Effective online instruction depends on learning experiences that are appropriately designed and facilitated by knowledgeable educators. Because learners have different learning styles or a combination of styles, online educators should design activities that include multiple modes of learning. Teaching models should also be adapted to the new learning environments.

Online Courses & Multiple Instructional Strategies

Traditionally, in a teacher-centered classroom, instructors control the environment to control how information is dispersed and shared. In an online course, with instant access to vast resources of data and information, students are no longer dependent on the faculty for knowledge. Learning is becoming more collaborative, contextual and active. Educators must identify their objectives, design their curriculum, and then consider how the online environment serves the instructional objectives/activities of that curriculum. This requires changes in pedagogy.

With learning-centered instruction, instructors take on the role of facilitating and sharing information while guiding students toward solutions. Teachers as well as learners must take on new roles in the teaching-learning relationship, and faculty must be willing to release control of learning to the students. Online learning environments also require a range of interactive methodologies. Instructors find that when adapting courses to online models, they pay more attention to the instructional design of their courses. As a result, the quality, quantity, and patterns of communication students practice during learning improve.

Of the many instructional strategies available for use in the online learning environment, most were not been developed specifically for online instruction. Educators should choose strategies that accomplish particular educational objectives. From this perspective, instructional strategies are tools available to educators for designing and facilitating learning. Below are some instructional strategies from the traditional classroom that also work in the online learning environment:

Learning ContractsDiscussionLecture
Self-Directed LearningMentorshipSmall Group Work
ProjectCollaborative LearningCase Study

Learning Contracts

Learning contracts connect educational needs to individual student needs. This bridge is useful when there is diversity in learner needs and interests in a class. A learning contract is an agreement, written by the learner, that details what will be learned, how the learning will be accomplished, the period of time involved, and the specific evaluation criteria to be used in judging the completion of the learning. Learning contracts help the educator and learner share the responsibility for learning.

Contract learning can bring about many practical benefits including deeper involvement of the learner in the learning activities which they themselves have been involved in planning. Once a learner passes through the stage of confusion and anxiety associated with developing a contract, he/she will get excited about carrying out their own plans. Another benefit of utilizing contract learning is an increase of accountability, since the learning contract provides more functional and validated evidence of the learning outcomes. The contract also provides a means for the learner to receive continuous feedback regarding progress toward accomplishing learning objectives.

Learning contracts can be extremely effective in the online environment. Because physically meeting with the class to discuss learning goals, objectives, and expectations does not happen online, instructors must be very clear and concise in what they expect from the learner. Likewise, learners must also be clear about what they expect from the instructor. A learning contract is a negotiated learning goals and outcomes document. Provide learning contract examples on a web page for the student to use. Encourage students to brainstorm ideas for learning contracts with their online peers as well as negotiate the final contract with the instructor through email or online conferencing.


The lecture is one of the most frequently used instructional methods. It assumes the educator is the expert. Lecture is an efficient way of disseminating information. Most educators agree that the purpose of lectures is to lay foundations as the student works through the subject. Good lecturers know their students and develop their lectures according to the students’ needs. Most importantly, lectures are most effective when used in combination with other instructional strategies.

  • Place lecture notes, with links to related resources and other Web sites embedded in them, on a web page for the learners to review.
  • Package notes together and either link for download, distribute through the bookstore, or send via snail mail.
  • Present lectures via audio or video over the Internet. Online lectures should be shorter and more to the point than lectures in live classrooms which often extend far beyond the attention span of the audience.
  • Break a long presentation into shorter segments if needed. Short lectures provide enough information to serve as a basis for further reading, research, or other learning activities. Another obvious advantage of online lectures is that they are readily available for students to revisit as needed.


Most adult learners favor discussion as an instructional strategy because it is interactive and encourages participatory learning. Discussion encourages learners to analyze alternative ways of thinking and acting. Through this, learners explore their own experiences to become better critical thinkers. The discussion is often the heart of an online course.

The Internet offers several modes for discussion including mailing lists (listservs), course management system (CMS) discussion forums, and social media, which are asynchronous communication. Synchronous (real time) communication includes web-conferencing, chat rooms or text-based virtual reality environments. Massive, Open, Online, Courses (MOOCs) illustrate the limits to which online discussion can go.

Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning is learner-initiated and may also be called self-paced, independent, individualized learning, or self-instruction. Whatever term we use, self-directed learning places the responsibility for learning directly on the learner. In many ways, practically all learning is ultimately self-directed. Learners who take the initiative and are proactive learners learn more and better than passive (reactive) learners do. Proactive learners are more purposeful. They also tend to retain and make use of what they learn better and longer than do reactive learners. The independent learner is one who is more involved, more motivated, and more active while learning.

Online learning supports the self-directed learner in pursuing individualized, self-paced learning activities. The learner, working at a computer at a convenient time and pace, is able to search and utilize the vast  resources of the Internet  research nearly any topic imaginable. Students can visit libraries, museums and various institutes world-wide, talk to professionals, access recent research, and read   newspapers and peer reviewed scholarly  journals online. Students can write collaboratively with peers and even publish written and multimedia products on web pages.


The aim of mentorship is to promote learner development drawing out and giving form to what the student already knows. A mentor serves as a guide rather than a provider of knowledge and serves the function of introducing students to the new world, interpreting it for them, and helping them to learn what they need to know to function in it. Mentors in education teach by interpreting the environment and modeling expected behaviors. They also support, challenge, and provide vision for their students.

A major benefit to online mentorship is the opportunity for frequent, convenient communication between mentor and student. Weekly or even daily journals and communications can be sent between mentor and student via e-mail, providing an ongoing “dialogue” which supports the development of the mentor relationship and offers numerous opportunities for timely feedback on student questions, concerns and issues.

Small Group Work

In small groups, learners discuss content, share ideas, and solve problems. They present ideas as well as consider ideas put forth by others. In this way, they see a variety of viewpoints on a subject. There are many small group formats that encourage and provide opportunities for interaction:

The discussion group

Allows learners to reflect on a subject under discussion and present their views. Discussion within the small group may vary from low, to very high levels of intellectual discourse.

Guided design

Here the focus is on developing learners’ decision-making skills as well as on teaching specific concepts and principles. Participants work to solve open-ended problems which require outside class work to gather information. This format encourages learners to think logically, communicate ideas, and apply steps in a decision-making process. Learners must apply what they have learned, exchange ideas, and reflect on suggested solutions. The instructor’s role is to act as a consultant to the groups.

Role playing

Recreate a situation relating to a real-world problem in which participants act out various roles. This promotes understanding other people’s positions and attitudes, as well as the procedures useful for diagnosing and solving problems. Role playing can be used to simulate real-life group work situations and can help learners gain an understanding of a problem or situation.


Two or more groups compete to meet a set of objectives. The game follows rules and procedures. The instructor provides Information that requires decision-making. Most instructional games reflect typical real-life situations. The rules, procedures, and objectives of the game must be clear and concise.

Online learning environments offer several distinct benefits for small group work. First, they allow small groups to work independently while still having access to the instructor. In some cases where it is difficult for all members of an online class to meet synchronously, small groups can be organized according to their time zones, making it possible to find a convenient time to meet synchronously. Larger groups can benefit by communicating asynchronously via conferencing programs. A second benefit of online environments for group work is that they equalize control among participants. Factors such as geography, gender, or disabilities do not disadvantage learners in this environment. Finally, the instructor is able to respond directly to questions and needs of particular groups without taking the time of other groups.


Online projects give students opportunities to pursue special interests individually or within groups. Projects also provide students with practical experience and a sense of accomplishment. Using projects in a learning activity makes the learning more relevant to the learners. Products can be shared with others in the class and critiqued or by the facilitator alone. By sharing individual projects with other participants, the learner obtains more diverse viewpoints and feedback.

Many of the instructional strategies discussed on this page can be considered group projects. Group projects can include simulations, role playing, case studies, problem solving exercises, group collaborative work, debates, small group discussion, and brainstorming. As with individual projects, projects for participants in groups should receive peer feedback to expose them to diverse viewpoints. With independent and group projects learners pursue special interests, write or create for an audience, and publish or present their findings and conclusions via the Internet. The Internet provides the potential of receiving feedback from experts or interested peers outside the course by accessing the project online.

Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning is the process of getting two or more students to work together to learn. Compose small groups’ participants of differing ability levels and use a variety of learning activities to master material initially developed by an instructor, or construct knowledge on substantive issues. Each member of the team is responsible for learning what is taught and for helping teammates learn.

Collaborative learning methods are used in nearly two-thirds of higher education courses, according to a recent survey conducted by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. Employers want workers with collaborative skills and are looking for graduates of educational programs that teach these skills. Collaborative learning can be more effective than interpersonal competitive and individualistic efforts in promoting cognitive development, self-esteem, and positive student-student relationships.

Online learning models are natural environments for collaborative learning, but they are not collaborative learning environments by definition. Learners may interact with other participants without collaborating, for example when receiving on-line tutorial help. Design learning activities for collaboration the best effect.

Case Study

The case study requires learners to draw upon their experience, is participatory, and has action components that are links to future experience. The key to a successful case study is the selection of an appropriate problem situation which is relevant both to the interests and experience level of learners and to the concepts being taught. The case report should include facts regarding the problem, the environmental context, and the characters of the people involved in the case. It should be factual, but also contain the opinions and views of the people involved. Learners should have access to the problem solution, but not until they have reached their own conclusions and can then compare their results with the actual decision taken to resolve the problem.

Learners, in a case study, can work independently or in groups. One advantage of using the case method is that it emphasizes practical thinking and assists learners in identifying principles after examining the facts of the case, then applying those principles to new situations. Case analysis is equally effective when used in combination with other instructional strategies.

In the online environment, present case studies on web pages and discuss in conferencing groups. Cases can be developed by class groups as collaborative projects. In addition, tap the vast resources of the Internet to contribute data, information, and expert advice to case development and analysis.


The forum is an open discussion between one or more resource people and a group. A moderator guides the discussion and the audience raises and discusses issues, make comments, offers information, or asks questions of the resource person(s) and each other. There are two variations of the forum- the panel and the symposium.

The Panel

Usually three to six people who sit before an audience and have a purposeful conversation on a topic in which they have specialized knowledge. Guided by a moderator, the panel is informal in nature, but allows for no audience participation.

The Symposium

A series of presentations given by two to five people different aspects of the same theme or closely related themes.  Although the symposium is formal in nature, questions from the audience are encouraged following the presentations. An obvious benefit of the symposium is that it gives learners exposure to a variety of experts’ viewpoints and offers an opportunity for the audience to ask questions.

Because the online environment  facilitates group communication, it is ideal for the types of information exchange typical in forums. In fact, the forum can be more convenient and effective in the online environment than in the traditional classroom because speakers, experts and moderator can participate without having to travel or even be available at a particular time. Both synchronous and asynchronous communication can be utilized to support online learning forums.


The online learning environment allows educators and students to work and exchange ideas and information together on projects, around the clock and from anywhere in the world, using multiple communication modes. Given the advantages and resources of this rich learning environment, how can multiple instructional strategies best be utilized for online learning? Just as in the traditional classroom, instructional strategies are most effective when employed specifically to meet particular learning goals and objectives. Effective course design can begin with asking and answering the key question: what are the major learning goals and objectives for this course? Once one articulates these goals and objectives, address the questions of which learning strategies, activities, and experiences to employ.

Online learning can employ any of the strategies discussed here. Much of the power of learning via the Internet lies in its capacity to support multiple modes of communication including any combination of student-student, student-faculty, faculty-student, faculty-faculty, student-others, others-students, etc. Taking into account the varied learning styles of learners and providing opportunities for self-directed and collaborative learning, educators can facilitate powerful, effective courses geared to achieve specific learning goals and outcomes using the vast resources and capacities of online learning.

The online learning environment is, after all, just another learning environment. In some ways, it is similar to and in other ways different from environments that are more traditional. When we move our classes to the Internet, plan for and make the best use of the online environment. The instructional strategies we use to meet the goals and objectives of our courses are likely to be similar in each environment. However, the ways in which we utilize the strategies will differ as we make the best use of the characteristics and capacities of each environment.