Three approaches to improve your online teaching

When designing online courses and teaching remotely, teachers need to select the framework that supports learning goals. Here, three academics break online learning techniques into their key parts



Open University of Catalonia (UOC),Valencian International University
25 Apr 2024
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Many university teachers need help identifying the right conceptual framework for designing online courses and teaching in virtual learning environments (VLEs). A quick online search will suggest a multitude of pedagogic approaches and supposed innovative teaching methods, but many of these are not evidence-based. 

So, here we will summarise three research-based online teaching approaches that teachers can use to guide their work in VLEs. We explain the focus, roles of teacher and students, the online learning environment and learning resources for each approach.

The content-acquisition approach

The main aim of this approach is to provide subject content to students. It is designed to cover all the essential concepts and principles of the subject matter. The content should be accessible, clear, concise, relevant, interactive, well explained and up to date to facilitate the students’ comprehensive understanding of the subject matter.

Teacher role: The teacher is the primary source of knowledge. They are responsible for selecting and organising the course content, choosing the appropriate learning resources for students, designing the learning activities and assessing students’ learning outcomes.

Student role: The student is expected to acquire and learn the course content from the provided resources and complete the learning assignments. Each student’s acquired knowledge should accurately represent the course content. Most students’ learning time is devoted to self-paced learning.

Online learning environment: This should facilitate learners’ content acquisition. Thus, technology-based tools are mainly used to produce, provide access to and deliver learning resources and materials. The VLE will contain lesson plans, activities and grades and class recordings. The technology used needs to deliver live online classes, with teachers’ real-time explanations, to many students worldwide. A prototype example of the content acquisition approach can be seen in most massive open online courses (Moocs).

Learning resources: Learning resources may be selected and designed to accurately represent the nature of the content and enhance students’ learning experience. Various kinds of resources may be used to represent and deliver the content, such as multimedia (video and audio tools), authoring tools, interactive resources (computer simulations, games, virtual labs), mobile resources and adaptive resources (intelligent tutoring systems).

The knowledge-building approach

The key feature of this approach is the knowledge-building processes through which students expand their individual understanding.

Teacher role: The teacher’s primary role is to guide, help and supervise students’ learning. The course design includes learning objectives, content, activities, scaffolding and support, and assessments. Course implementation involves supervision to ensure the correct application of learning skills and adequate task completion, correcting students’ misunderstandings, and monitoring and assessing the learning process and learning outcomes.

Student role: The student should actively engage in an individual knowledge-building process and activate high-level thinking processes. This is encouraged through enquiry-based assignments in which students must find solutions to project-based challenges or work through real-world or theoretical examples. Such assignments require a deep understanding of the content, challenging students to explore information, apply critical thinking, ask questions, design enquiries, interpret evidence, form explanations and communicate findings. Students must make connections, and apply and use their knowledge in authentic learning situations.

Online learning environment: Technology should help students to develop the best individual knowledge-building processes, learn content and complete activities. These environments integrate learning tools that support students’ learning and work on specific higher-order-thinking processes such as solving authentic problems. The web-based inquiry science environment (WISE) provides a good example of an online learning environment of this kind.

Learning resources: Generally referred to as instructional scaffolding, resources combine content and learning guides, question prompts, model examples and conceptual, procedural, strategic and metacognitive supports to guide learning.

The collaborative learning approach

The critical feature of this approach is students’ collaboration in learning in virtual environments, usually using synchronous and written communication. 

Teacher role: The teacher aims to facilitate high-quality social participation among students in collaborative learning activities. To achieve this, the teacher should create a learning environment that promotes relationships of trust and mutual commitment and provide learning resources that guide students’ social participation and collaboration in groups and in the community. The teacher should encourage communication, solve student conflicts, control learning periods and monitor students’ learning pace. Content and activities, such as online debates and team presentations, should be designed to facilitate collaboration and learning among equals.

Student role: Students engage naturally and proactively in community participation and group work and collaborate with peers to complete learning assignments, solve problems and share knowledge and perspectives. They participate in discussion and group work, and use critical thinking and creativity.

Online learning environments: Digital tools should be used that facilitate group-work organisation, promote group communication and collaboration, support knowledge exchange, and elaborate on shared outcomes. One example of such an online environment is Moodle, particularly the chat, forum, wiki and glossary functions.

Learning resources: Participants are expected to take an active role, building on the initial selection of learning resources the teacher provides according to their learning needs. For example, a shared learning task for students may be solving a problem or tackling a learning challenge collaboratively. In that situation, the students should search for and select new information related to the specific issue or challenge of the learning assignment and share it with their peers.

Teachers may use a single teaching approach to design an online course, but it is more likely they will take features from all three and combine them to best fit the different elements of the course and its learning objectives.

Antoni Badia is director of the bachelor’s degree in primary education, and Julio Meneses is director of learning and teaching analysis at the eLearning Innovation Center; both are at the Open University of Catalonia. Consuelo García is vice-rector for teaching and educational innovation at the Valencian International University.

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For more teaching and learning insight from the authors, see “Emotions in response to teaching online: Exploring the factors influencing teachers in a fully online university”, as published in Innovations in Education and Teaching International. 


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