Putting Online Learning Under the Microscope

“The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet. “

– Aristotle

Chapter contents

3.1  Introduction

3.2  Historical Review of Online and Blended Learning

3.3  The Three Main Types of Online Learning

3.4  Online vs. Classroom

3.5  The Concept of Presence

3.6  Interactivity

3.7  The Challenges for Successful Online Education in a Traditional College

3.8  Best Practice

3.9  Engineering and Online Learning

3.10  The Costs (Time and Financial) of Building Online Courses


3.1 Introduction

Put simply, online learning allows one to learn from a distance over the internet. This enables the learner to engage in the learning at any time and from any location. There are some basic requirements, however: an internet connection, a computer and access to an online learning provider on the web. Online learning can be broken into two broad types: web and videoconferencing (synchronous) and web-based training (asynchronous). These formats allow employees to engage in a range of training activities from skills certification and live updates on company products to collaboration with colleagues on an assignment. Although online learning is a subset of distance learning, providers should be wary of presenting an electronic analogue of a traditional correspondence course where interactivity and student engagement is scarce.1 Learning is more commonly attained when the student is interested and where opportunities for real experience exist.

Five pillars for success

There are five so-called “pillars” of online learning listed by Bourne, Harris and Mayadas. These are learning effectiveness, student satisfaction, faculty satisfaction, access and cost effectiveness.2

Poor online learning is commonplace and requires, therefore, a considerable effort to increase its efficacy for students. Four suggestions follow:3

• A book on the web cannot be deemed a course.

• Encouragement and support is necessary to assist students in maintaining the motivation required to complete their courses.

• Online learning is only part of the solution, fitting into a broader spectrum that, among other learning opportunities, includes on-the-job and classroom training.

• Recognition and acceptance of the fact that different individuals have optimal learning methods.

Another view from the perspective of the world of work suggests that there are three essential building blocks of online learning:4

Motivation. Employers cannot learn for their employees. They have to be motivated to absorb the materials and gain the skills.

Meaningful content. It must be clear to those undertaking the training how the course, and the new skills inherent in it, are relevant to their jobs.

Memorable interactivity. An impressive example of this was an online program for operators that illustrated how wire is manufactured within their machines. To this end 3D animation, simulation, computer gaming and video clips were used.

Perceptions of faculty towards online education Research was conducted at the University of North Carolina on perceptions of faculty towards online courses.5 Asynchronous methods were preferred, with only small synchronous components considered acceptable. This is presumably because of the additional workload and time-inflexibility that synchronous programs would create. Live lectures, with audio and proctored examinations, were the least preferred elements of online courses. This preference for asynchronous (against that of synchronous) approaches is typical of most online learning.

In order to optimize the contribution of all who are involved when a shift to online learning is made, roles of the instructors and support staff need to be reviewed.6 Initially, to put the current technologies into perspective, the history of online learning will be discussed. The three main forms of online learning with be examined, the often debated topic of online learning versus classroom learning will be reviewed, the critical issues of presence and interactivity will then be examined, current challenges in achieving successful online education will be reviewed, and suggested best practice will then be described. Finally, the application of online learning to engineering and technology education will be examined. The chapter will be concluded by an indication of the typical (and often horrendous) real costs in building online courses.


3.2 Historical review of online and blended learning

To develop a clear picture of the developments in online learning and blended learning, it is important to place it within the context of classical distance learning.

Figure 3.1: Historical perspective on online learning


Distance learning can be traced back to the mid-19th Century. Correspondence colleges, mainly in the USA and Europe (with the first one in Australia in 1840), used the postal system to transmit written documents between the students and the college.7For example, in the mid-19th Century Isaac Pitman used the mail to educate students on the intricacies of shorthand, using England’s newly introduced penny post. In contrast, interestingly, the “modern classroom” was developed in Prussia in the 1770s. Here all learners were locked into rows facing the same way while an expert lectured to them.8

Distance education at the university level started in the USA with the commencement of a correspondence course at Illinois State University in 1874.9

The first introduction of videoconferencing was in 1879 when Thomas Edison proposed a device called a telephonoscope, which was designed to transmit sound and video into everyone’s homes.10 Then in 1909, the author, E.M. Forster wrote about a device that used an audio/visual communication network to present a lecture on Australian music to a remote audience (naturally, as a work of fiction).

From an engineering perspective, one of the most successful examples of distance learning, which endured for over a century (and still exists in a reduced form) are the

International Correspondence Schools.11 This was inspired by Thomas J. Foster, Editor of the Mining Herald in Pennsylvania, in 1891, when he began offering courses in mining and accident prevention. Shortly thereafter, in 1910, the famous International Correspondence School (ICS) was launched in Pennsylvania. A vast array of courses were built up and offered with reportedly more than 2 million participants by 1920.

In 1922, Thomas Edison predicted that the new technology at the time, film, would replace textbooks in the classroom.12 He was wrong, but as each new wave of technology has emerged (radio, film, video, DVDs, computer-based training and latterly online learning) similar pronouncements have been made.

Training films have, however, been used successfully. The American military, for example, used them for war propaganda, especially during World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, film formed part of the public school’s curricula, particularly in the social and physical sciences. Television was next. Video tapes (and latterly DVDs) were still in common use in 2005. A success story based on this technology was the Open University in the UK. It was established in 1969 and opened its “doors” to students in 1971. The lack of interactivity, however, is the probable reason why television was unable to replace an instructor entirely.

Media and communication technologies then emerged in the 80s, adding to the pool of teaching methods and enhancing simple text.13 Then, with the emergence of audiotapes used in distance learning, online learning arrived (and thence blended learning).

In the early 1960s the computer made its first impact with PLATO (Programmed Logic For Automatic Teaching Operations). Designed and built at the University of Illinois in 1960, it became the forerunner for much of today’s online learning technologies (message boards, forums, online testing, email and chat).14 This was one of the first systematic introductions of “e-education” with the rather primitive (and indeed boring) objective-drill-practice sequence for each objective.

The first attempt at interactivity in training was introduced using computer-based training (or CBT). This developed rapidly with the arrival of the personal computer in the early 1980s. Unfortunately, most CBT programs were text-based and fairly rigid in terms of their scope for interactivity. They used the technique of “drill and practice” which required the student to read text-based content on computer screens and then perform multiple choice tests. This was not well received and with the advent of internet-based training, CBT has declined in use. A few positive developments, however, came out of this era. One was the tracking and scoring methodology (AICC or Aviation Industry CBT Committee) that is still being used by online learning programs today. Another was the ADDIE (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement and Evaluate) model for the design of instructional content.

Distance education programs, like the CBT courses, resulted in high attrition rates.15 Boredom, isolation and a lack of support and self-discipline were most often to blame. According to one study of 40 companies, 70% of workers would not sign up for a voluntary online course. Another study showed a huge attrition rate of between 50% to 80%. The completion rates were considerably higher for face-to-face instruction.16 Once a more interactive internet program is introduced course completion rates rise to between 60% to 90%. The cost, however, is the increase in instructor time.

The first article on internet-based training appeared in Training Magazine in 1997. It pointed towards rapid growth in this area and the term e-learning emerged at this time.17,18 The online learning market grew from a few million dollars in 1995 to US$3.4 billion worldwide in 2000. One of the major results of this focus on online learning was the development of massive libraries of online learning content (which were oversold as solutions to training). The early Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and Learning Content Management Systems (LCMSs) were developed to manage this explosion of content. The stock market crash in 2000 resulted in a significant decline in this business, however. Many online learning vendors went bankrupt or merged with other players in the industry.

In 2002, Smartforce and Skillsoft merged and created a global giant in the online learning industry. It offered business and IT skills training and anticipated sales, for 2006, of $200m. Since then there have been a series of consolidations between major players in the corporate online learning market. In October 2005, Saba, a Learning Management System vendor, acquired Centra, a web conferencing firm, and created a $100m business.19 Skillsoft paid approximately $270m to acquire NETg (part of Thomson learning). The resultant corporate entity provided online courses, simulations, videos, and eBooks. Thomson Corporation, in late 2006, put its $5bn learning division on the market as well, thus creating an even more dynamic market place in the online learning area.

In late 2006, Cisco launched its videoconferencing platform, Telepresence. Revenues of a billion dollars within three years were predicted through distance education, medical care and security. It was estimated that videoconferencing would bring Cisco savings of up to $US100m per annum in travel expenses alone. In 2007 Cisco merged with Webex, one of the largest providers of web collaboration and web conferencing solutions.

From 2003, however, there was a growing realization that the results delivered by online learning were not altogether satisfactory. The course development, while still cheaper than face-to-face learning, was more costly and time consuming than predicted and coupled with this were the inadequacies of the learning process20 Owing to necessity, the term blended learning was born. This referred to a more favorable approach to education that used a combination of media: online learning alone was deemed inadequate as a training solution. An addition to this shift in attitude was to align blended learning with business objectives to ensure better productivity and a safer workplace.

Blended learning would appear to have originated as a reaction to the disillusionment with the early forms of online learning and the realization that classroom learning was still a critical teaching component.21 Blended or hybrid learning comprises both traditional classroom and online learning. It has also been referred to as a combination of synchronous and asynchronous media.

Four developments over the past decade have accelerated online learning. The first was motivated by the events of 9/11 and impacted on corporate education. Companies were concerned for the economy in the disaster’s aftermath and hesitant about their employees travelling to attend training. (There was a reported 100% increase in money spent on online learning in the USA over the period 2001 to 2004.22) The second impact was the competitive and low-cost provision of increasing bandwidth (assisted by the strong movement to wireless) to companies and individuals throughout the world. The third development was the massive downturn in the world economy in 2008, in which corporations dramatically cut their expenses (unless they directly related to sales) and looked for cheaper means of providing training. The fourth development was the continuing decline in computer hardware and software prices and the increase in their performance. This facilitated the making of high quality videos, simulation and game playing software.

It was estimated that by 2011, 23% of US corporate training was online (with a small 5% of this synchronous online learning). This equates to an investment in excess of $17bn in the USA and $31bn worldwide–perhaps driven by the recent ferocious worldwide economic recession.23

The formation of the massive universities and colleges dedicated to the provision of only distance learning is worthy of a short discussion.24 Many have emerged, ranging from The University of South Africa (UNISA), founded in 1962, to the Open University of the United Kingdom (1971) with similar institutions being founded in Germany, Japan, Canada, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In the USA, the for-profit Phoenix University enjoys massive success with hundreds of thousands of students, as does Nova Southeastern University in Florida.

Generously the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made their considerable set of course materials freely available, under the banner of the OpenCourseWare (OCW) program.25 The Chulalongkorn University in Thailand has then undertaken to convert this into the Thai language. Naturally, while this material is all electronically available, it is does not represent a course. 2012 has been characterized by the launch of the Massive Online Open Courses (or MOOCs) with similar initiatives (Coursera/EdX/Udacity).

3.3 The three main types of online learning

In the 90s there was a range of distance learning approaches:26

• Correspondence study.

• Pre-recorded media.

• Two-way audio with or without graphics.

• One-way live video.

• Two-way audio, one-way or two-way video.

• Desktop two-way audio/video.

As discussed in Chapter 1, online learning can be broken up neatly into:

• Synchronous (web conferencing, for instance).

• Asynchronous (multiple choice tests in response to written text, for instance).

• Blended Learning (a mixture of both, with some traditional classroom teaching thrown in).

These teaching methodologies are discussed below, with a little more detail given to the blended approach, as it will not be considered as a specific subject in future chapters.

The asynchronous approach

Asynchronous online learning does not occur simultaneously with live instruction. This is indicated diagrammatically in Figure 3.2 with a student taking a web course that is self-paced and does not require simultaneous interfacing between the instructor and learner.

Figure 3.2. Asynchronous online learning.

Asynchronous online learning has been popular as it is does not require immediate access to an instructor, it is closer to the web page structure and has lower bandwidth demands. For example, in a recent survey of undergraduate medical education 4% of articles discussed the use of synchronous online learning, as against 96% for asynchronous technologies.27

One of the key tools for asynchronous courses is a Learning Management System (LMS) that is useful for both classroom and online courses. It provides functions such as registration, testing, attendance, grades and downloads of course materials.28 In addition, it can be used to upload completed assignments and to allow chat with other students on discussion forums. In other words, it is a one-stop shop for students and reduces the enormous and chaotic workload placed on instructors. Research shows that students want to use the LMS and suggests therefore that instructors should set it up to encourage engagement and a sense of community.

The synchronous approach

The real time connection capability of synchronous online learning makes it an excellent choice for collaborative forms of distance learning.29

Synchronous online learning, illustrated in Figure 3.3, is where communication between learners and their instructor is simultaneous and information is accessed instantaneously. Examples include real time web, video or audioconferencing or chatting in real time. Synchronous online learning will be the basis of the blended learning examined in this book. The current internet infrastructure is increasingly able to support the significant bandwidth requirements, especially for real time industrial automation training using equipment (with realtime video). As alluded to earlier, an estimated 90% of online courses are still offered in the asynchronous format making the synchronous approach comparatively minor.30

Figure 3.3: Synchronous online learning


It has been suggested that three factors influence successful online learning. The first is the effect of the materials on the learner, the second is the ability of an organization to effectively support online learning and the final factor is the need for instructors.31 Web-based (asynchronous) instruction is often unsuccessful as learners feel isolated and lack the motivation necessary to complete a course without the guidance and support offered by an instructor. It is also well known that an instructor can make or break a presentation and so it follows that good instructors can result in very effective and successful synchronous online learning.

There is a range of business opportunities that may be assisted through the use of synchronous online learning (and as a possible component of blended learning):32

• Productivity improvements. Trainees need not travel away, saving both time and money and associated stresses.

• Skill and knowledge reinforcement. All sessions are recordable and therefore available for later use by both the learners themselves and others.

• Scalability. It can accommodate both large or small learning audiences.

• Establishment of new communities of learners. This is facilitated by its ease of access.

• Rapid deployment of training is possible. It can, therefore, cope with high employee turnover and company restructuring.

• Timely delivery and reusability on a just-in-time basis.

• Performance and achievement tracking is achieved with some ease.

The focus of the online learning in this book is on live, instructor-led online learning (or the synchronous experience). This is sometimes referred to as web or videoconferencing. After working in this area for a number of years, we are convinced that this highly interactive format results in real learning. Furthermore, the connection between student and instructor means we experience lower rates of attrition. Being that much closer to the traditional classroom approach allows for the employment of existing learning strategies and eases the migration of materials to the learner.

Advantages and disadvantages of each format: asynchronous and synchronous online technologies

This section gives a brief insight into the advantages and disadvantages of the different approaches. However, to be more objective, it should compare one format against another. Some advantages of synchronous (as opposed to asynchronous) online learning are:3334

• Connection of dispersed learners in real time.

• Real-time interaction (live communications) and collaboration.

• The sense of immediacy (e.g. immediate responses) and co-presence.

• Development of a highly interactive learning community.

• The balancing of learning dynamics (accommodating various learner profiles, for example introverts and extroverts, females and males).

• The use of “unique functionality” including whiteboards, mark-up tools, application sharing and “web safaris”.

• Facilitation of group learning, discussions and dialogue.

• Access to expensive and highly knowledgeable instructors wherever they are in the world.

• A standardised learning experience (such as similar teaching resources and computer interface to students) for instructors at widely dispersed locations.

• High quality, collaborative, informal learning between individuals.

The advantages of asynchronous online learning include:

• Flexibility and convenience.

• Quality discussions (between students and instructors).

• Self-paced learning.

• Timely and thoughtful teaching prompts and guidance.

• 24/7 access to course materials.

• Learning locations unrestricted.

• Learning with limited interactivity.

The disavdantages of synchronous online learning include:

• The possibility of more abbreviated responses due to time restrictions.

• Scheduling difficulties (for different time zones).

• Technical issues (with audio and video).

• Increased equipment requirements (sometimes cameras and microphones are required, for example).

• The lack of human contact (it can be a little impersonal).

• The need for learners to have significant self-discipline.

• The lag between instructor/student or student/student conversations (real time response problems).

Optimal usage of synchronous and asynchronous online learning

Research backs up the assertion that the synchronous format (virtual classrooms) is best used for relationship and community building, for social support and is a better solution for overcoming learner isolation. Asynchronous mechanisms, on the other hand, are better for content delivery, deeper learning and content reflection and for ease of administration.35 Further to this, students like the idea that asynchronous discussion boards provide more permanent records of text-based postings and are often nervous about appearing live on a synchronous platform.

Blended learning

The Sloan Consortium defined a blended course as, “….a course that integrates online with traditional face-to-face class activities in a planned, pedagogically valuable manner in which a portion (institutionally defined) of face-to-face time is replaced by online material and classes”.36

The benefits of blended learning (vs. just classroom or just online learning):

• It enables the delivery of the lab requirements for engineering degree accreditation (requiring physical, face-to-face meetings)

• It offers flexibility and is therefore more convenient for busy (working) students.

• The providers can make some cost savings (compared with classroom sessions only).

• It encourages a better connection between students, as they are able to meet.

• It offers more opportunities and more variety to the learning process.

Blended courses have increased over the past decade and can arguably provide the most powerful form of learning.37 The traditional classroom, with a highly interactive teacher, in a face-to-face situation (learners and teacher) is combined with self-paced, self-regulated and convenient learning via the web. It must be noted that this format may not be possible for remote students, but the term “blended learning” sometimes refers to a blend of synchronous and asynchronous online education that would suit remote students.

When given a choice between the different modes of instruction, students, interestingly, chose convenience over learning efficacy. They indicated a preference for independent, passive modes of instruction (PowerPoint and read/respond), despite the fact that the interactive modes (video and audio files) generate a more positive and productive learning experience.38 It follows, therefore, that a balanced approach, using all instructional strategies, is the optimum teaching strategy. Research shows that blended learning is more advantageous than purely face-to-face or purely online instruction.39

Different blends

A suggested list of variations of blended learning is as follows:40

Table 3.1: Variations of blended learning
Level Description

No web-based courses provided





Only web-based details of course/syllabus and institution providing courses.


Some (but not all) course materials online for download.





Additional reference material available through the website.


The web is a key element of the course with most course resources available online.





The student cannot function without effective access to the website.





Asynchronous communications.


Blended /hybrid course.





Use of a judicious mixture of classroom and website.





Synchronous and asynchronous web tools are used to provide the online portion.


Completely online.





Online distance learning course with virtual communities.





Use of only synchronous and asynchronous tools to run classes.

Online learning-not in isolation

Online learning should never be considered in isolation, but as a component of the overall learning experience.41 Ideally, it should form part of a blended solution. Blended learning, through the mixture of teaching methods, was designed to obviate the failures in online learning: high attrition rates as a result of low motivation to complete learning programs. In addition, blended learning could reduce the criticality of poorly designed online learning programs with high quality instructor-led sessions.

Research shows that blended learning can be extraordinarily powerful compared to only classroom instruction or online learning on its own. This is true particularly where the instruction is about making the learning as realistic as possible, using lifelike scenarios and facilitating the application of learned software and skills to the students’ work place. The outcomes are further improved by providing online mentors and instructor-led training on-site. In summary, true blended learning results when “you activate prior experience, demonstrate skills, apply the skills and then integrate the skills in with real-world activities”. All in all, it is about employing hands-on exercises that are lifelike and work-related, and that support and on-the-job mentoring are provided generously. Few differences between the different blended learning models exist, making it clear that a good quality training course is more about instructional design and instruction than the medium used.

A survey involving 263 student respondents was conducted over five courses at Southeast Missouri State University. The face-to-face approach was measured in 2003/4 and then the blended approach in 2005/6. The results indicated that although there were no differences in grades, the latter afforded significant costs savings, ease of access, flexibility and greater student satisfaction.

Labs can benefit from a blended approach

Engineering education, with its lab requirements, may be better serviced using the blended approach rather than using a fully online strategy.42 It is important to avoid simply “throwing materials together”, but to integrate the online and classroom (and lab) sessions so that they complement and complement each other. Research was conducted on a group of students on-campus and a group off-campus, at the department of Industrial and Engineering Technology at a Midwest University. Semester grades indicated no significant differences between the face-to-face sample of students and blended learning group. The faculty involved in the blended experiment did, however, make significant costs savings due to reduced travel. Emerging from the research were the following suggestions for creating an effective blended course:

• Training for instructors on the new approaches.

• Careful structuring and planning for the course.

• Thoughtful linking of the online components with the classroom sessions.

Traditional training and education which is classroom-based and instructor-led is still the dominant form of corporate training today.43 It is also particularly valuable for young children or young adults; where there may be some immaturity and lower levels of self-discipline.

An example

As mentioned earlier, blended learning is a combination of different training media and events, to create an optimum training program for a specific audience.44 The following combination is an example of the approach; self-paced web-based training (asynchronous), on-the-job training, followed by classroom instruction, accompanied by printed job aids, and supplemented by virtual classroom follow-up sessions (asynchronous). It is important to note here that online learning will not replace classroom instruction, but will merely provide part of the spectrum of solutions to the overall learning experience.

With this in mind, live, online learning is considered an attractive alternative to asynchronous instruction. Blended learning can thus combine classroom learning with the best features of online learning; allowing the participants to interact with an instructor from wherever they are located. The following may comprise a good combination:

• Asynchronous online learning where students work at their own pace.

• Synchronous online tutorial sessions to discuss difficult concepts.

• Simulations to obtain practice skills.

• The traditional (face-to-face) classroom, as this always receives the highest ratings due to its physical proximity.

• Virtual communities where groups of participants can chat and exchange views on the content, asynchronously and conveniently, over the period of a course.45

Even with this in mind, online learning should still only be considered as part of the spectrum of training solutions (interventions). A good combination–another blended approach–is to use online learning to cover the classroom information, theory and background knowledge, and then once back on the shop floor students obtain on-the-job training with more experienced employees/mentors. Younger workers are more likely to find this form of learning attractive, whereas baby boomers tend to remain more attuned to the traditional forms of learning which they grew up with. Furthermore, their exposure to computers and video games would not have been as extensive as their younger counterparts.

Online vs. classroom

It is worthwhile to consider some of the issues in the debate between classroom and online methods of instruction. The following compares a traditional residential college with an online teaching environment:

Table 3.2: Comparison between residential campus and online teaching environment

Residential Campus Equivalent distance learning activity Equivalent distance learning activity
Attendance at lectures Live attendance at synchronous web conference, books, recordings of lectures, printed transcript of lecture (online or printed) Web conferencing software, lecture recorded through digital video, printed media
Laboratory sessions Simulations, remote laboratories, lab kits Simulation software, remote laboratory software, hardware/software kits
Tutorial Sessions Synchronous web conference Asynchronous chat and postings through LMS Web conferencing software Learning Management System (LMS)
Interaction with fellow students Email, asynchronous and synchronous chat (incl. through LMS or Skype), virtual room with web conferencing package Email package, LMS software, web conferencing software
Self-study Books, local university or college library, eBooks and electronic articles, online articles Web browser, email software, FTP software, eBook reader
Use of Library Books mailed from local library or purchased, materials emailed or downloaded or from web. Subscription service to local university; electronic library (e.g. IEEE), books dispatched by college or university
Lecturers Email, synchronous web conferencing, chat room (in LMS), phone calls (Inc. VoIP) Email software, web conferencing software and instant messaging software
Attendance at seminars and colloquia Digital recordings, digital video, synchronous web conferencing. Web conferencing software, digital video recordings
Administrative and academic issues Email, phone calls, chat via LMS software Email, LMS software, chat software
Examinations and tests Rapid timed examinations, attendance at a certified test center Online testing software

A useful self-appraisal test for a candidate’s suitability for distance learning (against that of classroom learning) is given in Appendix A.

Lecture attendance-preferred methods

Virginia Tech has students who attended one or more of the following class types:47

• On-campus: face-to-face lectures.

• Off-campus: live, synchronous sessions.

• Off-campus: asynchronous.

In a survey of Virginia Tech distance learning students in 2005, learners indicated that their preferred method of delivery was synchronous (36%). Videoconferencing came in at 20% with self-paced at 24%. The hybrid category, with self-paced and face-to-face, garnered support from 16% of the students.

A comment from similar research in 2006 (which is also echoed in other research), indicated that students felt that the classroom experience remained the most effective method of teaching. This was despite admitting that the online sessions were interactive without being isolating. Could this be due to a lack of positive adjustment to a new learning technique, perhaps? (We are, after all, creatures of habit.)

Despite this, it is certain that videoconferencing does offer great potential for improving the learning experiences for distant students.

In an effort to compare asynchronous and synchronous approaches lectures were presented to students attending a biology community course. Those from the asynchronous group showed slightly higher student satisfaction and student grades (but, interestingly, those attending both online formats performed better than their fellow students in the traditional classroom sessions).48 There was no lab component; however, the course relied, “heavily on note memorization”, which could have accounted for the result.

3.4 Online vs. classroom learning outcomes

Although there was a tendency for students to rate their online courses slightly lower than for the equivalent classroom sessions, the statistics for actual learning outcomes failed to support this general feeling. The learning differences between the 600 students, paired into classroom or online sessions, were insignificant. It is important to note that the research method employed here removed the “flexibility” from the online students’ experience (something which is usually inherent in online attendance–even, to a degree, in the synchronous approach). This could have accounted for the slightly negative attitude. To assist online students further permanent synchronous “meeting rooms” can be

set up. These can facilitate collaboration on small projects, note sharing and presentation preparation, all without having the inconvenience of physical meetings.49

On-campus vs. off-campus for students

It has been generally believed that on-campus students are better off than those who are off-campus in terms of analytic skill development (in mathematics, for example).50 As a corollary to this, off-campus students (generally, mature age) appear to demonstrate a heightened ability with creative thinking when dealing with real-world engineering problems. They tend to be better attuned to business problems too.

Online systems engineering education

During 2009, at Stevens Institute of Technology, a survey was conducted on optimum methods for remote delivery of graduate level system engineering courses (with reference to classroom discussion approaches). Before the research all of the courses offered through the Webcampus LMS were redesigned with a consistent course interface. This resulted in a surge in student satisfaction.

In terms of asynchronous remote online courses, Swan pointed out the three most important factors are "...a transparent interface, an instructor who interacts frequently and constructively with students, and a valued and dynamic discussion." (p. 517). The online offering from Stevens Institute of Technology involved 32 examples of 22 unique, systems engineering graduate level courses (core and elective). These were analyzed, mainly, in terms of classroom discussions. The analysis was based around Kirkpatrick's reaction level, which is the first of his four levels for assessment that is required to achieve quality learning.

The student evaluation survey response completion rates exceeded 90% for the 485 respondents. Similar to the results in face-to-face sessions, students rated instructor effectiveness generally higher than for course quality. The highest level of satisfaction for the course and instructor was experienced with asynchronous, online discussions, whether the instructors participated in these discussions or not. Student satisfaction for courses and instructors that included real-time web conferences, or a combination of real-time web conferences and asynchronous online discussions, were mixed.

Obviously these results, whilst important from a student reaction point of view, do not say anything about learning effectiveness–surely a critical ingredient?

There remains considerable data showing lower student satisfaction with online courses vs. traditional face-to-face delivery.52

In a comparison between an online, asynchronous course and a traditional, classroom course entitled Introduction to Engineering, a higher drop out rate was observed for the former (12%), but the tests and assignments showed no significant difference.53

A survey at Tennessee Tech University compared online with traditional classroom education for a variety of courses; Engineering Technology–CAD, International Management, Strategic Marketing and Elementary Probability and Statistics.54The CAD for Technology was well designed, with a comprehensive suite of materials for full online delivery. Overall, the gap between the classroom courses and distance learning was small as measured by teamwork, critical thinking, creativity and communication skills. The

CAD for Technology course, being fully online, was valued by students although they did find significant challenges in forming and then managing collaborative virtual teams.

Positive trends for online training with smaller organizations

Although a limited sample size of 68 small and medium-sized firms (with a maximum of 500 employees) were used for this survey, they were all actively providing training.55 Approximately 70% were using online events, and 80% using classroom or breakfast training sessions. Typically, an online session had seven times more attendees compared to traditional training seminars and the cost was eight times more for traditional sessions. Over 70% of the trainees believed that video would improve the overall training experience.

Technical writing issues

Writing skills were compared in on-campus and distance learning students at Old Dominion University (in the Engineering and Engineering and Technology departments).56 Mixed and surprising results were evidenced. The on-campus students performed better during their examination comprising an essay. The distance learning students, however, performed better in the Fluids Mechanics Laboratory course (eight lab reports were submitted based on the observation of videos as opposed to direct performance of the experiments within an on-campus lab).

Delivery media debate

There has been ongoing debate about which training delivery approach is the best.57 Recent claims suggest that the newer media, including online learning, are considered superior to classroom learning. It would appear, however, that the, “no difference phenomenon” is a more accurate summary of the situation; it appears that the different delivery media have minimal impact on the learning outcomes.58 What has become clear is that the quality of the instruction and the instructor are imperative.

There are numerous examples of instructional media ranging from asynchronous web-based, audioconferencing, electronic whiteboards, computer-based instruction, print, television, recorded audio and video (DVD or Podcast), satellite, synchronous web and videoconferencing and virtual worlds.

It is thus important to remember that the medium is merely the delivery mechanism for instruction, but has no discernible impact on learning outcomes. It is still incumbent on the instructional designer to put together outstanding content and to ensure that the delivery is comprehensive and inspirational, to help facilitate students achieve great outcomes.

Much research has indicated that instruction delivered via the computer and internet can be as effective as classroom-based lectures, although there is a bias against the former.59 A comparison was made between two randomly distributed groups, drawn from a class of 50 students engaged in a mechanics course. No differences were found in terms of their knowledge acquisitions (a pre-test eliminated any biases).

Another comparison revealed a similar outcome. An online presentation used Macromedia Breeze (later taken over by Adobe) for a Warehouse Management course at Purdue University vs. a traditional lecture approach.60 The online presentation was fairly primitive with minimal interaction; the instructor pre-recorded the sessions onto PowerPoint slides, but also included a demonstration using Excel. Again, no significant learning differences could be discerned between the two approaches.

Student achievement in online and face-to-face modes

As discussed before, the key distinguishing ingredient with student achievement is not the medium, but the instructional method.61 Quality course design and delivery is the essence and should therefore be the key to ensuring effective learning outcomes. In classroom-based education, students learn more effectively when they are engaged in high-level cognitive activities. This includes activities such as facilitating discussions, checking facts, participating in discussions and gathering resources. Providing self-regulating activities to students are key and include time management and learning strategies. From the facilitator’s perspective a well-balanced workload and provision of regular deadlines for the delivery of assignments is essential.

Research into distance learning courses

Extensive research was conducted at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).62 It covered a total of 150 courses, 3491 students and 7701 course enrolments during Autumn 2003 and Spring 2004. Approximately 20% of the enrolments were engaged in asynchronous distance learning. A pseudo-experimental design was used, as the students were not randomly allocated to specific courses. The results of the research indicated that student performance (i.e. grades) in distance learning courses were significantly higher than for face-to-face courses, with more students expressing satisfaction with distance learning. Students were also more satisfied with courses (and instructors) that used text and multimedia files against that of solely text or alternatively multimedia. Those instructors who had received "teaching, learning and technology" (an NJIT term) training in distance learning course development and delivery received higher satisfaction ratings from students. There was also a preference for WebCT over the WebBoard LMS platform.

Distance learning research

A large data sample of 76,866 students at Old Dominion University in the USA was analysed in 2006.63 Old Dominion has a mixed distance learning and on-campus model. At the time of the study, televised courses were used with one-way video from instructor to student and then two-way audio between them. The distance learning students travelled to one of 60 distance learning centers to access a course. These ranged from community college and military base to corporate sites–mainly in Virginia. The mean age of students was 33.4. The analysis showed that the location of a course at one of the local community colleges could make a difference to the final grades of the student. Another finding was that undergraduates, men and younger students all received lower grades than postgraduates, women and older students.

Classroom courses benefit from the inclusion of online learning

The law of unintended consequences is obviously at work here. Many classroom instructors are now increasingly building distance learning course elements into their programs (such as discussion boards, easy access to learning resources and chat rooms).64 This is not surprising. Research has shown that students who use both online resources as well as attending face-to-face lectures, (thus creating a blended approach) outperformed students who simply attended lectures. The online material, however, needs to be carefully synchronized to the lectures and the student incentivized to use the online materials (with a quiz counting towards final grade, for example).

There are concerns, however, as a result of this shift, that a more extensive use of online resources will result in a collapse of lecture attendance.65 Certainly, if the online material is merely a reproduction of the face-to-face lecture, attendance at both will surely be cannibalized.

The candidates most likely to complete distance learning courses

This study suggests younger and better educated students are more likely to complete a distance learning course.66 As one would expect, motivation is key to determining who completes a course. Those students who are intrinsically self-motivated (who derive satisfaction from the learning) and want to achieve high grades are generally more likely to complete a course. Similarly, those students who possess internal loci of control (i.e. believe they are in control of their destinies) more often complete courses and pass. Students with external loci of control (i.e. believe that their destinies are controlled by external persons or events), on the other hand, generally complete their courses successfully, but only with solid support from their instructors.

Positive traits in online students

Many students enrolled in online courses are of mature age and tend to be non-traditional. They are endowed with self-motivation, display independence in their learning and have superior time management skills. Another interesting comment emerging from research is that they are “daring and confrontational in their expression of ideas”.67

Distance learning students: who are they?

A MS Degree in Technology Management has been presented via distance learning, at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, since the mid 90s. It has attracted an interesting mix of students. 18% were traditional distance learners, 29% were on-site students and 53% hailed from other major universities because distance learning ensures they avoid scheduling conflicts and allows them to maintain their work commitments.68

Research at Deakin University (Australia), noted that off-campus students are generally mature aged (at the commencement of their studies) with a mean of 34.4 years.69 On-campus students have a mean age of 18.5 years.

Distance learning attrition rates

A study was conducted into withdrawal rates from various undergraduate and graduate programs at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.70 The main reasons cited for withdrawing before completion were poor instructor to student communications, the incompatibility of learning styles with the distance learning format and the inaccuracy of expectations regarding distance courses (assumptions were made about the courses requiring fewer hours to complete and that they were more likely to be completed with ease). There was also a correlation between low grade point averages (GPA below 2.5) and higher withdrawal rates. There were, however, other factors, which may have accentuated this, and so a recommendation was made not to set any GPA cut-offs for students.

There is no doubt (and research supports this) that the lack of contact and feedback from other students and lecturers tends to diminish a student's motivation to complete a course.71

Student persistence and academic performance

In a study of 9,000 unit enrolments in engineering at Deakin University (Australia), research revealed that off-campus students have withdrawal rates twice that of on-campus students.72

Further to this, the overall withdrawal and fail rate (often referred to as wastage rate) was considerably higher for off-campus students. The mean grade of off-campus students was significantly higher than for those on-campus. An additional observation was more specific; this trend was noticed for the first unit conducted in a particular academic year. A summary of the figures revealed that 28% (on-campus) and 47% (off-campus) withdrew. Failure rates were 22% (on-campus) and 18% (off-campus). Reasons for this sad state of affairs were outlined by off-campus students; they felt there was a lack of support from tutors and study materials were either late in arriving, or when they did, were either incorrect or damaged. Another challenge was academic (particularly in maths). Computer problems were partly to blame and their inability to attend on-campus labs posed hurdles. Work/family/study became competing demands and there were financial barriers. Finally, they felt that there was insufficient information on assignment and assessment requirements and there remained uncertainty about remote exams.

3.5 The concept of presence

The key difference between classroom-based and distance learning is the separation (and isolation) of the learner from the instructor and this is, unsurprisingly, one of the greatest causes of learner dissatisfaction for students enrolled in online courses.73 A sense of presence can definitely enhance the instructor-learner relationship and contribute to greater learner satisfaction.74 The various interpretations of “presence”, how to implement it and then how to measure it are discussed below.

The definition of “presence” is a debated topic, but there are two definitions that are widely accepted:75

• The “sense of being there” at a place remote to the one who is physically located.

• The other is where an individual feels “presence” but does not see the mediating influence of a television, computer or mobile phone. This is referred to as: “perceptual illusion of nonmediation”.

Presence has also been simply defined as the “sense of being present in a particular environment”.76

There are two components to “presence”. The first is “telepresence” (being there) where the learner feels that he has been transported to another remote location and the second is “social presence” (being together with others) where the learner interacts with other remote entities (animals, people, avatars and equipment).77

Others suggest that there are actually three types of presence.78 The first is subjective personal presence, “which is the extent to which and the reasons why you feel like you are in a virtual world”. Social presence is, “the extent to which other beings (living and synthetic) also exist in the world and appear to react to you”. Environmental presence is, “the extent to which the environment itself appears to know that you are there and reacts to you”.

Presence can also be looked at from three perspectives: social (feeling connected and part of a community), psychological (technology has become totally transparent and unnoticed by the user and everyone is situated next to each other) and emotional (showing genuine feelings using words, symbols, audio, video, interactions and non-verbal cues all whilst online).79

The contemporary world is increasingly virtual and indeed sought after, with interactions via phone, texting, web-based and through the use of social networks (especially the ubiquitous Facebook).80

Many people are cautious (critical, perhaps) about whether an online course can actually provide the same level of experience as a classroom session, and is more likely effectively a second-class experience. This perception is due to the absence of verbal (and non-verbal) and visual cues and concerns about whom we are interacting with (and the rather wooden way we are interacting).

Suggestions to increase “presence” in your courses

There are various strategies to increase the sense of presence throughout an online course.81

At its commencement

These include crafting a personally written welcome letter to students that introduces the instructor, details expectations of the students (including their level of participation) and enthusiastically outlines the benefits of the course.

With the help of coordinators or lecturers, the learner should then become familiar (in a fun and interesting way) with the learning management system (LMS) and related software (such as web conferencing, simulation software and remote labs). The student should also use the LMS facilities to introduce himself to his peers–photographs can be of assistance too. Effective use of the discussion forum should also be detailed.

Icebreaker activities are helpful at the commencement of the courses. These could include “Where in the world are you?” and “What is your favorite cake / holiday destination / book?” Sharing biographical information in a sequenced way is another great project. Finally, placing members in small teams, and providing them with collaborative work, results in the rapid familiarization of fellow students.

During the course

Interactive activities throughout the course are essential, even if the course is self-paced. The interaction should take place between the instructor and the student. If few of these activities are included, the lecture sessions should be highly interactive. Consider the following, however: making regular announcements, communicating extra bits of information, reviewing performance, supporting queries, mentoring and tutoring. The instructor should also seize opportunities to communicate with students over non-content related issues, such as logistical problems.

One-way instructor presentations (such as mini lectures and guest experts) can always be daunting for both presenter and student due to the lack of contact, but focusing on giving an interesting and quality experience for the learners will engender feelings of presence.

Co-operative activities can be powerful learning experiences and contribute to a significant level of presence. Working in groups on a project (joint demonstrations of a particular concept or product, for instance), engaging in discussions and debating are examples of these activities.

From the perspective of the learner, sharing (and learning) can be accomplished through the generation of concept maps (graphical representations of what has been learned), self-generated videos, interviews with others and blogs. From the presenter’s point of view, these can be accomplished through labs–both virtual and remote–, blogs and selected videos to illustrate concepts or to stimulate discussion.

Towards the end

The course should be concluded on a high note. Any hint of a gradual ramp down and loss of energy, on the part of the instructor, should be avoided (this will impact on the learners). With the end of the course nigh, respect for the learners’ greater levels of knowledge and independence should be acknowledged, but support should not wane. Instructions on finishing up should be communicated with clarity, something that is particularly necessary for those who feel a little overwhelmed with submissions due.

Another useful technique, in the final moments of a course, is to review old examination papers (to help students prepare for their final examination).

Feedback should be sought from students on the course and instructors (confidential, individual feedback) prior to the end–it is more difficult to extract this from them once they have “flown the coop”.

Reviewing whether presence has been achieved

It is always useful to assess the level of presence in your course. This will enable you to adjust your instructing style during the course and in subsequent courses.82 Typical areas to consider reviewing include:

• Learning Management System statistics for all users. Review typical statistics such as the number and types of postings, access, and materials uploaded and downloaded.

• Learning participation at the commencement of the course (especially with orientation). Poor participation may signal a poor retention rate.

• Synchronous platforms such as web and videoconferencing and chat facilities.

• Communication logs between instructor and students that examine, for example, email and social networking.

• Individual group discussions.

• Miscellaneous support, such as help desk and related forums.

• Formal feedback surveys taken at various times throughout a course.


3.6 Interactivity

The quality of interaction students enjoy with their instructors is one of the greatest contributors to their success in a distance learning course.83

Five types of interaction

Forms of interaction include: learner-instructor, learner-learner, learner-content, learner-interface and learner-individual.84 The first three are self-explanatory, but the learner-interface is between students and the instructional media (including video tapes, TV and computer). Learner-individual refers to students doing their “own thing” such as conversing or communicating with other students or being involved in other non-learning activities.

Interaction improves instructor and student satisfaction, instructional outcomes and decreases student attrition. Other improvements include increased participation, understanding, learning and community building. Beware of overdoing it, however; aim for a balanced process.

Table 3.3: Simplified model of interactions

This is a modified table from Moore.85

Interaction Method Learner to content Learner to instructor Learner to learner
Alone Web pages, video, recordings of web conferences, self assessment quizzes, remote and virtual labs





Email, text and audio chat, marked assignments, social networking Email, text and audio chat, social networking
One to many


Email, group chat, discussion forums, web & video conferencing, social networking Email, group chat, discussion forum, web & video conferencing, social networking
Many to many


Group chat, discussion forums, web & video conferencing Group chat, discussion forum, group projects, web & video conferencing

If a course is well designed and presented by a highly effective instructor with the appropriate levels of interaction, it can definitely be of a higher caliber than a traditional lecture-based course on-campus.86

Student and instructor interation

The following examples of student-instructor interaction are worthy of mention:

Modeling. Demonstrating how and why an expert does a specific task.

Coaching. Watching the students as they perform a task and then correcting their performance.

Scaffolding and enquiry. The instructor assists the students perform the task (perhaps via a questioning approach) and, if required, undertakes part of it.

Articulation. The student describes what he or she is doing to tackle a task.

Reflection. Comparing the students work with that of an expert and working to minimize the differences.

Exploration. The student problem solves on his own and in doing so, extends himself.

Oddly enough (well, from an intuitive point of view), research shows that interaction in an online class has little impact on achievement.87 A useful table comparing the different forms of interactivity based on types of online learning is given below.88

Table 3.4: Different levels of interactivity based on types of online learning

Adapted from Higgins and Keightley (2007)

Tier 1 learning (low interactivity or graphic one-way communication) Tier 2 learning (moderate to high interactivity–has some degree of learner to computer interaction) Tier 3 learning (high interactivity–includes learner to learner and learner to trainer interaction)
PowerPoint presentation, learning on a personal digital assistant, eBooks, podcasting, videotape, audiotape. Interactive resources, quizzes, tests, reflective learning, games, simulations, demonstrations. Virtual classrooms, streaming media, group games, video conferences, chat groups, emails, discussion lists, blogging, wikis, moblogging.

Instructors often express their enthusiasm at the prospect of online teaching as they believe it requires less energy–the necessity of leaving their home studies is often not even required. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Our experience leads us to believe that instructors need to be more energized to cope with this new genre of training. Mistakes are less likely to be overlooked during the reduced lecturing time-frames and in the confines of the virtual classroom, and with the emphasis on providing as much interactivity as possible, instructors are unable to “cruise”–students are only one mouse click away from another web page or program.

Interaction is key

One of the challenges89 with online learning is the difficulty of finding real tools to demonstrate and provide practical hands-on exercises for the participants (working with real equipment in an industrial automation environment, for instance). Many experts90 find this the real failing of the online methodology, as learning by doing is a vital part of the learning experience. Another challenge involves the reading of body language. Online instructors are at a distinct disadvantage here and need to devise different methods of reading what is happening in an online discussion, for example.91

The themes of learning-by-doing and interactivity will run through this book.

Interaction with interfaces (and content), instructors and peers

Research into these three forms of interaction resulted in some suggestions for improved practice:9293

Interaction with course interfaces and content

The student’s interaction with a course interface is a critical part of the learning process. The interface should be, therefore, consistent for all courses, easy to grasp and navigate and supported 24/7–preferably with quick access to human tutors.

All courses should be built around this need for clarity and consistency that includes clear instructional goals and expectations for faculty development.

Students need to be provided with quick and detailed feedback on their individual performances, which can, to a degree, be automated. The testing should be frequent and modeled around active learning-oriented modules.

Interaction with instructors

The quantity and quality of interaction between instructors and students directly affects learning outcomes. To maximize it, therefore, guidelines for faculty expectations of instructors should be explicit and timely and quality feedback should always be provided to them. To this end faculty development should include instructor interaction.

Because the requirements for online instructing are considerably different to that of face-to-face, training support is imperative (including discussion forums and exemplars of outstanding online course instruction). Professional support on the educational technology should be pervasive.

For student communication, instructors are encouraged to use threaded online discussions (as opposed to simple email communication) to encourage discourse on particular topics. Email, on the other hand, requires aggregation by the student, thus wasting cognitive effort.

To improve their interaction with students, instructors need to be provided with techniques to assess student learning styles and then, based on this, adapt their courses appropriately or assist students to adapt. For example, students who lack direction in their learning may adjust and instead of merely reproducing knowledge move towards more complex and in-depth synthesis and evaluation.

Interaction with peers and vicarious interaction

Good communities of practice are key to learning socially. It is imperative, therefore, that effort goes into building them, with faculty support and training. Showing participants how best to interact within them and by linking them to course activities, from the start, will also ensure their growth.

Instructor verbal immediacy (see later) will be improved by initiating discussions, personalizing communications (use of names and incidents), being inclusive (e.g. use of “we” and “us”); interacting frequently; being positive and enthusiastic and through the use of colors and graphics.

The more active a discussion forum (with high quality posts), the more likely there is to be student learning. Build participation into course grades through clear grading rubrics rewarding online discussion. Faculty can assist by building high quality discussion forums.

An unusual form of interaction (that nevertheless represents an opportunity for learning) is vicarious interaction. This is where the students observe and learn from the behavior and interactions of others. Because it works, it should be supported and developed.

Discussion summaries, tracking mechanisms for grade reading and commentaries on posted messages would all count.

Online discussion is more likely to encourage divergent thinking (experimentation, brainstorming and creative writing) than face-to-face discussions. To encourage this, demonstrations, provocative open-ended questioning and appropriate grading rubrics should be embedded into training programs.

Online discussion is, however, less likely to support convergent thinking (single, well established answers) than face-to-face discussions. Written assignments, one-on-one tutorials and small group activities also facilitate this.

The formation of small groups (five randomly chosen students in each) helps build the feeling of community, supports collaborative learning projects and assists with the focused processing of course content through virtual discussions.


The concept of “immediacy”, as discussed above, needs some clarification. It is important to consider the impact of asynchronous online learning.94 Immediacy is "the psychological distance between communicators". Immediacy is created through communication. In a classroom it is instantaneous and involves both verbal and non-verbal communications (including body language and eye contact). The degree of immediacy often dictates whether or not the parties will stay in contact with each other.

Immediacy behaviors are highly regarded by students. They include humor, the invitation to give feedback and discuss their personal interests, the use of student names, requesting questions and providing timely feedback.95 Arguably, a synchronous online learning

session has considerably more opportunities for this with than other formats. It is immediate and has a range of communication methods; from video, text chat box, audio, the whiteboard and the application sharing of a particular program is possible, able facilitating demonstrations. Immediacy has a significant impact on student motivation and has shown to improve learning. Furthermore, student evaluations of instructors are improved with increased immediacy.


3.7 The challenges for successful online education in a traditional college

There are numerous obstacles to the wider application of online education in a more formal college or university environment, some more obvious than others.96 These are discussed below.

An alien entity to many faculties

Many faculties have a conservative view of education, thrive on close relations with students and believe online education is a poor substitute for the traditional approach. Online education’s introduction needs to be gradual with the use of good practice examples used.

University staff fear loss of jobs

There is a suspicion that student-faculty ratios will increase with online education, resulting in retrenchments. The best approach, therefore, is to illustrate that a growth in the demand for traditional courses results from the provision of courses for distant students. Faculties are likely to grow, not shrink.

Courses require upfront investment

The process of creating an online course, with the attendant website development, recordings, videos, reading materials, assignments and exams, is considerably more expensive than for face-to-face sessions. Proper costings need to be completed prior to embarking on training online, to ensure the additional impost is catered for.

Co-ordination costs are higher

Administration and coordination costs will increase as both areas are more demanding in online training.

Materials are shared by teachers

Although this seems like a positive situation, some see this as a negative. Faculty prefers to teach using their own materials and dislike having to use third party materials. To alleviate this attitude somewhat, the third party materials should be of a high quality and facilitate customization for use by individual instructors and different audiences.

Ownership of course IP: a prickly issue

Many universities do not make it financially attractive for faculty to create course materials especially where there is uncertainty about ownership. Faculty needs to be appropriately rewarded for their additional work and have clear-cut agreements put in place.

Accrediting bodies are uneasy

Many accrediting bodies in engineering are dubious about the value of aspects of online courses (especially for labs, project work and collaborative assignments) and insist on students spending a minimum time on campus.

Online learning within blended learning; some challenges

There are significant advantages to using online learning as a component of a blended learning solution. Numerous challenges have been identified, however, and need to be addressed.


Ineffective course organization is common and includes poorly organized class schedules and resources.


Universal standardization in online communication systems are still lacking and connection speeds for internet access remain poor, especially in rural areas (resulting in fitful video streaming) Other challenges include weak IT infrastructure support.

Program completion rates are poor

This remains a major issue and needs to be carefully monitored.97 Attrition rates as high as 80% have been reported on some courses, but a more reasonable 25% for corporate training is expected against 3% for classroom instruction.

Factors that contribute to successful course completion include personal motivation and interesting and interactive courses. To a lesser extent, mandatory company completion policies and ongoing instructor support can be of assistance. Another motivator is a learning network that facilitates learner interaction. It is also worthwhile screening participants beforehand to assess whether their learning styles align with online learning.98 Preferred students are:99

• Independent.

• Highly motivated.

• Active learners.

• Organized, with good time management skills.

• Self-disciplined.

• Adaptable to new learning environments.

These qualities are imperative as feelings of social isolation (exacerbated by a lack of interaction) are a major cause for the high attrition rates for distance learning.100

Poor quality online learning resources

Poor instructional materials can sound the death knell for an online learning course, particularly as there is no physical contact between the instructor and participants. The provision of text-based materials alone is unlikely to provide a good experience for learners.101

Instructor absenteeism

The distant and absent instructor becomes an issue if student satisfaction and successful completion of onsite learning is required. Interaction is critical and can be achieved through improved instructional design, the use of technical tools and simply, through the employment of conscientious and dedicated instructors.102

Team work difficulties

Working in teams, as in the work place, is important in the online learning environment. It can, however, be a source of conflict if not managed correctly, especially with the asynchronous and “patchy” communication between participants. To help overcome the difficulties the instructor should clarify expectations, objectives and outline the team etiquette at the commencement of the course.103

Online testing and assessment

In online education, there is an inherent risk of learners cheating in tests–more so than in traditional face-to-face training methodologies.104 To alleviate this threat an expanded online test bank can be useful and wherever possible the use of formative testing (throughout the course) as opposed to summative testing (one test only at the conclusion of the course).

Audio problems with web conferencing

Although the technology has advanced dramatically from the turn of the century, when there were intermittent problems with audio and video, occasionally problems with audio still exist and should be dealt with effectively.105

Miscellaneous issues

Other barriers to effective online learning include a lack of skill and knowledge in online teaching and the lack of support for designing and executing courses in this area. Another is the paucity of tools used to construct the programs and the insufficient time allocation given to online teaching.106 Finally, there may be inadequate remuneration to instructors working in this area.

Simply inappropriate

In some cases, online learning may not be the right fit for a particular course, so should be rejected out of hand or, alternatively, should become part of a blended approach. Certain learning types which appear not to work well (at this juncture) include situations such as negotiation courses and one where lab exercises are necessary, although the latter is an area that is developing and will be addressed in later chapters.107 In some cases, informal training alone is adequate, where colleagues or mentors can provide the necessary expertise and knowledge on-the-job.

Lack of interactivity

This is one of the greatest challenges with remote training–the lack of interaction with the instructor, the materials and with other participants.108 As discussed earlier, interaction can be defined as the reciprocal actions of two or more people and the exchange of information between people. The lack of human contact (body language and eye contact) in online education makes for a formidable barrier between instructor and participants.109,110

Online learners (especially in engineering and the sciences) can ameliorate this issue, to a degree, through their involvement in remote labs. These experiments offer students an opportunity to interact with real equipment and gain hands-on training remotely. Furthermore, the laboratories have the potential to transfer greater depths of knowledge than is possible during simple collaborative discussions. They will be expounded upon in a later chapter.


3.8 Best practice

Online learning abounds

Online learning is used in a variety of ways. A useful survey in New Zealand summarized the range of solutions for industry; from the induction of staff (to a firm’s processes and procedures) and IT skills (office suites, photo editing packages) to literacy and numeracy skills (in support of other online learning initiatives) and technical and trade skills (to encourage more consistency).111 Other common uses of online teaching include the enhancement of product knowledge (for sales and support staff) and support for certification courses (for example, in the teaching of first aid).

What students remember

The table below provides some interesting material on the instruction types that result in information retention. In some references, specific percentages (as opposed to more qualitative high, medium or low) for absorption results were incorrectly assigned to the different activities.112 There is no underpinning research to justify assigning these rather arbitrary percentage numbers.

What students remember
Absorption Results Type of instruction Level of instructional design
High Simulations and games Interactive live e-class or seminar High
Medium E-course with audio and video
E-course with visual, online self-study guides, and online PowerPoint presentations
Low Email, e-documents, and e-white papers 
e-reading Online learning

(Reproduced from Machine Design p. 84 January 11, 2007)

This suggests that blended learning (using interactive synchronous online learning) is a more effective method for achieving high absorption learning rates as opposed to the asynchronous online learning approach. It would also appear that hands-on interactive activities, using real equipment, could generate a very high absorption rates.

Factors for success

Students with high levels of motivation and self-discipline are more likely to complete online learning courses successfully.113Other factors critical for success are student familiarity with computers and courses which offer scheduling flexibility (to accommodate working students).

Instructors can assist student success by responding to queries quickly, to demonstrate regular involvement in the online classrooms and to communicate their expectations of students clearly.

A survey conducted at the College of Engineering at the University of North Carolina showed that students preferred classroom teaching to online options. Despite this, online education can easily equal classroom based learning, and in many ways exceed it. Here are fourteen factors (a mixture of ours and those suggested by others) that illustrate the power, both potential and real, of online learning:114

1. Student-oriented learning There is a strong peer-to-peer ethic where students work and take responsibility for their own learning.

2. Outstanding instructors. Due to the ease of access and lack of geographical restrictions, superb instructors can be accessed from throughout the world.

3. International colleagues The student population for a course can be drawn from throughout the world–again, due to the lack of geographical restrictions. Students are able to network and learn from a peer group, which is internationally based.

4. Niche topics due to economics. In the classroom many course topics were abandoned due to a lack of economic viability with low attendance rates. Now these courses can be run as participation increases when there are no restrictions to where students are sourced.

5. Writing and multitasking. Interaction with students is accommodated through text chats, submissions, forums, tests and quizzes. Even in the synchronous format, instructors can text students while they are presenting or while students are contributing: Multitasking at its best. An added bonus is that everything is recorded for later review and reflection.

6. Highly interactive interchanges. All students are encouraged to interact through texting and audio. The asynchronous discussions can last up to a week or longer and often contain impressive amounts of material.

7. Lifelong learning. The responsibility for learning is the student’s. Many are mature age and in need of courses which constantly update their skills.

8. Rich course materials. The courses comprise an eclectic and powerful mix of videos, documents, web tours, simulations, remote laboratories and postings that are available 24 hours a day, all week.. The online instructing approach is uncompromising in its requirement for high quality materials. In a classroom, on the other hand, a good instructor can often cover the deficiencies in the course materials. This is very difficult to achieve in an asynchronous situation and in a synchronous presentation, the short live presentations make it necessary to have great support materials.

9. Quick interaction and support. The culture of the online experience embodies wide ranging support. This is a necessity because of the perceived fragility of the distance learning student working alone.

10. Flexibility. The students’ learning times are not rigid. Even synchronous web conferences are generally scheduled at multiple times through the day (to accommodate time zone differences).

11. Quick feedback. Online quizzes and tests provide immediate feedback and on the good courses instructors respond quickly to queries on content and instruction.

12. Communities of learners. Tight relationships are formed online between class cohorts, instructors and administrators (or coordinators). These often endure long after the completion of courses.

13. Pioneering spirits. The medium is based on new technologies that are continually being refined. Students can benefit from this pioneering spirit where the ground rules of education are being broken and reinvented.

14. Faculty development. There is a necessity to rework all classroom course materials (and to create new tools and content). This also tends to “fire up” faculty members to re-examine their instructional techniques and indeed careers as teachers. The result is a far better experience for students and instructors.

Student satisfaction

Typical factors relating to improving student satisfaction are: 115

Technical problems Without adequate computer skills, lab courses undertaken off-campus can pose a serious threat to student satisfaction. The level of difficulty, even with clear set up instructions, can undermine student confidence. Quick feedback can help here.

Ambiguous instructions. When students are faced with instruction ambiguity (through their own careless reading or as a result of poorly written information) assignment completion is likely to be hampered and impact on student satisfaction levels. Support during tutorials and help sessions may go some way to relieving this problem.

Tardy feedback. Frustration levels can build very quickly without immediate feedback. Timely feedback is imperative and should become policy in any online course.

Verbal and non-verbal cues. Some students are better suited to face-to-face learning and may find, therefore, the lack of the cues in online training frustrating. Quick feedback as substitute for these cues can help.

Disinhibition and democracy in online learning

An incredible opportunity exists in online learning for reserved and reticent students. During online session these students often display disinhibition, actively participating and commenting where normally nothing would be volunteered.116 Another feature of online learning is the increased level of democracy. All students, together with their instructor, behave in an egalitarian manner–the instructor is much less likely to dominate a session.

Bear in mind, however, that learning for learning’s sake (no matter what form it takes) is unlikely to be an incentive to undertake an activity.117 At the end of the day, students prefer to accomplish work only if it contributes to their overall grade.

Factors affecting student satisfaction and perceived learning

In a major study conducted at the State University of New York (comprising 64 institutions), 3,800 participants undertook predominantly asynchronous online education. Three factors were identified as being critical to a student’s satisfaction and perceived learning.118 These included a clear and consistent course structure, useful and dynamic interactive discussions and an instructor who interacted with students in a positive and constructive way. These factors help to build strong learning communities that in their turn greatly assist in the success of online courses.

Interestingly, students were not enthused with group or collaborative work. They believed that they learned less during these activities. A typical challenge, witnessed in classroom situations too, is getting group members working together. There was, however, no evidence of the use of strategies (building in individual responsibility, for example) that may ameliorate this common failing.

Self-regulated learning

Online learning does require a considerable amount of self-regulated learning– considerably more than in a traditional classroom.119 Self-regulated learning refers to the knowledge, skills and attitude that is acquired through a learner’s inner drive to achieve their learning objectives. It is important, therefore, that online students assess whether they possess this innate motivation and ability. It is also incumbent on the instructor and other support staff to assist students in applying self-regulated learning strategies.

Good practice online

Seven guidelines are listed for good teaching and learning practice:

• Instructors should provide clearly understood guidelines that can be completed with ease.

• Assignments requiring discussion should have one clear objective with a measurable outcome.

• Students should present their projects in a team environment.

• Instructors should provide both information feedback and confirmation feedback (an example of the latter: “I have received your assignment”)

• Deadlines should be imposed strictly to ensure that students maintain progress and keep from falling behind.

• High expectations for even challenging tasks should be communicated and praise for quality work given.

• Students should be allowed some latitude with selecting their own projects.

Learning modality

Learning modality refers to a student’s optimum learning style, as can be seen in figure 3.4. These styles include visual, auditory or kinaesthetic (tactile).120 It has been suggested that learning style can impact on a student’s grades and satisfaction with an online course.121 Research has been conducted at the Calgary campus of the University of Phoenix and DeVry University. Participants were split between blended learning and solely online sessions. It was found, however, that learning styles had no impact on their success in distance learning as measured by satisfaction and grades.

Figure 3.4: Different learning styles


There appears, therefore, no significant linkage between learning or cognitive styles and learning outcomes.122

Timely feedback and timelines

Online learners want timely and comprehensive feedback to minimize their feelings of isolation.123 Another important indicator for student success is the timeline. This provides students with direction and reminders of submission dates and so helps them keep up.

Easy printing of material and internet speed

Students often want to print out their course resource web pages to read later.124 Printability is, therefore, a key requirement, with a high degree of readability (especially for the ubiquitous engineering equations and diagrams). Excellent connection speeds are also critical. Faculty should be quick to provide support here, as compromise will result in student frustration and dissatisfaction.

Typical requirements for overall structure of online courses

A summary of the typical requirements for online courses is provided here. It has been taken from a document by the Association for Learning Technology (ALT).125 The key areas:

General considerations. This encompasses course objectives, policies, procedures, content, structure and operation. These need to be provided in adequate detail.

Accessibility. This relates to the ease of access to the course (such as internet and computer access) and the ability for the course to be scaled to meet varying numbers of students.

Organisation. The course should be simply and clearly organized to allow learners to grasp its overall structure and then to move from one part of the course to another with ease. For example, they should be able to move swiftly from the introduction, to the pre-test, to the materials, to the self-test and on to the assignments.

Language. It should be unambiguous, easy to understand and study. Verbs should be written in the active tense, and the conversation directed to the student in the “second person” (“you” rather than “she”, “he” and “it”). Technical jargon should be avoided, but language that is positive, enthusiastic and supportive employed.

Layout. Ensure the layout of the course is attractive, enticing and consistently structured.

Goals and objectives. Provided at the beginning of each module and explained clearly. They should be attainable and tie in well with the content.

Course content. This should be structured so that it is encouraging rather than overwhelming. It should be targeted appropriately, to the correct level of the learner. It should be accurate, rigorous, regularly updated and closely tied to the course objectives.

Copyright of the resources, General copyright permission must be secured before the use of course materials, books and videos. It needs to be examined carefully; better to err on the side of caution.

Instructional or learning strategies. Effective learning should result from all course materials. To this end, wherever possible, customize the materials to suit the requirements of the individuals in a “classroom”.

Learning resources. Extensive and easy access to learning resources should be built into the course. Required and optional materials should be made available.

Evaluation. This should be fair and objective. Measures necessary to protect it from plagiarism or academic dishonesty must be employed.

Internet performance

Two network parameters particularly relevant to online education are bandwidth (speed of the internet) and latency (degree of internet responsiveness).126 A 12Mbit/s target bandwidth or throughput (as with Australia’s in-progress National Broadband Network, using fiber for the premium service of fiber to the home or premises) would allow for downloading of a lecture recording of an hour (60Mbytes) within 5 seconds against that of 5 minutes on ADSL (1.5Mbits/s). Latency is expected to be less than 10 msecs.

Latency (or Round Trip Time) should be less than 150msecs for telephones against interactive gaming of under 10msecs. A remote lab would become unworkable with a round trip time exceeding 300 msecs. Unfortunately, when the internet is based around satellites the latencies becomes huge. A geostationary satellite has a latency of 1,000 msecs to 1400 msecs, a medium earth orbit satellite has a latency of 125msecs and a Low Earth Orbit satellite has a latency of 10 msecs.

3.9 Engineering and online learning

As indicated in the previous chapter, engineering professionals were surveyed to gauge attitudes to online learning.127 The growth of online learning is certain, but interestingly, evidence shows much less activity in the engineering arena.

Although the engineering professionals gave distance learning (of which online learning is a component) an average rating, a large number indicated that they did not know much about it or its application. An interesting observation is that many were enthused about the importance of more informal methods of gaining knowledge as found, for instance, in on-the-job training (using technical papers, books and one’s peers, for example).

Online learning is unknown

30% of engineers and technicians had never heard of online learning and the perceptions of many who had was not favorable (evidenced in the later questions and qualitative comments). Only 37% of the total number of respondents had attended an online learning course (either synchronous or asynchronous) in the past three years. This is low compared with 72% in the financial and human resources industries, for example.128

Of those respondents who had attended an online course, the most popular were computer courses, closely followed by personal development and then instrumentation and automation (probably a bias because of the database source). Other courses that had been attended included occupational safety, management, business, project management and environmental.

Completion rates

The completion rate for online learning courses was 63% (still lower than for equivalent classroom sessions).

Cost of online education

Although there are more non-paying participants of online learning courses, a significant proportion (41%) are paid for. A common belief is that they are too costly. This may be due to the perception that resources on the internet should be free.

The support is there

70% of those familiar with the concept of online learning were supportive or highly supportive of the teaching methodology.


The average duration for online learning sessions tends to range between 30 and 60 minutes, which is, in the author’s experience, acceptable for optimum results. There were, however, a significant number who endured sessions that ran for longer than two hours– fairly lengthy transfers of knowledge, where one would question the effectiveness of the learning.

Online learning is not engaging

56% of the respondents felt that online courses were less engaging or motivating than face-to-face or classroom options. (Some respondents may have assumed this without experiencing, first-hand, online teaching). Whether these perceptions are real or not they will affect interest in online and blended learning and resultant registrations. Only 10% felt that online learning was more engaging than its traditional counterpart, but then the evidence indicates that most respondents had been exposed to basic asynchronous online learning, which could account for this.

The breakdown in online education

Respondents had been exposed to a mix of training methodologies. 50% to face-to-face or classroom based teaching, 0% to synchronous online learning, 10% to self-paced online, 10% to offline, 10% to mentoring and coaching, 10% to print-based learning and 0% to audio and video sessions. The figures suggest that the more traditional forms of online learning have been employed, leaving significant room for expansion into the synchronous approaches to training.

Hands-on online training: a challenge

It appeared that around 27% used simulation software and only 6% remote labs in the online or blended courses they were registered on. In the general qualitative comment field, there was considerable discussion on the major deficiency of online learning–a lack of experiential learning with real equipment (crucial for engineering training). This need for hands-on training is supported by others.129

A return on investment (ROI) calculation shows a real economic return in undertaking the training and is perhaps an obscure measurement for most trainees. Unsurprisingly, only 9% of respondents indicated that they were performing ROI calculations on training against 43% who were not. This is in line with the general training market. It appears that decisions for undertaking online learning are based purely on the cost savings, not on ROI.130

Overall there seems to be a significant interest in the technology, with online learning following an expansionary path.

Management support

As with other forms of training, management is seen to be unsupportive, with a low 16% vouching for it. Other problems included 14% of respondents finding the experience boring and the content of low quality, 13% finding the fast changing technology a burden and another 13% tending to be culturally resistant to any new form of training.

The qualitative comments generally included reference to the rigidity of training online, the fact that it was boring and dull and that interaction with the instructor was inadequate.

It is believed, however, that with good quality synchronous online learning most of these issues can be addressed.

Weak infrastructures result in poor online experiences

Numerous regions in the world and various work sites in more remote areas still have poor data communications links and weak supporting infrastructure. This has a negative impact on online learning. The rapid increase in the use of broadband, however, will go some way to ameliorating this issue.

The near future for online learning

Online learning technologies will dramatically increase in the next few years. Learning Management systems enjoyed the highest response, followed by testing and videoconferencing. A negligible response was received for asynchronous online learning. One third of respondents, however, still indicated uncertainty with the future direction of online learning technology.

Instructor-led classrooms still king

The final question asked for their projections on training methods in the next few years. In the lead was 20% for instructor-led classrooms, followed by 13% for multimedia such as DVDs and CDROMs, 12% for self-paced online and 12% for blended learning.

Informal learning is vital

Many noted the importance of informal learning, which ranged from internet research, knowledge Net Portal, books, discussions with colleagues, on-the-job training and forums. Typical comments were as follows: “… so much learning for me is unstructured, looking up specific topics on the web as a form of self-taught learning”. This is obviously a rapidly growing knowledge base from which to learn. In the past, a book offered a fairly one-dimensional method of accessing knowledge, but having an interactive discussion with an expert on the internet is undoubtedly a completely new and more multi-dimensional way of acquiring knowledge. Generally, on-the-job training is valued in terms of the overall training process.


In an effort to summarize the research outlined above a number of recommendations surfaced.

The aging of the workforce in engineering (and industrial automation) is likely to have serious consequences for engineering. To overcome this, the working age of engineers should be extended, skilled workers retained and recruitment increased (with a focus on females as well as males).

A large number of engineering respondents claimed to know little or nothing about online learning. To remedy this, a significant marketing effort is suggested; to outline the cost saving potential and, more crucially, because the learning experience can be enriched by using a blended learning approach.

To counteract the poor perception of online and blended learning, high quality training materials and resources are imperative–with a focus on synchronous online leaning–using simulation software and hands-on training techniques, which are particularly important for engineering education which requires a robust hands-on component. It is vital that the engineering community comes to see online learning as a productive experience–with the potential for interaction in live, synchronous, instructor-led training.

Poor management support of the new technologies of learning was often mentioned as a reason for the poor take up of blended and online learning. The business case for improved learning and lower costs should be driven home by the leadership at the various engineering institutions and societies. Management reticence is understandable, as the online medium is still relatively new and remains unproven. There is evidence of increased expenditure on engineering training by corporations and it follows, therefore, that advantage should be taken of this with the promotion of online and blended learning. This is particularly pertinent with the growth of the internet in providing online informal training resources ranging from chat rooms, online materials, discussion forums and peer support.

This promotion of online technologies, for engineering training and education, is vital because ultimately it will encourage more effective knowledge dissemination.

The state of play in engineering

Another item of research from 2005, which is perhaps somewhat dated, but provides a general picture of online training activities in various areas of study.131 126 institutions in the USA participated. 30% offered an online engineering degree (largely associate degrees, with only one providing a bachelor degree). The majority of these degrees were offered in the electrical or computer engineering fields. Over 80% were offering a

master’s degree online (the main reason for these being more prolific than undergraduate courses is the requirement for extensive labs in the latter132). 90% of the institutions used asynchronous web-based technologies for delivery of their programs with approximately 50% using synchronous technologies (but then, as mentioned, this study was completed some time ago).

While leadership and higher-level management are essential when launching online programs, grassroots support from an institute’s lecturers and support staff is also critical.133

3.10 The costs (time and financial) of building online courses

How onerous is the creation of online learning?

The time (and indeed money) required to build an online course is significant. Most authorities would agree that an instructor-led, classroom based course can be initiated much more quickly. Our experience is similar, although the investment of time does fluctuate and is determined by the degree of customization required. The benchmarks, in the table that follows, are interesting to note when undertaking budgeting and planning for online learning course production. Bear in mind, however, that the table does not differentiate between synchronous or asynchronous despite this being significant. When the cost to produce the materials is counted it may be tempting to outsource the work to more inexpensive producers. It is necessary to be wary, however, as poor quality training resources often result and the time invested in remedying this may prove even more costly.

Table 3.6: the length of time required to create an online learning course.

(Adapted courtesy of Bryan Chapman in alliance with Brandon Hall research.134)

Ratio Form of learning
34:1 A complete instructor-led project including its planning and design with lesson plans, handouts and PowerPoint slides (but excluding a detailed comprehensive reference manual or book).
220:1 A standard online learning course including its presentation with audio, some video, test questions and 20% interactivity
345:1 The design, creation, testing and packaging of third party courseware.
750:1 The creation of simulations from a “blank sheet” with highly interactive content.

The economics of preparing and selling online learning materials can be daunting indeed. For example, based on a ratio of 345:1 and a wage of $50/hour, the production of a highly technical one-hour course, in a specialized area of electrical engineering, would end up costing $18,000 for training materials plus another $3,000 for the marketing and packaging of materials with part of this for sales staff. Based on the relatively weak sales of engineering training videos, one would not expect to sell more than 70 to 100 of these per year. It would require a minimum packaged cost of $300 per training course simply to break even.

Suggested pricing for online courses

For three credits over one semester, the following costs have been suggested:135

Level 1 A low level course using an LMS, chats, forum and email with static course content would require 200 to 250 hours (for an existing course) and 700 to 1,000 hours (for a new course). For a school of 10,000 online students, computer costs would be an additional $20,000 with a monthly fee of $1,000. Two additional staff would be required to support the LMS infrastructure, students and faculty.

Level 2. A mid level solution would be similar to Level 1, but with the addition of audio and video streaming. The development and delivery (using Camtasia) would add an extra 10% to the cost of Level 1. In addition, a web server necessary to support the streaming would cost another $25,000.

Level 3. A high-end solution would include audio and video captured from a classroom course (using Polycom videoconferencing units). With the additional effort another 30% would need to be factored in on top of level 1 or 2. Individualized videoconferencing classroom units are about $3500 each, with hardware and software costing in the order of $30,000. Staffing costs would add another $20,000 pa.

Based on the authors’ experience, these costs would appear to be on the high side. One of the truisms when working with software, however, is that it is very easy to underestimate costs (often significantly, as we have found painfully on many occasions).

A suggested cost for outsourcing the course development for a three-credit-hour college course is $40,000 (excluding specialized video development).

There is some evidence that colleges are reluctant to apportion the true costs for each online course in the fee structure, such as charging at differential rates for high and low-cost courses. Although labor and material costs for both online and classroom offerings are similar, for online offerings the costs skyrocket for overheads such as computing and associated support infrastructure.

Key points and applications

Chapter 3

The following are the key points and applications from this chapter entitled: Putting Online Learning Under the Microscope.

1.  The five pillars of online learning are learning effectiveness, student satisfaction, faculty satisfaction, access and cost effectiveness.

2.  Three essential building blocks of online learning are motivation, meaningful content and memorable interactivity.

3.  Asynchronous approaches are preferred by faculty because of the additional workload and time inflexibility issues that synchronous programs create.

4.  A key model for instructional content is ADDIE (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement and Evaluate).

5.  Some advantages of synchronous learning are connection of dispersed learners, real time interaction, access to expert instructors and lower attrition rates. Disadvantages are different time zones, technical issues with equipment and lack of human contact.

6.  Some advantages of asynchronous learning are flexibility, convenience and the self-paced approach.

7.  Blended learning combines online with face-to-face and is probably the most powerful form of learning. This is especially useful for engineering education where the labs are provided in a residential setting.

8.  Students tend to prefer convenience over efficacy–such as the independent passive modes of instruction (e.g. powerpoint slides) against synchronous fixed time and interactive video/audio files.

9.  The No-difference phenomenon is valid: The different media (online/classroom etc) don’t have much impact on learning outcomes. However, the quality of instruction and the instructor are critical.

10.  Student attrition is increased by poor instructor to student communications, weak support, incompatibility of learning styles to online, low motivation and wrong expectations (about real effort required in terms of hours and time).

11.  Presence–the sense of being present in a particular environment–is important for online success. There are two types: Telepresence (being “there”) and social presence (being together with others, e,g, people and equipment).

12.  Teachers should use strategies to increase presence in the course to improve satisfaction and learning outcomes such as a warm welcome and introduction, strong interaction between instructor and students and end on a high positive note.

13.  Teachers should build high levels of interactivity: Learner-instructor, learner-learner, learner-content, learner-interface (e.g. to computer) and learner-individual (time out with the student doing her “own thing”).

14.  Immediacy is the psychological distance between communicators and is created through communication. It is vital to use humor, to drive and provide quick feedback, and to use student names and discuss personal interests.

15.  Students’ depth of recall for different instruction types ranges from low (email, online white papers) to medium (audio, video and online powerpoint presentations) to high (simulations, games and interactive classes).

16.  Engineering professionals tend to have a poor impression of online learning with doubts expressed about how hands-on labs could be conducted online. Informal learning was, however, highly regarded.


South African Management Team

Cheryl Reyneke Apolonia Chitongo

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How can an e-learning course be interactive?

Boredom can be a real danger, however, we use an interactive approach to our e-Learning – with live sessions instead of recordings.  The webinar software allows everyone to interact and involves participants in group work; including hands-on exercises with simulation software and remote laboratories where possible.  You can communicate with text messages, or live VoIP speech, or can even draw on the whiteboard during the sessions.


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