Interview with Peter van Leusen: Insights into Online Education

Jacqueline Wong

November 13, 2018 was the official opening of The Community for Learning and Innovation (CLI) at Erasmus University Rotterdam ( CLI is a support and knowledge network for teachers, students, and aspiring innovators to come together to improve education. As part of the festive opening, inspiring talks, workshops, and activities were organized. During the event, we managed to interview one of the distinguished speakers, Peter van Leusen, Ph.D., to pick his brains on online education. 

Peter van Leusen is a manager of instructional design for EdPlus, Strategic Design & Development at Arizona State University (ASU ASU is a large public research-focused university with an enrolment of approximately 60,000 on-ground students and 40,000 online learners. He is involved in several instructional design projects including collaborating on adaptive curriculum and courseware development, designing MOOCs in a foreign language, and spearheading innovative digital educational experiences for broad audiences. 

Q1: What is the role of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) at ASU?

According to the ASU charter, being an inclusive institute is very important to us. We want to be accessible to all students and we want them to be successful. In this aspect, MOOCs play a major role in making ASU accessible. MOOCs are used in two ways to meet the needs of different students: Global Freshman Academy and Micromasters. 

ASU’s Global Freshman Academy ( provides students with a chance to pursue a college degree where students do not have to pay any fees upfront. They only have to pay if they want to convert successful grades to college credits after they completed the rigorous course. This way, it allows learners to check out university courses by taking away the financial burden of a traditional university degree. Moreover, it also provides an opportunity for students who were not able to go to college before or they didn’t have a sufficient GPA. By taking the MOOCs under this program, students can earn credits for first-year courses at ASU or transfer those to other universities. 

The Micro masters initiative in partnership with Coursera ( meets the needs of a different group of students. Potential graduate students interested in a Masters in Computer Science can enroll in an open and shorter version of a course before making the decision to pursue the degree. It is like an appetizer of what a course at ASU is like. Students can check out whether a course is right for them. 

Q2: How does ASU support students in online learning?

There are multiple initiatives and levels of support for online students at ASU. For example, a learning experience module is set up at the beginning of our MOOCs. The module teaches students strategies to help them become successful learners in MOOCs. We also set up an orientation course on ‘How to be successful in an online environment’ for our online students. During this mini-course, students are taught important skills for being successful in an online environment, e.g., time management skills, study strategies.

Other than the online support modules, we also have success coaches to help students with general questions regarding their study. Students are directed by success coaches to the correct place and to the right people. Instructors also monitor students based on the information retrieved from learning analytics and visualized on a dashboard. From the dashboard, instructors can quickly identify students who are falling behind to follow up with them.

We also have interventions that are implemented online to support learning. For example, we add formative quizzes to videos ensuring that students understand the materials that were presented. Another technique is to get students to reflect on their understanding to create an awareness of how well they are learning.

Q3: How does ASU support and prepare teachers to teach their courses online? 

Teachers take a masterclass before they start to create or teach online courses. During the masterclass, they learn to design online courses and are informed of the best practices. Faculties also work with instructional designers who will support them in designing sound instructional materials. To keep the teachers updated, frequent workshops and webinars are organized. We also organize faculty showcases to allow faculties to learn from one another. Other materials, such as infographics and handouts, are also given to teachers to provide them with the necessary information on teaching online courses. In addition, teachers are given support to manage their workload between teaching regular classes and designing online course materials. 

Q4: You have recently created a personalised learning tool, an adaptive courseware. Could you please explain how the tool helps students in the online courses?

The personalized learning tool’s goal is to provide the right lesson to the right student at the right time. Specifically, it supports student agency and choice in four ways. First, it provides remediation to students who need it. For example, some students may answer a question at the end of the video and move on while other students may need extra help and get another video or question before moving on to the next topic. Next, students get to choose their modules ‘adventure style’ by tailoring course materials to their interest. Third, the tool enables self-assessment. Student agency is increased when students can assess their own understanding. Lastly, the tool has a recommender system to support students. The recommender system is based on student profiles that were identified from a large database using an Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm. 

Q5: What advice(s) would you give universities or faculties when designing online courses? Where should we start?

My first advice is to think about your strategy. Why online education? Is it to reach students or a certain audience who are not able to attend courses on campus? Or is it because there is not enough physical space on the campus due to increased enrollment? Next, start small. Start with your learning outcomes in mind and then align your assessments, materials and activities accordingly. Starting small allows you to review and redesign your courses in a more manageable way. Also, look at what is necessary to get done so you can estimate the scope of work and required time. Consider the alignment across the courses when developing the curriculum. Identify the key competencies and skills you want your students to acquire. Also, think about how media can be used. Everyone can use videos, but what is important is how the videos are used (e.g., demonstration, formative feedback, announcements). Identify faculty staff who are willing to work alongside you to develop the online courses. Do not forget to build a network of people with a common vision while being flexible at the same time. Most importantly, check existing resources, such as The Community for Learning and Innovation (CLI) at Erasmus University Rotterdam, and see how it can help you save time and create rigorous learning experiences.Often, groups, such as CLI and the local Instructional Designers have standardized workflows and identified best practices that are extremely helpful.