eLearning Two Step: An Overview Of Instruction

eLearning Two Step: An Overview Of Instruction
Summary: Online learning has been described as "one step forward for technology and two steps backwards for instruction". This first of two articles provides an eLearning two step overview of different instructional approaches we can use with online learners.

An eLearning Two Step Overview Of Instruction

Many online education programs have been characterized as “one step ahead for technology and two steps back for pedagogy”. As we all know, online learning is still often highly didactic – lots of readings, lots of videos explaining what learners should do, few opportunities for interaction with instructors, little interactive content and less designed, deliberate and moderated communication and collaboration with other learners. This may fine for self-paced learning, but, increasingly as teacher professional development moves online (everywhere), I’d argue that online learning for teachers should model the same instructional methods with which teachers are expected to teach students. We can begin, in the first of this two-part article, with an eLearning two step overview of “instruction”.


Step 1: Broad Models Of Instruction

There are generally 3 broad classifications of instruction:

  1. Direct instructional models.
    They involve transmission of information, concepts, skills, and procedures from instructor to student, in typically a one-way communication channel.
  2. Cognitive models.
    They are more dialectical, involving inductive reasoning and teaching via analogy and learner discovery.
  3. Social models.
    They involve collaborative learning, cooperative learning, and more interpersonal types of interactions that maximize learning from and with one another.

The last two models -cognitive and social- can be organized under the rubric of “learner-centered instruction”. Learner-centered instruction in turn originates from constructivist learning theory. Constructivism’s main tenets can be summarized in the following 6 principles:

  1. Learners bring unique prior knowledge, experience, and beliefs to a learning situation.
  2. Knowledge is constructed uniquely and individually, in multiple ways, through a variety of authentic tools, resources, experiences, and contexts.
  3. Learning is both an active and reflective process.
  4. Learning is a developmental process of accommodation, assimilation, or rejection to construct new conceptual structures, meaningful representations, or new mental models.
  5. Social interaction introduces multiple perspectives through reflection, collaboration, negotiation, and shared meaning.
  6. Learning is internally controlled and mediated by the learner (Dimock, Burns, Heath & Burniske, 2001).

Step Two: Types Of Learner-Centered Instruction

Though we often generally know learner-centered instruction when we see it, it is often poorly defined. Furthermore, it is not a "flat" definition or single instructional approach, but rather a taxonomy and a family of instructional approaches in which learning goals and content drive how information is organized, understood, presented, and assessed.

The following table outlines the main instructional approaches that form part of learner-centered instruction.

Figure 1: Types and Characteristics of Learner-centered Instruction (Burns, 2011). (All references for learner-centered approaches below are listed on pp.152-154).

Learner-centered approach or type Characteristics
Case-based learning
  • Case/object of study: Students learn desired educational objectives through interaction with an actual case — a real-world story presented in either narrative, audio, or video format.
  • Real-world: Cases are context-based, relevant, and realistic.
  • The case drives the learning: Learners  explore, investigate, and study concepts, facts, and decision-making skills; all  learned within the context of the case.
  • Benefits: Autonomy, creativity, and problem-solving abilities while simultaneously building hands-on skills needed for success as entrepreneurs.
Collaborative learning 




  • Positive interdependence: Team members need one another to complete their task.
  • Individual accountability: Each team member is responsible for a certain part of the task or fulfills a certain role.
  • Social negotiation: Team members must learn to handle conflict and argue constructively.
  • Face-to-face interaction: Team members work together in a common space to complete their task.
  • Group processing: Team members help one another understand how learning occurred (Johnson & Johnson, 1988).
Project-based learning
  • Organizing issue/essential question: It builds on students’ knowledge or interest.
  • Complex: It focuses on an issue of some complexity - a project.
  • Real world: It provides a meaningful and authentic context for learning.
  • Learner responsibility: Learners must access and manage their own information and design process for reaching a solution.
  • Assessment: The final product is not a test, but a project or report that is typically performance-based.
Inquiry-based learning
  • Question: It begins with a learner’s scientifically oriented question/inquiry.
  • Observe: Learners observe and question phenomena.
  • Hypothesize: Learners pose explanations of what they observe.
  • Experiment: Learners devise and conduct experiments in which data are collected to support or contradict their theories. Learners give priority to evidence in responding to questions.
  • Generate knowledge: Learners analyze data and draw conclusions from experimental data. Learners formulate explanations from evidence. Learners connect explanations to scientific knowledge.
  • Test and apply knowledge: Learners design and build models and communicate and justify explanations.
Problem-based learning
  • Begins with a real-world problem situation: Problems are relevant and contextual.
  • Reliance on problems to drive the curriculum: The problems do not test skills; they assist in the development of the skills themselves.
  • Ill structured: There is not one solution, but multiple solutions. As new information is gathered in a reiterative process, perception of the problem, and thus the solution, changes.
  • Use of real-world tools and resources: Technology, primary source data, and experts are used.
  • Self-directed learning: Learners must be independent and make their own decisions based on availability of evidence.
  • Collaborative: Learners work together in a team to solve a problem.

Cui Bono? (Or, Who The Heck Cares?!) 

It’s important to spend time on and unpack the broad concept of instruction and in particular, learner-centered instruction, for 3 reasons:

  • First, the type of instruction we want to embody in our eLearning courses will obviously drive the design of the online course or program and selection of technologies.
  • Second, understanding and instantiating learner-centered practices can contribute to our online students’ learning. Research on learning and achievement comes down on the side of a more learner-centered versus direct instruction approach (Burns, 2011).
  • Third, learners’ perceptions of the quality of online courses are highly correlated with the type of instruction and communication the online instructor embodies (Aragon & Johnson, 2008).

If we want to put to rest the perception of online learning as one step ahead for technology and two steps back for pedagogy, we need to spend more time and effort on teaching and learning and less on the technology.

Part 2 of this article will explore what learner-centered instruction looks like “in action” in an online program.


While hardly a two-step, the first photo above is a traditional Panamanian dance and was taken by the author in December, 2014. The embedded photo, entitled Brownsville, Texas. Charro Days fiesta. Dancing the jarabe tapatia at Triple L Club dance, is a copyright free image from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540. The "Jarabe Tapatia" is better known as "The Mexican Hat Dance".



  • Aragon, S. R. & Johnson, E. S. (2008). Factors influencing completion and non-completion of community college online courses. The American Journal of Distance Education, 22 (3):146-158.
  • Burns, M. (2011). Distance education for teacher training: Modes, Models, and Methods. Retrieved from http://go.edc.org/07xd
  • Dimock, K.V., Burns, M., Heath, M. & Burniske, J. (2001, December). Applying technology to restructuring learning: How teachers use computers in technology assisted constructivist learning environments. Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED448977.pdf
  • Johnson, D., & Johnson, R. (1988). Learning together and alone. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.