Online learning

Managing Virtual Teaching & Learning Expectations

Almendra Staffa-Healey

Almendra Staffa-Healey


I’ve been an experiential learning educator for over 20 years. I learn by doing and I teach others to learn by doing. It works for me. And it’s worked for a bunch of people I’ve touched across my career. 

I’d like to say that I have an open mind and that I am flexible. I’d like to say that I’ve got a high tolerance for learning under a wide variety of teaching styles. After all, I went to 19 different educational institutions in three different countries by the time I graduated from university. 

I’d also like to think that there is a learning opportunity in every online presentation, course or event. But the reality is that I find myself multitasking as I listen. The reality is that I make it through about 10 or 15 minutes and then I close my laptop. My body tenses, and in my head, I shout: “THIS ISN’T WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR!”

What am I expecting? Why am I expecting something that isn’t being delivered? 

The passive online learning model bothers me. It’s not that I’m fidgety. It contradicts how I learn and how I teach. I’m a constructivist at heart. I believe that in my interactions with others I bring something to the table as do they. How we relate to each other is based on our culture, experiences, and the structures we’ve developed to interpret what happens around us. I construct how I make meaning of things.

Could it be that my own teacher training, my core values and my commitment to constructivist approaches to learning are at the root of this frustration?

The pitfalls of constructivism online

Under this pedagogical model education was about learning and not teaching. It’s about constructing knowledge personally and socially based on the meaning made through lived experiences.  As an experiential learning educator who has been involved in mobility projects to get students to have internship programs in other countries, my role shifts between expert, guide, and facilitator. Constructivism was the “natural” and better way for me to help my students make the most of translating their lived experiences into knowledge and skills. 

Mobility and in-person instructional restrictions have forced a shift to learning online. 

In 2018, before this sudden need for online instruction, Sarah Guri-Rosenblit, Vice-President for Academic Affairs at the Open University of Israel pointed out that the assumed advantages of employing digital technologies in higher education were that teachers went from being “ a ‘sage on the stage’ to a ´guide on the side’, and that such a transformation takes place naturally in online settings” (93). The idea is that digital technologies provided a space for teachers to become facilitators rather than instructors. Where we’re naïve in our thinking is in assuming the online format provides a natural space for experience, and hence for constructing meaning. It doesn’t. 

“E-teaching is an essential prerequisite for e-learning”

 – Sarah Guri-Rosenbilt

The roles of teachers in an online environment differ meaningfully from their traditional roles in a classroom setting. Commonly the new technologies are being used for add-on functions. Teachers need to overhaul their instructional design in order to create engaging intensive online learning experiences.


The hidden opportunities of constructivism online

The hidden opportunities of constructivism online

The beauty of online programs is that they can still facilitate the self-directed learning that made the constructivist approach so appealing in the first place. They are able to give teachers and educators a supporting role in the student’s learning journey.  The challenge is that they require much more back end work and planning for the feel of improvisation and discovery. The ‘hidden’ behind the scenes work requires educators to reconceptualize the lesson and experience.

I’ve been fortunate to experience a few first-hand online events that didn’t make me want to shut my laptop. They’ve given me hope not only personally but also for my fellow educators. So, while I have suffered in a lot of online events, I’ve actually also received some brilliant e-teaching. I share three of them here with you:

  • Live Online Learning Activities (LOLAs) by The Thiagi Group:
    It’s a course that is designed to help educators facilitate engaging online activities
  • The Global Case Study Challenge Certificate Program in Virtual learning design and facilitation:
    It’s a certification program to help educators/trainers/facilitators become effective online program designers 
  • #VirtualSpaceHero LinkedIn LIVE 30.10.2020 “The virtual /online classroom as an opportunity to bring the learning journey alive” with Melanie Martinelli and Barbara Covarrubias Venegas 
    It’s a recorded conversation that inspires reflection on how to make effective learning journeys possible in the virtual space

A few tips to facilitate constructivist learning online

A few tips to facilitate constructivist learning online

The instructors in the examples mentioned above take e-teaching to a higher level. They give more responsibility to the learner, thus making me a part of the learning
process. They enable true e-learning. They set up environments that:

  • encourage building upon prior knowledge
  • force you to think critically
  • make you reflect
  • enable you to practice and present independently and in small groups

As Kelsey Hood Cattaneo points out in her article about constructivism in educational design, ‘Telling Active Learning Pedagogies Apart: from theory to practice’ (2017, 146), “as students’ capacity increases they become responsible for the content and process of learning, which frees the teacher to play a non-expert, facilitator or guiding role.” The instructors that have offered these three events have freed themselves and their students by firstly working, and a lot.

What tips can I give you? Do the “behind the scenes” preparation.

  • Select Problem Based Learning (PBL) and Case Based Learning instructional design in order to make this happen. PBL puts the stress on collaborative learning, reflection as well as intrinsic motivation. Case Based Learning puts to use recalling information, applying it to different contexts and making interdisciplinary connections, and incorporates trial and error into the decision- making process.
  • Also consider getting away from using what Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless call the Big Five conventional approaches: the presentation, the managed discussion, the status report, the open discussion, and the brainstorm. Instead try out and incorporate their 33 Liberating Structures. In their book they write: “as one of our participants put it: ‘Warning – you may never be able to tolerate another endless conference/meeting again and may feel that everyone is in The Matrix except you!´” (2013, 47-48).

It’s time to give our students and our participants of our online training and educational programs what they signed up for: meaningful learning experiences in the virtual space.


  • Cattaneo, H. (2017). Telling Active Learning Pedagogies Apart: from theory to practice. Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research, 6(1), 144-152. doi: 10.7821/naer.2017.7.237 
  • Guri-Rosenblit, S. (2018). E-Teaching in Higher Education: An Essential Prerequisite for E-Learning. Jour- nal of New Approaches in Educational Research, 7(2), PP. 93-97. doi: 10.7821/naer.2018.7.298 
  • Lipmanowicz, H. & McCandless, K. (2013). The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures. Wroclaw, Poland: Liberating Structures Press.

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Education | Innovation | Online learning | Problem base learning | Universities | Virtual learning

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