Guest Contributor: Dr. Joel A. English.

In the first post on 3D course design, we recalled that the well-designed classroom engages the three main learning styles, combining verbal lecture and visual representation (dialectic), with verbal correspondence and visual demonstrations (discussion), and practical application, including research, experimentation, and writing (deployment). But the question is, how do we accomplish this multi-modal instruction within an online classroom? What is the online course supposed to look like, so that we engage all types of learners? It is essential that, in the design and build of our online classes, each course and each lesson include learning activities that engage each of the learning styles.

In part I, I suggested that the Internet probably wasn’t ready for quality online course design in the early 1990’s (when Internet-based distance education began taking off), because the bandwidth, ISPs, PCs, software, and instructional design technologies just weren’t ready to mix media and attend to learning styles; online learning earned a bad name, because, frankly, it was a bad product. It was purely auditory—mostly reading and writing, and not much else.

But by the mid-2000’s, we began to bring in instructional design software such as Camtasia and other screen capture software that could take our PowerPoint slides, and imbed the instructor’s audio lecture content. Suddenly, online lectures were not just auditory, they were also visual. Obviously, we’ve progressed beyond a death-by-PowerPoint world (mostly sparked by the ubiquitous streaming video standard that is YouTube), and we can all-but assume that every student can view even the most detailed video lecture through streaming sites such as YouTube, Vimeo, and others. Add to that the Web 2.0 technologies that most Learning Management Systems are built on, and today’s online course simply has no excuse but to be equally auditory and visual. We’ve gotten better.

All this said, remember those classroom sleepers we mentioned—those poor kinesthetic students who are not stimulated, no matter how talky and eye-catching our lectures might be? The good news is that the online course actually has a natural advantage for kinesthetic learners, because those students are engaged simply by navigating the LMS and going to class. Logging in can sometimes irritate our auditory learners or confuse our visual learners, but kinesthetic learners are online moving around with ease.

That’s great, but here’s where course design actually must play in. We have learned that we need to think in terms of shorter segments of instruction within online courses. We no longer think in terms of a 50-minute class session or a 90-minute lecture when we build a quality online course. Rather, we think in terms of a 5-8 minute lecture, which moves to online discussion, which in turn moves to an activity that applies that learning. An online lesson must be structured to include the various learning styles, and that structure cannot flow extemporaneously from the teacher’s mind in real time, like it does in a traditional classroom. In the classroom, we can see it in the student’s eyes that we need to stop lecturing, field questions, show a demonstration, let them try it, and come collectively to the utopian a-ha moment. A-ha’s don’t happen the same way in online courses. While a traditional classroom instructor may be the “conductor” to create understanding for her students, the online course developer must become the “architect” of learning moments by crafting dialectical instruction, discussion moments, and deployment activities that follow.

Probably the best embodiment of this “3D course design” takes the form of what we call “adaptive learning”—courses that present audio/visual instruction in a direct combination of with skill and knowledge testing, and the course itself adapts the amount, detail level, and depth of further instruction based on the student’s mastery (or lack thereof) of the material being presented. Adaptive lectures employ a sort of “shape shifting” methodology, where the actual course itself teaches content to students, assesses what they’ve learned and what they already know, and morphs right in front of the student in response to their aptitude, presenting the appropriate level of instruction for each individual student.

Adaptive technology can be expensive, takes a maximum amount of development time, and is more complicated than most of us mere mortal instructors can put together. But what we can do is assure that our courses are designed to juggle between the visual, the auditory, and the kinesthetic, by presenting short and attractive lectures that feature text, audio, and video content, quickly moving concepts to discussion threads or chats, allowing for discourse between peers and instructors, including assessments and production, and continually engaging students in activity, thought, listening, watching, producing, submitting, testing, and yes, even reading.

Quality “3D courses” are multi-media and multi-modal. Students must not be expected to just sit and read (like they did in online courses from the 90’s) or quietly pay attention. They won’t pay attention. They must be asked to watch, interact, respond, produce, and engage in dialectical learning, discussion, and deployment of skills for greater learning. An online course should look loud. It should replace talky with do-ey. If we strive for the multi-modal and teach to the various learning styles, we have the opportunity to claim a new esteem for online learning, and more importantly, reach our students in powerful and successful ways.


Do you teach online? How do you ensure that the experience is multi-media, multi-modal… and engaging to all students? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.