There are many teaching theories out there, and as educators we have seen them all.  We have fallen in love with some, survived others, been close to the breaking point with some, and others we have really not bothered to get to know much.  Yet they are important because a good course does not happen by accident.  It is PLANNED, painstakingly and lovingly and diligently by the professor.  If you teach, then every course that has your name on it has come from your palette of paints – it is your own unique creation.  The way that it is presented, run, facilitated – what the students take from it, the growth that it spurs in them – all of this is premeditated and flows from you.  By combining elements of the theories that you find to be the most relevant and effective, you take the theoretical and make it tangible.  I would like to quickly go over some of the most effective instructional design theories for online courses, what they are and why they may be helpful to you in designing an online course.

Personally I believe that students learn by listening, talking, doing and feeling.  All of these are necessary.  We can take a little from each of the major theories when designing our courses so that we can reflect best practices for our students and meet all of these needs.

First up we have the objectivist theory, which values the effective transmission of knowledge. Authoritative sources are important as well as learning how to submit new information to a stringent process of empirical testing.  How can this be useful in an online course?  Online platforms provide a wonderful setting for transmitting lectures, videos, scholarly articles, links to the authorities on various topics or subjects, ability to communicate with other specialists worldwide…the list goes on.  Viewing knowledge as objective and something to be acquired, online platforms can serve as a living breathing highway of sorts for transmitting all of the knowledge in an orderly and effective manner.

Behaviorism is a theory which has colored our US educational practices for many years.  The basic belief is that learning is governed by predictable and controllable behavior which is mostly independent of conscious control on the part of the learner.  Reinforcements, either good or bad, will be the determining force behind the learning.  Measurable outcomes and behaviors are what matter most.  In online courses the reinforcement can come in the shape of online self-correcting tests and quizzes, games that reward the learner, instant feedback activities, as well as the classic multiple choice tests.  Learners enjoy using technology because of the instant gratification associated with so many of the activities and games.  These same approaches can be easily incorporated into an online course where they are doing activities that provide instant “positive” or “negative” feedback.  Online platforms for project submission also allow for personalized feedback from the teacher in the form of video chat or discussion which can lead to more guidance and reinforcement.  These are great tools for the behaviorists.  

Then comes the cognitivist theory where we focus more on how the learning takes place and the different ways of knowing, such as accessing, interpreting, processing, organizing the information and then managing the knowledge.  In a world of constant change, these are important – no, crucial – skills to teach.  Cognitivists will be happy to know that the possibilities for teaching in this manner are only enhanced in an online course.  For example students can easily access vast, endless sources of information – but the steps after that are the ones that are important to teach them.  How do they interpret and process the new information?  How can we organize and manage it in a way that grows and fits with our prior understanding?  The mind is a computer and online communities offer endless opportunities to share and reconfigure our understanding by saving it, categorizing it, talking about it, and presenting it in creative ways.  

Finally the constructivists believe that learning is a constant dynamic process of building on prior knowledge and deepening it over time, which is greatly influenced by reflection, discussions, group work and collaboration.  Here we see the importance of free will and social connections.  Online courses allow for collaboration in forums, through Google projects, discussion rooms, online communities… They also allow for multiple options when it comes to free will – the learner can choose how to present their new knowledge by using a vast selection of online tools, and they can also choose the pacing of their work as well as the place of their learning… online courses allow them much more freedom while staying connected.  They can build their knowledge in a way that is personal and meaningful to them.

Constructivists like Piaget and developmentalists like Bruner found that learners do best when actively involved in the learning process. When learners take an active role and are encouraged to question, explore, look at the material from multiple angles, they are able to have a more personalized approach to the subject, thus being an active participant in their own learning.

This ties in nicely with a more inquiry-based learning approach in which social collaboration, problem solving and investigating real world problems and situations with their peers creates an environment which connects the students in meaningful ways to the bigger world and allows them to have a place at the table of making a difference.  They join the social good and contribute even while learning.  

So which theory is best for online courses?  ALL OF THEM.  Remember that we learn by listening, talking, doing and feeling.  Neglect one and you will be leaving a void and an unmet need in one of your students.  Identify what you believe, how you teach, and then be willing to see how students learn best.  Reconcile the two and you will have your own personalized brand of online teaching that will be meaningful to you and to them.

A tremendous help to starting the process of putting together an online course, is Understanding by Design.  UBD helps by bringing up the question early: what do I want them to be able to do after this course?  By working backwards, all of the learning opportunities should be relevant to that one goal and keep the focus of the course on the final objective.  It’s so easy with the vast resources available online to get side tracked and mesmerized by the technology itself.  UBD helps the designer to keep the end view in mind even when designing small opportunities for learning.  I used my UBD plan to simplify my online course.  A lot of the activities I would normally do don’t necessarily tie into the bigger picture.  Keep it simple.  Keep it meaningful.  UBD helped me to do this.

Online learning is happening, everyday, in almost every country.  It is not something we even need to debate about.  It is here.  We WILL be involved with it – if not already – in the very near future.  Regardless of what subjects we teach, it is coming.  As professionals, I know that we want to provide the best classroom experience for our students.  We now need to invest in learning how to also provide the best online learning experience for them.  Professor Klaus Krippendorff at the University of Pennsylvania said:  “Design brings forth what would not come naturally.”  In putting thought and effort into designing relevant and effective online learning for our students we are doing just that.  Bringing something forth that without the thoughtful design, would not happen.

Designing a course takes time and effort.  It will cost you.  But it will also reward you with the knowledge that you are making a difference by providing the best environment for your students, by allowing them to learn in the way that they learn best, by personalizing education so that it becomes about them and not about us, by teaching them how to learn and how to be life-long learners, and giving them skills that will allow them to succeed long after they leave our classrooms.

In this full and time-starved profession, taking time to reflect on the outcomes, looking inwardly to identify our theories and beliefs, mapping out how to best serve our “users”, our audience, and then educating ourselves so that we can produce the best online course we can…these are the difficult actions.  However they are the actions that will make us great while other schools and institutions wonder what to do about this new online learning.  We can embrace this and grow with it, becoming guides to our students as we help them to find their way across the divide between the technology they are living with and the world they desperately need to connect to.





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Morrison, D. (2013, May 7). Why Online Courses [Really] Need an Instructional Design Strategy. Retrieved from