Online Learning


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As with face to face courses, online courses fundamentally are improved through good planning and sound pedagogy.

Seven Principles of Good Practice

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Chickering & Gamson (1987) March 1987 issue of he AAHE Bulletin
  • encourages contact between students and faculty,
  • develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  • encourages active learning,
  • gives prompt feedback,
  • emphasizes time on task,
  • communicates high expectations, and
  • respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Types of Online Courses

Each course is quite unique but my university has three basic categories of online classes.
Textbook based, forum discussion 

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Main Features

  • Assessment through Forums and Assignment tool
  • Interactions shared through forums in whole class and small group learning sections
  • Opportunity for individual private (between student & instructor) reflections



Online lecture screen-captures, online quizzes

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  • Video consists of screen recordings of slides with audio narration
  • May include written formulae  or markup for active teaching (e.g. Khan Academy style)
  • Content created using HTML editor


Open Web

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This does not mean that all courses must fit into one of these three categories, in fact, most are a mixture of all three and a little bit of many other interesting online technologies. Some of these tools can supplement an existing face-to-face course, replace class time to be blended/hybrid or fully online course.
The following considerations are meant to guide instructors through a series of questions and potential options. They are not meant to be exhaustive, my any means.

Thinking back to Chickering & Gamson, step-by-Step, how can we design a course to promote these seven principles?

Planning your Online Course

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First and most important,

Who Are Your Learners?

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What program, year, special characteristics are worth noting? Are your students primarily on-campus undergraduates, mature working professionals, majors within your program or a varied cross-section? How many students do you expect will be in your class?

By the end of the course, what do you want them to

  • Know
  • Be Able to Do
  • Value

How Do your Expectations fit

  • Specifically Within your program
  • What prerequisite knowledge should your learners have before they start this course?
  • Within the Degree Level Expectations

How Will Learners Access Content?

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There are such a wide variety of options here. While I like to push faculty to think beyond content, I hold no delusions that the area of their expertise is held in high regard.

Is there a textbook for this course?

Quite often the textbook is written by the faculty member themselves and it is an essential component of the course. In other cases, I go through a series of questions to determine how necessary this particular textbook is for this course.

Are there equivalent open educational resources available that could meet your needs? If you must use this particular text, is it available digitally?

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What journal articles and web resources do you use?

Are your journal articles available full-text through your library database? In the past, faculty have been surprised to find that the printed course pack of bundled articles are actually already available as full-text through our library subscriptions. Some issues arise with book chapters, which we deal with on a case-by-case basis through a network team of liaison librarians and our Copyright Coordinator.

Even better, are there resources available openly on the web released through creative commons? There are so many great resources available through OER Commons or the Saylor Foundation.

Whether you are using video, textbooks or online journals, your voice as instructor is necessary to guide learners through the content by providing context, connections and relevance. You can do this through basic HTML in the learning management system or by using HTML creation tools like SoftChalk. Some instructors prefer to host external websites or blogs for ongoing discussion week to week.


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There are compelling reasons to use videos but there are many pedagogical and technical issues to consider.




Video can offer flexibility for learners to access content remotely and on their own schedule. It can be a great tool for learners to revisit a particularly challenging concept; replaying sections repeatedly as desired. Videos can provide additional accessibility. All videos produced under the eLearn initiative will be transcribed and captioned to comply with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA)

However, video is not directly analogous to face to face interaction. You cannot simply record your in-class lecture and expect your learners to have the same experience as those in the room with you. Passively watching videos is not the same as sitting in a lecture. The energy of being in the presence of other classmates and a teacher is not directly replicable on video.

This is a university class; your students can read. What advantage does your voice have over the content? Is there are a graph, image, metaphor or diagram that would benefit from your verbal explanation? You must consider whether reading PowerPoint slides would be more appropriate as text alone.




Apart from the pedagogical considerations, there are technical limitations. Use of video raise equity issues regarding access. Bandwidth, computer equipment varies even still in Canada. Some remote communities in Northern Ontario are completely unable to view video online. We cannot predict how access to the Internet or devices may vary around the world.

Video streaming servers can scale the video quality proportionate to the bandwidth available and only send the learner the segments they request. Of course, this great feature comes at a cost and there are financial implications for use of this server.

Okay, so you really want to use videos. Here are some guiding questions



Will you use pre-recorded videos?

With the rise of Khan Academy, pre-recorded instructional videos have become more popular than ever. Lecturing over slides is very familiar for many faculty. For those courses supported by the elearn intitiative, screen-capturing software licences, e.g. SnagIt  and microphones and captioning/transcription.

For some Math and Accounting courses, we have provided Cintiq tablets

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) Wacom Cintiq tablet is great for writing and screen recording.

Will you connect to other videos available online (YouTube, Vimeo, NFB, PBS, CBC etc)?

Do you have DVD/materials that require copyright permission in order to use in your online course?



Do you need to use synchronous tools to work with students

Sometimes synchronous classes (e.g. through tools like Elluminate, Collaborate, Adobe Connect) are necessary. For example there are particular classes where culturally specific practice is based on narrative interpersonal relationships. When learners are in remote communities, synchronous conferencing allows a teaching and learning conversation to unfold in real time respectful of those cultural preferences. Unfortunately, as mentioned, many remote communities also have extremely limited bandwidth. Additional technical support for Java, audio and video pose challenges to using this service,

It’s worth noting that while some learners appreciate the opportunity to connect live with an instructor, required attendance to classes at particular dates and times remove the flexibility built into online learning.

How Will You Measure Student Success?

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What Assessments Do You Currently Use?

Using the principle of backwards design, you align your assessment directly to the knowledge, skills and attitudes learning objectives.



Online Quizzes

While there are a variety of Orwellian surveillance mechanisms for sale  proctoring services available, we do not currently have any of these within our institutional roster.

As such, we recommend using online quizzes in two ways:

Formative tool: The act of taking a quiz can be a great learning tool. This is known as Assessment For Learning.

Open Book: Some questions are not clear cut and no amount of cheating can help you answer them. Use of higher order multiple choice quiz questions or short answer personally constructed questions that are specific to an individual cannot benefit from cheating.

In any case, multiple choice quizzes while given online should be low stakes.




These can be submitted online just as easily as in the drop box at the department. The assignment tool can time stamp the arrival. The only challenge is giving meaningful feedback. See feedback section.


Many faculty use blogs as a replacement for the essay, encouraging more frequent, shorter reflection and increased connections to classmates’ blogs and the whole world wide web, in general. Blogger, WordPress or other blogging software have a few caveats worth considering. See the section on third-party collaborative tools for more information.

Our learning management system has a tool that allows RSS feeds to be aggregated and your course site can act as a hub to the activity happening in all the blogs. The News Feed acts as a helpful repository for students to quickly access the other students new blog posts. The tool is not effective for tracking for assessment purposes. Submission of URLs through the assignment tool linked to gradebook is the most efficient method.

Assignment Tool/ Dropbox

Assignments Tool allows instructors to create, distribute, collect and grade online assignments. Assignments are private and student submissions are not visible to other users of the site. The Assignments Tool allows letter grades, points, check marks, pass/fail or ungraded. Assignments can also be returned, with or without grades, for re-submission. This feature can be used to evaluate drafts of final projects or papers, or to allow students to correct and re-submit an assignment. Students can also be asked to agree to an ‘honour pledge’.

Forum Discussions are technically very simple to set up. It’s the practical considerations that will take the most time in the form of planning and alignment with your learning objectives and expectations for the course.




  • Technically, there are many places to upload video, depending on your desired privacy levels and bandwidth needs (YouTube, Vimeo, LMS, streaming video server)
  • Pedagogically, many ways of allowing students to submit videos from simple web cam narratives to screencasts to extensive remixes


  • Students can submit audio in Isaak through the assignment tool, resources tool (with a little tweaking), drop box and even Forums.
  • There are many third party online audio tools available as well
  • Pedagogically, creation of audio can vary, just as they do in video from narration, opinion pieces, conversations, critiques or even radio show style presentations

Social Bookmarking

  • Tools like Delicious and Diigo are great for collaborative resource collection for group learning and sharing

Collaborative Writing Tools

There are others available on the open web, the most obvious being Google Docs. The caveat of Google Docs is that it requires a Google account and I am not entirely comfortable recommending that option to faculty. Many use G docs really effectively, and I commend them but I do not go out of my way to suggest someone new to online collaboration start there.


Etherpad is the closest thing Brock University has to Google Docs. In fact, I might argue it is better than Google docs because it tracks user input and has a history slider that you can rewind and watch contributions over time.

Brock University’s install of Etherpad is very basic and therefore text only. If you want video or images, this is not the tool for you.

We have a local install of Etherpad integrated into our Learning Management System. Through simple LTI, usernames and passwords are passed from folks logged into the LMS into the Etherpad.

Media Wiki

This is the same kind of awesome wiki platform that that really famous online encyclopedia uses. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? The markup is a bit more challenging that other collaborative editing platforms but it’s easy to do the basics and get started. What I like best is that the skills learnt using Media Wiki are directly transferable to the largest collaborative document in human history. We have one course now using our local Media Wiki to work on Stub articles in Wikipedia. They will work in groups to improve the article and when ready, bring their content over to Wikipedia. This is a whole post in itself and a bit of an experiment but I like the balance between small community scaffolding to larger community. There are a variety of other ways Media Wiki is being used on and off campus. We have faculty who create private wikis for each group or one large wiki to work on essays. Students like the ability to add rich media quickly and collaboratively. You can embed videos, images and audio files.

Third-party collaborative tools (Google Docs, PBwiki, Twitter, Facebook, etc)

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There is not currently any policy at Brock preventing the use of these easy-to-use tools, however, their use comes with the usual caveats of working on the open web. Students will sometimes need to have accounts associated with those services and they will have to agree to the terms of service agreements. These should be read closely, in particular, working in Facebook grants

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How will Students Receive Feedback?

There are a myriad of tools and resources available beyond the traditional red pen down the margin of an essay.



  • Some instructors find that providing oral feedback is more efficient and that students are able to glean key points faster as tone of voice puts particular emphasis on


  • As with instruction, video can be used synchronously or asynchronously to communicate to students. For feedback, this can be done privately and address specific issues, with a web camera on the instructor or even a screencast of highlighting sections that are excellent or problematic.

Additional Resources

Contact North, 9 Key Steps About Teaching Online

Mark Sample, “Planning a Class with Backward Design,” “Teaching for Enduring Understanding,” and “Teaching for Uncoverage rather than Coverage” all from ProfHacker

One thought on “Online Learning

  1. Jeff Boggs

    Oooo! Excellent post. I’ll contact you and Matt this summer to talk about how to augment three of my courses (CANA 3P30; SOSC 2P90 and GEOG 4F99) using these principles.

    FYI: The paragraph headed “Third-party collaborative tools” might be incomplete?

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