The Effectiveness of Online Learning Depends on Design

As students of all ages spend more time learning online, it’s worth asking, “How effective is online learning?” The answer varies dramatically and depends entirely on the design of the online learning experience.

For the purpose of this blog, I will use the lens of situated learning theory, introduced by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, to examine the potential effectiveness of online learning. Situated learning theory asserts that learning happens as a result of doing things that are “situated in” our lives providing an authentic context for that learning. Activity, context, and culture are central to this learning theory, which emphasizes the practical over the abstract. When people tackle everyday challenges, they learn. This suggests that learning must be directly tied to the learner’s day-to-day experience. However, if humans learn by participating in their lives then how can online learning be effective?

I believe online learning can be situated; however, the design of online learning must take into considerations four aspects of learning:

  1. Content
  2. Context
  3. Community of Practice
  4. Participation


Learning must prioritize the application, not retention, of information and skills in a real-world setting. The more learning is grounded in the students’ everyday experience, the more relevant and meaningful it will be. Too often the information students are asked to read and engage with online is abstract and unrelated to their lives. Instead, learning should be focused on real-life challenges.

I’ve seen several online tools and resources that do a nice job of connecting learning to life. YummyMath asks students to apply math to real-world situations involving food, sports, weather, movies and entertainment, and art. Similarly, KQED’s Do Now and StudySync’s Blasts present current events and issues for students to encourage them to connect what they are learning in school to their lives beyond the classroom.


Information and “knowledge needs to be presented in authentic contexts — settings and situations that would normally involve that knowledge.” When learning happens in context, it reflects a time, place, and culture. Learning in context makes that learning more relevant and applicable to life.

This is the aspect of the situated learning theory that seems most challenging to achieve online. However, the potential of immersive virtual reality learning may create opportunities for learners to learn in context. There are already educational institutions using virtual reality to place learners in a real-life scenario to apply their knowledge and skills. In fact, virtual reality simulation training is being used to recreate a hospital ward for student nurse education (Elliman, Loizou, and Loizides, 2016).

For teachers without access to virtual reality equipment and software, there are virtual online tours like the ones offered by the Smithsonian National of Natural History Museum or the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) interactive destination tour for kids. Although these virtual offerings create “context” for the learning, it is not reflective of the students’ day to day lives.

Community of Practice

Wenger, McDermott, and Synder define communities of learning as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (p.4). This definition emphasizes the need for community, connection, and engagement. For learning online to be effective, students must communicate, collaborate, and develop knowledge together.

Online learning must prioritize the development of a community of practice by leveraging tools to encourage students to connect asynchronously and synchronously. Asynchronous online discussions and discussion boards are already staples in online learning; however, their effectiveness is dependent on the instructor’s ability to design dynamic prompts and the participants’ ability to engage in a substantive way.

Adding video conferencing tools, like Zoom, Google Hangout, or Skype, to online learning allows for a more immediate and human connection. These tools encourage interaction, relationship building, and collaboration more effectively than tools that only allow for text interactions online.


The individual participants in a community of practice will engage at different levels depending on their motivation for joining the learning community or the length of time they have been part of the community. The goal of online learning must be to increase participation to ensure that students are regularly exchanging ideas and learning from one another. The more online learning speaks to the participants’ interests and passions, the more likely they are to engage with the content and each other.

Incentivizing participation may also yield higher levels of participation. Some online learning uses a badging system to create a rewards system for participation. This may be helpful at the start of an online community, but the reward of learning via participation will be the true long-term incentive for participation. The more value students gain from participating in an online course and with each other, the more likely they are to continue participating.



Elliman, J., Loizou, M., & Loizides, F., “Virtual Reality Simulation Training for Student Nurse Education,” 2016 8th International Conference on Games and Virtual Worlds for Serious Applications (VS-GAMES), Barcelona, 2016, pp. 1-2. doi: 10.1109/VS-GAMES.2016.7590377

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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3 Responses to The Effectiveness of Online Learning Depends on Design

  1. Sometimes I think what we see now as online learning will be examined as nascent artifacts. I say that to acknowledge my struggle to consistently evolve my design. But it is also a special time where failing, as long as you fail forward, is acceptable. Until different goals (than knowledge retention) become valued by all school leaders we have the opportunity to fail forward. This is the time to try different designs to push everybody forward.

  2. Howdy Penny. I see you are using the communities of practice and communities of learning interchangeably. I think these are very different. Please let me know if you are interested if hearing my opinion. Best, G

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