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Online Education: Something for Everyone

by Diana Muir

Four Stages of Learning
Review of Learning Styles
Learning Strategies
Cognitive Domain
Accepted Online Curriculum Design
Learning Activities With Different Learning Responses
Adapting Curriculum to Learning Styles
Examples of Lessons Adapted to Learning Styles
Ideal Online Course


There is a wealth of information, both on the shelves of libraries and on the Internet, which addresses the different learning theories that have been suggested over the past three or four decades. Those most often quoted are Kolb and Gardner. While most theorists disagree, or come from a different approach about learning styles, it is generally accepted that there are basically four stages of learning.

  1. Exposure Stage—The first time a concept (such as long division) is new to us.
  2. Guided Learning Stage—When we still can't do the problems without help. This is where most people get stuck.
  3. Independent Stage—With review, guidance, and hard work, we reach stage 3.
  4. Mastery Stage—Comes with more practice, final goal of education.

Regardless of how a student learns, the stages remain the same. It is up to the instructor and the curriculum content developer to assist a student in getting past the guided learning stage to become an independent learner, thus building on newly gained learning concepts or skills.

It has also been shown through repeated studies that students learn in different ways, or through a combination of different ways, thus supporting Smith and Kolb's learning cycle concept.

Students learn:

  • 10% of what they read
  • 20% of what they hear
  • 30% of what they see
  • 50% of what they see and hear
  • 70% of what they say
  • 90% of what they say and do

graph of How Students learn

Based on what we have learned, we conclude that students need:

  • a variety of teaching strategies.
  • a variety of learning paths.
  • activities that they can read, visualize, hear, say, and do.
  • instructional guidance leading to independence.
  • the ability to work on their own with appropriate assessment methods.
  • appropriate tools and technology for independent and guided study.


As we have already discussed, there is a wealth of information about different learning styles and theories. While many of these theories are methodologies instead of styles, it is difficult to relate one to the other at times. Therefore, I have created a chart that shows the relationships a little more clearly, thus appealing to the visual learner.

  Instruction Testing Assignments Reference Communication
Visual use of a video clip, diagram, image or map identification on maps, diagrams, required drawings or sketches, read and response mind mapping of concepts (webbing) diagramming, construction of PowerPoint Presentations, readings reference maps, diagrams, pictures, articles use of electronic white board, electronic conferencing, chat
Auditory lecture, audio clips sound identification or verbally administered test projects with audio components, interviews, seminars, giving of reports and speeches, PowerPoint w/ audio component video or audio clips from a media collection phone, audio conferencing
Tactile advance organizer, in class exercises, asking for volunteer participation in class demos or simulations performance of a task, multiple choice tutorial, reports/papers, portfolio of project work self-assessment quizzes, model building, presentations, demos virtual field trips synchronous conferencing, group work
Sensory images, sounds, video, demos, simulations tests that ask for details, tests with accompanying images, audio creations of demos, images, case studies virtual field trips any conferencing tool
Intuitive case studies, hypothesis, setting and prediction essays that ask for outcome projections problem solving, resolution development readings from various view points, compare and contrast assignments any type of group work
Inductive facts, formulas, demos and observations, presentation of background information problem sets, objective answers, multiple choice problem sets, memorization, terminologies sample problems, reference sheets for formulas any type of group work
Deductive applications, link of the familiar to the unfamiliar, examples, advance organizers problem solving applications, scenarios, essays model building, simulations case studies group projects or conferencing
Active class participation projects, reports model building virtual field trips meetings
Passive classtime for reflection or critical thinking problem solving, essays problem sets, journaling observation, reading Webcast
Sequential outlines, lists, examples creation or re-enactment of steps, processes creation of steps, processes reference materials of a procedural nature, scholarly journals small discussion groups
Global discussion of concepts, paradigms, theories essay questions, portfolios journaling, discussion, relationship construction, mapping broad based reference materials, news paper articles, magazines and books large discussion groups


Another part of employing learning strategies and theories is to incorporate Bloom's Taxonomy. Following the 1948 convention of the American Psychological Association, Benjamin Bloom took the lead in formulating a classification of "the goals of the educational process." Three "domains" of educational activities were identified. The first of these, named the "cognitive domain," involves knowledge and the development of intellectual attitudes and skills. This is the one that I will apply. (The other domains are the "affective domain" and the "psychomotor domain.")


Bloom and his coworkers eventually established a hierarchy of educational objectives, which is generally referred to as Bloom's Taxonomy. This taxonomy attempts to divide cognitive objectives into subdivisions, ranging from the simplest behavior to the most complex.

It is important to realize that the divisions outlined are not absolutes and that other systems or hierarchies have been devised. However, Bloom's Taxonomy is the easiest to understand and is widely applied.

When writing curriculum for the online classroom, or even teaching in a traditional environment, it is as important to know how a teacher teaches as it is to know how a student learns. Only by balancing the two of them can educational goals be realized.

There are several good examples of learning style inventories on the Internet that focus on a variety of learning styles.


Course Format

Until recently, online education has been a hodgepodge of techniques for presenting curriculum content and creating an interactive environment. This is because instructors are attempting to use traditional methods of teaching in the classroom to teach on the Internet.

The Web-based educational environment does well in presenting material in a visual manner. However, as we know, not all learners are visual learners. In order to apply Kolb's learning-cycle concept, different methodologies need to be integrated into the learning environment.

Current online curriculum design includes the following elements:

  • syllabus
  • course outline
  • readings or lectures
  • classroom or threaded discussion
  • quizzes/tests/assessments
  • feedback and interaction between student and instructor/facilitator through e-mail

These elements typically represent a traditional classroom and should certainly be included. Courses also need to develop activities that address different learning styles, incorporating strategies into each element.

Most of today's online curriculum is presented by universities and colleges that are moving into the online environment. Since traditional online learning is geared toward the adult learner, it can be assumed that these students (adults) are aiming for a specific goal (a degree, certificate, or grade) and thus adapt their own learning styles to the material delivered. Focus on different learning styles is largely ignored.

The goal of K–12 education, on the other hand, should be not only to teach students basic concepts and materials, but to also teach them to maximize different learning styles. In order to accomplish this, K–12 educators have tried for years to incorporate teaching strategies and learning styles through the use of manipulatives, handouts, visual aids, videos, films, field trips, etc. The goal becomes to take traditional learning-style teaching methods employed in the traditional K–12 classroom and apply them to online learning, which can then be individualized.

Four Elements of Online Learning

There are basically four elements of online learning.

  1. Instructor/teacher: The teacher adapts traditional teaching strategies for online instruction.
  2. Student: Learning styles are identified so they may be addressed.
  3. Curriculum: Curriculum is formatted in an appropriate delivery style to facilitate all learning styles.
  4. Infrastructure or Technology: This supports the delivery of the content.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Online Learning

Due to the way in which traditional content has been applied and delivered via the Internet, certain advantages and disadvantages of online learning have become apparent.


  • Learning can take place anywhere.
  • Learning can take place anytime and at any pace.
  • There is a synergy between the learner, instructor, and environment.
  • High-quality dialogue can be maintained because it is not restricted by a traditional classroom or time models.
  • The environment can be student centered; instructors can focus on individual learning styles and issues with greater ease.
  • There is great access to a large variety of quality resources.
  • There is a level playing field for all learners, regardless of visual or physical handicap, location, or learning schedule.
  • Teachers can use creative teaching methods in delivering material.


  • Equity and accessibility to technology—Not all students can afford top-of-the-line computers with multimedia accessibility.
  • Computer literacy—Students have different degrees of familiarity with computers, the Internet, and software programs. This can adversely impact their ability to participate to the fullest.
  • Limitations of technology—There are some things a computer simply cannot do, such as real-life simulations, chemical laboratory experiments, and medical dissections. Visualizations are useful, but not as good as actually "being there."
  • Lack of essential online qualities—Without the necessary direction, teaching strategies and integration of student learning strategies/learning styles cannot be fully utilized and learning is limited.
  • Levels of synergy—Face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact is still useful to establish synergy, trust, and mentor effectiveness.
  • Some courses (activity, hands-on subjects) can't be taught online—Some topics such as music, physical fitness, and art are very difficult to teach online.


In order to fully take advantage of online learning, an instructor needs to understand what types of activities learners respond to so that they can apply the same techniques in their course delivery.

Learning Style Responds Well To Responds Poorly To
Activists New problems, being thrown in at the deep end, team work Passive learning, solitary work, theory, precise instructions. Activists would rather take an active part in learning.
Theorists Interesting concepts, structured situations, opportunities to probe Lack of apparent context or purpose, ambiguity and uncertainty. Doubts about validity create a lack of basis for learning.
Pragmatists Relevance to real problems, immediate chance to try things out, experts they can emulate Abstract theory, lack of practice or clear guidelines. No obvious benefit from learning hinders pragmatists from applying learning to real-life situations.
Reflectors Thinking things through, painstaking research, detached observations Being forced into the limelight, acting without planning. Time pressures create a tense learning environment.


Different Approaches to Distance Learning (Online Education)

Until recently, there have been two basic approaches to online learning.

  1. Taking structured, pre-programmed learning materials and creating a "black box" approach, where the black box is a substitute for the teacher and "teaches" the student.
  2. Using the computer's communications functions and creating a "network" approach that views the computer as a channel of communication between learners and teachers. Teachers teach students and the computers facilitate communications between teachers and students.

Both of these methods may be useful in different circumstances. However, unless they integrate different approaches to address different learning styles and create a learning cycle, they are still basically ineffective.

Suggested Curriculum Design

In order to meet a learner's needs, regardless of his or her learning style, online learning should include the following suggested curriculum designs.

  • Gagne's Instructional Events
    Gagne identifies five major categories of learning: verbal information, intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, motor skills, and attitudes. Different internal and external conditions are necessary for each type of learning. For example, for cognitive strategies to be learned, there must be a chance to practice developing new solutions to problems; to learn attitudes, the learner must be exposed to a credible role model or persuasive arguments.

    Gagne suggests that learning tasks for intellectual skills can be organized in a hierarchy according to complexity: stimulus recognition, response generation, procedure following, terminology usage, discrimination, concept formation, rule application, and problem solving. In addition, the theory outlines nine instructional events and corresponding cognitive processes. They are employed throughout IEI lessons in the following manner:
    1. Gain their attention (reception): Introduce the concept of people before history and discuss the video clip at the beginning of the unit in the virtual classroom and relate and apply it to the lesson.
    2. Inform and identify objectives (expectancy): Reinforce the goals of the lesson through reference to the lesson objectives, which are reaffirmed in the assessment and activities. Be specific and refer to a reasonable time frame for completion of goals.
    3. Stimulate recall of prior learning (retrieval): Refer back to the lessons learned in prior units and build upon a continuing time line of different civilizations and geographical regions. Discuss archaeological and sociological processes and ways of gaining knowledge through observation in everyday life of historical and sociological events.
    4. Present the stimulus (selective perception): Present the readings and activities and relate them to the lesson objectives.
    5. Guide learning (semantic encoding): Construct a logical flow of discussion and activities that encourage learning and scaffolding of ideas. Embed mini-assessments in each portion to evaluate retention and mastery using Bloom's Taxonomy.
    6. Elicit performance (responding): Require participation in group discussion, assessments and activities on an individual and group basis. Ask students to give examples or applications of the material discussed.
    7. Provide feedback (reinforcement): Correct assessments and assignments in a timely manner with meaningful feedback and suggestions for improvement.
    8. Assess performance (retrieval): Provide scores and remediation or opportunities for enhanced learning.
    9. Enhance retention/transfer (generalization): Review material and apply to other situations, both cross-cultural and cross-curriculum through activities and further research.

  • Bloom's Taxonomy
    Benjamin Bloom created a taxonomy for categorizing levels of abstraction of questions that commonly occur in educational settings. The taxonomy provides a useful structure in which to construct objectives, activities, and assessments so that students are encouraged to think and study on different levels. Bloom's Taxonomy includes the following six levels.
    1. Knowledge:
      • observe and recall information
      • master dates, events, places
      • understand major ideas
      • master subject matter
      • Question Cues: list, define, tell, describe, identify, show, label, collect, examine, tabulate, quote, name, who, when, where, etc.
    2. Comprehension:
      • understand information
      • grasp meaning
      • translate knowledge into new context
      • interpret facts, compare, contrast
      • order, group, infer causes
      • predict consequences
      • Question Cues: summarize, describe, interpret, contrast, predict, associate, distinguish, estimate, differentiate, discuss, extend
    3. Application:
      • use information
      • use methods, concepts, theories in new situations
      • solve problems using required skills or knowledge
      • Questions Cues: apply, demonstrate, calculate, complete, illustrate, show, solve, examine, modify, relate, change, classify, experiment, discover
    4. Analysis:
      • see patterns
      • organize parts
      • recognize hidden meanings
      • identify components
      • Question Cues: analyze, separate, order, explain, connect, classify, arrange, divide, compare, select, explain, infer
    5. Synthesis:
      • use old ideas to create new ones
      • generalize from given facts
      • relate knowledge from several areas
      • predict, draw conclusions
      • Question Cues: combine, integrate, modify, rearrange, substitute, plan, create, design, invent, what if?, compose, formulate, prepare, generalize, rewrite
    6. Evaluation:
      • compare and discriminate between ideas
      • assess value of theories, presentations
      • make choices based on reasoned argument
      • verify value of evidence
      • recognize subjectivity
      • Question Cues: assess, decide, rank, grade, test, measure, recommend, convince, select, judge, explain, discriminate, support, conclude, compare, summarize

  • Three Different Learning Styles (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic-Tactile)
    It is generally accepted, whether a person adheres to Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Theory or another theory of learning, that there are three different major learning styles: visual (learning by seeing or visualizing), auditory (learning by hearing), and kinesthetic-tactile (learning by doing). Teaching methodologies and activities that incorporate each of these three learning styles are embedded in each lesson to assist students with different learning styles to maximize their learning experience.

    In order to identify their learning styles, students are encouraged to complete a Learning Style Inventory during their first lesson. Once they know which learning style they favor, they can focus on activities that enhance their favored learning style, while at the same time learning how to strengthen other learning styles.

  • Project Solving Apprenticeship Learning Model (PSALM)—semester-long project
    Most states suggest or require a collaborative student project so that students can participate in group learning, practice leadership skills, and learn investigative techniques. According to ISTE publication (please see "Project-Based Learning Using Information Technology" by David Moursund for further information) recommendations, projects should:
    • correlate to several different disciplines.
    • employ technology and writing skills.
    • provide structure for following through on the project.
    • include a rubric so that students know the expectations for grading and submission.


There are now many good examples of visual learning lessons online due to increased focus on learning styles and teaching methods.

Visual Learning

A good visual learning lesson would include:

  • Instruction—use of a video clip, diagram, image or map
  • Assignments—mind-mapping of concepts, diagramming, construction of PowerPoint presentations, readings
  • References—reference maps, diagrams, pictures, articles
  • Communication—use of electronic white board, electronic conferencing, chat
  • Testing—identification on maps, diagrams, required drawings or sketches, read and response

Auditory Learning

An excellent lesson focusing on auditory learners would include:

  • Instruction—lecture, audio clips
  • Assignments—projects with audio components, interviews, seminars, giving reports and speeches, PowerPoint with audio component
  • References—video or audio clips from a media collection
  • Communication—phone, audio conferencing
  • Testing—sound identification or verbally administered test


A great lesson for kinesthetic-tactile learners would include:

  • Instruction—advance organizer, in class exercises, asking for volunteer participation in class demonstrations or simulations
  • Assignments—self-assessment quizzes, model building, presentations, demos
  • References—virtual field trips
  • Communication—synchronous conferencing, group work
  • Testing—performance of a task, multiple choice, tutorial, reports/papers, portfolio of project work


Intuitive learners would benefit from a lesson that includes:

  • Instruction—case studies, hypotheses, setting and prediction
  • Assignments—problem solving, resolution development
  • References—readings from various viewpoints, compare and contrast assignments
  • Communication—group work
  • Testing—essays that ask for outcome projections


In conclusion, if an institution or instructor has incorporated adaptive teaching methodologies and made the best use of the curriculum and technology, an "ideal" online course would include the following:

  1. Full content courses—should cover the same content that a traditional course would include and should be text-based or cover the same content as nationally-accepted textbooks.
  2. Course construction—should follow Gagne's Events of Instruction and make full use of a technology delivery system to encourage learning at all levels.
  3. PSALM (Project Solving Apprenticeship Learning Model) Group Project—should include a group semester or course project that is cross-cultural and cross-curricular and encourages collaborative work, leadership qualities, investigative, extrapolation, writing, and technology skills.
  4. Student learning objectives that use Bloom's Taxonomy—should include student-learning objectives in each lesson plan that cover the goals and objectives of that particular lesson. They should include Bloom's Taxonomy words at all six levels in order to encourage and build upon the learning cycle. They should also include objectives that focus on all the different learning styles: visual, auditory and kinesthetic/tactile.
  5. Teacher strategies that address all learning styles—should include teacher strategies with each lesson, so that teachers have the opportunity and ability to adapt their teaching styles to individual learners without having to resort to continuous re-education.
  6. Activities that adapt to different learning styles—should include Web-based interactive activities that address a variety of learning styles. These activities should enhance the lesson content and offer opportunity for further exploration in the content area.
  7. Assessments that cover full content—should cover the entire scope of the lesson. They should also be in a variety of forms (identify and define, true/false, multiple choice, multiple answer, short answer, essay) so that individual learning styles are challenged and so that students are encouraged to build a "learning cycle." They should also employ all six levels of Bloom's Taxonomy so that students are challenged to think on different levels.
  8. Accreditation by a local or state agency— should offer online courses by an accredited institution that has undergone a peer review process.
  9. Curriculum that can adapt to other state curriculum guidelines—should adapt course curriculum so that it can include additional learning objectives or activities in order to adapt to differing state curriculum guidelines, if necessary.
  10. Use of technology to its fullest—should use technology to its fullest for both asynchronous and synchronous learning, e-mail, and multimedia presentations.
  11. Be available online 24/7—should make course content available at all times for student review and access. Students and instructors should also have access to curriculum and technical support, within reason.


I have taught history online for six years now. The interesting part of teaching online, versus in the classroom, is that all the expectations or preconceptions of what to expect from a student are gone. Everyone starts with an equal footing and a clean slate. I can't look at a boy and see blue-haired spikes and have certain expectations about his behavior, because appearance doesn't play a role. It's also interesting to see that students think I am much younger than I am, and that boys, especially, tend to open up and talk about personal issues with someone they feel is non-threatening, whereas they might not do that in a traditional school. Students are much more open about personal issues at home and how these issues interact with their school and future plans. This, combined with the advantages listed above, make online teaching perfect for so many teachers and students.