Virtual Learning Design and Delivery

HomeStudy GuidesVirtual Learning Design and Delivery

1. Introduction to Virtual Learning Design & Delivery

Michelle Rogers-Estable


A review of what factors make up online, blended and technology enhanced learning, and approaches that improve student retention, engagement, and motivation.

Chapter Outcomes

After reading and reviewing this chapter, learners should be able to:

  1. Define virtual learning.
  2. List key factors of quality online learning.
  3. Outline the pros and cons of online learning.
  4. Know what is successful online learning.
  5. Identify components of high quality online learning.
  6. Understand importance of connections in successful learning moments.

Chapter Sections

  1. What is Virtual Learning
  2. Facilitating Quality Online Learning
  3. 21st Century Digital Learner
  4. End-of-Chapter Resources

Section 1: What is Virtual Learning?

Video: Why is Online Teaching Important?

Virtual learning

Virtual learning is defined as learning that can functionally and effectively occur in the absence of traditional classroom environments (Simonson & Schlosser, 2006). In a publication which examined the quality and extent of online education in the United States, Allen and Seaman (2003) defined a blended learning course as “having between 30% and 80% of the course content delivered online” while they considered an online course as having “at least 80% of the course content delivered online” (p. 6). In both definitions, it necessitates instructors having a clear understanding of the role of an effective online instructor, one which differs greatly from that of their face-to-face counterpart.

In their report, Transforming Higher Education (1995), Dolence and Norris assert that one of the consequences of what they view as the fundamental transformation from the Industrial Age to the Information Age is that social institutions - among them higher education - will also be transformed because of a change in “both what people need to learn and how they can and should learn." Table 1 shows the different learning characteristics associated with both the Industrial and the Information Age as identified by Dolence & Norris.

Table 1-1. Synopsis of Industrial Age Learning vs. 21st Century Learning

Industrial Age Information Age
Instructor centered Learner centered
Set times and places for learning Individualized self-paced learning that could take place

anytime, anywhere
Information infrastructure as a support tool Information infrastructure as the fundamental instrument of transformation
Technologies used independently of each other Integrated technologies in a dove-tailed approach
Traditional programs and course structures Pick and choose learning as needed
Continuing education Life-long learning
Fragmented learning Fused and integrated learning
Table Source: Adapted from Dolence and Norrice,  1995, p. 4

The characteristics described in Table 1-1 show the need to address the different instructor roles and requirements of students in distance and online learning. This is not always an easy task, and merely replicating the face-to- face methods online does not allow the learning experience to be maximized to full potential. Some fail to “make a transformational shift in their approach to teaching from one of disseminating information to one of creating learning environments where students co-construct knowledge through interactions” (Vaughan, 2010, p 61).

This transition from face-to-face to a blended or online method of creating a suitable learning environment for students challenges the instructor on a professional level and many are concerned about the change in roles and responsibilities, use of technology, relationships, presence, and a perceived lack of prestige (Redmond 2011).

Pelz (2004) outlined three main principles of effective online pedagogy. The first principle is centered on the fact that the instructor must give way to student-led learning in an online course due to the distance between the instructor and the student. The instructor can adjust the curriculum to be more student centered via letting students take charge of leading their own learning. Pelz mentioned several ways this can be done:

  1. Student led discussions
  2. Students find, discuss, and share web resources
  3. Peer assistance and teaching
  4. Peer grading and review
  5. Case study analysis as a group where students can learn from each other

The second Pelz (2004) principle of effective online pedagogy is that interactivity is the key to quality online learning. Students must have a way to connect with each other and to interact with the instructor, other students, and the learning materials.

The final principle is the need for presence. In an online course, the distance between the student, instructor, and learning materials can lead to higher rates of dropouts and less motivated learners. Through integrating approaches to increasing both student and instructor presence in the online course, students will be more engaged in the learning process. There are several different kinds of course presence that Pelz (2004) outlines:

Social Presence: It is essential that the instructor create an online learning community where each student can express their online personality, can feel welcome to share questions and ask for help, and can feel that they belong.

Cognitive Presence: Students need an environment where they are free to construct meaning through discus- sion and a community of inquiry.

Teaching Presence: Students need an expert’s guidance, and while online teaching requires students to become more autonomous, they will still need to feel that the instructor is present to answer questions, guide discussions, push learning, and manage the virtual classroom.

The communication strategies utilized in the blended or online course are vitally important to the overall success of the course, for student motivation and retention, to create instructor and student presence, and to offer connections in the virtual learning community.

In a study by Smith, Ferguson & Caris (2001),  a number of instructors were interviewed regarding their online  vs face-to-face teaching experiences. The educational opportunities and advantages of the web environment over traditional classes (p. 3) were mentioned as being of great benefit to students and instructors. Instructors said that in an online course they could assign readings from the Web, and electronic resources were integrated into the class with ease. Another rich learning experience is the ability to host guests from a distance, providing students with the ability to interact with experts in their field. Instructors also felt that threaded discussions lead to a deeper level of thinking, as they felt students think more deeply and profoundly when they have to write their thoughts, particularly for their peers. While not a favorite with students, an added advantage for instructors was that students in the online experience were responsible for their own learning. Many of these benefits come with potential challenges in a distance or online course. These challenges can be identified by the instructor in advance and can be discussed in the introductory stage of the course. For example, the ability to use online resources to deliver a course provides added value to the learning experience, but students require specific skills to filter useful and factual information from that which is less than reliable. In addition, while threaded discussions may lead to deeper level thinking, the reliance on written submissions may not appeal to all students. Anonymity in a blended or online course is often identified as an advantage which ensures equality among students, and between the students and the instructor, but it can also lead to misunderstandings which should be addressed by the instructor in a timely manner.

Tweet Chat: #govldd

Tweet one way you feel instructor presence in an online course can be effectively achieved.

Section 2: Facilitating Quality Online Learning

Video: What is Active Learning?

By: Mark Trego, NICC

"No Signigicant learning can occur without a significant relationship." Dr. James Comer, Yale University
Many experienced instructors can find themselves in completely unknown territory when they first make the move from face-to-face to blended or online teaching. According to Bonk & Dennen (2003), without the necessary preparation and training, many instructors attempt to replicate existing course design and pedagogical practices when they make the transition. Yet what worked in the face-to-face venue will not work in online learning. Different approaches and techniques need to be learned in order to build an online learning community and to have effective connections and communication with online students.

In online courses or course components, presence is of vital importance to facilitate high quality learning. Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer (2001) define presence as “the design, facilitation and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes." They identify three key roles in teaching presence, and provide indicators for each category. These are presented in Table 1-2 below.

Table 1-2. Online Learning Components

Categories Components
Instructional Design and Organization Setting the curriculum

Designing methods Establishing time parameters Utilizing medium effectively Establishing netiquette

Making macro-level comments about the course content
Facilitating Discourse Identifying areas of agreement/disagreement

Seeking to reach consensus/understanding Encouraging, acknowledging, or reinforcing student contributions

Setting the climate for learning

Drawing participants, and prompting discussion. As- sessing the efficacy of the process
Direct Instruction Presenting content/questions

Focusing the discussion on specific issues Summarizing the discussion

Confirming understanding through assessment and ex- planatory feedback

Diagnosing misconceptions

Injecting knowledge from diverse sources Responding to technical concerns
Table  1-2  Source:          Adapted from Anderson, Rourke, Garrison & Archer, 2001

Instructor presence may be visible to students in the form of direct communication, in facilitating discussion, providing feedback and encouragement, addressing individuals who may not be fully engaged in the process,  or  it may be unseen in the form of the planning, management, and structural decisions made in advance of, or during the course delivery. Planning a blended or online course with these indicators in mind will ensure that students are presented with a high quality experience which will meet their needs.

Enhance Engagement and Motivation

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) was developed as a “lens to probe the quality of the student learning experience at American colleges and universities” (2007, p. 3). In defining student engagement as “the time and energy students devote to educationally sound activities inside and outside of the classroom, and the policies and practices that institutions use to induce students to take part in these activities," decades of research was considered and five properties were identified. Effective educational practice provides properties for active and collaborative learning; student interactions with faculty members; level of academic challenge; enriching educational experiences; and supportive campus environment.

In a significant learning experience, Fink (2003, p. 6) suggests there is a process and an outcome; students will be fully engaged in their learning, with a high level of energy associated with the learning experience, and the meaning from this experience will be result oriented. He describes the characteristics of significant learning experiences below:

Table 1-3. Characteristics of Significant Learning Experiences

A well-designed and well-managed course, combined with an instructor who communicates and interacts effectively with students, and who delivers good quality learning experiences, can lead to increased learner motivation and facilitate increased student engagement in the course. In a study linking student engagement and course redesign, Vaughan (2010) found that when one faculty member redesigned the two major assessment activities to provide students with greater opportunities to collaboratively construct their own knowledge frameworks about key course concepts, student success and retention increased. In a follow-up with open-ended survey questions, students identified the sense of community which was developed through the redesigned assessment activities as the most effective aspect of the course (p. 65). While further study is needed in this area, it appears that redesigning all or parts of a course to foster increased levels of active and collaborative learning could potentially lead to increased student success and retention.

In her paper on the transition from face-to-face to online teaching, Redmond (2011) presents a chronology of different researchers’ views on the role of the online instructor.  She notes that despite different labels used by   the researchers, “the process of facilitating discussion appears to be a key role when teaching in the online space” (p. 1053). In blended or online courses, successful social interaction can lead to a breakdown of barriers, open communication, collaboration among learners and between learners and instructor, and as we have seen, allows students to become actively engaged in the learning process.

Redesigning a course to incorporate more active learning has the potential not only to solve the student boredom problem, but also to increase the quality of student learning (Fink 2003, p. 24). Gilly Salmon has researched a five stage model on increasing student motivation and engagement in online learning:

  1. Access and Motivation: Create easy to retrieve materials, and a welcoming and encouraging environment
  2. Online Socialization: Connecting through messages, and providing content that is relevant to students lives
  3. Information Exchange: Connecting learners to resources and supporting learning
  4. Knowledge Construction: Through lectures, readings, assignments, and facilitated learning students build and construct new knowledge
  5. Development: Through responding and offering outside resources students develop their learning outside the course

Source: Five Step Model of Online Learning: In a blended or online course, active learning experiences are vital to increase motivation and engagement, which in turn can reduce student attrition. Instructors who are active communicators with their students, whether through individual feedback, a ’gentle nudge’ for those who are not fully engaged, or bringing a discussion to a rounded conclusion, will ensure that the instructor presence is replicated in the effort expended in preparing and structuring their course.

Tweet Chat: #virtuolearn

Tweet an approach that could support one of the Five Steps of Online Learning.

Section 3: 21st Century Digital Learner

Video: The Unique Challenges of 21st Century Learners

By: MacArthur Foundation

There is one key concept that online instructors should always keep in mind: Equivalency.

An online course should be managed as the equivalent to a face-to-face course. If there was a group activity in  the face-to-face course, then there should be an online group activity. If the instructor explained the final project in detail, then they should in the online course as well. If there were lectures on critical or complex topics in the face- to-face course, then the same should be offered in the online course. The online and face-to-face courses should offer equivalent experiences.

In this section you will learn about some of the key skills an online instructor can use to support the learning of virtual students. We will look at some of the most common challenges online teachers experience and cover various tactics and approaches to managing online learning communities. Some of the topics covered will be:

  • Virtual Instruction: How to manage instruction, tutoring, and lecturing in an online course
  • At Risk: Connecting with at-risk students to offer support
  • Learning Communities: The importance of building a strong learning community
  • Communication: Communicating with students
  • Feedback: Providing detailed feedback on work in an efficient and product way
  • Efficiency: Use efficient tactics that offer great support on limited time
  • Be Choosy: Cognitive overload and cognitive underload of student

Though the online teacher may never meet their students in-person, there are still many ways that an online instructor can connect with students and offer tutoring and instruction on the course topics. With advances in video, webinar, chat, and other Web 2.0 tools online, instructors have a wide variety of tactics at their disposal towards creating rewarding, engaging and interactive online learning experiences that can be equivalent to face-to-face learning.

The following are examples of various instructional strategies:

  • Video Screencasting: There are many free screencasting and video recording tools available to instructors. They can use them to screencast their own computer screen and show students how to do something online, talk about PowerPoint slides, give a lecture, or video tutorials on a whiteboard. Using video and screencasting technology offers the online instructor a great opportunity for providing lecture materials and concept support just as they would in a face-to-face classroom. In fact, to put a PowerPoint into an online classroom without any lecture notes or a screencasted lecture to go with it is akin to standing in the back of a classroom and flipping through the slides without saying anything about them to the students. That is not teaching in a face- to-face course, and it is not teaching in the online course either. Use the many tools online to offer screencasted lectures of the PowerPoint slides to the online students, and then this offers the equivalent learning experience as they would get in the face-to-face course. An example tool:

  • Webinar Tools: Instructors can use webinar tools to host virtual synchronous tutoring sessions with students, or to give a synchronous lecture to a class. These tools often have interactive whiteboards and video function as well. An example:

  • Instant Chat: There are many different types of instant chat tools available on the web now. They offer a chance for students to ask questions real-time, and to get immediate feedback. Providing ’office’ hours in a chat tool, or in a synchronous webinar tool (see above, such as Zoom), is not only a great way to connect with your students, but a great way to give them direct feedback and help on the course content. Some examples:

    • Facebook chat
    • AIM chat
    • Google Talk chat
    • Skype chat

  • Digital Learning Objects: There are now countless Web 2.0 tools on the web that can be used to create more interactive learning objects in online courses. This type of learning is much more engaging and interesting for students. Just a few examples:

    • Voice Thread - Asynchronous discussions with video ( https://voicethrcom/ )
    • ThingLink - Make your images interactive ( )
    • Popplet - Mind mapping and project planning ( https://poppcom/ )
    • Quizlet - Create fun study tools for students (         )

These are just a few of the ways that an instructor can create more interactive and engaging online learning experi- ences for students.

Online learning can have less personal connections and instructor guidance than face-to-face learning. For this rea- son, some students feel more disengaged from the learning, and online learning sees higher dropout rates than face- to-face learning does. Online instructors should create a plan of communication to connect with at risk students, and help them get back on track. Following are some tactics:

  • Keep Track: Keep track of failing students, or a list of students that are behind on their work, and then call them and email them to connect and ask if they need help on the course topics.
  • Office Hours: Offer ’office hours’ to help struggling students. This can be as simple as being online in a chat tool or webinar tool (see last section) to allow them a chance to ask questions and get help.
  • Virtual Office Forum: Have a ’Virtual Office’ discussion forum in the online course, a place where students can ask questions and get guidance.
  • Good Directions: Have detailed directions, grading rubrics, and tutorials in the course that students can access for help on completing course work.
  • Be available: This does not mean you should have to answer an email at midnight, but it does mean logging in and checking for questions at least 4x a week.

Read the chapter in this eBook about Online Learning Communities, as it covers this topic in greater depth. In short, building a strong online learning community in which students feel connected to the instructor, their peers, and the content goes a long way to keeping students motivated and engaged in completing the course. There are many tactics one can utilize to build strong learning communities.

This topic will be covered many times throughout this eBook, as it is such an important aspect to quality online instruction. In a face-to-face course the instructor will be there in front of the students several times a week to remind them of upcoming due dates, to answer questions, and to guide the students. Remember our key concept, Equivalency. This should also be done in the online course for students. This can be emulated in the asynchronous course through weekly announcements in the course, via email, and information posted in the Virtual Office of the course. Through email and the forums instructors can have regular communication with students to help keep them on track, just like in a face-to-face course.

A part of good feedback is having a detailed grading rubric for students. In a face-to-face course instructors can go over requirements during lecture, but in an online course the equivalent solution would be to have a grading rubric. Through use of a grading rubric the students can see exactly what will be expected of them on the assignment. Next, the instructor should give detailed feedback on student work. For example, in a paper the instructor should use editing tools to provide in-line comments and suggestions. This, on top the grading rubric, gives the student clear guidance on how to improve on their skills. Offering chances to fix mistakes and resubmit work is also a fantastic way to encourage a reflective learning cycle among online students. Students also like to have instructors reply to their discussion posts as they want feedback on their work. Through interactive feedback an instructor can create a strong learning experience for students.


Online teaching can quickly become overwhelming. Finding ways to offer detailed and quality support, learning, and feedback, but through efficient and time-saving methods, will mean higher quality learning for less instructional time. For example, save all the course announcements, as they can be reused time and again. Create files of all tutorials and guidance videos, which can be used over and over. We will continue to discuss time-saving strategies throughout this eBook on each of the main topics covered.

In this book we will stress over and over that being choosy is the key to offering quality online learning design and delivery. Choose the right tools, for the right job, for the right need, for the right content. Choose the right teaching approaches, for the right learning needs, for the right learning content. Be choosy. If an instructor has too many tools in a course it can create cognitive overload of the students, who become overwhelmed and then they are learning to use tools rather than learning the course content. On the other hand, having too few means boring learning materials and few connection methods, and that loses student interest and dedication as well. Try to choose the right amount of tools for the needs of a given course and its topics. For example, giving the students ten ways to contact the instructor via ten different chat tools is too much. Just choose one. By making smart and efficient choices then the tools work for the course and students rather than the other way around.

Tweet Chat: #virtuolearn

Tweet about a tool that can be used to enhance student engagement, success, or motivation.

End of Chapter Resources

Critical Thinking

  1. Look up equivalency theory online. What is it? How is equivalency defined in this chapter? How is it important to the design of high quality online learning experiences?
  2. Consider your experience in the classroom and identify the main challenges to ensuring students are engaged in the learning process. How do you ensure students have the opportunity to be fully engaged in the online environment? How do you deal with students who are not engaged?
  3. Use the Internet to find different definitions of online learning, distance learning, eLearning, blended learning, virtual learning, and mobile learning. What are the similarities and differences between them? Are any critical factors are missing? Why or why not? What would be your definition of virtual learning?

Chapter Task

Student engagement in the classroom is a priority for all instructors. Reflecting on your prior learning experiences, what do you perceive as the challenges associated with student engagement? As an instructor, how would you ensure that students are engaged in the online or blended learning environment?

  • Create a list of five effective online teaching skills
  • Create a list of five effective skills for successful online learners
  • Compare and contrast the two lists

Recommended Resources

Five Step Model of Online Learning:


  • Virtual Learning: learning that can functionally and effectively occur in the absence of traditional classroom environments (Simonson & Schlosser, 2006)
  • Blended Learning: Allen and Seaman (2003) defined a blended learning course as “having between 30% and 80% of the course content delivered online” while they considered an online course as having “at least 80% of the course content delivered online” (p. 6).
  • Equivalency: the online course should offer an equivalent learning experience to a face-to-face course. Not the SAME learning experience, but equivalent


Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2003). Sizing the opportunity: The quality and extent of online education in the United States, 2002 and 2003. Retrieved from

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D.R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2), 1-17.

Bonk, C., & Dennen, V. (2003). Frameworks for research, design, benchmarks, training and pedagogy in web-based distance education. In M. Moor & W. Anderson (Eds.), Handbook of Distance Education (pp. 331-348) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Dolence, M. G., & Norris, D. M. (1995). Transforming Higher Education: A Vision for Learning in the Twenty-First Century. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Society for College and University Planning.

Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer W. (2000) Critical thinking in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. Internet and Higher Education, 11(2) 1 - 14

National Survey of Student Engagement. (2007) Experiences that matter: Enhancing student learning and success

- Annual Report 2007. Bloomington, IN: Center for Postsecondary Research

Pelz, B. (2004). Three principles of effective online pedagogy. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 8(3), 33-46. Retrieved from

Redmond, P., (2011). From Face-to-face teaching to online teaching: Pedagogical transitions. In G. Williams,

  1. Statham, N. Brown & B Cleland (Eds.), Changing Demands, Changing Directions. Proceedings ascilite Hobart 2011 (pp. 1050-1060)

Salmon, G. (2013). Five-stage model of online learning. Retrieved from del.html Schlosser, A., & Simonson, M. (2006). Distance education: Definition and glossary of terms, 2nd ed. Greenwich, CO: Information Age Publishing.

Smith, G.G., Ferguson, D. L., & Caris, A. (2001) Teaching College Courses Online vs Face-to-Face. T.H.E. Journal. Retrieved from ace.aspx?Page=5 Vaughan, N. D. (2010). A blended community of inquiry approach: Linking student engagement and course redesign. Internet and Higher Education, 13(2), 60 - 65.


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