How to Design & Deliver Quality Online Education


Which is better, online or face-to-face learning? This used to be a common research question. Later, the research results were aggregated and meta-analysed, yielding the – no significant difference – finding. It turned-out that there is no clear winner. Students choose online or on-campus, or increasingly, a combination of the two, for various reasons and with diverse outcomes. In addition, some education is high quality and some teachers inspirational, and some are not, in both online and face-to-face designs.

This is similar to the Dogs or Cats debate. There are large and small dogs. Some need regular walks and are therefore good for human fitness. Others are great companions for couch potatoes. Likewise, some cats purr and snuggle and others are independent and treat human affection with disdain. Cats can often be left to their own devices, accommodating their humans’ weekend away and can live successfully in high-rise apartments. Most dogs need to be escorted out and cannot be left. Some sworn dog-lovers adopt a cat and convert, and vice-versa. Some people choose to have a dog and a cat and love them equally.

Is there a diagnostic test to reliably predict which humans will be happier with dogs or cats as pets? Returning to the context of online learning, a current popular line of research is based on the proposition that we can predict which types of people are most likely to succeed in online learning and which are not. The most robust hypothesis, to date, is that people who have high self-regulation skills tend to succeed in online learning. How useful is this research? What about people who have low self-regulation, but live in rural, regional and remote areas, without access to physical campuses? What about people who want/need to work full-time during the day and can only fit learning into late evening hours after they have put their children to bed? Educators cannot cater to only the most suitable students. The onus is on the educational institutions (and thus educators) to accommodate diverse learners in their chosen mode/s and to design and deliver high quality learning opportunities to all enrolled students.

This article uses the acronym – ONLINE – as a Framework to guide the design and delivery of quality online education for diverse learners.

High quality ONLINE education is:

Open: learning resources are accessible and available, including after the course
Navigable: well-planned interfaces allow students to find what they need
Learning: sites are designed to develop knowledge, skills, attributes and identity
Interactive: dialogue is supported amongst and between teachers and learners
Networked: curriculum and activities foster broad-reaching connections
Engaging: teachers invite, model and sustain enthusiastic presence for learning

Likewise, the same ONLINE acronym, can be used to describe the antithesis.

Poor quality ONLINE education is:

Obstructed: learning resources are controlled and restricted behind a curtain
Nonsense: chaotic interfaces prevent students from finding what they need
Lazy: sites are only about completion and do not promote positive change
Isolating: students feel alone, and often lonely, throughout the experience
Narrow: curriculum and activities are analogous to a locked filing cabinet
Empty: teachers abandon the site and the overall experience is unfulfilling

The evaluation tool presented as Figure One, below, can be used to honestly assess existing online education course sites and set priorities for development and improvement. It is recommended that students and teachers separately and anonymously rate the online education sites, and that the stakeholder (student/teacher) perspectives are then compared and contrasted.

Figure One: Evaluation Tool to Rate Online Education Design/Delivery

Highlight the most accurate descriptor for each row below.

Open – learning resources are accessible & available There is not enough access to learning resources. Obstructed – resources are controlled & temporary

– interfaces make it easy to find things


The interface could be improved for findability. Nonsense – interfaces do  not make sense
Learning – develops skills, knowledge & attributes The site feels mostly about completion – not beyond. Lazy – site does not promote pos. development

– promotes teacher & student dialogue


Mostly experienced alone, without others present. Isolating – experience is alone (sometimes lonely)
Networked – fosters broad-reaching connection Extends minimally beyond course site & curriculum. Narrow – feels like a locked filing cabinet

– teachers enthusiastically present


Teachers do not seem to care about course/learners. Empty – Overall experience is unfulfilling

When students are asked what they want (and need) in a quality online learning experience, the responses are consistent across universities. Students say that –

  • The curricular materials must be up-to-date and relevant. The selected materials are designed to prepare graduates to meet the entry expectations, and preferably lead the way, in their chosen industry. If a textbook is required reading, it must be actively used throughout the course. In addition, links must be made to current research, updates and authors in the respective field. (Aligned with Framework Qualities – Open & Networked)
  • The structural interface and organisation of the course should be so straight-forward and intuitive that students do not have to dedicate any mind-space to navigation or to finding what they are looking for. If students are taking multiple courses (units) through the same university, then items should be named consistently and located in the same places. In other words, once is enough for learning how to get-around in a course site. (Aligned with Framework Quality – Navigable)
  • Assessment, and how students will be graded, must be fair, relevant, reasonable, and clearly described. Students prefer to have access to exemplar submissions to guide their own work. There must be a clear rationale for each choice of assessment, and at least some of the assessment should be designed such that students are actively engaged in doing similar work to what they will be doing in-industry upon graduation. Students need regular, clear and specific feedback, which can be iteratively applied to improving their performance. In other words, there should be multiple chances/opportunities to learn and demonstrate knowledge, skills and attributes. Since students are already online, they should be encouraged to post, and thereby showcase, their work and their profiles. (Aligned with Framework Quality – Learning & Networked)
  • Online learning should feel like a carnival. The enthusiasm of the teacher is tangible and exciting. The learning resources have been chosen with care. The assessment is active and involves doing. The students get to know one another. The teacher actively invites engagement and models how to do so appropriately. Online interaction tools are applied and moderated throughout the course. The alternate metaphor – that students too often report experiencing – is that of a filing cabinet. In advance of the course, the teacher selects and organises the files, posts them in the course site, sends an announcement to commence, and then disappears. Mature-age learners who experienced correspondence education say that some online learning feels as though the binders have now been put-up online and the printing costs deferred to the students. (Aligned with Framework Quality – Interactive & Engaging)

Notably, these student expectations apply to both online and on-campus education. The distinction is that online education is situated in a digital environment and thus readily lends itself to technologically enabled and enhanced learning and thereby disruptive innovation. Returning to the four student expectations described above, first, the curricular materials must be up-to-date and relevant in all education. However, whereas print textbooks go out-of-date, online education can link to new developments immediately upon digital publication.

Second, the structural interface and organisation of all courses should be so straight-forward and intuitive that students do not have to dedicate any mind-space to navigation or to finding what they are looking for. Online interfaces have more structural control of this environment. The teacher creates the online course site. In on-campus environments, some students are better at maintaining clear and organised study notes than others.

Third, it is critical that assessment, and how students will be graded, must be fair, relevant, reasonable, and clearly described. Professor David Boud famously said, ‘Students can survive bad teaching, but they cannot survive bad assessment.’ Online assessment affords opportunities for innovation. Students can employ the same digital tools in their assessment that they will use upon graduation in the workforce. Digital submissions can be posted online, creating a digital portfolio and profile for students to develop networks and attract graduate employment.

Fourth, and finally, all education should feel like a carnival. Another influential David, this time – Professor David Field – said, ‘As a teacher, I have just as much power to make learning boring or fun. Why would I choose the former? That would be boring for me too.” Even subjects that are not associated with “fun” such as taxation law and multivariate statistics can be taught in ways that genuinely interest, engage and motivate students. National citations awarded to teachers in these disciplines, for making outstanding contributions to student learning, are evidence that this is possible. When asked to describe their approaches, these award-winning teachers usually talk about digital innovation. They use online interactivity, visualisation and practice tools to foster student learning and to provide feedback and specific instruction along the way.

This article concludes with specific strategic design advice for commencing design of online education that complies with the ONLINE framework.

Figure Two: First-Steps for Quality Online Education Design and Delivery

Open Navigable Learning Interactive Networked Engaging
Create links from and to key industry research & websites. Develop, share & follow a consistent Program glossary of educational terms. Identify the key digital tools that graduates are likely to use and include them in the course. Create a marked Discussion Forum and post a clear marking guide. Model strong interaction. Dedicate marks to students posting completed assessment on a digital portfolio. Create & post an auto-biographical video about you and what attracted you to the taught discipline.
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Shelley Kinash

Shelley Kinash

Director, Office of Learning & Teaching at Bond University
Dr Shelley Kinash is Director, Office of Learning and Teaching at Bond University. Prior to Bond, Shelley taught as a Visiting Academic to the Faculty of Education (Graduate Certificate in Higher Education and Early Childhood) at University of Southern Queensland. Shelley was an Academic in the Faculty of Education (Educational Technology and Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies) at the University of Calgary for 12 years. Shelley earned her PhD in Educational Technology in 2004. Her dissertation topic was Blind Online Learners, which she authored as one of her three books published by Information Age - Seeing Beyond Blindness. Shelley remains research active. You can contact her on

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