Best Practice in online teaching and learning: Teaching Report


This is a snap shot of a fully online course run under the CantaNet eLearning cluster. This is one of many eLearning clusters across the country who use online learning to broaden the curriculum they offer. The majority of these schools are rural and face challenges in offering the full range of senior subjects for their students. CantaNet is also part of the virtual learning network which is the community of eLearning clusters. For more information please view the organisational review.

I teach two online courses and I have chosen the one I have found the most challenging for this report.

Curriculum Area: L3 History

Topic: James I and Issues of Government

Objective: To examine how successfully James I managed the issues of government

Timeline for module: Two weeks

Broad teaching goals:

  • To develop flexibility in the approach to learning

  • To encourage participation

  • To continue to experiment with co-construction

  • To continue to develop a sense of community

  • To allow students opportunities to inquire and research areas of interest

Learners: 12 year 13 students from six different schools around New Zealand.

  • Four from Rangiora New Life

  • One from Oxford Area School

  • One from Coastal Taranaki

  • Two from Dunstan High School (Otago)

  • Two from Taradale High School (Napier)

  • One from Mt Hutt College

  • One from Hurunui College

Theory / Values underpinning the Course

This course was always developed with the a number of values underpinning it

Personalising learning: Many teachers mistake personalised learning with individualised teaching. In the latter the teacher still makes many of the decisions and directs the learning. In the former it is the student who is in control. It is a truly learner centred approach to education and needs to be adopted across a school to really be meaningful. It is difficult for one teacher to adopt in isolation. What I am attempting to do is adopt some of the key values f perosnalised learning: flexibility, choice, and active learning. In a course content I have tried to make the experience flexible for students where they have choice in what, when and how they learn.

Co-Construction: Taking some of Mason and Rennie's (2008) ideas on web 2.0 tools and how they can enable students as co-constructors of knowledge, and make the whole learning process far more active and collaborative. The course is designed so students work together to build each others knowledge. Whether it fulfills this lofty ambition is another thing entirely.

Emergent Design: At the heart of all this is Cavallo’s (2000) original ideas on emergent design and how that has since been expanded by Mason and Rennie (2008) and McDonald and Thompson (2005). Rather than a course built on strict structures, I wanted something that would grow with the students, adapting to the situation and providing a great deal of flexibility.

Building community: The importance of building community in an online course is recognised by research on online learning. “The learning community is the vehicle through which learning occurs online. Members depend on each other to each learning outcomes for the course...Without the support and participation of a learning community, there is no online course.” (Palloff and Pratt 2007 pg 40) Without overt attempts to foster a learning community learners act in isolation and risk disengaging from the course as a result. A student having difficulties is far more likely to make progress when he/she feels connected to other learners who are willing to help. It is not just about avoiding isolation though. I have a firm belief that we learn better with others. As Thompson and McDonald (2005) observe, “...learning is enhanced when there is a commitment to the collective good and people engage in learning through and with others.” (page 235). I have used a number of different methods to develop a sense of community in this course.

Course Design

The course is designed to be structured enough to provide clarity for students while be reasonably open ended.

Module and Activities

The particular module I examined was on James I. It consisted of a quick review of the previous work using a resource interpretation exercise and then reading on James. The main task for most of the modules so far is a mini research opportunity where students get to choose an area of interest (from within the module) that interested them. They publish their work in a set format (sometimes given choice) and then report back to the rest of the group in the video conference. Around this there are generally set tasks, such as essay writing, resource interpretation and forum discussion. In this case there was no essay set, because of workload issues for the students.


Overall the module was reasonably successful in meeting the goals I had set. It has taken me a while to settle on an approach that works, but this is certainly closer to what I am after (and modules since). The sheer amount of content that students have to read places real limitations on how much you can do online so the approach is reasonably simple (as outlines previously). The mini-research opportunities work well and students engage in those. The quality of the work is reasonable without setting the world alight.

What went well:

  • General student participation levels were good
  • Student participation in the voicethread was good and it helped me identify some weaknesses
  • The mini-research went well and produced some quality published work
  • Students seem to enjoying the opportunity to direct their learning

What didn't go so well:

  • Participation in the forum activity and the James resource interpretation task

What I would do differently next time is spend a lot more time getting buy in from students on ideas of participation, co-construction and collaboration at the beginning of the year. These need to be clearly explained, examples shown and the students' role negotiated. In the past these things have generally come more easily. With a different subject I have been finding my way and might have been a bit ambitious at the beginning of the year. I haven't had to coerce students into discussion a lot in the past, but that is because they have seen the reason for doing it. In this course the students have seen it as more of a peripheral activity.

I also need to spend more time gathering specific feedback from students, especially early on in the course. I like the idea of the temperature checks described in McDonald and Thompson (2005) (and will try this in future).


I'm still finding my way with an emergent approach to online courses. The theory embraces much of what I believe about good teaching and learning so it is something that will remain a focus for me. I am not comfortable with very structured linear approaches to learning which seems reasonably prevalent in online courses. In these courses there may be student interaction and participation, but it is still the instructor / teacher that is driving and directing the learning. I want students to be the ones doing the directing. I also want them co-constructing knowledge and working together together. As they say though, Rome wasn't built in a day.

Reference List

Cavallo, D. (2000). Emergent design and learning environments: Building on indigenous knowledge. IBM Systems Journal, 39(3 and 4)

C.J. MacDonald, T.L. Thompson, (2005) Community building, emergent design and expecting theunexpected: Creating a quality eLearning experience. Internet and Higher Education 8 233–249

R. Mason, F. Rennie (2008) E-Learning and Social Networking Handbook: Resources for Higher Education, New York and London, Routledge

Last modified: Monday, 21 January 2013, 9:07 PM