Jessica Rizk and Amy Kaufman – Revisiting the research: What does good online learning look like?

Faculty and staff at Ontario’s postsecondary institutions demonstrated Herculean dedication and diligence when they transitioned their face-to-face courses to online and remote delivery in only a matter of days this past March. Despite an impressive collective effort, the virtual learning experienced by many students did not reflect the best-case scenario of planned, intentional, universally designed and expertly facilitated online learning. However, the COVID-19 pandemic can serve as an important learning opportunity and with some adequate training, resources and mindfulness, online learning experiences can be greatly improved in the future.

When online education is done well — that is, when it is designed to be student centred and supported by sound pedagogy — it produces learning that is on par with face-to-face instruction. Which is good news, considering that many Canadian postsecondary institutions are planning for most instruction to remain online in the fall.

To assist institutions with their plans for the coming academic year, we went back to the research to remind ourselves exactly what we mean when we talk about excellent online learning. Here, we share a series of high-level principles and best practices for online teaching and learning in the postsecondary context.

Pedagogically focused

Good online teaching puts pedagogy first. What are the learning outcomes or goals of each lesson, and what tools can help achieve them? With so many digital tools available (e.g., Zoom, Teams, Blackboards) it is important to not get distracted by the medium and forget the role of intentional instruction when choosing a platform. Technology is only a tool; how instructors employsuch tools is what really matters for student outcomes.

Interactive and engaging

Good online courses provide multiple ways for students to interact together and participate. Opportunities for engagement are particularly important for students who may be in different locations and time zones. Tools and approaches can and should look different for each course. Using chat functions, creating drop-in virtual meetings or even using asynchronous tools like Padlet to build a community of learners remotely can allow students different entry points for participation. Creating opportunities for students and instructors to learn from one another has the potential to further engage students in the course material.

Student centred

Allowing students agency, flexibility, different types of interactions and options for demonstrating their learning is key to good online learning. Permitting students to have some choices throughout the course — for instance, offering multiple forms of assessment (e.g., take-home exams, final papers, video submissions) — can really elevate a good course to a great one. Good online learning also provides multiple check-in points to see where students are at and makes adjustments as necessary to support their needs.


Good online instruction is built upon the premise that students have differing needs, strengths and abilities when it comes to online learning. Online learning can be particularly challenging for students with disabilities or other learning needs. When course designers and instructors employ a universal design mindset and keep accessibility issues top of mind, they create a more inclusive learning space for students. This is now more important than ever, as students engage in learning away from traditional campus supports. HEQCO has been thinking a lot about this topic and how to better support students with accessibility needs in the fall term and beyond.


Good online courses take time to build. For many faculty and students, online learning is a new and potentially intimidating experience. Instructors and students alike need to be patient, flexible and willing to collaborate in order to learn from those who are more familiar with this type of learning space.

The great news is that colleges and universities across the country are employing these very principles and practices as they prepare for an unprecedented approach to postsecondary education this fall. We extend our kudos to those working hard to make this pivot. By continuing to draw on the expertise of staff, faculty and students, we remain hopeful that together, we will create and develop an online learning experience that is responsive, flexible and accessible to all learners.

Jessica Rizk is a Researcher and Amy Kaufman is Director of Research, Policy and System Improvement at HEQCO.

One reply on “Jessica Rizk and Amy Kaufman – Revisiting the research: What does good online learning look like?”

Another positive outcome with increasing online learning will be that parents, teachers, school administrators and ministry funders will become more aware that the traditional “teacher centred, time based” educational paradigm is not and never was an optimal universal model for schooling/learning. On line learning lends itself to competency-based, individualized learning that allows the individual learner to proceed at their own rate of learning (not school time based), demonstrate skill when ready and proceed through the curriculum at an individual pace. Surely, when this pandemic has gone, education/government economists will realize that this new paradigm for organizing schools/learning is more efficient, more effective and more economical than a return to the antiquated “sage on the stage” approach. For an exploration, admittedly dated, of this new approach to institutional learning see: The Canadian Vocational Association (CVA) research report: CRSP: Canadian Restructured School Plan available on the CVA website.

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