School of Professional Studies

Online Learning FAQ

Online teaching and learning is a different experience for both instructors and students. While there are ways to move traditional classroom activities into an online environment, doing so is not usually the best pedagogical approach. Instructors are often surprised by the amount of planning and instructional design required to launch a high quality course. There are numerous pedagogical models of online teaching, just as there are numerous ways of engaging students in traditional classrooms.  The following are common questions instructors have about online teaching and learning.

Is online learning as effective as traditional classroom learning?
SRI conducted a study sponsored by the US Department of Education that compared online and traditional learning between 1996 and 2008. The Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning found that:

The quality of any learning experience depends more upon instructional design than environment.

What are some of the components of an online course?
Online courses can have many of the same components as traditional classrooms including lecture, group discussions, and assignments. Though there are pedagogical benefits to engaging students differently in the online space. Learning management systems used to deliver online courses typically include announcements, lessons, assignments, threaded discussion forums, a repository of course resources, and online grading. Some may take advantage of online chat, whole-class or small group conferencing, social networking sites such as FaceBook, and other Web 2.0 or multimedia tools available for synthesizing and creating content. Online courses have the potential to be highly engaging, student-centered learning experiences if designed creatively and with best practices in mind.

What is a Learning Management System (LMS)
A Learning Management System (LMS) is a software application that provides an online space through which instructors can build a course and students can access course materials.  It can serve as a platform either for delivering online courses or for accessing online content in traditional courses.  When used as a content repository, students meet in the traditional face-to-face classroom, but may use the LMS to access course materials, links to resources, and/or grades. When used for online course delivery, other components such student registration, discussion forums, online assignments, video lectures, conferencing, and learner analytics may be employed.  The LMS typically includes some form of student registration, student tracking, grading, and learner analytics.  Brown uses the Canvas LMS from Instructure.  Other examples of an LMS include Blackboard, Sakai, and Moodle, to name just a few.  

What is the difference between synchronous and asynchronous online learning?
Synchronous learning activities take place at a scheduled time with students meeting together as in a live web conference or chat room. Asynchronous sessions allow the students to interact with each other and the instructor. This can help build community and give students the chance to interact with each other and the instructor. Asynchronous learning activities are those for which the student determines the time and place when he or she will access content and complete assignments. There are still due dates for assignments, but the student can choose to do the work at his or her leisure within a given time frame.

What is blended or hybrid learning?
Blended or hybrid learning combines some level of face time in the classroom with online activities. Think of online learning as a continuum. At one end is the traditional face-to-face classroom with some online technology integration such as accessing course resources or participating in online discussion forums. At the other end is the fully-online course. There are many models of blended learning in between. In a two-day-a-week course, students may meet one day in the classroom and conduct the other day’s worth of activities online. Some online programs admit cohorts of students who meet a few weeks per year in one location for classroom work and conduct the remainder of their studies online. A program might also include some face-to-face courses and other courses offered completely online. The key is to create a blended learning approach that is pedagogically sound and best meets the needs of the program and students.

How is student work assessed online?
There are many ways to assess student learning. Test banks and special software designed to discouraged cheating are available if instructors wish to assess with traditional testing methods. However, other methods of assessment are more suited to the online learning environment. The goal is to put more responsibility on the learner and create an active, learner-centered experience. Giving the student an opportunity to access important content and create an artifact that reflects his or her ability to synthesize that content reinforces a skill that will become increasingly important as information expands exponentially. Well-designed online courses combine projects, papers, discussions, multimedia artifacts, and collaboration with other students or subject-matter experts in the field of study to construct a rich alternate assessment model.

What are faculty/instructor responsibilities associated with teaching online?
Faculty may design and deliver online courses independently or work with an instructional designer to incorporate best pedagogical practices in the online space. Faculty are the subject-matter experts. Instructional designers are trained to match learning objectives to the optimal online learning activities.  The ID will consult with faculty to better understand the learning objectives of a course and assist in design where needed. Planning and designing an online course takes considerable time and thought, whether it has been previously delivered in the classroom or constructed from scratch. Quality online courses are designed such that students perceive the presence of an instructor. In order to maintain this teacher presence, it’s important that the instructor engage regularly with the students. Communication can be facilitated with messages in the LMS, emails, synchronous conferences, or virtual office hours. Checking in regularly during the week will help encourage student engagement with course materials. It also requires considerable time management on the part of the instructor and students.

How is online learning different for students?
Learning online requires considerably more self-direction and time management. Online students must gauge the amount of time to complete assignments and set their personal schedules accordingly. Most of the communication is written, therefore solid writing skills are important for success. Students must be willing to take the initiative to ask questions if they are having difficulties. Assessments often take the form of projects, papers, or other alternatives to multiple choice tests. In addition to self-discipline, processes that support effective online learning include practicing digital responsibility in interacting with others, digital literacy, organization of online content, connecting to subject matter experts or others outside of the classroom, and synthesizing large quantities of information.