Effective Online Instruction in Higher Education

By Crawford-Ferre, Heather Glynn; Wiest, Lynda R. | Quarterly Review of Distance Education, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview
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Effective Online Instruction in Higher Education

Crawford-Ferre, Heather Glynn, Wiest, Lynda R., Quarterly Review of Distance Education

Online education has emerged as an effective and increasingly common alternative to face-to-face instruction in postsecondary education. This article is a summary of effective practices in online instructional methods, including course design, interaction among course participants, and instructor preparation and support.


Online education has emerged as a popular alternative to face-to-face classroom instruction. It provides educational opportunities to individuals with geographic, time, or other constraints that make postsecondary education difficult or impossible to pursue and another option to those who prefer online learning's flexibility and instructional delivery method. Many institutions also view online instruction as a viable method to provide quality instruction at a reduced cost (Garbett, 2011), with some studies finding online instruction to be more successful than traditional instruction (Angiello, 2010; Angiello & Natvig, 2010). Schrum, Burbank, Engle, Chambers and Glasse« (2005) recently determined that 90% of 2-year and 89% of 4-year public institutions offered online education options. Further, online course offerings are increasing at a faster rate than traditional course offerings, with online higher education courses nearly tripling between 1995 and 2003 (Beck, 2010), and almost 100% of public institutions report online instruction as a critical part of their long-term plans (Major, 2010).

Given this strong contemporary attention to online instruction, faculty must become familiar with research-based methods for effective online teaching. Many college faculty, however, have had little training in pedagogy for online instruction (Gabriel & Kaufield, 2008; Schrum et al., 2005) and might be less likely to participate in online teaching due to a perceived "unsettled nature of pedagogy for distance learning efforts" (Major, 2010, p. 3). To help address this need for greater information, this review of literature summarizes effective practices in online pedagogy.


Successful online instruction requires new methods of course design, interaction among course participants, and instructor preparation and support. These categories are discussed below.

Course Design

Technology selected should be compatible with varied student needs (Osman, 2005). For example, it should be universal enough to support different international formats. Technical support should be available to both instructors and students (Osman, 2005). Further, based on conclusions drawn from a qualitative study of instructors and students in two higher education online environments, Schramm et al. (2005) suggest that students have access to an online orientation to familiarize themselves with online-course features, such as chat rooms, discussion forums, and working with PDFs and document files. To further address technological concerns within the course design, the authors recommend including a section with answers to frequently asked questions and a page of helpful resources

Multiple methods of content exploration and transmission should be designed into online courses, including synchronous and asynchronous learning activities (Liu, Liu, Lee, & Magjuka, 2010; Osman, 2005), as well as compressed videos, presentation slides, video lectures, website viewing, and multiple communication methods, such as e-mail, chat rooms, and webcam conversations (Balkin, Buckner, Swartz, & Rao, 2005). Communications should be carefully designed (e.g., Guthrie & McCracken, 2010). Tee and Karney (2010) suggest that this include unstructured, informal opportunities for open and honest conversations; aplace to discuss formal course content; a site for posting work for review, comment, and use; and an area for reflecting evaluatively on work.

Interaction Among Course Participants

The theory of constructivism posits that learners develop their own understanding by participating in meaningful, shared discourse, and thus learning is advanced through productive work with others (Brophy, 2002; O'Neill, Moor, & McMullin, 2005; Vygotsky, 1978).

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