Online Learning, Better

Five instructional design principles for a more engaging and productive online experience

GUEST COLUMN | by John Boersma

Online Learning, Better by John BoersmaTo say that online learning has opened up higher education opportunities for students is an understatement. That said, most online courses don’t represent what I believe is their true potential, nor do they reflect the digital literacy expectations of students. More is possible.

Let’s look at where we are today. Imagine for a moment that you are an online student logging into your course after a near endless day on the job. You have just put the kids to bed and it is time to learn. You are asked to watch a video, which consists of unedited footage of a dry lecture, and then read an excessive amount of text, which likely has been repurposed straight from a text book with little thought to its on-screen translation. When you consider that it is 10:00 p.m. and these are your only two options to digest even the most interesting subject matter, it just might be enough to put you to sleep.

I go back to the idea that more is possible, but what does that mean? It means that online courses can be more engaging, interactive, and personalized through design principles that aren’t cause for drowsiness.

My colleagues and I at Adapt Courseware have conducted extensive research on learning theories, helping us to better understand how students learn online, how they want to learn online, and how they can more effectively learn online. We have identified five key instructional design principles that, together, produce a more effective online learning experience – one that is truly student-centered, and one that results in measurable learning outcomes. The five key principles include:

-Effective Multimedia

-Optimal Challenge

-Student Choice

-Mastery Learning

-Social Learning

Effective Multimedia

Most online courses consist of voluminous text and low-budget videos, both competing for the learner’s attention. And while visual and audio conceptions are both viable means to digest information, students don’t necessarily need to read the words or see the speaker for the content to be effective.

Research by Dr. Richard E. Mayer, psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, tells us that optimal learning occurs when visual and verbal materials are presented simultaneously. That is, you show and you tell. Short, vivid animated lectures with engaging audio eliminate sensory conflict and visual confusion. Showing and telling, just as the producers of documentary films and television commercials do, can be highly effective, allowing students to focus on the content with far less distraction.

Optimal Challenge

Many online courses incorporate multiple-choice questions, which often tend to encourage students to guess rather than understand. According to research conducted by Dr. James Gee, students should be presented with individualized learning paths based on their evolving knowledge level. This builds confidence and motivation. When content adapts based on their proven skills and progress, students are challenged at exactly the right level in order to help them reach topic mastery through as few or as many activities as necessary.

Student Choice

Making students accountable for personal success can go a long way, but giving them the choice in how they succeed can be even more important. Choice is a primary motivator of behavior. But if taken away, it is a significant de-motivator.

Dr. Edward Deci and Dr. Richard Ryan have done some of the best, and increasingly famous, work on motivation and choice, described as “self-determination theory.” They tell us that even in highly constrained situations, where choice is bounded, people still like choice where possible, and choice still supports motivation. So, if students are free to determine the order, pace, schedule, and content modes (watch, read, practice) that best fit their individual learning style – where they can have the freedom to choose – doing so will increase and support motivation, allowing students to learn in a way that is more meaningful to them.

Mastery Learning

University of Chicago learning theorist Dr. Benjamin Bloom proved in his “Two Sigma Solution” paper that prior performance isn’t necessarily predictive of future results. That is to say, a C student can become an A student with ideal instructional methods. I’ve never been more convinced of this, especially as I see results from ongoing research we have conducted with our adaptive learning courseware.

In a typical online course, students are expected to accomplish the same work at the same pace as their peers. This can leave struggling students frustrated and advanced students bored. Rather than one-size-fits all assignments, each student should to be presented with a learning path based on existing knowledge, intellectual abilities, strengths and gaps, allowing students to stay with a particular learning topic until they demonstrate mastery of all skills and concepts. Today, multimedia interactives and personalized adaptive learning software can transform average students into mastery learners. As Bloom states, this result can “change popular notions about human potential.”

Social Learning

Many students say that online learning has left them feeling somewhat isolated. This is simply unacceptable, especially in light of social technologies available today. Dr. Lev Vygotsky’s research tells us that instructor-to-student and student-to-student interaction and communication play a fundamental role in the development of learner cognition and retention. The more connected students are with their instructors and peers, the more likely they are to enjoy the overall experience and successfully complete their course. Social learning features, such as study groups, interactive study boards, optional profiles, screen sharing and webcam support make online collaboration as much a part of the learning experience as the content itself.

While each instructional design principle has merit on its own, it is their combined role that fosters student engagement and productivity in an online course, and specifically in an adaptive learning environment. These design principles make individualized learning a reality, leading to measurable learning outcomes, higher student retention, and greater overall satisfaction. This is the more that is possible.

John Boersma, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Adapt Courseware, and a former university faculty member. As a seasoned academic and lifelong learner, he understands the science behind course development, delivery, and teaching. He holds a doctorate in particle physics and an M.B.A. Adapt Courseware provides comprehensive adaptive learning curriculum resources that individualize each student’s experience based on academic abilities and needs. The company is currently seeking proposals for its Scalable Adaptive Learning Research Grants. To learn more and to apply, please visit


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