A dean at a prominent university was recruiting top thought leaders and professors for a newly developed college of philosophy. He wanted a global faculty with professors from all corners of the globe. This requirement took him to South Africa, where there resided one of the top minds in philosophical studies. We will call him Dr. Smith. Dr. Smith was the preeminent expert in philosophy, knowledgeable on all the greats: Aristotle, Socrates, Descartes and others.

The dean met with Dr. Smith for breakfast and got right to the point: “Dr. Smith, you are the top in your field, and it would be an honor for us to have you in our new distance learning program.”

With some hesitation, Dr. Smith paused and reflected. “Maybe I’m old school as the kids say, but I just don’t see how quality education can be done online, let alone from a distance.”

The dean went on to explain the virtues of new learning technologies and how effective they are in the learning process. Dr. Smith said he would like to sleep on it and get back to the dean first thing in the morning.

The next morning, after further reflection, Dr. Smith said, “My good man, thank you so much for the offer; however, I think I have to stick with my first reaction. I don’t think quality education can be done at a distance. For one to be steeped in the learning process, he or she must be present, both in mind and in body.”

The dean respected Dr. Smith’s point of view but said, “Before I go, may I ask you one more question?”

“Certainly,” replied Dr. Smith.

“What was Aristotle like when you met him?”

3 Must-Have Classroom Strategies

The crux of this story is that it’s important to understand what aspects of traditional learning are essential to transfer to an e-learning environment. What traits of a classroom make many people still believe that an in-person, face-to-face setting is the most conducive to good learning?

There are three characteristics that every e-learning environment must have to compete with (and succeed over) the classroom setting: discussion, modalities and teacher/learner interactions.


As Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill described in their 2005 book, “Discussion as a Way of Teaching,” the classroom discussion is essential to a good learning environment. You can see that before the internet, it would have been virtually impossible to conduct distance learning discussions. Technology does enable synchronized discussion; however, there are still strategies required to receive benefit from the forum. Those tactics include but are not limited to ensuring a democratic system of voicing views, between the trainer and the learners as well as between learners. Other tactics include keeping the discussion going, the use of good questions, and being sensitive to cultural and gender differences. The bottom line is that the responsibilities of good debate do not transcend technology.

Multi-Modal Content

Another staple of good classroom learning is to consider all learning modalities, including multi-modal content. In a correspondence setting, the only modality that instructors can use is the written word, the single use of which decreases the effectiveness of learning. In a digital world, the use of video and audio content as well as the written word ensures that multiple learning preferences are served.

Trainer/Learner Interaction

In a correspondence setting, the only trainer/learner interaction is the asynchronous written word. In their 2006 book “Active Training,” Mel Silberman and Carol Auerbach suggest that to enable active learning, we must employ different experiential learning approaches, such as role-play, games and simulations, observations, and mental imagery. Current technology allows us to employ these tactics for a more effective learning experience.

As you consider online learning as the primary strategy for learning and development, be sure not to underestimate the need for specific classroom characteristics in your e-learning rollout, including discussion, multi-modal content and teacher/learner interaction.

By the way, Dr. Smith did end up taking the job and is now a dean himself at a prestigious university where online learning is a staple in the curriculum.