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Designing Online Courses


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The aim of this chapter is to focus on the main elements that characterise online course design, a process usually comprising two strictly related macro-phases: the course plan itself and the communication architecture for the development and running of the proposed learning activities. The chapter addresses the impossibility of designing an online course on the basis of criteria typical of onsite education, and emphasizes the importance of adopting methods and strategies that are compatible with the technological medium and the communication dynamics to which it gives rise. The suggestions that will be made are not intended to represent a codified formula for the design of online courses, but rather to provide discussion points on key issues within the process.
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Designing Online Education Courses
Trentin G. (2001). Designing Online Courses, in C.D. Maddux & D. LaMont Johnson (Eds) The Web in
Higher Education: Assessing the Impact and Fulfilling the Potential, pp. 47-66, The Haworth Press Inc.,
New York, London, Oxford.
Guglielmo Trentin
Institute for Educational Technology, National Research Council, Genoa, Italy
The aim of this article is to focus on the main elements that characterise online course design, a
process usually comprising two strictly related macro-phases: the course plan itself and the
communication architecture for the development and running of the proposed learning activities.
The article addresses the impossibility of designing an online course on the basis of criteria typical of
onsite education, and emphasizes the importance of adopting methods and strategies that are compatible
with the technological medium and the communication dynamics to which it gives rise.
The suggestions that will be made are not intended to represent a codified formula for the design of
online courses, but rather to provide discussion points on key issues within the process.
A wide spectrum of possibilities exist for the educational use of ICT (Information
and Communication Technologies). These run from using the Web as an online tool for
seeking out and distributing learning material up to the organization and management of
virtual classes using the online education approach. These can be grouped under three
separate headings:
1. Educational processes based on onsite teaching, where the Net is used to gain
remote access to learning material, with the possible addition of online counselling
from tutors.
2. Mixed educational processes (online/onsite), which combine characteristics of
onsite education (lectures, group work, etc) and of online education (discussion,
remotely guided exercises, etc), and where activities of either kind complement
those of the other.
3. Wholly online educational processes, that include no onsite activities at all, being
based on distance interaction between the actors in the process (students, tutors,
experts, etc) carried out using both asynchronous communication (e-mail, computer
conferencing, etc) and synchronous communication (chatting, audio/video
conferencing, etc).
This paper will concentrate on the design of courses that fall into this last category
and that adopt approaches identified with so-called third-generation distance education,
otherwise known as online education (Harasim, 1990; Nipper, 1989).
In the field of distance learning, systems defined as third-generation are those
based on intense interaction between all the players in the process with the purpose of
forming a collaborative learning community, albeit a virtual one.
In traditional distance courses (those known as first and second-generation
courses, or, alternatively, correspondence and multimedia courses) the emphasis is less
on the communication element than on individual exploitation of learning material. By
contrast, in online education it is the collaboration among participants that stimulates
and fosters learning.
Communicating at a distance, participants discuss the course content and/or
engage in practical activities like producing reports, designing projects, and so on. The
attendees swap ideas on the course subject; and in this way, the whole group can share
and benefit from the experience of each participant, thus gaining fresh insight into the
particular course content (Kaye, 1991). This is done with the assistance of tutors, who
support participant-participant and participant-content interaction (Berge, 1995).
Courses based on this model are run by staff with expertise in three different
areas: contents, online course methodology, and technological aspects. In some cases,
these areas are handled separately by different staff members; while in others, they are
covered by the same person.
The tutors’ work is complemented by one or more content experts, who are mainly
involved in the phase of course design but may also be accessible online while the
course is in progress (though this is not normally the case). Accordingly, there is a need
for the roles of all the players in the learning process to be clearly defined (Trentin &
Scimeca, 1999). The experts usually look after course content and its structuring, outline
activities, and sometimes suggest the most suitable educational strategies for achieving
learning goals.
Once the content structure has been defined and the type of learning activities
decided, the tutor has the task of reshaping the course plan devised by the experts,
drawing upon online education strategies in order to make the course work on the net.
Let’s now take a look at the main phases involved in the design of an online
When dealing with online education, it is necessary to rethink the methodologies,
criteria, and approaches normally adopted for conventional educational design/planning.
Account must be made for the positive and negative influence of ICT use, which can be
attributed to a number of specific factors such as the particular type of communication
(chiefly text-based, but also video communication); the shift in the teacher’s role within
the class; and, last but not least, problems involved in managing student access to
network resources.
The design of an online course may be divided into two strictly correlated and
interconnected macro-phases: the course plan itself and the communication architecture
for the development and management of the learning activities that the course envisages.
There are a host of different approaches for designing online courses: We shall
propose just one of these, that adopted in the design of the Polaris courses (Trentin,
1997a) for in-service teacher training.
The various steps in the design process (see Appendix A) will be listed in order,
although each may actually have a retroactive effect on the one that precedes it.
Design Constraints
At the outset, it is advisable to define the constraints and limits within which the
course is to operate. These may concern:
1. Economic aspects.
2. The context of reference (higher education, pre/in-service training, etc.).
3. The profile of the participants and the conditions surrounding their
4. The type of technology to be used.
5. The type of support that the course provider can offer students.
6. The period in which the course will be held.
7. The availability of experts for online consultation.
8. The feasibility of producing ad hoc learning material.
In a way, the constraints delimit the area in which the subsequent design phases
will develop.
Analysis and Definition of Learning Needs
A distance course can either be pre-packaged and offered to a given population or
produced on commission (tailor made courses). In any case, its aims and objectives
cannot be defined without first carrying out a detailed study of the users’ learning needs
and then setting them out in detail.
The design of pre-packaged courses begins with a study of the learning needs of a
specific user group, and this provides the basis for putting together the package. In the
case of tailor-made courses, the users themselves express their learning needs to the
course designers.
Definition of Aims
The aims are usually defined in terms of the hopes expressed by those who
propose or commission the course: “the students will learn how to . . . they will realize
that . . . they will get used to . . . they will be able to . . . they will distinguish between . .
.”, etc. So the objectives need to be formulated in terms of “gaining awareness of . . .
learning to use tools to . . . analyzing and comparing . . .”, etc. Essentially, the
transition from defining aims to setting objectives centers on identifying learning
activities that allow measurement of the degree to which aims/objectives have been
reached (Rowntree, 1981).
Defining and Structuring Objectives
Proper definition of objectives has a strong impact on the subsequent design
phases and especially on the mechanism used to evaluate both the course as a whole and
learning in particular. In most cases, it is worth operating at two different levels, namely
the definition of final and intermediate objectives. The former case normally sees the
simultaneous involvement of tutors (those who coordinate the project and act as
moderators among the course commissioners, experts, students, etc.) and experts (those
who provide the content expertise). By contrast, in the definition of intermediate
objectives the leading role is played by content experts, with the aid of tutors, who have
ultimate responsibility for guiding the students toward the pre-set goals.
Structuring of objectives may be carried out in a variety of manners, including
arrangement in a taxonomy (Bloom, 1956) or in a hierarchy of main and subordinate
objectives (Gagné, 1970). Figure 1 shows an example of a hierarchy.
To design and manage Network-Based Education
To support edu cational activities
with telematics
To design Network-Based Education
To use interpersonal communication
via network
To browse the network
interpersonal communication
Tounderstand the features
of text-based communication
To use educational strategies for
applying telematics in education
To use the online
learning/teaching strategies
To use network services for
browsing the net
To understand the typologies
and the organisations of
network information
Structure of Objectives
Figure 1. Structure of objectives in a course on the use of ICT in education
It is often advisable to try to draft the intermediate and final evaluation tests for
the course immediately following initial definition of objectives; in other words, before
proceeding with the subsequent phases of course design. This is a very effective way of
gaining feedback about the consistency of the structure of the objectives (Trentin,
Course Prerequisites
At this point, before passing on to defining and structuring course content, it is
necessary to identify the knowledge and basic skills that students will need in order to
participate in course activities.
At the university level these relate to current year, course of study, and the
student’s effective knowledge both of the content and the technology to be used,
elements which can easily be gauged through an entrance exam.
When it comes to distance education, however, the problem is far more complex,
given the certain non-homogeneity of the student group. The need therefore arises for
fully fledged pre-testing in order to define an average profile of the virtual class that is
to be constructed. When forming student groups, it is always important to seek the most
homogeneous level possible of pre-knowledge and skills, all the more so when dealing
with an online course.
Defining the prerequisites is therefore a crucial step for course designers, as it
helps them to establish a kind of substratum of subordinate knowledge, the foundations
for the scaffolding that will support knowledge acquisition during the course. What’s
more, defining the prerequisites is also important for setting the course entry conditions.
But how can these prerequisites be defined? The course designers (experts and
tutors) can define them in terms of the course objectives, or they can be gleaned from a
preliminary study of the population of potential course beneficiaries.
Content Structuring
The sound structuring of online course content into main and subordinate topics is
strongly advised, given the close connection this structure has with the structure of the
Web-based environment that is to host the learning activities and manage
communication flow. If sound prior structuring of objectives is done upstream (using
the hierarchy approach, for example), then the corresponding content structure will
result almost automatically.
Online courses are usually divided into stages, each of which is further divided
into a series of modules. The course topic is consequently subdivided into general
sections, some of which are necessary introductions to other sections, while others are
optional or designed for supplementary study.
In this phase, too, the teaming up of content experts and tutors plays a key role.
Thanks to their knowledge of the subject area, the content experts are able to define a
structure suitable for the pursuit of the learning objectives. On the other hand, the tutors
bring their know-how in designing and running online courses and are aware of how a
given content structure can be adapted to network use. There is a possibility (indeed a
high likelihood) that the experts involved will be unacquainted with the concept of
online education; and, as a result, they are likely to produce a content structure based on
a traditional teaching approach.
Referring back to Figure 1, at this point each node of the hierarchy ought to be
associated to content that will lead toward the achievement of the related learning
objective. The outcome is shown in Figure 2.
Design and management of the Network-Based Education
Supporting educational activities via network
Network-Based Education
Interpersonal communication
Browsing network information
Features of
text-based communication
Strategies for
online learning/teaching
Online information
Styles & netiquette
Search engines
Structure of contents
Figure 2. The content structure in a course on the use of ICT in education
Course Flexibility
Online courses, especially those based on collaborative strategies, must take
proper account of participants’ specific needs. Course flexibility is called for in response
to a variety of factors: differences in equipment levels, differences in the amount of free
time available to dedicate to the course, differences in the level of know-how in the
technology to be used, and so on.
A solution that has proved effective here is to draw on the dual-track concept and
provide a mainstream channel together with alternative pathways for supplementary
study. To put it briefly, an online course should comprise:
1. A main path to be followed by all participants that leads towards the achievement of
a pre-established minimum number of learning objectives.
2. A series of optional paths, some of which are outlined in the design phase, while
others are devised to meet needs that arise as the course unfolds-always bearing in
mind the ultimate aims of the course. Clearly, these optional paths are recommended
for those participants (or groups thereof) who get through the main path activities
before the others, either because they had more time to dedicate to the tasks or had a
stronger grasp of the subject from the outset. These supplementary paths are also
useful for participants who wish to form virtual subgroups in order to investigate
topics that fall outside the original course plan.
In this respect it is vital to define clearly these optional activities and to decide
under what conditions they are to be proposed. In any case, they are not to be considered
as substitutes for sections of the main path.
Choice of Educational Strategies
Having defined the educational objectives, we need to identify the learning
strategies to be adopted for their pursuit. These may include instructional training (in the
use of tools and services), exercises, discussion, collaborative work, simulation, role
playing or tutorials, to name but a few.
It is important to identify the most effective methodology for employing each of
these strategies. For instance, there are a number of options available for employing
collaborative learning, including strategies like reciprocal teaching (Palincsar & Brown,
1984) and the jigsaw method (Aroson, 1978).
In any case, the identification of educational strategies calls for a modicum of
awareness of what network interaction involves, of the dynamics of computer mediated
communication, and thus of the various degrees of effectiveness that those strategies
may have at different moments in online activity. This means that the classroom
experience that a teacher/trainer has gained over the years provides no guarantee of
success when working in online education, especially the first time out.
Defining Evaluation Criteria
The complicated matter of defining evaluation criteria is still the subject of
research. Evaluating an online course raises a number of problems at different levels.
Two in particular are of special significance:
1. Evaluation of learning.
2. Evaluation of student participation levels in terms of activity carried out online.
Evaluation of learning. Without going into detail about the modes normally used
for evaluating learning in an online course, it should nevertheless be stressed that their
definition must go hand in hand with the definition of educational objectives and of the
educational strategies employed for pursuing those objectives. What this means is that
the learning strategy itself often suggests the mode of evaluation. For instance, a strategy
that features online discussion calls for evaluation based on qualitative-quantitative
analysis of the messages produced by the participants (Henri, 1992; Thorpe, 1998).
Evaluation of participation levels. We need to distinguish here between two
different ways of organizing participants; namely, virtual classes or learning circles
(Riel, 1992). Virtual classes bring together individual participants who are scattered
over a geographical area and therefore remote from one another. Learning circles, on the
other hand, are locally based groups (e.g., students at the same university) who use ICT
to communicate with other such groups situated in other geographical areas.
Evaluation of participation levels within virtual classes may be performed by
analyzing the messages produced and by examining the log files to gauge the level of
online “presence” (Log files are files in which the computer conferencing system
automatically records each individual action that participants perform online:
reading/writing messages, chatting activity, connection times, etc.). Evaluating the
performance of members belonging to a learning circle is a far more difficult task, as
online output generally reflects the activity of the group as a whole. A possible solution
in such cases is (on at least one occasion during the course) to split up local groups and
create new virtual groups made up of members from the various original groups, who
will thus be forced to communicate exclusively online. This represents a fairly effective
way of singling out the members of local groups.
Furthermore, with both virtual and local groups it is important to define
monitoring modes that will reveal to the tutors whether and to what extent the
participants are focusing on the key issues as identified by the content experts. What’s
more, during the course the tutors should also be in a position to judge whether
collaborative activity is actually taking place. As to the focus on key issues, a possible
answer may be to agree with the content expert on a sort of checklist of key issues that
participants must cover in their messages, and also to decide what level of detail ought
to be reached. Ascertaining collaborative activity, on the other hand, can be done by
using a simple double-entry grid (sender/receiver) to see whether there is cross-
referenced communication among participants (quotes, questions and answers, etc).
Defining Course Activities and Related Resources
Having chosen the educational strategies and methodologies, we can now go on
and define course activities for putting these into action. We need to distinguish here
between activities based on individual action and those that envisage collaborative
learning, as well as between activities designed for use by virtual classes or by learning
In addition, we need to indicate the resources required for each activity. These
include learning and support material, course guides, available experts, the roles of the
tutor (counselor, discussion moderator, facilitator for exercise activities or collaborative
production, etc), management modes for group activities, the network services to be
used, etc.
On the question of material, it is useful to distinguish between what is already
available (material used in previous courses or contained in books, articles, Web pages,
courseware, etc.) and what needs to be produced especially for the course. In the latter
case, attention needs to be paid to how one produces learning material for online
courses, especially Web-based ones, but we will bypass this matter as it falls outside the
scope of this paper.
Mode of Operation
When organizing network activities, it is crucial to decide how many participants
are to be involved and how their interaction is to be organized (Webb, 1982; Riel &
Levin, 1990). Accordingly, careful attention must be paid to setting the size of the
virtual class in response to the activities proposed during the course and the role to be
played by experts and each member of the tutoring staff while the course is underway.
Setting the Size of Online Study Groups
The considerations made below refer in a general manner to a situation in which
there is a single entity at the other end of the telephone line, without distinguishing for
the moment whether that entity is an individual course participant or a group of
participants organized in a learning circle. In fact, from the viewpoint of network
interaction, the local group is seen at a general level as a single entity that communicates
with other entities (other local groups), all of whom are organized in learning circles.
This is an important consideration when defining the tutor-to-participant ratio,
which, ideally, should range from about one-to-ten to one-to-fifteen. This ratio,
however, is a purely indicative one, given that the tutor’s capacity to interact with a
certain number of participants depends on the type of activity that he/she is called upon
to run (discussion, exercises, role play, collaborative production, etc.). For the same
reason, the size of the groups into which the participant population is divided is
determined by the need to make their distance work efficient. For instance, if the
students are to engage in collaborative production, they ought to be divided into small
groups: Mediating online, especially via asynchronous communication, is never an easy
task, as the longer discussion and decision-making goes on, the more complex and time-
consuming the collaboration will be.
Now let’s look at the relationship between the type of activity and the size of the
learning group. For simplicity’s sake, we shall examine the cases of collaborative
production and topic-based discussion.
Production Groups
The first point to make here is that collaborative production calls for a limited
number of participants while discussion does not (remembering that it is best not to
involve too many participants in any online activity). The reason is fairly clear.
Production activities involve continuous mediation between those working on the
creation of a product: The more ideas are put forward, the harder the joint decision-
making process becomes. What’s more, when participants communicate in an
asynchronous mode, the whole process slows down and this often undermines
A reasonable number of participants might be somewhere around five to six units,
remembering that a unit may represent a single individual interacting remotely with
others or a local learning circle.
The size of virtual groups also depends on the type of collaborative strategy we
intend to set in motion, as well as on the participants’ specific situation regarding
logistics and equipment. We need to decide whether to adopt a parallel strategy,
whereby each group member works independently on a specific part of the overall
product, or a reciprocal strategy, whereby each person contributes to each part of the
overall product (Diaper & Sanger, 1993).
So the size of the groups into which participants are divided is governed by the
need to maximize the efficiency of the distance work.
Discussion Groups
In the case of discussion groups, the situation is somewhat different: The more
participants there are, the easier it is for ideas, observations, opinions and so on to
circulate. When organizing online discussions, we often refer to the so-called “critical
mass” (i.e., the minimum number of participants needed for a lively exchange).
But care needs to be taken here as well, because if the number of what we might
call “active” participants exceeds a certain threshold, there is a risk of creating online
“noise” that could damage the whole system. We might set the minimum number of
dialoguing entities needed to guarantee a lively online discussion at about 10 to 12 units.
That said, those who frequent topical mailing lists and newsgroups may well
object that this number is far too low. However, it has to be recognized that we are not
talking about open discussions that anyone can join, take part in, and leave as they wish
(as is the case with the aforementioned Internet services). Rather, we are dealing with
groups that are aware they belong to a learning community that has set rules, planned
and scheduled activities, and clearly defined procedures.
Defining Staff Members’ Roles
Harmonization of staff members’ roles is a key factor in the success of an online
course. It helps to avoid overlap in the tutors' actions (which is often disorienting for the
participants) to prevent clashes in the replies given by different tutors, to delineate the
respective fields of action of the tutors and experts, to establish decision-making
procedures, and so on.
One way of organizing the tutoring staff is as follows:
1. Assign each participant a personal tutor who will follow the student from close
range throughout the whole course, giving advice, offering support when difficulties
arise, etc.
2. Appoint a head tutor (sometimes called an area tutor) for each module of the
course, someone who is to coordinate all the activities within his/her module, keep
activities on schedule, support interaction between participants and the area expert
(using different strategies according to whether that expert is available online or
not), etc. In other words, this person acts as a reference tutor for that particular
segment of the course.
3. Appoint a head of staff, a kind of course director, who is to supervise course
activities, set the schedule, act as staff spokesperson when participants require
explanation of course contents or methods, take the final decision on any eventuality
arising during the course, etc.
Structure and Schedule of the Online Course
Online courses require careful prior structuring, given that once they are underway
it becomes extremely hard to make substantial alterations. The same meticulous
planning must also go into the scheduling of each individual activity, be it at the stage or
the module level.
Outlining the schedule for the whole course is no easy task. No matter how much
care and effort are put into estimating the time necessary for the various activities, the
need invariably arises for constant calibration, ever greater flexibility, and response to
needs that come up throughout the course. All of this is inevitable given the
asynchronous nature of communication between the participants and the freedom of the
individual (or local group) to decide when to dedicate time to the course.
Nevertheless, there is a clear need, at least at the activity planning level, for
general scheduling guidelines (i.e., words markers for measuring the progress of the
various activities and for deciding whether to readjust the timetable which is almost
always the case).
Organizing the course into main and sub-activities is often useful on this count.
Once the course design has been completed and the activities for the various
players (students, tutors, experts, specialists, etc.) have been defined, the next step is the
so-called logical structuring of the communication between the participants, (i.e.,
outlining the system that is to guarantee proper flow of information and interpersonal
exchange within the learning community). There are the three main steps involved.
1. Identifying Communication Requirements
Online courses generally feature three main types of communication flow:
between tutors (coordination and decision making); between tutors and experts
(consultation and support) and within the various learning activities envisaged (among
tutors, students and experts).
Each of these flow types includes not only interpersonal communication, but also
the exchange of documents and more generally of any material in electronic format.
In the first two cases, the communication requirements are fairly clear-cut and in a
way quite easy to define. The last case is more complicated, in that the communication
needs strictly depend on factors like the type of activity envisioned for the students, the
educational strategy and methodology for their development, the breakdown of students
into groups and subgroups, and so on. Consequently, for each activity proposed, the
mode of interaction between all the players needs to be carefully examined.
2. Choosing the most Suitable Network Services
Once the communication requirements have been defined, the next step is to
choose the most suitable network service for running the course. This means assessing
not just the performance of the chosen service but also the cost it entails: Cost
differences exist between services of the same type (e.g., interpersonal communication,
information access and sharing, etc.).
If the need is to organize, say, a discussion, the choice lies between a mailinglist,
which is virtually cost free, or a conference area within a computer conferencing system,
where the technological and man-hour costs are undoubtedly greater. Similarly,
document and material sharing can be handled either in a very rudimentary manner
using file attachments on e-mail messages, or in a neater, more refined way by setting up
a Web site.
3. Designing a Logical Communication Structure
Once the most suitable and affordable network services have been identified, the
next step is designing the logical communication structure (i.e., organizing the
interaction flows between the participants and arranging the shared information space)
(Trentin, 1997c).
A number of issues will need to be tackled here. For example, how should the
computer conferencing environments be divided into areas and sub-areas in accordance
with the various learning activities (discussions, collaborative work, exercises, etc)? If
we opt to use mailing lists only, what lists should be organized and for which
interpersonal communication activities? How can we go about arranging the course
materials and the workgroups’ in-progress products and displaying them on “electronic
Furthermore, it is advisable, where possible, to provide areas outside those strictly
dedicated to course activities. These may include: so-called “cafés” where the
participants can chat freely among themselves; an area for exchanging materials not
strictly related to the course; a bulletin board for notices of different kinds and a
technical support area.
Clearly, using environments that can easily be tailored to communication
requirements will make participation by the various players in the learning process all
the more pleasant and straightforward.
It is worth examining the effects that may sometimes be obtained by prior
subdivision of a communication environment into conferences and sub-conferences, and
by the remodeling of that structure on the part of the course managers (tutors, teachers,
etc.) while the course is underway (Trentin, 1998).
To get a clearer idea of this matter, let’s imagine a book, or rather its contents
page. By dividing the text into chapters and paragraphs and arranging them in a
particular order, the author communicates to the reader his/her individual view of the
topic structure at hand, and suggests a way of exploring it. In the same way, dividing an
online learning environment into areas and sub-areas helps to channel the
communication within the structure itself. In other words, it gives a glimpse of the
vision that the course author has of the topic being dealt with.
It is therefore plain to see just how important it is for the online course manager to
be skilled in designing the logical communication structure, especially in view of the
dynamics that this structure will tend to instill as the course progresses (unforeseen
supplementary study, organization of subgroups, etc).
Let’s take an example. Let’s suppose that the participants in an online course (or
some of them, at least) manifest particular interest in a subtopic of the main discussion
theme and that, accordingly, the course manager opens a specific forum (a sub-
conference in the computer conferencing system) for developing that subtopic. The
participants often interpret such a move as a go-ahead, if not outright encouragement, to
explore that subtopic, which may not have been foreseen during course designing.
The lifecycle of a learning process can be broken down into three macro-phases -
design, execution and validation - where the later phases are often affected by the
preceding ones. For instance, execution and validation often provide useful hints for
improving or even redesigning the course.
The aim of this paper has been to analyze the design phase; and, therefore in
conclusion, it is worth considering on what basis we might evaluate the success of that
process. The most immediate answer would appear to be the extent to which the course
goals have been reached (e.g., learning of given contents).
However, the achievement of educational objectives does not in itself mean that
the course design is valid, even though it is a necessary condition for declaring that a
course has been successfully designed. This is because any design faults that become
apparent while the course is underway may be patched up by the tutors. Thus, the direct
monitoring of course activities becomes one of the main tools for evaluating the
soundness of design decisions, not to mention the efficacy of the tutors’ and experts’
performance. Accordingly, monitoring should be orchestrated in such a way as to give
feedback on all of the elements considered during the design phase.
Table 1 shows a possible checklist compiled on the basis of the preceding
Online Course Design
1. Has sufficient consideration been given to project constraints?
2. Have the prerequisites for course participation been defined properly?
3. Have the stated objectives been reached? If not, why not?
4. Has the structure of the contents helped in reaching objectives?
5. Has flexibility helped to tailor the course to the participants’ real learning needs?
6. Have the learning strategies and methodologies helped in reaching educational goals?
7. Have the activities proposed to the participants helped in applying the learning strategies?
8. Were the virtual groups of a suitable size for the proposed activities?
9. Did the learning materials and technologies prove effective and easy to use?
10. Were the course activities scheduled properly?
11. Did the tutoring staff offer satisfactory support?
12. Did the experts perform effectively?
13. Were there any interaction problems between the tutoring staff and the experts?
14. Did the modes for evaluating the participants prove effective for measuring learning and
participation levels?
Design of the Communication Architecture
1. Were the communication flows for carrying out course activities correctly foreseen?
2. Were the most suitable network services chosen?
3. Did the logical communication structure respond properly to the participants’ needs for
interaction and exchange of material?
Table 1. Checklist for Designing an Online Course and Communication Architecture
This article has repeatedly stressed the point that it is impossible to design an
online course on the basis of criteria typical of onsite education and that it is necessary
to adopt a series of methods and strategies that into take account the medium and the
communication dynamics it triggers. Accordingly, the fundamental points in online
education are:
1. Employing the most suitable ICT tools and methods to meet the requirements for
interaction and exchange between all the players in the learning process.
2. Being aware of the (positive and negative) influence that the use of ICT can have on
a range of factors like the particular type of communication (text-based or
audio/videocommunication), the change in the teacher’s role within the class, and,
last but not least, the problems involved in managing student access to network
This awareness forms the basis for planning the design phases of an online course.
Some of these have been examined in this paper, grouped under two general headings:
online course design and the communication architecture for carrying out the course.
Appendix A sets out and summarizes the relationships between the various elements
that make up an online education project.
The structuring of the communication environment can influence the development
of an online course, and, as a result, it is important for the course designer to be fully
versed not only in the technology to be used but also in the learning methodology.
Finally, on the basis of the so-called categorization of project elements, a possible
checklist has been provided to help in the evaluation of the design process of an online
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users aims objectives contents
mode of
requirements choice of the most
suitable network services logical communication
... Online courses are usually divided into stages and series of models or learning units (Trentin, 2001). We formed a team of subject matter experts to define the suitable structure to pursue our learning objectives. ...
... In accordance with the essential academic writing skills for university students (the knowledge necessary to express oneself effectively, analyse texts, think critically, cite correctly, and avoid plagiarism), we divided our course content into five units. Many authors (including Carr-Chellman & Duchastel, 2000;Ozcan-Deniz, 2018;Trentin, 2001) suggest setting weekly learning outcomes; therefore, we based the learning outcomes and the course content on weekly topics. The weekly topics were as follows: 0) Introduction, 1) The skills needed for academic writing, 2) Analytical writing and research paper, 3) Plagiarism, and 4) Citation. ...
The primary aim of this paper is to present the key elements that characterise online course design, addressing the process of designing, implementing, and evaluating an online course for Bachelor’s degree students that focuses on developing their academic writing skills. These skills are essential for university students as they provide the knowledge necessary to express themselves effectively, analyse texts, think critically, cite correctly, and avoid plagiarism. Academic writing is also the foundation for responsible research practice. The Research Integrity Competency Profile Model, which includes four main areas, namely values and principles, research practice, publication and dissemination, and violations, was createdprior to the design of the course and the skills students need to acquire at the Bachelor’s level for successful academic writing were identified. A small private online course was carefully designed in 2020. It consisted of a variety of assignments, including interactive elements such as quizzes, videos, and work in international interdisciplinary groups. The participants of the course were 36 students from Slovenia, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic. The course lasted four weeks and covered topics such as literature analysis, writing a research paper, avoiding plagiarism, paraphrasing, and citation styles, among others. The course was launched in 2021 for two consecutive instances. The participating students evaluated the course positively, describing the assignments as motivating, useful, and well-structured. However, they concluded that they need more practice in this area, and we suggest that a university course be established to provide all students with the necessary academic writing skills.
... When it comes to online education, it's important to reconsider the methodology, criteria, and approaches that are typically used in traditional educational design and planning. The positive and negative effects of ICT use must be taken into account, which can be attributed to a variety of specific factors such as the type of communication (mostly text-based, but also video communication); the shift in the teacher's role within the classroom; and, last but not least, problems with managing student access to network resources [10]. When it comes to online education, it is important to reconsider the methodology, criteria, and approaches that are typically used in traditional educational design and planning. ...
... [ DOI:10.52547/ijamac.1.1.12 ] [ Downloaded from on 2023-03-20 ] ...
... In this sense, the design approach should indeed be reversed, that is, first establish the monitoring system which is functional to the assessment, then construct the teaching activity in such a way as to favour the collection of the data and information which will feed said system. This is the approach in fact followed in the "Polaris" (Trentin, 2001;2010) instructional design methodology, developed within the project of that name for the online training of school teachers, and subsequently refined in web-enhanced learning projects in several Italian universities (Repetto & Trentin, 2011). ...
... One last observation on this phase is needed. Following the preliminary definition of objectives, it is advisablebefore moving on to the subsequent steps in the design processto stop and ask oneself how achievement of each single objective is to be evaluated (Trentin, 2001). ...
... At the same time, successful online course developers share a 'social constructivist' view of learning which means that the teacher should primarily act as a facilitator and guide rather than a deliverer of information, and that peers will influence an individual's approach to learning [18]. Constructive approachan outcomes-based teaching and learning framework, proposed by Biggs and Tang [1], in which teaching activities and assessment tasks are systematically aligned to the intended learning outcomesis based on the idea that teaching by telling doesn't really work, and that the most effective learning is achieved by students doing something active. ...
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Distant education and online courses have recently become a part of a new reality, especially in the last four months as many institutes and universities all over the world had to shift most of their educational content online because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It appeared that some higher educational institutions and a certain part of their students were almost ready to go online as these institutions had been developing their online platforms thus integrating traditional face-to-face classes with computer-assisted learning as well as integrating massive open or shared online courses into their curricular. At the same time, many other universities and institutes proved to be absolutely unprepared to shift online as they and their students had neither their own educational environment and online resources developed by their teaching staff nor any experience of working in an external online environment and choosing courses appropriate for their educational purposes. It turned out that most existing online courses could not be successfully used for implementing into most universities curricula and for teaching a majority of technical students as they simply reproduced the traditional classroom learning process and missed all advantages and opportunities afforded by online learning environments. The authors objective for this research in progress is to identify the key features and describe structure, content and assessment specifics of an academical online course for technical students. This paper provides tips on how to organize the course content into a proper structure stressing what types of teaching materials could be uploaded to the educational platform and goes into its assessment specifics. In a long-term perspective the authors aim to design, develop and introduce a modern and progressive constructivist learning environment for teaching business English in technical universities.
... The developments of recent decades in Internet and Web-based technologies have had a large impact upon education (Dabbagh & Bannan-Ritland, 2005;Elhers, 2013), making a decisive contribution to the growth of e-learning, which consists of using ICT tools to support the teaching and learning process by providing electronic content and encouraging active and collaborative learning methods (Trentin, 2001a). However these innovations represent only the starting point in the process of implementation of an e-learning system (Trentin, 2001b) that must be functional to a theoretical model and requires a general rethinking of the design methodologies applied in learning environments (Capogna, 2008). In addition to technological developments, the latter part of the 20th century has been characterized by a deep reflection on pedagogical models, which have seen a shift from cognitive theory, based mainly on a passive didactic learning method towards the constructivist approach focused on active learning, reflection, independent thinking and the sharing of knowledge through collaboration (Ertmer & Newby, 1993;Johnson, 2006). ...
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Starting with an overview of the opportunities provided by e-learning in the educational environment, this paper discusses a blended course in social science methodology offered to around 160 students taking the undergraduate Sociology degree at the University of Salerno (Italy). In particular, it provides a reflection on ten challenges of the discipline (e.g. relationship theory and practice, quantitative vs qualitative methods) which emerged during our teaching experience and discusses how they might be addressed by adopting e-learning. To evaluate the impact of the blended course upon the experience of learner, a web survey involving 114 students is carried out. Principally, the survey focuses on the study method and the relationship between information and communication technologies (ICT) and learning. The process that we followed (reflection on the characteristics of the discipline and the needs of students, implementation of the blended course, evaluation) aims to design a valuable teaching path requiring a renewed commitment on the part of university lecturers. In this paper we argue that a blended course improved the educational process in terms of knowledge construction and reflexivity.
Conference Paper
The focus of this paper is to disclose students' preferences and challenges after experiencing online learning in Physics during the pandemic. After experiencing synchronous, asynchronous, and mixed-mode of delivery for a semester in a physics course, a semi-structured interview was held amongst students. Twenty-three students representing each class were involved in the interview session which was held virtually using Google Meet. Thematic analysis was used to analyze the data and it revealed students preferred asynchronous due to factors such as flexibility, rewarding and motivation, and ease of connection to the internet. Whereas some students preferred synchronous mode due to better self-regulation and self-motivation, and better understanding. Meanwhile, time allocation, self-focus ability, and lack of engagement is some of the challenges faced by students when it comes to online learning. Indirectly, this will affect students' motivation towards learning physics. Suggestions also presented in this paper such as the importance of teacher's engagement and proposed suitable activities or tasks to aid students' focus ability.
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Descrizione della piattaforma LMS per l'erogazione online del corso "Transizione Sostenibile"
Networked Collaborative Learning (NCL) is undeniably a double-edged sword. On the one hand it can yield high-quality learning and enhance both teachers’ and learners’ satisfaction. On the other hand, however, it requires careful planning and specific skills for the design and management of online learning activities. This is one of the main reasons for the limited adoption of NCL in a number of educational contexts. The focus of this chapter is a specific proposal aimed to foster the wide diffusion of Educational Technology (ET) and NCL in higher education (HE). In this perspective the chapter analyses the main barriers that limit the diffusion of Network-Based Educational Technology (NBET) approaches, in particular NCL, and then, in order to overcome them, presents an innovative approach to faculty training in Educational Technology Instructional Design. This approach is founded on multidimensional scaffolding, which supports teachers to integrate rules, heuristics, and best practices for design of active and collaborative online learning into their everyday activity.
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Oggi, una vasta gamma di professioni può essere potenzialmente adattata alle persone con invalidità di tipo fisico, grazie anche a modi innovativi di utilizzo delle tecnologie informatiche e della comunicazione sia per la formazione (formazione in rete) del soggetto svantaggiato, sia per il suo inserimento lavorativo in modalità flessibile (telelavoro, smart working). E proprio la formazione in rete e il lavoro a distanza/flessibile sono state le principali tematiche del Progetto SCINTILLA (SCenari INnovativi di Teleformazione per l’Inclusione Lavorativa in LiguriA), finanziato dalla Regione Liguria nel biennio 2013-2014 e condotto dall’Istituto per le Tecnologie Didattiche del CNR di Genova. Questo volume rappresenta una sorta di “memoria” del progetto, racco¬gliendo i risultati conseguiti da Scintilla, nonché il processo che ha portato al loro conseguimento. Per quanto il progetto si sia concentrato sulla ricerca di soluzioni per l’inclusione di soggetti svantaggiati, di fatto, si è rivelato, per le entità coinvolte, occasione per una riflessione a più ampio spettro sulla possibilità di innovare i propri processi produttivi/lavorativi attraverso l’adozione dello smart working, e questo a prescindere dalla presenza o meno di un lavoratore svantaggiato. Infatti, come già rilevato in analoghe esperienze, sono proprio le situazioni estreme a fungere da “Cavallo di Troia” per l’introduzione di forme di smart working nelle organizzazioni, estendendole ad altri ruoli e funzioni interne alle stesse organizzazioni.
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While the new mobile technologies have fostered the diffusion of synchronous audio-video communication, there is no doubt that asynchronous communication is still the main mode of interacting within online learning groups, particularly the type of text communication used in “formal” training courses which (also) include collaborative strategies. Bearing all this in mind, the key issues now become: how to achieve the most fruitful combination of the potential tools of Networked Collaborative Learning (NCL) and written online communication? How to channel them towards the achievement of the declared goals of a specific training course? How to organise collaborative interaction so that it is stimulating and at the same time productive of reflection, argumentation and synthesis in the students?
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The chapter presents a framework and analytical model that could be used by educators for a better understanding of the learning process and of the riches available in the content of CMC messages. The analytical model was developed to highlight five dimensions of the learning process exteriorized in messages: participation, interaction, social, cognitive, and metacognitive dimensions. These dimensions were chosen because they pertain to the work of an educator in dealing with a group of distance learners, and because of their connection with the cognitive approach to the learning process. The point is that CMC messages are polysemic, and that content analysis helps us to understand the learning process and offers data useful to improving the efficacy of interaction with students. The analytical model appears capable of promoting and supporting a collaborative learning process.
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Computers can offer valuable assistance in the development and administration of personalized tests. This article provides an overview of different types of conventional and personalized tests and explores computerized adaptive testing. Also proposes a specific methodology for managing diagnostic adaptive tests and a hypertext system (HyperDelfi) for test production. (PEN)
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Logical communication structures organize basic telecommunications services to meet the aims and requirements of groups working on the Internet. This article clarifies logical communication structures within an educational context and illustrates how the communication requirements of work or study groups correspond to a variety of methodological-structural approaches to network services. (PEN)
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Examines computer conferencing systems for distance education from a design perspective. Outlines structured and unstructured communication, organization and management of communication structures, and functions for users and managers of conferencing environments. Contrasts Web- and non Web-conferencing. Suggests how to choose a computer-conferencing system for online education. (PEN)
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The aim of this paper is to focus on the roles and the process that characterise the design of online education courses, especially when the online tutors are not real experts in the course content domain and above all when the experts in that content are unable or unwilling to be involved online. In these cases, the tutors have to act as a sort of bridge between the expertise and the single attendee. This problem has been highlighted in an Italian pilot project called Polaris, which studied the use of ICT in in-service teacher training. On the basis of that experience, this paper seeks to draw some simple guidelines for online course designers.
While research on learning in cooperative small groups has greatly increased during the past several years, few studies have focused on the interaction processes occurring within groups. This review focuses on the role of the student’s experience in small group interaction in learning. Research bearing on three aspects of small group learning is examined: (1) the relationship between interaction and achievement, (2) cognitive process and social-emotional mechanisms bridging interaction and achievement, and (3) characteristics of the individual, group, and reward structure that predict interaction in small groups. Methodological and substantive issues are discussed to evaluate and integrate research findings, and as guidelines for further research. The conclusion is that an individual’s role in group interaction is an important influence on learning, and that interaction can best be predicted from multiple characteristics of the individual, group, and setting
The convergence of computing and telecommunications technologies has created a range of new possibilities both for the communication of knowledge and for social interaction. The application of these technologies in the context of distance education has been characterised as creating a ‘third generation’ in terms of media and technology use. Computer mediated communication (CMC) has been seen as one of the applications of technology with the most far reaching implications for teaching and learning in distance education (Garrison, 1997). CMC enables distance learners to engage in collaborative learning and discursive interaction with peers and tutors in a variety of communicative settings. However the potential of the technology to deliver a more discursive and collaborative learning process has not always been achieved. Course designers are seeking to build constructivist pedagogy into the learning process so that students will perceive the use of computer mediated communication as essential for the achievement of the desired learning outcomes of the course. There are implications here for how students are assessed. These are explored primarily with relation to continuous assessment. Key features of continuous assessment in the context of second generation distance education are identified and these are used to review the findings of an exploratory study of the use of collaborative assignments and assessed CMC contributions in an introductory information technology course at undergraduate level. The paper concludes with a discussion of the degree to which these approaches offer a mix of benefits for learning quality and skill outcomes, with some costs in terms of reduced individual control over time and space freedoms for learning.
From the Publisher:This groundbreaking volume offers a comprehensive introduction to educational computer-mediated communication (CMC) by presenting theoretical frameworks, design paradigms, and research methodologies for analyzing and shaping this new field of educational activity. The contributors provide a range of perspectives and approaches for understanding the educational applications of such innovations as electronic mail and computer conferencing networks and provide an extensive bibliography to assist those working on educational CMC.