Designing Engaging Online Learning Experiences

Kirsten Peterson, a highly experienced instructional designer and instructor, leads EDC’s EdTech Leaders Online team in providing capacity-building, research-based programs, courses, and services that enable organizations to build successful online and blended learning experiences for K–16 students, teachers, and adult learners. Clients include schools and districts, institutions of higher education, corporations, regional education service providers, education cooperatives, afterschool programs, museums, and a wide array of nonprofit organizations. Recently, Kirsten led the development of two for-credit high school online art courses for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, one of which was awarded a 2015 Gold MUSE award by the American Alliance of Museums. In this post, she describes three of the key tenets of instructional design that her team follows when they design courses for clients.


For the past 17 years, my colleagues and I have focused on designing engaging online and blended learning experiences and helping others understand the nuances of online instructional design and facilitation. Much of what we know and how we approach our work boils down to a few key Instructional Design Tenets—principles and beliefs we hold based on our experience working with a range of organizations to meet the learning needs of diverse audiences, anecdotal evidence from participant surveys, and scientifically based research. Below, I share three of those tenets and illustrate them through references to a few current projects.


1. Learning Is a Social Endeavor
We focus on developing learning communities. Learning is social and, as such, it’s often the relationship between the learner and others—be it the facilitator, other participants, or even interactive content—that forges connections and a sense of engagement. Quality relationships strengthen understanding and create a sense of purpose for the learner. A learning community approach to instructional design can be applied to both facilitated and self-paced learning experiences. It can also guide design for multiple digital environments, from blended to fully online experiences. Our early work and the highest volume of our work has been in applying a facilitated learning community model in which a course has a particular start and end date, is facilitated by an experienced educator with training in online facilitation techniques, and allows participants to connect regularly with each other and the facilitator to share ideas, resources, and experiences. In this approach, much depends on the design choices we make to ensure effective interactions among course participants. We limit the number of participants in a course to 25 so the facilitator can spend quality time with each participant and to control for meaningful dialogue (make sure there is not too much or too little volume) in threaded discussions. Participants follow a set of Discussion Board Expectations, carefully designed and regularly modified as needed, and experience modeling by the facilitator throughout the entire learning experience. Facilitators model these types of interactions by adhering to a collection of Tips for Effective Facilitation. When we teach our Facilitating and Implementing Online Professional Development course, participants practice thinking through facilitation strategies by discussing scenarios, drawn from actual courses. To learn more about this, view a discussion scenario activity in the context of a session.

In a self-paced course, it is possible to create social learning by providing opportunities for participants to interact with each other’s ideas through polls that share cumulative participant responses to a question and through collaborative publishing tools like wikis, Google docs, or visual boards such as Padlet. For example, in Strategies to Enhance Instruction for ELLs in the Classroom, a 15-hour self-paced online course we designed for The Education Cooperative (TEC) for Massachusetts teachers to satisfy their structured English immersion (SEI) or English as a Second Language (ESL) Massachusetts License Renewal Requirements, participants use a Padlet Wall to share ideas for improving instruction. To see the assignment in context, visit this URL and choose the Apply tab.

2. Use the Right Tool for the Right Purpose
The proliferation of Web-based tools can make any instructional designer’s head spin! Collages like this one illustrate just how many different tools exist—they come and go on a daily basis, offering an array of options to communicate, collaborate, gather information, and more. On the plus side, it’s possible to find and make use of free online tools to accomplish all kinds of learning experiences in an online environment. On the down side, you get what you pay for—free tools eventually go away or are limited in scope, requiring a fee for more advanced (and effective) features. Designers can use a lot of time creating custom tutorials and supportive instructional text for tools that may or may not exist beyond a few runnings of an online course. In all cases, our strategy is to start with the audience and learning goal in mind. It’s important to know your audience—might they be familiar with the tool you are selecting and will their school or organization support it? Next, what is your ultimate learning goal? Can you name three or four ways you could lead participants to meet this goal in the online environment? Given your options, what is the path of least resistance? What tool will be intuitive, long lasting, work best for your audience, and provide the best “direct hit” to your learning objective? In some cases, just because loads of online tools exist, it doesn’t mean that any of them will be effective. For example, in an online course that provides a Help Forum for participants to post questions, multiple video tutorials, and a weekly office hour for Q&A, the most effective way to answer a participant’s question might just be to pick up the telephone! Just because a course is online, does not mean that all interactions must take place in the online environment.

In the semester-long online course Art Appreciation and American Identity, designed in collaboration with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art for high school students, we had the challenge of trying to replicate a critical learning experience students receive when they visit the museum in person. Students who visit the museum begin their learning by viewing a piece of art with a museum educator. The educator asks students to share what they notice or wonder about the art. This is an artful thinking approach—one that is nonthreatening and does not expect students to know anything about the work of art. The things students notice are picked up on by other students while they are all looking at the art and listening to each other’s comments. While we could have used a threaded discussion forum for this exercise, we found making use of VoiceThread enabled us to provide students with an audio prompt and constant access to the artwork in the context of their and their peers’ comments on what they notice and wonder about the piece. The tool also allows students multiple ways to contribute—by voice, text or video—plus it allows them to point out through marking, things they are discussing on the artwork. Here is an example of the tool used in the first session of the course. This is a DEMO copy of the activity, so if you would like to try it out, feel free to make a VoiceThread account and try contributing to the thread. To see the activity in context, visit Session One of the course and choose the Activity One icon.

3. Focus on Human Infrastructure
Another area of our work involves helping organizations develop their capacity for managing professional development and online learning programs. The effective use of technology can greatly enhance and support capacity building. However, success depends on human, not just technical infrastructure. On the technical side, it is important that the online environment have an intuitive and seamless user experience design and that the back end be functional. A smart technical design enables people to work effectively with the tools to scale communication, content delivery, and programmatic operations such as registration, e-commerce, and learning experiences. An example to illustrate our focus on human infrastructure is our partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education’s System of Adult Basic Education (SABES), in which we are designing and maintaining an online environment to manage Professional Development Communication among the eight SABES centers, each of which runs professional development for ABE instructors across the state. The site is highly technical, enabling administrators from individual centers to edit content on their own pages, update a central calendar with current PD offerings, download event registration lists, and send email to different audience groups. The SABES PD program is also supported by an online newsletter and social media channels, both of which enable SABES leaders to connect with and support participants on a regular basis. While the design of the SABES online environment is simple and the technical infrastructure is advanced, the entire package depends on human infrastructure—the directors of individual PD centers who now have the capacity to run programs through effective communication systems.

Feel free to contact me ( if you have questions about the three tenets I outline above or want to explore how we can help you meet your goals for learners. Also, I invite you to join me for the two free webinars described below!