Image courtesy of Lars Plougmann at coming to the US for higher education, I have taken several online courses toward completion of my Masters Degree, and I am taking some as I pursue my doctoral degree. I also design online courses for faculty members, and I think I have an insight of judging an online/web based course from three different perspectives – a student, faculty, and designer.

Though there are many things that I question when designing web based instruction, below are three areas which I think require attention.

Learning Environment

The learning environment in WBI should be carefully designed. Andrew Houle, in his blog, 4 Principles Good Design discusses the application of principles of proximity, contrast, repetition and alignment in context of building cleaner and attractive websites. I think these principles are equally relevant when designing web-based instruction/Online learning/elearning.  Applications of these principles become limited under a course management system. But still, for example, by using lowercase and uppercase letters we can create contrast which can distinguish one section from its subsection and thus create a visual hierarchy. Again, by grouping reading/assignments/PowerPoints or additional materials related to an objective together we can chunk content for better understanding and thus create a visual unit. Following a certain pattern (repetition) to organize content will provide consistency.  A consistent layout, easy and clear navigation, logically chunked information can reduce the extraneous cognitive load in web based instruction. Concise but clear instructions on the policies and procedures and schedule of the course help the students to focus on the more important aspect of the course – the learning content.


Anderson (2003) has mentioned 6 forms of interactions of which “teacher-student, student-student, and student-content interactions” are important to me. Kristy in her blog post in points 2, 3 and 4 has appropriately described the importance of teacher-student, student-student, and student-content interactions respectively. I also came across this video on “The visions of students today” in Dr. Grant’s tweets. Students of this digital age are no more satisfied with passive learning and prefer to learn by exploring. If the students being amidst hundreds of other students feel the way they do in the video, then it is high time that we think of the students who take courses detached from rest of the live world, sitting in front of a computer screen. Based on the nature of the content and the vast availability of technology/multimedia, there is a need to create unique ways to present the information that would help grab the attention of the learners, instead of just asking the students to go through a bunch of bulleted PowerPoints notes. Tom Kuhlmann, in his rapid e-learning blog, discusses ten rules to create engaging elearning. Also, as learning comes from experience, practice, conversations and reflection; creating authentic, engaging and interactive assessments, keeping in perspective how adults learn would help the learners to demonstrate their learning. Stan, in his blog what motivates adults to learn aptly mentions success, volition, value, and enjoyment as four key conditions of learning activities to keep adults motivated to learn. Seven principles for technology supported learning can be followed when designing instruction for undergraduate students.

Technical Requirements & Support

Amidst all the available sophisticated educational software and the wish to make our instruction engaging and attractive, we often tend to get distracted from our original goals and objectives of instruction. Instruction should be designed keeping in mind the audience’s technical accessibility and adeptness. In the debate of pros and cons of web based instruction where I found constant access of the online courses as an advantage, undependable technology or technological failures is reported as a disadvantage. It is also mentioned that not all students have access to computers or high speed internet at home and may have to rely on technology at school or other public places. Hence, care should be taken that the instruction is such designed that it loads quickly, is compatible with different browsers and all the links work. If any assignment requires the use of advanced technology (for example, podcasts or exercises using software’s not ordinarily used), then appropriate support for technological help must be provided (may be via help desk or tutorials).  If any part of the course requires authorizations or logins, accurate access information must be provided. Back up plans should be arranged in event of technological failures. Though technology is inevitable and is an important part of our education, it is not about technology, it is about learning. Keeping it simple is the charm for good web based instruction.


Anderson, T. (2003). Modes of interaction in distance education: Recent developments and research questions. Handbook of distance education, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers, New Jersey.

Conger, K. (2011). If you are creating instruction for the web, you better be doing these 4 things. Retrieved from

Gaytan. J (2007). Visions shaping the future of online education: Understanding its Historical Evolution, Implications, and Assumptions. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, X (II). Retrieved from:

Houle, A. (2010). Four principles of good design for websites. Retrieved from

Jennings, C. (2011). ID- Instructional Design or Interactivity Design in interconnected world? Retrieved from

Kulhmann, T. (2/2/2011). Here are ten rules to create engaging elearning. Retrieved from:

Pros and cons of web based instruction. Retrieved from

Skrabut, S. (2011). What motivates adults to learn? Retrieved from

Technology supported learning. Retrieved from

Guest Blogger

Smita Jain is a doctoral student in the department of Instructional Design and Technology at the University of Memphis. She assists faculty in designing online courses for the department of Health and Sport Sciences. She enjoys her work very much as it is also her area of interest- Online/Web based teaching and learning. She has tutored middle school children and helped preservice teachers to prepare them to integrate technology in their classrooms. After completing her degree she wants to become a faculty, researcher, and consultant in the field of Instructional Design and Technology.

Image courtesy of Lars Plougmann at

About Michael M Grant

Dr. Michael M. Grant is a passionate professor, researcher, and consultant. He works with faculty members, schools and universities, and districts to integrate technology meaningfully and improve teaching and learning. When 140 characters just won't work, then he blogs here at He has a beautiful wife and three equally beautiful daughters, who will change the world.

13 Thoughts on “3 WBIs (ways to better instruction) for WBI (web based instruction)

  1. Jennifer on February 15, 2011 at 3:28 pm said:

    Nice job Smita. I really think you hit home with the information about chunking the instruction into manageable pieces of content. Many educators/designers often overlook this simple idea which can cause cognitive overload. Creating this overwhelming sense in the learner can result in a lack of desire or motivation to learn.

  2. Smita, in your experiences working with higher education faculty, what do you consider to be the most difficult challenge faculty members have with building online instruction?

  3. PrathiNarayan on February 15, 2011 at 9:31 pm said:

    Dr. Grant, working in a similar position as Smita in a Department where the courses are rapidly changing to an online format, I find that most faculty have trouble with planning ahead on instructional activities and adapting to technology. They do not see the need to write clear instructions on activities. They expect to use the same material that they have been using in their face to face classes. Another major issue that I see is the inability to anticipate problems caused by asynchronous learning such as providing resources for delivery of exercises like online seminars.

  4. Prashanthi, thank you for jumping in here with your thoughts. Why do you think the faculty member do not see the need to write the instructions? One of the significant time commitments in my own online teaching has been writing directions and putting my voice into my online content.

    • PrathiNarayan on February 16, 2011 at 10:10 am said:

      Dr. Grant, I think that some faculty members have a difficult time understanding the idea of asynchronous teaching after having taught f2f for more than 40 years. Although they provide handouts and supplementary material in both f2f and online classes, they fail to see the need for clear and precise instruction and expectations in an online class. They are used to providing instructions as and when required by the students in f2f sessions. They fail to understand that the immediacy of response(which enables responsive problem solving) they are used to in f2f settings is lacking in an online class with no synchronous component.

      • Logan Prevette on February 17, 2011 at 9:24 am said:

        I completely agree with Prashanti. Courses that I seen and heard from my colleagues and friends (but luckily not experienced)about these classes that are called ‘web-based’ classes and the instructor just uploaded handouts or a PowerPoint and called it an online class. I appreciate your efforts, Dr. Grant with including very clear and explicit directions. I have frequently referred back to your Tech Tools for Learning wiki pages (from Fall 2009) because I know the information I need is still there and written in a way that will continue to help me. I think it is just going to take time, training, and experiene(or retirements) for all instructors to effectively teach online. (Remember when we listened to music on cassettes tapes? Technology needs some transitional time, before everyone owns their CD player.)

        • PrathiNarayan on February 18, 2011 at 4:20 pm said:

          I agree with Logan on this. The Tech tools wiki is a resource that I know I can fall back on. I have used this resources many times for other courses too. Dr. Grant, the way you had organized the information on the wiki has been very beneficial to us.

  5. Dr. Grant, I agree with Prashanthi when she says that faculty tend to simply convert their face-to-face class materials online. Some of the faculty don’t believe in online activities such as quizzes and discussions. They think those kind of activities are not appropriate for graduate level students. On the other hand, writing detailed instruction and coming up with rubrics is something for which they do not perceive the need. One of the reason for this, in my opinion, is that in face-to-face classes faculty are habituated to giving a generic explanation and go by the facial cues of the students whether it was clear to them or not. But while writing, being the subject matter expert, they think that the explanation is clear enough, but from a students point of view it might miss details. Missing of even minute details can trouble students.

    • @Smita, @Jennifer, and @Logan, I’m wondering how these courses online proceed? How is the support that is eventually is needed by the students generated by the faculty? Is the support created by the faculty member on the fly in emails or in discussion boards, etc.?

      • I think the support occurs when the student(s) ask. I have seen discussion threads dedicated for students to ask each other questions. However, student-teacher communication happens via email. What I believe occurs more often than my preceding statement, is that students are either intrinsically motivated to figure it out on their own or are not successful in the course. Being that it is an online course, the students are less likely to have a personal relationship with other students (or the teacher), and they would feel less comfortable asking questions.

      • Dr. Grant, from my experience, some faculty maintain a very good communication in advance through news posts or emails and thus keep students informed and motivated, while some respond when they are bombarded with student emails. Most of them set up a discussion board, where students are asked to post questions related to the course or any difficulties they are facing. Faculty mention that they would hover over the discussion area to answer questions but then also encourage all students to respond to each others question.

  6. Jennifer on February 16, 2011 at 11:21 pm said:

    I agree with Prashanthi and would like to add that faculty tend to believe that they can take their face-to-face course and put it online and that is it. Faculty need to really understand online learning and how to be a facilitator of learning.

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