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Principles of Online Learning

The principles summarised here are based on Chickering and Ehrmann's influential 'seven principles' framework. Since that was conceived in 1996 the wider context has changed. We're in the midst of a pandemic, preparing to welcome a student population who mostly didn't intend to be learning online. Many of us are very new to teaching online. Moreover we have decisions to make about live online teaching and high bandwidth media which didn't exist back then. So we've re-interpreted the framework to foreground inclusive practices, flexibility and sustainability.

Online learning exists within the context of a curriculum, so we're going to reference the backward design approach to curriculum design - if you're not familiar with backward design have a quick look at this summary.

KEATS takes on a new centrality during this pandemic (both as a design space for educators and as a representation of a course of study) so let's focus on KEATS here - and since KEATS spaces frequently correspond to modules, we'll take a module as our context. But we'll also think holisticly about the wider degree programme, study beyond KEATS, and the needs of educators and colleagues who support learning, as well as the needs of students.


Chickering, A. W. & Ehrmann, S. C. (1996, October) 'Implementing the seven principles: technology as lever', AAHE Bulletin 49, (2) 3–6. 

Johnson, S. (2014) 'Applying the seven principles of good practice: technology as a lever – in an online research course', Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 13(2). 

Tanis, C. J. (2020). The seven principles of online learning: Feedback from faculty and alumni on its importance for teaching and learning. Research in Learning Technology, 28(0).

Your students are entering your module's KEATS space for the very first time. They arrive alone, they don't know anybody. For fully-online students particularly, impersonality, isolation or disconnectedness can suppress engagement, so that is something to attend to at the earliest opportunity. A sense of belonging is implicated in students' successful completion across higher education, and accordingly social isolation is implicated in non-completion and in the attainment gaps (or award gaps) which King's is battling even harder during the pandemic.

This is the principle of belonging. It permeates all the other principles here.

Welcome can be expressed in - though is not limited to:

  • a short, personal welcome message at the top of a KEATS space;
  • regular, encouraging communications from staff;
  • the considerate, intuitive design of the environment, its resources and materials so that no student has to feel that they're a nuisance for asking for what they need;
  • the structuring of the introductions among staff and students which gives everyone an occasion and permission to connect;
  • how students are encouraged to relate to each other;
  • the approachability of the staff;
  • educators communicating their high expectations that every student can succeed regardless of background;
  • educators' commitment to teach every student on the module;
  • creating occasions for students to be in contact - occasions that are both structured into formal learning events and informal meet-ups.



  • Kilgore, W. (Ed.). (2019). Humanizing online learning and teaching. .
  • Mountford-Zimdars, A., Sanders, J., Moore, J., Sabri, D., Jones, S., & Higham, L. (2017). What can universities do to support all their students to progress successfully throughout their time at university? Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 21(2–3), 101–110.
  • Peacock, S., Cowan, J., Irvine, L., & Williams, J. (2020). An Exploration Into the Importance of a Sense of Belonging for Online Learners. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 21(2), 18–35.

Connected with belonging is students' early understanding of what is expected of them, why, when, how to find it, and how to succeed with it. We were thinking earlier about how students arrive alone. On a campus, students who are new to higher education would usually gain some cues about how to go about their studies by observing other students' strategies - in the library, preparing for seminars, note-making, and so on. Online, these cues may be far less visible, leaving students struggling to understand what to do, what their role is, and what success looks like. All of this is, as they say, 'a lot' - it brings 'high cognitive load' for students which is not germane to learning your subject.

For these reasons there is a need to establish norms and expectations. Earlier we touched on the importance of educators' high expectations of students. These high expectations concern students' ability to succeed but they do not assume, for example, that all students are confident with technology, understand the assessment criteria, or can intuit how to approach a difficult text.

Student success online needs to be enabled and supported through structuring tasks and anticipating the guidance students are likely to need.

This is the principle of scaffolding high expectations.

Scaffolding encourages students by supporting them to interact systematically and purposefully with materials, environments, educators and each other.  As the metaphor suggests, scaffolding does a lot of carrying at first but is gradually dismantled as students become more independent in their studies. One typology of scaffolding is:

  • Procedural scaffolding - clear, timely, discoverable instructions for students about their tasks. This could take the form of an annotated screenshot of how to fully exploit a digital environment e.g. Microsoft Teams Meeting, tacitly acknowledging that students may not be confident with technologies. It could be a case of making key information very salient such as instructions, the timetable, handbook, details of assessment. It could be the way the recurring elements of the module are represented in KEATS so that students are oriented (you can discover more about this in the workshop on KEATS Design). However, procedural scaffolding on its own only promotes adherence - to actually promote learning we need other kinds of scaffolding.
  • Conceptual scaffolding calibrates resources and tasks to students' existing knowledge, and helps them to decide what to prioritise and where to focus their efforts - backward design works as conceptual scaffolding when the purposes and rationale for each element of study are communicated to students, and the connections between the elements are also made clear.
  • Strategic scaffolding helps students develop learning strategies to effectively tackle their problems and tasks.
  • Metacognitive scaffolding prompts students to relate new knowledge to prior knowledge, and to self-evaluate their learning. Practice assessment opportunities with examples, formative feedback, guiding questions and reflective prompts can all function as scaffolds. 


  • Jumaat, N. F., & Tasir, Z. (2014). Instructional Scaffolding in Online Learning Environment: A Meta-analysis. 2014 International Conference on Teaching and Learning in Computing and Engineering, 74–77.
  • Sharma, P., & Hannafin, M. J. (2007). Scaffolding in technology-enhanced learning environments. Interactive Learning Environments, 15(1), 27–46.

Following on from scaffolding, there is a need for strategies which enable students, colleagues and you yourself to pursue the module with energy and enjoyment, fitting it in with other commitments.

This is the principle of sustainability.

Here are some examples:

  • It is important that every task or activity students are required to complete has a clear role in their ultimate success, and sufficient guidance that they are not diverted into, for example, trying to guess expectations.
  • Students also need guidance about how long they should expect to spend on the different activities (and by implication, signposts to specific support if the tasks take much longer).
  • During live online sessions, transitions between activities may take longer than in person and this needs to be factored in.
  • The materials of the course need to be available to all students irrespective of their financial situation, whether through the library or as open-licensed resources.
  • Relatedly, the materials and activities need to be accessible, anticipating students and colleagues' different needs (for example neurodiversity, dyslexia, impaired mobility).
  • When it comes to assessment, making time for students to become familiar with the assessment criteria by which their work is judged is likely to save the assessor time on clarifying these during marking.

In the original Chickering and Ehrmann framework this principle was originally concerned with student workload, but equally important is the workload for staff newly getting to grips with teaching online.

How might you estimate the preparation time and support time of the activities you design for students? Might you be able to make a case for team teaching live sessions, perhaps with a GTA? Recorded and interactive materials can be very time-consuming to prepare - do you need to make all your materials or could existing high-quality resources (open-licensed or freely available) serve some of your more generic purposes? What can you do to preserve the most valuable parts of your digital spaces while also being considerate of your own and colleagues' time - both during the module and further down the line when you're preparing for the next cohort? Collaborating with experienced online educators and teaching administrators will bring insights and optimised practices.

Another crucial aspect of sustainability relates to the student-educator interactions discussed a little later - namely educators being empowered to communicate boundaries which balance your many work commitments and your life beyond work. 



  • Kennedy, E., Laurillard, D., Horan, B., & Charlton, P. (2015). Making meaningful decisions about time, workload and pedagogy in the digital age: The Course Resource Appraisal Model. Distance Education, 36(2), 177–195. .

Let's now think about access and opportunities to succeed. Students are diverse here, including a high proportion of BAME students, a growing number who are the first in their families to go to university and a growing number who declare a disability. These and other groups of students may face particular exclusions which are showing up as award gaps (attainment gaps).

Only a small proportion of our students intended to study fully online when they applied here. Most thought they were choosing a campus-based degree programme and weren't expecting to be kept away by a pandemic. Consequently there are several things we cannot take for granted about how students access resources, participate, or how they can be assessed.

This is the principle of diverse learning needs.

For access

Thinking first about access, it's important to find out whether there is a digital divide in your students' access. A proportion of students will not be able to rely on:

  • Access to a computer whenever they need it.
  • A reliable, high bandwidth internet connection.
  • A place to concentrate on their studies.
  • Freedom from competing commitments and interruptions (students may also be carers).
  • Because of their timezone, working hours that that overlap with their educators' and fellow students'.
  • Digital capabilities to fully exploit the environment and resources available.

These circumstances make a compelling case for leading with asynchronous learning, and treating the live time together as a precious but scarce resource.

In practice this means being very focused in the live sessions, understanding the extra time transitions take between activities, and not trying to do so much that everyone's thoughts become dominated by hyper-awareness of time (you can learn more about this in the workshop on live teaching online). The main aim here is to minimise the deficit for students who cannot participate in live sessions, to maintain cohort cohesion even if subgroups are formed according to students' time-zones, or whether or not they can attend live sessions. For example, students who join live sessions could be tasked with preparing guided, collaborative notes for those who couldn't be there - in the understanding that note-making is an extremely important, metacognitively-valuable strategy to master (see the Scaffolding principle) especially if they are structured so as to guide students to distil, say, facts, questions and a summary. Using these notes as a handover to those who couldn't be at the session could be the stimulus for their guided asychronous responses. 

For resources

Diverse students are likely to have diverse preferences and needs around the modes and formats of resources. It is important that educators know how to author accessibly in a range of media, but the idea is that technology should be able to meet us half way here and enable students to, for example, render typographic text as audio, or generate a transcript from an audio file. Our side of the partnership is to sufficiently understand the principles of accessibility to prepare materials for maximum accessibility.

For assessment and checking learning

Students are also authors - particularly in the context of assessment and participating in learning activities, and diverse students are likely to have diverse preferences about how to express themselves in their participation and assessed work. While working digitally closes off some opportunities, it opens up others, potentially expanding the range of ways students can demonstrate their learning and be assessed. Where appropriate - and taking care to avoid disorientation - inviting students to author in an expanded range of genres and an expanded range of media can help them find their academic voice, can make assessment feel less disposable and more relevant to the world beyond King's, and can invigorate assessment for markers as well as students. Specific digital work includes multimodal authoring such as:

  • small websites (Portfolio);
  • video and audio (Kaltura);
  • blogs;
  • infographics (PowerPoint);
  • structured or guided discussions (live talk or chat in Teams, asynchronous Forum in KEATS);
  • a range of media in Padlet;
  • and formulating questions (also Padlet and PollEverywhere).

These are all services King's supports. Turning outwards beyond King's, there is scope for students contributing to global projects:

  • formulating questions and feedback for Peerwise, a global multichoice question bank in their subject;
  • contributing to Wikipedia articles (including translation, and potentially including participating in the communities of interest around those articles);
  • and collaborative annotation of texts ( for written texts, ).

For local digital examples, see Assessment for Learning at King's.



One important way to reduce distance is the presence of educators and how they communicate with students. Students who participated in a study of attitudes to Chickering and Ehrmann's principles valued weekly announcements from educators, educators' participation in discussions, and above all, prompt responses to queries. Studies continue to confirm that students consider their educators as the most important element in online learning (see for example Martin and Bollinger, 2018; Watson et al, 2017).

This is the principle of educator-to-student interactions.

The interactions students value for their learning are familiar from campus teaching but will need re-interpreting for an online context. They include:

  • Facilitating interactions both online and in synchronous sessions;
  • Giving formal and informal feedback e.g. on assessments and during discussions;
  • Responsiveness to questions and queries;
  • Setting expectations;
  • Giving guidance;
  • Being organised.

One important opportunity for contact which is frequently missed is Personal Tutor sessions. Scheduling these meetings for every student - as some departments already have - and being explicit about what they are for make these more likely to happen. Leaving it to students to make the arrangements often results in low uptake due to students' doubts about what the meeting is for, and their consequent worries about exposure.

Each module will need a clear communication strategy so that students know where to address their queries - and if the procedural scaffolding (described earlier) is good, this should help contain the queries.


Earlier we started to think about the risks of isolation and loneliness, and touched on the importance of structured, guided interactions between students. There are at least three distinct benefits these bring. One is social presence (the extent that a person is perceived as a 'real' person in mediated communication). Another is belonging and community, and a third is the social and academic cues that students can only gain from interacting with each other, and which are often missing online.

Balanced with individual study, working together on well-facilitated tasks is likely to sustain students' confidence and motivation, raise their ambition, allow them to achieve more than they would have alone, and disseminate helpful study strategies. It's important that the interactions are structured and the rationale is understood (see the scaffolding principle) since not only does this particularly benefit less prepared students, but it helps students relate what they are doing to their own goals, and bring their best efforts to the interactions.

This is the principle of student-to-student interactions.

These can take a wide range of forms - here are some.

  • Facilitated group work on tasks, problems or projects. One major consideration here is students' time, since group work takes more time. Structuring group work can help with focus; this might include allocating roles, specifying timings, steps or phases, requiring groups to frequently summarise their decisions and activities, and providing early opportunities for formative peer feedback on contribution.
  • Peer presentations.
  • Guided discussion.
  • Guided reading, through collaborative annotation of texts in response to prompts.
  • Well-designed peer feedback activities which elicit effort and activate students' curiosity about each other's responses.
  • Encouraging students to make learning personal by relating the academic concepts to their own lives; this may be easier in some subjects than others but it helps reduce social distance.

Online students tend to be critical of what they perceive to be 'busy work' i.e. tasks they see as primarily for engagement monitoring rather than learning, so it is important that all formal social interactions are clearly of value to students' ultimate success.



  • Dyment, J., Stone, C., & Milthorpe, N. (2020). Beyond busy work: Rethinking the measurement of online student engagement. Higher Education Research & Development, 1–14.
  • Tanis, C. J. (2020). The seven principles of online learning: Feedback from faculty and alumni on its importance for teaching and learning. Research in Learning Technology, 28(0). .

Rich, inclusive interactions among students and between students and materials are unlikely to happen on their own. They need to be purposefully designed into the curriculum in a way that brings more structure to what students do during teaching sessions and independent study. Central to active learning is a rebalancing of emphasis away from lecturer exposition and towards students working with concepts. Students participate in activities which demand higher order thinking. Reflecting on their own learning during the activity (metacognition) provides the link between activity and learning. There is a growing evidence base that active learning improves assessment performance.

This is the principle of active learning.

Where there are timetabling constraints, active learning is often related to flipped or inverted teaching, in that students spend the precious live time together applying and integrating the concepts they have already learned independently rather than in the role of silent listener. They spend a higher proportion of their independent study learning foundational knowledge.

Engaging students in preparation for the live sessions is important. One particularly promising area for fully-online students is individual or collaborative annotation of texts - the possibility of a threaded discussion which shows as an optionally-private layer over a text. is a free, open source application already enabled in some publishers' websites.

Another motivating way to prepare students (particularly less-prepared students) for active learning is the humble multiple choice test (e.g. Moodle Quiz). If you need convincing that these kinds of tests have a role in higher learning, see Pooja Agarwal and Elizabeth Bjork (

Well-designed tests can focus and motivate students' engagement with preparatory work, and activate prior knowledge in advance of an activity. Tests with immediate feedback aimed at helping students understand how to improve have been shown to bring focus and effort to students' independent work along with a sense of achievement which feeds their ongoing motivation. While Moodle Quiz does not yet allow students to generate their own answer options, quiz questions have scope to exercise higher learning beyond the memory tests they are famous for. They can work at the level of application of knowledge to new contexts, predictions, differentiation and comparisons, justification decisions, and design. Quizzes can be live (PollEverywhere) and they can also be group activities.



Feedback is intrinsic to many of the learning activities introduced in the principle of active learning, and a key aspect of formative assessment (assessment for learning). Across King's, departments have already committed to timely assessment feedback, but it is worth emphasising the relational aspects of feedback - the particular benefit that staff attention, observations and responses bring to online students, giving their efforts meaning, encouraging them further, and sustaining their relationships. 

This is the principle of timely feedback.

But we expect educators' time to be spread even thinner than usual, so how might timely feedback be achieved richly and efficiently?

  • Peer feedback (Moodle Workshop or Turnitin Peermark) can often be completed earlier than staff assessors can achieve. There are many ways to build students' confidence in the peer feedback process - one is for staff assessors to give summary feedback to the cohort, perhaps as a webinar or screencast, and make space for dialogue about the feedback. Peer feedback works best when students are persuaded of the value of the work and the feedback activity, and give it their best effort (see the Scaffolding principle).
  • Another streamlined way to provide feedback is to use the marking rubrics (criteria with descriptors for  levels of achievement, available through Moodle Assignment and Turnitin Assignment) - students tend to appreciate an explanation (as well as an indication) of the level they have achieved.
  • Rubrics can be used in combination with interactive coversheets; these give space for students to self-assess as well as staff assessments. In common with peer feedback, interactive coversheets tend to deepen students understanding of assessment as a judgement rather than a measurement, and through this improve their relationship with their assessors. Differences between staff and student judgements are another good starting point for feedback conversations.
  • When it comes to inline and summary comments (Turnitin Feedback Studio, Moodle Assignment) it is worth keeping in mind that as well as workload for assessors they also imply workload for students - keep them succinct and focused.
  • In all the cases above, one very worthwhile investment of time is a guided marking activity in which students familiarise themselves with the criteria and apply them to one or more exemplar. This helps with understanding the criteria and judging the levels. Spending time reaching a shared understanding of standards and expectations before students begin the assessed task promises to reduce the need for post-hoc feedback clearing up misunderstandings.
  • Automated test feedback - for example using Moodle Quiz. It can be immediate and highly differentiated to each answer option a student selected on the test.



Taken together these principles encompass what is often referred to today as Universal Design for Learning. In other words, the environments, resources, and activities are born accessible, usable and approachable by everyone, and as far as possible any difficulties that students experience are not to do with access, social isolation or misunderstandings, but are entirely germane to learning about your subject.

KEATS takes on a new centrality during this pandemic. KEATS is not a tool with a single purpose, but a portmanteau of possibilities allowing links and embeds which make it porous to the wider web beyond King's.

For educators KEATS is a design space in which you integrate what you know about your subject, how to teach it, and the technologies you decide to use; this specialist knowledge is expressed in the way you purposefully sequence, title, connect and introduce the elements in your space. For students, this then becomes a representation of their course of study.


CAST - eliminating barriers to learning.


Koehler, M., & Mishra, P. (2009). What is Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK)? Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 9(1), 60–70.