Five Critical Questions around Online Learning

NOTE: This finished article was published in the 2019/ 20 issue of the UofL Teaching Centre Lights on Teaching magazine

Below you’ll find the pre-print version from 26.06.2019:


Joerdis Weilandt 1, Helen Connolly 2, Adriana Monteiro Lima 3

  1. Teaching Centre
  2. Academic Writing Program
  3. English Language Institute


Digital Teaching and Learning invokes various positions and passions. Many articles in mainstream magazines as well as academic publications feature online teaching or other digital delivery formats to make predictions about the future of higher education. These discussions often aim to provide direction by means of answering central questions like what teaching and learning in the near future will or should look like, whether and how universities should offer courses in increasingly digital formats, and what changes would need to be undertaken to effectively transition from on-campus classrooms to virtual teaching spaces. The impetus for us to join the formal discussion of such future developments in higher education was provided through FLO Design (Facilitating Learning Online), a five-week long faculty development course offered by the U of L Teaching Centre this spring (2019) to those UofL educators who wanted to broaden their teaching repertoire in light of shifting student expectations and emerging digital technology.

Here, we address five questions which we hope will shed light on common misunderstandings surrounding online education and enable informed decision-making regarding contemporary online teaching at our institution. Although the U of L has been offering online courses in some capacity over the past ten years, we are now beginning to expand these offerings considerably across many faculties.  This is a critical opportunity for the U of L to shape its approach to online education. It is our chance to establish a framework for excellence in online teaching that supports both faculty and students, and to distinguish ourselves from other post-secondary institutions already offering online education by building on what we know is one of our greatest strengths as an institution – our commitment to interactive, student-focused, high quality teaching. The questions below are a direct result of the discussions raised in the FLO Design course, and include both instructor and student perspectives. While we approach these questions from our own experience in this course, they also speak to larger concerns and ideas within online education in general. The discussion has been constructed this way to focus on specific issues of concern, both on the level of the institution and of individual instructors. We, the authors, come from a range of backgrounds, as an international triad of educators with a variety of experiences in teaching and learning (academic writing, educational consulting, ESL/EAP/ESP, intercultural communication, modern languages instruction, OER advocacy, and online teacher training). We are open to all feedback regarding the content of this article and hope that it will spark a much-needed discussion in our institution that can guide us in our future teaching activities.

1. What do the terms blended learning and online teaching mean?

Teaching online happens on a continuum, where the web-technology used in teaching determines the degree to which specific parts of the teaching happen in virtual environments (1). At one end of this continuum, teaching online could relate to something as simple as the use of a forum as a course communication tool, while at the other end teaching is delivered completely online utilizing digital tools to share teaching resources, collaborate among participants and evaluate the learning progress. The term “online teaching,” however, is generally used to refer to teaching which is delivered primarily or entirely in a virtual environment. Everything in between the two end points on the continuum, i.e. all teaching scenarios that are not exclusively delivered in a face-to-face classroom or completely through a virtual learning environment, can be summarized under the umbrella term ‘Blended’ or ‘Hybrid Learning’, which thus means a deliberate combination of digital content and/ or activities paired with in-class instruction.

2. What is the current situation?

Current trends provide us with strong indications where higher education is rapidly heading.  Over two thirds of post-secondary institutions in Canada now offer some courses in an online modality. Tony Bates (2), a dedicated academic collaborator in the field of online and distance education, notes that in Canada “online learning has gained general acceptance and is widespread at a system level. Blended and hybrid learning is growing slowly and is reported to be resulting in more innovative teaching.” According to the most recent report coming out of the 2018 National Survey of Online and Distance Learning in Canadian Universities and Colleges (3), online enrolments are steadily increasing each year, while overall enrolments are remaining flat. More than one tenth of all responding Canadian institutions have already fully implemented a strategic e-learning plan or institutional strategy for e-learning, hybrid learning and/ or online learning. About half of the respondents are in the process of either currently implementing or developing such strategies.

The U of L is representative of those surveyed institutions that are increasingly using blended and online learning as an additional option to face-to-face teaching on campus. Over the past ten years the U of L has steadily increased online and blended course offerings across different disciplines at the graduate and undergraduate levels (see figures one and two). However, compared to other Canadian institutions that base their online teaching  on a set of strategies (e.g. UBC, Queen’s, Waterloo, Ottawa, Algonquin, Memorial),  our University has not yet defined where online learning and digital technology fits within its broader teaching goals and how it could offer our instructors and students choice in the management of future digital trends. What that means is that many of those instructors who are tasked to teach online at the U of L are currently left to their own devices with patchy support regarding instructional design, educational technology and teaching development for online environments.  Such uncoordinated and often short-sighted approaches can have lasting and potentially negative consequences for the development of online teaching.

Figure 1 (4)

Figure 2 (4)

3. What factors affect the adoption of online teaching in higher education?

The motivation for adopting specific forms of online teaching differs from educator to educator, from department to department, and from institution to institution. Bates (5) lists five key drivers: student demand for improved accessibility and flexibility; educational ideas revolving around independent learning and open pedagogy; increasingly accessible online technology; external politics resulting in earmarked external funding; and the institutional development of strategies to support the growth and quality of online learning.

At the U of L, student demand and institutional interest in the development of online teaching have contributed to the adoption of online courses and programs throughout various faculties. Many students see the value in the increased flexibility that online and blended courses and programs offer, which allow much more flexibility for work and family commitments and remote or out-of-town living arrangements. Recognizing this demand, U of L administration is seeking to increase enrolment during the summer months in particular, when many students who are living and working off-campus would otherwise enrol in online courses provided by other institutions.

Although such motivators do exist at our institution, numerous barriers and concerns about online teaching in higher education also must be addressed as we consider the direction and potential of online education at the U of L. These concerns need to be discussed by all parties involved in online education – students, faculty, and administration. For students, these barriers often involve misconceptions about the nature of online learning, such as assumptions that online courses it may be easier or less time-consuming than learning in a face-to-face environment, that it involves only passive learning or that online learning works equally well for all levels of digital literacy. For faculty, these barriers may involve a lack of training and support associated with the development and delivery of online courses and external pressures from administration, such as an increased workload without appropriate recognition or an unrealistic expectation for increased student numbers within a course. For administrators, the barriers may relate to the lack of an institutional plan or strategy and limited input from specialist support staff, both of which are essential to informed decision-making concerning the implementation of high-quality online learning. Without a set of criteria for quality teaching signed off by all departments, “all senior administration can do is to try and persuade the departments to do things differently – if it is even aware of the problem” (5).

Academics who have developed and coordinated online programs, such as Kim (6), see a need for campus-wide conversations “to think about online learning through a strategic institutional lens” so as not to miss opportunities for sharing resources and knowledge. We feel it is necessary to be proactive in the decisions surrounding online teaching and that such decisions must be “transparent [and] inclusive.”

A lively and rigorous institution-wide discussion will allow us to realise the potential of online education through the sharing of ideas, voicing of hesitations, and raising of critical questions, all of which are necessary to find an agreement on the kinds of digital learning experiences we want to create for our students and the support that will need to be in place for this to be done successfully. Participating in the FLO (Facilitating Learning Online) Design course made us aware of some of these issues and motivated us to continue this discussion in a larger context by writing this article.

4. What is FLO Design?

FLO Design is an online faculty development course that was offered to a group of U of L professors and instructors who were interested in designing current or future online course(s).  Unlike our academic counterparts in British Columbia, who have easy and mostly free access to government-funded teaching development programming, most post-secondary educators in Alberta do not currently find many provincial or local offerings to build their online teaching skills, a fact which led to the first facilitation of FLO by the Teaching Centre this spring (2019). Inspired by the BC Campus FLO series, our local offering intended to address the “lack of a theory or strategy,” which Harasim (7 p111) has identified as a “major conundrum” in the discussion of barriers to online teaching. The course thus started with the formulation and theoretical groundings relevant for learning in the digital age before participants embarked on the design and prototyping of authentic and meaningful learning experiences for their future online students. The teaching decisions were enacted in line with an explicit ‘collaborativist’ theory of teaching and learning (7 p105-141) to show students how design and activities are linked to principles underlying the practice. For some participants, FLO Design was a way to  explore what quality online learning could look like, to engage in technology appropriate for online learning, and to experience it from the student perspective, which, in turn, led to the identification of some of the obstacles that both students and faculty may face when first engaging with learning in an online setting.

The structure of FLO Design was entirely different than other online courses that the three authors have taken in the past, including MOOCs from online course platforms such as Eliademy, EdX or Coursera. In such courses, the content tends to be delivered through text documents or a series of video and audio files, forcing students to play a fairly passive role, where facilitator involvement (after the time-consuming design and production of the course) is minimal. In stark contrast to such courses, FLO Design required an immediate expectation of students’ active participation and collaboration, which was met with regular, detailed feedback and guidance from the course instructor. Reflecting on teaching and learning strategies, participants completed an array of assignments leading to the final outcome of designing an online module or unit based on the same framework used in the design of FLO. The design and facilitation of the course allowed for a level of engagement and deep learning, commonly assumed to be limited to educational face-to-face interactions only.

Throughout the course, participants explored numerous open-source technologies that support online learning and collaborative digital work in multimodal ways. Participants thus experimented with transferring traditional face-to face content into an online venue or alternatively creating new online course resources from scratch. Several of the technological tools were new to some participants, and while those chosen were all fairly user-friendly, each participant navigated the material and assignments in a slightly different way. Even within Moodle, the platform through which FLO Design was taught, we learned about new functions that can be used for online teaching. For those cases in which we experienced technological challenges, the instructor made tutorials available to help troubleshoot in real time. It was clear to us, that if we were going to use these tools as instructors, we too would need to prepare tutorials and quick responses for those students who may struggle with unfamiliar technology.

In addition to technology-related challenges, we saw what an important role the virtual learning space plays and what workload and rigor is required of students if they are to navigate the virtual environment smoothly and succeed in high-quality online courses.

5. What are some of the differences between face-to-face and online teaching?

Our experience from FLO Design is that teaching and learning in an online environment is not necessarily different from in a face-to-face setting. We feel that quality online instruction can achieve many valuable elements of a face-to-face classroom, such as a safe and inclusive space for active discussion, collaboration, and experimentation, and numerous opportunities for instructor feedback on student work. This is not to say, however, that there are no differences to consider when designing and facilitating an online course. Indeed, several scholars have found that creating an online course involves a set of skills significantly different than those required for delivering content in a traditional face-to-face setting (8,9,10,11). Below we outline a few of these considerations.

Defining and assessing how we teach in face-to-face contexts

In our experience in FLO Design, as we developed online modules or courses, we found that our face-to-face teaching practice and presence could be transferred into a digital space, but that in order to do so successfully we needed to first identify what aspects of our face-to-face teaching we valued and used (was discussion a key component to our face-to-face courses? Informal feedback? Collaborative assignments? Etc.). Having identified these, it became clearer as to how we might search for and employ specific digital tools that would allow us to recreate these components in a digital environment. This process of identification was challenging for some of us, because we had been teaching in face-to-face environments for a significant time and such elements of our teaching had developed organically in our teaching practice and were not always things that we had defined or consciously developed in our courses.

 Instructional design and preparation

Although design and preparation are important in face-to-face teaching, they can often be adjusted throughout the duration of a course. In an online teaching situation, however, diligent up-front preparation is required before the actual course start date. While the biggest part of this up-front preparation will surely relate to the development and organisation of instructional strategies as well as learning resources, another considerable amount of time will have to be spent on planning all forms of interactions within the online environment throughout the duration of the course. This includes general course messages, instructor feedback on activities and assignments, as well as the evaluation of the course and the learning of the students within it. The design approach[1] that we were exposed to in FLO Design demonstrated to us how an online course can be built so that all learning activities and assessments align with the greater goals of the course.

 Dealing with technology

As we noted above, technology can often be a barrier to both students and faculty in the adoption of online teaching. Developing an online course may require instructors to learn how to use new digital tools or to develop greater proficiency with digital tools (such as Moodle) which they may already be using in their face-to-face classes. The use of such tools may be necessary for the instructor to effectively manage communication, delivery and content of a course. Certain digital tools may also be new to students, and while some students may easily adapt to their use, others with lower levels of digital literacy may need significant support. Such support can be time-consuming for the facilitator and the students, often requiring the creation of tutorials and the ability to answer questions and to help students with trouble-shooting.

Another consideration regarding technology is that many instructors and students may not be aware of the digital tools that exist to help support online learning, particularly those that are open-access and are not likely to be advertised or peddled by publishing or software companies. Learning about such tools and experimenting with their potential for online teaching is something that could be facilitated through professional development opportunities held by the UofL or discussion and collaboration with other faculty or students engaged in online learning and teaching. It is worth highlighting that the context of a course and the teaching intentions should determine the use of technological tools. Once the purpose and goals, teaching strategies and learning activities are clearly laid out,  academic educators can choose the appropriate tools to realise the teaching intentions associated with them. Dealing with technology means acknowledging the multiple facets to it. Different suggestions have been made as how to integrate technology into online teaching (12, 13), but what they all share is the emphasis to reflect on the nature and effects of the digital technologies we are intending to employ. Such reflection will help us anticipate and pro-actively avoid unintended outcomes such as accessibility barriers, steep learning curves, high cost, and privacy infringements (14).

Instructor Presence and Building of Course Community

A common misconception about online teaching is that once a course has been created it needs little to no facilitation. Although many MOOCs operate this way, courses without facilitation or with minimal facilitation are not what we consider quality online education. Instructor presence throughout the duration of a course is a key component in the creation and maintenance of student engagement and retention in online courses and is of course integral in the provision of high-quality feedback on student work. While instructor presence in a face-to-face class is visible and guaranteed, in an online course a deliberate effort must be made to allow for the same if not greater ease of access to the instructor. This requires the instructor to clearly communicate modes and times of availability to students. In order to replicate the sense of a conversation or discussion that occurs so naturally in a face-to-face class, it is important for an instructor to be ‘VOCAL’, an acronym devised by Savery (11 p141)) who suggests instructors to be visible, organized, compassionate, analytical and leading by example in order to have “productive learning environments, fewer management problems and more positive learning experiences with their students.” Such commitments to online course facilitation will help to alleviate potential feelings of alienation that are common in online settings and that contribute to lower student engagement and completion rates.

According to research, the development of community significantly shapes the experience students have in online environments and positively impacts their social reinforcement, information exchange and outcomes (16 p229). Woods and Backer (17 p5) stressed that “[i]nteraction is at the heart of the online learning experience. The interactions that most significantly contribute to the building of an online community are introductions, collaborative group projects, the sharing of personal experiences, class discussions and the exchange of resources (16 p228). In an online environment where the “flow of information is constraint by technology, equipment and the asynchronous nature”, interactions with the instructor, with peers and with the content will need to be designed alongside the planning of the content and the environment.

Moving Forward  

As we hope to have laid out in this article, we are currently at a crossroads where we need to make many decisions regarding our involvement in online teaching. We have an opportunity to establish a standard of excellence in online learning that has immense potential. If we can create digital learning spaces that continue our commitment to quality teaching, small class sizes, and personalized and engaged learning, we can establish ourselves as a unique player in the increasingly competitive world of online postsecondary education. We strongly feel, however, that if we are to succeed in this, we need to develop a clear framework for online teaching which respects the concerns of all parties involved and which honours the core values of our institution.

The authors welcome your feedback, comments, questions. Feel free to contact each or all of us.

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[1]  For more information on the design approach used in FLO Design, please see Nilson, L. & Goodson, L.A. (2018).  Online Teaching at Its Best: Merging Instructional Design with Teaching and Learning Research. New York: Jossey-Bass. Available from


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Digital Teaching and Learning at the UofL Copyright © by Joerdis Weilandt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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