From CUNY Academic Commons


Learning Online

by Jim Lengel, Hunter College and Boston University

A new, startup high school in New York City was putting it’s curriculum together over the summer. As in most states, biology is a required course for all students. The favored biology textbook, published by Holt and well-aligned with the Regent’s exam, is listed by the publisher at $105 per copy. That’s one hundred five dollars and no cents. For a book for a ninth-grader. One of many necessary to float him through the curriculum. (Or sink him with a backpack full of weighty tomes.)

It’s no wonder the school decided to provide the biology course, as well as the rest of the curriculum, online. You want to learn biology? Connect to the school’s Moodle server, click your biology course, and see the assignments from your teacher. Click on the introductory reading, and you’re connected to the appropriate chapter in the Holt textbook. You can connect from school, from home, from the library, from your iPhone. Do the same for World Civilization, Math, and English — though physical, hold-in-the-hand books, in the form of novels, are allowed in the latter. the school has weaned itself from textbooks, and also from much paper and pencil.

Providing learning materials online is growing at the high school level, a reflection of what’s already happened at many colleges. Not just textbooks, but assignments, quizzes, exercises, problem sets, articles, discussions, presentations and podcasts. In most cases it’s the same content made available more efficiently; in some cases it allows new forms of learning to take place. In the new high school, each faculty member has put all of the necessary learning materials for each course online. From there, students can work on it whenever and wherever they have the opportunity.

What does this mean for the teacher? As we plan an online course, how should we think differently about learning? After helping educators at a variety of schools and colleges and companies to build and improve online learning experiences, I share in this article some of the key discoveries about this mode of learning.

Quality Content

Generally, what you put online must be more carefully crafted than what you say in the lecture hall, and more precise than what you hand out in the classroom. Students expect readings, assignments, and quizzes they see on the computer to be better thought out than what they see in the classroom. The diagram quickly sketched on the chalkboard will not suffice for an online illustration; it should be re-drawn on the computer so that its concepts are immediately clear. Remember: when students confront your teaching material online, you are not there in person to explain it, or provide further details: the document they see must cover all bases. Each piece of content posted online must be self-contained and self-explanatory, so that students know exactly what they are supposed to do and have all the support they need to do it.

Think of it like a can of soup. If you are at home, in your own kitchen, you can put a bowl of soup on the table for your guests, and if it’s not exactly right you can fix it: add some salt, warm it up, thicken it a bit, put a dollop of butter in it, suggest they try it with crackers, and explain how good it is for them. But if you need to prepare and preserve that soup for someone going on a trip, you’ve got to make sure it’s just right, so when they open it and eat it all by themselves far away, it tastes just right, with no explanation needed

Small Chunks

Today’s students do not spend hours at a time with a single activity on the computer. And the act of reading on the computer (or iPod) is different from reading from a book or paper. The setting, the technology, the habits of mind, all tend toward short increments of time, multiple distractions, and multimedia expectations. You can’t simply post your hour-and-a-half lecture to the web site, or paste the 20-page full-text article to Blackboard, and expect it to have the same impact as in the classroom or in the journal. It’s better to divide your content into manageable chunks, pieces of information that can be confronted and understood in 15 or 20 minutes rather then 50 or 80.

So find within that long lecture five or six key concepts, and develop a five-minute podcast for each one. Use subheads more liberally in your writing. Read a bit, then ask a question that requires an answer to be submitted online. Better to build the students’ work around six short assignments rather then two long ones.

Active Assignments

It’s not what you do, it’s what they do. In the classroom the teacher is at the center; students focus on the professor; it’s what the faculty member does that makes the difference. Not so with online work. The only thing you get to do is prepare the content and pose the assignments; from then on, learning is dependent on what the students do. So the key to successful online courses is to craft a set of activities for the students to do: read this, look at that, ask yourself this, write that, discuss all of it together with your classmates. The clearer and more active the assignments, the more likely your students are to follow the course of study.

Think of your online course as a series of verbs; begin each item with an action word that directs the student to do something. Read. Consider. Compare. Discuss. Browse. Defend. Explain. Think. Find. Comment. Reflect. And for each assignment, make them produce something: a short answer, a contribution to a discussion, a response to a quiz question, a well-founded essay.


Whenever possible, illustrate the ideas from the course with media that go beyond the written word. Think of the many ways your academic ideas can appeal to the eye and the ear, the two great gateways to the mind. It’s much easier to do this online than on paper, so take advantage of maps, diagrams, images, illustrations, paintings, photos, animations, graphics, drawings, sounds, music, voice, and visuals. Socrates and Plato used all of these in their academy. So can you. You can make them yourself, license them from the textbook publisher, or find them freely on the Web. Or ask your students to help you construct them. The software tools for finding, gathering, organizing, creating and editing multimedia learning materials are more powerful and easier to use than ever.

Multimedia works. It helps students understand ideas. It provokes new kinds of thinking about old concepts. Not just multimedia presentations of the teacher’s ideas, but multimedia reports from students. Consider assigning projects that require students to express their ideas in several media at once.

Frequent Evaluation

Research on student engagement finds that many small evaluations work better than a few big exams. Students learn more this way, remember it longer, and find it more useful. The more opportunities your online course provides for students to turn something in, and have it evaluated (by you or by the computer), the better. So add some self-correcting quizzes to your course. Require a weekly (if not daily) response to a course assignment form every student. This keeps them connected, and notifies you of students who are falling by the wayside.

Most of the systems used to manage online learning, such as Blackboard and Moodle, make it easy to construct these kinds of evaluations, and to organize the results for you online so that feedback and grading is easy accomplished.

The Learning Sequence

The teachers in the new start-up high school are learning to structure their courses for an online environment. They are now thinking of each course as a sequence of activities that students go through as they learn the material. For instance, the biology teacher has divided his course into weekly sections. In each section students follow a carefully-crafted sequence of online activities:

  • Pre-assessment. A short, two- or three-question self-correcting quiz to see what he already knows (and doesn’t know) about the subject.
  • Close reading. A serious and detailed look at the key concept, often guided by an essential question.
  • Written response. An opportunity for the student to summarize the key idea in her own words, and get online feedback from the teacher.
  • Wide browsing. Moving beyond the text to explore numerous (and perhaps conflicting) online sources bout the concept.
  • Discussion contribution. Responding publicly in writing to the questions posed by the teacher and commenting on the contributions of classmates.
  • Collaborative work. Contacting and conversing with classmates online to create a short presentation of ideas.
  • Capstone project. Putting all that you have learned about this concept into a paper of presentation, and submitting it online.
  • Post-assessment. A self-correcting five-or six-question exam, with questions drawn from the state mastery test, that shows how much you have learned.

As online learning grows, we will all learn more about what works best. But by following the guidelines above, you have a better chance to develop an effective course of study.

For more ideas about online learning, take a look at Online Learning: What’s the Buzz?, Distance Learning, Learning Objects, and Supply and Demand.

This article published here with the permission of the author. Jim Lengel is a visiting Professor, Hunter College School of Education (October 2008)