Five Things to Know about Online Learning

By guest columnist Dr. Dennis Trinkle, Ball State University September 14, 2020. As faculty members and administrators continue to develop effective responses to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, many institutions have looked to online and digital solutions for sustaining instruction and a positive learning experience.  The sudden onset of the pandemic has forced institutions globally to prioritize digital transformations and enhancements to their systems at a rapid pace that can be tough to keep up with and to accept “good enough” solutions in the short-term.

Now, as institution look toward the 20-21 academic year with more time to prepare and assure a quality learning experience for students, there are many lessons to be taken from the high-quality best practices in online learning and remote work that have been shaped and driven by careful assessment, experimentation, and development over the past three two decades.

Five key understandings may be particularly useful to instructors and institutional leaders developing plans for the fall and for a future educational ecosystem that is quite likely to heavily incorporate online learning.

Lesson 1.  Connections and relationship between students and instructors are foundational.

Students are most engaged and successful in online learning when they feel connected to their instructor and peers.  During these unsettled times, it is already anecdotally clear that students value and benefit from relationship and communication.  Success is anchored in relationships.  When instructors can consistently connect live with students, it is highly beneficial.  Instructors should think about how they can most effectively accomplish this in their courses.  Some effective practices include:

    • Making a live connection whenever you can
    • Sharing short pre-recorded personal videos with students to provide affective presence
    • Introducing key assignments or/and discussions with short videos
    • Holding online connection hours or “coffee” chats
    • Using discussion forums specifically for interaction and discussion forums discussion of key topics
    • Using AI-conversion tools to translate interactions to meet accessibility needs
    • Leveraging voice-over and screen annotation tools to provide discussions and explanations of materials and content

Lesson 2.  Connection and interaction between students are also vital.

When students have the opportunity to interact with one another, establish rapport and collaborate, they feel engaged, connected and part of a supportive community.  Amidst Covid, students have regularly commented that their group projects have been an anchor of stability and personal connection for them.  Students who feel engaged and connected also feel more safe, stable, secure and able to focus on learning.

Useful strategies for fostering student-to-student online interaction include:

    • Incorporating group projects
    • Assigning groups of students to own and lead weekly discussions
    • Using group presentations to reinforce or expand on key learning goals
    • Assigning study teams or share pairs
    • Asking students to provide feedback to another student on a project or assignment
    • Encouraging students to use collaboration forums in an LMS or a social collaboration tool like Slack to support each other

Lesson 3.  Clear and consistent communication is essential

High stress environments such as a new learning or environment or our current extreme circumstances negatively impact cognitive processing.  We simply do not process, retain, or learn as effectively in stressful circumstances.  Thus, it is essential to communicate as clearly, directly, and simply as possible, repeating important information or content in multiple formats at multiple times to reinforce absorption and understanding.  For essential topics, repeating 7 ways on 7 days can be a useful tactic. Being especially clear on expectations and logistical information is important.  Content may be complex and challenging; directions and guidance should be simple and clear.

Specific tactics for assuring clear communication include:

    • Repeating key information in multiple places and different ways (textual, graphically, etc.)
    • Being as precise and detailed on operational and logistical expectations as possible
    • Modelling a safe environment for students to ask questions and seek clarity
    • Provide regular feedback! Qualitative feedback is important for student engagement and learning
    • Keeping inclusively and culturally-sensitive communication practices top of mind for online learning environment

 Lesson 4.  Provide structure, patterns and predictability 

A close correlate of effective communication is a clear organizational structure, patterns of work, and guidelines for course expectations.   Some learning experiences require ambiguity and uncertainty.  In all other cases, organizing the course content and structure so that it is clear, direct, and easy to comprehend is important to the learning experience. While this may seem obvious, it is far harder to create and provide concise and clear directions, so it is often neglected.  Make it a priority.

Specific techniques for assuring clear organization include:

    • Providing a clear map of weekly expectations and assignments
    • Using weekly topical themes that highlight and reinforce learning objectives
    • Re-stating assignments, goals, and objectives each week
    • Keeping inclusively and culturally-sensitive communication practices top of mind for online learning environments

Lesson 5.  Be flexible and capture student feedback

In a live classroom, providing students with regular real-time feedback and being flexibility happens organically.  In an online environment, it requires a deliberate and consistent approach.  The inevitable glitches and challenges that pop up in online learning environments and life are smoothed out when instructors are flexible and responsive.  And, students also are more grounded and engaged—and learn more effectively—when they have the opportunity to provide feedback and help shape the course.

Specific techniques for assuring clear organization include:

    • Asking students for regular weekly feedback on what is working and not working in the course
    • Using small stakes assessments and assignments to track students’ progress, surface issues, and make adjustments
    • Don’t set it and forget it.  Instructors can frame online learning as set and self-sustaining where they would consistently adjust in a face-to-face course.  Be mindful of acting on feedback
    • Using weekly that ask students to reflection and tie together key learnings

Dennis A. Trinkle is the Director for the Center of Information and Communication Sciences (CICS) and Director of the Applied Research Institutes at Ball State University.  Dr. Trinkle brings a diverse multi-sector leadership background to his leadership of CICS, where he also holds the rank of Professor of Information Sciences and Communication.  Prior to joining Ball State, Dr. Trinkle served as the system executive, provost and chief academic officer for the 12 campus Harrison College system.

Dr. Trinkle has served leading institutions across the higher education, corporate, and government sectors, including serving as the chief executive officer of IHETS, chief information officer, associate vice president for academic affairs, and Tenzer Professor of Information Technology for DePauw University, and CEO for multiple technology companies and non-profit organizations.

Trinkle is the author and editor of 16 books and more than 50 articles on entrepreneurship, technology, leadership, teaching and learning, and history.  He earned a bachelor’s degree, from DePauw University, an MBA in technology management from the University of Phoenix, and a M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati.  He resides in Indianapolis with his wife, Kristi, and two sons, JT and Nathan.

Edu Alliance Group, Inc. (EAG) is an education consulting firm located in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates and Bloomington, Indiana USA. We assist higher education institutions worldwide on a variety of mission critical projects. Our consultants are accomplished university / college leaders who share the benefit of their experience to diagnose and solve challenges.

EAG has provided consulting and successful solutions for higher education institutions in Australia, Egypt, Georgia, India, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Nigeria, Uganda,  United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

Edu Alliance offers higher education institutions consulting services worldwide. Our US office specializes in assisting universities on international projects and partnerships. If you like to know more how Edu Alliance can best serve you, please contact Dean Hoke at 

Al Jazeera Investigation of Fake Degrees


By Dean Hoke, Managing Partner Edu Alliance Group – The Al Jazeera television network has recently aired on its investigative series 101 East a 25 minute program called “Pakistan’s Fake Degrees”. The program investigates how Pakistan’s degree mill profits from selling fake qualifications to people around the world. I encourage you to watch the program.

Bogus degrees from “Online Universities” are still a problem worldwide. I have worked in higher education for over 40 years and in online education for the past 20 years.  I currently serve as a Member of the Board of Directors of the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) and am Chair of the Global Partnerships Committee. I am a strong believer in online education. A majority of higher education institutions in North America and Europe offer quality degree programs that are accredited by their respective countries.  However, there are fraudulent groups that offer fake online degrees from universities that do not exist.

According to Al Jazeera and many others, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world purchase bogus degrees. Many use these fake qualifications to get job promotions and more distributing some get jobs as doctors, nurses, teachers, government officials, and engineers.   Unfortunately, we see a great deal of these fake degrees being used to get jobs in the Middle East and Asia.

Our firm Edu Alliance works in the field of educational consulting throughout the Middle East, India and the United States. We have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects and our mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness. Every member of our team has worked in higher education and are passionate about making sure students get a quality education.  We have also help expose bogus institutions who sell fake degrees.

We assisted publications like Al Fanar Media, The National, and 999 who wrote a series of articles helping to expose these groups and their practices. We also continued to write blogs, articles, editorials and do interviews about fake universities. Our combined efforts and an expose by The New York Times in 2015 brought world-wide attention on the Pakistan-based Axact, which led to the shutdown of over 200 bogus university websites and the arrest of the CEO.

Edu Alliance is proud of its efforts to make the public aware of “universities” offering bogus degrees.  Edu Alliance believes bogus institutions, like the ones stated in the Al Jazeera program, are very damaging to legitimate higher education institutions, government, private business, and to students.  In order to eliminate these predatory groups, all governments and educational accreditation agencies must be proactive in shutting these groups down.  It is also corporation’s responsibility to make sure their current and future employee’s credentials are from accredited institutions. Social media must also take responsibility and not sell advertising to a school unless they can certify the school is offering a legitimate accredited program.

As I wrote 4 years ago:  It is time for GCC education agencies to encourage local universities to offer online degrees for non-traditional students.  The focus should be for adults completing their bachelors degrees, or at the Masters level.  It has been done successfully at North American and European colleges and universities. The online programs must meet the same standards as any classroom program.  By having local accredited universities expanding their offerings via online they will find an untapped student market and discourage bogus schools. 





Edu Alliance is a boutique management consulting company founded in 2014 with offices in Bloomington, Indiana and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The company provides the experience and expertise colleges and universities need to expand and optimize their engagement with students and its stakeholders around the world. We help universities think strategically and creatively about their unique opportunities and challenges.

Edu Alliance provides a diverse group of distinguished higher education professionals to research, plan, and execute programs. The partners and advisory members are available for consulting projects worldwide. Consultancy work includes:

  • Online degree program feasibility and marketing studies
  • Institutional International strategy
  • Executive and Key Faculty Search
  • Market Research, enrollment evaluation planning, marketing research, and branding
  • Educational Technology strategies and implementation