Enabling student-centred learning when teaching online

Roshni Barot, Ollie Brook, Joanne Morton, Matt Tregellas

This piece of work was submitted as a student essay for the MA Digital Technologies, Communication and Education at the University of Manchester


The focus of student-centred learning is “to provide high-quality, engaging learning experiences” (Riggs, 2020) (emphasis added by the author) that use innovative methods and create active participants of learners. Here they develop transferable skills: reflective thinking, problem solving, and critical thinking all through content that challenges and encourages deeper understanding. For SCL to succeed, the learner, their peers, the educator and their institution need to work in unison. 

The digital pivot to online teaching and learning, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, has challenged many educators aiming to adopt a student-centred learning (SCL) approach. Educators with limited digital skills may have found a transmissive style of teaching easier to manage online. Even those who were able to create student-centred learning opportunities in face-to-face classrooms, may have found they were less able to put students at the centre of online learning interactions.  

Attard et al (2010) created a toolkit aimed at encouraging more SCL in higher education and acknowledge the crucial role that technology plays in ‘enhancing’ (p. 43) SCL. They also note that barriers to adopting SCL are numerous and common, and a cultural shift in an organisation is required. These barriers can be financial, institutional, attitudinal and a matter of prioritisation and apply to both online and face-to-face learning. 

This report will consider pedagogical and practical considerations for online teaching and learning when trying to maintain a student-centred approach, in terms of students’ interactions with the course content, peers and instructors, and barriers to adopting SCL.

Student-content interactions

The importance of interaction between learners and their peers and teachers in online and blended courses is widely agreed (Petronzi and Hadi, 2016; Garrison, 2009). Although the best means to achieve higher-order learning outcomes may be “through critical discourse in a collaborative community of learners” (Garrison, 2009, p98), the interaction between learners and the instructional content nonetheless plays a significant role in student attainment and satisfaction (Katsarou and Chatzipanagiotou, 2021). Although an ideal online or blended course may aim to provide a mix of student-teacher, student-student and student-content interaction, the constraints placed on some online courses may mean that there is a heavy leaning towards student-content interaction, for example when an education provider wishes to provide a course at a low cost, meaning there is limited resource to pay for teaching staff. Even with an even balance of interaction types, in order to avoid student-content interactions that involve learners simply following a linear path through videos or readings imposed by the teacher, it is possible to give control of many variables such as tasks and procedures to the student (Bonk and Khoo, 2014) to make the interaction more student-centred. 

Attending to the nature of the learning environment can support SCL. An online learning environment should have a clean design and be intuitive to use, so that it does not reduce the students’ ability to engage with the content by diverting their cognitive capacity (Parker, 2013; Lehman and Conceição, 2013). In addition to the interface, cognitive burden can be reduced by providing the learner with as much control over the content as possible. For example, this can be achieved by providing transcripts and slides, ensuring video is downloadable, giving learners the ability to vary the speed of video playback, providing a variety of tasks at different levels of difficulty and allowing, where possible, some flexibility in the deadlines for submitting tests and assignments (Hew, 2016). 

Journal writing has a number of benefits including promoting reflective and active learning, developing self-knowledge of learning styles, encouraging critical thinking and problem solving and helping learners to connect their learning to real-world contexts (Harrell, 2013). A variety of ways to respond to the content can be suggested, such as writing a summary, writing five key take aways and one outstanding questions or writing an op-ed on the content (Riggs, 2020), with the ultimate decision of how to respond to the content being given to the learner. In addition, the medium used for journaling can also be handed over to the learner in a student-centred learning environment. For example, learners could use pen and paper, keep a blog, record their voice, make PowerPoint slides or use a combination of media. Another way to promote inner dialogue on the concepts studied and the learning process is to include self-assessment tools (Bonk and Khoo, 2014, p86). Such self-assessment tools could be created in a platform such as Google Forms and would prompt learners to respond on their perceived acquisition of certain skills and competencies. Instantaneous automated feedback could then be delivered with suggestions for further reading or practice activities where the learner has indicated they need to develop further. Journaling and self-assessment tools are examples of student-self interaction, introduced by Soo and Bonk (1998), which can be described as “the learners’ reflections on the content, learning process and his new understanding” (Soo and Bonk, 1998, p3) via a process of inner-dialoguing. This ability to monitor one’s own learning is seen as particularly important in an online learning environment (Northrup, 2001).

Student-content interaction can be made more student-centred by giving learners the opportunity to take the learning in their own direction. This can be facilitated by providing a wide range of optional resources such as readings, videos and links to external websites (Hew, 2016). Another strategy is for the course designer to provide a summary of key literature, with the full texts being available as additional reading for those who are interested to learn more (Hew, 2016). Students can be encouraged to develop their own literature search by identifying questions they still have about content as part of the journaling process and using this as a starting point for a web search (Bonk and Khoo, 2014, p112). Providing extra resources satisfies the need for autonomy in a student-centred learning environment and respects learners’ differences. 

SCL respects the individual differences of learners, including their previous learning and experiences. Students can be encouraged to access their existing knowledge prior to interacting with course content. Al Mamun, Lawrie and Wright (2020) introduce a design model called POEE (Predict, Observe, Explain and Evaluate). In this model learners draw on their existing knowledge to make predictions prior to engaging with the content (the observe phase). This is then followed by the learner explaining what they observed and then evaluating their explanation in light of automated feedback. As well as respecting individual background knowledge this approach also encourages active engagement with the content. Conversely, where learners lack knowledge in the discipline or experience with the tools employed in the learning environment, this should also be considered. Missing background knowledge can be addressed by providing optional resources. For example, if a concept is mentioned in the video, but without explanation, a hyperlink can appear to an explanation for those who need it (Cattaneo et al., 2019). Adequate training on the tools of the learning environment and study skills for self-directed learning should be available for those who lack this experience (Bonk and Khoo, 2014, pp26-27). 

Content is made more meaningful for learners when it is embedded in real-world contexts (Vai and Sosulski, 2015, p130). The use of scenarios is learner-centred as it makes content more easily transferable to the learner’s real-life contexts while developing critical thinking (Clark and Mayer, 2012, p13). E-learning authoring tools such as H5P (https://h5p.org/branching-scenario) make possible the production of branching scenarios, which have multiple outcomes depending on the choices the learner makes. Automated feedback can be provided so the learner is able to constantly re-evaluate their decisions. A study by Kakazu (2021) found that such scenarios positively impacted the speed and accuracy of diagnoses made by paramedics. 

Student-student interactions

The prevailing constructivist pedagogy in education, advanced by scholars such as Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky, suggests that students need to take an active role in learning because knowledge is constructed when students participate in discussion, problem solving and modification of concepts with their peers. According to Belderrain (2006), students’ active participation is predicated on belonging to a learning community. Hence, much value is now placed on facilitating student-student interactions and active learning in online courses. 

According to Garrison’s (2011) community of inquiry framework (CoI), students need to “construct meaning” and they “refine and confirm this understanding collaboratively within a community of learners” when learning online (p.10). Thus, learning is seen both as an individual act (information acquisition) and a social transaction (knowledge construction). If learning is to be successful, students need to have a social presence (to project their identity), a cognitive presence (to share reflections and engage in discourse with their peers), and a teaching presence. They express a teaching presence when they co-manage collaborative learning activities with peers and actively take responsibility for their learning. Within the CoI framework there is a focus on student-student interactions via shared discussion, inquiry and problem-solving activities. 

Laurillard’s (2012) conversational framework highlights the need for educators to consider students’ current knowledge when designing courses, as knowledge is constructed based on what is already known. Students express and explore current knowledge through discussion with peers. Laurillard separates learning activities into acquisition, inquiry, discussion, practice and collaboration. Collaboration is seen as the most complex form of learning and is defined as an activity for which students need to produce a joint output. When working together to produce something, students benefit from seeing how other students work (peer modelling), learn from the process of expressing and refining ideas reciprocally with peers, and are motivated to ‘practice’ with each other, by creating fuller explanations and ideas than they might have if working individually. The product of the collaboration (such as a poster or presentation) gives direct feedback about the state of the students’ knowledge, while the interactions between peers allow students to construct knowledge. Examples of such an activity could be students jointly producing a presentation in Google Slides while video conferencing, or producing a mind-map in Miro asynchronously, using WhatsApp to negotiate content and meaning. A combination of digital tools can be used as collaborative construction tools, and the instructor has responsibility for scaffolding this process and modelling how to use the tools operationally and socially.  

However, it is noted that these ideal interaction patterns do not always work in practice. Wise et al. (2013) note that many computer-mediated discussions demonstrate low participation rates, limited responses to others’ contributions, shallow or incoherent contributions and give the impression that posts are performative (for the instructor’s benefit), rather than for developing a meaningful discussion with peers. Similarly, Wikis were lauded as a digital tool in which students need to actively collaborate to produce a shared product. However, studies of such interactions have shown that students in these projects are often working individually on their own section of a project, over which they feel a sense of ownership, rather than having the meaningful discussions educators may have hoped for (Grant, 2009). Hence, setting a collaborative task does not ensure that knowledge is being negotiated and constructed, and educators may need to guide students towards more collaborative working to ensure students are not simply learning independently within a shared digital space. 

Despite some of the challenges of establishing meaningful student-student interactions, it has been found that these activities have value even for students who do not visibly engage. Wise et al. (2013) found that ‘listening’ or reading others’ contributions on discussion boards has value for learning, even when the student does not contribute their own post. Sutton (2001) referred to this as ‘vicarious interaction’ and suggested that those who are reluctant to contribute online (due to social anxiety or lack of academic confidence) benefit because of ‘anticipatory interaction’, meaning that students go through many of the same mental processes as contributing students because they rehearse what they would contribute. Thus, even students who are not visibly active in peer interactions still benefit from the interactions and contributions of their peers. 

Students with weak digital skills may feel less willing to interact with peers in computer mediated communication. For example, they may not want to act as group scribe in a shared document or share their screen in breakout rooms. Hence, they project less presence (Garrison, 2009) in group work. Additionally, Luckin (2008) suggests that students have an existing ‘ecology of resources’, or technology preferences, when working online. For example, some may always use Google Scholar rather than the institutions library catalogue or use Snapchat rather than Whatsapp for messaging peers. Educators’ imposing new tools into students’ ecology of resources can put a strain on students. Starting courses with a narrow range of digital tools and allowing students to develop their competence in these or use equivalent tools from within their ecology of resources may reduce students’ technical load.

It is also noted that not all students will respond in the same way to SCL online. Many students have additional learning support needs, chronic health conditions and high life-loads. Furthermore, they may have competing social identities (e.g. worker/parent/carer). Complex identities can contribute to a reluctance to project oneself into online learning spaces (Hughes, 2010). Many seek to control the information they share online (Walther, 2011) and avoid judgment based on their socio-economic status, gender identity, ethnicity, physical appearance or neurodiversity by not turning on their video cameras in breakout rooms with peers – meaning that less social presence is projected into the learning space and they may feel overlooked by peers (Raes, 2022). In terms of cognitive presence, many students’ prior learning experiences have led to low academic confidence, and these students can be reluctant contributors. Similarly, it is unlikely such students will be willing to project a teaching presence in online peer activities. Thus, an inclusive, supportive and flexible approach is needed when fostering student-student interactions online. 

Student-teacher interactions

As the popularity of online learning grows and options such as MOOCS, distant learning and Ed Tech private education providers soar in popularity, it is important to consider the changes that a virtual setting brings to the learning experience. Limitations of non-verbal cues and students turning off cameras during teaching, can be challenging for educators, disrupting traditional interactions between the student and teacher. In a virtual setting there is an absence of interpersonal communication which teachers employ to create intimacy. For example, creating warmth through smiling, eye contact, walking around the classroom, all of which typically encourage students understanding and improves their learning experience (Roberts and Friedman, 2013).

What is interesting about online learning environment is that the student has the choice to interact or simply not engage, for example switch off their camera. Students will gain the most value from the learning content when they interrelate with the learning environment.  Sutton points out that providing opportunities for multiples interactions is critical to the success of most students to become participates in distance education (Sutton, 2001) 

As the education experience shifts to virtual Al Ghamdi, Samarji and Watt (2016) explore the term ‘e-intimacy’ and how traditional non-verbal cues can be substituted for electronic modes such as emojis and quick response rates to questions through the online chat functionality, all said to improve the online interactions between students and teacher. Is there an unrealistic expectation on the teacher to answer asynchronous and synchronous communication instantly? Anderson’s perspective is that a need to communicate in real time can be overwhelming for the teacher and even hinder the student’s development. By playing a less central role in class discussion can support the student’s commitment and participation (Anderson, and Elloumi, 2004).  

The interaction between student- teacher is significantly associated with perceived learning and student satisfaction, the student values the opportunity to have interactions with their teacher. It is therefore critical that the teacher provides opportunities for the students to feedback during a virtual class. Space carved out for the student to share their ideas is a mechanism to reinforce understanding of the content (Sher, 2009). For the student to feel that they are part of a community, the teacher could strengthen the interaction by offering a personalised learning experiences such as recognising the online community as individuals, for example, referring to students by their names. A counter augment is that anonymity is said to have increase equity amongst students so the teacher addressing students personally, may be counter intuitive to the teacher creating SCL where students are able to have open interactions with their teacher (Chester and Gwynne, 1998). 

It is recognised that the role of a teacher is more complex when taken online, Keengwe and Kidd (2010) argue when virtual the role can be viewed under four categories: pedagogical, social, managerial, and technical. How this differs from a face-to-face setting is most obvious within the ‘social’ and ‘technical’ categories. As explained the social environment online greatly differs from face-to-face, and the teacher must implement the appropriate interactions to create a SCL environment. 

Technical skills are vital and needed by the online teacher to deliver an online pedagogy that goes beyond the operational. During the pandemic the teacher was forced into a teaching mode that may not have been familiar to them, so poor online delivery could be forgiven. As we move beyond the pandemic, students’ expectations have increased. If the quality of online teaching is not met, it may be that the teacher needs to retrain in order to deliver high quality interactions to the student. The problem arises when students feel that their interactions with their teacher is hindered due to the lack of technical competency therefore effecting their learning experience. In a study, authors suggested that most of the students who responded, considered online teaching to be less effective than face-to-face. The authors indicate that dissatisfaction is due to the teachers lack of expertise when delivery course material online (Keengwe and Kidd, 2010). 

During online teaching there is a tendency for the teacher to take centre stage, and in turn the student wanting the teacher to take an active approach, a perspective supported by Oliver, Osborne and Brady (2009). With the teacher adopting the role of ‘sage on stage’ whilst students retreat into passive learners, where does this leave student centred learning within a virtual classroom? To mitigate passive student interaction the teacher may introduce scaffolding techniques to support the student through their online learning experience. Although this is technique used in face-to-face teaching, within an online setting a student may never meet their teacher in real life. Therefore, students need more support through a range of multi modal mediums during interactions when engaging in an online learning experience. 

Much of what is envisioned to be online learning, is teaching which takes place in an online classroom in real-time. There are many students particularly those who undertake in part-time distance learning courses, who rarely assess content synchronously. In this type of situation multimodal support becomes crucial, and for the learner to access information at any time and in any location, the teacher must lose the rigidity of traditional learning interactions. Therefore, the teacher must present content which can be accessed in a flexible way, that is not always linear. Through purposeful design the teacher can make available a diversity of learning tools and methods, as an example setting group work to encourage a SCL approach within an online setting. The interaction is an example that gives the teacher the role of a facilitator, and instead of the interaction being directive, it encourages the student to learn independently with guidance when required (Oliver, 1999). 

To summarize, for the teacher to deliver a SCL experience within an online learning environment, the teacher must create and foster an inclusive community which allows students interact in multiple ways. Throughout the learning journey the student should feel supported by the teacher using both synchronous and asynchronous methods, so experiences are scaffolded and there are options to meet the needs of diverse learners all working at a different pace. To meet the expectations of the student it is vital that the teacher has the correct technical expertise and delivers a pedagogy that suits an online setting with opportunities of meaningful interaction. 

Barriers and implications

e-learning Materials

When creating e-learning materials, the current ‘diversity of perspectives and approaches’ (Conole et al, 2004) are overwhelming to students and educators, both. Instead, what has emerged are materials that feel right for a learner group and are not strictly aligned to learning design. As with many new technologies, there is a rush to get out, explore and own the space. As educators we can be guilty of bringing new tools into the classroom as they have appeal, cachet and are the latest thing. Kahoot! – reflective of the pursuit of gamification in the classroom and the promise of engagement and enticement (Bicen & Kocakoyun, 2018) – became one of the top ‘e-learner tools’ in education (Restifo & Kapuler, 2021). Overuse of this app in the classroom and quizzing in general, accelerated by COVID-19, has seen active accounts rise from 15.8M to 21M in 2020 (Hanoa, 2021). That is not to say Kahoot! is purposeless, its mode of behaviourist learning reinforces the earlier work of Skinner (1954) with instant feedback and drill-based learning used to change the learning ‘behaviour’ of the participant, however anecdotal evidence suggest that this is now becoming tired, stale and too commonly used, particularly at Further Education level in Colleges in Scotland.  The individual learner and their learner journey are repeated themes in SCL. Their perspectives, learner styles and myriad cultures will all play a key role in engagement. Conole et al (2004) encourage educators ‘… to consider elements of their e-learning design and map these to particular theories and appropriate activities.’ (pg 32) emphasis added by the author. e-learning provides ample opportunity to gauge immediate feedback. This should be centred on the learner and not simply focus on attainment, grades and marks, but also look to the wider learning experience, fit and use of technologies and the online environment in general.

A Cultural Shift – Learners and Educators

COVID-19, the on-going pandemic, created an experience for many students and educators dubbed the ‘online pivot’ (Sylvia, 2022). Here, teaching materials were quickly, and as professionally as possible, moved from an in-person classroom environment to create an online classroom environment. In the college-sector in Scotland, time pressures, among other challenges, meant that Zoom, or similar, replaced the in-person delivery format, however, little change occurred in the content: in-person slides were still used only the environment for delivery was adjusted. 

‘Online education and remote instruction are not synonymous’ (Riggs, 2020). The academic year 2022-23 brings with it a ‘new’ approach: a hybrid model of learning where the delivery method will be blended, this continues to accelerate the trend for increasing numbers of staff to teach online (Gregory and Salmon, 2013). Students will participate in both in-person on campus lectures as well as remote, online delivery. It is therefore crucial that principles of SCL, chiefly, engagement and the student experience are considered in every stage of the lesson. ‘Live online learning often works best when learners have an opportunity to participate in the session’ (JISC, 2021).

Salmon’s five stage model (Salmon, 2012) is an excellent tool for managing the cultural shift and assisting the transition from classroom learner to online learner. A pivotal part of this scaffolding process is the required role of the e-moderator, for the purpose of this paper changed to educator, who act as a facilitator. Further, at each stage, there is a conscious awareness of the learner needs, outcomes and activities required to fulfil same. Captured in the table below is abbreviated roles by stage.

StageRole of LearnerRole of Educator
1 Access and MotivationNovice; this is all ‘very new’; feels supported; explorerWelcome; supporting; here throughout the ‘journey’
2 Online SocialisationAware of ‘others’ and connectionsHost; creator of e-tivities; leads
3 Information ExchangeExchanging with others (peers and educators); confidence grows; time management increasesModerates; contributes to the conversation but does not lead anymore
4 Knowledge ConstructionIntegral to the team; valued role and contributorGuides and manages; roles are defined so stands back and there if needed; holds overall vision
5 DevelopmentApplies the learning to other elements of life/study – integrates to own context; the ‘being’ mode of educationRewards success – assessment, marks, grades; highlights the journey travelled; what next?

Salmon’s work clearly highlights the changing nature of both the learner and the educator across a unit/course. However, it is worth noting that these roles are fluid. As both parties are exposed to the digital environment, their confidence in platform use and other fundamental basics: chat box, Zoom, email communications, also increases. Their digital culture improves. A key component in synchronous online learning is camera-use. Castelli et al (2020) reported that in the ‘live’ learning environment, camera use created higher interactivity, a stronger sense of community and higher levels of enjoyment. Unfortunately, as courses progress, camera use decreases, this has been the personal experience of all paper authors combined. However, when we ‘engage students with active learning’ (pg 3565) – a central tenet of SCL – this trend is reversed. Thus, the suggestion that better engagement is possible through activities that have the student as primary focus.

A pedagogical approach to planning learning activities has been in literature for decades suggesting that the cultural change required is one that will address use of a different medium and the changing role of the learner in these new digital platforms. A flexible approach to learning is not a new concept (Collis et al, 1997), however, digital platforms and personalisation of learning provide opportunities for e-learning to embrace this flexibility: meet their needs; adapt to individual styles; be delivered in a format that suits; and, when it suits, on a greater scale.  We must though apply caution, educational radio and instructional television were set to revolutionise learning in the 20th century (Selwyn, 2016), could a blend of SCL and online finally realise this?


In conclusion, SCL can be achieved online when educators consider the three interaction patterns available in virtual environments. Student-centred interactions with peers, the content and the instructor can be enabled synchronously and asynchronously to provide high quality learning opportunities in response to both students’ learning needs and the move towards more flexible learning provision. Institutional barriers need to be removed, including investment in training and technology for both teachers and learners, so that a culture of putting the student at the centre of their learning experience can be achieved in online settings.


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