Academic Exchange Quarterly      Winter   2008    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  12, Issue  4

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A Learner-Centered Online Course Design


Karen Hornsby, North Carolina A&T State University


Karen Hornsby, Ph.D., is an Assistance Professor of Philosophy and member of the History Department.



In all types of academic institutions, online course enrollment continues to increase. Converting traditional classroom pedagogies to an online environment however, is often difficult. Using experience gathered from developing numerous online courses, this article discusses successful learner-centered online pedagogies and reviews strategies for overcoming some typical problems encountered in digital classroom environments.



In all types of academic institutions, online course enrollment continues to rise, with improved student educational access and increased overall graduation rates cited as the top objectives motivating online education’s growth (Allen & Seaman, 2007). For residential campuses, where students typically return home during winter and summer sessions, online courses afford learners options for continuing to earn degree credits and departments a method for increasing student credit hours. Escalating gas prices are also impacting student enrollments in online courses (Young, 2008). Converting traditional classroom pedagogies to an online environment however, is often difficult because of the challenges presented by asynchronous instruction to faceless student participants. This article considers preliminary design decisions for online course development and offers specific examples for applying Chickering and Gamson’s “Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (1987) to a digital course environment.  Using experience gathered from a decade of developing online courses, I will discuss successful learner-centered online pedagogies and review strategies for overcoming some common problems encountered in digital classroom environments.


Preliminary Design

Prior to writing online course content, creating learning objects, or constructing student assignments, three preliminary design decisions will help decrease student frustration and promote overall learning. Most higher education institutions have adopted some type of e-learning course management system (Blackboard, Angel, WebCT, Moodle, Desire2Learn, etc.).  Whichever virtual learning environment (VLE) courseware is used, a cautionary rule of thumb is to avoid implementing technology simply because it is available.  The first design decision is to select which digital tools to incorporate into your online course. Since VLE courseware is designed for multiple disciples and users, many advanced features are routinely available. Use only those “bells and whistles” that promote student learning and are easily adaptable to your course objectives (Elbaum, McIntrye, & Smith, 2002).  Advanced instructional technology features often bring increased student access problems and may exclude lower-end computer users from course participation. Audio and video streaming instructional materials, for example, are unworkable via dialup Internet connections.


A second related design decision involves the actual course site structure.  With most VLE courseware, everything that a professor could possible use is automatically activated when new courses are created.  Similarly, VLE courses emerge with a standard set of menu button names. To promote student learning, customize your course site by appropriately naming menu buttons and deactivating unused features.  If quizzes and exams are instruments that you will use to assess students’ learning, then rather than imbedding these test materials within a standard “Information” or “Documents” area of the course, rename a button “Quizzes & Exams.” Once course buttons are renamed, click each button and turn off any courseware features that will not be used (address book, homepages, electronic chalkboard, etc.).  When students can readily find materials within the course site, they can spend more time on task.


Finally, student learning styles should be considered when designing online courses. Traditionally digital courses heavily rely on students reading and writing about a particular topic. To accommodate other learning styles in a “VARK” typology, instructors need to intentionally vary learning activities (Fleming & Mills, 1992).  Relevant graphics, audio materials or short video clips can engage students with visual and aural learning styles.  Course activities with a “hands on” feature, that require students “do something” are well suited for kinesthetic learners. Designing a course with multi-sensory learning experiences can help engage all students and keep them motivated.


Content Focused on Good Practice


Although an ever-expanding body of literature exists on best practices for promoting student learning in traditional face-to-face classrooms, pedagogical best practices for the VLE are still emerging.  A much-revered framework for evaluating pedagogical excellence, Chickering and Gamsom’s “Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (1987) has been recently retooled for online course application (Graham, Cagiltay, Lim, Craner, & Duffy, 2001).  Drawing from these two best practices inventories, what follows is an adaptation and attempt to provide concrete examples of how instructors might implement student-centered pedagogies in a VLE.  


Principle 1: Good Practice Encourages Student-Faculty Contact

Online Application: Students need explicit guidelines for communication. In a VLE, meeting this first principle of good practice is easily accomplished by four simple measures.  First, make sure that instructor contact information is clearly delineated within the course site.  If you are teaching a summer course and will not be accessible via phone or hold on-campus office hours, include these details on your contact page.  Second, stipulate and maintain timelines for responses to email communications.  A statement such as “All emails with be responded to within 12 hours,” on your contact information page lets students know that you will not be at your computer 24 hours a day. It also establishes a point at which students should resend communication in case a digital glitch has transpired.  Third, convey instructions on where various types of communication should be directed.  For example, “email questions about any software or hardware problems to tech support not the instructor.”  Or “the main discussion forum is for questions or comments that are of interest to the whole class; concerns about specific exam questions or your grade should be directed to me privately via email.”  Finally, know how to reach your students in a timely manner if concerns arise. Within the first few days of class, my online learners submit a “Student Information Sheet” with email addresses, phone numbers, employer and work hours, etc. for extra credit points.  This document is stored within the VLE and provides me with various methods of contacting my students.  If a complex question arises, verbal conversations are sometimes more productive than repeated email messages.


Principle 2: Good Practice Encourages Cooperation Among Students

Online Application: Well-constructed discussion assignments and balanced instructor participation promote student cooperation. Asynchronous discussion board activities can transition a group of students from “virtual” strangers into a cohesive learning community.  To promote students’ social connectedness and the free exchange of ideas, instructors must become a discussion facilitator not leader (Waltonen-Moore, Stuart, Newton, Oswald & Varonis, 2006).  Instructor discussion board tasks include: establishing the topic, monitoring participation, promoting collaboration, and prompting student clarification of errors. When instructors interject their views on the discussion board however, the conversation abruptly ceases as students often perceive this position as the “true” or “correct” answer, and thus facilitation not conversation is the preferred instructor’s role in discussions.


For the first discussion assignment, an “ice-breaker” question helps students become comfortable with their virtual classmates.  A task requiring learners to introduce themselves to the class, explain why they are taking the course, and identify two things they hope to learn by the end of the semester, is a low stakes conversation that encourages student engagement. Subsequent discussion exercises should focus on a central concept or topic covered in the course material.  To promote a learner-centered environment, the course syllabus should clearly articulate what constitutes satisfactory discussion participation and provide specific examples of quality and quantity expectations.


Principle 3: Good Practice Encourages Active Learning

Online Application: Students should participate in diverse, engaging assignments. The VLE is ideal for varied pedagogies and innovative active learning activities.  Digital course portfolios, for example, are challenging, provide evidence of student learning and are easily constructed using open-source programs like the Keep ToolKit. Learning objects are reusable, web-based, interactive tools that facilitate student learning of specific concepts. These digital materials can be readily integrated into the VLE and are freely available through sites such as MERLOT and MLX Learning Exchange.  Case studies are an additional method for motivating and engaging learners.  Instructors can integrate sample cases for evaluation by student groups or let learners collaboratively construct narrative cases relevant to the course subject matter. Quandary software is another free resource tool for educators to design digital decision-tree, problem-solving, learning activities.  A learner-centered course design requires that students do more than simply read, write and discuss; active learning activities are needed to foster virtual student engagement.


Principle 4: Good Practice Gives Prompt Feedback

Online Application: Students need ongoing acknowledgment feedback along with formative and summative assessment comments. Acknowledgement feedback verifies receipt of an assignment or a request.  In my online courses with a term paper requirement, I send all students a confirmation email indicating that I have received and I was able read their submitted paper attachment. Similarly, when students send questions/requests that require further research, instructors should initiate a reply indicating that they have received the question/request and a response is forthcoming.


Formative assessment is a classroom tool designed to provide students with feedback about their learning prior to conducting any graded evaluations. The purpose of formative assessment is to improve student learning and allow students to practice self-assessment and thus these types of activities are almost always ungraded.  Summative assessments are graded activities evaluating student mastery of particular learning objectives.


Many formative classroom assessment techniques (CATs) originally designed for traditional face-to-face learning environments are readily adaptable to the VLE.  Two easily transferable CATs are the “Minute Paper” and the “Muddiest Point” (Angelo & Cross, 1993).  After completing a small unit of material (one week or less), students in the VLE can write an anonymous “Minute Paper” essay responding to two question prompts: 1) “What was the most important thing that you learned from this material?” and 2) “What question remains unanswered?”.  Student responses can be collected using a survey format or through an assignment tool. This CAT provides manageable student data with minimal time and energy expenditures. Instructors can digitally collate student responses and immediately ascertain if learners are clear on major concepts, ideas, or significant themes while assessing students’ abilities to think holistically and synthesize information. The Minute Paper will also reveal ambiguities in course content and provide a snapshot of material that may require further clarification.


The Muddiest Point CAT is a variation of the Minute Paper and is used solely to pinpoint what materials students are finding difficult to learn. The technique consists of asking students to respond to the question: “What was the muddiest point in _______ ?”  Instructors can fill in the blank with a particular reading, homework assignment, or block of material.  Implementing this CAT in the VLE can be accomplished via the survey or assignment tool methods used for the Minute Paper or instructors can create a “Muddiest Point” discussion forum where students can anonymously identify material that is unclear, confusing or requires further clarification.  I find the discussion forum method preferable because other students will often jump in and provide further examples, amplification, and comments to aid struggling classmates.  The Minute Paper and the Muddiest Point CATs are best used sparingly if administered through surveys or assignments.  A Muddiest Point discussion forum however, is far less intrusive and will be readily used by confused learners, especially prior to a summative assessment deadline.


Practice exercises are a third type of formative assessment tool that provide students prompt feedback about their learning.  These ungraded activities can include multiple-choice quizzes, fill-in-the-blank exercises, or crossword puzzles.  In my online courses, I “track” the links/pages students access and practice exercises are by far the most popular formative activity. I use Eclipse software, an open-source crossword puzzle generator to design JavaScript interactive activities that I then upload to my course website. The Eclipse tool is very easy to use and requires absolutely no programming or html skills. Hot Potatoes is a second source for creating interactive, student exercises and is available free to all non-profit educational institutions. The Hot Potatoes software enables instructors to design interactive multiple-choice, short-answer, jumbled-sentence, crossword, matching/ordering and gap-fill exercises for online use. Some textbooks also have “companion websites” where students can read chapter summaries, take tutorial quizzes, review learning objectives, and access relevant web links.  Rather than direct students to these websites outside the VLE, I create links within the course site that will open in a new window once clicked.  This linking method prevents students from having to repeatedly reauthenticate into the online course and allows learners to engage with publisher formative activities while still having access to course site materials.


Since learning is a life-long process, providing students prompt feedback on summative assessments is also important. Many course management systems include a “feedback” feature for quizzes, assignments, and exams.  This tool is activated during the creation of the assessment and allows instructors to write a “correct response feedback” comment and an “incorrect response feedback” comment for each question.  When essays are assigned, course management software often generates a “feedback” textbox for instructor remarks back to the student.  These course management feedback tools can be implemented incrementally as you build your student-centered course materials, but students must be instructed to revisit the quizzes/exams after grading so that they can read these feedback comments.


A second option for providing summative feedback is the use of rubrics during the grading process.  Projects and term paper assignments are especially well-suited for rubric feedback.  Rubrics communicate detailed explanations of what constitutes excellence for a given task and thus should be distributed along with the initial assignment instructions.  Because rubrics set forth precise criteria, instructors can show students exactly how their work is being evaluated. RubiStar is an excellent online resource for rubric construction or as part of the learning process, instructors might include students in the rubric creation.


Principle 5: Good Practice Emphasizes Time on Task

Online Application: Online courses need deadlines. Students often associate online courses with a self-paced, independent study learning environment.  But for asynchronous education to promote deep, meta-cognitive learning rather than surface memorization and regurgitation of information, students need time to evaluate, challenge, and make meaning of course materials. The reflective process is essential for higher-order thinking and a hallmark of pedagogically designed online courses (Palloff & Pratt, 2003).  Regularly distributed deadlines promulgated on the first day of class encourage learners to spend time on task, help students mediate busy schedules, and deter perpetual procrastination.  Yet many students select online courses because they need flexible timelines to balance child-care responsibilities or work schedules with educational obligations. An equilibrium between unrestricted timelines and rigid due dates is easily achieved by adopting ranged deadlines. Students in my online and hybrid courses have a four-day period to take all digital quizzes; so quizzes that begin at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday will end at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. In scheduling digital assessments, I intentionally try and include a weekend day to accommodate students who work regular Monday through Friday schedules.


Principle 6: Good Practice Communicates High Expectations

Online Application: Challenging assignments and promulgated standards of excellence communicate high expectations. Educational demands inferior to those found in face-to-face courses and a lack of academic rigor are criticisms often lodged against online coursework.  With planning, however, VLEs can be just as formidable as traditional courses.  Online delivery of course materials does not require simplification or “dumbing down” of content. Additionally, the course syllabus should stress academic expectations. Policies and penalties for missed assignments, academic dishonesty, procedures for technical problems, and discussion participation expectations must be spelled out and firmly applied. Final grades in my online courses are based solely on cumulative point totals and students are referred to the syllabus grading scale throughout the semester.    


Principle 7: Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

Online Application: Allow students assignment or topics choices.  Term paper topics in my online courses are student selected from a required Taking Sides textbook allowing learners to choose any two opposing viewpoint articles for the assignment.  This method affords students options; but because the source materials are limited, it also impedes plagiarism and paper reuse. For exams, students also have two essay questions that they can select from. A VLE that incorporates multiple assignment choices permits students to select activities that enhance their learning styles.




The design suggestions and pedagogical best practices tips provided in this article cover only a few options for constructing learner-centered online courses.  As we learn through our traditional classroom teaching experiences, however, trial, error, and practice spark innovation. A gradual transition from a blended to fully online course allows instructors to incrementally build digital materials and VLE pedagogical proficiencies.  Once preliminary design decisions are made about digital tool selections, course site structure and multi-sensory learning experiences, content designed with student-focused pedagogies can help optimize student learning.




Allen, I. E. & Seaman, J. (2007). Online nation: Five years of growth in online learning. Retrieved March 24, 2008 from


Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Chickering, A. & Gamson, Z. (1987). Seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 32, 3-7.


Elbaum, B., McIntrye C. & Smith, A (2002). Essential elements: Prepare, design, and teach your online course. Madison: Atwood Publishing.




Fleming, N. D. & Mills, C. (1992). Not just another inventory, rather a catalyst for reflection. To Improve the Academy, 11, 137-155.

Graham, C., Cagiltay, K., Lim, B., Craner, J. & Duffy, T. (2001). Seven principles of effective teaching: A practical lens for evaluating online courses. The Technology Source. Retrieved June 22, 2008 from

Hot Potatoes

Keep ToolKit


MLX Learning Exchange


Palloff, R. M. & Pratt, K. (2003). The virtual student: A profile and guide to working with online learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Quandary software




Waltonen-Moore, S., Stuart, D., Newton, E., Oswald, R. & Varonis, E. (2006). From virtual strangers to a cohesive online learning community. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education. 14(2), 287-311.


Young, J. (2008, July). Gas prices drive students to online courses. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved July 8, 2008 from