Designing an effective online learning environment

04/01/2012  |  Deyu Hu and Ken Potter
Virtual Classrooms
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Online learning has experienced rapid growth over the past decade. While overall undergraduate enrollment has increased by two percent, there has been a 10 percent growth in online course enrollment. As a result, more than 70 percent of the 2012 graduating class has taken at least one online course. Some universities are starting to evaluate the potential of online teaching during the faculty recruitment process, and more and more higher education institutions stated that eLearning is part of their strategic plan.

Along with the increasing demands of online learning, concerns about the quality of distance learning have remained among higher education administrators, faculty, and students, as well as the general public. Numerous factors may influence the quality of online instruction. One of these is the learning environment, which plays a significant role in student learning.

Learning Environment and Learning Community

Physical, social, cultural, and psychological factors of a learning environment have an effect on student learning. It is hard for learning to occur without an environment that is conducive to learning. It is essential for instructors to provide well-designed instruction in order for students to learn effectively. This goal, however, is dependent upon environmental factors. First, a learning environment should be safe and supportive. Students should feel physically and psychologically safe and comfortable. When a classroom is too hot or too cold, students are not physically comfortable and thus not able to focus on learning. Similarly, if students were laughed at after making mistakes, psychologically they do not feel the learning environment is safe and would likely stop participating in similar learning activities.

Human beings have the need to feel connected. Therefore, a learning community is vital to student learning. In a learning community, students communicate with both the instructor and their peers, which not only gives them a sense of belonging, but also provides social learning opportunities. A learning environment that provides personalized choices, such as individualized projects, gives students a sense of control and makes learning more relevant. In short, when students deem the learning environment as safe, inviting, and supportive, they are engaged in their learning and the experience is more enjoyable.

Criteria of Effective Online Learning Environments

There are similarities and differences between classroom-based instruction and online instruction. This is true for their respective learning environments as well. For instance, an online instructor has little control over the physical environment, as he or she would in classroom-based instruction.

Similar to a classroom-based learning environment, an effective online learning environment should meet the following criteria:

Safe. Instructors should establish safe online learning environments for students. Without face-to-face communication students do not know who is also partaking in the conversation. For continued participation, students need to feel accepted and respected by both instructor and peers. Guidelines of online communication, such as netiquette and class specific requirements, can help establish a safe online environment that is free of personal attack but abundant in meaningful and informative discussions. In a safe online learning environment, faculty acknowledge that students, especially adult learners, have other obligations and they are offered flexibility to balance between study and professional, family, and social obligations.

Supportive. It is necessary to establish a supportive climate for online students. Students should be encouraged to ask questions, answer peers’ questions, and help each other through online discussion or a virtual student lounge. Instructors need to actively support students, especially when participation is below expectations. Emails or phone calls to those students can help instructors find out what is going on and what type of help is needed. This also sends a message to students that instructors are genuinely concerned about their learning. It can make a big difference in helping students stay on track and succeed in online learning.

Interactive. Online students generally do not have the opportunity to communicate with their instructor and peers face-to-face. However, for effective learning to occur, it is important to make online learning interactive so that students will not feel isolated. The possibilities for increased interaction in the online classroom continue to grow with synchronous tools. Three types of interactions are important to online learning: interaction between student and content, student and student, and student and instructor. Among these three, the interaction between student and instructor is especially important to student learning and their perception of distance learning. Psychological as well as content-related support from the instructor and peers can help students overcome difficulties and maintain enrollment in their online course.

Flexible and engaging. Online learning allows students to learn at anytime, anywhere, and at any pace. This gives students a sense of control over their own learning. Additionally, it is important to allow students to pursue their topics of interest or personalized projects. This makes learning more relevant to them based on their personal or professional experiences and expectations. It is a good way to motivate student learning. When students share their individualized work with peers, each student is exposed to a broader spectrum of topics and can learn from fellow students.

Design Effective Online Learning Environments

In moving from classroom-based instruction to online instruction, the role of the faculty member changes from the content presenter to the facilitator of online learning.

Instructors have the responsibility to provide an environment conducive to online learning. The criteria above can help guide instructors in establishing such an environment. However, there are many decisions to make during instruction planning and delivery. Several of these may affect the physical, social, cultural, and psychological aspects of a learning environment. To avoid important environment decisions being left out and guarantee that they align with other instructional choices, instructors should ensure environmental factors are taken into consideration within each instructional design stage.

Instructional design involves planning and aligning three key components of instruction: learning outcomes, assessments, and instructional strategies. These components underscore the instructional design and development of Virginia Tech’s distance learning graduate programs and courses, such as the Master of Arts in eLearning Leadership, in which students gain the knowledge to develop a vision and a plan for creating an effective eLearning environment.

This eLearning Leadership program is specifically targeted to provide students the knowledge and tools to lead successful eLearning programs in a wide range of educational environments, including higher education, business and industry, K-12 education, government/military, and nonprofit settings.

Learning outcomes are objectives an instructor sets for students about what they will be able to know or perform after the instruction. Assessments help an instructor evaluate if students can actually achieve the learning outcomes. Instructional strategies are used to help students reach the learning outcomes. The following demonstrates how instructors can integrate learner environment-related considerations into the instructional design process.

Learning outcomes. To support effective online learning, instructors need to establish challenging yet achievable learning outcomes within students’ zone of proximal development. Learning at this level is neither so low that will bore students ,or so high that it will frustrate them. Learning objectives matching students’ current development level help establish a safe yet motivating online learning environment that is conducive to student learning and development.

Assessment and feedback. Assessment is part of the learning experience and should match learning outcomes as well as instructional strategies. This ensures that students will be measured on their performance in ways similar to how they have learned – which is not only fair but also helps ease anxiety in students. Timely and constructive feedback is crucial to student learning. After assessment, it is necessary to provide feedback on where student performance is lacking to reinforce existing instruction and encourage alternate approaches. Providing such feedback will prevent learners from repeated poor performance. When there is an improvement based on feedback, further feedback should be provided as support and encouragement. Assessment and feedback based on environmental considerations will enhance online learning.

Instructional strategies. The choices of instructional strategies should be based on learning outcomes as well as assessments so that the strategies will facilitate students to achieve certain learning outcomes and perform well in assessments. When selecting among a variety of instructional strategies, instructors should be mindful of environmental factors that may influence student learning. For example, activating students’ prior knowledge is an instructional strategy that faculty can use in online instruction. Depending on the situation, an instructor can either make the learning environment safe by asking online students to report their prior knowledge just to the instructor or make it interactive by asking them to share and discuss with peers.

In summary, the learning environment is important to successful student learning. To help online students, instructors should establish a safe, supportive, interactive, flexible and engaging online learning environment and make sure that environmental factors are taken into consideration within each stage of instructional design.

Deyu Hu is the eLearning Instructional Design Coordinator for the Institute for Distance and Distributed Learning at Virginia Tech. Ken Potter is an instructor in the Office of Educational Research and Outreach and Master of Arts in eLearning Leadership Program Director at Virginia Tech. For more information, visit www.vt.edu.
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