Online Course Construction

Teachers and designers are still determining what makes an effective online course. For successful eLearning experiences, it is vital that learning theorists, instructors, and designers work together to find grounded designs for online learning. 

The development of online courses is often built on a constructivist learning theory, which theory is to provide opportunities for students to build on previous experiences and knowledge (Koohang &  Palisszkiewicz, 2013).  Collaboration also plays a role in building this knowledge, as instructors and students interact to share ideas and experiences. While this is a theory for learning, it can be applied to the process of designing the course as well. The instructor of a Psychology online course explained that while he was the face of the course, it was actually constructed by the college’s chief technologist, the educational technologist, the student assistant, and himself -- the professor (Welkowitz, 2013). He explained, "the course is not so much ‘taught’ but instead ‘constructed’ by a team of verymotivated and bright people." (Welkowitz, 2013, p. 1). The course was constructed by pooling the knowledge and expertise of a group of people, who collaborated not only in the initial design, but throughout the course to make it work (Welkowitz, 2013). This professor was well aware of the change from being the sole provider of learning to a class, to being on a team that assembled material. In his introductory video, he described himself as more the "guide on the side" than the "sage on the stage" (Welkowitz, 2013) For this course, they used open courseware lectures from Yale (Paul Bloom's Psychology course), an open source textbook, as well as their own materials. Welkowitz (2013) likened the construction of the online course to a Joseph Cornell Art Box, which is a collection of materials to make a whole, each item adding to the final piece of artwork. 

An online course designed by a team may encourage collaborative constructivist learning in that they set an example and instill a feeling of learning from each other. This type of building and learning enables students and professors to reach higher ground more quickly than if tackled alone. 

Course designers must implement instructional strategies based on research and theory (Hirumi, 2011). There are many theoretical orientations  -- behavioral, cognitive, neurobiological, constructivist -- that may be used as the basis for designing strategies and applying instructional techniques (Hirumi, 2011). Each learning module should consist of instructional events that use a strategy to increase learner interactions that promote the desired learning outcome (Hirumi, 2011). 

Hirumi, 2012

Hirumi, 2012

Experience from students and teachers while taking or teaching an online course provides empirical data that can form new strategies for learning. Through active learning, knowledge is constructed with three stages:  the underpinning stage, ownership stage, and the engagement stage (Koohang & Paliszkiewicz, 2013). All three must be part of the online learning activities for the construction of knowledge (Koohang & Paliszkiewicz, 2013). 

The change in learning brought about by technology will require traditional educators to apply transformational learning to their own beliefs and prior knowledge about how a class should be taught. Instead of the students having to reflect on their own set ideas, instructors must now question and reflect on their own beliefs about learning and why they may need to formulate new frames of reference. Often, professors encourage college students to question their underlying beliefs and assumptions and to see the world through a new lens. But now we must ask the professors to apply this same line of reasoning to their established beliefs about lecturing and teaching. (Baran, Correia, & Thompson, 2011). Online teachers must utilize the tools of reflective learning and not become stagnant in their online teaching. In this way, the dynamic nature of online learning is ensured to continually adjust to the needs of students and reflect effective pedagogy. In fact, it would be advisable for instructors to continually take online courses as students to better understand the changing environment of online teaching. 

Think of online course construction as an aggregate of learning tasks and specialists in their fields. Students may choose courses less on the assessments of the professor and more on the whole delivery and experience of the online class. The collaborative nature of constructive theory can enable professionals to come together to provide a dynamic interface of learning between students and instructors. 

Since the field of online learning is growing, and theories of learning are still being evaluated, it is even more important to collaborate when constructing online courses. It is much like the medical profession, where research and practice has become so specialized, several doctors must come together to solve problems and find solutions. In the field of cognitive psychology, there is conflict about the use of memory research to influence pedagogy (Miller, 2011). However, using evidence-based methods in constructing courses is appropriate and needful in the current move to online teaching. According to Miller (2011) instructors in higher education can employ four essential principles based on current cognitive research when designing courses: 

(1)  Short-term memory (like memorizing a phone number) should not be a major concern when because it plays a small role in real life tasks.

(2)  Working memory must be addressed, as it is applicable to life, and there are limitations as to how much information a student can juggle at one time. There are limits to cognitive capacity. 

(3) Attention is paramount for memory. A course needs to be designed to capture and hold the students attention. The students willingness to learn and ability to focus are intertwined in this principle. Therefore, courses should have a variety of learning activities as a means to promote attention and engagement. This is to keep attention across a broad spectrum of learners -- not to match learning styles, which is no longer trending among cognitive researchers.

(4)  Frequent testing is central to memory retention. Learners need to engage with material frequently and be required to retrieve that material from memory.

There are pedagogical applications for current research on understanding the importance of cues in memory (Miller, 2011).  While it is advised to structure modules of learning into "chunks" of materials to help students retain information and avoid cognitive overload, new research has found that the limiting factor may not be storage capacity but the ability to locate the information in your mind (Miller, 2011).  "Cues" seem to play a role in the retrieval process, and more cues get formed when "students study material over short, spaced periods, and in a variety of contexts, rather than in concentrated sessions." (Miller, 2011).  In fact, the common advice for students to set-up one study area is not as conducive to retaining material as when that material is studied in a variety of contexts, providing numerous cues for recall (Miller, 2011). When constructing modules for learning, designers should provide multiple opportunities for students to develop "cues", spreading the material over various sensory elements and timeframes. For example, in the online Psychology course offered from Keene University via Canvas, the material the modules were available to read, listen, and watch. Short quizzes were embedded to help retain information, thereby meeting the stipulations of cognitive learning theory (Miller, 2011). 

Even though there was some rigidness to this course, due to the nature of the subject and the option for 4 units of university credit, the transactional distance did not decrease (Giossos, Koutsouba, Lionarakis, & Skavantzos, 2009). This may have been attributed to the connected feeling via discussion boards and when the professor introduced the course with this opening video:

In another online course, connectivism learning theory was encouraged by setting up missions, challenges, activities, and events. This was a course in online cheating and the first module contained readings and discussions addressing the driving question: What is cheating? and the Outcome: Define Cheating (Cheating, 2013).  After the readings, students were encouraged to participate in some of the activities,  with the goal to help them grow, learn, and connect with others (Cheating, 2013). One of the options was to share anonymously a time when they cheated, using the new vocabulary from the readings. At the end of the course learners (comprised mainly of online instructors) connected as they shared how they were implementing the document checker, Turnitin (Cheating, 2013). This gave them a forum to analyze constructivist learning theories within their own courses, as they looked at the options of using the plagiarism checker as a method for students to re-write their papers and learn from their mistakes, or to use it as "scare tactic" to discourage cheating. The course was led by an instructor that had introduced himself as more of a "tour guide" for the course, and the course as a "scripted journey" to be shared (Cheating, 2013).


Baran, E., Correia, A., & Thompson, A. (2011). Transforming online teaching practice: Critical analysis of the literature on the roles and competencies of online teachers. Distance Education, 32(3), 421-439. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ953014&site=eds-live; http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2011.610293

Giossos, Y., Koutsouba, M., Lionarakis, A., & Skavantzos, K. (229). Reconsidering Mooroe's transactional distance theory. European Journal of Open distance and ELearning. 2, 1-6. Retrieved from http://www.eurodl.org/?article=374

Hirumi, A. (2012). The design and sequencing of online and blended learning interactions: A framework for grounded design. Canadian Learning Journal, 16(2), 21-25. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=79461798&site=eds-live

Koohang, A., & Palisszkiewicz, J. (2013). Knowledge construction in E-learning: An empirical validation of an active learning model. Journal of Computer Information Systems, 53(3), 109-114. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=87725944&site=eds-live

Miller, M. D. (2011). What college teachers should know about memory: A perspective from cognitive psychology. College Teaching, 59(3), 117-122. doi:10.1080/87567555.2011.580636

Wang, V. C. X. 1., vcxwang@gmail.com. (2012). Understanding and promoting learning theories. International Forum of Teaching & Studies, 8(2), 5-11. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ofs&AN=82187857&site=eds-live

Welkowitze, L. (2013). Asperger’s Conversations:  Thoughts about Autism, Research, Education Retrieved from http://welkowitz.typepad.com/aspergers_conversations/2013/06/joseph-cornell-and-the-mooc-massive-open-source-online-course.html

Cheating in Online Courses. Canvas.net  Retrieved from https://learn.canvas.net/courses/28

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