What online learning looks like

When we ask content experts to design online learning, the default course will look something like this:

  1. Content (article, book, video lecture) + Test (quiz or essay)
  2. Content (article, book, video lecture) + Test (quiz or essay)
  3. Content (article, book, video lecture) + Test (quiz or essay)
  4. Content (article, book, video lecture) + Test (quiz or essay) etc

I have already made the case for adding social elements, especially at the beginning of the course. And I have already hinted at how we can aim for deeper learning through encouraging collaborative meaning-making . But how can we move away from what some elearning professionals call an “information dump” which is essentially what the content plus test formula is?

There are many options. A good starting point is to look at Laurillard’s types of learning. This framework is the basis of the free Learning Designer tool which really forces designers to look at the balance of activities they have planned by producing a neat little pie chart at the end of each planned activity.

Learning type The learning experience
Acquisition Learning through acquisition is what learners are doing when they are listening to a lecture or podcast, reading from books or websites, and watching demos or videos. This is probably still the most common type of learning in formal education. The student is playing a relatively passive role while the teacher uses the transmission mode of teaching… We cannot avoid learning through acquisition. Students need to learn what others have discovered, to hear about expert ways of thinking and practising, and what is known already in their field. Enabling students to build on the work of others is fundamental to formal education and the progressive development of ideas.
Collaboration Learning through collaboration embraces mainly discussion, practice, and production. Building on investigations and acquisition it is about taking part in the process of knowledge building itself. It is distinct from learning through practice because although it builds something this is necessarily done through participation and negotiation with peers. It is distinct from learning through production, because although it produces something this is through debate and sharing with others.
Discussion Learning through discussion requires the learner to articulate their ideas and questions, and to challenge and respond to the ideas and questions from the teacher, and/or from their peers. The discussion may end with a consensual outcome, but the pedagogic value is the reciprocal critique of ideas, and how this leads to the development of a more elaborated conceptual understanding.
Investigation Learning through investigation guides the learner to explore, compare and critique the texts, documents and resources that reflect the concepts and ideas being taught. Rather than having to ‘follow the storyline’, as in learning through acquisition, they are in control of the sequence of information, and can ‘follow their own line of inquiry’, making them more active, and giving them a greater sense of ownership of their learning, taking a critical and analytical approach, and thereby coming to a fuller understanding of the ideas.
Practice Learning through practice enables the learner to adapt their actions to the task goal, and use the feedback to improve their next action. Feedback may come from self-reflection, from peers, from the teacher, or from the activity itself, if it shows them how to improve the result of their action in relation to the goal. This helps them to develop, understand and use the knowledge and skills of a discipline. It is sometimes referred to as ‘learning by doing’, or ‘learning through experience’.
Production Learning through production is the way the teacher motivates the learner to consolidate what they have learned by articulating their current conceptual understanding and how they used it in practice. Producing an output generates a representation of the learning enabled by the other types. In its simplest form it is the learner’s articulation of their current thinking, which enables the teacher to see how well they have learned, and to respond with feedback, guidance and further explanation.

See example below which illustrates the balance of activities between learning types in a specific task, a first draft for one of the M-HOUSE project course tasks.

Another excellent source of inspiration is Curt Bonk’s free TEC-VARIETY book which is full of task ideas for online courses. The acronym stands for tasks of the following types:

  • Tone/Climate: Psychological Safety, Comfort, Sense of Belonging
  • Encouragement: Feedback, Responsiveness, Praise, Supports
  • Curiosity: Surprise, Intrigue, Unknowns
  • Variety: Novelty, Fun, Fantasy
  • Autonomy: Choice, Control, Flexibility, Opportunities
  • Relevance: Meaningful, Authentic, Interesting
  • Interactivity: Collaborative, Team-Based, Community
  • Engagement: Effort, Involvement, Excitement
  • Tension: Challenge, Dissonance, Controversy
  • Yielding Products: Goal Driven, Purposeful Vision, OwnershipAlready the options are looking wider.

Over the years though, working with teachers who are used to the face to face medium, I have noticed the same barriers to expanding creative thinking about what can be done online occur regularly.

1. From information dump to e-tivities

There are still many teachers who feel they need to control most of the course content, who believe that if they don’t provide quality content then their students won’t learn anything or enough. Instead we should rather be confident that our learners are not short of information and we should be looking at the role of the teacher as a pathfinder, curator and celebrator of learner products as advocated for example in the SOLE approach mentioned in an earlier post.

This means that the task of the teacher is either to provide essential questions for their learners to work on (in a SOLE activity for example), or even better, facilitate the process whereby the learners come up with their own essential questions.Essential questions are those which are not Googleable and which our learners are likely to care about.

Gilly Salmons has encapsulated the role of the online teacher in her promotion of what she calls e-tivities. These small sparks lead to big results. Ie The run-up to an online task is short and sparse but if these e-tivities are well planned they will lead to deep research and reflection by the learners.

2. No confidence in collaboration

Teachers unused to the online medium are wary of including collaborative activities because they believe that the added work of establishing productive contact with course colleagues is not worth the outcome. Of course, the outcome must be weighed against the effort needed to achieve it, but one way of helping learners recognise each other’s pre-existing skills and experiences is by making them work together on a joint product that makes use of these advantages. Having done this a couple of times, you are more likely to get buy-in for more comfort-zone busting collaboration such as peer review.

3. Everything happens online

Our devices are now so mobile and multi-media that we can ask learners to take photos, record interviews or demonstrate a technique away from the computer. The online task then becomes an evaluation or reflection of whatever was done offline. This strategy comes from Steve Blank’s entrepreneur course where the mantra is constantly to go out and meet potential suppliers, customers, employees and so on. The online task then becomes to report back on the offline task.

So what does online learning look like?

  • A guided path or set of paths
  • through recommended resources
  • where learner contributions to approved resources is welcome
  • upon which are built production tasks
  • which are sometimes achieved collaboratively
  • where sometimes the main task is carried out offline with people unconnected to the course
  • and where peer review is an accepted part of the assessment


Blank, Steve A new way to teach entrepreneurship
Bonk, C & Khoo, E TEC-VARIETY
Cope, W & http://newlearningonline.com/learning-by-design
Laurillard, D Teaching as a Design Science: Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology. New York and London: Routledge.
Learning Designer tool http://learningdesigner.org/
Rothstein, D & Santana, L Make just one Change: Teach students to ask their own questions
Salmon, Gilly e-tivities

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