A Guide to Online Education

by Greg Kearsley
Version: 4/12/98

Copyright 1997 Greg Kearsley (kearsley@fcae.nova.edu). Any and all comments, suggestions or corrections are appreciated!

Why this Guide?

Online education (defined below) is becoming increasingly common in schools, colleges, and the training realm. Initially, it was used to supplement existing classroom instruction, but over time, online classes have become the primary form of interaction and information. However, many students and teachers have little experience with online learning/teaching and find themselves uncomfortable with the whole idea.

The purpose of this Guide is to introduce some of the basic characteristics of online education. It is intended for students or teachers who are new to this domain and looking for some suggestions and advice about how to make it a more enjoyable and worthwhile endeavor. The views expressed are based on about 20 years worth of personal experience across many different systems and settings, plus constant reading of the literature. But you may have different views based upon your own experiences -- please let me know about them so I can include/address them in future versions of this document! (To read some other views, see the Bibliography )

What is Online Education?

Online education refers to any form of learning/teaching that takes place via a computer network. The network could be a local bulletin board system (BBS) or it could be the global internet and world wide web. The network could also be a local area network (LAN) or an intranet within a particular organization. Historically, online interaction has been called "computer mediated communication" (CMC), although this term covers applications beyond instruction (e.g., decision-making in work teams).

The most common function used in online education is electronic mail (email) that allows students and teachers to send messages to each other. In addition, most networks also provide conferencing capabilities that let participants conduct multi-person discussions either in real-time (often called "chats") or on a delayed basis (asynchronous). There are also more elaborate systems called MUD/MOOs for group interaction as well as many "groupware" programs. The latter often involve simultaneous viewing of graphics (slides) and use of a shared writing space (i.e., electronic whiteboard). Online education also involves access to databases in the form of text files or multimedia web pages, as well as the exchange of information (e.g., assignments, course materials) via file transfers.

It is not the purpose of this guide to describe the various capabilities of networks or different types of CMC systems, but to focus on the instructional aspects of online interaction. There are many good books that discuss these aspects and you should consult them for such details (see Bibliography) . To read about the latest research on this subject, see the International Journal of Educational Telecommunications (published by AACE ), THE Journal , or Educational Technology magazine. The publications of the ACM and the IEEE provide good background on the computing technologies involved.

In most cases, online instruction takes place in the context of distance education, i.e., settings in which learners and teachers are located in different places and all or most interaction takes place via the network. However, this guide does not discuss distance education at length; for more information on this subject, see the resources section of the Online Chronicle of Distance Education & Communication or my textbook on the topic.

Nature of Online Learning/Teaching

Learning and teaching online is much different than a traditional classroom experience (even when used as part of a conventional class). Since most communication takes place via written messages (or files), writing skill and the ability to put thoughts into words are paramount. People who have poor writing skills may be at a disadvantage in an online environment. On the other hand, having to write everything gives people a chance to think about their responses, especially in an asynchronous setting, where you do not need to respond immediately. Furthermore, one of the side effects of any class involving CMC is plenty of practice writing, often resulting in improved communication skills. For many learners, this outcome is just as important as the subject matter being learned.

CMC also changes the social dynamics of education -- putting everyone (students and teachers) on equal footing. Under usual circumstances, everyone can post messages, so each online participant has the same opportunity to contribute ideas or comments. Consider the situation of the WWW; a web page or site created by a high school student has exactly the same accessiblity as one created by a Nobel laureate. Similarly, anyone on the internet or a BBS can send a message to anyone else, regardless of who they are.

One of the important implications of this change in the status quo is that the teacher or expert does not automatically command a presence in an online environment. There is no counterpart to standing at the front of the classroom pontificating to a captured audience until the bell rings! Any teacher or expert who tries to "lecture" to an online group will quickly have them tuning out and doing other things (like sending messages to each other or forming their own discussion groups). In online education, the instructor must adopt a role as facilitator or moderator -- someone who encourages participation and keeps discussions focused on certain topics. As it turns out this is a much more difficult task than conventional classroom teaching which basically involves presentation of material.

There is another interesting aspect of the egalitarian nature of CMC. It minimizes discrimination and prejudice that arises naturally in face-to-face settings. Unless someone deliberately reveals it, you have no idea about the age, gender, ethnic background, physical characteristics or disabilities of participants in an online class. The discussions and comments that ensue in a online class are about as free of sociocultural bias as possible. Of course, if people post photos or video clips of themselves, this bias-free element is diminished, but actual interaction is still relatively unencumbered. (As desktop videoconfencing becomes more common many of the current characteristics of online interaction will change since this adds the "face-to- face" element back into the equation.)

Finally, it is important to note that people react differently to CMC -- and participate differently -- based upon their personalities and interests. Some people feel quite comfortable joining in and initiating email discussions, whereas others prefer to just read everyone else's messages, but not participate actively themselves (so-called "lurkers"). Teachers and students in online classes need to be tolerant of different levels and styles of participation.

Making the Most of Online Learning/Teaching

Like any endeavor, online learning/teaching can be done well or poorly. The single most important element of successful online education is interaction among participants. It is the instructor's role as a facilitator to ensure that a high level of interaction occurs in an online course. This can be achieved in many ways. The simplist technique is to have students complete regular (e.g., weekly) assignments which consist of answers to problems or questions posed by the instructor. If these responses are posted publicly so that everyone in the class can read them, this provides a basis for sharing of ideas and discussion among participants. And, sharing of ideas is one of the most powerful aspects of online education.

An even more powerful form of interaction is group activity. Students can be divided into small groups of 3-4 based upon common or complementary interests/skills. These groups can be formed for the full duration of a course (e.g., design teams for a project) or they can be short-term for the completion of a particular assignment (e.g., weekly discussion of a problem/issue). Group membership can be assigned by the instructor or can be determined by the participants themselves. For example in some of our courses, we require students to work in online teams but we leave it up to them to determine who they want to work with (based upon background information posted by each participant beforehand). There are also a whole collection of "groupware" programs that allow more sophisticated group interaction (such as shared workspaces and decision-making tools) which can be employed in courses.

Getting feedback on things posted is very important to most people. In fact if participants do not receive feedback on their responses, they will eventually stop posting messages. Providing feedback is the primary responsibility of the instructor (or teaching assistants/tutors). Every major assignment completed online should entail some kind of feedback comments (even if they are very brief). With large groups, the instructor may have to provide group rather than individual feedback, i.e., summarize responses in one message to all participants. Another way to handle feedback is to use peer evaluation, i.e., have participants critique and comment on each other's work. This works particularly well if students are paired up and take turns evaluating each other's work over a series of assignments.

One of the intriguing aspects of online education is that it can sometimes succeed in spite of an ineffective instructor. If students form their own discussion groups or project teams using the email/conferencing capabilities of the system, there can be a high level of interaction regardless of what the instructor does/doesn't do. It is also possible for students to upload or exchange files (or web site addresses) so that useful information can be shared among participants. Online education is inherently student-centered and with a group of highly-motivated students, it can be a very powerful form of learning that is relatively immune to the quality of teaching. On the other hand, a good teacher who facilitates well and ensures lots of feedback can make an online class much more worthwhile and enjoyable for participants. Futhermore, online group activities take a lot of effort to organize and manage -- a task that should be performed by the instructor.

Some Misconceptions about Online Education

People who have little or no experience with online learning or teaching tend to harbor some misconceptions (which are quickly cleared up after actual participation in online classes). The most common misconception is that online classes will be fairly sterile and impersonal. But once a person starts to interact with other group members, they quickly discover that an online learning environment can be very rich and very personal. Participants often establish online friendships which outlast the particular class. Furthermore, people typically find that they are drawn into the subject matter of the class much more deeply than in a traditional course because of the discussions they get involved in.

A second misconception is that online education is only for "techies", i.e., people who have a lot of experience with computers. It is true that you have to have some minimal computer skills to participate in CMC, but you certainly do not need to know (or care) very much about computers. With modern software, participating in an online course shouldn't require much more technical know-how than what you need to operate any other piece of office equipment (e.g., fax machine, copier). On the other hand, you do have to have convenient access to a properly equipped computer system in order to participate regularly in an online class; this means having a machine at work and at home (preferably both -- and a laptop if you travel a lot).

Another common misconception is that online classes will be easy -- easier than conventional classes. But almost all participants report that they find online classes much more work -- and much more rewarding -- than traditional courses they have taken. Again, this has to do with the amount of thought about the subject matter that results from online discussions. Such classes also require the self-discipline to do the preparation required for online participation and activities -- homework is homework, whether online or offline!

Finally it should be mentioned that almost any form of assessment or evaluation is possible with online classes. You can do traditional quizzes or tests with multiple choice questions or problems to be solved if you want; they can even be done with time limits. However, it seems that assignments and projects that involve critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and group discussion/interaction are more appropriate for online education. Portfolio methods that involve journals or work samples are also ideal for CMC (especially when the web is used since they can include multimedia components).

The question of cheating always comes up with any form of online education since online activity is normally done in an unsupervised setting. To the extent that assessment involves assignments or projects unique to a given individual (or done in a team or group context), this is not likely to be a problem. Tests can also be made unique for each person -- or they can be conducted in a supervised environment (like a library or learning center) if really necessary. Basically, if people are going to cheat, they will find a way, online or not.

Assessing group performance in an online setting is a little more difficult than evaluating individual efforts -- particularly when people do team projects with a single outcome representing the collective work of the group. [Note that this is just as true in traditional classroom settings.] However, it is possible to have the contribution of each team member identified and perhaps background work shown in Appendices or attached files/web page links.

Rules of Netiquette

Over time a set of rules (conventions) have emerged that make online communication more pleasant and effective. Here are some of the most important ones:
1. Brief is Best. Keep messages/files short and focus on a single idea/topic It is a difficult to process and remember information that is more than a couple of display screens long -- so keep all messages as brief as possible. When there are multiple ideas/topics to be discussed, use a separate message for each. Similarly, use separate files for different kinds of data/information instead of putting it all in one large file.
2. Careful with Formating Don't use fancy formatting (e.g., tabs, tables, fonts) unless you are sure that all users can read this (as in the case of WWW documents). On the other hand, make messages/files more readable by using spacing, subheads, and lines. Similarly, don't include graphics, images or multimedia components (audio/video clips) in messages or files unless you are fairly sure that the intended audience can view them. When including multimedia components in web documents, identify the format used (e..g, mpeg, wav, etc) so people can determine what "plug-ins" (helper applications) are needed to run them. If you are using a specialized plug-in, provide a source location (ideally via a direct link) where people can obtain the plug-in.
3. Provide Structure Take the time to create meaningful subject headings or descriptors for messages/files to help people orient to the purpose/context of the information. Also, begin email messages with a summary, recap, or excerpt of an ongoing discussion to provide context. When people are reading dozens of messages or files, they need as much help as possible decifering them. When organizing a real-time conference, it is very important to distribute an outline or agenda beforehand to help keep the discussion focused and provide some structure.
4. Manage Participation Participation in a real-time conference (aka "chat") involves some special considerations. More than anything, it requires a lot of patience; think of an online chat as a group conversation in slow motion. Each person must be allowed to finish their comment before someone else types something. In a highly structured conference, the moderator may require that participants request permission to talk by sending a sign (e.g., typing a "!" or "?" for comment or question). This is like asking for the "floor" in a formal meeting. Even if this practice is not used, the moderator must play a strong role in managing the discussion or chaos will result. In particular, the moderator needs to ensure that the discussion stays focused and that participants do not stray off on individual discussions or tangential topics. The larger the number of participants, the more formal procedures will be needed.
5. Public domain Think carefully about what you write. First of all, it is very easy for people to forward some or all of an email message/files to others ... so always assume that anything you post could be made quite public. (Use the telephone or fax for confidential conversations, not CMC!). Also your message may be read by a wide variety of people (particularly if it is posted to a public forum on the internet/web), so be especially sensitive to any form of cultural bias in what you say.
6. Be kind and gentle. There is no need to make cyberspace a nasty place. Avoid sarcasm and mean-spiritedness. And if you read something that upsets you, don't flame; either ignore it or wait a day and send a rational response. The online environment is a wonderful place for debate and discussion, but remember to be civil and considerate.
For more detailed guidesto netiquette, see Angell & Heslop (1994), Shea (1994), or the
Albion or Wabash College web sites.

Research about online learning

The preceding guidelines, like most of the literature about online learning and CMC, is based upon anecdotal experience rather systematic research studies. Indeed, the research and theoretical basis for online learning is quite limited at this time (see the Bibliography below for some references/links to what does exist). In principle, much of what we know about effective learning/teaching in traditional classroom settings ought to apply -- but online learning is a different paradigm and may need new theoretical frameworks.

Here is brief list of some of the questions and issues that need to addressed in research studies:

Of course any research about online learning will have to be conducted in a particular computing environment (e.g., MOOs, web conferences, groupware) as well as a specific subject matter/learning task domain, and this will affect the outcomes. So we need many studies to be conducted across different contexts in order to identify useful general principles or consistent patterns of behavior. In the meantime, we have to rely on anecdotal experience.

Final Thoughts

Computer networks are evolving rapidly and hence the world of online education is constantly changing. For example, in the past, CMC has been pretty well restricted to text messages, emphasizing writing skills. But it is now possible to have two-way video conversations over the internet (using a program such as CUSeeMe) and the web makes it possible to include audio or video clips in a document. So, written responses will become less important over time and people will increasingly interact online using all their sensory modalities.

The increasing number of online options and features is beginning to make it difficult for instructors and course designers to determine which functions should be used for what aspects of a course. For example, what is the best use of synchronous (real-time chats or MUD/MOOs) versus asynchronous conferencing (forums, listservs) for a given class? When is an audio/video link needed, or a slide-sharing/whiteboard feature? Because there are so many programs available now for CMC; it is difficult to evaluate them and decide which one(s) to use. Of course, over time personal experience and research studies will provide guidance but at present the technology is evolving too quickly for there to be much of either.

The changes in the social dynamic of the classroom brought about by online education are pretty profound. Online classes emphasize social interaction among the participants and nullify the authoritarian role of the teacher or subject matter expert. People need to get used to working in online teams/groups. Teachers must get used to fulfilling the role of facilitator/moderator in which they have to cultivate both personal and group participation. And assessment techniques need to move away from testing to projects, assignments, and case studies.

Everyone who experiences online education realizes that this is the beginning of a new paradigm for learning and teaching. Welcome to the 21st century! And enjoy your journeys along the information highway.


Anderson, T. (1996). The virtual conference: Extending professional education in cyberspace. Intl J. Educ. Telecommunications, 2(2/3), 121-135. See ICDE 95 Online Conference

Angell, D. & Heslop, B. (1994). The Elements of E-mail Style. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Berge, Z. (1995). The Role of the Online Instructor/Facilitator

Berge, Z. & Collins, M. (1995). Computer Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom (Vols I-III). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Berge, Z. & Collins, M. (1996). Wired Together: The Online K-12 Classroom. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Campbell, D. & Campbell, M. (1995). The Student's Guide to Doing Research on the Internet. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Caso Internet University Various articles about online learning.

Collis, B. et al. (1995). Online Learning & Distance Ed course (Univ Twente).

Collis, B. (1996). Tele-Learning in a Digital World. International Thomson Computer Press.

Cox, B. (Oct 1997). Evolving a Distributed Learning Community [Originally published in the Wired Together: The Online K-12 Classroom by Berge & Collins ]

Duchastel, P. (1996). Web-Based Learning (numerous articles)

Eastmond, D.V. (1995). Alone But Together. Adult Distance Study Through Computer Conferencing. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Easton, T. (1998). Teaching Online Courses: Introduction and Toolkit

Global Schoolnet (GSN) TeleLearning Articles (great collection, especially for K-12 setting)

Gurwitz, C. & Van Sickle, J. (Oct 1997). "Virtual Instruction: Experientia Docet" , THE Journal.

Harasim, L. (1990). Online Education: Perspectives on a New Environment. NY: Praeger.

Harasim, L. (1993). Global Networks: Computers and International Communication. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Harasim, L., Hiltz, S.R., Teles, L. & Turoff, M. (1995). Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching and Learning Online. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hiltz, S.R. (1995). Impacts of College-Level Courses Via Asynchronous Learning Networks: Focus on the Learner

Hiltz, S.R. (1994). The Virtual Classroom: Learning Without Limits via Computer Networks. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Hiltz, S.R. (1993). The Network Nation: Human Communication via Computer. (Revised Edition). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jones, S.G. (1995). Cybersociety. Newbury Park, CA: Sage

Kaye, A. (1992). Collaborative Learning Through Computer Conferencing. NY: Springer-Verlag.

Kearsley, G., Lynch, B. & Wizer, D. (1995). The Effectiveness and Impact of Computer Conferencing in Graduate Education

Kearsley, G. (1997). The Virtual Professor: A personal case study.

Khan, B. (1997). Web-based Instruction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Ed Tech Publications.

Kilian, C. (1996) "Why teach online?" (Community College Online conference presentation)

McManus, T. (1995) "Delivering instruction on the web"

Murphy, K. & Collins, M. (1997). Development of communication conventions in instructional electronic chats. and Using electronic chats for instructional purposes.

Miller, S. (1996). Civilizing Cyberspace. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Presno, O. de (1997). The Online World Resources Handbook

Reeves, T. et al. Higher Education and the WWW

Rheingold, H. (1993). The Virtual Community. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Riel, M. & Levin, J. (1990). Building electronic communities: Success and failure in computer networking. Instructional Science, 19, 145-169.

Shea, V. (1994). Netiquette. San Francisco: Albion.

Sproul, L. & Kiesler, S. (1991). Connections: New Ways of Working in the Networked Organization. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. NY: Simon & Schuster.

Viadero, D. (Nov/Dec 1997). Unplugged. Teacher Magazine.

Waggonner, M.D. (1992). Empowering Networks: Computer Conferencing in Education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Press.

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