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Conditions for Online Learning
Online Learning in Higher Education: Necessary and Sufficient Conditions
Cher Ping Lim
Instructional Science Academic Group
National Institute of Education
Nanyang Technological University
Conditions for Online Learning
The field of online learning is an ever-improving art and science. It has the potential of
allowing students to access up-to-date information anywhere and anytime, promoting
active and independent learning, and supporting communication between experts and
novices. This paper aims to explore the necessary and sufficient conditions for
successful integration of online learning in higher education. The paper first discusses
the software, hardware and financial commitment necessary for online learning. It then
emphasizes that the sufficient conditions for effective online learning is a paradigm
shift in learning to build a learning culture, mediated by a strategic plan that integrates
online learning to enculturate students to be lifelong learners.
Conditions for Online Learning
Online Learning in Higher Education: Necessary and Sufficient Conditions
technologies (ICT) through the Internet has provided opportunities for students to
explore the virtual world of information. It provides them with the tools to point
and click their way around the world, visiting different places, collecting
information, experiencing visual and auditory stimulants, communicating with
others anywhere and anytime, taking a peek into the future, and extending their
intellectual world beyond the walls of the campus. Higher education institutions
are expected to acquire and integrate these network technologies to enculturate their
students to be lifelong learners – to learn how to seek out new information, think
critically and show initiative to meet up with the challenges of the fast-changing
Studies on online learning have shown that the Internet provides a
springboard for successful enculturation of lifelong learning in higher education
institutions [1, 2, 3, 4]. In this paper, online learning is defined as the asynchronous
or/and synchronous facilitation of learning over the Internet to students’ and faculty
members’ computers. Online learning has the potential of allowing students to
access up-to-date information anywhere and anytime, promoting active and
independent learning, and supporting communication between experts and novices
[5]. Attracted by these opportunities, many education institutions have focused on
the technological challenges of buying the right courseware, getting enough
bandwidth allocated to online learning, and obtaining state of the art online learning
However, such hardware, software and financial commitments are only the
necessary conditions for successful online learning. This is especially evident when
Conditions for Online Learning
we explore the four characteristics of online learning:
1. Online learning is about the learning processes mediated by network
2. Online learning is about making possible successful knowledge
management to leverage upon the intellectual capital of the learning
3. Online learning is about harnessing the strengths and addressing the
weaknesses of network technologies to create a conducive learning
4. Online learning is about providing the interactions among the students and
their communities to build and share knowledge [6].
Internet technologies do not exist in isolation; they are interwoven with the rest
of the tools, and participants in the learning environment. The strategies for successful
online learning in education institutions must focus on the whole configuration of
events, activities, contents, and interpersonal processes taking place in the context that
online learning is carried out. The purpose of the paper is to identify and discuss the
necessary and sufficient conditions for successful online learning in higher education.
It first discusses the software, hardware and financial commitment necessary for
successful online learning; followed by an exploration of the sufficient conditions for
successful online learning that include a paradigm shift towards building a learning
culture, mediated by a strategic plan that integrates online learning to enculturate
students to be lifelong learners.
The Necessary Conditions for Successful Online Learning
When considering the necessary conditions for successful online learning,
Conditions for Online Learning
higher education institutions are faced with the challenges of ensuring quality, access
and cost efficiency [7]. Quality is an important issue for all educators and it includes
the pedagogical strategies and established evaluative instruments to ensure the quality
of learning. The issue of access poses the challenge of students’ and faculty members’
access to required technologies that include up-to-date computers, required software,
the Internet, e-mail, and adequate bandwidth connections. In addition to technology
access, successful online learning requires skill access by students and faculty members
to effectively use the technology. Along with quality and access, the cost of delivery is
also a sizeable issue. Delivery costs need to be clearly outlined so that efficient and
effective plans are in place to anticipate hidden costs such as licensing, support services
and maintenances.
Basic Infrastructure to Deliver Online Learning
Keeping in mind the challenges of quality, access and cost efficiency, the basic
infrastructure to deliver online learning include: (1) appropriate basic technologies of
servers, wiring, LAN connections, computers and software; (2) computer support
personnel; and (3) software licensing [7]. This basic infrastructure must serve the
following characteristics of a good campus network [8] that satisfy the necessary
conditions for successful online learning:
The campus network reaches every place on campus where faculty members
and students live, work and learn. These include offices, classrooms,
lecture halls, laboratories, studios, libraries, student and faculty residences,
and student activity areas.
The campus network provides a seamless interface to on-campus Intranet
and to off-campus locations and resources, such as the Internet. This also
Conditions for Online Learning
applies to a seamless interface between protocols used on Intranet and
Internet. Sim (2003) identifies four phases of educational technology
roadmap: Stand-alone, local area network (LAN), Internet and broadband
(Figure 1) [9]. Eventually, the campus network should achieve phase 4.
— Insert Figure 1 here -•
The campus network has physical components (such as, cables, junction and
termination boxes, fiber hubs, routers and wiring closets) that meet defined
institutional standards, provide for modularity and expandability, and are
well-documented and mapped.
The campus network provides easy access from any connection point to all
information pools, including the Internet, library resources, online courses,
specialized departmental resources, electronic media collections, and
institutional databases.
All faculty and students use the network fluently as a natural and integral
part of their communications and information exchange activities, as well as
teaching and learning activities.
The campus network is under a funding program in the institution that
covers continual growth of the network and replacement of functionally
obsolete equipment. The network management structure includes
appropriate staffing, budgeting, control and security systems.
The campus network is considered a strategic asset by the institution.
In order to equip themselves with the abovementioned basic infrastructure,
education institutions need to commit themselves financially to three types of funds:
capital funds, support funds and maintenance funds [8]. Capital funds are generally
used for acquiring appropriate basic technologies of servers, wiring, computers and
Conditions for Online Learning
software. Support funds include the operating budget for the ongoing support of
network components and services such as personnel costs, license fees, and Internet
line charges. Maintenance funds are required to replace damaged worn out or
functionally obsolete networking equipment. In the United States in 1998/99, the
typical replacement cycle for computers was three to five years, for central servers
three to four years, and for network electronics, five to six years [10]. Therefore,
educational institutions must commit themselves to provide a regular, consistent,
predictable source of funding, not just a one-time budget infusion to lay cables.
Developing Online Learning Materials
Course development for online learning is labor intensive. Cyrs (2000) claims
that interviews with faculty staff members show that preparing a quality course for
online delivery takes four to five times longer than does a traditional course [11]. In
the case of online learning, faculty members normally begin working on the course
material approximately three to six months in advance. If this planning and
development do not occur, there is risk of producing low quality content with minimal
student interaction and achievement. Even with the time of faculty members funded
for development, it is unrealistic to expect them to do it all. According to Cyrs (2000),
faculty members need the services of instructional designers, computing and technical
services, training in hardware and software use, graphic design and editing, and help
from content experts [11].
Development of courses in an online environment requires a blending of course
content and technology expertise. Even if a learning and management system (LMS)
that is template based is adopted, faculty members still need the support of instructional
designers who facilitate technically and pedagogically the online learning course
Conditions for Online Learning
development. Economies of scale will exist once a faculty member who has
experiences in online learning pedagogy and technology begin using his/her
experiences to create subsequent courses. Scalability is especially noted in online
learning development, whereby technologies are used to take over the mundane tasks.
For example, by using a LMS package, a faculty member can rely on the technology
for grading of tests, reporting of grades, and group announcements [7]. Moreover, as
the number of online learning courses increases, software applications and efficiencies
may become more notable. Most software companies provide financial incentives
directly proportional to the number of licenses purchased. There are also other
efficiencies that may be due to increased faculty members’ and students’ experiences
with online learning.
McDonough, Strivens and Rada (1994, p. 336) state that the “… development of
computer based training is often expensive in terms of both time and money and all
researchers agree that to be viable it must achieve high student usage … High student
usage should still be possible if the courseware is easy to customize and reuse
elsewhere” [12]. This suggests that to develop a sustainable individualized interactive
learning revolution, online learning materials have to be designed and developed to be
transferable to other platforms. Without this ability, faculty members may be doomed
to continuously re-develop their materials with each change in hardware and software
platform or educational approaches [13].
The Sufficient Conditions for Successful Online Learning
After considering the necessary conditions for successful online learning, there
is a need to formulate a strategic plan to build a learning culture within the education
institution. This will constitute the sufficient conditions that include a shift in the
Conditions for Online Learning
paradigm of learning, mediated by a strategic plan that situates online learning to
enculturate students to be lifelong learners.
Shifting the Paradigm of Learning to Build a Learning Culture in Education
Although the institution is the centre of change, Bennis (1989, p.147) points out
that “the sociology of institutions is fundamentally antichange” [14]. Institutions carry
with them long histories and habitualized ways of approaching new demands. For the
case of Internet technologies in education institutions, they may be merely bolted-on to
existing classroom teaching and learning activities, leaving the traditional curriculum,
learning objectives, teaching strategies and student learning activities more or less
intact. For example, from textbooks to online textbooks, or from Powerpoint
presentations in class to Powerpoint presentation via the Internet (complete with audio
and video). The learning medium may have changed, but the learning paradigm that the
medium is situated in remains the same. The learning paradigm adopted by the
Powerpoint presentations of certain concepts in the classroom may be a cognitivist one,
where learning is associated with the transmission of knowledge. The same paradigm
may be adopted when the same Powerpoint presentations are made available online.
Such situations are a common occurrence in higher education institutions.
Faced with pressures to adopt online learning, administrators and faculty may deal with
the situation in terms of the existing paradigm. Paradigms are well-accepted sets of
rules that lay boundaries for our thinking, and provide a set of guidelines for problem
solving within those boundaries. The existing paradigm may serve as a filter,
preventing education institutions from experimenting with approaches that are contrary
to prevailing wisdom [15]. Human beings have a tendency to maintain order and
Conditions for Online Learning
control in their lives that many will unconsciously alter innovations to fit into their
existing ways of doing things.
Therefore, there must be a shift in the paradigm of learning in education
institutions. Learning is a continuous, cultural process and not simply a series of
lectures or tutorials. The basic idea is expressed in the ‘general law of cultural
development’, where Vygotsky (1978, p. 57) proposes that cognitive function appears
“twice, or in two planes. First it appears on the social plane and then on the
psychological plane. First it appears between people as an interpsychological category
and then within the individual child (learner) as an intrapsychological category” [16].
Learning is the appropriation of a particular way of thinking (for example, thinking like
a scientist or economist) where students learn through participation in joint activities
[17]. It encompasses more than education and training; it includes broad-based
experiences from interactions and exchanges among students and with teachers when
undertaking a learning task or project.
Such a shift in paradigm ensures the openness of education institutions and their
participants to new ideas, as well as enables them to understand and accept the need
and opportunity to change. With a shift in paradigm, education institutions can then
begin to build a learning culture; one that encourages knowledge generation and
sharing, supports an atmosphere of learning from mistakes, and assures that what is
learnt is incorporated into future activities, decisions, and initiatives of the students.
With such a culture in place, it is then more likely that online learning will be
successfully carried out in education institutions. Therefore, education institutions need
to design and carry out learning activities that reflect acceptance of and relevance to the
students’ world: Firstly, engage students in challenging yet personally meaningful
problems. Secondly, embed basic skill ‘instruction’ in a broader and more authentic
Conditions for Online Learning
problem-solving context. And thirdly, draw on students’ conceptual and cultural world
of experiences [18].
Developing a Strategic Plan that Mediates the Shift in Paradigm Towards a Learning
From the above discussion, it is clear that education institutions need to view
online learning as providing a unique opportunity to redefine themselves and their role
to enculturate students to be lifelong learners. It is at the institution level that programs
are put into operation, changes get introduced, and policies get translated into programs
and activities. The challenge for educational institutions then will be a willingness to
consider the ways in which Internet technologies can provide better learning
opportunities. In order to respond to this challenge, educational institutions need to
develop a strategic plan that mediates the shift in paradigm towards a learning culture.
A strategic plan involves “the process by which the guiding members of an
organization envision its future and develop the necessary procedures and operations to
achieve that future” [19]. Envisioning is a process by which individuals or groups
develop a vision of a future state for their organizations that is both sufficiently clear
and powerful to arouse the actions necessary for that vision to become reality. For
example, the vision statement of an education institution, with respect to online
learning, may be: The integration of online learning in the education institution support
the enculturation of students to be lifelong learners in a knowledge-based society. This
vision has to be shared by all members of the institution community. Successful
envisioning breaks the existing paradigm by testing it and moving outside one’s usual
However, to avoid a misalignment between culture and vision, there is a need to
Conditions for Online Learning
conduct a culture audit. The culture audit is a focused effort that involves the
simultaneous study of the education institution’s internal strengths and weaknesses that
may positively or negatively affect the education institution in its efforts to achieve the
desired future [20]. It assesses the level of resistance to change, and whether it is
spread uniformly throughout the institution or lies in pockets associated with specific
faculty members’ or students’ characteristics and roles [21]. It will definitely be
painful for some members of the education institution, but it is a critical issue of
strategic planning that must be tackled.
After the cultural audit, there is a need to develop a specific operational plan for
each organizational element – namely organization, operations, human resource and
financial. These unit plans that have been separately developed are then knitted
together into a seamless whole [19]. The operational plan may incorporate reengineering efforts, academic program changes and administrative support realignments. These action plans, grounded in a realistic assessment of the current state,
with an equally acute vision of the future goals, become the new strategy and
conceptual framework for the integration of online learning in the education institution.
For example, the cultural audit may serve as a platform that allows faculty
members to re-examine both their roles and their students’ roles in the classroom. By
reflecting on their own strengths and weaknesses and their students’, faculty members
are then more likely to become fellow learners rather than authoritative experts, and
guides rather than information dispensers in the online learning environment. While
faculty members who prepare the online activities may determine what is learnt,
students have substantial control over the rate and style of learning. This cultivates a
learning culture dominated by the search for explanation, justification and proof of
various concepts and theories discussed.
Conditions for Online Learning
With this shift, the faculty members’ professional development needs have to be
continually assessed. When there is professional development in the design of online
learning environment, time to practice with and apply technologies, and opportunities
to learn, share and collaborate with colleagues, faculty members are then more likely to
integrate network technologies successfully into their courses. Therefore, an action
plan for professional development and support of faculty members need to be in place
within the overall strategic plan.
The success of the strategic plan depends on the creativity and energy to
develop the plan, the courage and commitment to introduce it, and the persistence and
thoroughness to see it through to its implementation. However, implementation is not
the final phase of strategic planning; it is an ongoing process throughout the other
phases. There is always a danger that education institutions may exhibit ‘bureaucratic’
tendencies that may undermine the very potential of Internet technologies to do old
things differently and new things altogether [22]. Therefore, education institutions must
continually monitor both their internal and external environment that may threaten the
successful implementation of their strategies.
This paper has discussed the necessary and sufficient conditions for successful
online learning in education institutions. The necessary conditions include the
hardware, software and financial commitment to ensure a good campus network that
will support online learning. The sufficient conditions highlight the need for a
paradigm shift in learning to build a learning culture in education institutions, mediated
by a strategic plan. These two sets of conditions ensure the important alignment
between strategy and Internet technologies grounded in the particular educational
Conditions for Online Learning
concerns of the institution. The conditions discussed here, however, are to be treated as
tentative guides that provide issues for readers to think about the situations they are in.
I’ll end this paper with the following quote: ‘When the wind changes, the cynic
complains about the wind; the idealist expects the wind to change; but the realist shifts
the sail accordingly to optimize the potentials of the wind’. To enculturate our students
to be lifelong learners requires us, in higher educational institutions, to be realists, who
share the vision of taking up the unique opportunities of online learning and
formulating successful online learning strategies for our education institutions and
Conditions for Online Learning
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Figure 1. Four Phases of the Educational Technology Roadmap

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