Translating On-Ground Courses into Effective Online Education

Creating a Web-based course from a current, successful on-ground course is difficult and, at best, can be considered a translation process. In the past, instructors have created Web-based courses by taking those courses that were being taught on-ground and posting the information online, then calling these courses “Web-based.” Imitating a sound, successful on-ground course will not necessarily bring about the same success for students in a Web-based learning environment. Simply converting lectures and other course materials from on-ground courses to Web-based platforms may not be as effective as hoped. (American Federations of Teachers, 2000, p. 8).

The breadth and depth of the subject matter coverage should be equal in every way in Web-based courses to the coverage in the corresponding on-ground classroom. In past translations, that was taken to mean “posting” materials one for one. This assumes that Web-based and on-ground presentation styles are the same and that this “posting” will ensure the same breadth and depth in student learning in both on-ground and Web-based courses. Kearsley (2000) maintains that it is not the same and that the Web-based classroom is a special social environment that is very different from the on-ground classroom. If this is the case, then students lose out on critical elements of the educational process due to the instructor’s and facilitator’s inability to meet the student’s individual needs when translating on-ground courses into effective Web-based courses.

Web-based learning has been referred to as a presentation style or a medium that is used to present information and to encourage the acquisition of knowledge or learning. Adopting this perception causes facilitators and instructors to contemplate a template style different from those used in the face-to-face, on-ground classrooms. The American Federation of Teachers noted in Distance Education: Guidelines for Good Practice (2000) that “Each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses and can deliver different kinds of dramatic experiences.” (p. 8) While students in on-ground courses may not need to experience additional social aspects of the course, the Web-based course may require an enhanced social aspect for the majority of the students enrolled in order to maximize the student’s learning experience through the presentation style. Taking this into consideration, it is detrimental to student success to just accept information presented in the face-to-face, on-ground classroom and commit it to a Web-based course platform. As the old saying goes, “we lose something in the translation,” and in Web-based courses that “something” is often the student.

The following suggestions may help facilitators and instructors review priorities and translate effective on-ground courses into effective Web-based courses by creating a presentation methodology that addressed the different needs of students in Web-based courses.

  1. Remove materials. Take an inventory of all of the instructional materials you have used in the past on-ground equivalent course. Some of the materials will relate well in Web-based courses but others will not. Don’t be afraid to remove or replace the materials that need face-to-face interaction in order to be effective.
  2. Make lectures interactive. By adding websites and simulations throughout the written lecture that support the lecture topic, students will be better able to understand examples, to experiment with ideas, and to acquire a deeper understanding of the course topic.
  3. Provide a social outlet from the very beginning. Many students will feel isolated if not provided with networking capability. This social networking capability is built into the on-ground course by the mere nature of the presentation style. This is not the case with the Web-based course. For example, the instructor must work hard to provide an opportunity and place for interaction during online courses. Discussions of specified topics, team or group work, and instructor-led interactions all encourage networking.
  4. List website resources. Assume that many of the students will come to the Web-based courses with insufficient skills in technology, formatting styles, and library usage. Provide websites that will help enhance those skills and encourage students to use these websites.
  5. Provide a survey of skills activity. Students may not know that they have a skill deficiency compared to the expectations established for the course unless you provide a way for them to rate their abilities. Providing survey tools for students to review their skills is very helpful in pointing to deficiencies.
  6. Provide transition activities. On any new skill activity, provide a “practice run” at the beginning of the course. This will yield a better assessment of true student learning and not merely an assessment of technology skills. For example, if use of the library is essential in the course, create a treasure hunt that provides use of the skills required before students need to use the library to access knowledge.
  7. Use research-based guidelines. Review and incorporate Implementing the Seven Principals: Technology as a Lever, by Chickering and Ehrmann (1996), when creating Web-based courses.
  8. Interact with students. Picciano (1998) found that instructors’ activities were related to students’ perceived learning in online education courses. Interacting with students means responding to concerns and question in a timely manner, giving plenty of constructive feedback, and providing opportunities for the student to work with others in order to avoid feeling isolated.
  9. Assess students regularly. Schedule student assessments, both subjective and informative, to let students know at the beginning of the course when they can expect to receive grades or scores and keep to that schedule.
  10. Ask for feedback. Evaluate the course at least twice during the semester. This evaluation should include student feedback on needs and wants within the knowledge-base of the course.

The successful translation from an on-ground into a Web-based course requires a rearrangement of course priorities for the facilitator or instructor of the Web-based course. It has been asserted that the style of presentation may not matter as long as the students are comfortable in the online environment and are having their needs met. As instructors or facilitators, we want to ensure learning through effective methods for the student. If that means changing perceptions and looking at Web-based instruction as a medium or presentation style, and developing materials that encourage learning through this medium, then that should define the route to take in order to ensure that students aren’t “lost in translation.”


American Federation of Teachers. (2000) Distance education: Guidelines for good practice. Higher Education Program and Policy Council of the American Federation of Teachers

Chickering, A. W., & Ehrmann, S. C. (1996). Implementing the seven principles: Technology as lever. AAHE Bulletin, October, 3-6. []

Kearsley G., (2000). Online education: Learning and teaching in cyberspace. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Picciano, A. (1998). Developing an asynchronous course model at a large, urban university. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. 2(1).

Vonderwell, S. (2003). An examination of asynchronous communication experiences and perspectives of students in an online course: A case study. Internet and Higher Education, 6, 77-90.

Woods, R.H. (2002). How much communication is enough in online courses? Exploring the relationship between frequency of instructor-initiated personal email and learners’ perceptions of and participation in online learning. International Journal of Instructional Media, 29(4), 377-394.

Sherion Jackson is an associate professor of educational administration at Texas A&M University-Commerce. Contact her at