Online Teaching & Learning

The term ‘online learning’, also referred to as distance learning, is the teaching and learning method that takes place online and includes various computer assisted tools and technology. According to Feenberg (1998), online learning is most effective when delivered by instructors experienced in their subject matter. The best way to maintain the connection between online education and the values of traditional education is through ensuring that online learning is “delivered” by instructors, fully qualified and interested in teaching online in a web-based environment. At the same time, two parallel processes take place. In an online learning environment, students usually become more active and reflective learners, and students and instructors become more familiar with online learning technologies by using them for class engagement. 

Online vs. Face-to-Face Learning

Some of the major differences between online learning and face-to-face or traditional learning are the differences in location, interaction, and intention. 

  • Location: In a face-to-face learning environment, students usually come together in a classroom, and course content is taught by an instructor in person. Students might have the opportunity to access course materials through an online learning platform, but the teaching and learning takes place in a classroom setting. In an online learning environment, both students and instructors participate in the course remotely in an online platform, and all the course activities are conducted online through the assistance of different technological tools and techniques. 

  • Interaction: Generally three different types of interactions take place in a course: student-content, student-instructor, and student-student interaction. While student-content interactions can happen both in person and in an online environment for traditional course settings, both student-student and student-instructor interaction primarily take place face-to-face in a traditional classroom. On the other hand, for online education, all three types of interactions take place in an online environment.

  • Intention: One of the major differences between face-to-face and online learning is the teaching strategy. In a traditional classroom the course content can be designed and delivered with the use of a combination of different teaching methods both online and offline. In an online classroom, all the course materials are designed to be delivered in an online environment.

Online Teaching Approaches

While traditional courses take place in a face-to-face environment, online courses can take place in two methods: synchronous and asynchronous.

  • Synchronous: Synchronous teaching and learning and collaboration happens in “real time” online. It typically involves tools and techniques, such as live class sessions through audio and video conferencing, data and application sharing, shared whiteboard, virtual class participation tools like, “hand raising”, “thumbs up”, etc., presentations through online slideshows, and so on.


  • Asynchronous: Asynchronous learning methods don’t have the live session component and use the time-delayed capabilities of the Internet. Communication and interaction between student to student and student to instructor happens through emails, discussion boards or discussion forums, announcements or bulletin boards, file attachments and sharing, and so on. Asynchronous courses have course content pre-designed and pre-populated in the course site. They are still facilitated by instructors but not in real time, so students don’t meet in an online live environment and don’t have fixed class schedules, which allows them to participate in the course in their own time according to their convenience.

Transforming Face-to-Face Courses to Online Courses

Online course design is not just transferring course content in an online platform that can replace the traditional classroom sessions. In fact, it requires rethinking and redesigning course contents suitable for an online learning environment, which includes: redesigning course goals and objectives, course assessments, delivery methods, interaction and engagement between students and instructors, integrating tools and technologies, and students’ overall learning experience that can support a more self-directed learning approach.

Boettcher and Conrad (2010) identified five characteristics while transforming to online courses from face-to-face courses:

  • Shifting the roles of faculty: In an online setting faculty are expected to be moving more towards coaching and mentoring students, creating and organizing online learning experiences, and facilitating interactions for students.


  • More asynchronous interactions: Online courses provide more opportunities for students to student, student to content, and student to Instructor interaction opportunities in addition to synchronous interactions.


  • Opportunity for more active learning: Online learning environments encourage and provide more options to learners for active learning through writings, discussions, and more interaction with peers to improve student engagement and learning.


  • More flexibility: Online course environment supports more flexible learning resources, and encourages students to play an active role in sharing and contributing to content resources.


  • Ongoing assessment: Good online courses are designed to facilitate different types of assessments continuously throughout the course. Along with regular graded assignments and exams, they also have low-stakes assignments (i.e. discussions forums, non-graded assignments, and so on) for Instructors to better understand their learners.


The following are steps completed in collaboration with the instructor and an instructional designer to transform a face-to-face course to an online course.

  1. Review Existing Syllabus
    Much like in a face-to-face course, the syllabus for an online course provides the big picture for learners to guide them through the course and help them plan their time, efforts, and lives (Boettcher and Conrad, 2010). In order to review existing course goals for an online format, Instructors need to review the goals and objectives of their face-to-face course and think how practical, appropriate, and relevant they might be for an online version of the course. 

  2. Consider Structure and Delivery of Content
    According to Nilson and Goodson (2018), “good design leads students to a destination.” As instructors think about their online course design, they should consider chunking content into meaningful segments with clear directions that provide pathways to progress through the course and promote student learning (Smith, 2014). Students learn new material more easily when cognitive load is minimized, and this can be achieved by “packaging information for the most efficient processing” (Nilson and Goodson, 2018: 80). To better reorganize the course contents, instructors should consider what course materials are absolutely necessary to help their students to be able learn online effectively. They also need to consider the best way to sequence the course content, as well as what students should expect from the course in terms of content, assessments, due dates, work loads, etc.

  3. Determine Course Format
    In this step instructors should configure the course format, whether the course is synchronous or asynchronous. Based on the course content instructors should be able to decide whether the course would be more effective in a synchronous or asynchronous format, whether the selected format be more accessible for the students, how can the instructor ensure more student participation and engagement, etc.

  4. Rethink Course Assignments
    Providing multiple points of assessment, timely feedback, and opportunities for self-assessments help students progress toward achieving the course learning objectives (Pallof and Pratt, 2008). Before designing the assessments for an online course instructors should reflect on a few things, such as: the assessment designed in their face-to-face courses, grading and feedback methods, student engagement in the assessments, and then decide what assessments, existing or new, can align with revised learning goals and objectives in the course, how students can participate and engage more effectively in the online learning environment, what tools can be used to evaluate student learning, and so on.

  5. Select Learning Tools and Technology

    Since online courses are heavily reliant on technology, it’s very important to find the right tools and platform for a good online learning experience. It’s also important to consider the past experiences and the comfort level of the instructor in using technology in classrooms. Before planning the learning technologies Instructors should consider the following questions: what learning technologies can align with the course learning objectives and goals, what technologies are easily available, how can these improve the learning experience of the students, is there support available for Instructors and students to learn about new educational technologies, or troubleshooting technical problems, etc. 

  6. Redesign Student Engagement

    Student engagement in online learning requires interactivity, as well as encouragement to consider how online tools and environments help or hinder student engagement with content, instructors, and each other (Wei and Chen, 2012). In order to rethink about student engagement in an online learning environment, instructors should first think about the current engagement opportunities in their face-to-face courses, and then decide how many of those activities can be transformed into online course environments, what new activities can be designed and also be available for online students, how many of those activities can involve individual, small group, or large group engagement, which activities would require synchronous sessions and which ones can be offered asynchronously.


  • Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. (2016). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. Jossey Bass.
  • Conrad, D. and Openo, J. (2018). Assessment strategies for online learning: engagement and authenticity. Edmonton, AB: AU Press. 
  • Creasman, P.A. (n.d.). Considerations in Online Course Design. IDEA Paper #52.
  • Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in online classes. Jossey-Bass.
  • Lehman, R. M., & Conceição, S. C. O. (2010). Creating a sense of presence in online teaching: How to be there for distance learners. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Major, C.H. (2015). Teaching online: A guide to theory, research, and practice. John Hopkins University Press. 
  • Nilson, L.B. and Goodson, A. (2018). Online Teaching at Its Best: merging instructional design with teaching and learning research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2008). Assessing the online learner : Resources and strategies for faculty. John Wiley & Sons. 
  • Poll, K.; Widen, J., and Weller, S. (2014). Six Instructional Best Practices for Online Engagement and Retention. Journal of Online Doctoral Education. 1(1): 56-72. Retrieved from Loyola eCommons, English: Faculty Publications and Other Works. 
  • Smith, R. M. (2014). Conquering the content : A blueprint for online course design and development. Wiley & Sons. | Jossey-Bass website book material downloads
  • Thormann, J., & Zimmerman, I. K. (2012). Complete step-by-step guide to designing and teaching online courses. Teachers College Press.
  • Vai, M., & Sosulski, K. (2011). Essentials of online course design: A standards-based guide. Teachers College Press.
  • Wei, C. W., Chen, N. S., and Kinshuk. (2012). A model for social presence in online classrooms. Education Technology Research, 60, 529-545.
  • Feenberg, A. (1998). “The Written World: On the Theory and Practice of Computer Conferencing.” In Mason, R. and Kaye A. (Eds), Mindweave: Communication, Computers, and Distance Education. Oxford: Permagon Press. (Excerpted at
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