ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

A Look at Web-based Instruction Today: An interview with Badrul Khan, Part 1

By Ann Taylor / February 2014

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

Recently, eLearn Magazine editorial board member Ann Taylor had the opportunity to speak with Badrul Khan, a well-known speaker, author, educator, and consultant in the field of eLearning and educational technology. Khan is credited with first coining the phrase "Web-based instruction" in his 1997 book of the same name. In her conversation with Professor Khan, Taylor has a chance to gain Khan's perspective on how Web-based instruction has progressed over the last 17 years and where it might go in the future.

Badrul, you are credited with coining the phrase "Web-based instruction" in your 1997 book Web-Based Instruction. Here we are almost two decades later—how does your initial vision of Web-based instruction compare with where we are today? Where do you think the next five to 10 years will lead us?

While growing up in Bangladesh during the 1970s, I used to dream about having access to the well-designed, technology-based learning resources available to students in industrial countries. In the '70s it was unthinkable to have equal access to those resources. Therefore, it has been my passion to learn about innovative learning technologies that can benefit learners all over the world. Through my research and teaching, I am convinced that we need comprehensive and systemic understanding of both soft technologies (e.g., learning theories and instructional strategies) and hard technologies (e.g., TV, radio, computer, and Internet) to create rich learning environments supported by well-designed resources for diverse learners worldwide. We must have innovative instructional design processes and the learning/instructional theories that can allow us to create highly effective, motivating, and flexible (adaptive) resources in a highly cost-effective manner by taking maximum advantage of the powerful capabilities of advanced information technologies.

In 1990s, the emergence of the Web as a medium for sharing information and knowledge was a blessing for all aspects of our life including learning. It was both exciting, in that there was so much to benefit from, but was also frustrating, in that I did not see much of its use in education and training in early 1990s. In 1994-1996, the Web was mostly used as Web-based information by individuals and organizations to provide information about their products and services. No one (to the best of my knowledge) was using it for Web-based instruction.

As we all know, there is a difference between information and instruction. "Information is there to be pulled, whereas Instruction is usually pushed to a learner" [1]. Web-based instruction must be designed by appropriately utilizing instructional design principles and techniques to support learning. With my enthusiasm came great frustration, as I felt the need to do something about the taking advantage of Web for learning purposes. Since the fall of 1994, I was in communication with researchers and practitioners in the field of educational technology about the need for Web-based learning. At the AECT International Division Dinner (February 1995, Anaheim, California) both Larry Lipsitz (Publisher of Educational Technology Publications) and I decided to work on the book Web-Based Instruction. The book was a great success, as more than 100 authors from around the globe articulated the potential use of the Web for learning. That was obviously a great moment for the field of eLearning, and I am proud to be part of that endeavor.

After the publication of the book, one of the most frequently asked questions was about the effectiveness of online learning vs. traditional classroom instruction. Now people are not questioning it—online learning has become a normal part of our education and training arena. We recognize that you need to create interactive and meaningful learning experiences in the most flexible ways possible. Just inserting existing classroom-used Powerpoint slides to an LMS, should not be called meaningful eLearning, nor should transferring boring lecture notes to the Internet. eLearning is an open system and its design must be adaptive to the distant learner unlike the closed system of face-to-face instruction.

Since 1995, I have observed universities using a prominent professor as an instructor on record for a course and enrolling large number of students who are then instructed/facilitated by low-paid adjunct instructors/tutors. This tendency is common among universities that want to make a fast buck with mass delivery of education. Fortunately, there are also many academic institutions that have not taken that route.

So where are we now? I think learners as customers are becoming increasingly smart buyers. They are demanding high quality, flexible and meaningful offerings from institutions.

My vision of Web-based instruction (WBI) after two decades is very optimistic. Since the introduction of the Web in 1993, anyone from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection has been able to get to vast amount of resources in all aspects. WBI, or eLearning, as a field has dramatically changed the academic and training arena. At no other time in history has the eLearning field gained such an enormous and overwhelming attention globally, especially in the U.S. The hero is Salman (Sal) Khan, a fellow Bangladeshi American. Salman (Sal) Khan, through his YouTube tutorial videos, has shown us how to make learning fun and meaningful with low-cost technology tools. Kids love him. Teachers recommend students to watch him. Every field needs a booster. Sal Khan has been an energizer for eLearning!

In the next five to 10 years, I believe we will witness people searching the Web for, and using, the best help possible. They will want to learn from experts that can teach and help them the best way possible. One expert may be good for one individual but may not be the best for others. It's like Maturana's "structural coupling" that describes how one gets coupled with others for mutual benefits. In 2005, I founded McWeadon Education to facilitate that coupling, bridging, or connecting of knowledge seekers and passionate knowledge providers.

The Web is definitely a blessing for learners worldwide. With the emergence of the Web, my dream of equal access to quality learning resources became a reality. Before the Web, it was unthinkable to make those kinds of "customized" connections. Now, it is possible via technology and it will continue to get even easier.

I understand that it was your dream, growing up in Chittagong, Bangladesh during the 1970s, to have access to well-designed learning resources available only to students in industrial countries. With the explosion of MOOCs over the last two years, in what ways has (or hasn't) your dream been fully realized?

With the emergence of new communication and computing technologies, we are becoming increasingly accustomed to new eLearning buzzwords. One of the latest buzzwords is "MOOC," short for "massive open online course." To me the purpose behind MOOCs is nothing new. Over the years, many of us have offered free resources over the Internet. What is new about MOOCs is that big name universities are now involved. They want to be on the bandwagon. They don't want to lag behind! The increased involvement of these institutions obviously helps the field of eLearning to gain more attention.

What is amazing about MOOCs is their massive delivery capability. Today's technology made that possible. MOOCs are appealing to learners, especially those from other nations, who want to take courses from celebrated U.S. universities. They also have great potential to spark learning communities. For example, in Bangladesh, the Dhaka MOOC Exchange is a community of MOOC takers where students who are taking the same MOOCs help and motivate each other toward course completion and knowledge acquisition.

The real potential of MOOCs as formal educational tools will be realized if employers change their mindset with relation to hiring and advancement. Instead of relying solely on academic degrees to make hiring and advancement decisions, employers will need also consider hiring or advancing those with job-related skills gained from expert resources available on the Internet. Obviously there are certain disciplines where academic degrees and training are still going to be preferred no matter where you are in the globe.

However, consider this: Bill Gates calls himself a professional student. As someone without a college degree, he has helped to change the status quo. If Bill Gates says he is professional student and learns from Internet-based resources, shouldn't he likewise want to hire individuals who have knowledge and skills acquired by utilizing the best low cost or free resources they can find? Powerful leaders like Bill Gates can influence the world's businesses and educational systems.

Obviously, there is a need for quality assurance systems that can bridge between MOOCs takers and employers. This need will give birth to a new industry responsible for assessment and accreditation for non-formal academic education and training. In fact, at McWeadon, we are soliciting qualified individuals in respective disciplines to serve as referees to assess an individual's gained skills from MOOCs or any other Internet-based resources matching a job requirement.

There has been increasing criticism about the inability of MOOCs to reach the audience many had targeted—those who do not otherwise have access to higher education. What do you see as the biggest barriers to bringing education "to the masses?" How might we break down those barriers? Does your "e-Learning framework" provide any guidance to meaningful MOOC design?

First of all, like any new and untested innovation, MOOCs are not immune to criticisms. But if we reflect on "sin of commission" (i.e., things we did and shouldn't have) and "sin of omission" (i.e., not doing what we should have), we can improve the quality of that innovation.

The e-Learning framework that I developed back in 1997 for WBI, is applicable to MOOCs. The major barriers for MOOCs can be discussed in terms of the e-Learning framework's eight categories: pedagogical, ethical considerations, institutional, interface design, evaluation, management, resource support, and technological. Many of these barriers are systemic in nature. Within the scope of this interview, let me discuss some issues that encompass the pedagogical, ethical consideration, and interface design categories of the framework.

Khan's e-Learning Framework

e-Learning Framework

Lloyd Armstrong, in his article "2013-The Year of Ups and Downs for the MOOCs," puts it perfectly for the pedagogical barrier: "…MOOCs have in general been created with little or no attention to extensive research on pedagogy in general, and online pedagogy in particular. The MOOCs have been viewed by their creators and exponents as a technological solution to a broad range of educational problems." [2]

This shows how little attention is paid by leading MOOCs providers (e.g., edX, Udacity, Coursera) for the quality of meaningful online offerings. Sometimes, I wonder if they are even aware of the fields of instructional design and learning sciences. For those CEOs who have been hyped up with technology and ignore the pedagogy, I have a message for them, "It's pedagogy that guides technology in eLearning, not vice versa." I believe if they shift their focus from delivery vehicle to quality of deliverables, MOOCs will have smoother journey with greater success.

When we talk about "high-quality deliverables," we do not mean static recorded video lectures by star professors from prestigious universities. Some MOOCs providers may depend on star professors' static video lectures as the nucleus of their MOOCs, but in reality, learners need interactive, facilitative, and supportive learning environment in which the facilitator's presence—either synchronously or asynchronously—make the environment motivating, engaging, and dynamic. You just can't create an interactive online course for remote learners and then decide to take a long vacation and expect them to learn without any facilitation. "You need to make sure that the MOOCs you're building are not just glorified textbooks" [3]. Don't treat students as numbers or robots. Students today are very educated buyers. They know what's out there and what you are not providing!

Reliance on static video delivery also raises an important information accessibility barrier we need to overcome. Bandwidth hogging video content can be inaccessible to individuals with low Internet connectivity. We need instructionally sound, "slim and fast" MOOCs, which I call liteMOOC or ltMOOOC—low bandwidth, quick access, open courses. An increasing number of us use our mobile devices today over our desktops/laptops, as evidenced by the findings of the Pew Research Internet Project. Their 2013 findings reveal "34 percent of cell Internet users go online mostly using their phones, and not using some other device such as a desktop or laptop computer" [4]. This is especially true in developing countries, where citizens are acquiring mobile technology rather than computers, bypassing the desktop and notebook computer stages [5]. To make course content easily accessible by mobile devices, we should design them as learning snippets (My snippets of training article might be of interest in this regard).

Another important issue worth mentioning—individuals in poor parts of the world who do not have access to learning tools are missing out the digital revolution! Well, the solution is not easy, but it can be done. In my interview with Nobel Laureate Professor Yunus, we discussed the need for developing locally available low-cost learning tools (such as mobile or cell phones). These low-cost mobile phones will be able to take advantage of free online courses if they are low-bandwidth ltMOOOCs. Therefore, ltMOOOCs are easily accessible and promote flexibility.

The field of MOOCs is new. We will learn "dos" and "don'ts," and I am sure MOOCs will be widely acceptable once we reflect on sin of commission and sin of omission and improve courses as needed. To learn more about MOOCs, we are editing a book titled The MOOC Case Book: Case Studies in MOOC Design, Development and Implementation. The book will have case studies illustrating significant challenges or issues faced by MOOC stakeholders.

Our interview with Badrul Khan will continue next week, when we will examine how the field of Web-based instruction is measuring up to Khan's "framework for e-Learning" and discuss Badrul's own interview series for Educational Technology, as well as his advice for those just entering the Web-based instruction realm.


[1]Kelly, D. Reflections on #lrnchat: Information vs. Instruction. Feb. 10, 2011. Accessed Feb. 18, 2014.

[2]Armstrong, L. 2013- the year of ups and downs for the MOOCs. Changing Higher Education. Jan. 13, 2014. Accessed Feb. 18, 2014.

[3]Kabra, N. Are MOOCs just glorified textbooks? July 29, 2013. Accessed Feb. 18, 2014.

[4] Pew Research Center. Mobile Technology Fact Sheet. Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Dec. 27, 2013. Accessed Feb. 18, 2014.

[5]Mohamed, A., and Tsinakos, A. Increasing Access through Mobile Learning. Commonwealth of Learning. Jan. 2014. Accessed Feb. 18, 2014.

About the Author

Ann Taylor is the director of the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State University. Ann has worked in the field of distance education since 1991 and began working for the Dutton Institute in 2002. She holds a faculty appointment as a Senior Lecturer and has been an elected, and active, member of the University Faculty Senate since 2007. In her role as institute director, Ann is responsible for guiding her College's strategic vision and planning for online learning. She works with faculty, administrators, stakeholders, and Institute personnel to plan and implement online courses and programs that are tailored to either the needs of adult professionals worldwide or to the University's campus-based students, or both! Ann serves on numerous University committees that are focused on strategic planning, policies, and procedures related to the University's distance learning initiatives. While serving as a University administrator, Ann still keeps a hands-on aspect to her work, regularly working with University colleagues to create resources for faculty who teach online and sharing her work as a frequent public speaker. Twenty-two years in the field has put Ann in a front row seat as distance education has gone from correspondence study and "teleclasses" to the implementation of real-time two-way videoconferencing and ultimately the Web. Throughout her career, she has helped higher education faculty design, develop, and deliver countless distance education courses, in subjects ranging from traditional English courses to "construction flagging techniques" to graduate courses in sustainable energy solutions.

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. Copyrights for components of this work owned by others than the author(s) must be honored. Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, or republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee. Request permissions from

2014 Copyright held by the Owner/Author. Publication rights licensed to ACM. 1535-394X/14/02-2590180 $15.00



  • There are no comments at this time.