Creating Effective Online Learning Environments   

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The Internet offers considerable potential for expanding educational opportunity, and educators have been quick in seizing this opportunity. Faculty put syllabi on the Web; traditional courses use links to websites as learning resources; students communicate with students at other schools by e-mail; students use the Web as a research tool; teachers share lesson plans through websites; students and teachers conduct discussions over the Internet; schools offer classes through the Internet; universities offer degree programs over the Internet. Many use the Internet as a tack-on to traditional courses while others are using the Internet as an alternative delivery means.

Regardless of how the Internet is used in education, considerable attention must be placed on ensuring that the use is educationally sound. Simply creating a website for a course, putting lesson plans online, having students use e-mail, or starting a discussion forum does not guarantee education will be enhanced. In short there is no magic in the technology. As many studies of technology applications to instruction indicate, it is not the technology itself that improves the instruction (Clark, 1994; Russell, 1997; Gagne and Medsker, 1996). Rather it is careful attention to the design that impacts learning (Duchastel and Spahn, 1996). If the Internet is to be an effective resource for educators, then we must consider how the Internet can be used to provide educationally sound experiences (Richie and Hoffman, 1997). We must carefully craft designs for Internet use in education. In short, we must create Internet based learning environments.

Because the Internet is fairly recent, we do not have a wealth of research on Internet based learning environments. However we do have well researched and widely accepted guidelines, or "best practices", for facilitating learning, independent of the method of delivery. One such set of guidelines was developed for undergraduate education but is applicable to K-12 education as well. These guidelines are the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (Chickering and Gamson, 1991). When the features and capabilities of the Internet are used to implement these known good practices, the instructional experience is very likely to be effective. I will outline how these Principles for Good Practice can be used to guide the creation of Internet based learning environments.

Best Practices

An appropriate starting point for considering how to use the Internet in education is with an examination of proven best practices in education–the Seven Principles for Good Practice specified  by Chickering and Gamson (1991). Suggestions for creating Internet based learning environments are organized around these principles. These principles are:

1. Good practice encourages student-faculty contact.

2. Good practice encourages cooperation among students.

3. Good practice encourages active learning.

4. Good practice gives prompt feedback.

5. Good practice emphasizes time on task.

6. Good practice communicates high expectations.

7. Good practice respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

These principles can be implemented in Internet based learning environments in several ways. The following offers suggestions for implementing each principle in an Internet based learning environment.

Principle 1. Good practice encourages student-instructor contact.

Student-instructor is essential to a high quality learning environment. This principle can be implemented through:

E-mail as a means of student-instructor interaction in web-based courses. The quality of the interaction will depend on the instructor's willingness to respond meaningfully and promptly to many e-mail messages each week.

Listservs that allow instructors to easily communicate with a group of students. In essence, this is a form of group e-mail in which one message is sent from any member of a group to all other members. An instructor could serve as listservs moderator to facilitate relevance of the messages to the class.

Web pages to allow instructors to distribute materials to students and to support interactivity through forms, scripts, and applets. Developing interactive web pages, like developing interactive courseware, is time-consuming, technically challenging, and expensive but promotes better interactions.

Chat rooms which are similar to discussion forums, but happen in “real time”. The discussion occurs immediately as students and teachers interact at the same point in time.

Desktop videoconferencing which allows students and instructors to interact over the Internet in real time seeing and hearing each other. This is a low cost form of interactive distance learning.

Principle 2. Good practice encourages cooperation among students.

Learning environments are enhanced when students work cooperatively rather than competitively. This principle can be implemented through:

Web pages could allow students to have a shared work space that might include each student’s contribution to a group project, resources he or she found useful to the group project, a timeline for the project, and specific assignments. Individual students could update their work on the site for the other students to see and use.

E-mail as a means of student-student interaction in web-based courses. Students can collaborate with each other on a course assignment, such as a case study, by communicating through e-mail. Students can also share work products or other resources, such as reference materials, with other students by attaching them to e-mail transmissions. This will allow students to work cooperatively on group projects.

Threaded discussion forums that provide a web-based mechanism for asynchronous group conversation based around course topics with multiple responses possible for each topic or "thread." The instructor can assign questions or discussion topics and have students post their responses in the discussion forum. Students can read and respond to classmates' postings. Because discussion forums are asynchronous, students can read and respond when they wish. This feature reduces the immediacy of the exchange but may promotes more thoughtful replies.

Chat rooms for students to interact in real time regarding some aspect of courses they are taking. Students could use chat rooms for working cooperatively on a case study, developing a group paper, creating a group presentation, discussing questions that have been posed, or most any other activity requiring group interaction.

Desktop videoconferencing that allows students to interact in real time to carry out discussions or joint planning for a project. A shared “white board” or shared screens allow all participants to view the same information for planning or critique. This could be used to create virtual work teams or study groups among students in a course.

Principle 3. Good practice encourages active learning.

When students are actively engaged in learning activities they learn more. This principle can be implemented through:

Web pages could provide exercises for students to complete or could present problems for them to resolve. This would require their active participation in construction of responses.

Hyperlinks that allow the students to control navigation through the Web environment. This learner control promotes active involvement and lets learners choose what they want or need to see.

Independent learning environments so that students are no longer passive listeners to instructors who function as the source of all information. Students can be actively involved in and guided through their learning by instructions on web pages. They can work independently on problem-based learning assignments. When necessary, they can contact the instructor or other students for assistance.

Principle 4. Good practice gives prompt feedback.

Providing prompt feedback to students facilitates their learning. This principle can be implemented through:

E-mail that provides students with a mechanism for asking questions and getting individual feedback. Instructors can also use e-mail to provide students with feedback on assignments.

Listservs that allow instructors to easily communicate with a group of students and provide feedback on projects or other group activities.

Threaded discussion forums that allow any subscriber to provide feedback on any comment made in the discussion forum. Thus both the instructor and other students can contribute feedback.

Principle 5. Good practice emphasizes time on task.

When students are directly focused on and engaged with the learning task for a greater amount of time, they learn more. This principle can be implemented through:

Website with a course syllabus that provides explicit directions for students to proceed through the course. All assignments and expectations are clearly stated and available for reference at any time. This would allow students to focus their time appropriately on the learning tasks.

Flexible mastery learning that allows learners to invest the amount of time needed to learn the material. Students with high prior knowledge of the subject matter may spend less time while students with lower prior knowledge require longer to read and process the same information to complete assignments.

E-mail that allows students to ask for guidance at any time when they are getting off track or confused.

Hyperlinks with annotations to help students keep on task by guiding them to essential sites. Otherwise students may become distracted or diverted when following external hyperlinks.

Principle 6. Good practice communicates high expectations.

When instructors have high expectations for the students and communicate these to the students, the students learn more. This principle can be implemented through:

Website with a course syllabus that clearly states expectations of students. The roles and responsibilities of the students can be clearly communicated through information on the website. Expectations about the quality of their learning and their work can be made explicit through objectives, examples, and practice examinations.

Listservs that allow faculty to communicate expectations to students. Careful advising of students is important in Internet based courses to make sure they understand course requirements and directions for completing course assignments.

Principle 7. Good practice respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Students have different talents and different ways of approaching learning tasks. Learning can be enhanced by taking these into account. This principle can be implemented through:

Multimedia environments that incorporate text, graphics, audio, animation, and video thus appealing to multiple senses and learning approaches. An Internet based learning environment is multimedia oriented which gives the students freedom to learn as they wish.

Independent learning environments that allow students to participate in a class when it is most convenient for them, when they have time and energy for learning. An Internet based learning environment is time and place independent which gives the students freedom to access instruction when and where they wish.


To take advantage of the educational opportunity offered by the Internet requires careful consideration of how the Internet is used in education. Appropriate use of the Internet, or any technology, in education should be based on proven educational practices. There is no magic in technology to compensate for or improve on poor educational practices. Principles for good educational practice such as the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (Chickering and Gamson, 1991) should form the basis for developing Internet based learning environments. This paper shows how the Internet can operationalize these best practices. By using these research-based principles, educators can create educationally rich learning environments on the Internet.


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Duchastel, P. and Spahn, S. (1996). Designs for web-based learning. Retrieved October 15, 1998 from the World Wide Web:

Gagne, R.M. and Medsker, K.L. (1996). The conditions of learning: Training applications. Ft. Worth: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Richie, D.C. and Hoffman, B. (1997). Incorporating instructional design principles with the World Wide Web. In B. H. Khan (Ed.) Web-Based Instruction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Russell, Thomas (1997). The “no significant difference” phenomenon.” Retrieved October 15, 1998 from the World Wide Web: