The 21st Century Online Course: Interactive, Non-linear Learning

college students talking on a lawn

Distance education has changed at the speed of technology during the past 45 years. In 1970, Coastline Community College made history by beginning the first “distance” televised classes. Twenty years later, distance classes migrated from television to the internet. Those first online courses were simple compilations of documents for learners to read. Since that time, online instructors have sought to bring online learning as close as possible to face-to-face teaching, so that students have both the content and the benefit of personalized instruction.

There are many challenges to develop an online course that delivers all of what current technology promises. Students enter the course at different levels of preparedness, knowledge bases, learning goals, and motivation. Instructors continue to grapple with the age-old question, “How do I best help students engage with the material?” In 2014, a course analysis of Introduction to Psychology showed that online students were lagging in academic performance. Students were struggling to master the broad array of concepts and theories presented in this course when learning was heavily dependent on the textbook. A course redesign was in order.

This redesign began by considering the answers to a key question: In an ideal learning environment, how would students best engage with course material for optimal learning?


Use a Non-linear Approach

There is a broad range of concepts and theories in a survey course such as Introduction to Psychology. Students need assistance with approaching the task of learning. Most haven’t yet developed the metacognitive skills to tackle the task systematically and efficiently. Given what appears to be a vast, unnavigable sea of information, students need a guide to help them organize the information being presented. This course redesign focused around 10 – 12 learning objectives per unit, rather than the 20 – 40 that the textbook presented. The objectives, worded simply in an active form, are the most important concepts and theories in the unit. For a given learning objective, students are directed to use a variety of resources, including reading a select section of the text and using some interactive multimedia items. This approach transformed learning from “read and review,” into the completion of highly varied tasks that required active engagement, all focused on one concept.


Aesthetics Matter

Courses that integrate visual components are more interesting to students. Students will spend more time and expend more effort engaging with material that is interesting. By adding images to illustrate ideas, including infographics and videos to give “movement” to course material, and incorporating simulations to tell a “story” through changing images, the course provides a beautiful online learning environment that stimulates students’ interest and bring concepts to life.


Make it Relevant

Much of what we as instructors hope to impart to students about the significance and utility of our chosen discipline can take second shift to the necessity of imparting factual content. Yet, students require that context to be able to retain the factual content being taught. When students are given the opportunity to develop or obtain real-life examples of the concepts they’re learning, the context become visible. These tasks were included in discussion forums. Similarly, selecting videos from recognized experts in the field helps students not only develop face recognition of the field’s “superstars” but also imagine a possible direction a career in the field could take.


Reflection, not Rote Rehearsal

Students benefit from many no-stakes opportunities to assess their learning. Online discussion forums provide meaningful opportunities for learners to pull information in from numerous sources in the course, thereby providing a reflective review and integration of content. Review questions for each learning objective require students to reflect on the most important concepts in the course. And finally, a no-stakes interactive presentation provides a means for students to simultaneously review and frame their learning in a format consistent with their graded assessment.

Even as online learning continues to evolve, courses that approach learning in a non-linear fashion, use mentally stimulating imagery, provide opportunities for students to see course content as relevant to real life, and capitalize on reflective techniques to deepen learning, will remain most effective and engaging to the 21st century student. Each course redesign is a successive approximation toward the goal of the ideal learning environment. How can you use these principles in your own course redesign?


Read more about Dr. Bradley’s course redesign in her case study.


About the Author

Jennifer Bradley, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Northampton Community College in Tannersville, Pennsylvania. In 2001, Jennifer received her Doctor of Philosophy degree in Counseling Psychology from Lehigh University. In 1990, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology, also from Lehigh University. During the course of her academic career, Jennifer has been captivated by online teaching and the use of technology as part of innovative teaching approaches. Jennifer has redesigned the Introduction to Psychology online course for Northampton Community College, and has developed the master course for others, including Developmental Psychology and Psychology of Sex and Gender.