The design of a successful online course is very dependent upon the teaching and learning strategies that a faculty member employs.

As you explore your teaching practice, turning to research and literature can be helpful. COLRS keeps a list of Online Learning, Educational Technology, and Pedagogy Journals. Northern Illinois University's Effective Teaching Practices Bibliography is robust and can be filtered by topic. 

The literature review in Anthony Picciano's 2017 "Theories and frameworks for online education: Seeking an integrated model" in the Online Learning Journal contains a great summary of many pedagogies and learning theories. The resources below also provide a broad array of strategies that may help you with the development or refinement of a course.

Understanding by Design (Backwards Design)

Understanding by Design is an instructional design framework developed by Grant Wiggins and Jake McTighe that supports moving from the desired outcomes to the assessment evidence needed to verify the learning to the learning materials need to support the assessment. Jay McTighe's consulting page has a wealth of resources to support your work.

Bowen, R. S.  (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding

These learning theories by Lev Vygotsky are foundational to many modern learning theories. 

Cognitive Load Theory

Pedagogy, Andragogy, and Heutagogy

Pedagogy is the teaching of children, or dependent personalities. Andragogy is the facilitation learning for adults, who are self-directed learners. Heutagogy is the management of learning for self-managed learners. Learn more about Pedagogy, Andragogy, and Heutagogy.


Many online courses are often built upon the principles of constructivist theory which states that we construct new knowledge as we are actively engaged in learning and that learning is tied to past experiences.

As more formally described in the book, Constructivism in Practice (Kafai and Resnick, 1996, Introduction):

“Constructivism suggests that learners are particularly likely to make new ideas when they are actively engaged in making some type of external artifact—be it a robot, a poem, a sand castle, or a computer program—which they can reflect upon and share with others. Thus, constructivism involves two intertwined types of construction: the construction of knowledge in the context of building personally meaningful artifacts.”

According to "Constructivism and Online Education" by Doolittle, constructivism is a theory of knowledge acquisition, not a theory of pedagogy; this, the nexus of constructivism and online education is tentative, at best. Constructivism posits that knowledge acquisition occurs amid four assumptions:

  1. Knowledge involves active cognizing by the individual.
  2. Knowledge is adaptive, facilitating individual and social efficacy.
  3. Knowledge if subjective and self-organized, not objective.
  4. Knowledge acquisition involves both sociocultural and individual processes.

These four assumptions have led, indirectly, to eight primary pedagogical recommendations:

  1. Learning should take place in authentic and real-world environments.
  2. Learning should involve social negotiation and mediation.
  3. Content and skills should be made relevant to the learner.
  4. Content and skills should be understood within the framework of the learner's prior knowledge.
  5. Students should be assessed formally, serving to inform future learning experiences.
  6. Students should be encouraged to become self-regulatory, self-mediated, and self-aware.
  7. Teachers serve primarily as guides and facilitators of learning, not instructors.
  8. Teachers should provide for and encourage multiple perspectives and representations of content.

Active Learning

Active learning involves actively engaging students with the course material through discussions, problem solving, case studies, role plays and other methods. Active learning requires being cognitively engaged, not necessarily hands-on, physical engagement. For instance, reflective journaling is active learning because a learner is bringing together their experiences with the materials presented in the course. Being involved in your own learning is often referred to as Active Learning.

Community of Inquiry Framework

The Community of Inquiry framework is a constructivist model that focuses on the development of a community in online learning and there are three essential elements to a satisfying educational experience: Cognitive Presence, Social Presence and Teaching Presence.

Mode Neutral Pedagogy

Mode Neutral Pedagogy is a set of teaching and learning principles that shifts the control and responsibility for learning to the student. The model attempts to define and create one learning experience regardless of learner location: on-ground or online.


Connectivism has been called a ‘learning theory for the digital age.’ It seeks to overcome the perceived limitations of behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism. The theory embraces and accounts for the utilization of technology on our learning.

In education, we hear about universal design and universal design for learning. Both have useful elements for creating learning environments that work for all our students.

Universal Design

According to Center for Universal Design at NC State, Universal Design (UD) is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

Universal Design for Learning

The Universal Design for Learning guidelines, "offer a set of concrete suggestions that can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities (CAST).