II. Varieties of Online Teaching

Before the pandemic, the most common remote learning options were massive open online courses (MOOCs). Typically free or low cost, noncredit, stand alone, and offered to thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of students simultaneously, MOOCs reached their peak in the early 2010s with the launch of large-scale online learning platforms such as edX, Coursera, and Udacity. MOOCs continue to operate worldwide, offering students a range of options that can include free classes, certificate or even degree attainment (usually for a fee), and additional classroom support (usually for a fee), with varying levels of instructor feedback and access to prestigious professors and universities.

The pandemic altered the educational landscape across much of the United States; in its wake, the most common form of online learning was the traditional university or college class offered through an institution’s own website. Students now access these classes through a learning management system (LMS; also called a course management system, or CMS), four of which make up over 90 percent of the online educational platforms currently in use: Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle, or Brightspace/Desire2Learn. LMSs typically provide a flexible platform for creating class homepages, assignments, discussion boards, blogs, and group projects. Increasingly, they also have built-in software to check for accessibility compliance and offer integration with third-party software products such as plagiarism checkers (e.g., Turnitin), assessment tools (e.g., Google Assignments), textbook support (e.g., Pearson, Macmillan, Norton), and video or media design software (e.g., Playposit, YouTube, or Flipgrid).

Classes offered through LMSs vary considerably in how they meet the US Department of Education’s minimum standards (see section III). Synchronous courses require student attendance at live lessons held at specific times through Zoom or a similar platform; asynchronous classes do not require students to attend a live session but fulfill the interaction requirement in other ways—communicating via discussion boards, blogs, or chat groups; submitting written or recorded work; or contributing to group projects via email or platforms such as Zoom or Discord. A third type, the hybrid class, combines synchronous and asynchronous elements or alternate in-class and online teaching. Usually graded (though a P/NP option may be available), these courses are intended for either degree completion or for transfer to a four-year university (especially in the context of community colleges).

Online education is the predominant form of remote learning that became more widespread during the pandemic; that is, classes offered online through a university or college for credit towards a degree. While other forms of remote learning—ranging from MOOCs to correspondence courses—still exist, and some remain popular, the majority of history students now encounter online education by taking a class through their home university or college, or through a university or college that offers online courses for transfer credit.

Because history courses rarely require the kind of specialized equipment, lab work, or hands-on training that can be difficult to replicate in a remote setting, history students are particularly well situated to take advantage of online learning options. More than 50 institutions currently offer a fully online bachelor’s degree program in history, and more than 30 offer a fully online MA degree. These programs are operated at for-profit, nonprofit, public, and private institutions, with the number of all undergraduates enrolled in online-only degree programs ranging from a low of 11 percent at public institutions to nearly two-thirds at for-profit institutions.[1]

Online instruction is especially well-suited to students with families or caregiving obligations, work responsibilities, and other demands on their time; commuting students, who benefit from reduced travel costs; and those students who appreciate learning at their own pace in an environment free from distractions and interruptions. The ability to complete an online degree rather than take only a few isolated classes makes degree attainment possible for students whose paths might otherwise be prohibitively lengthy or disjointed.

No matter a student’s background or circumstances, online instruction creates exciting opportunities to enhance the learning experience. Instructors can integrate an array of resources into their class sessions and assign groups of students to engage in team-based learning activities in virtual environments. For history classes, this might mean the use of digital technologies that allow students to collaboratively annotate source materials; visualize data; develop and work with different types of maps; or create virtual museum exhibits, blogs, encyclopedia entries, infographics, podcasts, and digital stories. Learning how to navigate new and electrifying virtual environments allows students to engage with the sort of historical materials that are less readily available in a traditional classroom and can help prepare them for work in digital history or related careers in libraries, museums, cultural institutes, and government.

Still, institutions should recognize that online instruction does not work equally well for all students. To succeed in an online course, students must be self-motivated and work independently while possessing effective communication and time-management skills. Students with disabilities—particularly those specific to the online environment, such as cognitive or motor-coordination deficits that make it difficult to use a mouse or remember passwords—might require added institutional and instructor support. To participate in online courses, students must also possess basic technical skills and access to an appropriate computer, a reliable internet connection, and a distraction-free environment. Finally, and even if all of the above criteria are met, lively and interactive discussion-based learning can be challenging to recreate in an online setting, especially in an asynchronous format.

On the other hand, asynchronous learning—which can be either self-paced or instructor-directed—tends to be more equitable and inclusive because students who do not have regular internet access or a strong digital infrastructure can engage with activities and assignments on their own time. As Deborah L. Vess has found, asynchronous learning can also promote deeper engagement with history course materials. Instructors in synchronous classes can address these issues by adopting strategies such as scheduling live sessions in the early evening or on days and times suggested by students, limiting the number of required synchronous sessions, and allowing students to participate flexibly in live sessions—that is, through text or oral responses.[2] Regardless of format, both synchronous and asynchronous courses must meet the Department of Education’s requirement for “regular and substantive interaction” with a bona fide instructor (please see the detailed guidelines in section III).

Alongside asynchronous courses, other common forms of online learning involve:

  • Computer-assisted instruction, which relies upon interactive software or courseware that incorporates multimedia and contains embedded assessments to assess student learning.
  • Personalized adaptive tools, which use algorithms and artificial intelligence to tailor learning to student’s needs and interests and provide just-in-time tutorials and feedback.
  • Hybrid, blended, and low-residency modalities, which combine online and in-person instruction.
  • HyFlex courses, which give students the option of participating online, attending classes in person, or doing both.

To make learning in online courses more dynamic and interactive, instructors use a variety of tools and strategies. These can include breakout rooms, discussion forums and student-led dialogues, surveys and polling, wikis and blogs, collaborative activities, and social media. Social interaction plays an important role in online classes—sustaining the participants and helping to keep them on track while allowing students to share ideas, encounter different points of view, and engage in active-learning projects collaboratively.

Though students’ attitudes toward online learning are often quite positive, they acknowledge that, like all other educational settings, variations in the quality of content and delivery affect overall experience. The success of an online class depends on training, time, and support; without them, online courses can have a negative impact on student engagement, persistence, and learning outcomes.[3] Above all, effective online learning depends on effective online teaching, which requires careful course planning and successful execution.

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[1] Statistics are for fall 2017, the latest date for which the most recent (2018) NCES report provides statistics. For the same period, the four universities with the highest enrollments—University of Phoenix, Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Grand Canyon University, respectively—primarily enrolled students in fully online programs. National Center of Education Statistics, NCES online report, 2018, p. 209, accessed 5/25/22.

[2] See, for example, Kavita Rao et al., “Curb Cuts in Cyberspace: Universal Instructional Design for Online Courses,” Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 24, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 225.

[3] See, for example, Deborah Sellnow-Richmond et al., “Student Perceptions of Teaching Effectiveness and Learning Achievement: A Comparative Examination of Online and Hybrid Course Delivery Format,” Communication Teacher 34, no. 3 (2020): 248–63; Deborah L. Vess, “Asynchronous Discussion and Communication Patterns in Online and Hybrid History Courses,” Communication Education 54 (October 2005): 355–64; M. D. Roblyer et al., “A Comparison of Outcomes of Virtual School Courses Offered in Synchronous and Asynchronous Formats,” Internet and Higher Education 10 (2007): 261–68.