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How to read an online course

Gilly Salmon Five Phases

Fig.1 Gilly Salmon’s ‘Five Stage Model’ for e-learning

How can you assess what makes an online course from something so complex and varied?

The answer is to think through the components that are likely to be there, or need to be there, in every session, or phase of the learning.

During the Master of Arts Open and Distance Education (MAODE) that I took through The Open University (entirely online), we often created and used flowcharts of various forms. This appealed to me. Keep it simple.

Gilly Salmon was the star of the moment. For a while she was the queen of all things ‘e’ from e-learning to e-moderators and her eponymous’e-tivities’. That was a few years ago. As I predicted when I started the MAODE in 2010 the expression ‘e-learning’ would soon be reduced to ‘learning’ – out context is digital in 2016, is mobile too – it is learning whether done at a desk with a book, in a class face to face, or on your smart phone during the daily commute.

Gilly Salmon has a system called ‘The Five phases’ delightfully explained in a Blue Style presented video from Swinburne University.

I love it. Though in one of her books or papers, I forget which, she did liken learning online to building not with Lego, but with Lego ‘Technics’. In this video she uses kids’ coloured wooden building blocks.

I’ve gone along with this so that the system can be moderated and applied to the online learning that I am always doing: currently on Search Engine Optimisation (Coursera), Photography (Coursera) and French (Rosetta Stone). As well as the MAODE, and two further MAODE modules I did ‘to complete the set’, I have done some 27 other courses on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs, First World War history, Climate Change, Arts in Medicine and much, more much.

Each course is made with familiar ingredients, though the recipe and outcome is always different. Some do it better than others. Some are poor. All could be better. Most will improve as the science behind learning online informs the educators where they are doing wrong. This is particularly the case I have found with Coursera who are on missions to analyse, research, share and improve every course that they offer.

Gilly Salmon 5 Phase Flowchart

Gilly Salmon 5 Phase Flowchart

Fig 2. Gilly Salmon’s ‘Five Stage Model’ simplified.

This is how Gilly Salmon’s model looks laid out left to right. A softly softly opening with human intervention leads to every so slightly more involved learning and ends with a test or assignment of some kind.

Model of Phase OneFig 3. How the building blocks are used. I would go further and give each shape meaning too.

The blue row represents people, an associate lecturer at the Open University, or a moderator. This, though ‘distance learning’ is more akin to ‘blended learning’ – this component of human involvement from the course tutors limits its scalability. Increasingly this blue row is fulfilled by the green row. The green row represents the technical side of things: the learning management system, the design and other digital support, easiest with copious and user-friendly ‘frequently asked questions’ (FAQs).

My own take on this is different.

This I take from the numerous online courses I have taken: starting in fact with one of the original Master of Arts Open and Distance Learning (MAODL) courses from the OU in 2001. I have taken multiple courses with FutureLearn, with Coursera, a few from Open Learn, specialist one-offs on MOOCs from various providers and language learning with Rosetta Stone (French and Spanish).

Ideal Supported 6 Phase Flowchart

Ideal Supported 6 Phase Flowchart

Fig 4. My own version of the ‘ideal’ e-learning or online course

Here, I have followed the same patterns and approach to suggest what I understand to be best practice for a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in 2016. For a start, the blue row should not be thought of as a person. The course design, the platform, ought to be intuitive enough and easy enough to follow without the need, for all the support and education benefits, of anyone from the course design team. How could a senior lecturer or professor engage with 10,000 or more students in any case. Far better to have the means for students to engage with each other. And where ‘constructed learning’ through collaboration is required maybe have self-selected and vetted student moderators taking an active role moderating forums and discussion threads: seeding conversations, acting as a catalyst for discussion and debate …

Of significant difference, from a learning design point of view, I introduce testing almost immediately. Simple testing, with a well-designed multiple-choice quiz for example, sets the tone for later, gets students engaged, and will build knowledge and familiarity with one assessment approach that should become a regular feature, and increasingly challenging as the module progresses. At Coursera learners are expected to gain an 80% grade in the formal assessments or not progress. You can, and have to repeat these, sometimes multiple times, going back over course materials three or four times even – this is what learning is about: not progressing until you have the concept in your head.

There’s a new row or column that needs to be added to this: monetization. In most cases these courses need to pay for two reasons: from a learning point of view people who pay for their course upfront are more likely to completed; from a funding perspective the creators of these platforms need to show a return. There are ample ways to make a course available free to the worthy.

Here’s some detail on each of these phases:

JFV Phase One MAX

Learning Online Phase Two JFV

Learning Online Phase Two JFV

Online Learning Phase Three JFV

Online Learning Phase Four JFV

Online Learning Phase Four JFV

Phase Five Online Learning

My aim is to develop a system to analyse online courses I do or have done.

I’m not looking for a ‘magic formula’ but rather simple indicators that can be shared with educators during the design phase, or when appraising a course after its first ‘presentation’ so that faults can be understood and fixed, strengths developed and repeated.



  1. Kevin says:

    Interesting, although the blocks are a distracting gimmick (for me), perhaps you could expand horizontally and create a ‘maturity model’ as well to help course designers by having an objective/ external review of the progress towards an ideal standard?

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Thank you for posting and sharing your thoughts. I quite agree that the model can be developed further and that for practical reasons, though not in a blog, horizontal works best. The aim is to keep it simple, however if this can be done while including this element of ‘maturity’ that should be done. Perhaps you could illustrate how this would be achieved.

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