Introduction to TEL

Day 5: Beyond the physical – Online learning spaces

Insofar, we’ve been talking about learning spaces in the context of physical spaces. However, we are increasingly reliant on online means to teach and communicate with students – using emails, forums, tweets, etc. Unlike the supporting role online spaces used to be, they are now vital to successful learning, taking on a co-lead role in higher education teaching.

Consider Radcliffe’s (2009, p. 13) diagram about the relationship between pedagogy, space and technology:

Pedagogy-space-technology framework
Diagram of the pedagogy-space-technology framework

This diagram highlights how pedagogy, space, and technology mutually shape each other. The pedagogical and technological aspects cannot be separated from spatial considerations, even when relying on virtual or technology-enhanced learning. Virtual environments themselves are “learning spaces”, whether they be the learning management systems (LMS), social media, or cloud-based services, as they allow us to move within the sites, navigating between content and interaction.

In this post, we will briefly discuss the affordances of online learning spaces and how we can design them to compliment teaching and learning within physical spaces.

What can an online learning space look like?

The online space takes on a character of its own. Similar to physical spaces, it speaks to us and conveys messages on how we expect students to use the space or learn within it. Each learning space, based on its configuration and level of control (i.e. who can design and edit what and when), allows and encourages different types of learning experiences. 

Formal online learning space – This is a course site on our University’s LMS. The structure and language (e.g. “Module One”) prompt students to go through the course linearly, suggesting a more didactic and teacher-led style of learning.


Personal learning space – This is our institution’s ePortfolio which provides you with a blank slate to keep a record of your work at the University or reflections of learning. It encourages more self-directed and active learning. But students’ are unlikely to engage in this activity on their own. Can you think why that would be the reason?


Semi-formal learning space – This is our coffee course blog which we classify as a semi-formal learning space. It has scheduled courses but these are publicly available and open to everyone at anytime, allowing for co-creation of content and peer-to-peer support through the commenting system. ANU staff can also note this as a form of professional development or complete the coffee course certificate when it is offered. Do you agree with our assessment of our coffee course blog? What makes an online space for informal or formal learning?


There are many types of online learning spaces. Some require a lot of preparation by the teacher (e.g. LMS, micro-learning blogs) to facilitate learning and interaction while others are learner-driven and self-directed (e.g. ePortfolio). Online learning spaces, through design, navigation, activities and guidance (e.g. instructions or learning outcomes), can stimulate different types learning such as active or didactic learning. In addition, they are often networked and linked to other online learning spaces opening up opportunities to intermix different types of learning.

An online learning space that has become quite popular are serious games (i.e. games with a primary goal for teaching and learning). While we will not discuss this in detail, it is interesting to take a look at some of the different serious games and explore the various methods used to encourage learning (e.g. simulation, competition, problem-solving, repetition, storytelling):

question markDiscussion

Select an online learning space (e.g. course site) you are familiar with. What do the design, navigation and activities tell you about the type of learning you are going to engage in? Is this the intention of the online learning space? Provide a link to the site in the comments section or post a screenshot on the Padlet here:

What does it mean to have an “active learning” online space?

5 stages to creating interactive online activities: 1. Provide easy access and motivation, 2. facilitate socialisation, 3. engage with content and in co-operative tasks, 4. construct knowledge, and 5. reflect and complete task

Two important aspects to creating active online learning spaces are:

  • Encouraging purposeful online collaboration and interaction

Active online learning also provides opportunities for purposeful collaboration and interaction. These can be done through forum discussions, wiki collaborations, backchannel chats and virtual whiteboards (e.g. Padlets). While we encourage peer-to-peer or student-to-content interactions, similar to physical learning spaces, the online space requires an active facilitator or moderator with social presence.

  • Designing authentic activities and experiences

Active learning online does not simply mean increasing interaction, adding activities or providing extensive resources online. For what purpose may we want interaction? And how can we encourage active engagement with course material?

More so than face-to-face teaching, active online learning requires the implementation of activities that specifically relate to learning outcomes, have real world relevance and are well-defined, scaffolded, structured and supported (see McLoughlin & Lee, 2008; OSU, 2017). Some activities may include role play, case studies and problem-based learning.

The blending of online and offline learning spaces

Blended learning, or the convergence of online and face-to-face learning spaces, is now a large part of higher education.

As boundaries between physical and virtual spaces are becoming less clear and more permeable, we need to ensure sufficient consistency and blending of online and offline learning spaces to provide a coherent learning experience. This may include redistributing study activity from physical to online learning spaces (and vice versa), increasing flexibility and using mobile devices (Ellis & Goodyear, 2016).

At the University of Melbourne for example, virtual and augmented reality have been used to provide active blended learning “spaces”. See how a lecturer in archaeology used virtual reality to teach Ancient Egyptian.

Below is a template (and accompanying example) of how you can blend activities between online and offline space:

activity-blending template and example

question mark


Using the activity-level blending template, think of how you can facilitate an activity that can be distributed across offline and online spaces.


Coffee Course: Designing Online Learning Environments

Coffee Course: Engaging Students Online

Western Sydney University – Fundamentals of Blended Learning


Ellis, R. A. and Goodyear, P. (2016). Models of learning space: integrating research on space, place and learning in higher education. Rev Educ, 4, pp. 149-191. Available:

Keppell, M., Souter, K. & Riddle, M. (2012). Physical and virtual learning spaces in higher education: concepts for the modern learning environment. United States, Hershey: IGI Publishing (IGI Global).

McLoughlin, C., & Lee, M. J. W. (2008). The three P’s of pedagogy for the networked society: Personalisation, participation and productivity. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 1, pp. 10-27.

Ohio State University (OSU) (2017). Active Learning in an Online Course. Ohio State University, Office of Distance Education and Learning. Available: [Accessed 19 February 2019].

Radcliffe, D. (2009). A Pedagogy-space-technology (PST) framework for designing and evaluating learning places. In D. Radcliffe, H. Wilson, D. Powell, & B. Tibbetts (Eds.). Learning spaces in higher education: Positive outcomes by design. Brisbane, Qld: The University of Queensland and the Australian Learning and Teaching Council. Available:

Salmon, G. (2002). The five-stage framework and e-tivities. In Salmon, G., E-tivities: The Key to Active Online Learning. United Kingdom, London: Taylor & Francis. Available:

14 thoughts on “Day 5: Beyond the physical – Online learning spaces

  1. Back in 2011 when teaching English as a second language, I wanted to provide my students with a way of engaging in self-paced web-based activities built around amusing stories. I decided to use Hot Potatoes and TexToys to create suites of activities to improve their listening, reading, writing, speaking, grammar and vocabulary. I loved using it because it allowed me to tweak the code and come up with my own variations on their exercise types and allow my students to get as much as possible out of the stories. Unfortunately, Hot Potatoes has fallen from favour but no other exercise creation software nor LMS can replicate the range of exercise types that my students so enjoyed. The Moodle Quiz tool provides a good range of drag and drop, matching and cloze activities and I wish more people would use them instead of sticking to multiple choice questions only (I’d be very happy to show people how!). H5P is also a great resource to create interactive automatically marked learning elements. It is growing in popularity and thus new interactive elements will be added. Perhaps I should make some suggestions about what to add next! Thanks for prompting me to see if those exercise types can be revived and enjoyed into the future!

    1. Rowena, what exactly is H5P? Is it a standard, like HTML, or a particular product? I see mention of it and get the idea it is some sort of multimedia thing. I had a student build a Moodle module to allow other Moodle quizzes to be inserted into a video. But if this has already been done we should just use that.

      1. Hi Tom (again!!), it is a HTML5 content publishing tool where you can include activities amongst content – here’s a link And yes, it can embed quizzes in videos etc. We are looking to integrate this in Wattle – look out for announcements in the next few months!

    2. Rowena! I love the idea of integrating self-paced web-based activities around amusing stories into your teaching. I just wanted to draw on your (very important) point about using web apps and external tools for teaching and learning which I should have included in the post – they may not always remain free or have similar access over time as we do not have control over them. We need to have serious considerations before using them and I think ensuring that it matches your teaching and learning objectives is crucial. Thanks for reminding me about this!

  2. I don’t know how to have an activity distributed offline and online. So instead I appended an offline version to the online activity:

    Activity: Respond to Selection Criteria


    Instructor Role: Post questions to Moodle Forum.

    Student Role: Post answers to forum questions, then reply to a post from another student. Then rate answers from three other students.

    Resources (Content): Moodle Forum.

    Tool or Technique: Moodle Forum.

    Formative/Summative Assessment: Summative*: the tutor modifies the student ratings as required, and awards a mark of up to 2%.


    Instructor Role: Ask students to spend ten minutes discussing their forum answers in groups in the face-to-face classroom.

    Student Role: Discuss

    Resources (Content): The answers students posted to the preceding online forum.

    Tool or Technique: Group discussion.

    Formative/Summative Assessment: Not assessed.

    * In my view, ALL assessment is summative. Some of it may be progressive throughout the course, and also provide feedback. But if it doesn’t count to the final grade it is not “assessment”, and a student is unlikely to pay attention to it.

    1. Hi Tom, interesting because I think you are describing a great blended learning activity here where a set of questions/problems can be workshopped in class through group discussions and after the session, students are required to post a response/reflection to a similar question (for a very low-stake assessment – e.g. 1point). I’ve encountered formative assessments that have been very useful to students and where they actively participated without being given any marks for it. One such example is a work-in-progress script where students were allocated a week and they had to bring their script to class for others to give feedback. They could present as little or as much as they wanted – no marks were given to this presentation. Most students brought half or more of their script to class as they believed that it would help them in the final submission. I think formative assessments can be very useful if students are sufficiently motivated to do it.

  3. Most online learning spaces I encountered as a student were simply one-way communication platforms for the lecturers. They contained readings and recordings, and occasional announcements from staff. While students had the potential to communicate with each other, they rarely did. I distinctly recall more than 1 site where there were no forum posts at all. This has been such a dominant experience, that I feel it has become the expectation among students. As a tutor, I try to encourage engagement in the forums, (including raising the forums in face-to-face interactions), but to no avail. Active online learning is definitely an area I need to explore more.

    1. Hi Bhavani, it is certainly a dominant experience. I once taught a flipped classroom course where there were videos and interactive activities students had to participate in before class as it related to what we were doing during the seminar. I spent quite a lot of time answering students’ questions about what to do and where to find these activities in the first few weeks. And while students were able to complete the tasks by the third or fourth week, the feedback at the end of the semester was they preferred traditional lectures and tutorials because all their other courses were delivered in that mode. I think it is interesting to consider the culture of learning at universities and whether it is necessary to introduce active learning online if you were delivering a face-to-face course. I would probably go back to my learning objectives to make that decision (especially since I used to teach a global media course)!

      1. That is an interesting observation! It sometimes feels that, in striving to be more accessible, we forget about the students in front of us.

        As a student, back when online learning was relatively underdeveloped, my department used to run select courses both online and face-to-face. I have no idea how they logistically organised it, but you enrolled as either an on-campus or external student. External students had slightly different assessment tasks, including a requirement to contribute to the forums. Perhaps it is worth re-exploring this form of blended class – not blending on- and offline learning per se, but, tailoring elements of a course to meet 2 distinct cohorts?

        1. Hi Bhavani, I remembered a friend teaching a dual mode course similar to what you described and found it quite difficult to manage at first! But in saying that, I think you are absolutely right in saying that we need to put students and their learning at the forefront of our consideration instead of simply blending all courses. Thanks for your comment!

  4. There’s a lot of good suggestions here… Quite thought provoking as we are all expected to use the Wattle sight with its many… quirks and design layout. I’ve always wondered how to lay out the different type of materials to elicit the right “engagement” with the Wattle site. I like the idea of getting students to reflect in the online environment and engage that way… However, I would prefer that this happens as part of debrief in class as there is then avenue to “correct/react”. Besides, if students are like me, I do not like being online 24/7 and there needs to be the right amount of balance to achieve the learning objectives… maybe… I will have to check out a few of those links in detail when I get a chance as I like what I’m seeing.

    1. Hi Rebecca, I appreciated your comment about not wanting to be online too much. I faced this issue when marking assignments went almost fully online with Turnitin, etc – I found I preferred printing assignments out and writing on them by hand! (My eyes got really tired always reading on the screen.) I think choosing whatever is best for you and your own preferences is always best – as long as the debriefing happens, that is the key thing, whether it be online or face-to-face. 🙂 Would love to hear more if you find any of the links/resources useful or if you want to try any of the suggestions! (Let us know if you need a hand and we can chat more about it “offline”!)

  5. The language college where I taught had designed its own online platform. It allowed you to create ‘hot potato’-style online exercises – much like Rowena indicated, I could tweak the templates to suit the exercise and integrate text, video, etc. I would create a page for each module, with a learning pathway that reflected the structure of the course. I would upload exercises before class, and then add more to the page after class. So I would classify this as a “Formal Learning Space” – very much teacher-directed!
    On these pages I would try to create some more informal learning opportunities, e.g. by linking to other websites, padlet, etc. I would also prompt students to post to our forum, and would try to use some of this content in class.
    Reflecting on this module, I can draw the following parallel between online and in-class learning: the classroom/online platform you are dealt with influences how much you can ‘activate’ your learners and how formal your mode of delivery is. Of course there are other factors, such as teaching style, the level of formality observed at your school, class sizes, assessment requirements, etc – but we should not underestimate the impact of our learning environments (physical or online!).
    Great module – really enjoyed it! A big thanks to the Coffee Course team and Meredith Hinze!

  6. For MKTG2023 this semester, I’ve had a lot of self-directed learning content, because frankly the Wattle interactive elements are hamstrung by the bloody great ANU copyright warnings, and the “The following content may be recorded forever”. In contrast, doing things in the classroom, particularly around discussing the assessment tasks, then following through with an online update patch (text, ppt and video explainer) seems to have been much more effective than the reverse – I feel a lot of my cohort are barely above water on their time commitments, so providing them with download capacity (streaming, video, download and read later) is meeting more of the cohort need than trying to get them to spend the 2 hours in a chat forum when they don’t have 2 hours to spend in a classroom.

    Also, I still really want to run a class in a game server, but finding the time to set it up, get approval, get a platform that’s free2play (and pay2win), and coordinate everyone into the same Fortnite server, it’s easier to get timetabling to give me a room and a copy of scrabble.

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