Building a Course on the Run
paper presented at International Conference on Computers and Education
Auckland, December 2002

Michael Coghlan
eLearning Coordinator
Douglas Mawson Institute of Technology


Is it possible to offer a course with no resources and no content? Yes. One of TAFE South Australia's newest training modules, Moderate and Facilitate Online, is delivered this way. It is based on the premise that participants bring to the table a host of knowledge and experience that can form the basis of collaborative learning. Participants initially use each other as resources, moving out to examine existing resources and creating their own later in the course.

Delivering a course this way ensures that the responsibility and ownership of its outcomes is shared by all, and gives participants first hand experience of a constructivist and collaborative approach that reflects the oft referred to paradigm shift in Net based learning.

This presentation will focus on the process of delivering a course that evolves daily, and demonstrate how a learning platform can be an effective host for constructing a course in this fashion. It is often said that the use of platforms plays a proscriptive role in how online courses are delivered and structured, but this presentation will attempt to demonstrate that the use of a platform in this approach simply facilitates the evolution of the course.


TAFE in South Australia led the way in Australia in providing online training modules for their staff. Use of the Internet in education is often touted as a convenient window to more learner centred teaching methodologies, and it is a challenge to design online training options for staff that model constructivist approaches. With this in mind the course, Moderate and Facilitate Online, was initially conceived as a process through which participants would build a course on emoderation as a collaborative exercise. The course in fact began with no course in place. It began as a concept, an empty website, and a group of willing participants.

The course has already been run twice with approximately 20 participants in each course. It has been an instructive journey for all concerned, and much has been learnt. At this point the course facilitator is ready to make several changes to the process - changes that in the main have been recommended by the participants. The current paper will detail what has been learnt, and by presentation time in December the course will have endured two further incarnations and the presentation will update feedback from the project.

I have long since been an advocate of constructivist approaches, even before the advent of the Internet, but with the access for all to the tools of course construction provided by the Internet, I decided to run a course with everything stripped back to ground zero, and literally start with nothing but an empty website and a group of participants. I had in mind a structure, or series of stages for the process, but announced from the outset that all aspects of the course were open to negotiation.

Ideally I would like to have begun with an open discussion about methodology. However, communications online take a good deal longer than equivalent interactions face to face, and I thought it would be counter productive to begin with a discussion of how we might approach the course, for the course after all was about emoderation, not building a course. So in effect some decisions about how the course may unfold had been made by me as facilitator. It would quickly become apparent that the participants expected many more decisions to be made by the facilitator - in direct contrast to the collaborative approach I had envisaged.

Course Structure

The fact that there was no course structure other than in the mind of the facilitator caused problems from the outset. While acknowledging that this approach of taking constructivism to what may be considered extreme lengths may be foolish, it was the intention to experiment with a different model, and use the collaborative environment afforded by Internet technology to construct all aspects of the course.

Implicit in any notion of course structure are notions of staging or a sequence of activities, learning outcomes or objectives, and who or what is assessed. These issues surfaced very early in the course. Though people came on board to trial an experimental approach, many found it difficult to  proceed confidently without some guidelines (structure) in place. There was much debate about objectives and assessment and how they would be manifested. As productive as this was, it substantially reduced the amount of time participants had for learning the 'core skills' of the course - emoderation skills.

It was clear that a predetermined structure was required. There was a need for some scaffolding: “a temporary structure which provides help at specific points in the learning process." [Dodge] The challenge was how to redesign the course with some 'imposed' structure, some degree of scaffolding that enabled learners to feel comfortable, and that still allowed for constructivist choices from a given framework.

What does a constructivist course look like?

If a course is built from the ground up by facilitator and participants it is clearly going to be a constructivist experience. But if the course structure is already in place, how do you ensure the course will still be constructivist in nature? In a very real sense I believe constructivism does involve constructing something together, and if we weren’t constructing a course together (a very real and identifiable product as part of a collaborative process) what would we construct together?

“….I don't see how discussing topics fits the definition of constructivism. I thought constructivism meant that students are supposed to DO something, produce some kind of intellectual product.”

Not all share this view however. Murphy’s table of characteristics of constructivist courses below does not list ‘doing something’, or having a final product as an essential criterion. One essential, and perhaps self-evident, criterion of constructivism is  ‘knowledge construction’, and neither the process nor the product of knowledge construction has an endpoint. As much as anything constructivism is about helping people acquire higher order thinking skills, and that is the goal rather than any end product. It is the acquisition of a way of thinking that has use beyond the conclusion of any given course.

I attempted to preserve the constructivist nature of this course by:

  • Ensuring that everyone knew that course content and outcomes were negotiable
  • Encouraging people to find resources appropriate to the course
  • Allowing people to choose their own areas of focus. This was attempted in various ways:
    • Having people self-select around topics for group discussion activity
    • Having people in groups manage the process of group discussion via negotiation within the group
    • Having daily doses and chats as optional for those who had more time
    • Allowing participants to plan and stage their own online events
  • Having people other than the facilitator responsible for the daily doses

Mapped against the criteria suggested by Murphy, the following picture of the degree of constructivism of the course emerges:



Multiple perspectives

This course starts with the assumption that participants are the experts. Each student’s perspective is valid, as is the perspectives of the ‘experts’.

Student-directed goals

Participants can choose to focus on any of a range of scenarios, and choose their own method of assessment.

Teachers as coaches

Facilitator is more a guide and assistant rather than the final arbiter and source of knowledge.


Participants are required to plan an online event, conduct it, and evaluate the experience. Participants also debrief email games and group discussions.

Learner control

There is ample opportunity for participants to chart their own way through the course. They are offered choices of topic focus, who they want to work with, and how they are to be assessed.

Authentic activities & contexts

Course is built around a number of scenarios based on real events.

Knowledge construction

Participants learn from each other via group discussions on a range of scenarios, and compare findings with those of acknowledged experts.

Knowledge collaboration

Group tasks are built into the course and rely on decisions being reached collaboratively.

Previous knowledge constructions

Participants are urged early on in the course to discover previous skills/experience of other participants.

Problem solving

Many of the scenarios pose problems that an emoderator needs to address.


Participants are urged to discover resources, negotiate course outcomes and methodology, and explore participants’ skills and experience on course entry.

Apprenticeship learning

Several relative newcomers to the online environment were assisted by more experienced onliners

Conceptual interrelatedness

Principally done in group threaded discussions, but needs to be refined and improved upon.

Alternative viewpoints

The nature of emoderation means there are no right answers, and each participant brought a different perspective to each scenario.


Original version of the course lacked effective scaffolding. Subsequent versions of the course had more structure built in.

Authentic assessment

Participants were assessed solely on their own performance in group discussions, and hosting an online event.

Primary sources of data

Ideas of participants themselves were often the source of data for review and analysis.

Adapted from, Constructivism
from Philosophy to Practice

Facilitator’s Role

"I've found … that the facilitator can in fact stay out of the picture quite successfully. An analogy is sports umpires - if you barely notice their existence, but still achieve your ends, they're doing a great job!"  [ post course evaluation comment from participant]

Finding the right balance between a hands off approach and intervention is problematic for the facilitator in a constructivist environment. Perhaps the most important thing learned so far in the current experiment is that both learners and teacher need to relearn their roles. How much responsibility does the facilitator hand over to the learner? And from the participant side, it is very clear that participants in this trial still expected the facilitator to initiate much of the activity that the constructivist facilitator saw as the participants' responsibility. Old habits die hard.

This was especially true in exercises where participants were asked to use threaded discussion tools to draw on each other’s skills and knowledge, and discuss problem based scenarios and reach collaborative solutions. Left to their own devices participants found it difficult to do much more than simply swap opinions. Very little engaged analysis was evident. I believe that this kind of activity is precisely the kind that we need to get used to doing, and setting, for our students, if we are to break the pattern of dependence on the lecturer. This activity was less successful than hoped because it was more student centred than participants were are used to, and it was up to the participants to uncover a locus of interest and explore it.

Threaded Discussion Forums

A crucial question for online courses is whether or not this can effectively be done in threaded discussion forums. Those who manage collaborative environments online rely heavily on these tools, and many will testify to the quality and the depth of interactions that take place in online forums.  Others have reservation about their effectiveness. Smith and Stacey question the ability of online forums to accommodate convergent thinking. They found that the effectiveness of online interaction was adversely affected by

“the convergent nature of the problems to be solved, which required the student group to reach agreed conclusions.  There was evidence that the problems posed would have been more successful had they required divergent thinking and input on the part of students, such that they could each raise and explore issues, rather than converge to an agreed position.”

My own experience of threaded discussion affords me some sympathy for the view expressed above by Smith and Stacey, but I suspect too that something else was at play. In my Moderate and Facilitate Online course I attempted to have participants use the discussion tool to share knowledge, analyse a scenario, and reach an agreed conclusion. With each version of the course participants have improved at this task, but it takes a good deal of encouragement, and scaffolding, from the facilitator.

It is now clear to me that that this kind probing, drawing each other out, clarifying, restating questions and hypotheses, and summarising online discussions needs to be modelled, with examples of this process provided for participants to follow.

“Constructivistic environments should: "examine thinking and learning processes; collect, record, and analyze data; formulate and test hypotheses; reflect on previous understandings; and construct their own meaning" [Jonassen, p 11].

Practising such higher order thinking skills on the data provided by fellow participants in discussion forums is predicated on the assumption that participants will regard their classmates’ opinions as worth the trouble, or as a source of knowledge, and I seriously doubt that participants in my two courses so far believe this to be the case. They would it seems, prefer to move on quickly to the next task set by the facilitator. 

For a superb example of how one can coach students in online courses to develop this appreciation of the knowledge of classmates as a source for analysis and ‘deeper learning’ I recommend readers investigate the late Guy Bensusan’s Escalator approach at

Role of the Learning Platform

The learning platform used for the courses under review here was WebCT. The fact that it is WebCT is incidental. Blackboard and many other learning platforms have many features in common. Critics of platforms argue that they limit the way courses are offered online, both in terms of aesthetics (how the course looks and feels), and the methodologies used. I have no argument with the fact that they can have a major impact on the look and feel of a course, but criticisms of platforms as dictators of methodology are ill founded.

A typical online learning platform has a bewildering array of features, most of which the average course designer/teacher never uses. They do also have suggested ways of building and presenting courses embedded in them – often as quick ‘follow these simple steps and hey presto you have an online course up and running’ templates. More discerning teacher/designers ignore these templates and pick and choose from the available tools and navigation options to construct a course that suits their purpose and teaching style.

In this instance WebCT allowed me to start a course that had only a welcome message and a discussion forum. As each new stage of the course evolved, new tools (mail, chat, my notes), and navigation icons to resources and tasks were added as they were requested by participants, or needed by the facilitator to provide links to more content.

Rather than a predetermined methodology dictating how the course would look and proceed, it was quite the other way around. The learning platform was extremely flexible in accommodating the evolving needs of the learners and facilitator. It is not necessary to have a learning platform like WebCT or similar to conduct a constructivist course online, but they do facilitate the process (via various communication tools), and the provision of content. The key is not to construct your course to include all the bells and whistles these platforms contain, but to pick and choose those features of the platform that help realise the goals of the course. Used in this way, learning platforms like WebCT can complement and facilitate constructivist approaches, and indeed, any methodological approach you care to employ.


1)      Dodge, Bernie (2000), Thinking Visually with Webquests;

2)      Geer, Ruth (2000); Social Interdependence in Collaborative Interactivity in an Internet Based Learning Environment;

3)      Jonassen, David, et al (1995) “Constructivism and Computer-Mediated Communication in Distance Education’ in The American Journal of Distance Education. Vol. 9, No. 2.

4)      Klemm, William (2002), Dialogues on Constructivism;

5)       Murphy, Elizabeth (1997); Constructivism - From Philosophy to Practice;

6)      Salmon, Gilly (2000) ; E-moderating - the key to teaching and learning online; Kogan Page London, UK; Stylus, US

7)      Smith, Peter J; and Stacey, Elizabeth (2002); Teaching HRD Personnel:  Experiences of Computer-Mediated Communication in Differently Structured Environments; paper presented at AVETRA Conference, Melbourne, March, 2002