One size doesn't fit all: Pedagogy in the online environment - Volume 1

By Roslin Brennan Research report 14 May 2003 ISBN 1 74096 158 7


How well has traditional teaching practice adapted for online learning? This two-volume report looks at the process of teaching and learning online as well as the function, work and 'art' of a teacher or trainer. Brennan examines the principles and practices which underpin the pedagogy of online delivery from various vantage points and identifies which features most assist student learning. These principles are used to analyse the current practices of online delivery of the VET courses sampled for this study. Volume 2 contains the data and survey material used in the main report.


Executive summary


Vocational education and training (VET) in Australia is increasingly being delivered online. Computer-based technology is supporting and replacing face-to-face training. As this trend continues at an extraordinary pace, questions on the effectiveness of this current practice need to be addressed. This project considers the factors that contribute to sound pedagogy and draws attention to those that require more research.

'Pedagogy' may be defined as the 'art' of teaching and learning. As such, teaching and learning practices influence the design and the delivery of teaching. The small amount of literature on online pedagogy is concerned with the mechanics of design, the process of implementation and an increasing number of evaluations of student outcomes and staff participation, rather than with what makes a quality learning experience.

The teacher's role is critical in the online environment and extensive lists of the skills and attributes of the ideal teacher have been developed. These include technical, facilitation and management skills that need to be combined in particular ways to suit the student, the content and the medium.

Student learning styles and preferences are important determinants in judging the effectiveness of online pedagogy. The content of the material, the structure of the curriculum and the institutional and policy constraints in VET also influence the pedagogy and its effectiveness. Assertions of the medium's capabilities are impressive. Online learning is said to encourage active engagement, facilitate easy access, speed up communication between teacher and learner, provide useful learner choices and create learning environments where learners are able to construct knowledge for themselves as they learn. These capacities undoubtedly exist, but the scope of their effectiveness, take-up rates and the ability of teachers to develop adequate practices to match the capacities is relatively untested.

Online delivery of VET is populated with teachers and learners with very different abilities and predispositions, all operating within the design limitations of course materials. Learners are clear about their expectations. They want a pedagogy predicated on contact, communication, feedback and flexibility. Teachers want the ability to communicate and interact with their students. However, current online delivery imposes assumptions on both teachers and learners that often militate against the realisation of these expectations.

Purpose of the study

The purpose of this study is to examine and make explicit the assumptions and practices which underpin the pedagogy of online delivery of VET.

The objectives of this research project were to:

  • examine a range of current online pedagogical practices in VET and how these intersect with student learning styles and preferences
  • generate a set of 'pedagogical effectiveness indicators' (PEIs) based on these practices and apply them to a range of current course offerings
  • provide a robust body of knowledge in accessible formats which teachers/trainers can use to inform the methods of delivery that they use in VET to maximise the match between student needs and the technology available
  • provide an extensive body of knowledge to be disseminated in a variety of formats which policymakers can use when deciding on the extent and types of technology to fund, and the kinds of staff and student support necessary to ensure that the investment in technology is maximised.


Data from interviews, workshops, focus groups and questionnaires to learners and teachers have been collected from a wide variety of sources in a number of key locations across Australia. Teachers, students, educational designers, policy makers and managers have been involved.


The key messages emerging from the study are as follows:

  • There are a number of principles of pedagogical effectiveness that are clearly expressed by all stakeholders involved in the online delivery of VET. These are:
    • a learner-centred environment
    • constructivist approaches to teaching and learning (approaches enabling learners to build new knowledge and skill based on what they already have)
    • high quality materials design
    • teaching and learning strategies that develop cognitive skills
    • high levels of interactivity between all participants
    • guaranteed and reliable forms of access to the technology
    • quick and easy access to the training site and the online technology
    • engagement with the online materials
    • learning experiences that encourage synthesis and analysis
    • opportunities for 'deep learning'
    • consistent levels of feedback
    • thoughtful matches between materials, learning styles and learning contexts
    • a model of delivery that includes thorough planning, monitoring, reviewing and evaluating course materials and student progress
    • a range of available navigational choices for students
    • teachers who are imaginative, flexible, technologically gymnastic, committed, responsible and expert communicators.
  • Pedagogical practice rarely conforms to these principles. The dominating influence of the technology has created assumptions about the nature of learning, the role of the teacher and the student characteristics, and these are poorly matched with teacher and learner expectations.
  • Teachers are holding firmly to sound principles of pedagogy and students are reiterating the importance of these. Communication, interactivity and the development of social cohesion are regarded as laudable goals in an environment that frequently mitigates against their achievement. A large number of teachers are not only struggling with the demands of rapidly changing technologies, but also with an often unfriendly teaching context that is pre-determined by institutional structures and management practices, course content, material presentation and the nature of the platform that their institution is tied to. It is a credit to teacher/trainer professionalism and dogged persistence that online delivery works as well as it does.
  • The casualisation of the VET teaching workforce may affect the effectiveness of the implementation of online and other flexible approaches. Staff also reported having little time for reflection on their practice. The changing roles of teachers and the way of working both need to be recognised and respected at the institutional level and supported by appropriate professional development.
  • There was general consensus that 'suitability' for online delivery is a relative judgement. Online delivery certainly offers learners flexibility and access to engage with course content. However there is nothing intrinsic to the medium that encourages the broad range of students to take advantage of these features.
  • In areas of VET where the mode of delivery and the content are similar, such as information technology, online delivery provides a form of workplace training that is suitable both to the content and the students. In contrast, teaching and learning areas that require practical tasks or where the processes of communication, critical thinking and values clarification are central to the subject area, such as welfare or travel and tourism, are more difficult.
  • Courses frequently make unequivocal assumptions about learner characteristics. (Students are motivated, literate, well organised and have high order cognitive skills). Often online students do not have these characteristics. In the present environment, suitability is more likely to be achieved in a situation where online learning, content and face-to-face contact are 'blended'.
  • The teaching styles that facilitate effective online delivery of VET are strongly linked to teachers' attitudes and their use of the medium. However, some still assume that the acquisition of technical proficiency will guarantee sound practice.
  • Interactivity is unequivocally regarded as the most effective teacher/student relationship to develop in an online environment. However, the use of the medium to encourage more critical thinking through debate and discussion is a relatively untapped strategy.
  • Problem solving, investigation and research, and the pursuit of a theoretical understanding of content, are regarded as contributing to effective online learning at the individual learner level.
  • The roles and skills of teachers and learners adapt or change, depending on whether the online delivery of VET supplements classroom time or replaces it. In both cases new approaches to time management and work patterns are required.
  • The literacy demands and cultural homogeneity of many online courses and modules raises questions about the adequacy of the skills of students from non-English-speaking backgrounds and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, as well as others with low levels of functional literacy.
  • Fundamental issues such as the cultural appropriateness of questioning, conversational conventions, language acuity, and student attitudes towards interaction with authority take on a heightened importance in an online environment. In face-to-face classrooms, diversity is an asset. In an online environment it may be a distinct disadvantage.

Online pedagogy is frequently characterised as 'constructivist'. However the reality of delivery matches very poorly against the assumptions that underpin this particular view of teaching and learning, which are that individuals 'construct' new knowledge as they integrate new experiences and modify existing patterns. The teaching and learning process needs to acknowledge that students develop their own styles and preferences for learning using a variety of different resources.


The research findings show that, in terms of what we know about the factors that contribute to effective student learning, online pedagogy needs to address all the dimensions of practice.

In particular, online pedagogy in VET needs to be able to create teaching and learning environments where students have the opportunity to:

  • reduce their reliance on text
  • explore and value their intellectual, social and cultural backgrounds
  • develop their knowledge beyond the transmission and assessment of content
  • reflect on their own learning
  • be part of an inclusive learning environment
  • communicate extensively with their peers and their teachers
  • become self-regulated and engaged with their own learning
  • develop a group identity that connects them with their learning and with the broader social environment.



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