Course Development

Three Threshold Concepts in Online Learning Design

03/28/18   |  
Christine Lewinski, Ed.D. and Reinhardt Suarez

This is the second in a blog series by Keypath’s Director of Faculty Engagement, Christine Lewinski, Ed.D. and Reinhardt Suarez, a Keypath Instructional and Interactive Learning Designer.

In this blog, we continue a conversation about working with faculty as they build online course development into their teaching practice. What can those who are new to online course design learn from faculty who have engaged in the process? From our collaboration with faculty, three threshold concepts appear consistently. 

Threshold Concept 1: An online course, prepared in advance can engage learners with fresh ideas and spontaneous creativity.

Threshold Concept 2: Online learning enables students to learn collaboratively by emphasizing specially-tailored shared experiences that require active engagement, rather than passive lecture.

Threshold Concept 3:  Online learning can be equal to or in some cases richer than face-to-face teaching.

The experiential findings for each of these threshold concepts follow. 

Threshold Concept 1: An online course, prepared in advance can engage learners with fresh ideas and spontaneous creativity.

It is easy to assume that online courses lack the spontaneity of in-person courses because online courses are largely constituted of ready-made materials. In some cases, this assumption is correct.

However, it is not a rule, and faculty—subject matter experts—should understand how much sway they have in imbuing a course with creative energy.

The title “subject matter expert” is not a ceremonial one. Instructional designers are by necessity jacks of all trades, combining an understanding of educational principles with various levels of technological know-how. While they are adept at picking up bits and pieces of knowledge, a subject matter expert is the arbiter of what, when, and how (with consultation) content is presented to the student. 

What this requires in the conceptual stages of course development is focus and direction. Subject matter experts help instructional designers hone in on what precisely the readings and assignments are supposed to accomplish, and explain that to a learner, preferably as a conversation. 

This process takes and deserves time, but the more you are invested in reinterpreting your own content, the better the learning and teaching experience.

From the foundation of the design comes the opportunity to build upon it using innovative multimedia tools that aren’t normally present in the classroom. 

Instructional designers encourage faculty to think about those activities in the classroom that have, in the past, been too unwieldy to entertain. 

With a change of venue—from physical space to the online space—those activities become perfect avenues to pursue more emergent learning. Think about it—suddenly faculty have the full ability to orchestrate video, audio, and data-driven media to maximize the educational possibilities in whatever subject they are teaching.

These tools forge new ways to teach old lessons. When this has fallen into place, faculty have shared that the months spent building a course go quickly. They understand that the ultimate quality of a course, and the fun they have teaching it, is proportional with the amount of energy, effort, and attention they devote to the process.

Threshold Concept 2: Online learning enables students to learn collaboratively by emphasizing specially-tailored shared experiences that require active engagement, rather than passive lecture.

It may seem like things don’t make as much sense online as they do in the classroom, and that is because the best teachers often enjoy performing and are good at it. They control the story and how it’s told. 

As backward as it sounds, one key to creating an effective online course is first to imagine your classroom without you in it. When you remove the event of a physical class, instruction spreads out across more time and potentially across multiple devices. Temporal, spatial, and contextual control blur. 

You may join the course at 8:00 AM from your computer every morning, but your student getting off the second shift is logging on at 4:00 PM on their phone. You may not be there when a student needs you the most. 

This is why so much time is spent during the development process, anticipating student needs and setting up the scaffold for learning. 

Earlier perspectives on distance learning regarded the learning process as a one-way transmission of knowledge done in the absence of a teacher—or anyone else for that matter. Subsequent traditions of distance learning are not as focused on the individual. Instead, constructivist views emphasize social interaction and the influence of context on the way we develop new knowledge.   

In contemporary views of online learning, instructor presence is crucial to student learning and satisfaction. Presence helps to overcome the "disconnnectedness" of online learning, creating instead a sense of community and belonging.  Infusing social presence helps a class operate with more trust and purpose as they get to know each other as people. Cognitive presence engages students in authentic contexts for learning, modeling roles they hope to assume in “real life.” Teaching presence guides, mentors and mediates and is shown to be a significant predictor of student satisfaction.  

Think of it this way. Online, you’re not always there but you are always present. You won’t be online all the time. Tools and resources can simulate your presence when you’re offline. 

Threshold Concept 3:  Online learning can be equal to or in some cases richer than face-to-face teaching.

Across all the threshold concepts is the idea that transforming content for online learning starts with thinking differently about teaching. 

Some faculty assert: I don’t want students to miss out on anything I would offer in a face to face class. The instinct to maximize the exposure to supplemental texts as well as your own insights is understandable.

What the face-to-face classroom benefits from is common space, time, and context. In a classroom setting, real-time immersion is done through lecture, discussion, and presentation (both by you and your students). 

Simply put, with maximal control of the time and location and willing students, you and your students can have a shared experience. 

In our last blog, we talked about the classroom as the starting point for conversations about online learning design. Many times, we hear the statement, “This is how I do it in the classroom,” which is fine and a good reference for us. 

That means that the activity you are describing has been tried before in an educational setting (hopefully successfully). Many instructors view successful online course design as an emulation of what they experience in their classrooms.

What if we thought instead of all those times activities didn’t work in the classroom—all the plans aborted and well-intended but poorly executed lessons. Instead of thinking about including everything you’d do face-to-face, consider curation. 

Faculty have confirmed that overloading a page with text-based information does not lead to more of that information being absorbed by the student. 

Studies point to the screen-based text as less “sticky” than paper texts ( 

Interactive learning, which internet technology is well-equipped to enable can be a much more effective methodology to help students learn and retain lessons (   

To tap online learning’s true potential, learning designers and faculty both must ask the questions, “What can we do now that we could not do before?” and “How can we do what we’ve always done better?” The tools afforded by the online classroom can help answer these questions in novel, path-breaking ways.


While certainly not exhaustive, at Keypath these are the concepts we’re talking about with our partner faculty. Beyond a class and outside of time is where online students participate in learning. Identifying threshold concepts helps to balance our discussions of new digital learning frontiers. They help us talk about both what we can and cannot do in a physical classroom. They help us see asynchronicity as a strength rather than a weakness. They help us imagine learning beyond the walls of a classroom. Do any these thresholds resonate for you and your faculty? 


Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2011). Three Generations of Distance Education Pedagogy. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 12(3), 1-9. Retrieved from

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D., & Archer, W. (2001, September). Assessing Teaching Presence in a Computer Conferencing Context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2), 1-17. Retrieved from COI:

Beer, C., Clark, K., & Jones, D. (2010). Indicators of engagement. ascilite (pp. 75-86). Sydney: Australasia Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education.

Garrison, D. (2007). Online Community of Inquiry Review: Social, Cognitive, and Teaching Presence Issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(1), 61-72.