The Kairos Classroom Spotlight

English Online:

Concerns of Pedagogy and Design

"New and Improved" Really Means Something
Concerns of Pedagogy and Design
Does Innovation Sacrifice Learning?

by David Schelle
Hotchkiss High School

The deficiency of many online courses is that they succumb to the same problems of traditional correspondence classes. They typically involve minimum interpersonal contact between teacher and student; instruction is delivered through written materials and worksheets; and there is little opportunity for real-time discussion, spontaneity or creativity. No significant difference exists, except that students email their assignments instead of using surface mail.

This sort of education is a poor substitute for a classroom experience, and many "innovative" online classes are precisely these canned units of instruction. My motivation for putting a college freshman composition class online was based on the belief that I could offer an online class that could meet or exceed the quality of learning of a classroom experience.

In order to meet this idealistic belief, a paradigm shift was necessary. In other words, I had to move beyond the urge to make HTML pages for every assignment and essay that I taught in the classroom, put it on the web and watch as students were off and learning. That type of online course could just as easily be taught through the mail.

Changes in Materials, Methodologies and Assumptions

Through the years, teachers make decisions regarding the necessary curricula for their classes. Some of these are based on the available materials (such as texts), some on methodology (such as research), while some have been based on experience (what students enjoy and learn from). These models of curriculum development largely do not exist for online education (though they are becoming available).

Depending on course content, an instructor may wish to combine online instruction with more traditional activities such as weekly meetings, textbook readings, hard copy handouts, etc. However, for a composition class, I feel it is appropriate to design a stand-alone site that does not require the use of textbooks, hard copies or anything outside the realm of the world wide web, besides myself.


Instead of mailing students a textbook or sending them to a bookstore, there will probably be suitable resources for students to access and use online. Many colleges and universities post materials on permanent sites. For instance, I found several writing sites that are comprehensive enough to be used as composition texts (such as Paradigm Writing Assistant and The University of Victoria's Writer's Guide). However, I had to vary writing assignments and remedial opportunities so the online resources could complement them. Other modifications I've made can be accessed through my class site (Honors English Online).

The advantage of using strictly online resources is that they are available to anyone, anywhere, free of charge (besides an ISP fee); postal hassles are avoided, as well as the unfortunate facts that books are expensive, go out of print, need to be ordered, etc. Some disadvantages of exclusively using online resources is that servers may go down or become busy; permission to use them may take time; the resources may be removed; or they may not contain exactly what an instructor needs.

I recommend talking to others in the field of composition to locate resources. One good place to start is on a Listserv or NewsGroup (a list of many of these is at tile.net). Another excellent resource for investigating other online classes in your discipline is the World Lecture Hall at the University of Texas. I've found that many authors of online resources are extremely helpful and willing to allow access to their sites.


A quality online class will go beyond "read this article; answer these questions; email the answers." Research shows that consistent and frequent communication is key to a successful learning experience. It's also recommended to have an initial face-to-face meeting and more if possible (University of Idaho Engineering Outreach Program). It may be appropriate for some classes to have a companion video, CD or audio component.

Since online students are separated by time and space from other students, it's important that they communicate with each other via email in a collaborative nature. In my opinion, this is an important step away from a traditional correspondence class because email communication takes advantage of the speed of the computer, allowing quick asynchronous discussion and exchange of ideas.

Experts claim that "Specifying a minimum number of e-mail communications per week will encourage active participation. . . . Prompt response generally increases student motivation and performance" (University of Idaho Engineering Outreach Program). One way I accomplish this in my composition class is through the peer editing of writing drafts. Writing students can share frustrations, learn from each other's mistakes and even begin to feel as if they are part of a small writing community.\

Another opportunity for asynchronous discussion is the Listserv, which is an electronic mailing list where a member's single post is distributed to all members. Two helpful composition Listservs are ECOMP-L: College English Composition Discussion List and COMP-L: Composition List. These discussion groups give students the opportunity to listen to and contact many experts and peers in the field of composition. The experience is much the same as the lecture room: By following a discussion thread, the student gathers information, and the opportunity exists for them to "raise their hand" and contribute by posting a reply or question to the conversation.

Some instructors choose to use MOO's, MUD's or MUSH's to provide a synchronous forum for class communication, but these can seem awkward to new users. Private chat rooms for class communication exist and may be familiar technology to students. A private chat room, through Yahoo, for instance, is easy to build, doesn't allow strangers to "stroll through," and provides invaluable synchronous discussion with students. If there are many students enrolled in the course, it can be difficult to tell who is whom since students may log on with names such as "Bionic112." However, that's a problem that is easy to fix. To ensure smooth chat performance, students should have up-to-date computers (i.e., at least 16 megs of RAM).

The advantage of using a variety of methodologies is that the instructor will have gone beyond the limitations of traditional correspondence classes to provide a true online experience. Students now have synchronous access to each other, the instructor, and hundreds of experts in the discipline. The disadvantage of using these methodologies is that the instructor must be familiar and comfortable with using them!


As a composition instructor, I'm concerned that someday a student will bluff his way through my class, using his older brother's essays as writing samples. This concern is intensified with online students. Obviously, an instructor may ask for brief and unique writing samples at the outset to preview each student's style and voice, but what if a student misses something because I can't see his or her expression of doubt or confusion?

By offering a class through electronic media, one has to operate under a certain set of assumptions that may be different from a classroom teacher's assumptions. In a traditional classroom where I have daily contact with my students, it's fairly easy to know how each student is motivated and how to adjust instruction accordingly. Unfortunately, I may never be able to determine what motivates my online students. While I do give them an opportunity to tell me their goals for the class in a form they fill out when they register, can I really be sure that my online students follow the thread of a Listserv discussion? Without reading hundreds of peer-edited drafts, can I be sure that they respond to their peer's writing in a comprehensive and respectable manner? What about self-directed remediation?

For every method I can devise to check for learning, there is a way for students to feign it. Consequently, I operate my online class with the assumption that the student is responsible for his or her own learning, and that the student is there to learn as much as possible. I promise not to coax, cajole or try to motivate the student to do a good job, since I assume that the online student is motivated to improve their skill level and is not just taking the class for a grade. This assumption should be a part of an agreement the student understands from the outset, since online education requires the students to be self-motivated and self-directed. This set of assumptions and explanations should be included in the course's web site. Online education is an experience that is definitely not for everyone.

Web Site Design Strategies

Much has been written about what compromises effective web pages and sites (see the Yale C/AIM Web Style Guide for more information), but the online class developer has unique concerns. A composition course's audience is comprised of highly specific and frequent users of the site. As both a student and an instructor of online classes, I've learned that simplicity is beautiful. The course's web site layout should be convenient and hierarchical; orientation should be intuitive and logical; finding specific data should be easy.


One method for achieving simplicity is to limit the number of HTML pages that comprise the course's site. One should start with a short and simple home page that accesses the major course areas. Next, create one long assignment page with descriptions and due dates of each, instead of having a separate link to each assignment. Use another long page for introductory comments, course description, grading criteria, etc.

To facilitate orientation speed, the designer should use anchor links, or links to subsections of each page. There will obviously be other hyperlinks within each long page, but this layout is easy for the users to visualize where they need to go. This layout strategy also makes it easier for the student to print out the course's materials (see below for online examples).

Another way to achieve simplicity is to limit the use of graphics and frames. An effective rule of thumb is not to use either unless they clarify the content. If one does include graphics, avoid putting them on the main pages, since these are accessed most frequently. I try to keep the pages' load times under twenty seconds, usually less. Although frames may not add much to a page's load time, they can bog down memory or not function on older machines. Also, if the site has much text, as composition classes probably will, frames can greatly reduce the size of the area on the screen from which one reads.

Individual Pages

Page layout design should include anchor links at the top of the page to help the student go to the desired subsection quickly. At the bottom, a menu bar should include links to the site's main pages (including the class's home page), as well as other pages that are appropriate. For instance, the assignment page should have a menu bar link to a resource jump page, since students will logically go there next. If one has ever gotten lost or confused navigating a site, one will understand the value of consistent, well-explained orientation links. Other important page layout design elements include a consistent format of pages and a high contrast between text and background color (such as black text on a white or gray background).

Hyperlinks are the power behind an online class, but too many of them scattered throughout text is overwhelming, and they probably won't be followed. When there is a link in the text, it should be obvious where it is going or what type of information will be found there. Many designers make one-word links, and it's unclear whether following the link will go to a local or remote site (a "blind link"). Further, it may not be clear whether the instructor wants the student to follow the link, or if it merely adds corollary information.

In the class's resource page, it's easy to build a massive jump page with a collection of online writing labs, electronic libraries, e-zines and other instructors' resource pages. Too many links to resources may intimidate students and prevent them from following any but the first of each list. Research each site thoroughly, and then only choose three or four links per area, and categorize each area with headings to organize the page. That way, the instructor will have a better idea of where to send a student for specific information. One effective and fun resource page to start with is Jefferson County's Resource Page.


I suggest testing one's first online class with a few students before making it available to the masses. If this is not practical, perhaps ask a student to go through the site and comment on it. Some helpful reminders I've learned include telling the students to bookmark the assignment page. If they automatically bookmark the home page, they'll always have to wait for an extra page or two to load to get the information they want. It's also important to tell the students to either print out or download the necessary pages. This sounds obvious, but if students are paying for online time, they'll appreciate the tip. Once the class is operational, print out a hard copy of the course. If a student calls at night with a question, you won't have to go online to answer it.


Here are some excellent online composition classes that deliver material almost exclusively through the world wide web, are designed with the student in mind, and go beyond traditional correspondence class paradigms. Look at these sites with regard to design elements and methodological strategies.
email david schelle