• Victoria Hekking

Make Your Online Course Better Than a Textbook

By Seth Crandall |

Have you seen an online course that essentially resembles a digital textbook?

Such courses contain page after page after page of informational text or lecture videos. Upon arriving at the end of a module or unit, there is a multiple-choice assessment (or something similar). In the next module, you rinse and repeat. Often, there is a course paper or project that is nailed haphazardly to the side. The learner will usually procrastinate until near the due date and then stay up late the night before to throw it together.

Granted, the above description is a theoretically unadulterated example of a “textbook” online course. Many courses resemble the textbook model to one degree or another, even if they may not be as wholly horrifying as what I described above. Frankly, they’re the easiest way to build an online learning experience, but they are of the lowest quality in terms of learning design and learner experience.

What Fundamentally Makes a “Textbook” Course a Textbook Course?

Fundamentally, a “textbook” learning experience is focused on providing the learner with information. At its core, it is a list of topical items presented and explained. While a textbook course may contain a stroke or two of brilliance, cumulatively, it does not move beyond dryly disseminating information as a traditional textbook does.

In a traditional classroom, handing a learner a textbook or endlessly lecturing would never be an acceptable way of teaching or educating. The same is true for online learning experiences. As educators, academics, or learning designers, we must provide learners with the best experience possible. This can be achieved by shifting the focus away from merely teaching content to supporting the application, creativity, and synthesis of education.

Elevating From Information to Application

Many educators and learning designers attempt to fix their textbook courses with flash. They believe that by simply adding more robust learning technologies or flashy software integrations, their course will suddenly become legendary and exemplar. However, if the focus and use of these flashy integrations remain on information distribution, they are mere smoke and mirrors (e.g., putting “lecture” content into a program where the learner clicks through with images, mini videos, and the like. The content may be better chunked and visually more appealing, but the educational value is essentially the same as paragraphs of text or a video with a talking head).

Additionally, many also attempt to fix their courses by upping the active learning. The assumption here is that if the learner is doing something while they learn, the experience must be quality. Doing so may or may not elevate the course. Once more, the focus of the course is what indicates the quality. If the learner is doing a bunch of clicking interactives, but the focus is still on getting the learner to merely know the content, the interactive adds little value. On the other hand, if the active learning is the student applying concepts and creating something new, then the active learning is adding value because the focus is on something more than the student merely learning content. Quality courses have lots of active learning, but active learning doesn’t always indicate a quality course.

The focus of the best courses is enabling the learner to do, apply, synthesize, or reflect. The driving force is on the end goals and not the middle substance. On the other hand, textbook courses focus on covering all the information bases, comprehensive coverage over the course's scope.

What do application-based courses look like? There is no one definitive model for creating an effective application-based course. As long as the focus is on do, apply, synthesis, or reflect, the learner is adequately supported to succeed. If the course lives true to that focus, it can be effective. Deductive and inductive models are both acceptable, depending on the subject and course goals. Keep in mind that in application-based courses, the content will still be presented and taught; it just isn’t the focus or principal component.

The Contrast Between Textbook and Application-Based Courses

To visualize the superior educational value of application-based courses over textbook courses, let’s compare some examples.


Putting a textbook online and calling it a course or an effective learning experience is ludicrous. In the online age where technology has so much capacity to support humans in learning at high levels, it doesn’t make sense to put archaic technology (i.e., the textbook and anything like unto it) in the place of application-based learning. Flare and “active” learning are not always synonymous with high quality. To advance online learning, attention must be placed directly on the learner doing, applying, synthesizing, and reflecting. That is where real learning takes place.


Seth Crandall

Learning Designer at Construct