for Blended Instruction: A Primer

Contents Prepared by Philip Pecorino, QCC ,CUNY


  1. Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education  by Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson.

  2. Concepts in Instructional Design - Randy Rezabeck

  3. Some Principles of Instructional Design- Randy Rezabeck
  4. Online Course Development -  Randy Rezabeck
  5. Events of instruction -Robert Gagne
  6. Effective Practices-Sloan Consortium
  7. The Biggest Decision in Hybrid Course Development -Philip Pecorino
  8. Best Practices in Online Instruction -SUNY SLN
  9. Articles and Web Resources
  10. Article: The Web's Impact On Student Learning - Katrina A. Meyer
  11. A Case Study: Creating a Hybrid College Course: Instructional Design Notes and Recommendations for Beginners -Gordon Hensley -Jolt Vol 1 no 2

If for whatever reasons an instructor has decided to offer instruction using the modality of hybrid/blended instruction then thereupon follow some very important issues that need to be confronted and questions to be answered.  The instructor should be familiar with and have seriously considered the basic materials on online instruction.  Some of the most significant of these are supplied immediately below and then followed by the most important or the central issue for hybrid/blended instruction, namely what to place into each component of the instructional design: the face to face setting and the online environment.  This most basic question will be addressed further at that point below where you will find: The Biggest Decision in Hybrid Course Development -Philip Pecorino


Concepts in Instructional Design - Randy Rezabeck

Instructional Design - the systematic process for preplanning and organizing all resources, learning activities, communications mechanisms, and feedback and assessment activities necessary to result in active student learning.

Active Learning -Student learning occurs because of what the learners themselves do, not necessarily because of what the professor does. Learning requires frequent cognitive engagement and is dependent upon the level of effort put into it. At its most basic level, learning is a process of acquiring new information, thinking about it, reflecting upon its meaning, and then applying it to the real world to test its validity.

Andragogy - the art and science of helping adults learn, as opposed to Pedagogy, the art and science of teaching children. Whereas pedagogy is teacher focuses, andragogy is learner centered. Adults have some unique characteristics which influence how they learn. Specifically, they tend to:

Be more highly motivated and self directed

See the teacher as a resource rather than an authority figure

Hold attitudes, values and beliefs based upon life experience

Be focused and goal directed

Want to learn for immediate application

Consider time as a scarce and precious asset

For further information see:

Instructional Interaction - The flow of communications and activities within the structure of a course. There are three primary types of interaction; 1) interaction between the professor and students, such as discussions, 2) interaction between students, such as group assignments, peer tutoring, and socializing, and 3) interaction between students and information resources, such as active reading of the textbook, research assignments in the library, or searching the internet. A well-designed course should utilize all three forms of instructional interaction.

Learning Guidance - Advice given by the professor to help students in their learning efforts. This could be specific advice, such as mnemonics to help memorize specific information or techniques for highlighting important concepts in their readings; or more generalized advice such as good resources to explore for term paper topics, recommendations to the writing center, etc.

Feedback -Informal but frequent advice given to specific students as to the quality of their performance with recommendations to help improve their learning. The purpose of feedback is to help guide and direct students efforts to meet specific learning outcomes. . Feedback should encourage students to think and reflect upon their learning and to adjust their application of it to the real world. Feedback can include encouragement, and can also be provided by fellow students.

Assessment - Formal judgment as to the quality of a student’s performance (grades). Assessment can take many forms beyond traditional paper and pencil tests, but all assessments should strive for relevance, authenticity, and fairness. Most importantly, they must be tied directly to the course objectives.

Student Learning Outcomes - general statements as to what a student should know and be able to do at the completion of instruction. They should reflect the knowledge, skills and abilities that a student will gain in the course.

Instructional Objectives - are specific statements derived from student learning outcomes which address three components of learning: conditions under which the learning will take place, the performance that the student will engage in to demonstrate mastery of the objective, and the standards which will be applied to evaluate the quality of the performance. Instructional objectives can be utilized in two ways:

Terminal Objectives - which reflect the outcomes for each major topic in the course.

Enabling Objectives - which reflect the various steps, components, and background knowledge that must be learned in order to master the terminal objective.


Some Principles of Instructional Design- Randy Rezabeck

1. Define student learning outcomes and use instructional objectives:

You owe it to yourself and your students to define what it is they are suppose to know and be able to do by taking your course. Student learning outcomes are required as part of the curriculum proposal for your course, you should review these and ensure that they are being met in your course design.

Derive a series of instructional objectives from these student-learning outcomes. This will insure that the course content is defined in terms of student learning. Avoid designing a course based upon tradition or based upon instructor convenience, maintain a focus on student learning.

Classify your objectives as either terminal (what they really are trying to achieve) or enabling (what they need to know to get there). There should be at least one terminal objective for each major topic in the course. Ensure that all necessary enabling objectives are listed for each terminal objective.

When writing objectives, keep in mind the level of learning (knowledge, understanding, application, critical thinking) you are trying to achieve for that objective, and ensure that the performance statement of the objective reflects that level.

Once all objectives have been defined, then use them as the backbone for your course design.

2. Design a strong structure for your course that provides:

Resources - the information that is necessary for acquiring new information. If possible utilize a variety of media and sources, including textbooks, videos, computer tutorials, web pages, interviews, guest speakers, etc.

Logical Sequencing - of both the instructional objectives and the content. Remember, by definition, enabling objective must be taught before terminal objectives. Content should be broken down and "chunked" into an amount that is manageable for the level of understanding your students are at. Sequence content from simple to complex, concrete to abstract.

Continuing communications - Provide plenty of opportunities to ask questions and encourage an open atmosphere. Encourage students to communicate with each other outside of class and to help each other out.

Documentation - Communicate the course structure through some form of documentation, such as the course syllabus, or via a course management system such as SLN or Coursespace. Ensure that all the objectives, content outlines, assignments and due dates are clearly communicated to the student. There should be no doubt in their mind as to what they are suppose to do on a given day and what is expected of them.

3. Design activities to promote active learning:

Provide for all three types of interaction - Try to incorporate the three types of interaction as often as possible. This provides both variety and the opportunity for students to be come more engaged in the material and with each other.

Provide activities that allow for cognitive engagement and processing – give them time to reflect, provide opportunities to discuss and contemplate, allow them to practice when appropriate and provide encouragement and guidance to keep them engaged.

4. Provide learning guidance and feedback:

Provide plenty of feedback throughout each lesson to correct discrepancies and misunderstandings, and give encouragement.

Provide guidance for further learning - tips to students to help them study, additional resources for further information, sources for additional help such as learning centers, etc.

Encourage peer interaction as a means of feedback. This will provide students with a variety of viewpoints, is perceived as credible, and can be highly motivating. However, monitor this activity to ensure that the feedback is valid.

5. Provide formal assessments that directly measure instructional objectives:

Use a variety of assessment techniques and use them frequently. Don’t rely on only a midterm and final, and don’t rely on only multiple-choice tests.

Make your assessment relevant to the objectives you are trying to achieve; for example, if you are trying to achieve a level of critical thinking, then assess the students’ ability to analyze, synthesize or create through term papers, presentations or creative works.

Ensure that your assessments reflect both the performance and standards that were defined in the instructional objective.

Strive for student mastery of all the objectives, rather than grading "on the curve".

6. Utilize Andragogy as a basis for course design

Require students to take greater responsibility for their learning

Provide opportunities for leadership

Relay on their life experience to provide greater depth of discussion, have them provide examples

Utilize small group activities and peer review to provide communications/ feedback/ learning guidance. Let the students teach themselves.


Online Course Development -  Randy Rezabeck

1. Analyze your audience and the conditions under which they will learn.

What can you assume about the number, age, background and motivation levels of your students?

What is the setting of your course? What equipment/resources will be available? Will student services (library, learning center, etc.) be available to your students when they are meeting face to face?

What are the time and scheduling constraints of your course? Will you be meeting weekly? What is the typical time block for face-to-face meetings? Will there be opportunities for students to get together outside of class?

2. List your instructional objectives and classify them as either terminal or enabling. Utilize them in an appropriate manner for your learners in your course design.

Enabling objectives tend to address the knowledge/understanding levels of learning. This may give you leeway on how the objectives can be taught. After analysis of your audience, ask yourself:

Can you safely assume that your students will already know the content of some enabling objectives? If so, then the material can be eliminated.

Are the students somewhat familiar with the content of the objectives? If so, then consider brief reviews of the material rather than in depth teaching of it.

Enabling objectives focused on the knowledge/understanding levels of learning tend to make up the information acquisition phase of the learning process. This lends itself well to solo learning/structured homework assignments. Make these required assignments and use them as prerequisites for the in-class work. Use them as a substitution for lectures. Structure these homework assignments to ensure that students complete them and have the opportunity for questions and feedback.

Terminal objectives by definition consist of the most important topics of the course. Utilize your valuable face-to-face class time to work on these objectives. Draw upon your adult students motivation and self-disciple to master the enabling objectives prior to class.

3. Design in-class time to maximize interpersonal interactions.

Emphasize class discussions over lecture. Provide plenty of opportunities for questions and answers.

Try small group assignments or projects. Have your groups organize themselves in class and then encourage them to work together to complete the project outside of class.

Provide opportunities for peer review of students work. Provide for class presentations and follow up discussions.

4. Carefully design your outside activities.

Activities conducted outside of class must be carefully designed and supported with clear instructions, resources, and communications and feedback mechanisms.

Experiential activities for hybrid courses should aim at the higher (i.e. application and critical thinking) levels of learning.

Activities can be designed as a culminating activity, that is, a major project for the purpose of demonstrating the new knowledge or skills developed by the student as a result of taking the course. Examples include large term papers, presentations, group projects, or creative products.

Consider dividing your culminating activity into subparts with students submitting components of the activity throughout the semester rather than leaving everything for the end of the semester. For example with a term paper, have students identify the topic by the third week, provide a thesis statement the fourth week, submit a bibliography the fifth week, outline of the content by the sixth week, and a preliminary draft by the seventh week. Give students feedback and guidance at each step. This will result in a better product from the student, allows you to track their progress in the experiential activities, and allows you to compare the equivalency of the assignment to in-class work.

Provide detailed guidelines for experiential activities, including any assessment criteria that will be applied to the product of their activity.

5. Use technology to provide structure, communications and feedback to augment or supplant class activities.

Coursespace can be utilized to provide structure, resources, communications and feedback for your students to guide them in their out-of-class learning activities.

Divide your course into logical modules and then structure your course in the course management system to reflect this design. Provide all necessary orientation and syllabus materials and all other instructional resources from within this course structure.

Instructional resources can consist of, but are not limited to: written lectures, reading assignments, links to other web sites, threaded discussions, written assignments, or attached digital files such as spreadsheets.

Use online testing to provide quizzes over reading assignments. This will motivate students to keep up with the readings and will provide you with information as to how well prepared they are before class.

Areas within the course database allow for private communications between individual student and instructor, or public communications among all members of the class. Use these capabilities to keep continuous communications and interactions going outside of class.

Within Coursespace, small groups can be set up for peer review and group work. This will allow your students to work together without having to be physically present in one location outside of class.

Coursespace or other web-based technology can be used to provide structure and guidance for experiential activities.

Online activities and assignments can be used as a "bridge" between class meetings to keep your students actively engaged in the course.

All online activities will be archived for a period, allowing for student review and instructor analysis of performance.

6. Revise your course after completing the semester.

Gather student comments and look at their performance data to guide you in any necessary revisions.

However, don’t make any major revisions while students are in the course. This will just lead to confusion. Carefully think through the course design before the semester starts and then stick with it. If something doesn’t work, then revise it for the following semester

Keep in mind that courses evolve over time, and that there is no ideal, perfect design.

Make your revisions at the end of the semester while they are fresh in your mind, rather than putting them off until the last minute.


Events of instruction -Robert Gagne

One of the foundations of instructional design is Robert Gagné's concept of the events of instruction. All good instruction, according to Gagné, requires a set of external events designed to support the internal processing of learning. He has identified a set of nine events listed below in the order in which they are usually utilized:

Gaining Attention - Alerts and prepares students to receive new information.

Informing the learner of the objective - Communicates the aim of the learning and helps students to focus in on the critical information and to prepare to practice it.

Stimulating recall of prerequisite learning - Reviewing any necessary prerequisite concepts, principles, or procedures so they are fresh in the students' mind.

Presenting the stimulus material - In this step the new information is first presented. New information can be presented in a variety of media to engage different student's learning style preferences; and it can be presented utilizing a variety of examples, to compensate for a variety of backgrounds and interests among the students.

Provide learning guidance - Hints, questions, suggestions provided by a teacher to help guide the student to discovery and understanding of the new concept, principle or procedure being learned. Note, this is not "telling the student the answer", rather it is guiding the student to the answer. Learning guidance requires a insightful and individualized approach to each student, therefore it is the one event that most heavily depends upon the knowledge and skill of the teacher.

Eliciting the performance - Practice is necessary in order for new information to be reinforced to the point that it becomes integrated into the student's knowledge structure.

Providing feedback about performance - Providing feedback as to the correctness or degree of correctness is necessary after the performance to ensure that the student's new knowledge is accurate. Feedback should be given as quickly as possible after the performance to ensure that misunderstood information is not integrated into the student's knowledge structure. For higher level objectives relating to application, analysis, or synthesis, feedback usually more extensive and requires an individualized approach.

Assessing the performance - Once the student has had the opportunity to practice and refine the newly acquired knowledge, some form of formal assessment is presented to test the ability of the student to retrieve (and often apply) the new knowledge. This is done to help reinforce the student's new knowledge, and to see if the student has mastered the objective and therefore is ready to move onto the next topic. Assessment can also be used to test the effectiveness of the instruction itself by identifying areas of the instruction that failed to adequately insure learning. Again, higher levels of objectives may require an individual evaluation of the learning by the teacher.

Enhancing retention and transfer - To encourage students in retaining what they have learned, students should be provided with follow on activities that helps them put the new learning in context. Proving them with a variety of new problems, case studies, or practical applications as a concluding event will help them recall the new knowledge in a meaningful context.

We often assume that event #4. Presenting the stimulus material, is what instruction is all about. However, without events #1 -3, students will not be prepared to receive the new information, nor without events #5 -9 will they retain or apply the new learning. Therefore, the entire cycle of the events of instruction is critical to promote learning.

Also note that events #5, 7, and to a certain degree #8 all rely upon the intervention of a skilled teacher. All the other events can be structured and presented through various forms of media and technology, but #s 5,7,8 require the intervention of a human's critical judgment.


Effective Practices-Sloan Consortium  at

The Sloan Consortium has issued a report to the nation "Five Pillars of Quality Online Education."



The Biggest Decision in Hybrid/Blended  Course Development -Philip Pecorino

 If you have read and carefully considered the materials on online course development then you are ready to make some important decisions. Perhaps you have made them already. These involve the uses for the online component or the class website and what you will set out to accomplish in the classroom with and through direct contact and what you want to accomplish online using the course management program (CMP). No matter how these decisions are first made they can and probably will be changed from semester to semester as you assess what has worked and what has not.   As you learn more about use of websites and Distance Learning and Learner Centered techniques you may want to incorporate more online learning experiences for your class.  At times an instructor new to the online modalities for instruction might place either too much of a load on the online component or activities inappropriate for the online component, e.g.,  due to the backgrounds of the instructor or the learners or due to the technical or instructional support services available for the learners  and then need to make an adjustment moving some of the online activities back into the face to face component-the classroom. 


The online component can easily become an entire course unto itself in terms of content and time for both the instructor and the learner. The instructor has a difficult task of designing the online and face to face (ftf) components in a manner that does not produce more work and time consumption for both instructor and learners than would  a standard class with a responsible instructor and responsible learner.

In some ways it is easier for an instructor who has taught a class that is totally online with no face to face meetings to make the decision of what components of the class to place online and which to keep for the face to face setting than it is for an instructor with no online instructional experience at all.  The reason for this claim is that the novice to instructional experience has no direct knowledge of how much can be placed into the online component nor of what can be better accomplished online than in the face to face environment. There are apt to be significant alterations after reviewing the results form the first attempts at hybrid/blended class design and instruction.


A good instructional design will include a variety of assessments:

  • of the learning objectives of the students by the instructor
  • of the instructional design by the learners for the instructor
  • of the instructor's management of the instructional program by the learners for the instructor

The instructor should record such assessments and use them in the revision of the instructional design, class content and class management plan for the next semester in which the class is to be offered using the hybrid/blended modality for instruction.  The instructor should make review and revision of the class content, design, management and assessment part of the regular practice of instruction.  When this is done the process of research and development of more effective pedagogy becomes part of the repertoire of the instructor.

So now to the central questions.

1. What use to make of the class website?

Will it be

  • web assisted instruction with the website as a place for course syllabi, calendars etc
  • the website as a place for exercises and practice exams
  • as a medium for some instruction
  • as a medium to reinforce classroom instruction
  • as a medium to provide for checks on outside of class activities, assignments
  • as a primary medium for instruction
  • as a primary medium for instruction and assessment

2. What specifically will be done in the classroom and what to do online?

There are a number of different models or variations on the instructional design for a hybrid/blended class. The table below illustrates but a few of them and a danger.


Classroom Component

Online Component

a Instruction, discussion, assessment course materials
b Instruction, discussion, assessment course materials, follow-up exercises
c Instruction, assessment course materials, discussions, follow-up exercises
d Instruction course materials, discussions, follow-up exercises, assessment
e Some Instruction , discussion, assessment Some instruction, course materials, discussions,  followup exercises
f Discussion, assessment All instruction, course materials, discussions, followup exercises, assessment
g*** Danger 2 courses not one? Instruction, discussion, assessment

 ****** Danger 2 courses not one?**********

Instruction, discussion, assessment

****** Danger 2 courses not one?*******

h,i,j,k,l, and on and on the variations can go  

So now to the decision and some suggestions.  It is not possible in this short work to cover the many possible combinations that exist of reasons for selection of the blended /hybrid mode with the backgrounds of instructors and the types of learners and institutional settings for instruction.  What is offered are a few simple and general suggestions for approaching the instructional design of a blended class/program of instruction.

Getting Started: Some suggestions

Route One to Blended Instruction: from Standard/traditional to Blended (partly online)

This is perhaps the most difficult approach to hybrid or blended instruction as most instructors with no experience of online and distance education would have the least awareness of what can be accomplished through the modalities of instruction at a distance.  The instructor on this route might be further challenged by the migration from the instructor centered to the learner centered  model for instruction.  For someone on this route the information and advice supplied in the sections above should be read and understood through discussions with instructors experienced in the modalities of online instruction and with instructional designers.

When actually setting about the design of the first hybrid/blended instruction class it might be best to begin with placing in the classroom those aspects considered most critical and in need of direct supervision and involvement of the instructor.  This would mean that in most cases the actual vision of information about the class and its content would be placed in the online component while all other aspects would remain in the classroom.

Route Two to Blended Instruction: from Asynchronous (fully online) to Blended (partly online)

If the instructor has already succeeded in placing an entire class into the asynchronous mode of instruction with no face to face meetings then the move toward a hybrid or blended mode might appear to be fairly easy.  This may not always be the case.  The instructor has established that the learning objectives can be achieved without face to face meetings. Why then have such meetings?  The answers to this questions are manifold having to do with the nature of the learners, the setting for instruction, the progression of the instructor, curricular revisions and on.  Whatever the answer, the decision needs to be made as to what portions of the instructional program to place back into the classroom component of the blended class.  The answer should be related to the the answer to the previous question.  The instructor might want to place some of the instruction into the classroom because there are a different group of learners in need of more direct supervisions and guidance.  Then what is placed into the classroom would be those portions where such attention would most be needed.

Route Three to Blended Instruction: from Web-Assisted  to Blended (partly online)

If the instructor has been providing information related to the class by means of a website created for that purpose then the instructor has become familiar with the effectiveness of that mode for transmitting information to the learners related to the course and to the contents of instruction.  The next step might be to consider placing all of the instruction into the online component of the hybrid or blended class reserving for the class room space the activities requiring the close attention of the instructor and perhaps activities involving collaborative learning such as group work and problem based learning exercises.  The classroom might also be the space in which to carry out assessments.

End Note:

Whatever the decisions made and the instructional design the actual proof of its efficacy is in the testing: the teaching.  Thus, what should be evident is the importance of the assessment of the instructional design by the instructor, the learners, instructional design assistants and, recommended if available, by peers with experience in the modality of instruction.  As with all instruction the professional educator is going to monitor the efficacy of instruction in order to find ways to improve upon it from one term to another.  Hybrid or blended instruction is no different from other modes of instruction in this regard: whatever the design, it is a work-in-progress.


Articles and Web Resources

Sloan-C :  A consortium of institutions and organizations committed to quality online education





Article Title: The Web's Impact On Student Learning -

Author:    Katrina A. Meyer Ph.D., University of North Dakota 

 Department and Issue: T.H.E. Journal Feature, May 2003   To read the article on T.H.E. Journal Web site go to

A Review of Recent Research Reveals Three Areas That Can Enlighten Current Online Learning Practices

Recently, I set out to find an answer to the question of what current research was saying about how, if at all, the Web impacted student learning. My recently released monograph, Quality in Distance Education: Focus on Online Learning, is a compilation of more than 100 studies drawn from several online journals, conference Web sites, as well as some interesting sites maintained by associations and institutions. (The one maintained by the Asynchronous Learning Networks organization at is an especially rich source of studies.) One of the unintended lessons learned from this project was discovering how easy it is to locate good research on the Web and how many studies there actually are. My search focused on current research and studies - usually no earlier than the mid-1990s - completed on college students. I think many of the findings also will be applicable to K-12 students. In any case, the search sent me on a circuitous route to a number of answers, some of which I think are very sound and will stand up over time, while others are more tentative, although intriguing.

Anyone who has been around distance education for a while is familiar with the compilation of 355 research studies by Thomas L. Russell of North Carolina State University (1999), who coined the phrase, "no significant differences phenomenon." Many of the studies in Russell's report were comparison studies, comparing the new mode of education - be it telecourse, interactive video or satellite -with traditional education. Subsequent writers have faulted these studies for poor research design and inadequate controls, a naive understanding of what affects learning, and a lack of recognition that online students are different from their on-campus counterparts.

Therefore, it may surprise you to know that more than 30 of the studies I found were a comparison of Web-based courses against traditional ones. Better studies have been done, of course, some of them attempting to repair the deficiencies of earlier research, while others opt for a case study approach to Web-based learning. While it is difficult to summarize all of the findings, there are three areas of the studies worth mentioning:

The role of individual differences;

Instructional design; and

Specific skills that are enhanced by online environments.

Individual Differences

No educator will be especially surprised to learn that success in a Web-based learning environment is heavily influenced by what the student brings to the learning situation. There is evidence that students with certain learning styles (e.g., visual) or behavioral types (e.g., independent) do learn better in the Web environment. Conversely, aural, dependent and more passive learners may not do as well. It is this sort of insight that leads some to propose that the potential for maximal learning results when instructional approaches are matched to student learning styles and are supported by appropriate technologies.

Furthermore, students with a high motivation to learn, greater self-regulating behavior, and the belief they can learn online do better; as do students with the necessary computer skills. These are not particularly profound insights, although they do tend to explain why online learning will work as well as other forms of education for good students, but may not work as well for students who struggle because of a lack of motivation or self-confidence.

Interestingly, gender differences appear in online exchanges just as they would in regular situations. Based on content analyses of exchanges in Asynchronous Learning Network (ALN) courses, Blum (1999) found differences in male and female messages that mirror traditional face-to-face communication. Males were more likely to control online discussions, post more questions, express more certainty in their opinions and were more concrete. Whereas females were more empathetic, polite and agreeable. The females also supplied the niceties that maintain relationships such as "please" and "thank you." This finding may only indicate that we take our normal personalities, judgments and beliefs about others into the online setting. In other words, we are consistent in our online interactions, despite expressing ourselves in a different form.

There is another interesting development along generational lines. Now, it's true that students are arriving at college with greater abilities in online learning and an expectation to learn that way. But, what is even more intriguing is that these students also arrive with brains that are more likely to have been shaped by very visual, rapid movement, hypertexted environments (Healy 1998). This has led some to suggest that these younger brains are different from those of faculty, who are more likely to have brains formed by reading - a largely linear and slow activity.

Our brains may also be the reason why we can become so involved with our computers. As a result of 35 laboratory studies, Reeves and Nass (1996) concluded that it is the psychology of the relationship between us and the computer that is important, not the fact that one member of this so-called relationship is a piece of technology. They came to this conclusion after experiments where subjects were asked by the computer to critique its work. Subjects responded politely and seemed not to want to hurt the computer's feelings. But, when asked by one computer to critique another's work, subjects were more likely to offer criticism.

Asked to explain their behavior, subjects said they knew the difference between a computer and a person, and argued vehemently that technology is a mere tool without feelings. Yet, their responses belied an underlying belief that the computer is real, implying that the relationship of humans to media may be unconscious and perhaps innate. The authors hypothesize that this relationship may be due to the brain's slow evolution over the ages, as well as its inability to distinguish between rapidly advancing media and real life.

In addition, if humans cannot distinguish between computers and real people, then this might imply that technology could not independently influence the quality or quantity of learning. It would also argue that failures of learning are more likely to be due to other factors, such as inadequate instruction or a poor match between the individual and the learning situation.

Instructional Design

If there is one major boon resulting from the advent of online learning in colleges and universities, it is the renewed focus on pedagogy and instructional design. Higher education faculty, who are hired and trained for expertise in a discipline, are not trained in these matters, and often adopt a teaching style that is either modeled on how they were taught or how they prefer to learn. In any case, introducing the Web into college teaching has generated an enormous upswell of attention on the aims and various methods for achieving student learning. I can say this without hesitation, having read several articles by faculty who write about what they learned by using the Web, what they learned about instruction and student learning, and how they are translating their newfound knowledge to on-campus courses.

Much of the early research on Web-based learning focused on the technology and ignored the instructional design imbedded in the course. This is unfortunate, and has given people the impression that the Web produced learning, when it is more likely to have resulted from the instructional design and the pedagogies chosen to help students learn. Smith and Dillon (1999) call this the "media/method confound," and it continues to confuse researchers and practitioners alike. This is not to say that unraveling the media and method - separating the effects of the Web from its instructional uses - can be done; in fact, I found no such research attempting to do this. Regardless, to say the Web affected learning may be inappropriate unless the powerful effect of instructional design has been isolated from the technology used to deliver it.

However, if there is one strong area where the Web is used to consistent effect, it is by making ample interaction feasible, including students interacting with the course material, faculty or other experts, as well as other students. This interaction, if consciously programmed into the course, allows students to discuss ideas online, ask questions, share information, tackle group projects, develop joint understandings and even forge friendships. If someone complains that online learning is passive, the problem isn't the Web, it is the use that is made of it.

There is growing work around whether e-learning communities can be achieved and how. Palloff and Pratt (1999) provide an excellent primer on how community may be defined and created online. And research about online learning communities has followed. Wegerif (1998) found that the ALN model increased interaction, self-discipline, a sense of community, communication, reflection and shared space among students. Brown (2001) describes a three-stage process by which a community is formed in a computer-mediated asynchronous distance learning class:

Stage 1: Making friends

Stage 2: Community conferment or acceptance

Stage 3: Camaraderie

Each stage represents a greater degree of engagement "in both the class and the dialogue" over the previous stages, and greater levels of interpersonal bonding or affiliation. The consequences for students of building community include improved confidence express-ing oneself, learning from others, and feeling connected and accepted.

Improved Skills

The research conducted so far on Web-based learning has focused on evidence of critical thinking and writing skills. While these two skills are not solely or uniquely the result of Web environments (since you can improve these skills by various means), it is good to know that the Web supports the acquisition of these important skills.

To do this research, one method that may be especially useful for analyzing online exchanges - be it a threaded discussion or chat - is content analysis. Newman, Webb and Cochrane (1995) used content analysis of online messages to look for critical thinking indicators in computer conferences. They found that online students were more likely to make important statements and link ideas, although they contributed fewer novel ideas than the face-to-face comparison group. This may indicate that online conversations are less suited to functions like brainstorming, or that working online encourages respondents to work in a more linear fashion by linking comments to earlier ideas.

Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2001) also looked at critical thinking in computer-mediated communications using a four-stage analysis of the critical-thinking process:

Triggering - posing the problem

Exploration - searching for information

Integration - construction of a possible solution

Resolution - critical assessment of the solution

Transcripts of online discussions were coded, resulting in 8% of the responses coded as triggers, 42% as exploration, 13% as integration and 4% as resolution. The authors hypothesize that the low numbers for integration and resolution were due to the need for students to take more time to reflect on the problem, and that individuals were reluctant to offer solutions that would be scorned by others in the class. The opportunity for reflection is especially suited to asynchronous learning environments, as well as for students whose learning styles require some time and reflection to make sense of information.

There is also ample evidence from a variety of sources that suggests having students work online improves writing skills. Wegerif's (1998) study found that the ALN model improved writing skills by having students write more and more often, as well as by increasing the public visibility of student writing. (It is there for others - especially their peers - to see and, presumably, critique.)

Being able to express one's personality, or "presence," is another intriguing skill that may impact the creation of satisfactory learning communities, and could become a necessary new skill for online conversations. Certainly, with the loss of facial expressions, voice intonations and gestures, important nonverbal meaning and shadings of meaning are lost. Yet, there is evidence that a personal presence - as captured by one's written expression - is important in Web-based classes.

Gunawardena and Zittle (1997) found that "social presence" (i.e., the degree to which a person is perceived as real in an online conversation) is a strong predictor of satisfaction with computer-mediated communications. Arbaugh (2001) calls this skill the production of "immediacy behaviors," since they reduce the "social distance" between teachers and students. In this study, these types of behaviors were positive predictors of student learning and course satisfaction.

The issue of presence was also addressed in a study by Anderson et al. (2001) that reviewed transcripts of course discussions held over computer conferencing systems. The authors developed the concept of "teaching presence," expressed by faculty comments, in three categories:

Design and organization ("This week we will discuss . . .");

Facilitating discourse ("I think we are getting off track"); and

Direct instruction ("Bates says . . .").

Faculty who are adept at expressing their unique personalities through e-mail or other Web-based communications may be at an advantage in connecting with students, which may help students bond to the instructor or learning environment. This idea of presence may soon be a skill not only well-suited to Web-based exchanges, but also a requirement for student and faculty success in online coursework.

Looking for Answers

This is a good start on the research that is needed to ensure that the Web is used effectively for student learning. However, there are some holes in our understanding; not least of which is determining whether and how the Web might have an independent effect on learning, separate and apart from the instructional method imbedded in the application. The focus of those who criticize using the Web in education - worrying that technology may affect us negatively - is worth addressing with well-designed research studies.

And if there are differences in effectiveness, can we determine as Barbules and Callister (2000) put the challenge: "Which technologies have educational potential for which students, for which subject matters, and for which purposes?" In other words, is there an optimal match possible between student, learning and technology? Furthermore, we need to continue to collect good information on what works and why. This is because answers to these questions will likely be more helpful to educators than asking whether or not the Web affects learning, which presumes that it can and does, and initiates a search for answers to the wrong question.


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Wegerif, R. 1998. "The Social Dimension of Asynchronous Learning Networks." Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 2 (1). Online:   To read the article on our Web site go to     ----Copyright © 2003 T.H.E. Journal L.L.C. All rights reserved.