The value of online education: How teachers can boost an engaging student experience.

As COVID-19 causes a monumental shift online, Melbourne School of Professional and Continuing Education’s (MSPACE) General Manager, Owen Shemansky, and Learning Designer David Seignior offer their insight into the true value of an online education. They demonstrate how today’s teachers can combine academic rigour with play to promote peer-to-peer social engagement and help students to thrive in a digitally transformed world, shaking off the old ‘distance learning’ stereotypes that no longer apply.

Reflecting on his own experience of an online degree, Shemansky says it was very much a ‘duplication’ of a traditional face-to-face course, delivered online.

Lecture slides were uploaded, along with half of a crackly lecture audio, and I was left to fend for myself for six years.

As a self-motivated student he survived the experience, but acknowledges that many people’s perceptions of online education are still shaped by previous practices like this.

Seignior agrees, “most people's experience of online learning – or e-learning as it used to be called – was very much ‘click through, read the text, answer the multiple-choice question and move on’. And it was completely self-directed and potentially quite isolating.”

Both experts agree that contemporary, well-designed online education moves well beyond these old models into an experience defined by:

  • Social presence: the idea of learning together
  • Cognitive presence: the knowledge you’re sharing
  • Teacher presence: where teachers curate content and facilitate engagement.1

Seignior emphasises that teachers who are new to online education shouldn’t feel intimidated by the technology. While the technology does provide enormous opportunities, the pedagogical perspective is always paramount.

“You need to put the pedagogy (or andragogy for adult learning) before the technology... good teaching practices in face-to-face teaching apply in an online context as well.”

He believes there are three essential elements to successful online teaching:

  1. You facilitate
  2. You encourage collaboration
  3. You curate.

Shifting the teaching mindset to online

It takes courage for teachers to transform their practice online, and, as Seignior highlights, “you’re never going to get it perfectly right the first time”.

The beauty of teaching, whether face-to-face or online, however, is that you get an instant feedback loop – so you can learn from each experience and adapt.

Shemansky believes that many of the issues people may have had with online learning stem from digital experiences which have tried to replicate teaching and learning in the physical world.

While a two-hour brainstorming workshop might be incredibly engaging in the physical world, a two-hour video conference can be tiring and counterproductive.

A well-crafted online experience will instead look at the desired outcomes and map a new path to achieving those outcomes, which makes the most out of the format and our capacity to communicate remotely.

“We know for example that chunking learning is an effective method in the instructional design toolkit”, he says, so it might be that the two-hour workshop could be replaced with a 15 minute collaborative “burst”, followed by a digital storyboarding tool and a group review session.

It’s really about adapting your teaching and learning approach to the environment.

“I don't think there are any shortcomings of online education relative to education in the physical world, but it does require a shift in thinking and a level of curiosity for new ways to create knowledge with learners”, Shemansky notes.

Then, he highlights, there are enormous opportunities for online education.

“Using all of the available collaboration tools and incorporating rich multimedia to demonstrate concepts provides huge possibilities online.

“It takes more time to develop, definitely, but it's also fantastically scalable and flexible, plus it gives educators excellent resources to lean on and helps them demonstrate concepts in highly engaging ways.”

Flipping the classroom approach

Reinforcing the idea of a mindset shift, Seignior encourages teachers to flip their classroom approach to get the most out of more limited face-to-face and synchronous opportunities (eg live webinars) in online learning, and to manage limited concentration spans online.

“The flipped classroom approach works really well. You get the students ahead of time to do a lot of the hard work in terms of reading and preparing.

“Then you really optimise the time you've got in a face-to-face or webinar context to actually drill down and get deeper insights from the students.

“You can use that format to tease out ideas and get them to practice while they have you there with them.”

This approach can also help to weave together the principles of social, cognitive and teacher presence, which underpin a successful online education experience.

Peer support can thrive online

Amid the pivot to complete online course delivery, Shemansky senses a concern from educators, students and the community that online study won’t be able to offer the same peer support as traditional models.

On the contrary, Shemansky says that “well-constructed online experiences don’t have to be like that at all. In fact, they privilege the social cohort experience and put that at the forefront.”

Whether it be through peer assessments, group projects, discussion boards, or some of the innovative new collaboration-tools, teachers can find numerous ways to help promote social engagement for students.

“I think that the fears about peer engagement are unjustified, as long as people are willing to engage in different ways. COVID-19 will only accelerate our familiarity and comfort with these tools.”

Seignior highlights the value of ‘purposeful play’ to promote peer engagement, while also creating an openness to experiment, be creative, and explore.

In learning to try things together – and for those things to potentially fail – students lose their inhibitions and fear of failure.

This in turn enables them to actually try something different.

He suggests teachers can model this through “showing vulnerability, showing a willingness to be open, to not know everything, to explore and to learn with the students”.

Collaboration through group projects online can be an effective way to activate a sense of play, while also mirroring life in a modern workplace – infusing diverse experiences and “combinational thinking”.

Could the student experience emerge reformed?

Shemansky sees the COVID-19 situation as “absolutely monumental... nothing short of seismic for Australia.”

Yet, despite the challenges in moving so rapidly to online, he believes this experience will prove “a giant leap forward for the entire sector” as it forces everyone to adapt and puts the student experience sharply into focus.


1. Garrison, D.R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

NOTE:  Some of David Seignior’s quotes were taken from the This teaching life podcast, recorded in April 2020.

Cui, X,. & Seignior, D. (2020). This teaching life: Online learning can be more interactive than face-to-face. Here is why [podcast]. Retrieved from:

This article is part of a series of articles from the Melbourne School of Professional and Continuing Education focusing on the transition to online learning.