Chapter 2: Basic Philosophies

Instructor-Centered Versus Student-Centered

Most (but not all) courses tend to be either focused on the instructor as dispenser of knowledge, or the learner as self-guided constructor of knowledge. Many courses are a mixture of both, but gravitate towards one side or the other regardless. Courses of any size can be either student-centered or instructor-centered, so you will first need to decide which direction your course will (generally) take.

The more the instructor focuses on themselves as the center of the course (some refer to this as “sage on the stage”), the more students will rely on them as the one to tell them everything… and to fix everything. This can be overwhelming in MOOCs with thousands of learners, but acceptable in smaller online courses with manageable numbers (although many topics in any course can still work well in student-centered approaches). The goal of any course should be to push learners into a place of learning how to learn about the course topic, so they can become self-directed learners (Kop & Fournier, 2011). This can also pose challenges for learners who were taught to focus on the instructor as the center of the class, or as the person to answer all questions. Instructors might also find it difficult to release the control over the class by letting learners take control (also sometimes referred to as “guide on the side”). However, we encourage you to keep self-directed learning in mind and work to move your course or your learners in that direction as much as possible.

Additionally, the massive nature of MOOCs and some larger online courses dictates that instructors will not have time to be the core of the course. Therefore, the design of the course will need to focus (as much as possible) on how to create self-determined learners simply out of practicality. Learners will need to begin to see other learners and the Internet as communities that are a source of answers and support (Hew & Cheung, 2014). For example, some courses have had success with creating voting systems that allow learners to post questions in the discussion forums and then allow other learners to “upvote” the ones that are most important. The instructor then answers the top questions each week. Other courses have encouraged learners to ask questions through social media outlets such as Twitter or Facebook, allowing instructors and other learners to answer as they can. Both methods have pros and cons depending on instructor’s available time as well as personal viewpoints of each method (various strategies to support each method are covered in this book).

The main concept to keep in mind is that MOOCs and larger courses can quickly become very student-centered in nature due to their massive size, and this often represents a major shift in power and control dynamics for many instructors. Be prepared for this shift. Also keep in mind that when teaching at this scale, learners don’t need you to just convey a bunch of factoids that they can look up online or in a book. They will want you to show them how to take control of the overall direction of their learning, something that is often referred to as “self-directed learning.” This is yet another large shift for some instructors. If these shifts are new for you, you might want to look into a field called heutagogy, which is this the study of self-directed learning (Blaschke, 2012).

Asynchronous Versus Synchronous

Another major factor about your course that will affect many decisions is whether or not learners will be interacting with each other and/or the course synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronous courses are basically those courses that have learners meeting with each other and the instructor(s) in real time in the same space. That space may be a physical classroom, a video conference tool, or even a text-based chat tool – but the key is that learning experience for each participant is synchronized with the other participants. Typical on-campus college courses are often seen as synchronous – learners consume the materials (lectures) at the same time and place, discuss course topics during class time, and complete assignments like tests in class. Asynchronous courses are those that do not require learners to meet in the same space at the same time. Typical online courses are often seen as asynchronous – learners consume the materials at different times, post to discussion boards at the different times, and complete assignments at different times.

However, these are often not completely separate constructs. On campus courses can have online asynchronous components added for after class work. Online courses can have synchronous video chat sessions or live lectures mixed in with asynchronous discussion boards. Sometimes these mixtures are determined by company or institutional policy, other times they are left up to the instructor. If these decisions are left to you, you will need to decide what mixture is right for your course and your learners (keep in mind that sometimes the ideal solution for the course is not ideal for specific learners – in this case, try as much as possible to go with what is best for the learners).

Much of what you read for the rest of this book will also need to be filtered through how much of your course is synchronous and how much is asynchronous. For example, if your students are working adults that need maximum flexibility, you might decide to make your course entirely asynchronous. This would probably mean that you would not spend much time on tools that enable video conferencing. However, no matter what the mix of synchronous/asynchronous ends up being, you should keep in mind you are still dealing with humans. Your course designs will need to keep the human element in your course in mind while designing for either modality. One good resource to read about this topic is an article called “Bringing out the Human in Synchronous and Asynchronous Media for Learning” by Maha Bali.

Theoretical Foundations of Learning

Much can be said about the underlying theoretical foundations of learning. Many, many books and articles have been written on the topic, so this is not an area that can easily be skimmed lightly. However, it can be of benefit to your course for you to think through what your theoretical goals/desires/requirements are for your course, and then to design appropriately after clearly setting your expectations. Therefore, a basic overview is presented here.

Looking at learning as either instructor-centered or students-centered is a good place to start, but it can get much more complex than that. For the sake of space, we will expand this list to three possibilities:

  • Instructivism: Knowledge transfer from an expert
  • Constructivism: Constructed self-discovery (often guided by an expert)
  • Connectivism: Networking with connections to gain knowledge or skills

Each is actually more complex than the provided definitions, and there are various other areas that fit in between, beside, and outside of these. These terms could also be considered basic power dynamics that describe who is in control of learning in your course.

Intersecting and sometimes paralleling these power dynamics are teaching methodologies for designing the course itself. Again, there are many of these that could be listed, but we will stick with a simplified list:

  • Pedagogy: Often seen as a general word for any method or practice of teaching, an older way of looking at this is that the instructor is at the center of and in control of the transmission of what is taught.
  • Andragogy: A methodology that draws on life experiences and knowledge of the learner (rather than the teacher) to form the basis for learning.
  • Heutagogy: Self-determined learning that focuses on how to learn rather than what to learn.

Again, these are simplified definitions rather that specific descriptions that cover every aspect of these terms. The power dynamics and methodologies mentioned also tend to blend into each other as well. They can also be combined and arranged in a grid-like pattern to help you get even more specific about the design of your course:

Instructivist Pedagogy

Formal learning that depends on the instructor to dispense knowledge that is new to learners. Focused on content, video, standardized tests, papers, and instructor-guided discussions.

Instructivist Andragogy

Experienced learners are heavily guided through discussion activities to add to existing knowledge. Instructors guide learners through lessons learned by other experienced people in the field.

Instructivist Heutagogy

Probably a very unlikely design to attempt, but this would basically be an expert sharing information about where to learn about a topic. Contains mostly lists of resources and professional communities that learners can join into to learn more, as well as instructions on how to best interact with resources and communities.

Constructivist Pedagogy

Learners build upon existing knowledge and experiences by formally learning from more experienced others individually or as a group. Instructors create scenarios and activities for learners to reflect on what they know and construct new knowledge in their own ways. Writing, blogging, and reflective activities of all types are most common.

Constructivist Andragogy

Learners build upon existing knowledge and experiences to construct new knowledge either individually or as a group. Group work, open-ended reflection or discussions, and project-based learning are common types of activities.

Constructivist Heutagogy

Learners constructing a way to learn about a topic either individually or collectively as a group. Ill-structured problem-based learning, open ended group activities, and web searches focused on how to learn more than what facts to learn about a topic are possible activity types.

Connectivist Pedagogy

Learners working in a network in a formal sense to accomplish an ill-defined competency as created by the instructor. The instructor’s knowledge would be the main focus and driving force behind this design.

Connectivist Andragogy

The goal of learning is to work as a network in an informal sense to accomplish a competency that might be somewhat suggested by the course or instructor, but is ultimately determined by the group and based up expanding upon life experiences.

Connectivist Heutagogy

Learners working as a network to figure out how to become a learner about a topic. The instructor might create the avenue for connections and then become one equal part of the network. See the rhizomatic model of education as a possible example, where curriculum is constructed by the engaged learning community (Chapter 13).

This section and the above chart are adapted from a book chapter entitled “From Instructivism to Connectivism: Theoretical Underpinnings of MOOCs” (about MOOCs, but could apply to any online course as well – see list below), which would serve as a good resource to explore the overall idea in more depth. Keep this section in mind when looking at the section on “Clear Communication” and “Types of Communication” later in this manual, as it will continue this look at theory as applied to communication. For more resources on some of the theories touched on here, see:

Goals, Objectives, and Competencies

All courses set out to have learners learn something through a transfer of knowledge and/or skills. However, different teachers at different institutions will have different methods for how they teach that something. Once you know what you want your learners to learn, you need to start planning how you are going to teach it or how your learners are going to learn it, depending on where the focus of your course is. Creating well-written statements on how learning occurs will not only help you design your course, but also will help your learners understand what is going to happen in the course of learning.

Many words are used for these statements: goals, objectives, outcomes, strategies, competencies, etc. Some see many of these words as interchangeable. For the sake of this manual, we will focus on three:

  1. Goal: A goal is a more general, broad statement of the overall intention of the course. There may be one for a course, or a list of a few. They can also be intangible and not measured by any standard. Goals can usually be accompanied by objectives or competencies.
  2. Objective: An objective is a precise statement of how to specifically achieve a goal. Generally, what sets objectives apart from goals is that they provide a specific way to measure learning outcomes and student performance. Objectives tend to be more tangible and shorter in duration than goals while focusing on what learners need to know. They can be accompanied by competencies, or stand on their own, in support of course goals.
  3. Competency: A competency is the ability to apply what has been learned to a function or task. Competencies are often more complex and higher level than objectives. They can work alongside objectives, or stand on their own, in support of course goals.

As an instructor, you may already have a good idea of the goals, objectives, or competencies you will use in your course. They may have been given to you by your institution or company. Or you may have never thought about any of them. Generally, you will want to have at least a draft of these written out before you design your course (they can, and probably will, change during the design process). On the other hand, you may want to let your learners determine the goals and objectives for the course (or even to map their own competencies as the course progresses). Even if that is the case, you will still want to be familiar with how to create goals, objectives, and competencies in order to lead your learners through the process. Much has been written on how to write effective goals, objectives, and competencies. We will only cover the basics here, but if you need to go more in depth, there are many resources online to look into.

The important thing to remember in writing goals is to not confuse them with objectives and competencies. Remember to keep them general and overarching for the course, but not so general that they basically just say “Students will learn _______ [topic of the course]”. Try to think of what students will learn rather than a list of topics. You can do this by looking at your course backwards – what will learners have accomplished by the end of your course? Focus on what learners will be doing rather than the topic. Make sure that learners can understand them (aka avoid jargon). For more details, see:

There are many different ways to structure objectives, but we recommend a good starting place is with the Behavior/Conditions/Criteria structure. In this structure, objectives should start with the behavior – what students will be able to do (“create a timeline of historical events that led to World War I”). Then add a condition – how they will be able to do it, usually added before the behavior in a written objective (“After reading the chapters on World War 1”). Finally, follow all of this with the criteria – the method for determining how they demonstrated mastery of the objective (“by correctly answering 70% or more of the questions on the World War 1 test”). Be sure to avoid unmeasurable words like “understand,” “know,” or “appreciation for” in the behavior; make sure that each objective feeds into the goal; and ensure that every goal has a good number of objectives to support it. If not, revise your goals and/or objectives. For more details, see:

Just like objectives, competencies can be approached and structured in many different ways. They are sometimes utilized in more standard learning situations, or can become the central structural feature of learning in competency-based learning. There are typically three concepts to keep in mind when creating competencies. First, competencies should be focused on the learner, rather than on the content or you as the instructor. Make sure that you are creating a way for learners to focus on their individual needs as they collaborate or work with others. Second, competencies should focus on outcomes over course structure. Many courses start with a “topic per week” approach and build out from there, but competencies may take more or less time than a week to complete. Third, competencies should be able to adjust and flex with the different individual needs of individual learners. Objectives tend to create one set of standards for all learners to attain in the same manner, whereas competencies tend to provide flexible structure for learners to personalize the learning experience to their needs and contexts. For more details, see:

Competencies tend to work best when situated in an overall context of competency-based learning. While there is disagreement over some of the specifics of competency-based learning, there are a few key concepts that generally tend to differentiate it from more traditional course structures. The biggest key concept is flexibility. Competency-based learning tends to allow learners to determine what exactly they are going to learn about a particular topic, how long they need to learn it, and how they will demonstrate that they have mastered the topic. Learners also typically do not advance until they have proven mastery, unlike traditional learning scenarios where all learners advance based on the calendar regardless of mastery. Additionally, class structures and organization as well as content or activities can be adjusted by individual learners to fit their specific social, cultural, and learning contexts and needs. For more details, see:


Once you have created your goals, objectives, and/or competencies, keep these at the forefront during the entire course development. Everything that goes into the course needs to relate back to these.

  • The course content (text and videos) and technology should support the goals, objectives, and/or competencies.
  • The learning activities need to give learners a chance to practice what they need to learn through the goals, objectives, and/or competencies – as well as prepare them for any assessments.
  • Any assessments should specifically measure each goal, objective, and/or competency.

When all of these items (course content, learning activities, and assessments) are aligned with the goals, objectives, and/or competencies, they will work to reinforce one another. Conversely, if any of these items are misaligned, it can lead to learner frustration. This may be realized if a learner says “The readings did not prepare me for the test.” What may have gone wrong if a learner says this? Consider this quote: “If you design assessments as an afterthought at the end of designing the instruction (a common but unfortunate mistake), you are likely to design the wrong content and the course activities and the assessments are likely to be far less meaningful or appropriate” (Shank, 2006). This is exactly what courses that are not aligned look like. You are giving learners puzzle pieces that don’t line up. It may be that the instructor created learning objectives but then chose content that they found interesting, but that was irrelevant to the objective. Then, they designed an assessment based on that misaligned content. Since the content was irrelevant to the objective, the assessment, in turn, is not going to evaluate whether the learner mastered the objective.

A good practice to ensure you are aligning your content is to create a course map. A simple table to show how each objective or competency is aligned with goals, content, technology, learning activities, and assessments will help visualize the alignment. An example table is provided below.

Specific objective or competency Course goal Content Technology Learning Activity Assessment
Enter one objective or competency per row. List the broad course goal(s) that the specific objective or competency relates to. List all content (text, video, etc.) that learners will use for this specific objective or competency. List any technology required for the course content that was listed. List any practice activities. For example, reading or watching the course content, or completing practice questions. List any assessments where learners will demonstrate their mastery of the specific objective or competency.


As you work through theory, goals, etc., one idea to also consider with your course is openness. Openness is often connected with MOOCs today, but the truth is that any course can be open or even have open elements. Even though the second “O” in MOOC is “Openness,” many don’t realize that it means more than “free” or “anyone can sign up.” Traditional online courses can also incorporate many aspects of openness even if the course itself is not considered “open.” In fact, many instructors like to include aspects of openness in their traditional online courses.

A course that is completely “open” means many things, including that the content is freely accessible for all (Rodriguez, 2013). What that statement means is that videos can be downloaded, PowerPoints used in videos can be downloaded, all learning materials to be used are available for free, all content is available from the beginning of the course, and learners still have access to the course indefinitely after the last course day. This can be a major paradigm shift for those that are used to teaching in a closed course online or face-to-face. The expectation is that anyone can access any part of the course at any time, and even in some cases re-use or remix the content in their courses. This would limit using expensive textbooks, tools, or websites that have commonly been used for years in education. This may also mean using open-source solutions outside of the ones offered officially on campus. The main idea to keep in mind is that if a course is considered to be “open,” there would be few restrictions on who can access any portion of it. This leads to certain freedoms and certain problems, as will be discussed in later sections.

However, if certain institutional limitations prevent complete openness, many courses can implement some aspects of openness as desired or allowed. This is up to the instructor (or course designer if there is someone designated for that role specifically), but just keep in mind to keep the course completely open if referring to it as a MOOC.

The major issue to consider in relation to openness is licensing and permissions. Certain forms of copyright are very restrictive, and therefore not completely “open.” For many, your institution or company will already have made decisions on how the content and activities (text, image, video, etc.) you have created will be licensed. For others, you may have some or total freedom to license the content and activities that you create as you like. If you decide to use any type of open license for your content and activities, this could increase the impact and spread of your content outside of the course, as well as make it accessible to more learners. Just keep in mind that materials put into closed LMS systems under “fair use” cannot be turned into open content without permission from the copyright holder of that material. For more information on open licensing, see the section in Chapter 8 on Open Educational Resources.


One aspect of openness that all courses must take into consideration, regardless of size or theory or where/how the course is offered, is accessibility. Certain learners have various considerations when interacting with online courses due to disability, socioeconomic situations, or any number of other factors. You may work at an institution or company that has staff to ensure your courses are as accessible as possible. If that is the case, then you must listen to everything they tell you to do with your course. Accessibility design is not only a good idea, it is usually also the law.

If your institution or company does not have a person or department to ensure that your course is fully accessible, it will be up to you to do so. Even if you have someone else to review your course, designing with accessibility in mind can typically save a lot of time in the long run. You will find that it is better to design your course right the first time than to spend a lot of extra time correcting accessibility issues later on.

Different tools have different accessibility standards that often evolve as technology changes. The best thing you can do is search for accessibility guidelines for the tool you wish to use (“accessibility standards for Word docs,” “accessibility standards for online videos,” etc). Also keep in mind the tools that your learners might use, such as screen readers. A screen reader is an assistive device that attempts to convey what is on screen to people with various sight and reading issues. Different screen reading devices have different abilities to convey what is on the screen, so try to keep tools like that in mind when designing course materials. Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind about accessibility (others will be covered in later chapters as well):

  • Audio and Video: make sure to caption videos and provide downloadable transcripts for audio and video files. Closed Captions are optimal for video. See the Chapter on Videos for more details.
  • Images: Always put a detailed description of the image in the “alt” box in your image editor or html code. Make sure you are not conveying course information only in a graphic. Your important content should always be in text. If your image is essential to the content, but too complex to summarize as alternate text, then you will need to look into how to make complex images accessible in the tool you are using.
  • Color: Don’t use color alone to highlight or convey meaning. Remember that not everyone sees color the same.
  • Color Contrast: Make sure there is sufficient contract between foreground and background colors, especially in text, to be easily readable by all. Low contrast make words harder to read. When in doubt, use a color contrast checker to be sure.
  • Flashing/Blinking: Avoid flashing or blinking elements (especially blinking red text) at all costs. Flashing or blinking elements can cause a wide range of unsafe responses in people with various medical conditions.
  • Headings: Don’t just use large bold text to divide up your content – use the appropriate Heading 1, Heading 2, etc. tags. If you don’t use headings, please consider doing so to organize your text for screen readers. Remember not to skip heading levels, and to use only one “Heading 1” per page.
  • Lists: When making a list, make sure to use list tags or buttons to do so, rather than dashes, pluses, etc. This also helps screen readers.
  • Links: Make sure the text you turn into a link actually gives an accurate description of where the link is taking the reader to. “Click here” really tells people nothing about the link, especially if they skipped to it with a screen reader.
  • Tables: Do not use tables to organize images or content on a screen (this is popular with some designers to get images or text to look certain ways). Only use tables to communicate data in table format. Make sure to always use column headers when doing so as well – this also helps screen readers.
  • Chunking: Break down long passages of text into manageable chunks of content on separate pages. Learners should not have to use the scrollbar on pages when viewing on average size screens.
  • Forms: If you are creating a form online, make sure that the form elements are in the right order for screen readers. You can do this with the Tab key – just Tab through your form and make sure everything goes in order. Also make sure you can submit the form by pressing the Enter key. In fact, make sure that everything can work without a mouse (not everyone can use them). Make sure form fields have labels.
  • Interactive Objects: Various interactive objects and tools that are being integrated into online learning also need to work completely with a keyboard. Whatever tool or software you use, make sure to check how accessible it is first.
  • Equations/Formulas/Notations: Math and Science courses sometimes have extra accessibility issues due to the use of various symbols, formulas, and other elements. Make sure to look into something like MathML to make those elements as accessible as possible.

Depending on where you want to teach the course, or what tools you use, there may be other accessibility issues you need to look into. The list above is not an exhaustive or complete list, so be sure to do some research and check to make sure you are up to date on all accessibility issues that apply to your course. Here are a few places to start learning about accessibility:

  • WebAIM has website design accessibility training, evaluation, and certifications that are also applicable to online courses as well.
  • W3C also has an entire site dedicated to web accessibility – including lessons, guides, and validation tools.
  • If you are not sure how to provide captions for complex images, this guide on captions can help give you some ideas.
  • WebAIM also has a very good Screen Reader Simulation (along with other simulation tools) that helps you experience what it is like to use a screen reader.

How MOOCs Differ From Other Online Courses

MOOCs are can sometimes be very different from regular online courses, which in themselves are different from on campus face-to-face courses. You should have at least several years’ worth of experience designing and offering traditional online courses before offering a MOOC. However, even extremely experienced online instructors will find many new challenges to face in their first MOOC. Some basic differences include:

  • Scale. MOOCs can have anywhere from a few hundred to tens and hundreds of thousands of learners. Instructors cannot have a goal of interacting with all learners. (Milligan, Littlejohn, & Margaryan, 2013)
  • Intensity. MOOCs are often supplemental parts of the learner’s educational process. They don’t sign up to get a full college course and often don’t have that much time. (Milligan, Littlejohn, & Margaryan, 2013)
  • Flexibility. While the content in MOOCs may be presented in a linear fashion, many learners may drop in and out or even start at any moment, therefore the course has to be able to withstand nonlinear learning paths. (McAuley, Stewart, Siemens, & Cormier, 2010)
  • Varied. Enrollment is open to anyone, so typical university requirements of pre-requisite knowledge are not a barrier to entry. Learners could be anywhere from complete newbies to industry leading experts. (Milligan, Littlejohn, & Margaryan, 2013)

With this in mind, there are several questions that you as an instructor should ask yourself before deciding to offer a MOOC. What goals do you have as an instructor that led you to choose a MOOC over other course formats? Is a MOOC the best option given those goals? What are your motivations for using a MOOC? Will a MOOC help or hinder those goals? With those questions in mind, consider what can and can’t be accomplished with a MOOC:

  • MOOCs can: cover basic knowledge or a small amount of knowledge.
  • MOOCs can’t: adequately cover as much content or as much depth as a for-credit college course.
  • MOOCS can: lay the groundwork for creating a small collection of learners interested in exploring a specific topic.
  • MOOCs can’t: create an instant community just because everyone signed up for the same topic at the same time.
  • MOOCs can: bring together a very diverse group of learners.
  • MOOCs can’t: make that diverse group of learners actually learn or be nice to one another just because they signed up.
  • MOOCs can: challenge motivated learners to engage with the topic if they choose.
  • MOOCs can’t: prove that everyone that said they learned the content actually did learn without cheating.

Many of these issues and differences stem from the openness of MOOCs. Open means much more than just being “free to anyone that wants to sign up,” as was examined in the previous section on Openness.



Blaschke, L. M. (2012). Heutagogy and lifelong learning: A review of heutagogical practice and self-determined learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(1), 56-71.

Hew, K. F., & Cheung, W. S. (2014). Students’ and instructors’ use of massive open online courses (MOOCs): Motivations and challenges. Educational Research Review, 12, 45-58.

Kop, R., & Fournier, H. (2011). New dimensions to self-directed learning in an open networked learning environment. International Journal of Self-Directed Learning, 7(2), 2-20.

McAuley, A., Stewart, B., Siemens, G., & Cormier, D. (2010). The MOOC model for digital practice. Retrieved from

Milligan, C., Littlejohn, A., & Margaryan, A. (2013). Patterns of engagement in connectivist MOOCs. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(2), 149-159.

Rodriguez, O. (2013). The concept of openness behind c and x-MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Open Praxis, 5(1), 67-73.

Shank, P. (2006). To plan good instruction, teach to the test. Online Course Design: 13 Strategies for Teaching in a Web-based Distance Learning Environment, 8-9. Retrieved from


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Creating Online Learning Experiences Copyright © 2018 by Matt Crosslin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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