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Editor’ Note. Dr. Muirhead's excellent overview and Dr. Salmon's
book warrant in depth consideration by our Distance Learning community, both
researchers and practitioners. Herein lies a rare combination of insight, research,
and creative implementation.
The key to active online learning
Brent Muirhead D.Min., Ph.D.
Today’s online instructors face curriculum challenges due to the absence of
face-to-face interaction with their students. Currently, the majority of distance
education schools must rely upon text based instructional strategies. Distance
educators struggle with trying to develop activities that will promote interaction
and reflective thinking in their classrooms. Gilly Salmon’s latest book (2002)
E-tivities: The key to act ive online learning
addresses the need to develop relevant online instructional activities that
can be used in a diversity of academic disciplines. The term "E-tivities" refers
to a conceptual framework for discussing interactive learning activities.
The Importance of Learner-Centered Education
The literature on distance education affirms the importance of having learner-centered
instruction to effectively meet adult learning needs. Unfortunately, distance
education programs struggle in their efforts to provide learner-centered degree
programs. Sptizer (1998) notes that " . . . technical, administrative, political,
and financial considerations often dictate the kind of system that is designed.
Very rarely is the design of distance learning system learner-focused (p. 54)."
New York University spent $25-million to invest in seven online courses in
a for-profit venture called NYUonline. Administrative officials decided to stop
the educational venture because their program was too flawed to repair. The
business plan contained a number of major weaknesses such as neglecting to have
more faculty members involved in the development of the project. Carlson &
Carnevale (2001) note that " . . . a recent administrator for NYUonline said
the company did not adequately survey the market before trying to produce courses.
Instead, NYUonline created online courses without determining whether they were
what companies wanted for their employees. As a result, NYUonline had trouble
finding customers (p. A31). Unfortunately, New York University officials had
neglected to survey their market to clearly identify what employees needed for
their professional and personal growth.
Hopefully, today’s distance education schools can learn from the business and
educational mistakes that that caused the downfall of NYUonline. Spitzer (1998)
has offered practical advice for creating a successful contemporary distance
- Focus on the customer. If distance education is going to be successful
and widely used, we must put more emphasis on students as ‘customers.’
- Minimize pain. When it comes to the transition to distance learning;
low pain is always the best.
- Be context-sensitive. Many learners require personal contact, especially
in groups that have become accustomed to it, and regional ‘coordinators’
can provide a personal touch.
- Use appropriate technology. I believe in using the most cost-effective
- Be sure that students have the prerequisite capabilities to succeed.
I have personally observed many distance learning programs that used
advanced technology without adequately preparing students for it.
- Provide adequate technical support. Nothing will dampen the incipient
enthusiasm of your target audience like early technical glitches that can’t
be promptly resolved!
- Give learners (and instructors) time to adjust. Some believe that
the best way to get people to use distance learning technology is to throw
them into the deep water. I don’t agree. Some may swim, but my experience
is that many will sink.
- Communicate intensively. A key to success of any distance education
program is a high level of communication.
- Understand the needs of all the stakeholders. For example, you will
probably need the enthusiastic support of course developers, technical support
persons, administrativestaff, etc. on your distance learning ‘team.’
- Create a positive, motivating environment. There is no substitute
for a positive, caring, nonthreatening environment (p. 55).
Salmon’s Five-Step Model
Spitzer’s (1998) list highlights some of the essential ingredients that are
necessary to develop online schools that have high academic standards and individualized
instruction. A powerful underlying theme of the list is the importance of the
human element in the educational process. The online instructor continues to
play a major role in the success of any academic program because they can personalize
learning experiences for their students. Additionally, contemporary online
instructors realize that distance education is a "work in progress" that continues
to evolve with time and experimentation. Yet, the basic trial and error methodology
is a very time consuming way to identify effective teaching practices. Instructors
really need research-based teaching strategies that have demonstrated that they
have effectively worked in a computer-mediated environment. Salmon’s (2002)
E-tivities: The key to active online learning offers an excellent
resource for meaningful curriculum activities for instructors who operate in
a diversity of online environments. The book is built upon conducting action
research projects involving computer-mediated education at the Open University
Business School, United Kingdom.
Salmon’s (2002) recent studies have added more depth to her innovative five
stage model that offers practical advice and ideas for new and veteran online
instructors. The five-step model reflects a positive progression in the quality
and intensity of interaction between students and between students and their
teachers. The online instructor’s role is multidimensional and changes at different
stages depending upon the student needs and circumstances within each class.
Therefore, the instructor has to use discernment about their teaching strategies
to effectively meet student learning needs.
Step 1 Access & Motivation: involves helping new students
become familiar with the online setting by learning how to use the course
software and having instructional activities that are relevant. Salmon
(2002) reminds instructors that "E-moderators should not be complacent
about entry level skills to online learning! There are still many novices
‘out there’ (p. 24)." It is important to address the technical issues
and the underlying feelings and emotions that students have about the
learning online. People can become quite frustrated over their technological
problems. It is important to help students handle these negative emotions
and work with the technical staff to resolve the issues. Students can
feel somewhat embarrassed by their struggles in learning how to use the
software. Instructors can alleviate the student’s anxiety by sharing email
messages that are supportive and optimistic in tone. Additionally, instructors
can share email notes that highlights the purposes of their assignments.
Student motivation is partially dependent on their perspective on their
ability to complete the class work. Instructors can enhance student confidence
by starting with less difficult assignments. It helps students to experience
more academic success before taking on more difficult work.
Step 2 Online Socialisation: The second stage involves building
the foundation for a vibrant online community by using short e -tivities
that cultivate trust between students. Student relationships will grow
during group and individual work as student share personal stories and
ideas. Then, as students become more comfortable with the online culture
they can move into sharing and exchanging information. Instructors can
introduce e-tivities that explore cultural differences, recognize the
value of diversity in an online community and help students discuss differences
in educational expectations.
Step 3 Information Exchange: Salmon (2002) warns that "it is common
for novice e-moderators to spend huge effort and time in trying to encourage
contribution at stages 1 and 2, only to find themselves largely logging
on to read their own messages. If e-moderators are too rigorous, they
soon burn out! (p. 36)." During the third stage, instructors should utilize
online e-tivities that promote discovery learning. Students should have
assignments that give them opportunities to explore and share knowledge
in class discussions. Instructor will realize that this stage is completed
when students are successfully processing information and become more
proactive in their learning.
Step 4 Knowledge Construction: The advent of this stage marks
the development of e-tivities that focus more on helping students use
higher order thinking skills and become independent learners. Students
must have projects that help them to learn how to construct their own
personal knowledge. Also, instructors need to be intentional in their
online remarks and aim to enhance their student’s critical thinking skills. Students
will start moving from being merely knowledge transmitters to creators
or authors of innovative ideas. It is an exciting time in the online class
as students are challenged by e-tivities that require working on problems
that have multiple interpretations.
Step 5 Development:This stage represents the development of new
cognitive skills that enable students to learn to monitor and evaluate
their thinking. Students take personal ownership of their learning experiences
and assist students within their study groups and new students to the
class. Instructors select e-tivities that encourage reflective thinking
by sharing problem-based situations or scenarios that require interpretation
information, creativity and a willingness to test assumptions.
Salmon's (2000) Five-Step Model
Characteristics of E-tivities
It is important that online instructors have the appropriate educational resources
to individualize their lesson plans and course materials for their classes.
Salmon (2002) provides a host of educational resources (i.e. scenarios, ideas
for reflective dialog and professional development activities) in E-tivities:
The key to active online learning that can be used by instructors
in their classes. The e-tivities are designed to engage online students in meaningful
work that captures their imagination and challenges them to grow. There are
five vital features to e-tivities:
- A small piece of information, stimulus or challenge (the ‘spark’)
- Online activity which includes individual participating posting a contribution
- An interactive or participative element-such as responding to the postings
- Summary, feedback or critique from an e-moderator (the ‘plenary’)
- All the instructions to take part are available in one online message (the
‘invitation’) (Salmon, 2002, p. 13).
Salmon’s (2002) research provides a solid foundation for relevant and purposeful
online instructional activities. The Five-Step Model offers an excellent paradigm
for combining theory and practice into the teaching and learning process. It
affirms the importance of the having teachers who are prepared to share meaningful
activities in a learner-centered atmosphere.
NOTE: Dr. Salmon's book, E-tivitites: The key to active online learning,
is available in the United States at Barnes & Noble.
Carlson, S. & Carnevale, D. (2001). Debating the demise of NYUonline. Chronicle
of Higher Education. 48 (16), pA31. Retrieved from EBSCO host March 3, 2002.
Salmon, G. (2002). E-tivities: The key to active online learning.
London: Kogan Page.
Salmon, G, (2000). E-Moderating: The key to teaching and learning online.
London: Kogan Press.
Spitzer, D. R. (1998). Rediscovering the social context of distance learning.
Educational Technology, 38 (2), 52-56.
About the Author
Brent Muirhead has a BA in social work, master's degrees in religious
education, history, and administration, and doctoral degrees in Education
(D.Min. and Ph.D.). His Ph.D. degree is from Capella University, a distance
education school in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Dr. Muirhead is area chair and teaches a variety of courses for the MAED
program in curriculum and technology for the University of Phoenix Online
(UOP). He also trains and mentors faculty candidates, conducts peer reviews
of veteran faculty members, and teaches graduate research courses in the
new UOP Doctor of Management program. Dr. Muirhead is also Contributing
Editor for the USDLA Journal. He may be reached via email: email@example.com