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Instructional Design: Distance Education

This guide serves faculty, staff, and students in improving and supporting instruction and learning in various learning environments (e.g., face-to-face, hybrid, and fully online). This represents our effort to share our knowledge with you.

Online Course Design Guidance

The Online Course Design Guide attached below addresses the research-based best practices for distance education. It also includes how to infuse Ignatian pedagogy into online courses by providing a community of inquiry, selecting instructional strategies to teach to the whole person, and addressing the universal design of learning to meet the needs of all students. See the Tech Resources tab to learn about the software, hardware, and human resources available for your course design.

Tips for Blended (Hybrid) Courses

The blended format offers the best learning situation (US DOE, 2009). It’s like a web-enhanced course on steroids. You’ll get to meet with the students in person, share all types of great resources online, and continue discussions online instead of having the conversation end when the face-to-face class ends. The three most important things to remember when transitioning a regular face-to-face class (F2F) to that of a blended format are as follows:

  • Establish a clear schedule that explicitly outlines the activities to be conducted according to your blended format.
  • Revisit each of your F2F lessons and assignments to decide which ones are compatible with the online format and adapt them accordingly.
  • Apply many of the same basic principles for engendering a community of inquiry (i.e., social, cognitive & teaching presences) in your F2F to that of the blended format.

Blended format schedule. It’s imperative to state which activities will happen in the F2F class and asynchronously online; otherwise, students will become confused and miss F2F class meetings other activities. Educators should provide students with a printable schedule and also add the important dates to the online course calendar. Additionally, special reminders can be shared via the online course announcements tool. This schedule should also be appended to the course syllabus. I suggest placing the dates of the F2F class meetings in the heading of the syllabus instead of buried within the other information.

Adaptation of lessons. Review all of your lessons with a new lens for the blended format. Make a T-chart of which lessons are suitable for F2F and online learning environments. Then build a new schedule. It will serve as a nice outline for the course. You may have to modify, add, or remove existing activities and lessons to adequately fit the blended format. For example, I like to conduct a mock and formal debate. In the past, I taught the reading course in a Web-enhanced format. In designing my project for the blended format, I realized that I could conduct the mock debate via the Meetings tool and keep the formal debate F2F. Lastly, make sure you edit all your existing assignments tied to lessons to reflect the updates.

In summary, the three main things to keep in mind for transitioning content from a F2F course to a blended format is to be hyper-vigilant of the lesson schedule, the adaptation of activities, and maintenance of the community of inquiry.


Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. U.S. Department of Education Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development Policy and Program Studies Service Center for Technology in Learning. Retrieved from

Sample Student and Teacher Expectations

Faculty and Students:

These are some best practices that an online instructor can use. Ask your instructor about their expectations and protocol.

What you can expect from your Instructor:

  • I’ll reply to your posts within 24-48 hours except during holidays or weekends.
  • I’ll provide clear and concise instructions and exercises for you to follow.
  • I’ll return graded assignments in a timely manner.
  • I’ll monitor discussions to clarify students’ postings, highlight good or interesting comments and ideas, and provide insight.
  • I’ll provide the necessary components of successful interaction: explanation, demonstration, practice, feedback, and assessment.
  • I’ll provide a range of practice opportunities–from self-corrected multiple-choice items to free form expression on a concept.
  • I’ll provide meta-cognitive, cognitive, and social strategies for instruction.
  • I know the platform you're using very thoroughly so that I can anticipate and make good guesses about the origins of any problems you’re likely to have and some answers for them.

What I expect from my Students:

  • You’ll learn what the minimum technical requirements of the course include. View the student orientation tutorial for this learning management system (Schoology) before getting started. Read the information in the Help tab (online manual) to learn how to use a tool. Seek other training services for basic computer and word processing skills.
  • Your discussion posts will be consequential and full of content! For example, simply responding “me too,” or “thanks,” does not include content. Use good grammar and spelling when posting online. 
  • You’ll follow the rules of Netiquette. For example, no bullying online.
  • You’ll complete all required tasks in a timely manner. Be proactive with a backup plan in case you're unable to access the Internet in your regular place of study.
  • You’ll preplan for testing situations to ensure uninterrupted span of time. For example, you won’t be able to access the Internet in remote locations such as on a cruise.
  • Don't plagiarize the work of others and claim it as your own. Cite your sources using the style guide required for your field of study (e.g., American Psychological Association’s manual for social science). Use the latest edition.

Protocol for Technical Issues:

  • First, make sure it’s not a browser issue (e.g., Google Chrome), and try a different browser to see if this resolves the issue. If so, then you need either to update your regular browser or clear its history/cookies/cache.
  • If after updating your browser, or other browser do not work, make sure it's not your computer. Try logging in from a different computer to see if you receive the same error message.
  • Read log error messages and record specifics of problems and forward this to the tech support and instructor. Take a screenshot if possible to illustrate the exact problem.
  • Remember that your peers can help you, too!
  • Last, after someone (or you) fixes the problem, make sure you refresh the Web page, as the system will remember the exact same page you were looking at the last time you logged in.

Cognitive Activities to Teach to the Whole Person


First, identify which types of activities you’re considering for your online course. Do they fall into a singular category of instructional strategies (e.g., all content-centered)? If so, consider adding some from each type of instructional strategy listed in the table below to address diverse learners. Varied activities will also keep your students interested/motivated to learn. These online activities are used at a local university's College of Education (Rogers & Van Haneghan, 2015). 

The table provides instructional strategies for distance education that engender higher-order thinking for each teaching approach to provide cognitive presence. This chart serves as a job aid for strategy selection during the design phase. Selection depends on various affordances and constraints such as time and resources. For example, an activity-centered lesson is based on an interactive task and requires collaborative tools and student groupings. Content-centered lessons are passive tasks where the student generally only interacts with the content; the exception being discussions of content. Experience-centered activities require a hands-on approach to developing something or serving/working with others. The learner-centered activity provides the learner with more autonomy over their pursuit of knowledge and includes metacognitive actions for self-regulation of learning; the affordances and constraints for this type of activity are highly dependent on the task.





  • Analysis of case studies
  • Critically review an article
  • HyperInquiry* team project
  • Academic controversy** assignment
  • Develop a book trailer on topic
  • WebQuest***

  • Pretest/Posttest
  • Write a literature review
  • Complete modules on topic in computer-adapted lab/program
  • Write essay
  • Make a presentation
  • Discuss content with peers and instructor

  • Develop questionnaires
  • Develop a personal model of topic
  • Participate in a simulation
  • Develop a workshop
  • Develop a wiki on topic
  • Develop a podcast on topic or narrated PowerPoint
  • Develop a how-to guide on procedure
  • Write a blog post on topic
  • Serve others as a mentor, tutor, or volunteer on topic
  • Peer-review of papers or projects
  • Students create m/c questions for review
  • Design a project
  • Evaluate a program
  • Write an autobiography of your interaction with topic
  • Complete self-evaluation
  • Develop a personal learning network****
  • Capture reflections in journal, audio, or video
  • Curate digital books and articles on topic for lifelong learning

*HyperInquiry, developed by Dempsey and Litchfield (2001), is similar to a WebQuest but at a deeper level of inquiry.

**Academic controversy is a debate where students eventually take on both sides of an argument.

***See Dr. Rogers’ college-level Webquest for developing job aids for critical thinking.

****See Dr. Rogers’ Twitter-based personal learning network at The Online Educator.

Magis Instructional Design Model Framework for Distance Education


The Magis Instructional Design (ID) Model for online courses was developed by Sandra Rogers (2015) with input from the Jesuits at Spring Hill College, as subject matter experts. It's unique in that it addresses religion, spirituality, and social justice in addition to intellectual growth. It's inclusive of service to others. According to one theology professor, Jesuit educators try to focus instructional activities on experiential learning to engender the cycle of experience leading to reflection and further action. This is based on the dynamics of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Additionally, Jesuit school educators include techniques for reflection within their units of study in order to challenge students to serve others (Korth, 1993). Further action and service to others are for the “greater glory of God” or the “Kingdom of God”. The following iterative steps are the framework of Dr. Rogers' Magis ID model for distance education, which is inclusive of the Ignatian pedagogical layers to develop learners into caring leaders. For more information, read Dr. Rogers' blog post on this topic.

  1. Analyze Human Learning Experience Online/Offline
  2. Establish Relationships of Mutual Respect Online/Offline
  3. Tap into Learner's Prior Knowledge & Experience
  4. Design Optimal Learning Experience for the Whole Person
  5. Assimilate New Information
  6. Transfer Learning into Lifeworld
  7. Encourage Lifelong Learning & Reflections Beyond Self-Interest
  8. Learners Become Contemplatives in Action

Similarity of Research-based Practices and Ignatian Pedagogy


The principles of Ignatian pedagogy include context, experience, reflection, action, and evaluation (Korth, 1993). I use the acronym CEREAL to remember these with the additional letter L for connecting to the learners' lifeworld. We encourage you to think about the types of instructional strategies that can address the whole person through cura personalis (mind, body, and spirit). In this way, we can address the Jesuit mission to transform learners into caring leaders who seek the truth, appreciate the beauty of life and God’s love, and promote human solidarity (Spring Hill College, 2016).

We recommend incorporating instructional theories, practices, and technologies that support an online community of inquiry(COI) to ensure cognitive presence (mind), social presence (body), and teaching presence (spirit) occur in our distance education courses. These presences are essential elements of the communication loop for an online COI (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). This means that learners in an online environment are involved in activities that are cognitively challenging, are able to interact with their classmates, and that the teacher is present in some way through words (e.g., text-based discussion), voice (e.g., podcasts), or person (e.g., webcast). Designing for a COI loop will address the Ignatian principles of teaching to the whole person.

Bernard et al. (2009) conducted a meta-analysis of 74 online course interactions and found substantive research outcomes indicating the positive effect on learning when online educators build these types of interactions into their courses: student-student, student-teacher, and student-content. These interaction treatments (ITs) were defined as the environments and not the actual behaviors that occur within them. Through instructional design processes, one can design and develop these types of environments for distance education. Table 1 displays the main focus of a Jesuit education, COI, ITs, and their interrelationships.

Table 1

Comparison of Jesuit Education and Research-Based Best Practices

Jesuit Education of the Whole Person




Necessary Elements for an Online Community of Inquiry

Cognitive Presence

Social Presence

Teaching Presence

Research-based Best Practices for Interaction Treatments

Student-content interactions

Student-student interactions

Student-teacher/moderator interactions


See Dr. Rogers' Online Community of Inquiry Syllabus Rubric© linked below to understand the critical elements to plan for your course to engender a robust community of inquiry in your online course. This is used at our College during course design or redesign to provide highly interactive courses to improve student learning outcomes and student satisfaction.

Useful Resources for Jesuit Educational Practices

Instructional Strategies and Technologies for Online Learner Engagement

How can online instructors engage their students?

Active learning engages the learner directly in the learning process through instructional activities with differing degrees of interaction, whereas passive learning occurs indirectly and without interaction. Active learning is preferred because it triggers cognitive functioning. Furthermore, active learning is a component of Ignatian pedagogy (i.e., context, experience, action, reflection, evaluation) in its goal to teach to the whole person (i.e., mind, body, and spirit). This document provides various instructional strategies and the digital tools that SHC instructors use to engage students online through active learning. The purpose of learner engagement through active learning is to increase student satisfaction and student achievement.

What does active learning look like on Schoology?

Active learning can take on different formats and levels of engagement. The following examples are from SHC instructors who have taught online for summer term, as well as those who teach hybrid and fully online programs. Examples include various disciplines from undergraduate and graduate level courses.  

Setting the Stage

Tell your students what you expect of them in the online course. Dr. Dunbar (Math) actually provides a PowerPoint titled, Setting the Stage, to share course requirements for the online environment and address learning values such as the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset. Dr. Switzer (Theology) also shares information on the growth mindset with his students. Dweck (2009) defined it as those who underestimate their ability to learn may have a fixed mindset, while those who believe that they can learn by establishing attainable goals and applying effort to learn have a growth mindset. Students with a growth mindset want to be corrected; their ego is not tied to learning. Conversely, those with a fixed mindset do not pay attention to corrective feedback. They believe that learning should not take any effort because it is tied to their intelligence; their ego influences how they learn. See Dr. Rogers’ blog post to Focus on the Process to Support the Growth Mindset of Students.

Make sure students know how to use the Schoology tools prior to high-stakes assignments. The SHC navigational template provides a Start Here folder with two orientation tasks for students: the Online Student Acknowledgement form assignment and the Getting Acquainted discussion. Additionally, ask students to take a quiz of zero value to familiarize them with the course tools. For example, Dr. Fox (Biology) uses a syllabus quiz to ensure students have read her syllabi. Another example is Mrs. McGonagle Crider’s (Business) use of the quiz feature to poll students’ work experience to better understand their prior knowledge on the subject.


Discussions can have well thought out open-ended questions or no questions at all. For example, Dr. Bagot (Theology) has had great success without providing questions in his online discussions. Instead, he tells students the purpose of discussions and that they will find suggestions for these in his podcast or video for that unit.

Monitor. For equity, a best practice is to create a matrix of teacher-student interactions to track your response efforts over the course of the semester. Monitoring your discussion posts will curtail various biases and ensure consistency.

Roles. Dr. Silvernail (Education) provides structure and student agency to discussions by assigning roles (e.g., starter, responder, and wrapper) and rotating those roles during the course. She noted a major difference in learner engagement. Without it, she had the same student posting first and everyone else waiting to reply. Student-moderated discussions provide social presence to build an online community of inquiry.

Media. Dr. Dodsworth (Philosophy) uses the Schoology Discussion tool’s audio/video recording feature to share his video introduction. He has students do the same. This provides both teaching presence and social presence to his online community of inquiry. Participants can also use the audio file feature if preferred. Consider making some of your discussions media-based to provide variety and a different type of engagement than text-based ones. The exchange of media will provide both teaching presence and social presence for your online community of inquiry.


Monitor. Drs. Bosco-Dunbar (Math) use the Schoology Student Completion option to monitor students’ completion of tasks (sequential or random). The Pathways to Purpose Guidebook’s online component is set up like this. Instructors select the Student Progress tab to view task completion (view readings, visit links, submit assignments, post to discussions, & take a quiz). Students will see a green checkmark next to completed items. This is a passive learner engagement activity albeit a powerful one. See this Schoology video on how to set student completion rules on your materials.

Groupwork. Dr. Dunbar (Math) uses mini group projects in his basic statistic course. Projects provide student agency in the design of their own learning. Provide team roles (e.g., team leader/organizer, researcher, writer, & presenter) and peer evaluation form to ensure everyone participates fully. Include expectations for group grade such as everyone provides proofreading of assignment prior to submission. Encourage student groups to set up their own ground rules for group meetings and task sharing. Monitor group work by asking to be added to the document workspace such as a shared Google folder.

Presentations. As for hybrid courses, the Theology master’s program maximizes the face-to-face meeting by asking students to present their work to each other during seminar sessions in their level one courses. This is referred to as flipped learning when you use class time for student activities instead of teacher-centered activities. For fully online courses, students can share their media presentations (e.g., narrated PowerPoints saved as MP4 files, audio/podcast, or video projects) with other students in the Schoology Media Album. This tool allows students to provide feedback. For example, Professor Sullivan (Visual & Performing Arts) uses the Schoology Media Album for students to curate a cohesive exhibition of contemporary artists or an artist who have a national or international reputation.

Interactive products. The business, foreign language, and math departments use ancillary interactive multimedia such as WebAssign for homework or supplant instruction with computer-adapted commercial products such as MyITLab. Dr. Sanders (Education) uses EdPuzzle to engage learners while watching a video with questions to answer before preceding to the next segment; this tool provides the instructor with learner analytics.


How can students demonstrate mastery besides multiple-choice tests? These are still useful for testing recall. However, to engage the learner in higher order thinking skills, we should provide alternative assessments such as project-based learning, essays, portfolios, performance, products, and presentations. These do not need to be end-of-term projects. Formative assessments can be formal or informal (practice tests, digital exit tickets, & polls), which serve as comprehension checks during the course and subsequent student feedback. This is in contrast to summative assessments that test your cumulative knowledge on a topic at end of term. Formative assessments promote fairness by gathering evidence of students’ understanding throughout the course, which can be used to better inform/modify your instructional practices to meet students’ needs.

Mastery. Set tests to multiple attempts to help students achieve mastery. This triggers new learning and/or review of content, as student revisit content for answers.

Feedback & Guidance

Rubrics. Schoology provides blank rubrics for you to establish the criteria and scale for various tasks. For example, these can be attached to discussions and assignments. Rubrics provide consistency and speed with grading. The rubric feature on Schoology allows you to provide feedback at the criterion level and for overall performance. Additionally, you can tag your departmental student learning outcomes to these rubrics to help students understand why the task is important. See sample criteria for discussion rubric below.


Grading Scale


Spelling, grammar, and academic language






Needs Improvement


Acknowledges sources and individual opinion






Needs Improvement


Refers to topic question and other posts






Needs Improvement


Shows depth and understanding of the material






Needs Improvement

Responses to Classmates

Courteous, insightful, and relevant






Needs Improvement


Scaffolded instructional feedback. Scaffolding instruction provides content in meaningful and manageable chunks of information. This entails providing visuals for structure, context, or direction and just-in-time definitions. For example, segment a lecture at viable points and ask reflective questions. For writing, break large tasks such as research papers into point-based phases of the writing process (e.g., outline, literature review with five citations, rough draft, & final paper). Design for tolerance for error by providing space to practice (e.g., mock interviews/comps/presentations, tutorials, & simulations).

Peer feedback. It is critical to provide guidelines and criteria for peer feedback tasks. For writing, assign a peer review of first draft papers utilizing MS Word tracked changes or Google Docs suggested edits. Access to the documents would be shared with the instructor for review. For media, use the Schoology Media Album. It will accept narrated PowerPoints if you save them as MP4 files.

Embedded librarian. Utilize the library liaisons in your course assignments. For example, Professor Heim has proposed modeling questioning for students’ self-reflection as an embedded librarian to infuse Ignatian pedagogy through journaling activities. Your library liaison’s contact information should be included in the course’s Start Here folder within a subfolder titled, Library and Digital Literacy.

Evaluation of Course Design

The nursing and theology programs have developed a modified version of the SHC student rating instruction (SRI). For example, Dr. Carmody (Theology) added additional questions to his SRI to obtain feedback on his course design. In particular, he asked whether the narrated PowerPoints and audio files were helpful; student responses for this question ranged from 4.85 to 5.0. He incorporates pertinent student feedback into the redesign of his course. For example, he implemented the following students’ requests: no discussions the week of the face-to-face seminar or the week final papers were due.

What are other ways to engage learners?

Learner Strategies

Provide students with strategies and tips on how to learn the content. Include bad examples of study habits that do not yield results for long-term memory (e.g., cramming for a test). Metacognition is becoming aware of how you learn. Fr. Viscardi is a proponent of metacognitive strategies because it aligns with Ignatian pedagogy through context, action, and reflection. Share how these strategies build their brain’s schema on the topic and its relation to other subjects for long-term memory. See Dr. Rogers’ Student Learning Organizer of Metacognitive Strategies on the Learning Strategies tab. It is shared in the LEAP lab with freshmen at SHC. However, it is not explicitly addressed and not all students may be familiar with it. Also, see the list of cognitive strategies to share with students on that tab. The difference between metacognitive and cognitive being meta-awareness versus concreteness respectively. Most students are likely familiar with the structural cognitive ones such as creating a concept map.


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