In the end, evidence trumps intuition.
Whether designing Web-based instruction from scratch or purchasing courseware
off the shelf, many challenging questions are sure to be raised: "What's the
optimal mix of self-study and live, instructor-led study?" "Should the instructor's
role be primarily directive or facilitative?" "How important is it for learners
to be able to interact with one another?" "If we integrate mentoring, can
it be accomplished effectively via e-mail?" Too often, such questions are
being answered intuitively, without the benefit of relevant research findings.
This article is a distillation of such findings published from 1995 to
the present. Culled from numerous studies sponsored by government agencies,
foundations, associations and universities, the findings are based on both
anecdotal and empirical evidence. If applied to your particular circumstances,
the conclusions presented here should help ensure that your investment of
time, effort and money in Web-based instruction returns healthy dividends.
As you review the following list, four imperatives for effective Web-based
learning should become apparent: learner-centered, instructor-guided (as opposed
to instructor-directed), interactive and peer-collaborative. There is one
more imperative, cost-effective, which is a given in today's bottom-line-oriented
Summary of Research
- Learning is enhanced when instructors see themselves as active guides
to learning and learners perceive themselves as owners of their learning,
actively analyzing, questioning, discussing and developing ideas, guiding
principles, processes or techniques.
- Giving learners control over when and how they develop knowledge and
skill tends to increase the individualization of instruction, a sense of
personal responsibility for learning and learning efficiency. (However,
until learners are able and willing to take control, expecting them to be
self-directed is likely to hinder rather than enhance learning.)
- Web-based instruction can and should enable the delivery of course content
tailored to each learner's particular learning style and preferences.
- Learner-centered approaches should be extended to team-centered activities
whenever a learning activity lends itself to a group effort (e.g., learning
cannot or should not be accomplished by individual effort, or the learning
objectives pertain to communication, teamwork or some other group-functioning
- An effective orientation to Web-based instruction enhances three types
of interactivity required for optimal learning: learner-to-instructor, learner-to-learner
and learner-to-instructional material. The orientation should consist of
instructor's welcome, learning objectives, course outline, types of learning
activities to expect, how learning will be evaluated, course schedule, instructor's
expectations, contact information and next steps (e.g., learners are to
communicate their own expectations and complete an ice-breaker assignment).
- Explaining to learners the importance, means and desired frequency of
interaction at the outset of a course increases the amount of interaction.
- Completion rates of online courses are substantially improved when participants
are provided with a comprehensive orientation to online learning, timely
and personalized feedback from the instructor, high-level technical support
and well-designed, instructor-mediated learning activities.
- Online collaboration improves learning effectiveness by allowing learners
to reflect, present individual positions, debate, construct new paradigms
and otherwise interact with each other. Additionally, anxiety levels tend
to be reduced as a sense of community is developed.
- Mentoring of participants by the instructor, course graduates or other
qualified individuals enhances learning and can be accomplished successfully
- Learners tend to be highly sensitive to system response time. If perceived
as slow, it can seriously impair the effectiveness of instruction. Findings
- To maintain participants' attention, they should be informed when any
download requires more than a 10-second wait.
- When directly manipulating objects on the screen (e.g., disassembling
a piece of equipment represented in 3D), the time between moving the cursor
and seeing the result on the screen should be under 0.1 seconds. (If slower,
the lag time becomes a source of frustration.)
- When clearing a spreadsheet or turning a page, for example, a lag
time of up to one second is acceptable. However, waiting more than one
second tends to discourage learners from exploring options they otherwise
would (e.g., supplemental material).
- The most effective blending of live instruction (synchronous) with self-paced
learning (asynchronous) appears to be one hour of live instruction for every
four hours of self-paced learning.
- Though often underestimated, asynchronous learning strongly supports
a collaborative learning environment by enabling every learner to contribute
when, where and at a pace that is personally preferable. Additionally, the
quality of learner contributions made asynchronously (and expressed in writing)
tends to be higher than those made during live sessions.
- Real time chats on a topic generate more responses per learner than
asynchronous discussions. However, asynchronous discussions foster deeper
analysis and evaluation of ideas.
- For online instructors to be effective, they need to have input into
anticipating and addressing likely learner questions and issues during course
design, be responsive (e.g., provide learners with timely feedback on coursework),
create a psychologically safe learning environment, be conversational in
tone, confirm that all online and off-line activities are clearly explained
and understood, actively guide learning (e.g., pose timely questions, correct
misconceptions, focus/refocus discussions), encourage learners to go beyond
assimilating existing knowledge to creating their own personal and group
knowledge, and foster a sense of community with and among learners.
- Learners should be encouraged and given every opportunity to interact
with peers, instructor(s), guest experts and the instructional material
itself. However, it is vitally important to provide clear instruction and
guidance on how to do so within the context of available Web-based learning
tools and techniques.
- Determining whether a sense of community truly exists among learners
requires evidence of learners knowing one another, discussing common interests,
disclosing personal information, sharing tasks, helping one another, contributing
towards the accomplishment of common goals, respecting each other and taking
- To help ensure the participation of all learners, learning activities
need to include verifiable interactions with course materials, other learners
and the instructor (e.g., reporting results upon completing independent
and team-based activities).
- Integrating teamwork on actual projects with online learning activities
further engages participants and thereby enhances learning. Such collaboration
can be accomplished through video and computer conferencing, e-mail, sharing
of documents, etc.
Taken collectively, the above findings reliably indicate Web-based learning
needs to be learner-centered, instructor-guided, interactive and collaborative,
if it is to be truly effective. Taken individually, the findings warrant the
following caveat. Today's available research on Web-based learning is more
anecdotal than empirical, and most of it is adult education-based rather than
training-based. Consequently, certain findings listed above may
well apply to many Web-based professional education and training courses,
but not necessarily to yours or mine. That said, the digest of findings above
should nevertheless serve as a valuable quick-reference aid - a sounding board
of sorts - useful when making crucial decisions within the context of your
Web-based learning initiative.