Excellence in Online Learning Through Flexible Course Design

11/20/2009  |  DEBORA L. SCHEFFEL, PH.D.
distance learning

Online distance learning opens up education options to learners who have busy personal schedules or who live in remote geographic locations. Whatever the reason, many do not have easy access to traditional higher education environments. Recent advances in interactive web-based learning tools make online education an Practices in Online Learning, this impression is not based on fact.

To the contrary, the Department of Education’s study finds that students enrolled in online or blended programs (which contain traditional and online content) often develop a better understanding of topics covered than their peers learner behaviors into their everyday lives, rather than limiting them to the arbitrary timeframes associated with face-to-face delivery models. Further, innovative course designs and collaboration tools in online curricula can encourage communication and independent thought in ways that traditional curricula often do not. While other of performance-based standards and evidence-based practices and has at its core a student-focused approach to teaching and learning. This knowledge base informs how the School of Education guides candidates to apply their learning in practice to benefit students in their classrooms and schools.

JIU encourages knowledge application by using a collaborative or project-based course design model. Candidates engage in collaborative learning in every course through class discussions known as forums. The forum is a threaded discussion board that requires participation by all class members. The forum promotes lively, engaging exploration of ideas and concepts that help candidates master the expected course outcomes by encouraging collaborative critical thinking. During this informal, free exchange of ideas, candidates have the opportunity to reflect on their own ideas, the ideas of their peers and instructors, and the real-world applications of course contents.

The JIU School of Education defines project-based learning as an instructional method that develops learner knowledge and skills through an extended process of inquiry directed at a real-world problem or question, culminating in a thoughtfully constructed product that demonstrates field-based learning outcomes.

“Professional synthesizing projects” are the JIU School of Education’s version of project-based learning.The professional synthesizing project demonstrates the candidate’s ability to apply theory and content learned toward a solution to a practical education problem. Through these projects, candidates demonstrate to their professors (and to their future employers via a project portfolio) that they have learned and can apply the knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary to succeed in their careers.

Effective Assessment

Because the JIU School of Education recognizes the need for clear, measurable standards in K-12 education, it has designed its own teaching and learning model to promote accountability for candidate learning outcomes. Specifically, graduates of the School of Education demonstrate mastery of Colorado state standards, Specialized Professional Standards, JIU institutional learning objectives and workplace competencies, as applicable to their chosen programs of study.

The performance-based standards for teachers and administrators adopted by the Colorado State Board of Education take the form of statements that describe what an educator should know and be able to do. These statements are followed by a list of elements that describe how the teacher or administrator will demonstrate attainment of each standard. The School of Education writes its program-level and course-level learning objectives to closely align with Colorado’s performance-based standards and the standards of various independent accrediting organizations. Students are therefore assessed on qualities of wide relevance throughout the education profession. To facilitate students’ learning and sustained performance, instructors offer regular feedback on class contributions and assignment results.


A wide variety of collaborative and project-based assignments and a consistent feedback and assessment system allows the school to gauge the efficacy of its programs holistically. This system takes into account understanding of course concepts, ability to reach critical teaching standards, preparedness for professional success, project performance and level of contribution to the dialogue in the course’s discussion forum.

By consistently reevaluating course designs, improving assessment mechanisms and encouraging critical thinking about educational issues in its curriculum, online education providers can enhance the value and benefit of their courses and degrees. While improvements in online learning technologies will certainly help enhance the effectiveness of online learning, strategic changes in course design and assessment techniques are the true basis for any outstanding teaching institution.

(Mary Spencer, MEd and Tyler O’Gara, MBA contributed to this article)

Debora L. Scheffel, PH.D., is Dean of the School of Education, Jones International University. For more information visit www.jiu.edu.
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