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A Learner Centered Approach to Online Education

reviewed by Rhonda Bondie - January 11, 2015

coverTitle: A Learner Centered Approach to Online Education
Author(s): Lisa Harrell
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623962927, Pages: 138, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

Students born into the Internet generation bring their digital expertise and expectations to the classroom. Educators, particularly those in higher education, are pressured to recognize the expertise and expectations of millennial students by providing opportunities for online education; however, many instructors are just beginning to explore teaching in a digital world, and they need practical information to rapidly build online courses and teaching skills. Lisa Harrell’s A Learner Centered Approach to Online Education is a guidebook designed to meet this urgent demand by supporting instructors to develop engaging rigorous online courses driven by meeting learners’ academic needs.

In seven chapters, Harrell guides educators through a logical sequence of planning the core elements used in online teaching. Each chapter begins with clear objectives and ends with an application project that invites the reader to use the information and resources presented in the chapter to build an online course. The book provides a step-by-step approach to structuring digital opportunities for learners to interact with the course content, fellow students, and instructors. The research-based practical advice and links to useful resources with summarized descriptions are strengths of the book. The resources range from low cost to free solutions that are appropriate for both novice and accomplished technology users. Geared toward busy educators, the book is short, easy to read, and covers the essential content to immediately implement an online course.

The book begins with an introduction that explains the growth and importance of online learning in the education landscape. Harrell makes a convincing argument that even tech-savvy students and educators need preparation for successful online learning. Three chapters focus solely on planning instruction with the first offering guidance on identifying accessible and rigorous learning outcomes and instructional objectives. The second is a useful chapter detailing the variety of ways digital communication may occur and offering many specific strategies for increasing online interactions.  The book ends with a vital chapter on assessment and grading rubrics that includes tips for a wide variety of assessments and potential pitfalls of implementing tests online. Information on how to maintain academic integrity in an online environment is extremely important.


The following four management tips provide examples of the practical advice that Harrell offers throughout the book. First, online teaching requires more time. Those new to online teaching may be surprised to find that “online course development, preparation, and management require more time than traditional courses” (p. 7). Second, instructors should take time to teach expectations and competencies. Surveys and modules are suggested to ensure digital natives and course instructors share common expectations and have acquired the necessary online learning skills. For example, “students should be aware of the competencies needed to be successful in an online course” (p. 15). Third, instructors should aim to increase interactions. Online courses foster many different types of interactions including: the course content and student, student to student, and student to instructor. Courses that promote and require diverse interactions will engage students with a wide range of learning needs (p. 68). Finally, instructors should provide students with policies for feedback and response time. Chapter Two offers suggestions for policies regarding instructors’ response time, e-mail, phone messages, discussion board postings, and grading. In addition, Chapter Six describes types of student-instructor interaction including characteristics of effective feedback. This information provides online instructors with strategies to increase the effectiveness of the course.

Course designers can use this text to think through potential management problems before they occur, explore suggested resources, and follow the directions in the application projects to create and implement an effective online course. Readers will enter digital learning with their eyes open.


Readers should be aware of missing information from the book; for example, the “learner-centered approach” is not specifically defined. Although a theoretical framework for or definition of “learner-centered” is not explicit in the text, the author presents a perspective that "learner-centered" begins with knowing each learner in the context of developing a deep understanding of the course content. Researchers Huba and Freed (2000) identified differences between teacher-centered versus learner-centered instruction to include significant shifts in the role of the professor, learner, purpose of assessment, and the relationship of assessment to learning. Specific learner-centered approaches such as using assessments to promote a classroom culture of collaboration are not clearly addressed in the book. Without knowing key elements of implementing a learner-centered approach, readers may wonder if their online course is learner-centered.

In addition, readers should use caution when reading Chapters Three and Four. These chapters offer a variety of ways to think about individual differences from a wide range of theory bases, learning styles, intelligences, cultural background, age, and skill levels. Harrell emphasizes that the needs of an online learner are the priority in course design. “Teaching and learning strategies that accommodate a variety of cognitive styles, learning styles, and multiple intelligences should be incorporated into the online course or learning activity” (p. 41). When planning course objectives and learning activities, Harrell encourages designers to consider domains of learning, such as different types of knowing including factual, conceptual, and procedural.

Cognitive scientists may disagree with the approach outlined in Chapters Three and Four. For example, Riener and Willingham (2010, p. 35) explain that “students differ in their abilities, interests, and background knowledge, but not in their learning styles. Students may have preferences about how to learn, but no evidence suggests that catering to those preferences will lead to better learning.” Cognitive science agrees that people differ in their abilities with different modalities, but that teaching in a student’s best modality hasn’t been shown to affect educational achievement.

Teaching in the modality that represents the meaning of the content seems to be the most important for learners (Willingham, 2005). Technological affordances including images, sound, video, and animation easily provide opportunities for meaningful content presentation in an online learning environment. The information from Chapters Three and Four may be most useful when considering the multiple, powerful ways content information can be communicated in an online course rather than accommodating individual learning styles.


There is an urgent need for all educators to think about how online learning will impact their practice. This book is designed to efficiently meet that need through a brief methodical presentation, including a wealth of resources and practical action steps. If providing online learning that effectively engages diverse learners is on the list of things “to-do” then a step toward accomplishing that goal would be to read this book.


Huba, M. E., & Freed, J. E. (2000). Learner-centered assessment on college campuses: Shifting the focus from teaching to learning. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Riener, C., & Willingham, D. (2010). The myth of learning styles. Change: The magazine of higher learning, 42(5), 32–35.

Willingham, D. T. (2005). Do visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners need visual, auditory, and kinesthetic instruction? American Educator, 29(2), 31–35.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 11, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17811, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 11:51:08 PM

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About the Author
  • Rhonda Bondie
    Fordham University
    E-mail Author
    RHONDA BONDIE, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of special education at Fordham University in New York City. She enjoyed over twenty years as both a teacher and administrator in K-12 urban public schools. Rhonda’s research focuses on teaching all learners in inclusive settings using routines rooted in self-regulated learning theory and personalized learning through online platforms.
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