February 2007 Index
Home Page

Editor’s Note
: Nursing education is building online learning communities to expand opportunities for learning. The focus is on interaction through interviews, shared experiences, group assignments, and dialog.

Qualitative Assignments
to Enhance Online Learning

Wanda Bonnel, Vicki Meek


Rapid advances in online education bring new focus to online teaching and learning strategies. As faculty seek best practices to design online learning experiences, familiar tools can be applied in new ways. Qualitative tools such as interview and observation provide a beginning toolkit for developing authentic and meaningful applied assignments. A student-focused online learning community evolves as students share experiences and build meaning from the assignments and discussion. Strategies, benefits, and sample online learning assignments using qualitative tools are shared.

Keywords:  online learning, learning community, web-based teaching, online education, teaching with technology, e-learning, online teaching, online education, online assignments, applied learning assignments


As online education flourishes, questions emerge as to how one best teaches to engage students for learning in an online classroom.  As faculty seek expertise with new technologies and determine best practices for designing online course assignments, familiar tools can be applied in new ways to promote online learning. While assignments using qualitative tools such as interviews and observations are not new, these tools are used in different ways in an online setting to help students become familiar with course content and to develop an online learning community.

Qualitative tools provide a beginning toolkit for developing assignments that can be authentic and meaningful.  Well known qualitative tools such as interview and observation bring real world experience to students who are learning online and provide building blocks for assignments that can be shared with online learning communities.  Expanded experiential activities are considered key to online learning (Fink, 2003).

This article shares strategies and benefits in using qualitative tools to develop online learning assignments.  Sample assignments from an online nurse educator certificate program are shared.

Background: Online Teaching and Learning

Rapid advances in online education bring new focus to teaching and learning strategies. The pedagogy of online teaching versus the technology itself is an important focus for educators (Billings, Skiba, & Connors, 2005; McKeachie & Svinicki, 2006).  Qualitative tools such as interview, observation, and document review work particularly well in developing online assignments that promote student centered active learning when faculty are not physically present.  Assignments using qualitative tools complement technology, bringing a humanistic component to online education. Students benefit as they relate their coursework to these applied “real world” experiences.

Good educational practices suggest the need to use a variety of teaching strategies to meet the needs of varied learners (Billings, Skiba, & Connors, 2005).  Using qualitative tools for learning assignments includes bringing applied activities and “lived experiences” to the online classroom, broadening the learner’s scope from traditional online learning activities. As multiple teaching methods are used, more students with diverse learning styles benefit. These authentic qualitative assignments are consistent with the constructivist philosophy of establishing a student focused learning environment (Savery & Duffy, 1995) as well as adult learning theory in making content relevant and applied (Knowles,1984).

Providing a classroom observation assignment, for example, to accompany readings about a particular topic such as student diversity issues, class participants will not only read about these issues, but also gain personal perspectives on the topic from observation.  As participants share observations in online discussion, students in many classrooms have opportunity to learn by exploring a variety of ideas and theories.  An online learning community evolves as students from a variety of settings share experiences and build meaning from assignments.

Qualitative Tools for Online Course Assignments

The assignments described in this paper have been used over the past five years in online nurse educator courses. Assignments are consistent with nurse educator course objectives seeking student knowledge and experience specific to teaching strategies; teaching with technologies; and course and program planning. The assignments have been evaluated as part of course evaluations and all received high ratings by the student learning community.  The program is detailed further by Bonnel, Starling, Wambach, and Tarnow (2003).

Table 1 shows sample assignments based on interview, observation, and document review as part of the online nurse educator program.  The role of interview, observation, document review and other qualitative approaches includes a sample process for implementing assignments.


Qualitative interviews are flexible and powerful tools that can provide windows into diverse experiences (Britten, 1995). An interview assignment (such as interviewing a nurse educator with over 10 years of experience) provides online students an opportunity to converse with an individual about a specific assigned topic and then compare/ contrast interview data to class readings and student colleague experiences.  By interviewing practicing faculty or clinicians, students gain practical expertise from colleagues’ years of knowledge and experience.  Students reflect as they review and write up interviews. Critical thinking and further inquiry are enhanced as additional questions are generated (Brookfield & Preskill, 2005). 

Sample benefit to learning community.  As students share completed interviews at an online discussion, the student learning community benefits from reviewing and responding to these diverse interview summaries.  For example as part of a faculty interview assignment about curriculum, students gain information from faculty in different professions, different specialties, different sized schools, and from both rural and urban settings.  Nursing faculty who teach in programs varying from basic certificates to advanced degrees share knowledge with students. As several students have noted, it would not be possible to readily gain information from this diverse range of individuals.


Observations allow opportunities to view activities in natural settings (Warren & Karner 2005).  An observation assignment (such as participant observer in a classroom or curriculum planning meeting) provides students opportunity to confirm concepts and processes that they are learning about in readings. As students view local classrooms and clinical agencies, they gain information about the roles, practices, and strategies of people they observe and also consider the setting structure and processes. Course content and readings make more sense as students experience concepts in action.

Table 1

Sample Qualitative Assignments

Sample Interview Assignments

Faculty Interview, "Technology":  Identify a faculty member with several years of online teaching experience and interview this person with respect to online teaching issues. Sample interview questions include:  What teaching strategies do you find most effective in these courses? What were some of the challenges for you in getting started with web-based teaching? What have been some of the positive experiences in teaching with web-based technology?  What are some ways you deal with feedback to students and time management issues?

Faculty Interview, “Curriculum”: Identify a “seasoned” faculty member with experience in course and program planning to better understand the "lived experience" of course and curriculum planning.  Suggested probes to begin the interview include: What are your experiences with the curricular process? What are your experiences using evaluation data to help make curriculum changes? What are your experiences with curricular strategies for melding theory and clinical?

Sample Observation Assignments

Learning Lab Observation:  Observe a clinical learning lab during a class session. Using a “people-place-process” observation model remember to consider who is present, what the environment and resources are like, and what teaching/learning processes are occurring specific to the clinical skills being observed.  After identifying strengths and weaknesses of the setting and processes, list what recommendations might be made.

Planning Meeting Observation:  Observe a curriculum or planning meeting using a “people-place-process” observation model to identify the dynamics and hierarchical arrangements within the course and curriculum planning meeting.  Include observations such as:  Who makes up (and attends) the committee meeting? What is the process for reviewing curricular materials? What is the process for approval/disapproval of materials?  What helps or hinders attainment of the agenda?

Sample Document/Resource Review Assignments

Course Syllabi Review:  Compare and contrast two course syllabi for web-based courses. Are there major differences as to how these courses are designed?  Does one format seem to have advantages over the others?  After reviewing the two, select one syllabus to further critique using guidelines provided.

Handbook Review: Review the table of contents for two selected student handbooks to identify the types of student issues covered. Select an issue or problem area you would like to think more about such as cheating or absence policies.  Compare and contrast the two handbook policies specific to the identified problem. Are there major similarities or differences? What do you find that surprises you?

Sample benefit to learning community.  After completing and sharing a clinical learning lab observation in an online discussion, students note the differences between various clinical labs’ resources. They report clinical teaching lab devices ranging from simple mannequins in some settings to expensive electronic patient simulators and standardized patients in others. 

Students also note differing teaching processes such as variations in clinical skills exams. Critical thinking is evidenced in online discussions as the online learning community generates questions such as what clinical lab structures and processes are  best and what further evaluative research is needed specific to best practices in clinical laboratory teaching.

Document Review

A common qualitative research approach reviews and analyses documents (Warren & Karner 2005). Students review documents such as online course syllabi, online college handbooks, and specific web resources to consider similarities and differences between various programs and schools.  This non-intrusive review strategy provides online students with information from numerous text-based presentations not readily available in the traditional classroom.

Sample benefit to learning community.  As students share completed summaries from an assignment incorporating a structured review of selected student handbook policies, students often express surprise at the similarities and differences between varied schools’ policies.  Students gain knowledge beyond their own school resources and extend the conversation to broader legal and ethical issues in student handbooks. They extend their learning by generating further questions and discussion about program variations and guidelines specific to student professional behaviors and practices such as cheating and student absences.

Additional Qualitative Tools

Reflection and writing, common qualitative tools, are used as students complete assignments and share assignment summaries at online discussions. Reflection can enhance self-evaluation skill as students build on previous experiences and reflect on how an assignment contributed to their learning.   Students use reflection to help bridge the theory and practice divide (Freshwater, Horton-Deutsch, Sherwood &  Taylor, 2005).

Sharing reflections and written assignment summaries via online discussion allows students opportunities for peer response and critique.  Numerous small observations that each student contributes about a topic add up to make a larger, more complete picture of a concept or issue.  Written questions and feedback from other group members promotes further reflection. Students learn class content as shared from varied settings and contexts. Learning extends beyond the traditional classroom, enhancing the online learning community. Palloff and Pratt (1999, 2005) noted that the best learning opportunities in online education often come from reflection and interaction as part of an online learning community.

Sample Process for Implementing

All assignments have been developed for courses that are completely online. Processes used for implementing the assignments include the following:

  • Students are given broad guidelines for each assignment (i.e. suggested beginning questions for interviews and models for organizing observations).

  • Specific information is provided in the course syllabi as to how each assignment contributes to course outcomes.

  • Faculty assist students to identify mentors and access settings for observation or individuals for interviews as needed.

  • Course faculty provide scheduled introductory comments to each assignment via email, setting the stage for the learning activity.

  • The majority of students’ assignments are shared in summary format at an online discussion for student review and response.

  • Following the online discussion of the assignment, faculty provide an email summary of the discussion’s key themes gained from simple content analysis of the discussion.

  • Simple rubrics are used to assign student grades for completion of the activities.

  • Assignments are evaluated as part of course evaluations

Further Considerations

Technology has been described as a unique opportunity to help students gain knowledge beyond the traditional classroom (Ehrmann, 2004). Assignments using qualitative tools, appropriate for many types of courses, can incorporate diverse student needs and different learning styles to benefit the online learning community as a whole. From the discussion of assignment summaries shared, class members help each other achieve course outcomes via the online learning community.  While changes in online educational technology will continue, the assignments discussed have broad scope and can have continued relevance.

Further evaluative research of online teaching and learning strategies in general is needed; however, the tools and assignments shared have been successfully used with diverse student groups in online nurse educator courses. Positive satisfaction scores were received on traditional course evaluations; course documentation; and a standardized online learning benchmark tool.  Evaluation data from 108 graduate nursing students who completed online nurse educator coursework noted increased expertise, experience, and confidence as nurse educators.

Qualitative tools can be used to design meaningful active learning assignments that engage students taking diverse online courses.  Faculty gain an assignment toolkit based on well known tools.  Students gain real world experiences that can be shared to further benefit the online learning community.  Using selected qualitative tools as components of applied learning assignments can be timely, efficient approaches to enhance web-based teaching and online learning.


Bonnel, W., Starling, C., Wambach, K., & Tarnow, K. (2003) Blended Roles: Preparing the Advanced Practice Nurse Educator/ Clinician with a Web-Based Nurse Educator Certificate Program.  Journal of Professional Nursing, 19(6).

Billings, D., Skiba, D., & Connors, H. (2005).  Best practices in web-based courses: Generational differences across undergraduate and graduate nursing students. Journal of  Professional Nursing, 21(2):126-33.

Britten, N. (1995). Qualitative research: Qualitative interviews in medical Research, British Medical Journal, 311: 251-253.  Retrieved January 15,  2007 from http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/311/6999/251

Brookfield, S., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching
(2nd edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ehrmann, S. (2004).   Beyond computer literacy: Implications of technology for the content of a college education. Liberal Education, 90(4): 6-13 Retrieved January 15,  2007 from http://www.aacu.org/liberaleducation/le-fa04/le-fa04feature1.cfm

Fink, L.D. (2003).  Creating significant learning experiences: an integrated approach to designing college courses, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Freshwater, D., Horton-Deutsch,S.,  Sherwood, G., & Taylor B. (2005).  The scholarship of reflective practice.  Indianapolis: Sigma Theta Tau International.  Retrieved January 15,  2007 from http://www.nursingsociety.org/about/resource_reflective.doc

Knowles, M. (1984).  The adult learner: a neglected species. Houston: Gulf Publishing.

McKeachie, W.  & Svinicki, M. (2006).  McKeachie's teaching tips, strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Palloff, R. M. & Pratt, K. (1999).  Building learning communities in cyberspace:  Effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass

Palloff, R. M. and Pratt, K (2005).  Collaborating online: learning together in community. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Savery, J.R., & Duffy, T.M. (1995). Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework.  Educational Technology, 35: 31 - 38.

Warren, C.A. & Karner, T.X. (2005).   Discovering qualitative methods: field research, interviews, and analysis. Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company

About the Authors

Wanda Bonnel, PhD, RN is an Associate Professor of Nursing and teaches at the University of Kansas School of Nursing.

Wanda Bonnel PhD, RN
Associate Professor 
University of Kansas School of Nursing
Mailstop 4043
3901 Rainbow Blvd,
Kansas City, KS  66160

Email: wbonnel@kumc.edu

Phone: 913-588-3363

Vicki Meek, MS, RN is an Assistant Professor of Nursing and teaches at William Jewell College.

Email: meekv@william.jewell.edu

go top
February 2007 Index
Home Page