August 1998 // Vision
Online Education:
New Paradigms for Learning and Teaching
by Greg Kearsley
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Greg Kearsley "Online Education:
New Paradigms for Learning and Teaching" The Technology Source, August 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

At schools and colleges across the country and around the world, the use of the Internet and Web for learning and teaching is causing a major change in the landscape of education. Building upon decades of computer networking activities (e.g. e-mail and bulletin board systems), the Internet has produced phenomenal growth in the extent and scope of online education. Online education has created a new paradigm for teaching and learning different from the traditional classroom experience, and also different from earlier attempts at computer-based instruction.

The Paul Allen Foundation Virtual Education contest recently afforded an interesting opportunity to examine this developing paradigm, offering a prize of $25,000 for the most outstanding online course in higher education. A total of 182 entries were received from 148 institutions representing almost every conceivable subject domain. These entries were judged by a panel of four experts in educational technology: Roberto Bamberger, Chris Dede, Jon Dorbolo, and myself. [Note 1]

This article describes some of the salient characteristics of these courses, the issues they raise about online education, and the apparent direction of online education in higher education. It is reasonable to assume that the contest entries are a representative sample of what is going on at every school and campus in the country; hence these courses provide a window into the current state of the art, and provide indications of the future. Following are descriptions of some of the salient characteristics of these courses and the issues they raise about online education; many of the sites include some form of evaluation report. [Note 2] For more background on the topic, see my Guide to Online Learning/Teaching at

Course Components

The contest entries included a wide range of online course components including:

  • curriculum materials (e.g. syllabi, outlines, reading lists, lectures)
  • discussions, both real-time (i.e. chats, MOOs) and asynchronous (i.e. listservs, forums)
  • quizzes, exams, worksheets, and questionnaires
  • multimedia components (animations, simulations, games, audio/video vignettes)
  • electronic archives/collections of past student work
  • Web-based tools for writing or collaboration

Courses involved various combinations of these components, ranging from an online syllabus and use of mailing lists to full-fledged sites with lectures using streaming audio/video, chat rooms, conferences, and extensive quizzes or problem sets. Online course materials ranged from static documents (perhaps illustrated with graphics or photos) to highly interactive by virtue of links to other Web sites, animations, simulations, or exercises with feedback. Archives of student work could be completed assignments (often published as Web pages) or responses to questions from online conferences. It should be noted that successive versions of online courses tend to include more interactive components as instructors become more comfortable with online teaching and Internet capabilities.

Examples of online courses that illustrate a diverse range of components:

  • Taming the Electronic Frontier, B. Cox, George Mason University (a computer literacy course that emphasizes student collaboration)
  • Smartweb, C. Bonk, Indiana University (an educational psychology course with novel student activities)
  • Math 2342, E. Jones, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (extensive student problem-solving activities)
  • PhiCyber, R. Barnette, Valdosta State University (a philosophy course with lots of student discussion)

Relationship to On-site Instruction

Courses varied from those that were supplements for traditional on-site classes to those that were totally online with no on-site aspects. Most courses had at least one or two on-site meetings (e.g., the initial or final class meeting) and many required that students take major exams on campus. Often the meetings were optional or involved an on-campus section of the class. On the other hand, courses designed specifically for distance learning tended to be totally online, including exams and all instructor-student interaction. It should be noted that many institutions still require final exams to be held on campus or a minimum number of on-campus classes, so this is a limitation that many instructors have to work with. It was observed that successive versions of the same course tended to decrease the on-site elements.

Examples of online courses that illustrate differing degrees of on-site activities:

  • Accounting, J. Mitchell, Saint Mary of the Woods College (uses downloadable templates for course activities)
  • Disability and the Law, J. Wilkinson, University of Calgary (uses streaming audio/video for lecture materials)
  • Engineering 124, C. Severance, Michigan State University (provides materials in a number of different formats)
  • Education, R. Riegle, Illinois State University (combines individual and collaborative student activities)


The pedagogies reflected in the contest entries ranged from very traditional didactic approaches (e.g. weekly lectures with quizzes/exams) to novel discovery and problem-based learning methods. Most courses emphasized student participation in online discussions and group interaction. The majority of instructors reported that their courses involved active learning by virtue of the high level of student participation that occurred via discussions or completion of assignments.

Overall, the instructional methods and strategies employed in online courses are essentially the same as those used by instructors in their traditional classes, with the exception of student interaction and collaboration.

Examples of courses that demonstrate the range of pedagogies used:

  • Accounting, F. Borthick, Georgia State University (illustrates use of exploratory learning methods)
  • English, B. Gieger, Texas Tech University (demonstrates use of a MOO for group interaction)
  • Medicine, J. Henderson, Dartmouth University (clinical simulations for diagnostic practice)
  • Education 501, J. Thousand, CSU-San Marcos (online teamwork in a special education context)

Course Development

Courses ranged from those created solely by a single instructor on their own initiative to those developed by large teams with institutional resources and support. Most courses appear to be developed by a small team of two or three people, generally an instructor with help from a colleague, designer/programmer, or student assistant. Some courses and web sites were created from scratch using HTML editors whereas others were developed in the context of web authoring systems and services such as TopClass, Lotus Notes/LearningSpace or Real Education. Courses that involved chat or forums typically used commercially available packages such as WebCT, WebBoard, or NetMeeting. For multimedia materials, Shockwave, Acrobat, and Real Audio/Video were popular.

One interesting difference across courses was the extent to which the personality of the instructor was present. Courses developed by single individuals tended to be quite distinctive whereas those created by teams using authoring systems were often fairly impersonal in nature.

Examples of courses that reflect differing development and authoring approaches:

  • CalculusQuest, W. Bogley & R. Robson, Ohio State University (interactive exercises and online quizzes)
  • French, T. Nelson, CSU-San Bernardino (demonstrates use of a game-based methodology for language learning)
  • Instructional Design, E. Meyen, University of Kansas (extensive formative evaluation as part of course design)

Student Assessment

Courses involved a variety of different means for student assessment. The most common method was to have students respond to assignments, exercises or exams via email to be graded by the instructor or teaching assistants. Many courses used online forms for quizzes or tests, which were automatically scored when completed, with immediate results displayed to the student. Most courses had some type of weekly assignments and major projects. There was a lot of emphasis on group work in completing assignments and extensive use of peer evaluation schemes. The latter could be as simple as having students comment on each other's responses in a forum to a complex rating system. A number of courses required students to keep online journals or create portfolios for evaluation of their progress.

Some examples of online courses that illustrate various assessment methods:


One of the four primary evaluation criteria for the contest was evidence of educational effectiveness. Surprisingly, many of the courses submitted provided no or very minimal evaluation results. In fact many otherwise impressive courses were eliminated from the final selection because of such lack of evaluation details. In some cases, evaluation activities were mentioned but no results reported. It appears than many instructors feel that simply delivering an online course is adequate proof that it works!

The most common form of evaluation activity was student questionnaires completed at the end of the course. In all cases, such data indicated that students enjoyed the online course and found it worthwhile. Some instructors conducted comparisons of student outcomes relative to previous or concurrent on-campus versions of the course or in terms of pre-/posttest scores. These data usually showed that the online course was at least as effective as on-campus versions. A number of entries had conducted focus group discussions with students (on-site) and some had asked their colleagues to evaluate their courses in terms of their design or instructional methods. While many instructors mentioned the availability of much data that could be used to improve their courses, few provide details about whether this had been done.

One important consideration not addressed in most evaluation reports was the extent to which a course was effective for all students enrolled. Given the tremendous variation in learning and cognitive styles across individuals, it is to be expected that any given instructional strategy, course organization or use of media may work well for some students but not others. Furthermore, we saw little evidence that courses were designed to accommodate the needs of those with disabilities, which is especially a problem with courses that involve a lot of multimedia features.

Examples of courses with extensive evaluation efforts:

  • English, D. Kries, College of DuPage (curriculum changes suggested by online course)
  • Physics, G. Bothun, University of Oregon (extensive use of Web resources and capabilities)
  • Internet Navigator, N. Lombardo, University of Utah (large-scale effort to develop computer literacy course)
  • Biocomputing, G. Fuellen, Universitaet Bielefeld (international collaboration across institutions)

Good, Better, Best?

The goal of the contest was to try and select the best course based on four principal criteria: (1) creative use of technology; (2) sound instructional design; (3) integration of active learning; and (4) evidence of educational effectiveness. Every course entry had been delivered to students at least once and hence could be deemed a successful educational offering. But which courses were exemplars of outstanding online learning and teaching?

The use of technology varied from very simple to very sophisticated in the course entries. However, this factor did necessarily differentiate the best courses since simple approaches (e.g. use of listservs or forums) could result in better learning outcomes than the sophisticated ones (e.g. use of MOOS or desktop video sessions).

Most courses had sound instructional design with clear-cut objectives and corresponding assignments and activities. In a few courses, the organization of the course or web site was confusing or overly complex. Courses differed considerably in the extent to which they took advantage of external resources available via the web; some were totally self-contained whereas others were full of relevant links or made use of external tools and sites.

By virtue of the fact that almost all courses involved student participation using listservs or conferencing (i.e. chats/forums), a high level of active learning probably occurs in all these courses. Instructors did vary in the extent of student interaction they engaged in, although overall this was quite high. The impact of this higher degree of active learning on learning outcomes is less clear, although most instructors felt that students performed better in online courses (and a few provided evaluation data to affirm this).


It seems reasonable to conclude that every course entry represented a winner for the instructor, students, and institution involved since they seem to result in more meaningful learning/teaching experiences than traditional classroom offerings. Some courses were clearly more sophisticated in their use of technology than others, although it was not clear that this necessarily resulted in better learning outcomes. But, online education does seem to provide a new overall paradigm for learning and teaching which embodies high levels of student interaction and participation.

The entries in this unique contest reveal a number of trends about the direction of online education and more generally, higher education. Successive versions of online courses employ more sophisticated capabilities and tools. We will see rapid dissemination of methods and techniques for online teaching as instructors and faculty "bootstrap" their initial efforts at their own institutions. Once faculty and students have successful online learning experiences, the importance and value of on-campus classes diminishes.

But the most important overall impact of online courses is the emphasis they place on critical thinking and discourse. The one thing that happens in all online courses, regardless of the discipline or grade level, is that students communicate a lot more with each other and with the instructor. They discuss ideas, analyze, evaluate, argue, debate, and question. Online education redirects learning towards a constructivist and experiential mode on a large scale. This is a significant contribution of technology to improving our educational system.

Note 1: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Paul Allen Foundation or the other judges.

Note 2: Sample sites do not require IDs or passwords for access and hence are assumed to be available for public viewing. Note that URLs change frequently and these links may not be functional by the time you read this. For more examples of online courses, see the World Lecture Hall.

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