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The Naming of Parts

Identifying the components of on-line learning

Marshal B Anderson, January 1999


Abstract: In almost all cases the teaching/learning methods used in on-line courses have an equivalent in the real world and existing distance learning practise. This might lead us to integrate on-line methods into existing schemes and visa-versa. When attempting to construct models of on-line education is seems difficult to identify any unique aspects of it that make such models useful in themselves.


Aims: To look at the main component parts of on-line courses, compare them with their equivalents in distance learning and 'real world' situations (e.g. a school, university, adult ed. centre). To identify similarities and differences. To see how these elements fit into models of on-line learning. To see if they inform current and future developments in on-line learning.



In the following comparisons is included the notion of practicality. By this I mean to divide the possible from the practical. For instance, when looking at the idea of on-line tutorials it would be possible for distance learning courses to carry out group tutorials via telephone conferencing; however, due to considerations of cost and synchronicity this is unlikely to be practical. A further example might be asynchronous conferencing via fax or post where the distribution of any contribution would be slow in the case of post and expensive in the case of fax if there were a substantial number of students involved. There would also be problems with threading discussions.

In dealing with content I shall leave aside the availability of sources external and supplementary to the course. This will include recommended texts and media of all types. The rational behind this is that such sources and materials will (could) be available to students in any of the situations dealt with. I will, however, include the use of set texts that form a central part of the content of the course.

Another starting point for this study is Thorpe and Grugeon's premise that;

"While not wishing to exclude the theoretical possibility that the (distance learning) teaching package could perform all these (teaching) functions, there are a good number of reasons for suggesting that in practice it will always fall short of (the) ideal., if only for reasons of complexity and cost"

(Thorpe and Grugeon 1987)

The important thing about this statement is that it is based on the situation towards the end of the 80's when the OU was in full swing, but on-line learning was still in its infancy. Part of my aim here is to see how far the advent of wide area networks has caused a revision of this view of distance learning.


Course development


The following looks at the ways in which the design of courses can be organised. While there are almost infinite permutations of organisation, the following attempts to define three basic models. It shows that the organisation (real world, distance or on-line learning) of the course can dictate, to some extent, the content and the way in which the course develops. It does not explore the issue of the origin of a course which can be driven externally by exam standards, centrally from the provider by tutor/course designer pre-conceptions, or by student needs. In most cases there will be some combination of the above. However, it will look at the ways in which different organisational types lend themselves to different drives.

Real world

Within a school, college or university, we will generally find that those who design a course will also be those that deliver it and have greatest contact with the students. While there will be varying outside pressures on the content and materials (e.g. exam syllabus) teachers have some control. A simple model might look like this:

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(Diagram Rogers 1987)

The proximity of both students and tutors means that the real world environment can lend itself easily to collaborative approaches to learning as well as more formal approaches.


Distance learning

In distance learning we see a fundamental difference in the approach to course development. Here the course is driven by the materials and a much larger proportion of overall course costs and effort are applied to materials design. The role of the tutor becomes that of supporting the materials rather than the other way around. The most obvious reason for this difference would seem to be that tutors have a lot less direct contact with students and are not functioning as deliverers of the course content. From an organisational point of view they are less likely to be able to be part of the initial design process though they can be part of any feedback loop set up to refine the course once it is running.

(Diagram adapted from Rogers 1987)

The fact that materials are largely fixed, if only by the investment made, from the beginning of the course tends to dictate a closed approach to the content and aims of any given course. It seems unlikely that students could change the direction of the course once it is underway or work in any seriously collaborative sense at a distance. They might influence how the course continues in the long term, e.g. suggestions made in year one might appear in year 3. They might also influence the course for those following them.


The development of on-line courses has the potential to even out the imbalance between tutors and materials developers in the design phase because they are more equal partners in the delivery phase. That is to say that tutors may have much more input by means of live lectures, on-line tutorials, involvement in conferencing etc. than they would in distance learning courses, though still less than they might in the real world. The cost/effort balance between the two are evened out exploiting, possibly, some of the best aspects of both the above methods.

Course designers here have the option to make the direction of the course as open or closed as the wish. Because of the communication potential of on-line learning linked to the relative ease (though not necessarily cheap) with which content can be changed a collaborative feedback loop is easily established.


Forms of teaching/learning structures


Formal Lectures

Real world

A group sits in front of a teacher, they listen to her speak, they take notes. There is a physical limit to the number of students served, but it is high. The tutor can provide audio visual supplements and real physical demonstrations involving students. The tutor can also react quickly to the 'mood' of the room. At some points questions may be asked of the tutor and the tutor can control the questioning session easily though simple techniques like a show of hands from which she chooses the questioner. Each questioner can hear the others, add supplementary questions. There will be limitations of time and space - i.e. the students all have to be there at a given time and once the lecture ends all that will remain are the notes and memories the students have. (it is technically possible to record lecture though.)

Distance learning

Video, audio (I'm leaving out text based materials, they are available to all learners). Any number of students can be served. Learners watch or listen to the lecture. No direct questioning of tutor, no immediate interaction between learners. The tutor can not react to audience in any way. Presentation can be of a very high quality with many contributors and audio-visual materials included. The lecture can be re-played as many times as the student needs


A lecture can be delivered live or recorded via video link - currently there are technical difficulties, but these are declining. Technical difficulties may limit number of students linked live to a lecture, but potentially there is no limit.. Whether live or recorded, the student can easily have a copy of the entire lecture. Questions may be asked of the tutor directly via Internet Relay Chat style software. This, however is more difficult to organise than in the real environment - many questions may be asked simultaneously and the fact that systems like IRC are not fully synchronous can cause problems as people talk across each other because of the short delay between typing a message and it appearing to everyone else. Video conferencing may help this as it becomes more available, but then there will be practical problems of video conferencing with maybe 30 or more participants.


Tutorials/small groups (Inc. tutor, group work, one to one student/tutor meetings)

Real world

Meetings like this require a location and timetabling, straightforward demands. Participants are all present and communication will be at it's fullest including body language, tone of voice, expression and so on.

Distance learning

Generally it's not possible to include this as a regular definitive part of the course by definition. Options include local tutorial groups organised within geographical limitations, or occasional residential schools. However, there is many years collective experience in this type of limited face to face contact and we might assume that traditional distance learning providers are using such methods efficiently so they have maximum value to the students.


One to one communication is becoming cheap and efficient. Synchronous 'chat' systems are plentiful, audio communication is fairly easily had via packaged like NetMeeting and video is becoming more prevalent. Many of these communication packages include facilities to white-board between users and exchange files. Systems like this get past geographical considerations, though not temporal issues.

The same systems can be used for group discussions of all kinds between tutors and students but there will be practical restrictions on the size of the groups involved. These will fall into two categories. The first is technical - the use of bandwidth and the reliability of connection mitigate against this method, but these problems will decrease. More difficult is the organisation of large numbers in video and audio conferencing - there needs to develop a discipline within such groups if discussion is to proceed usefully.

Asynchronous conferencing

This is a new communication method that is difficult to tie directly to any particular aspect of real world or distance learning. This technology allows the instigation of threaded discussions to which members of the course contribute as and when they are able. The advantage of such a system is that it negates both geographical and temporal issues connected with distance learning, it also seems to motivate as well as introducing a pace into the interaction that encourages reflection:

"Computer conferencing's unique contribution to the educational scene is that it combines written communication with interaction. The fact that the interaction is time-independent adds to the reflective quality of the medium"

(Mason, 1994)

However, there are notable disadvantages and problems with asynchronous conferencing. It can be even harder to draw reluctant students into the discussion as it lacks the direct approach of a real world meeting; it is difficult to say, "And, John, What do you think about this?" Different students will have different levels of access to the conference and may find that things 'move on' quickly in their absence, often leaving a huge amount of reading to catch up and resulting in contributions being ignored by the group who are already onto something else. Asynchronous conferencing is certainly a promising medium, but it needs to find a form.




Content can refer to several aspects of a course. The part we are interested in here is the materials that have been specifically developed for the course using the organisational methods discussed above.

Real world

There is a vast variety of content available to the real world situation. Courses can be based on existing texts and selected/adapted combinations of them. Physical resources can also easily be used for exploration and experimentation ranging from Cuisinairre Rods to Geiger counters. These resources can be easily shared amongst students and classes.

Distance learning

Set texts and specially produced printed rescues currently form the bulk of content in distance learning. These can be of very high quality, but they are expensive to re-develop as a course goes on. Audio and video tapes are also central to many courses. Computer based resources, such as CD ROM multimedia packages, simulations and so on, are playing a greater part as computer access develops. The sort of equipment a school can easily manage and give access to is more difficult to deal with, though organisations like the OU have, for instance, found ways of supplying laboratory equipment to distance learners. Regional resource and study centres are another approach. These have many functions; providing equipment, a specialised library, self-help groups, but they are expensive to maintain. Short residential courses can also provide 'hands on' learning experiences.


In terms of content delivery, networks, while currently slow, have a major advantage over CD ROM delivered content. This advantage is in their flexibility. By using a server/client system, materials can be up-dated on a more regular basis and content can grow organically with the course provided both for and by the students. The implications for distance learning here are that it can be much more reactive to the needs of the students. In a collaborative learning context, the students can be part of the content provision.

The disadvantage, tied to current technologies, is that delivery of media rich content via networks is slow and can be expensive for the individual student. As is beginning to become clear, the answer is likely to lie in hybrid systems where the bulk of the content is provided on the static medium of CD ROM while additional, dynamic, materials are available from a server. A current example of this is Microsoft's Encarta CD ROM based encyclopaedia which has the bulk of its information on CD ROM, but is up-dated monthly with additional material via the internet.

Replicating 'hands on' experiences is problematic. Simulations of some processes can be successful and virtual reality promises increased 'presence', but there is, as yet, no real equivalent to actually using equipment.



If a course has, as it's basic unit of assessment, some form of written assignment then there is a basic equality of approach in the three areas. Really it is just a question of delivery. In a real world institution work is handed physically to a tutor, in distance learning it is sent by post, on-line students e-mail text. Having said that, there are potential differences thrown up by the available technologies as outlined below.

Real World

Informal assessment is easily available here. Tutors are in regular contact with students and can pick up behavioural clues to their progress and problems. As well as the assessment of written materials students can be assessed on presentations, three dimensional work, in face to face question and answer sessions and so on. There is also the potential for peer assessment if that is part of the course design.

Distance learning

To a large extent this will be limited to written assignments marked by tutors. CAL systems might give local feedback on progress and success and some assignments might be computer marked, though they still have to be physically posted to the assessing organisation. Real world styles of assessment can be applied during residential schools and at other arranged meetings and will be subject to the same restrictions.


As in traditional distance learning, written assignments seem to be the most likely means of assessment. CAL systems with local feedback can be expanded on-line. This can be done because there is room to build more complex Artificial Intelligence based assessment systems on a central server than can be delivered to individual desktop machines. It also means that students progress can be tracked centrally over time and used to dictate the next set of materials delivered in the manner of Integrated Learning Systems like Success Maker and Plato. The easy transmission of documents linked to conferencing opens up the possibility of peer assessment as part of a course.

Modelling On-line Learning

Having defined some of the major components of on-line learning systems it would be useful to see how they fit into existing models used to describe it. There are several sets of models of on-line learning structures available.

Mason (1998) sees three basic models that move along a continuum from closed to open. The Content + Support model seems to mirror most closely traditional distance learning with course materials on-line in a largely linear format, tutors who were not necessarily responsible for design of the course and a low level of collaboration. We can see here the application of some of the content components.

The Wrap Around model opens up with a wider choice of materials and content for the student to explore rather than follow and a higher level of collaborations. This could include content components as well as formal lecture and group work components. The Integrated model sees collaboration at its heart with the emphasis on the group work components.

The models found on the Leeds University Design Methodology for a Web Based Learning Environment pages are just that - they look at courses that exists entirely on the web. Here we see the contrast between Eclectic and Encyclopaedic structures for the site and Study Trail and Tutorial Format pedagogic structures. These are useful for looking at the content elements, but they don't really inform us about the overall structures possible in an on-line course. Forsyth (1998) looks at ideas of a continuum between practical and theory based courses - but these could just as easily describe real world and distance learning courses.

It would seem from this short study that it is difficult, if not impossible, to model on-line courses in isolation from distance learning and/or real world based courses. While we might say that an on line course has recognisable elements and those elements can be modelled in terms of their pedagogy, or that a course can be modelled in terms of its position on the directed - collaborative spectrum and the student/tutor/content relationships that gives rise to, we might not be able to build a model of a course that is unique to the on-line environment. In any kind of course, to one extent or another, teachers teach, materials are read, research is explored, members interact, students are assessed. This is true in all environments - the extent to which each of these contributes to the course is (should be?) to do with the aims of the course and the teaching/learning philosophy behind it, not the method by which it is delivered.

Models of on-line learning from an organisational point of view might show a unique approach as reflected in the development section above, but that is not the area of this study.


On-line learning is beginning to look like a component of distance learning and, to a lesser extent, real world learning. A prediction (hypothesis?) might be that distance learning providers will begin to involve on-line elements in their courses and slowly more and more of the course will move on-line as technologies, knowledge and expertise increasingly provide viable alternatives to course elements. That also tends to suggest that organisations currently devoting their energies to developing on-line courses from scratch are in some way missing the point. On-line does some things well, others not so well; to launch courses entirely on-line introduces the danger of missing the knowledge base built up in more traditional distance learning. This all suggests that the best courses will be hybrids of traditional distance learning and on-line learning.

The only truly unique aspect of on-line learning seems to be asynchronous conferencing which can contribute a reflective approach to discussion in all environments. In all other cases on-line teaching/learning techniques have an existing equivalent in other areas. In a way we are facing the same issues we met with the introduction of CAL into schools. On the one hand it was suggested that computer based learning materials should exist separately from the rest of the curriculum because CAL was somehow 'different'. On the other hand it was mooted that CAL was merely another tool for teaching and learning and should be integrated into the curriculum in the same way books are. As this particular argument is still unresolved after 20 years, it seems unlikely that we will see a swift resolution of the same issue in on-line learning.


Forsyth (1998) Teaching and Learning Materials and the Internet, Kogan Page.

Leeds University (no date) Design Methodology for a Web Based Learning Environment [on line]. Available from HTTP:// [Accessed January 1999]

Mason (1994) Using Communications Media in Open and Flexible Learning, , Kogan Page,

Mason (1998) Models of On-line Courses In: Banks, Graebner and McConnell (eds) Networked Lifelong Learning, University of Sheffield, 1998

Rogers (1987) Adapting Materials for Alternative Use In: Thorpe and Grugeon (eds) Open Learning for Adults, Longman p. 38 - 47

Thorpe and Grugeon (1987) Moving into Open. In: Thorpe and Grugeon (eds) Open Learning for Adults, Longman p. 1 - 12


Bibliography and other sources

McConnell (1994) Implementing Computer Supported Co-operative Learning, Kogan Page,

Maier, Barnett, et al. (1998) Using Technology in Teaching and Learning, Kogan Page,

Proctor (1998) The Tutorial: Combining Asynchronous and Synchronous Learning, In: Banks, Graebner and McConnell (eds) Networked Lifelong Learning, University of Sheffield, 1998

Jones and Cawood (1998) The Unreliable Transcript, Contingent Technology and Informal Practice in Asynchronous Learning Networks, In: Banks, Graebner and McConnell (eds) Networked Lifelong Learning, University of Sheffield, 1998

Graebner (1998) Learning Community On-line: Developing Shared Spaces in the Academic Context, In: Banks, Graebner and McConnell (eds) Networked Lifelong Learning, University of Sheffield, 1998

Dr. Barry Ellis (ed) (1997) Virtual Classroom Technologies for Distance Education: The Case for On-line Synchronous Delivery [on line] Available from Accessed January 1999

Barry Shell (ed) (no date) Shaping Cyberspace Into Human Space [on line]. Available at Accessed January 99

Lemke (1993) Education, Cyberspace, And Change Arachnet Electronic Journal on Virtual Culture vol 1issue 1 [on line], Available from Accessed January 1999

Take me back to The Telematics Index, Marshal's Home Page.