Vol. 15 : No. 5
Editor's Note:This is a thoughtful analysis of the praxis of online learning from the perspective of the online novice instructor. It is a useful tool for first-time online teachers and serves as a benchmark for more experienced online faculty.
a Successful Online Class:
Barbara Farrell, Ed.D., CPA
Online education is a unique and important alternative for many students wishing to continue (or start) their education. Today, online education is part of a new culture with many distinct characteristics. It fills a necessary niche in the changing role of education. Without online education, many adult students with full-time jobs and families would never have the time (or inclination) to continue their studies.
Online instruction however, from the instructors standpoint, can be significantly more difficult than instruction in a traditional class. In a traditional class, it becomes quickly evident that you are losing your audience if the entire class is looking out the window. In an online class though, how do you figure out that you have lost your audience? Also, in a traditional class, an instructor will know if the class is confused if (s)he sees a collection of blank stares. Again, how does an online instructor get that same sense?
These are just some of the questions many instructors struggle with when considering teaching and developing online classes. The purpose of this article is to share some experiences in developing an online course - what worked, what did not work, what kept students interested, and what were some obstacles to student learning.
The Outline or Syllabus
The first document a student is likely to receive from the instructor is likely to be the syllabus. This will be the document that will guide the online student through the remainder of the class. It should establish course guidelines and provide students with information about the instructor, learning objectives, course expectations, and instructor/institutional policies. One might argue that an outline in a traditional class should also do the same. This is true, however, if the outline is not as inclusive as it should be, the instructor is available in a traditional class during class and office hours to clarify misunderstandings.
Elements of a Well-Designed Outline for an Online Course
First, there needs to be an introduction to the instructor with contact information. Unlike in a traditional class where students can see you and form an opinion immediately based on your appearance, students in the online class need to be able to place a face and a profile with the name. By placing a picture with the outline and sharing some personal information, you are creating a more comfortable atmosphere for the student. No longer will you be Professor Unknown, but rather a professor with a face that has interests and hobbies and maybe even a family too! By doing so you have opened a line of communication that will make the student more comfortable. Contact information is also important just in case a student needs to communicate other than through discussion forums or e-mail. By giving the students phone numbers, the instructor is communicating that (s)he cares about the student and is willing to make themselves available during off-hours. Personally, I make sure I tell students that all communications will be answered within 24 hours of being received.
Second, there needs to be a course description. The course description will be the first introduction the student will have to the course. Students will look at the course outline to see what topics will be covered and to see what topics will tweak their personal interests. In a traditional classroom, it is the instructor's task the first day of class to engage the students, and capture their attention, and excite the students for the coming semester. In an online class, this needs to be done through the course description. A well-designed outline needs to generate energy and excitement to motivate students to want to learn.
Third, there needs to be a course schedule of assignments. This will allow the online student to plan his (her) work and social schedule accordingly. In addition, the assignment schedule should define deliverables and time frames for those deliverables. For example, if the course is a 15-week course starting on Monday, all class assignments for the week must be completed by Sunday evening at midnight unless the instructor is notified of extenuating circumstances.
Fourth, there needs to be a clear description of classroom policies. Included should be: grading policies and weighting of assignments; policy for late submissions of assignments; attendance in online discussions; and participation in online learning experiences such as discussion boards. Course guidelines clearly define for the online student what is most important to the instructor. Therefore if a student's life interferes with school in a particular week, the student will know what is most important to the instructor and what they can let slide for this week.
Last, there needs to be a clear disclosure about the institutions policy concerning academic honesty. Plagiarism and cheating is not tolerated in any academic institutions, but a clear policy description of the seriousness of these offenses on the course grade and academic status is necessary.
Online Lecture Notes
In a traditional class, students read the required course material first, listen to the instructor's lecture, take notes, and ask questions if they have any. The lecture has to be stimulating and informative. In a traditional classroom, the instructor is the actor and the classroom is his (her) stage. (S)he performs for the students, hopefully engaging them for the period of time they are in the class and motivating them to continue the pursuit of knowledge outside the class. In an online class, the instructor's "stand-up" lecture is replaced by notes. The lecture notes therefore need to be both stimulating and informative thereby replacing instructor. To do this, standard outlines of course materials or PowerPoint presentations are boring, repetitive and likely will not hold a student's interest for too long. Having students nod off after reading a page or two of notes would indicate the presentation was not too interesting. Rather, there needs to be a mix of media within the outline. Course notes, mixed with audio files, video files, links to web pages, and reference notes to the textbook provide diversity for the student and a more interesting delivery.
In a traditional classroom, the quality of the lecture depends significantly on the instructor: for example the mood of the instructor, how they are feeling, time pressures to get through the material, and outside distractions in the class. Even though pressures exist in an online environment, students in an online class can control and manage their study time and attention to the lectures at their own pace. By adding a mix of delivery media in the lecture notes, the instructor is adding diversity to keep a students attention and to allow for logical breaks in the students study time.
I have also found that lecture notes should be both general course notes and references to specific pages within the textbook. Therefore, if after reading the text the student is not clear on a topic, they can then go to the course notes and read the general notes (similar to a faculty members lecture) and specific examples that are referenced to pages within the text.
Setting the Mood for the Class
It is important in any class to set the mood initially. However, in an online class, there is no body language or eye contact with the students as there is in a traditional classroom. In an online class, students and faculty rely on the written word. If communication is sterile, students will be intimidated. Since the student's initial experience in the virtual classroom often determines his (her) future success, communication needs to be open, friendly, and responsive.
I have also found that adding humor to the online class helps to relax students and make them feel more comfortable. Adding that level of comfort helps students feel more at ease with asking questions, communicating to the instructor, chatting with other students, and working in group projects with others. Humor can warm up an otherwise cold and sterile delivery environment. Humor can bring the instructor and the students together in such a way as to create a positive learning experience. It is important to realize here the difference between humor and sarcasms. In my experience, humor works well, but sarcasm leads the students to believe they too can add their sarcastic comments. Humor puts students at ease but sarcasm makes many students feel uncomfortable.
Student Evaluation and Feedback
Evaluating students is an important aspect of providing feedback to students. Remember, they do not get to see an instructor weekly. Therefore, many students need to hear from the instructor to make sure the instructor, knows whom they are. I do this several ways.
First, a requirement of my courses is student participation in weekly discussion boards. Some questions, (never personal), are for the students to answer directly to the instructor. These questions are both about the course material and also more general questions about where students might be encountering difficulties within the chapters. Within the first three weeks of a class, a question I always ask is, "How are you adjusting to being back in college? Are you experiencing time management problems? What are some of the techniques you are using that help you complete your work on time?" I find these kinds of questions allow students to open up, talk to me and share their experiences. I always answer student discussion question comments so they know I have read what they have to say. Students' are graded on their participation in the discussion boards.
Second, students have weekly assignments that must be completed. These assignments are graded and are a component of the students' final grade. Students submit these assignments through a drop box. I make a commitment to students that all assignments will be read and graded within 24 hours of being submitted (with weekends being an exception). After reviewing the assignments submitted, I make comments and corrections, and reply to the student via e-mail, my evaluation of their work. A student's grade on the discussion board assignments and on their homework is then entered in the gradebook. Students' have access to their own grades through the course software.
Third, quizzes are administered every two or three weeks. The quizzes are multiple-choice questions and are reasonably short (usually 10 questions). Each quiz must be completed within the week the subject material is assigned. After the week is over, the quiz is no longer available. These quizzes give me a sense of whether the student is understanding and completing the material assigned within the time frame required. I send each student a quick e-mail after they complete each quiz commenting on their performance, and asking if they understand the questions that were missed. Again, the course software grades the quizzes, the instructor needs only review the grades and make sure the student knows you are available if they have questions.
Finally, every fourth week, students have a final project to complete on the material covered in the three prior weeks. This project is equivalent to a quarterly exam. Students are not permitted to confer on this project, nor can they ask the instructor how to complete a specific task. Students must work on their own, and submit the completed assignments via the drop box by the end of the week. Again, I provide detailed comments on their work and their grade on the assignment via e-mail.
Frequent positive feedback is essential in an online classroom. Online students cannot see their instructors. The only way they know the instructor is paying attention and they are performing as expected is through feedback. Regular positive feedback on a timely basis is what makes an online student feel as though they are part of a class and encourages their participation.
Today, online education is part of the new educational culture. It has its own characteristics, and is filling a niche for many students that otherwise would not be able to attend classes. Numerous colleges and universities throughout the United States are establishing distance education programs.
These are just some of the techniques that were used when I developed online classes - what worked, what did not work, what kept students interested, and what were some obstacles to student learning. Online instruction requires interpersonal communication. Some instructors initially believe teaching an online class will be significantly easier as it does not require any "stand-up" classroom lecture time. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. Although different from a traditional class, online classes require as much effort on the part of the instructor and student as traditional classes.
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Schweizer, Heidi. 1999. Designing and Teaching an On-line Course, 1st Edition.
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Young, Jeffrey. March 3, 2000, "Dispatches From Distance Education, Where Class Is Always in Session - Seven students Discuss How They Learn -- and Live -- Through a Regimen of Online Courses", Chronicle of Higher Education.
About the Author:
Dr. Barbara Farrell is at the Pace University, Lubin School of Business. She received her Ed. D. from Columbia University in 1993. Her teaching and research interests include asynchronous learning, computers and systems, and financial and accounting. Barbara can be contacted at Pace University, Lubin School of Business, 861 Bedford Road, Pleasantville, NY 10570; Phone: (914) 773-3489, Fax: (914) 773-3908, and email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Her publications include:
"It's been a long road back. Doing business in Vietnam," The CPA Journal; New York; Apr 1997; Barbara R Farrell, James R Downing, and Patricia Healy.
"The changing role of the auditor: An analysis of viewpoints from the auditors' perspective," The Mid - Atlantic Journal of Business; South Orange; Jun 1998; Barbara Farrell and Joseph Franco.