Online Course Models: A Conversation Starter

In a fairly recent article, Heather Farmer shares six models to guide the design of online courses. Heather’s proposal factors two key considerations: the proportion of synchronous versus asynchronous time and, the extent of student support required. Underpinning these six models seems to be an assumption of correlation between mode of delivery and support required from students. Specifically, the more support required of students, the greater the necessity for synchronous learning. Conversely, the less support required of students, the greater the preference for asynchronous learning.

Drawing on conversations with colleagues and observations from a range of courses, this article outlines six additional models based on a different pair of considerations: students’ current ways of participating in courses and the design & development effort required to transform blended or face-to-face courses into fully online offerings. Building on what students are already doing might mean the transition to fully online modes of learning will be less disruptive – holding all other factors constant, of course. On the contrary, implementing changes that result in significant departures from existing ways of learning might arguably be more disruptive. Despite the connotation, disruptions need not be viewed negatively. Disruptions might in fact be opportunities to re-examine ways of learning with a view to making positive changes. For example, if we were to adopt a model that involves a significant reduction in teacher-student synchronous interactions then, what typically occurs during these interactions and more importantly the outcomes they lead to will need to be designed. This might be an opportunity to inculcate in students skills related to research, self-regulation, critical literacy, etc.

However, each course / program is unique and it is worth noting that course design is only one of several factors that influence the student experience. The overarching purpose of this article is not to present an exhaustive range of models but to inspire possibilities for further consideration and dialogue.

The six models are outlined below from least disruptive to most disruptive:

A large number of university courses are centered on the lecture-tutorial model. Within this model, students attend a large group two to three-hour lecture followed by a smaller group one to two-hour tutorial. The duration can vary from discipline to discipline and course to course. The role of the teacher at lectures has traditionally been to ensure students acquire the necessary content knowledge. In smaller tutorial groups, students are afforded opportunities to apply the knowledge gained at lectures by responding to questions on worksheets, solving problems from case studies or demonstrating a technique observed from say the lecture. The tutor is on-hand as the guide on the side to facilitate discussions and respond to queries (King, 1993).

The online version minimises disruption by preserving this tradition. Students attend time-tabled lectures and tutorials of a similar duration using virtual conferencing software such as Collaborate Ultra or Microsoft Teams. Break-out rooms in Collaborate Ultra and Channels in Teams aim to support the rich real-time discussions that usually transpire during face-to-face tutorial sessions. The figure below shows a slight variation of the Tradition-preserved online model. In addition to a lecture and a tutorial, the teacher has scheduled a 30-minute Consultation session for groups of 3-5 students to ask questions specific to the assignment or about the course, in general.

The origin of Flipped Learning is often traced back to two high school teachers, Aaron Sams and Jon Bergman. In 2007, Aaron and Jon discovered software they could use to record their lectures live. Not long after, they stopped giving lectures and committed the following year to pre-recording all their lectures. They called it pre-broadcasting but later used the term “flipped learning” when this phrase emerged. "Flipped Learning" better reflected what they were trying to achieve (Bergmann 2016; Bergmann & Sams, 2012). With flipped learning, students watch lecture recordings as “homework” before coming to class. In-class time is set aside for students to clarify their understanding of lecture content, often through interaction and discussion.

With the online model, short 15-minute lecture videos explaining topical concepts or demonstrating steps to solve a problem can be released to students in advance. As they review the lecture recordings, students may pose specific questions with the aid of a tool such as Microsoft Forms. In-class time is scheduled for two main purposes. Firstly, the teacher may use in-class time to respond to students’ questions captured by the tool. Secondly, students may engage in group-based interactive and dynamic activities to advance their understanding of the topic. To facilitate discussions, the teacher may ‘float’ in and out of virtual groups.

From the figure below, it is important to note that pre-work is necessary. To better engage during live sessions, students will need to prepare for the session. In this regard, teachers might want to allocate a portion of the marks for summative tasks that relate to the lecture recording. After-class time should be set aside for students to reflect on and extend their learning usually through assessable reflective tasks and further discussion.

Activity-based Learning builds on Active Learning, which posits that students learn best when they are actively engaged. Active Learning is “generally defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. In short, active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing” (Prince, 2004, p223).

With online Activity-based Learning, students can perform one or more tasks where they are required to demonstrate their attainment of specified learning outcomes. For example, students may be required to read a textbook and complete a quiz to demonstrate they have understood the prerequisite theoretical concepts. Alternatively, they may participate in a teacher-facilitated webinar and pose questions or post a reflection to a padlet wall.


Brown, Bull and Pendlebury (2013) point out that assessments are the “cash nexus of learning” (p7). Students tend to take their cue from what is assessed rather than what is asserted by teachers. A student who is very active in discussion forums will no doubt reap the intrinsic rewards associated with the social interactions and intellectual discourse. However, if the topic of discussion is only slightly related to assessable tasks, the student may not achieve a score that is proportionate to their involvement. In this case, it is important to ensure that activities are well-planned and properly aligned to assessment tasks.

The assessment-driven model aims to align every activity to an assessed task. For example, students may be required to work in groups to draft and submit a proposal for an external organisation. The final milestone (the report) may be given the heaviest weighting. However, marks can also be awarded for the recording & submission of group meeting minutes, a review of the literature related to the problem, a creative presentation of the proposal and perhaps individual reflections on overall learnings.

In many more recent courses, problem-based learning is used as the underpinning approach to ensure student engagement and learning. With PBL, students are typically expected to formulate a problem from an industry-relevant real-world issue. In groups, they then engage in a variety of independent and group-based activities to research the issue, surface problems, design a solution to address the problem(s), develop the solution, implement the solution and finally evaluate the effectiveness of the solution. The objective of PBL and related pedagogies is for students to generate a solution to a real-world problem and hence contribute useful knowledge.

Where hardware and special equipment are not required, a solution-focused model can be implemented online. Students can form groups on Canvas, download and review case studies / problems, search for relevant literature via online databases, meet and present their ideas over Collaborate Ultra groups and/or MS Teams. With many discipline-specific tools and software being cloud-based, students should be able to collaborate and communicate online.

A programme-wide approach can be taken to identify components from individual courses to be pivoted fully online. For example, small group discussions facilitated via virtual conference tools might be a flexible option for students who live farther away from campus and those juggling multiple priorities. In addition, screen sharing features on these tools may allow for more focused conversations around a document/artefact. Likewise, there might be components across courses that might be more challenging to facilitate online. These may include placements, industry-attachments and projects involving special equipment such as laboratory apparatuses and Raspberry PI/ BBC Micro:bit.

The diagramme depicts a scenario that can be considered for a first-year programme with industry attachments and/or work-integrated learning components and practicals across all its courses. The first-year experience can be re-designed so that face-to-face components are extracted to form separate courses. The credit-point allocations may be altered to better represent the load.


  • Bergmann, J. (2016). Reframing the flipped learning discussion. Retrieved from
  • Bergmann, J., & Sams, A. (2012). Flip your classroom: Reach every student in every class every day. International society for technology in education.
  • Brown, G. A., Bull, J., & Pendlebury, M. (2013). Assessing student learning in higher education. Routledge.
  • Higher Education/Open University Press.
  • King, A. (1993). From sage on the stage to guide on the side. College teaching41(1), 30-35.
  • Prince, M. (2004). Does active learning work? A review of the research. Journal of engineering education, 93(3), 223-231.