How are professors teaching online? Do professors reproduce traditional teaching in hypermedia environments, or do they invent, create and explore new teaching and learning worlds? These are the questions we try to respond to in this article by identifying the models that professors are using to teach online.

The study describes models applied between 1996 and 1999 according to the mode of delivery, and a set of variables related to the use of hypermedia communication for building knowledge. Uses are multiple, and successes and failures are not easy to explain. One lesson, though, is clear: instructors are still scratching the surface of online learning. Professors that were more attentive to the needs of the learners than to the tools had more satisfactory experiences. The dynamics of institutions of higher education, though, tend to emphasize the technology. The institutional administrative constraints and the economic pressures are just some of the external problems conspiring against the correct implementation of technology (Feenberg, 1999; Campos & Harasim, 1999).

The study also shows the richness of hypermedia asynchronous communication. Although possibilities opened by conferencing systems are complex, a closer look to the variety of uses and strategies suggests that, if well managed, technology can support concrete needs for knowledge sharing and collaborative work (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994; Laferrière, Breuleux & Campos, 1999).



 To understand the general context of the use of telecollaborative tools in online communities of practice (Wenger, 1998)

 To explore the perceptions of professors concerning their experiences

 To capture models-in-use to understand how conferencing was integrated in early stages of use


We applied qualitative research techniques to assess the instructors' course designs and the teaching strategies.

Scope of the research

Data were collected in seven Canadian and two American institutions of higher education (English-speaking: four universities, two colleges, one post-secondary community school; French-speaking: two universities). Thirty-eight instructors were interviewed. They taught 132 courses with Virtual-U. By the fall 1999, 439 courses were taught by 220 instructors with the software. The graphics below provide a quantitative overview.

a)Number of courses and instructors (comparison of the total and the sample):



b)Distribution of disciplines:



c)Distribution of courses according to level:



d)Distribution of courses according to mode:



e)Instructors' experience with the software:




The research techniques used to access how courses were designed, implemented, and evaluated by professors were:

 Semi-structured interviews and structured questionnaires to access how instructors conceptualized, implemented and evaluated their hypermedia courses, and their understanding about the success or failure

 Direct participation in a number of courses

 Informal surveys to collect general data about the courses

 Transcript analysis

We gathered data during two years. To extract the teaching models we used the technique of data reduction. Teaching models are clusters of interwoven teaching strategies. Teaching strategies are the pedagogical moves and decisions instructors take in their courses in order to achieve their teaching and learning goals. To extract the models, we applied a scheme based on two axis: a vertical axis opposing the individual to the collaborative, and a horizontal axis opposing the face-to-face to the virtual experience.



This scheme was used to highlight which quadrant was prevalent in the models.


The variables

We categorized a number of variables according to the way the conferences were organized, the intervention style chosen to manage them, their structure, and the instructor's role.

Organization - How conferences were organized:

One single root conference for the general use of all participants in which all online activities happened, or sub-conferences in which discussions happened around a or multiple tasks (to discuss a theme, topic, question or problem, to prepare a project, to work on a text, to prepare a specific activity or assignment), either for all participants or groups;

Intervention style - How instructors intervened in the conferences:

By leaving participants free to interact ("laissez-faire"), by guiding them to take charge of their own learning and manage the conferences, by posing questions to trigger discussion, by stating comments from which discussions should evolve, by publishing texts to be worked upon, by negotiating contracts of participation, or by making use of diverse techniques of intervention;

Structure - Occurrence or absence of rules of participation;

Role - The way instructors managed the conferences:

- Director: states the guidelines to be followed, does not collaborate

- Facilitator: facilitates emerging discussions, collaborates

- Guide: states the guidelines to be followed, collaborates

- Negotiator: conducts discussions with the goal of achieving a common understanding, neutral in terms of collaboration

- Distant observer: observes from a distance, leaves participants free, does not or rarely intervene, does not collaborate

The models

Seven different teaching models were identified: multiple, project, simulation, thematic, lecture, seminar, and practicum. The last three were exclusively mixed-mode.

1. Multiple networked activities - courses using hypermedia conferencing for multiple activities like readings, production of virtual objects, Internet research, multimedia projects, etc., with many educational goals.


The most prominent quadrants were the face-to-face/collaborative, virtual/collaborative and virtual/individual. Activities concerning the face-to-face/individual quadrant were irrelevant.

 Organization: general, theme, question, problems, text, activity, project, group assignment

 Intervention style: question-driven, "laissez-faire", participants take charge, text driven

 Structure: no rules, strict rules

 Roles: director, guide, facilitator, distant observer

Settings: Education, and social sciences; graduate and undergraduate; middle-sized and large classes (up to 100 students).

Results: Contradictory. Instructors reported reasonable to very successful experiences. Some courses worked well without mandatory participation.

Totally online

Both virtual/collaborative and virtual/individual quadrants were balanced.

 Organization: general, group assignment

 Intervention style: diverse

 Structure: some rules

 Roles: guide

Settings: Business; undergraduate; middle-sized classes.

Results: Courses were successful, participation was evaluated.

2. Collaborative learning project - courses based on collective or group projects making using of multimedia software whose planning and implementation evolve in the hypermedia conferences.


The most prominent quadrants were the face-to-face/collaborative and virtual/collaborative. Activities concerning the individual hemisphere were irrelevant.

 Organization: general, project, question, problem

 Intervention style: question-driven, participants take charge, "laissez-faire"

 Structure: no rules, some rules

 Roles: facilitator

Settings: Education, business, and social sciences; undergraduate and graduate; middle-sized classes.

Results: Courses were successful.

Totally online

Both virtual/collaborative and virtual/individual quadrants were equally balanced.

 Organization: theme

 Intervention style: diverse

 Structure: rules

 Roles: guide

Settings: Arts & Humanities (English, technical writing and ESL); post-secondary and undergraduate; middle-sized classes.

Results: Courses were successful.

3. Simulation activities - courses based on reality simulation exercises in which planning and preparation occur in hypermedia conferences.


The most prominent quadrants were the face-to-face/collaborative and virtual/collaborative. There were no activities in the individual hemisphere.

 Organization: general, project

 Intervention style: question-driven, multiple

 Structure: no rules, some rules

 Roles: director, guide

Settings: Social sciences and business; undergraduate and graduate; middle-sized classes.

Results: Courses were successful.

Totally online

Activities happened in the individual quadrant.

 Organization: general

 Intervention style: question-driven

 Structure: strict rules

 Roles: facilitator

Settings: Business; undergraduate; middle-sized classes.

Results: Courses did not work well.

4. Theme, problem and case studies - courses organized around themes or major activities (as case studies, text production and discussion, readings, etc.) in which hypermedia conferencing is central to their development.


Activities were distributed in all quadrants.

 Organization: activity, project, text, theme

 Intervention style: comment-driven, question driven, participants take charge

 Structure: no rules, strict rules

 Roles: facilitator, guide

Settings: Arts & Humanities (languages, including ESL), education, social and applied sciences, and religion; college, graduate and undergraduate; small to very large classes (more than 100).

Results: Courses were successful.

Totally online

Activities happened in both quadrants of the virtual hemisphere.

 Organization: general, multiple, text, theme

 Intervention style: question driven

 Structure: some rules, no rules

 Roles: facilitator, guide, director

Settings: Business, and health sciences; college, undergraduate and graduate; small to middle-sized classes

Results: Courses range from reasonable to very successful.

5. Lecturing combined with networked activities - courses based on lecturing in which hypermedia conferencing is used to enhance and to complete activities discussed in the classroom.

Only mixed-mode

The most prominent quadrants were the face-to-face/individual and virtual/individual with low use of the collaborative hemisphere.

 Organization: general, theme, problem

 Intervention style: question-driven, "laissez-faire

 Structure: no rules

 Roles: director, guide, facilitator

Settings: Sciences and social sciences; undergraduate and graduate; middle-sized classes (maximum of 40 students).

Results: Most instructors reported that lecturing online did not work well, lack of mandatory participation might be responsible for some failures.

6. Web-based seminar - courses based on thematic seminars whose activities happen partially in hypermedia conferences.

Only mixed-mode

The most prominent quadrants were the face-to-face/individual and virtual/collaborative with marginal activities happening in the face-to-face/collaborative and virtual/individual quadrants.

 Organization: general, theme

 Intervention style: comment-driven, participants take charge

 Structure: no rules

 Roles: director

Settings: Social sciences, business and Arts & Humanities (languages, including ESL); undergraduate and graduate; small-sized classes (maximum of 10 students).

Results: Contradictory: Instructors reported both bad and very good experiences. Participation was not mandatory in the courses that did not work well.

7. Teaching practicum - web collaborative discussions based on the concrete experiences of training teachers at school designed to help them solve collaboratively the problems found in their practices.

Only mixed-mode

The most prominent quadrants were the face-to-face/individual and virtual/collaborative with marginal activities happening in the face-to-face/collaborative and virtual/individual quadrants.

 Organization: general, text, theme, question, problem

 Intervention style: comment-driven, participants take charge, participation contracts

 Structure: no rules, some rules

 Roles: facilitator, negotiator

Settings: Education; undergraduate; very large classes.

Results: Discussions worked very well.


This study suggests that the pedagogical possibilities of hypermedia, particularly of conferencing, are immense. Most online activities happened in the conferences, and most experiences were successful. The professors' creativity, although fundamental, was largely overtaken by the social need of sharing knowledge in learning communities facing emergent challenges. The degree of success of the courses depended on the ability in responding to that social need in the process of intertwining practice and pedagogical ideas. The pedagogical practice through participation and negotiation of meaning (Wenger, 1998) engenders reflection about the cognitive and affective processes involved in the process of teaching online and leads to the intellectual articulation of the lessons learned, creative re-creation, and conceptualization of new possibilities.

The research showed that professors are:

 Learning how to teach online by doing, with good results

 Transferring their face-to-face expertise to the hypermedia environment

 Creating interesting solutions for the use of multimedia and hypermedia that open new teaching worlds

We recognize the limits of the findings: no learning evidence is presented and nothing can be said about the real effectiveness of the models in spite of the reported average instructors' satisfaction. Nonetheless, by revealing the richness and variety of pedagogical approaches, the research highlights the complex process of negotiation of meaning whose results are the varied approaches to the models we identified. It also highlights the need of sharing practical pedagogical knowledge to better incorporate technology to education, given that networked hypermedia learning will have an important place in the renewal of future university practices (Laferrière, Breuleux & Campos, 1999).


The present study was funded by the Canadian TeleLearning - Network of Centres of Excellence. We thank Dr. Linda Harasim for making it possible. We also thank all professors that offered their time to share their experiences, Dr. Jean Benoit (Université Laval) for sharing his expertise, and Collette Ostler and Sylvia Currie (Virtual-U project) for their helpful comments.


Campos, M. N., & Harasim, L. (1999). Virtual-U: results and challenges of unique field trials. The Technology Source [online serial], 6. Available: (October 21, 1999)

Feenberg, A. (1999) Distance Learning: Promise or Threat? Crosstalk. [online] Available: (October 28, 1999)

Laferrière, T., Breuleux, A. & Campos, M. (1999). L'évolution des métiers et des formations dans les nouvelles méthodes de production des connaissances. L'apprentissage en réseau, une réalité pédagogique à définir. [online]. Available: (October 21, 1999)

Scardamalia, M. & Bereiter, C. (1994) Computer Support for Knowledge-building Communities. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3, 3, 265-283.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of practice: learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press