Woman professor sitting at desk looking at video camera and pointing at whiteboard in background, recording online lesson

Creating Quality Online Learning

The question is no longer, "Can we do online learning?" Rather it is, “How can we provide an excellent and sustainable online learning experience?”

In the strange, uncertain times in which we now live, almost every university has been forced to jump into the world of online education. For some, this has been relatively straightforward, as they’d already had well-established online programs and courses; adapting more courses to an online format is not too difficult with on-hand expertise and experience. However, for others, the involuntary move to online has been a shock.

How does one create a quality, rigorous online educational experience for students? This is something we have wrestled with, researched, and worked at for 50 years now at Athabasca University (AU). Now in its 50th year, AU is well known as Canada’s open and online university. Over the years, AU has built a solid infrastructure and culture to support academic programs across many disciplines housed in the faculties of business, health disciplines, humanities and social science, and science and technology. To ensure that courses and programs embody solid educational values and flexibility, thoughtful course design, development, and delivery are essential. To illustrate how this works, we highlight some important aspects of AU Faculty of Business’s MBA program.

The MBA program is offered in an online, paced, collaborative learning format that is taught asynchronously. Offering this program online means that students engage in online discussion forums in each course, the learning environment of which is facilitated by course professors.

In building a course, our faculty are supported by employees who are experts in learning design, editing, and multimedia production. The faculty member writes and provides all lesson and lecture notes that contain similar information that a student would receive if they were attending a face-to-face classroom lecture. This can include text-based material, videos, podcasts, articles, case studies, quizzes, exercises, professor’s notes, and almost any material in support of the educational experience.

However, in order for the course to be a high-quality educational experience, the student cannot simply be given a long list of materials to struggle through. This is particularly important in an online context, as it can be tempting to place such a list of materials within a learning management system and let the student work their way through it.

To achieve an effective educational experience, a broader perspective and approach needs to be taken to integrate teachers and students in a “community of inquiry,” a concept established by scholars at the University of Alberta. They write, “The model of this Community of Inquiry assumes that learning occurs within the Community through the interaction of three core elements”: teaching presence, cognitive presence, and social presence. From these essential components, AU creates its online learning experience.

Often, the focus of online courses is the cognitive presence: the information exchange, connecting of ideas, sense of puzzlement, or application of new ideas. This component, critically, links to critical thinking, which is a significant part of a rich educational experience.

The second area of importance is the social presence, which requires good communication, expression of emotions, and an opportunity for individuals to express themselves and connect with others.

The third area, teaching presence, includes the design and organization of the course as well as the facilitation of learning activities. At the intersection of these three elements is an effective online learning experience:

Venn diagram with Social Presence, Cognitive Presence, and Teaching Presence overlapping in the middle for an Educational Experience

Figure 1. Community of inquiry model for effective online learning (adapted from Garrison, Anderson, and Archer).

Significant in this approach, or way of thinking about the educational experience—especially in an online environment, is that the professor needs to embed themselves in the material for the course. The students should feel the presence of the professor as integrated in the material, as either a part of the content or as a link between the items presented.

In this way, regardless of the content form—video, lecture, class notes, quiz, etc.—the presence of the professor is part of the course, even when the content is not explicitly delivered by the professor. Even though the course is online, the professor is not separate from that environment but rather is a part thereof.

To ensure that this type of experience happens in our courses, our professors design, build, and publish (with assistance from learning designers, multimedia experts, editors, and other specialists) their entire course before it begins. In this way, the course is viewed as a whole, and the teaching presence can be seen throughout the entire course. The in-advance design of the course also ensures that both the cognitive presence and social presence are integrated and solid in the environment.

This community of inquiry approach does not favor one form of content over another. Rather, it favors the overall approach or philosophy of creating an effective educational experience. There is a recognition that integration of three different elements, when combined, creates an environment that is effective for learning.

Core to this learning experience is the need for a safe, collaborative learning environment. The tools and techniques can vary with a faculty member’s preferences and disciplines. It is important to note that this approach is not merely putting a bunch of PowerPoint slides online with or without voiceover, though one might use such tools from time to time.

It is also not about simply recording a professor lecturing as a “sage on the stage” or even having a professor assign a task and watch students struggle with it as the “guide on the side,” although one could employ any of those techniques.

We feel that an academic coaching method in combination with peer collaboration as key to encouraging active engagement. Faculty need to be prepared to facilitate an asynchronous learning process and support students as they explore ideas presented and discuss application of ideas to their work organizations. Students access discussions from different locations and times while they continue to work and live their lives. At times, synchronous tools are used, as well, as they are needed to enhance students’ experiences, for example, chat and videoconferencing.

Faculty academic coaches challenge students to explore connections more deeply; they probe comments, ask students to reflect and to challenge one another, and in general encourage a high degree of interaction and collaboration. Students must participate in all the lesson activities, meaning they must respond to the lesson questions posed as well as engage in learning conversations with their peers. If a student does not actively participate, they cannot pass the course. They demonstrate both mastery of the discipline under study as well as develop collaborative and academic skills with their learning peers.

The learning environment encourages idea development, analysis, critique, and collaboration between students. Prior to entering each course, students must agree to rules of confidentiality, engagement, and academic integrity. Learning discussions are facilitated, with academic coaches highlighting areas of agreement, disagreement, and the space to contribute and develop new ideas together.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic response, society has been thrust into remote emergency learning and teaching using the technology that is available now. We believe that this presents a unique opportunity to fully embrace a cultural shift. The question is no longer, “Can we do online learning?” We have demonstrated that we can. The new question is, “How can we provide an excellent and sustainable online learning experience?”

We have an opportunity to embrace innovation and consider all the options and technology available to solve the unique challenges before us. Underpinning everything is the need for flexibility and access—especially now.


Deborah Hurst is dean of the Faculty of Business at Athabasca University in Canada.Deborah Hurst is dean of the Faculty of Business at Athabasca University in Canada.

Terry Beckman is an associate dean of the Faculty of Business at Athabasca University in Canada.Terry Beckman is an associate dean of the Faculty of Business at Athabasca University in Canada.