Online Learning Is Not The Problem, Bad Design Is

Before Claiming That Online Learning Sucks, Remember That Poor Design Leads to Poor Outcomes

Luis Alvarado
The Faculty


Man typing on Laptop with Coffee

Let’s get real for a moment, there is a lot of complaints within the education news cycle on the benefits of online learning. This sentiment is fueling schools to open up even among rising cases throughout the country. The experience of online learning does not have to reflect the current state, and schools should not disregard this modality as one that students/parents are not willing to pay for.

Simply placing content and quizzing students with various assessments will no longer suffice for creating an online course. Where is the community? Where is exploration? Where is the opportunity to create? These are some of the important questions instructors should be asking themselves. Course design takes time and no one should be judging the quality of digital learning by looking at a rushed Spring 2020 semester.


When students first step foot in college for many it is an opportunity to begin the journey of independence, and the main factor in this feeling is belonging to a community. Many universities take it for granted that the community is easily built when students live, learn, and grow amongst one another within residence halls. However, this all changes when we don’t share a physical space. As this quarantine has perfectly illustrated being away from people can lead to a loneliness that can get exacerbated by traumatic home situations. Although institutions can’t fix domestic inequalities, it can provide refuge to talk about these situations and help a student feel heard. If we treat our online classrooms more like safe spaces and less like courtrooms, we can help heal some of our most vulnerable student populations.

A community can also include fun as well, and these challenging times make laughter an incredible form of medicine. Not everything in your course has to be serious, some of the highest performing teams in the corporate world make sure to play as hard as they work. Designing opportunities to connect with your students in a casual way will help them navigate this new modality and also open up more possibilities of reaching out when they have questions or concerns. The best digital community that I was able to design incorporated real-world scenarios and grouped students together to solve real business problems as a company/team. Online learning needs to provide opportunities for building community, without it, students are simply learning on their own and no one wants to pay a premium for a youtube version of education.


The basis of learning is the scientific method and the first part of that journey is coming up with a hypothesis. As much as a structure is important within online learning, so is the opportunity to explore. Give yourself room within your digital course to allow your students to explore the content, but also additional opportunities to let your students contribute to the course as an evolving space. This could be as simple as creating a syllabus together as a class that includes a collective code of conduct. Additionally, maybe your topic inspires students to explore further, try to provide a space where students can contribute whether it be resources or personal stories. Any shared document along with tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams would work great for developing this type of sharing.

Your job as the instructor in this digital age is not to know it all, but rather to help your students critically decipher what knowledge is best to be utilized via the internet. Digital literacy should be the bedrock of every online course and allowing for exploration will help you the instructor navigate this new normal with your students. One of the courses I help designed included a scavenger hunt at the beginning of the semester to allow students to get acquainted with the interface, but it also allowed them to understand the policies and expectations that the instructor had for the course.


The highest level of learning according to Bloom’s Taxonomy is the ability for learners to create. Instead of thinking that the end of a course needs a final exam, we should seek instead to allow opportunities for learners to create something new with the knowledge that was given. Having creation in mind could help you design a course with all assignments culminating in the final project. What would you want your learners to be able to do at the end of the course? Surely the answer shouldn’t be to ace an exam and it is important to spend some time thinking about what the course accomplishes.

I’ve been fortunate to collaborate on many types, of online courses, both within corporate and higher education settings and the best part is always discussing what the end goals should be. The only reason we learn is so that we can DO. The “DO” is the most important part of the equation and you can get creative on accomplishing this in the digital classroom. Many jobs are now working digitally and provide perfect examples of potential deliverables that work for many different subjects. Whether this includes a webinar, team report, simulations, and even a shared living status report could all be great examples of “Create”. One of the most interesting deliverables I’ve been a part of included students giving a virtual tour of their favorite East Asian location, where they had to point out unique historical facts and talk as if they were there. Note: this was a completely online course, where none of the students went to East Asia.


Online learning does not suck, but bad learning design does! When students are complaining about the online learning experience they are complaining about the lack of opportunities within the areas mentioned above. UX/UI design has become a staple of new technology and some of these principles are important to remember when we create our online courses. Instructors and Instructional Designers need to place themselves in the perspective of the students. More time needs to be spent focusing on how you can get learners doing and less time reading/listening.

Digital learning can meet the demands of today’s students, but only if it is created with best practices in mind. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is not going anywhere and the move to online will continue to be under a microscope. Institutions must be prepared for this next round of digital learning. Everything about our current situation screams that the old way of doing things is no longer sufficient and we must continue to innovate in all facets to help prepare learners for what is and what will be.



Luis Alvarado
The Faculty

Digital Learning Designer @AmericanUniversity | Writer @TheFaculty | Inherently Floridian