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Online Learning

This guide highlights foundational texts, research, professional associations, and practical resources about online teaching and learning.

What to expect from this guide

This guide provides basic information on some theoretical models important in the study of online teaching and learning. A selection of research-based practices for the design, development and delivery of online instructional content is provided in short video format. In addition, in the left navigation you will find:

  • Foundational texts from our collection
  • Leading journals from our collection
  • Recommendations for database research
  • A listing of relevant professional associations
  • VCU and regional online learning resources

Theoretical Models

Community of Inquiry Framework overlapping circles with social, cognitive, and teaching presence.The Community of Inquiry Framework

This model consists of three interactive types of presence that contribute to educational experiences in online learning environments represented by overlapping circles. Teaching presence and social presence is concerned with the climate of the learning environment. Teaching presence and cognitive presence inform content selection. Cognitive presence and social presence are indicative of how discourse is supported. The boundary circle is often used to describe the learning environment's features whether within a learning management system or other computer-mediated setting.

The originators of the theory wrote a retrospective article in 2009 that provides a look back as well as an examination of its validity across studies.

Garrison, Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2010). The first decade of the community of inquiry framework: A retrospective. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(1), 5–9.

Cognitive theory of multimedia learning with audio and visual channels

Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

This theoretical model illustrates the dual-channels of processing of images (pictures) and auditory information (words). It also operationalizes sensory memory, which typically processes in a matter of seconds, our working memory, which on the average runs a few minutes and longer when we are well engaged, and finally how we integrate new information into our long term memory. Detailed in Richard Mayer’s seminal book Multimedia Learning, the theory has since generated a substantial body of research with practical implications for the development of instructional media.

andragogy in practice model



Andragogy is a learner-centered theory that addresses unique characteristics of adult learners. First introduced in the 1970s by Malcolm Knowles, six principles guide this area of  inquiry and instructional design. The principles include: learner’s need to know, self-concept of the learner, prior experience of the learner, readiness to learn, orientation to learning, and motivation to learn.

The seminal work The Adult Learner, is available at Cabell Library in its eighth edition and as an ebook.

SAMR model

The SAMR model is a framework developed by Ruben Puentedura to help educators integrate technology into their teaching practices effectively. The acronym SAMR stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition. These four levels represent a continuum of technology integration, where each level builds on the previous one, leading to higher levels of technology integration and greater potential for transformative learning experiences.

The four levels of the SAMR model are:

  1. Substitution: Technology is used as a direct substitute for a traditional tool or method, without any significant change in the learning activity. For example, using a digital worksheet instead of a paper one.

  2. Augmentation: Technology is used to enhance the traditional tool or method, providing added functionality or benefits. For example, using a digital worksheet with automatic feedback or grading.

  3. Modification: Technology is used to significantly modify the learning activity, allowing for new ways of teaching and learning. For example, using a digital collaboration tool to facilitate group work and peer feedback.

  4. Redefinition: Technology is used to create entirely new learning experiences that were previously not possible without the technology. For example, using virtual reality to simulate real-world experiences or using online tools to connect students with experts from around the world.

"A scoping review of application of the SAMR model in research" analyzes 230 research publications from 2009 to 2021 and provides a comprehensive study on how the model has been used.

Experiential learning model

Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle is a framework that describes how people learn from experience. It consists of four stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation.

In the context of online education, this model suggests that learners need to have opportunities to engage in concrete experiences, such as online simulations, experiments, or interactive learning activities. After these experiences, learners need to reflect on what they learned, make connections to existing knowledge, and identify areas for improvement. They can then use this reflection to form abstract concepts and theories about the topic. Finally, learners need to apply their new knowledge through active experimentation, such as problem-solving activities, collaborative projects, or real-world simulations.

Check out Kolb's 2014 edition of Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development as an ebook.


Research based design principles for online learning

These short videos provide very broad overviews of principles and methodological approaches to enhance online learning. Though a few are contextualized in unique academic environments, they serve as a good starting point in general.