Guest Contributor: Dr. Joel A. English.

This week, we’ll be talking about online course design, and ultimately, I want to offer an answer to an important question: What should an online course look like? In a traditional classroom, we know that we prepare some lecture content. We come to class with something to say, something to teach. But we also know that we rely on student interaction to move our lecture into discussion—turning our “teaching” into their “learning.” And then, after that grand chemistry takes place, where our talking mixes with their responding to create spontaneous dialog, we finally engage them in an active response. That response might be asking them to write, it might require them to solve some problems or apply knowledge to practical situations, or it might be to go away and conduct some solitary research or group activities. Ultimately, homework, experimentation, or research assignments ask the student to respond and apply knowledge that was born during lecture and discussion.

All that is in the traditional classroom. But what is an online course supposed to do? Obviously, the online course seeks to accomplish the same “3D” approach to learning: dialectic, discussion, and deployment. In Part II of this discussion, I’m going to talk about how to accomplish this in online courses. But first, let me remind us why we structure our lessons in this way, and why online classes earned a bad rap in the early days of the Internet.

Generally speaking, we’ve accepted that there are three main learning styles that we try to engage within our classrooms: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. Auditory learners are most engaged through text, lecture, discussion, and other verbal presentations of material. Visual learners process and retain information most readily when presented with graphical, colorful, tactile, or otherwise visually-applied material within the learning process. Most lecturing attempts to simultaneously engage the auditory and visual learner, as teachers use whiteboards to visually demonstrate what their voices are saying; PowerPoint or Prezi slides to provide the audio-visual version of the verbal words being stated; or some other form of visual representation for the learning. Third, kinesthetic learners are those who are most engaged with hands-on application, active response, or personal research and experimentation. Students who fall asleep no matter how intellectually stimulating discussion may get or how many YouTube videos we bring into the classroom may be kinesthetic learners, who will only wake up when we let them take over and do something.

So, the well-designed classroom—that is, the classroom that successfully engages the most learners—is the classroom that engages all three 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). None of this is new. I’m just calling it “3D” to be clever.

Unfortunately, online courses have traditionally relied too heavily on auditory learning activities and all but ignored the visual and kinesthetic learners. When web-based online courses first began surfacing in the 1990’s, online education clearly and definitively over-emphasized auditory learning. In those days, online courses mostly meant reading. Students would read a chapter in a textbook, and then they would read a simple HTML lecture written by the instructor. They would read a discussion question, write a response, and then read what the other students and instructor said about it. They would then write a paper or a written exam, which the teacher would read, and then write comments back, which the student would read. Maybe there was also a chat room involved, in which students and instructors wrote and read. It was all reading. Auditory learners might have found this style of online instruction sufficient, but the rest of us fell asleep at the wheel. And we all agreed that it was pretty boring.

I have a theory. Up until recently, the general popular consensus was that online courses were somehow “less than” in-classroom learning. I think I know why. I believe it’s because the first decade or so of online courses were almost completely auditory—almost completely reading and writing. And guess what. I agree with the popular vote: This early version of online learning is, by definition, less than! We all can go ahead and agree on that right now. If we generally believe that the best instruction engages auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learners, but Online Learning 1.0 featured nothing but auditory learning, then those courses were not as good as residential courses, which engaged all three.

We should have known better. And possibly we did, but the Internet just hadn’t caught up to good pedagogy, and we hadn’t figured it out yet, either. With modem speeds to worry about, video being all but impossible, browsers unstandardized, instructional design methods undeveloped, and institutional competition not a factor, our online courses were flat. They stunk. No wonder the phrase “online college” is still racked with stigma!

It is essential that, in the design and build of our online classes, each course, indeed, each lesson includes learning activities that engage each of the learning styles. In part II of this post, we’ll look into how to approach a 3D course design for online teaching and learning, and we’ll try to reclaim the quality of online courses for all types of learners.


Dr. Joel English serves as the Director of Distance Learning for the Ohio Centers for Broadcasting, Illinois Centers for Broadcasting, Colorado Media School, and Miami Media School, a family of schools dedicated to education in radio, television, and internet media broadcasting.  Dr. English is also the Chairman of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, where he has chaired the Distance Education Committee and served as a Commissioner since 2009.  In former positions, Dr. English served on the executive team at Centura College, where he oversaw distance learning and school operations at several campuses, and he was formerly an Assistant Professor of English and Distance Learning at Old Dominion University.  Dr. English recently published Plugged In: Succeeding as an Online Learner through Cengage Learning, as an extension of his dedication to supporting student success within online courses and programs.  Dr. English holds a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition from Ball State University, and an M.A. and B.A. in Technical and Expository Writing from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

What’s your experience in teaching (or learning) online? What do you believe are the essential elements of a thoughtfully designed and built online course? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.