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We explore four big ideas that serve as foundational knowledge for both course development and teaching. Each will be brought to bear as you learn the ropes of designing for and teaching online.

How we learn

Physical brain

The human brain is a wondrous thing to behold. Here we describe, in summary fashion, the essentials of brain function: anatomy, blood supply, neural networks, neurons and glial cells, brainwaves, neurotransmitters, and genes. Be ready for some surprises! We move from the macro to the micro.

Processes supporting learning

One level up from the physical brain, we look into all the processes occurring within the brain that support learning and adaptation: neuroplasticity, memory, affect (emotions), consciousness, cognition and metacognition, sleep, multitasking and parallel processing, habits and expertise. We also examine the impact of aging on these processes and, finally, provide a summary by following these processes from initial perception to long-term remembering.

Learning theories

Theories of learning describe how people learn, and are the bases upon which teaching strategies are built. We review four major theories prominent today.

  • Behaviorism
  • Cognitivism
  • Constructivism
  • Connectivism

Core concepts

Language of learning

Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning objectives has proven useful for discussing and applying levels of learning and learning domains since it was introduced in the 1950’s. Continually updated through practice and research, the taxonomy operationalizes the “higher order thinking” so demanded in modern education today.

  • Cognitive domain
  • Affective domain
  • Psychomotor domain
  • Interpersonal domain
  • Perceptual domain

Efficiency in learning

Based in cognitive load theory, efficiency in learning focuses on leveraging human cognitive processes to make learning more effective and efficient by designing the theory’s guidelines into instruction. A basic premise is that, as learners gain expertise, instructional methods must also change.

Learning communities

A basic assertion of constructivism, with which we agree, is that learning is at least partially social in nature. Not only does social learning fulfill the need for dialogue and exposure to multiple perspectives, it also supports the human need for belonging and being a part of something larger than oneself. Online, creating and nurturing an online learning community is the best approach for meeting these needs. However, the sense of community doesn’t arise naturally in most cases, and must be deliberately structured and managed.


Standards set forth technical, quantity, and quality expectations for educational experiences. They establish a baseline of suitability. Two of the most important standards involve “what must be included” – content, and “how it is to be delivered” - quality requirements.

Quality requirements

Research tells us that some characteristics of design and methods of delivery bring about higher student outcomes. The most researched and used set of quality requirements is published by the Quality Matters organization. Other widespread sets of standards come from David Merrill, Chico State University, the annual Blackboard Exemplary Course competition and, for job training, the Thalheimer Course Review Template.

Universal learning outcomes

The value of an education, both K-12 and higher education, has come under question in the United States. The argument states that high school graduates are ill equipped for college or work, and college graduates are also ill equipped for work. This perception has resulted in numerous efforts to identify the knowledge and skills all students should possess by the time they graduate. The National Governors Association has responded with the Common Core State Standards, focusing on the K-12 level. Many colleges and universities have responded by creating their own set of undergraduate learning outcomes, and there is the nascent Degree Qualifications Profile promoted by the Lumina Foundation.

Philosophy of teaching and learning

Personal philosophy of teaching and learning

A personal philosophy of teaching and learning contains a set of statements that reflects our personal beliefs about the purpose of learning, how people learn best, and how best to facilitate learning. This belief system guides our actions and choices as we go about designing and teaching learning experiences. Even when our beliefs are not entirely consistent and perhaps internally contradictory, articulating them and subjecting them to examination serves to clarify our thinking and lay the foundation for a more complete philosophy.

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