The Challenge of Online Learning is Challenge

Introduction: Placing Students at the Center

We know the capacity for good movies to stimulate our curiosity, make us alert, shock us, and tug on our emotions.  Movies are carefully scripted to evoke those audience experiences and maintain our interest.  The script and the production can’t be contrived without careful attention to their impact on the audience.

In higher education, we ought to be thinking about eLearning and our impact on students in a similar way but, evidently, we don’t.  We ought to be thinking about student emotion, curiosity, and motivation. Instead, we focus on content and we appeal to the student’s sense of order, and stability.  We reduce surprise and meet expectations.  In a somewhat cynical sense, it is a transaction.  Students need to know what to expect to plan their time, block out their schedules, and reduce the risk of failure. If they do these things correctly and put in the time, they get credit.

And so, we design accordingly.  As instructors, we introduce ourselves.  We then focus on good housekeeping.  We tell students about the goals and objectives.  We tell them what they are expected to do.  Each assignment has a clear due date and a point value.  And so on.

We think that good eLearning should have few surprises.  Good eLearning should meet all of the criteria of a good housekeeping rubric.  Objectives are stated.  They are measurable.  They align to activities and assessments.  All materials support the goals.  Technical support is identified.  And so on.

And it’s not that these things aren’t important.  It’s just that our rubrics don’t probe the depth of student experience in an online course.  In one quality review rubric, the learning activities occupy only one section.  The goal of active learning is but one essential standard out of many.

Some of our thought leaders decry the present state of online learning.  M. D. Merrill called it shovel-ware.  Michael Allen calls it boring.   Cathy Moore calls it an information dump.  Will Thalheimer says that ‘eLearning has had a reputation for being boring and ineffective at the same time it is wildly hyped by vendors and eLearning evangelists.’


But more and more of higher education is being delivered online.  Students demand it.  So then, what is the remedy to this boring, ineffective, information dump hyped by eLearning evangelists like me?

The critics give us the answers – if we would only listen.  Michael Allen proposes learner challenge as a source of motivation and interest.  M. David Merrill, in his first principles of instructions, puts learner problem solving at the center.  Others have written about discovery or inquiry or active learning or constructivism.  All of these things put the learner at the center, and not the content.  As Michael Allen says, ‘Content is not king.’  No, content is not king; it’s not even prince.

Will Thalheimer, based on his extensive research writes:

In general, providing learners with realistic decision making and authentic tasks, providing feedback on these activities, and spreading repetitions of these activities over time produces large benefits.

So, what can we do as instructors to think in terms of student experiences, active learning, problem-based learning, emotion, curiosity, surprise, novelty, realistic decision making, authentic tasks, constructive feedback, repetition – and all of things that place learners at the center of our design rather than content?

One answer lies in challenge.

Mystery Skull Interactive Challenge

The screenshot below represents an activity that engages students with a challenge designed by the Smithsonian Institute.  In the activity, students drag skulls into boxes, rotate them, and try to identify the species of the skull.  When stumped, students can ask for hints.

The same content without the challenge is covered in hundreds of courses.  You can picture the familiar old pattern. You can anticipate that there would be a topic named ‘Homo Habilis’.  The topic would feature several paragraphs of text, perhaps with pictures, that describe the distinguishing features of this species. Homo Erectus would be dutifully covered and then on to  Neanderthalensis, and Homo Sapiens.  The instructor might even link to the Smithsonian activity.

What if, instead, the instructor designed the course with the challenge at the beginning or at the metaphorical center of the course.  The course content would serve as a resource to help students master the challenge.  In the challenge students examine and compare skulls.  When stumped, they consult the hints – and look up resources.   In this scenario students play an investigative role.  They are immediately challenged and immersed in the heart of the course. Their natural curiosity is piqued.  They experience the ‘pain’ of failure when they make incorrect choices.  Their imaginations are stirred as they role play the scientist.

It may be difficult to imagine instructors designing challenges. The Smithsonian Institute obviously had a budget.  It is evident in the media. The skulls are in 3D.  Students can rotate them.  The interface is beautiful.  The learning object was done in Flash, which took some scripting.

Let’s set aside the media production for a moment. (We’ll return to that in the conclusion.)  Let’s focus first on the value of challenge.  If we had the resources and the creativity to design our courses around a challenge, is there value in that?


Screenshot of Smithsonian Institute Mystery Skull Interactive


CCAF Model

Michael Allen would say there is tremendous value in challenge – and challenge is an important element in his CCAF model of design.  CCAF represents context, challenge, activity and feedback.

The CCAF model should be a source of inspiration to instructors who design online courses.  In brief, CCAF is where the fun and, forgive me, the challenge of instructional design begins.  Let’s explore CCAF for a minute.


What motivates your students?  What is the situation in which they will be able to use and apply the learning?  Your course isn’t some abstract, impractical thing.  It has relevance.  It has meaning.  It will impact your student lives.  It will make a difference. Imagine the context in which these things are true.  Imagine the setting that makes the course material relevant, interesting, appealing, and life-like.

Dr. Linda Rening, an instructional designer, writes “What would the learner see, feel, and experience while he or she performed the correct behaviors?”

In nursing, we might place students in the context of a surgery or an outpatient’s home.  In managerial accounting, we might place students in an organization and ask them to gather and analyze information in support of the organization’s strategic goals.   In history, we might place students in Britain in the 30s, faced with the challenge of appeasement versus aggression.


‘Challenge’ turns traditional course design on its ear.   As I’ve said, many courses follow a tired pattern.  That pattern invites this prescription:  provide housekeeping details, state objectives, present content and assign readings, elicit performance, provide meaningful feedback (sometimes), and assess.

A ‘Challenge’ activity engages students immediately in thinking about the course content and using it in some way – perhaps unsuccessfully at first.  When developed artfully and skillfully, the ‘Challenge’ will immediately cause the learner to ‘feel’ the relevance of the course material and recognize the difference between what they know and don’t know. They will feel pain.   If the ‘Challenge’ presents too little pain, the student may develop a false sense of security about what they know.  If too much pain, the student may be scared off.

Challenge addresses all aspects of motivation.  Challenge causes students to act – to solve problems, to make decisions, to consult resources, etc.  The right level of challenge causes students to persist.  They engage because the challenge is not too easy and not too difficult.  It’s the Goldilocks engagement.  Just the right level.  Finally, Challenge engages students with a level of intensity.  That vigorous engagement promotes retention.  The things we work harder on are those that are remembered.

In a course on public leadership, the challenge might be to write a testimony in support of a provision in a legislative bill.  Students would have to draw upon their knowledge of history, the law, the public sentiment, and other things in support of their testimony.  In computer science, the challenge might be to write code to perform a task in as few lines as possible.   In law enforcement, students might play the role of a parole officer who needs to assess risk of recidivism without offending the client.

In all of these cases, when students are challenged early in the course, they might recognize what they don’t know and be more open to learning.


The challenge connects to activities that students must do to increase their level of knowledge and skill.  In a sense, the challenge provides enough cognitive dissonance to motivate the learner to learn.  Cognitive dissonance is a perceived inconsistency between what the learner knows and ought to know to realize the course outcomes.  That difference leads to discomfort that the learner is motivated to reduce.  Too much dissonance can be debilitating.  The right amount is motivating.

Loosely, Dr. Allen’s CCAF model is like M. D. Merrill’s ‘First Principles of Instruction’, which begins with the principle that learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.   The models are similar in that they are problem-centered. The challenge causes learners to pull in knowledge as needed.  Enough cognitive dissonance is created that motivates learners to seek the resources that will lessen the discomfort of ‘not knowing’.  This is quite different than and an improvement over, for example, a presentation event of instruction. ‘Presentation’ suggests a push to students of relevant information, much like Robert Gagne’s ‘Present the content’ event of instruction.

In sharp contrast, many of our courses are content-centered and not challenge or problem-centered.  Many of our online courses start the same.  Students meet the online instructor through some form of an announcement and then get promptly led to the course housekeeping documents that spell out course title, instructor contact into, course prereqs, description, objectives, reading list, etc.   Another section or document may spell out what is due at what time and for what number of points.  The transaction. Then there’s the boiler plate technical and disability support information and so on.

Before even reaching course content, students have run the gauntlet of course housekeeping information.  One horrific development is that occasionally students will run the gauntlet only to find in the main course content a series of publisher Power Points, interspersed with quizzes and a major project.

A cynic might look upon online courses as entirely transactional.  Students will say ‘if I do the work, I’ll get the grade.’  Or ‘I take online courses because it’s convenient.’   Today’s students balance work, life, family, and … school.  They understand that a certificate or a degree will lead to a job or better pay.  They will exchange their time and effort for earned credits.  They will accrue enough credits to graduate.  And then they will redeem that time and effort in the form of credits for a job or better pay.

Unlike the cynic, our inner instructional designer says that we can create a better learning experience for students online.  Why better?   We can individualize instruction.  We can programmatically add instruction that will help learners overcome obstacles.   We can challenge students in a ‘safe’ environment where their lack of knowledge isn’t exposed.  We can encourage students to take chances without the risk of embarrassment.

Will Thalheimer writes that often online and hybrid courses outperform traditional face-to-face courses.  He asserts that its not the modality of learning that makes the difference.  It is the teaching and learning methods used in the course.

The bottom line is that eLearning in the real world tends to outperform classroom instruction because eLearning programs tend to utilize more effective learning methods than classroom instruction, which still tends to rely on relatively ineffective lectures as the prime instructional method.  (Thalheimer)


Feedback that is detailed and specific and directly related to the learner’s action is a critical element to any learning and particularly important in online instruction.  In the CCAF model, feedback is best when it can be applied to future actions.   Generally, in online learning, students benefit when they receive feedback from one quiz, project or activity that they can apply to the next.   In a CCAF challenge, students act and then receive guiding feedback that will help them with future actions.

So how do I apply CCAF to my course?

Briefly, a strategically placed challenge toward the beginning of the course might provide the level of motivation that causes students to act, to persist, and to work toward their goals with intensity.  This challenge might be in the form of a case study, or a decision-making scenario or an analysis.

Early challenges can be holistic and realistic.  By holistic, I mean that they resemble life itself and bring together the entire scope of the course in terms of facts, principles, rules, concepts, and problems.   Developmental challenges can be more focused on some subset of the course — building skill that can be later applied to the holistic challenge.  Students should get better at repeated attempts as they draw upon the course content.  Realistic challenges should help students transfer skills from the classroom to the real world.

Returning to the Fossil Challenge

Granted, the Smithsonian Institute Fossil Challenge is both engaging and beautifully designed.   But its real value is in getting students to think.  Low tech alternatives can equally engage students.

All instructors with a little ingenuity have the tools available to them.  With the following skills, one can incorporate challenges into learning management system content pages:

  • Creative Story telling
  • Editing and Importing of Images
  • Editing and Importing of audio
  • Creating Hyperlinks
  • Embedding Web 2.0 content from cloud-based applications


Instead of rotating objects, for example, instructors can embed a SlideShare viewer into their course or creatively display a series of photos in a film strip.

In the example below, still photos were dropped into a PowerPoint Online template, saved to a public OneDrive folder,  and then embedded into a course.



Screenshot of PowerPoint Online Template, which can be saved to a OneDrive public folder and embedded into a content page



Context, Challenge, Activity, and Feedback are all critical to motivational and effective online learning.  Online instructors can reorganize their courses with the contextually relevant challenge at the center of the course, complete with activities and feedback to build student skill.  Most of the ingenuity is in the story telling, the setting up of scenarios, and enabling students to make choices.    If challenges cause students to think or to be motivated to learn more, then the online course will be effective and students will benefit.