This Best Practice Model embeds a number of pedagogic principles for learning that have been selected for e-Learning design:

  • E-Learning is designed in timed chunks that emphasises time on task and expectations
  • E-Learning is assessed using a range of types (self/peer/tutor) and options/choices
  • E-Learning includes a variety of interactions between student/ tutors/ peers/ externals
  • E-Learning is accessibleactivity-ledcollaborative and designed in phases that support, scaffolds and increases learner independence

Research that supports the 4 principles:

Timed chunks

Face-to-face teaching is managed in timed chunks and online learning is most easily managed through a series of timed activities.

Gagné’s (Gagné, Briggs, & Wager, 1992) 9 Events of Instruction highlights the need for a structured approach to presenting learning:

  • Gain attention e.g. present a problem, a new situation, use a multimedia advertisement, ask questions. This helps to ground the lesson, and to motivate
  • Describe the goal e.g. state what students will be able to accomplish and how they will be able to use the knowledge, give a demonstration if appropriate
  • Stimulate recall of prior knowledge e.g. remind the students of prior knowledge relevant to the current lesson (facts, rules, procedures or skills). Show how knowledge is connected, provide the student with a framework that helps learning and remembering
  • Present the material to be learned e.g. text, graphics, simulations, figures, pictures, sound, etc. Chunk information to avoid memory overload and aid recall
  • Provide guidance for learning e.g. presentation of content is different from instructions on how to learn. Use of different channel (e.g. side-boxes)
  • Elicit performance “practice” e.g., let the learner do something with the newly acquired behavior, practice skills or apply knowledge
  • Provide informative feedback e.g., show correctness of the trainee’s response, analyze learner’s behavior, maybe present a good (step-by-step) solution of the problem
  • Assess performance to see if the lesson has been learned. Also give general progress information
  • Enhance retention and transfer e.g. inform the learner about similar problem situations, provide additional practice. Put the learner in a transfer situation. Maybe let the learners review the lesson. (Adapted from(Schneider, 2007)

One of Chickering and Ehreman’s (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996) 7 principles highlights the need to consider the time on task that a learning activity requires. Research suggests that learners in the online condition spent more time on task than students in the face-to-face condition found a greater benefit for online learning

“The overall finding of the meta-analysis is that classes with online learning (whether taught completely online or blended) on average produce stronger student learning outcomes than do classes with solely face-to-face instruction”(Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2010)

This Educause article illustrates how technology can be used to increase time on task to enhance learning

Assessment types and options

Most research on learning suggests that students are often assessment-led in their focus and attention and e-learning is no different. Nicol’s work in particular emphasises the need for good assessment design to include learners as partners in assessment design (Nicol, 2009, 2010) and the work of the SPACE project suggests that assessment design should include a range of options to encompass a variety of student needs including those of disabled students. (Waterfield & West, 2006)

ESCAPE project illustrates some ideas for Assessment Patterns (Hertfordshire, 2011). In addition, assessment is designed to encourage original student work and deter plagiarism. (Carroll & Appleton, 2008). Irwin suggests student be involved in assessment design and peer feedback (Irwin, 2007)

Variety of interactions

Laurillard emphasises the importance of the student-tutor interactions in learning (Laurillard, 1993) and Pask’s conversation theory suggests the use of ‘teachback’ where one person teaches the other what they have learned(Culatta, 2011). Anderson suggests a range of types of interaction and argues that:

“Deep and meaningful formal learning is supported as long as one of the three forms of interaction (student–teacher; student-student; student-content) is at a high level. The other two may be offered at minimal levels, or even eliminated, without degrading the educational experience.” (Anderson, 2003)

A meta-analysis on Distance Education showed that interaction of student/teacher was associated with greater achievement outcomes (Bernard et al 2009)

Wenger’s work on social learning emphasises the learning that takes place in communities of practice (Wenger, 1999)


The Equality Act 2010 requires HEIs to make reasonable adjustments for disabled staff, students and service users in relation to: a provision, criteria or practice; physical features; auxiliary aids.  Technology offers potential to make adjustments that will benefit both disabled students and support the wider needs of all students. The HEA’s guidance(Morgan & Houghton, 2011) suggests that the following principles are embedded in the design process to guide the development of an inclusive curriculum:

    • Anticipatory
    • Flexible
    • Accountable
    • Collaborative
    • Transparent
    • Equitable

Activity-Led Learning

Many theories of learning demonstrate that learning is an active, cyclical process. For example, Kolb’s experiential cycle (Kolb, 1984) and Race’s Ripple model (Race, 2010). Online learning offers great potential for a range of active tasks, projects, simulations etc. Also see the  five attributes of meaningful learning: Active, Constructive, Intentional, Authentic and Cooperative (Jonassen, Howland, Moore, & Marra, 2003). Also see Schank’s work on designing e-learning scenarios that emphasises the importance of authenticity and practicing essential skills (Schank, 2002)


Unusually, current research on how people learn has converged into a theory that emphasises the effectiveness of and collaborative nature of learning. Collaborative (and cooperative) learning can be challenging for teachers and learners, but technology offers a range of opportunities for students to work together online in ways that are accessible, flexible and engaging. Cooperative learning has been shown to be effective (D. W. Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 2007)

Some research suggests that students are better at critical thinking when working collaboratively (Gokhale, 1995). Student teachers better at problem solving in maths when using a social-constructivist online environment (Hong, Tan, & Lai, 2009)

Constructivist theory suggests we should be concerned with the design of particular kinds of learning environments, namely, learning environments that are learner- centered, knowledge-centered, assessment centered, and community-centered  (Swan, 2005)

Four phases

Teaching and learning activities change through time according to the content, skills and assignment schedule. They can also be designed to carefully support the student at early stages and gradually encourage learner independence by the introduction of more student-centred activities.

Ideally, we want students to graduate with a holistic set of skills, aptitude and motivation to learn in a rapidly changing world: they will have the ability to recognise what they need to learn, and how to learn fast. See case studies from the Centre for Promoting Learner Autonomy here:  CPLA 

Stephenson’s research (Stephenson & Coomey, 2001) found that “four major features of online learning were widely identified as essential to good practice. These features were: dialogue, involvement, support and control (DISC). Most ‘lessons learnt’ focused on the importance of structuring the learning activity and designing the materials in order to promote dialogue, secure active involvement of the learner, provide personal or other support and feedback and enable the learner to exercise the degree of control expected.paradigm

However, a closer examination of the evidence indicates variations in the flavour of the DISC features according to whether the intended learning is teacher controlled or learner led, or whether the learning activity is tightly specified or open-ended.”

Stephenson illustrates the DISC features in a grid.

It has been adapted to name each of these sections as phases of learning:


To support the design of these good practice features, the following activity types are suggested:

Active Induction: (TMCA) Tutor-managed Closed Activities

  • Tutor instructs, student accesses multi-media accessible resources, socialisation, closed activities
  • Range of tutor managed student-tutor interactions
  • Range of self/tutor diagnostic/formative assessment

Guided Exploration (SMCA) Student-managed Closed Activities

  • Tutor guides, student extends, knowledge exploration, closed activities
  • Range of student managed peer and tutor interactions,
  • Range of self/peer formative assessments

Facilitated Investigation (TMOA) Tutor-managed Open Activities

  • Tutor coaches, student adopts, knowledge construction, open activities
  • Range of tutor managed peer/tutor/external interactions,
  • Range of self/peer/ student-designed assessments

Self-Organised Learner (SMOA) Student-managed Open Activities

  • Tutor facilitates, student integrates, develops understanding and skills, open projects
  • Range of student managed peer/tutor/external interactions
  • Range of summative/student designed assessment, presentation of portfolio

The four phases also include elements from Salmon’s e-moderating model that suggests that online discussion activities are created in 5 stages (Salmon, 2004). Zimmerman’s work highlights the connection between self-regulation and achievement and suggests that the skills of self-regulation are explicitly taught and modelled to students. (Zimmerman, 2002). In addition, Bloom’s taxonomy (Atherton, 2011) suggests that learning is built up in stages.

The Digital Taxonomy shows how to use online tools with Bloom. The TECH model focusses on a way to move towards student-centred learning.

A case study discussing the role of the community in the development of the models is available (Walmsley & Yorke, 2010).

The Design Principles Database is a collection of learning designs (mainly for science teachers) mapped to a similar set of principles:

  • Help students learn from each other
  • Make contents accessible
  • Make thinking visible
  • Promote autonomous life long learning

See The Design Principles Database for more information

Other information on e-Learning principles:


Anderson, T. (2003). Getting the Mix Right Again: An updated and theoretical rationale for interaction. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4(2).

Atherton, J. (2011). Learning and Teaching: Bloom’s Taxonomy. [Online]. Retrieved January 19, 2012, from…g/bloomtax.htm

Bernard, R. M., Abrami, P. C., Borokhovski, E., Wade, C. A., Tamim, R. M., Surkes, M. A., & Bethel, E. C. (2009). A Meta-Analysis of Three Types of Interaction Treatments in Distance Education. Review of Educational Research, 79(3), 1243–1289

Carroll, J., & Appleton, J. (2008). The 2008 Plagiarism Landscape. [Online]. Retrieved September 13, 2011, from…briefingpaper/

Chickering, A. W., & Ehrmann, S. C. (1996). Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever. [Online]. Retrieved August 2, 2011, from

Culatta, R. (2011). Conversation Theory (Gordon Pask). [Online]. Retrieved September 28, 2011, from…on-theory.html

Gagne, R. M., Briggs, L. J., & Wager, W. W. (1992). Principles of instructional design (4th ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Gokhale, A. A. (1995). Collaborative Learning Enhances Critical Thinking. Journal of Technology Education, 7(1). Digital Library and Archives of the Virginia Tech University Libraries. Retrieved from….jte-v7n1.html

Hertfordshire, U. of. (2011). ESCAPE – Assessment timelines. [Online]. Retrieved September 13, 2011, from…0631817/ESCAPE – Assessment timelines

Hong, K.-S., Tan, K.-W., & Lai, K.-L. (2009). Effectiveness of an Online Social Constructivist Mathematical Problem Solving Course for Malaysian Pre-Service Teachers. E-Learning and Education, 5(1). Retrieved from

Irwin, B. (2007). Flexible online assessment. Retrieved from…lexible_oa.pdf

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. (2007). The State of Cooperative Learning in Postsecondary and Professional Settings. Educational Psychology Review, 19(1), 15-29.

Jonassen, D. H., Howland, J. L., Moore, J. L., & Marra, R. M. (2003). Learning to solve problems with technology: a constructivist perspective (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River: Merrill.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. London: Prentice-Hall.

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking university teaching: a framework for the effective use of educational technology. (2nd Ed.). London: Routledge.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2010). Evaluation of Evidence-based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from…Att_References and Glossary.doc

Morgan, H., & Houghton, A.-M. (2011). Inclusive curriculum design in higher education: Considerations for effective practice across and within subject areas. [Online]. Retrieved April 2, 2012, from…gher_education

Nicol, D. (2009). Assessment for learner self-regulation: enhancing achievement in the first year using learning technologies. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34(3), 335-352.

Nicol, D. (2010). The foundation for graduate attributes: developing self-regulation through self and peer-assessment. QAA.

Race, P. (2010). Making Learning Happen: A Guide for Post-Compulsory Education (2nd ed.). London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Salmon, G. (2004). E-Moderating: The Key to Online Teaching and Learning. London: Routledge.

Schank, R. C. (2002). Designing world class e-learning: how IBM, GE, Harvard Business School, and Columbia University are succeeding at e-learning. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Schneider, D. K. (2007). Nine events of instruction. [Online]. Retrieved December 20, 2011, from…of_instruction

Stephenson, J., & Coomey, M. (2001). Online Learning: it’s all about dialogue, involvement, support and control according to the research. In J. Stephenson (Ed.), Teaching and Learning Online: New Pedagogies for New Technologies (Creating success) (p. 239). London: Kogan Page.

Swan, K. (2005). A Constructivist Model for Thinking About Learning Online. In J. Bourne & J. C. Moore (Eds.), Elements of Quality Online Education: Engaging Communities. Needham, MA: The Sloan Consortium. Retrieved from http://emergingonlinelearningtechnol…teractions.pdf

Walmsley, H., & Yorke, J. (2010). eLearning Models: a Web 2.0 approach to staff development in Higher Education. In D. Parkes, L. Hart, & G. Walton (Eds.), Web 2.0 and Libraries: Impacts, Technologies and Trends. Oxford: Chandos Publishing (Oxford) Ltd.

Waterfield, J., & West, B. (2006). Inclusive Assessment in Higher Education: A Resource for Change. [Online]. Retrieved September 13, 2011, from

Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a Self-Regulated Learner: An Overview. Theory Into Practice, 41(2).