6.3 What is an online course?

Sven Åke Bjørke, Feb 2017

What is and what is  not an online course? What are the criteria, if any? Is a power point presentation made accessible on the internet an online course? How about an interactive e-book?
The answer is: It depends. As a main rule, ppt slides on the Internet are pieces of information, not a course. An online video-taped lecture  might be a learning resource. An online course tends to be a complex, structured and rich learning environment, carefully developed by a team of highly qualified experts on subject content, pedagogy and ICT.


International team developing online courses.
University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka. (Photo: Å. Bjørke)


Some teachers perceive online education as simply taping their lectures and making them available online. This is a misunderstanding.  That is just a question of making ordinary on-campus teaching available to those who happened to not being able to attend that day, and cannot be defined as e-learning.

3 A courses

Online courses at its most basic can be self-instructional, and be built as an interactive e-book with activities and quizzes. The learner works on his own, at his or her own pace. 3 A courses are courses that can be studied from “Anywhere”, “Anytime” and “At  your own pace”. See example: “A Greener Future“.

Some online courses might restrict this freedom somewhat, by giving a start-up date and a completion date. In return they may give the user access to a cohort of peer students to discuss and cooperate with. This course type can be labeled 2 A: “Anywhere” and “Anytime”.


More advanced online 2 A courses may add online lectures and various peer interaction like discussions, making a MOOC-like course. (Or DOCC, SPOC etc). Massive, open, online courses – MOOCs  – are well structured, interactive and advanced courses made for the online learning environment. MOOCs are in general demanding and expensive to make, but can reach many thousand learners. MOOCs are not tutor-guided, and cannot give personal feedback, since they are designed for an unlimited number of participants. If well organised, a MOOC will allow peer interaction and some collaborative learning, and can be very efficient for internal corporate training.

Tutor-guided courses

Well structured, interactive and advanced courses made for the online learning environment can also be offered to a few, selected students who must apply and qualify. Such courses are led or guided by a teacher or one or more tutors. As a rule, the tutors will be “guides on the side”, giving advice, motivate, assist groups that do not function well etc. Most online tutorguided courses will use variants of the flipped classroom approach,

The flipped classroom is one where students access content and engage in activities designed to develop their understanding before class, and then use the class time to discuss and engage in depth with issues, ideas and questions arising from the pre-class content and activities (Farmer, 2015)

The approach can also be mixed, or blended, with some of the learning activities online, others in a classroom.

Many tutor-guided online courses offer detailed study guides with learning activities. As a rule, the participants are asked to access relevant information and then discuss, negotiate meaning and solve problems in collaborative, asynchronous discussion groups. The tutor monitors the discussions and helps keeping the discussions productive and relevant.

Constructing courses with collaborative, virtual learning environments require subject expertise, technical skills and special pedagogical insight


Next: Constructing e-courses. Step by step guideline


Home  About  1 Introduction  2 Quality education  3 E-pedagogy
4 Self-instructional   5 Collaborative    6 Make courses
7 Design VLEs   8 Assessment  9 Transition  10  ToC