Instructional Methods in
Online High School Courses
This study presents a brief summarization of the history of online high
schools as a context for investigating the kinds of instructional
methods being used in online high school courses. The framework for
the investigation is typology of instructional methods, which is used
to compare the variety of methods, utilized by three online high
school course providers. The results of the study are presented with
comments about the findings and suggestions for future research.
Brief Overview and History of Online High School Courses
In order to provide equal and improved education all over the United States, the U.S. department
of Education initiated a project in 1988 called Star Schools project (Star Schools, 1999). The Star
Schools Program encouraged improved instruction in mathematics, science, and foreign
languages. The program also served underserved populations, including the disadvantaged,
illiterate, limited-English proficient, and individuals with disabilities through the use of
telecommunication and online learning channels.
An important online high school course provider is Class.com of University of Nebraska. In July
1996, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Division of Continuing Studies was notified that it
had been awarded a $17.5 million U.S. Department of Education Star Schools grant. This was a
five-year award with first year funding beginning on October 1, 1996 (Class, 1999). Class online
courses are offered through the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Independent Study High
School (ISHS). Class offers a full range of standard courses to public school districts, private
schools, home schooling programs and individual students.
Besides Star Schools Program funding, online high schools were funded by U.S Department of
Education Technology Challenge Grant funding. In 1996, the Virtual High School (VHS) of
Hudson, Massachusetts became one of the first recipients of the Department of Education
Technology Challenge Grant, and opened its virtual doors backed by $7.5 million in federal
funds. The Hudson School District and the Concord Consortium provide administrative and
technical support to member schools of VHS. The Virtual High School provides collaborative
course offerings to students of member schools. Spread across 10 states, most of the 30 schools
in the project have student populations less than 1500 (Berman, 1999).
Although many states are initiating online high school programs, few are writing all of their
content. Rather, they are choosing to purchase courses from course developers. One exception is
the Florida High School which is a state initiated online high school funded by the Florida state
legislature. In 1996 the Orange County Public Schools introduced an experimental WebSchool
that offered online courses which included SAT Preparation and Computer Programming to
Orange County students. Just as Orange County was venturing into cyberspace, Alachua County
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was also proposing an online school to span the state. The Florida High School officially began
in August, 1997 as a joint project between Alachua and Orange County Public Schools with
fifteen educators who served in administrative, instructional, and/or developmental capacities.
The Florida High School offers almost every course necessary for earning a high school diploma.
High school distance education courses serve a broad variety of students. Students take the
online high school courses for different reasons. We grouped the student types into six different
Students desiring to augment course offerings: Small schools sometimes have
difficulty in offering all the courses needed by their students. Online courses provide a
solution to this need.
Students trying to get AP courses: Students trying to get AP courses to earn college
degree may encounter a school where no one is willing or qualified to offer Advanced
Home schoolers: Parents in home education situations may need to purchase portions of
their curriculum from online high school course providers.
Non-traditional High School students: Students who do not fit the profile of typical
high school student in terms of age or circumstances may need alternative paths for high
Early graduation / Acceleration: Some students can learn more quickly than other
students in one subject or as a general rule. Such students can complete their course work
through online courses.
Athletes and Handicapped students: The students whose schedule does not fit with the
academic calendar or who cannot attend the school regularly because of physical
disability can take online courses.
Rationale for Study:
The novelty and complexity of online distance education has served to focus the investigative
spotlight to a degree of scrutiny rarely seen in traditional educational venues. Questions of
effectiveness and quality span the spectrum from individual courses to program and institution
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Any learning event can be a complex amalgam of teaching methods, learning strategies, and
assessment methods in the context of an instructional environment. The learning event is further
complicated by the variety of products, educational outcomes, assignments, and personal
motivation levels. A complete investigation into the quality and effectiveness of a learning event
such as an online course would be challenging indeed. This study focuses on instructional
methods used in online high school courses. Instructional methods involve relationships between
materials/resources, instructors, and learners.
We chose to compare online high school courses based on the instructional methods that were
used in each. Several researchers (Morrison et. al., 2001) suggest that instructional methods need
to be carefully chosen in order to address content and learning outcomes. Dick and Carey (1996)
agree, stating that instructional strategies need to be chosen based on “current outcomes of
learning research, current knowledge of the learning process, content to be taught, and the
characteristics of the learners who will receive the instruction” (p.6). Moore (1994) adds teacher
characteristics and learning environment as factors that should influence the selection of
instructional methods. Furthermore, some instructional methods in the online environment may
capitalize on the strength of the computer technologies more than others. Choice of instructional
methods does matter in the question of course effectiveness and the quality of online high school
We can gain several insights from investigating the methods used in online high school courses.
Insights about commonly chosen instructional methods.
Insights about the kinds of higher order thinking skills that are encouraged.
Insights into the degree to which the strengths of computer technologies are being used to
strengthen and support instructional methods.
Instructional Method Typology
Instructional methods are defined as “ways of helping someone to learn” (Reigeluth, 2001). In
order to have a standard for comparing online methods we chose a typology of instructional
methods developed by Dr. Michael Molenda at Indiana University. The categories in this
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typology are based primarily on the essential communication pattern entailed in each particular
method; that is, the relationships between Teacher (or teaching system), Learner, and Resources.
Operational definitions of the eight classes of instructional methods appear below with some
examples (Figure 1).
Educational theorists (Morrison et. al., 1996) urge that instruction be designed in such a way as
to promote higher level thinking skills. We believe that the instructional methods of Reflection,
Discussion, Game, and Laboratory encourage higher level thinking and have the greatest
potential for helping the learner “to actively make these connections between what the learner
already knows and the new information” (Morrison et. al, 1996, p.124). Moore (1994) classifies
instructional methods as teacher-centered and student centered. This distinction is evident in
Molenda’s typology when he addresses the direction of control for each of the methods.
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Characterized by one-way communication from instructor to Lecture, demonstration, videos,
learner through lecture or through the choice of other one-way broadcast radio or TV, web-video
communication instructional resources such as demonstrations, or audio clips
media broadcasts, or video.
Tutorial: Mentoring, peer tutoring, web
Characterized by two-way communication between instructor chats, branching programmed
and learner with the instructor responses varying according to instruction
the learner’s response.
Drill: Athletic coaching, military drill
Characterized by an instructor-posed problem, which the learner music lesson, math problems,
encounters on a repeated basis until the skill in the problem is embedded multiple choice
mastered or until another problem is posed. questions
Reading: Books, self-instructional booklets,
Characterized by learner interaction with print-based material, web texts, programmed instruction,
which have been assigned or recommended by the instructor. learning stations
Reflection: Visualization, thinking,
Characterized by intrapersonal communication within individual metacognitive tactics, reflection
learners; the questions or issues contemplated by the learner are papers
suggested by the instructor.
Discussion: Small-group dynamics, T-group,
Characterized by learner –to-learner interaction with none buzz group, seminar, web
playing the role of expert or teacher; the instructor poses the conferencing
questions or issues and may monitor but does not mediate or
Game: Role-playing games, computer
Characterized by learner interactions with a problem and with games social simulation games.
other learners immersed in a contrived context that involves
artificial rules and efforts to attain a goal, with progress usually
measured by a scoring system; instructor may pose the problem
and monitor, but does not mediate.
Laboratory: Problem-based learning, social
Characterized by learner interactions with a real problem and simulation, science lab, case study,
real sources individually and collaboratively under the guidance, field studies, group project drama
supervision, or direction of an instructor. rehearsal
Figure 1 Typology of Instructional Methods (Molenda, 2001)
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A convenience sample of courses was chosen from three institutions, which provide online high
school courses (Figure 2). Our intent was to observe the types of instructional methods in each
of the courses. These course providers represent a varied array of approaches operational
systems in the online course market.
Apex Class Cyberschool
Literature and Algebra I American History
Composition Civics Classic Literature in
Physics U.S. History the Western World
Statistics World Literature Economics
U.S. History General Biology
U.S. Government and Statistics
Figure 2. Course providers and courses reviewed
Apexlearning.com is a for-profit company, which fills the advanced placement (AP) niche of the
online high school market. Students prepare for a subject specific, high-stakes test for which the
reward is college credit. Many small high schools are not able to afford staff to teach such
courses to the few students who want them. Apex also markets their products to virtual high
Class.com is a for-profit company that is based in Lincoln, Nebraska. Students from each of the
50 states as well as students from abroad are enrolled in their online high school courses. Many
virtual high schools purchase courses from Class. This company provides course to school;
teachers in the schools are trained to administer the courses. The teacher’s task is to facilitate the
lessons, to grade the papers, and to reply to students’ questions. Teachers cannot change the
content of the courses.
Cyberschool courses, unlike those from Class and Apex, are publicly accessible. Although the
Cyberschool is based in Oregon, teacher certification hurdles prompted the Cyberschool to form
an international consortium of public schools. Teachers in schools that are part of this
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consortium develop the courses and offer them online.
Fourteen courses were examined for instances of the instructional methods matching categories
in the typology. Prior to examining the online courses, a one-hour time limit was established for
viewing each course. Both researchers reviewed one of the courses in an effort to establish
uniformity in the reviewing process. Each researcher used a data collection instrument to record
instances of instructional methods in each course. We were most interested in the variety of
methods employed rather than the frequency of their use.
Apex Class Cyberschool Total
5 courses 4 courses 5 courses
Presentation 5 4 5 14
Tutorial 0 0 1 1
Drill 5 2 1 8
Reading 5 4 5 14
Reflection 1 2 4 7
Discussion 5 3 2 10
Game 0 0 1 1
Laboratory 1 0 3 4
Figure 3 Observation of instructional methods in courses.
Apex courses have a consistent pattern in terms of instructional methods (Figure 3). The courses
have a standard look and feel, which lends to predictability and few surprises. The syllabus page
consists of hyperlinks to course content, assignments and activities. The syllabus hyperlinks have
titles based on the instructional methods employed in each section of the lesson. These
instructional methods do not necessarily fit the categories outlined in the typology. For example,
the tutorial sections of the Apex lessons fit the description of presentation in Molenda’s
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Presentation, reading, discussion, and drill characterize Apex courses. Presentations are made of
Flash animations and movies. Readings are available on the course web page or for download.
Depending on the course, textbook reading is also assigned. Discussion is based on reading and
responding to a prompt. Students are required to post at least one reply to other students’ entries.
Drill is used often, giving students an opportunities to practice skills with no consequence to
Apex courses rarely use tutorials or laboratories. Games and reflective activities were not
observed in these courses. The purpose of these courses is to prepare students for the Advanced
Placement test, which is referenced periodically throughout the courses. The true success of
students in these courses is measured by a standardized assessment, the Advanced Placement
exam. The desired learning outcomes in Apex courses directly influence the selection of
Unlike Apex, Class courses do not follow a template and so do not have a standard look and feel.
According to Molenda’s typology, the most employed instructional methods in Class courses are
presentation, reading and discussion.
The presentation and reading methods dominate Class courses. Presentation of content includes
many multimedia items. While some of the reading is provided in the context of the lesson,
some readings are assigned from textbooks or from outside web sites.
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Discussion is another method employed by Class course designers. After completing a section of
the course, students in groups discuss a given topic. The discussion groups are required part of
most of the Class courses we reviewed.
Tutorials, games and laboratories were not observed in Class courses while drill and reflection
methods were observed in some of the courses. In the course tools bar, there is a notebook
activity tool, at the end of each section. Students are required to reflect on the section. The
notebook activity is a required and graded activity in some courses.
Cyberschool courses vary in their look and feel, as do the assignments and the instructional
methods employed. This reflects the highly individualized design approach. Despite a lack of
stylistic conformity, Cyberschool courses employed the most varied instructional methods
among all of the courses we reviewed.
While making heavy use of presentation and reading like Apex and Class, Cyberschool courses
leveraged reflection and laboratory methods. The formats of reflection that are employed in the
courses include keeping a journal at the end of a section or posting thoughts to the instructor.
Reflections are based on course readings and are graded activities. Laboratory work included
simulations, an outside activity, and collaborative partner work. All methods from the typology
were observed in Cyberschool courses. However, tutorials, drills and games were used
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Discussion and Interpretation of Results
There are many limitations to applying the results of this study. We acknowledge that we
reviewed only a portion of the classes offered by each institution. We did not necessarily observe
every activity in every course although we attempted to give a thorough and fair look to each
course. The topic matter in some courses may lend itself to some methods more readily than to
other methods. We also acknowledge variations in researcher interpretation of observed class
activities as belonging to one instructional method or another. Without making any
generalizations, we would like to point out a few observations and offer a few reflections.
Presentation plays a key role in almost all courses observed. Teacher centered instruction
continues to dominate in the online classroom.
Reading enjoys a prominent position in the online course. Copies of readings are available on
line. Textbooks continue to be employed. Hyperlinks provide primary and augmenting content
for online courses.
Few courses capitalized on the strengths of the computer to connect individuals synchronously
and asynchronously. Only one organization offered courses with collaborative work on
Few courses implemented reflection, games, or laboratories as instructional methods.
Few courses used the drill or tutorial methods as defined by the typology.
What are the reasons for the observations above? Any answer would be incomplete but here are
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Instructional methods are not always chosen for their pedagogical appropriateness. Ideally
instructional methods should be thoughtfully matched to objectives and desired learning
outcomes, this is not always the case. The high cost of developing online courses, the
convenience of transforming the face-to-face materials to online materials, and the high cost of
supporting the delivery of online courses can be contributors to poor matches between optimal
instructional methods and the course objectives.
Some instructional methods are easier to use than others. Presentations are comparatively easy to
prepare, implement, and administer in comparison to laboratories. While laboratories may be
well matched to instructional content and desired learning outcomes, they may not be leveraged
because of the extra work that they entail.
Exploiting the strengths of the computer medium is a skill that many educators and course
designers have not mastered. Educators have largely designed for print-based media in the past.
The strengths of the computer media such as, response tracking, instant feedback, calculating,
sorting, and archiving are still being discovered and applied gradually. Mapping the strengths of
the traditional classroom and print-based venues onto an online course invites less than
There is no surprise that presentation and reading were prominent features of all online courses
that we reviewed. These instructional methods have been used throughout the history of
instruction and continue to be appropriate methods in the online delivery medium considering
their text-based orientation. The methods that are little used such as games and laboratories
deserve a closer look because of their capabilities to support learners in active meaning making.
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Conclusions and Suggestions
Moore (1994) says that successful secondary teachers employ a variety of instructional methods.
This indicates that successful course design would utilize a variety of instructional methods. The
results of our study point toward a need for a greater variety of methods to be implemented in
online courses. Online courses can be improved by using a variety of appropriate instructional
methods to address learning needs, content, and desired outcomes in varied learning situations.
According to Merrill’s First Principles of Instruction (2001), good instruction starts with a
problem and includes activation, demonstration, application and integration. Merrill
hypothesizes that failure to model the First Principles will result in less effective instruction. The
high school courses, which we reviewed, did not reflect problem solving as the central focus of
the course design as is evident by the few instances of the laboratory method in our data.
Further research about online high school courses could pursue a number of paths. Investigation
of a broader range of courses from a greater variety of companies could yield a more complete
picture of instructional methods being employed. Comparisons of student achievement across
courses employing a variety of instructional methods could provide insight into the methods
most effective. Probes into successful implementation of laboratories, games, discussion, and
reflection could provide guidelines for course developers desiring to leverage these high-
powered methods in their courses.
To some degree, the challenges to effective online course design mirror the challenges of course
design for the traditional classroom. Time, effort, dollars, expertise and content are necessary to
the design of any instructional event for any venue. The increasing demand for online courses
maintains pressure on the development process.
The anytime/anywhere promise of online courses brings an important consideration to course design.
More people are going to be exposed to a single course design than before. It is very important that
these widely distributed designs are of high quality. This quality can be measured in part by the match of
instructional objectives and content to the instructional methods used, and the degree to which the
strengths of the medium are exploited to accomplish tasks and to support learning in ways not possible
without the computer.
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