then graded by peers. This approach addresses the value of applying information learned, but has the drawback of peers that may not have understood the information to be learned (either due to a lack of desire or communication problems such as native language.)
            Gagne sets forth a seventh step, which is to provide feedback to the learner – a valuable step in learning and correcting errors (University of Florida, 2013).   Timeliness in feedback is encouraging to students and improves overall communication and concern. Activities that have immediate answers and feedback built into the program are effective in promoting and instilling newly learned information. An example of this type of feedback was instituted in an online course in writing offered from the University of San Francisco. Passages were presented on the screen with the corrections for more concise writing. After several examples with the instructor speaking, students were given the opportunity to try to correct a passage on their own. Immediate feedback was a screen away, reinforcing the newly learned material. This also leads into Gagne’s eighth step of assessing performance. Online courses can include quizzes and short answers that assess success or not. The final step is to enhance retention and personalize the material learned (University of Florida, 2013).
            Learning models continue to undergo changes, as education becomes a global reality with the Internet and competition of universities and online course delivery.  Technology offers new ways to meet those models, but instructors and designers will need to meet the growing trend with successful courses.


Canvas Network. (2013). Social media. Retrieved March 29, 2013, from https://www.canvas.net/courses/social-media

Coursera. (2013). Understanding einstein. Retrieved March 29, 2013, from https://www.coursera.org/course/einstein

Graff, N. (2011). “An effective and agonizing way to learn”: Backwards design and new teachers’ preparation for planning curriculum. Teacher Education Quarterly, 38(3), 151-168. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ940642&site=eds-live; http://www.teqjournal.org/

Horton, W. (2012). E-Learning by Design.  San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer

Keller, J. (2008). First principles of motivation to learn and eLearning. Distance Education, 29(2), 175.

Stahl, G., Koschmann, T., & Suthers, D. (2006). Computer supported collaborative learning:An historical perspective. Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 409–426). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from http://www.gerrystahl.net/cscl/CSCL_English.pdf

University of Florida. (2013). Gagne’s nine events of instruction. Retrieved March 29, 2013, from http://citt.ufl.edu/tools/gagnes-9-events-of-instruction/

Van Duzer, J. (2002). Instructional design tips for online learning. Retrieved March 29, 2013, from http://www.csuchico.edu/tlp/resources/rubric/instructionalDesignTips.pdf


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