Editors Note: This is basic research that is most significant for the betterment of the teaching and learning environments we develop.
During fall semester, 1999, while on sabbatical from Great Basin College, I visited nine colleges and universities. The colleges picked are all active in the delivery of online classes and have been doing it long enough to have the answers I need. They are close enough to Elko, Nevada, to make the travel relatively easy. Only five colleges meeting these criteria were community colleges, where my main interest lies.
I interviewed the distance education directors or coordinators and as many online instructors as possible. A few instructors I was not able to meet, were sent email surveys. This amounted to eight directors and over 30 instructors.
I arrived with a prepared list of questions (see attachment) divided into sections addressed to instructors, directors and support people. I see this resulting document as a list of good ideas, describing how these colleges handle specific challenges.
I am defining online classes as those classes where all class activities are based on Internet web pages. Face-to-face classes are those where instructor and students meet in the same place at the same time. Web page software is defined as the commercial packages used to develop class web pages and manage the student visits.
Talking to online instructors turned out to be an uplifting experience. The experience has increased my enthusiasm for this medium. The strongest impression made on me was the creativity displayed by online instructors. This new teaching medium has brought about new teaching techniques and strategies.
For example, Marylhurst University is using teaching cohorts to teach an online class. The class is competency-based, based on an expanded syllabus and taught by a group of instructors. The Internet seems to be a perfect medium for this class.
Online classes are getting away from the standard lecture and test format. Some instructors are not using tests at all, having found other adequate methods of assessment. When online students work in small groups over the Internet, they are mimicking the working conditions they may well find in the work world.
Instructors have created ways to maintain quality communication between the instructor and students. The Internet tool most commonly used is the discussion board or bulletin board. Instructors have many novel uses for this tool.
Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, UT
The Online Instructor
Several techniques are used to reduce this work. The proper use of grade books was often mentioned. Although grade books are included in the web page software, six instructors use spreadsheets or commercial grade books. The use of colors and symbols help them keep track of assignments received and grades returned.
They organize the considerable number of received email messages. Folders are used in various ways to facilitate the storage of the messages. Other helps include the web page software showing the instructor how many times a student has 'attended class'. The newer versions of web page software automatically add names to class rosters from the college's registration software. Weber State University's web page software even adds the student photo from a college database.
A follow-up question to the amount of work was why do you teach online classes? Responses were mixed, listing advantages for students, colleges and instructors. A common response from instructors was they do it for the new challenge, new job skills, professional rejuvenation and the novelty. They see it as being the future of teaching. Only two reported being pressured into trying it.
They began teaching online classes for the flexibility in their teaching schedules. It helped them to land a part time job. It allowed them to add classes or sections to their already busy offerings. Instructors do it because they already know the power of the Internet and can already build web pages. Weber State University instructors are the only ones who said they do it for the extra money.
Writing instructors feel online classes work well for teaching writing. Others like the better communication online and the resources available online. They like the independence and the responsibility required of the learners. A Chemeketa Community College instructor teaching study skills reported an online class reaches the students where they do their studying, at home. A Great Basin College math instructor is converting all the old technology, videotape-based classes to online classes.
The advantages for the campus include being able to offer degrees, classes and/or sections not otherwise available. They want to reach new students and increase FTE. The advantages to students include their not having to travel, not having to meet at specific times and being able to access classes not available to them any other way.Supporting the Online Instructor
The pay given online instructors varies widely. Every college either pays extra money or gives release time for developing an online class. The median pay is the same dollar amount received for teaching the class. This amounts to 3-credit pay or release for developing a 3-credit class. Weber State University pays more for development. Along with the extra pay come extra requirements. Their instructors must attend training and their class web pages must be completely finished and approved before they can be taught.
Weber State University, Eastern Oregon University and Chemeketa Community College pay an extra stipend for teaching online classes. Two community colleges offer instructors lower class sizes for at least the first time taught. The rest do not offer any additional stipend for teaching online classes.
Only two community colleges charge online students extra fees and they charge extra for all distance education classes. Ecollege web page software charges students an extra fee for its use.
Online classes often attract non-resident students. Most colleges charge the standard non-resident amounts. Chemeketa Community College does not charge out of state fees to online students. Eastern Oregon University does not charge extra for any non-resident students.
All nine colleges offer their instructors some type of training. The amount of training varies widely based on the availability of staff. Training includes one-on-one, classes, luncheons, seminars and panel discussions. Chemeketa Community College has meetings where veteran instructors showcase one of their classes. Casper College assigns veteran instructors to work with new instructors. Three colleges are able to offer a support center.
Two reported they would soon offer more training as their staff is growing. Weber State University gives instructors six hours of training on FrontPage and the instructor then takes the software back to their office. Ecollege personnel travel to the University of Wyoming to help train faculty. Marylhurst University offers mentors to help new instructors develop their expanded syllabus.
A printed manual covering the use of the technology is available at six colleges. Only one college reported its manual contains information on using the technology in teaching. Chemeketa Community College and Weber State University have manuals covering school policies.
Only three colleges offer support centers with clerical help while the rest have only the distance education director or coordinator. Ecollege offers help to instructors developing their web pages.
A few instructors have tried using a chat room for online office hours. During their regular office hours, the instructor's computer is on and waiting. Students can initiate a conversation through a chat room. A few instructors encourage their students to meet in small group discussions via a chat room, since it is easier for three or four students to arrange a common time to meet. No one reported using WebCT's white board for synchronous communication.
While all the colleges use web pages as the basis for their classes, the software used to manage these web pages varies greatly. Weber State University builds very professional web pages using local talent. Four colleges use WebCT. The others use Ecollege, Webcourse in a Box, Firstclass, Classroom for Webboard, Colts and Web Academics. My several mentions of Ecollege in this document are not an endorsement. Ecollege is mentioned because it operates quite differently.
I asked instructors what types of assignments they require from students. The responses show the teaching creativity. The most common assignment involves class discussion. Instructors reported a variety of other assignment types. Students complete multimedia papers, research proposals, simulations, essays, peer-edited documents, bibliographies, group projects, workbooks (mailed in) and review questions. These assignments are turned in using a variety of methods. Many assignments are sent as attachments to either email messages or discussion responses. Instructors reported they have to deal with incompatible file formats and the need to teach students how to attach files. New versions of web page software offer assignments files uploaded directly to web pages. Several instructors reported problems with assignments from students using AOL to access the Internet.
Some instructors have students enter text into web page forms. Their responses are either typed directly into the form or copied from a word processor. Instructors reported this works well if the assignment does not require proper formatting. An important skill for any online students is being able to cut and paste.
Requiring students to turn in files formatted in .RTF or .HTML can alleviate file compatibility problems. Both Word 97 and WordPerfect 8 can save these formats. One instructor encourages her students to create their own web pages containing their assignments and she merely visits these sites. A Casper College instructor has students use WSftp so they can transfer entire folders of work.
Math instructors have an added problem. Their students must turn in homework containing special math symbols. Software is available to create formulas and display math symbols but they involve an added cost to the student and require another skill be learned. Most math instructors reported they use this software themselves to get math documents to the students. Their students, however, write out their homework. The paper results are then mailed in, faxed in, dropped off or even scanned and attached.
Several instructors teach online classes that make use of labs. Some require the students to travel to a lab a specific number of times. A Weber State University instructor has agreements with other institutions so students can complete labs at these other sites if they are not close to Weber State University. An Eastern Oregon University instructor mails out dead cats for her students to dissect.
Other instructors have found quality Internet sites or CD-ROMs containing lab simulations. A Psychology professor at Eastern Oregon University has replaced a lab using live rats with software simulations. Although his face-to-face class still uses live rats along with the simulation, he reports most other colleges are using only the simulation software. A Chemeketa Community College instructor in earth science requires students to go on field trips and encourages them to go in small groups.
Of particular interest to me was how instructors handle class tests and quizzes. Five instructors reported they have done away with tests. Marylhurst University students accomplish a list of competencies. Of those who do use tests, five colleges have instructors who require proctored tests, usually because the colleges already have testing centers and proctor procedures in place. Six colleges have instructors who offer timed take-home tests. These instructors can tell when their students receive the test online and when it is returned. They told me the low test security does not bother them, usually comparing it with test security in a face-to-face class. An interesting note is the Eastern Oregon University instructor who takes the best example of his proctored test, removes the name, and displays it to all students in the class web pages.
Most web page software offers a quiz feature, which will accept a bank of questions and administer a random group to each student. If the responses are simple TF or multiple choice, the student is given their grade as soon as they finish the quiz and the grade is added to the student's grade book. Every time a student opens the quiz, an email response is automatically sent to the instructor and students can be limited to only one attempt at the quiz.
A new type of class is emerging. The hybrid class combines a regularly scheduled face-to-face class with class work presented through a class web page. I asked a Marylhurst University instructor why he teaches a hybrid class. He said the time he spends face-to-face with his class is precious. Therefore, anything not requiring face-to-face time is done online. Specifically, his quizzes are offered online and discussions begin online. He introduces a topic in the discussion board and requires the students to add comments. When the face-to-face class begins, he has a starting point in the class discussion. He also feels the online portion forces the students to think about the class outside of the short face-to-face meetings.
Dealing With Inherent Problems
Five colleges offer instructions in their class schedules and web pages, telling the student to login and begin class. To help students, Marylhurst University and Great Basin College online classes begin a week later than face-to-face classes. Chemeketa Community College's classes begin a few days early. The distance education coordinator at Casper College keeps all email addresses of students who inquire about online classes. If they then sign up for a class, he will have their address.
What to do with the student who does not begin the class with the others? Three instructors simply drop them by a certain date. Three community colleges are willing to call students to remind them to begin. Several reported it is a problem they are working on.
When working with new online students, four colleges mentioned this problem. Students begin class with incorrect expectations and therefore have a poor chance of success. They do not understand this different learning medium. I found several innovative strategies being used to advise future online students.
Several colleges offer very good explanations on their web pages. Five colleges offer non-mandatory orientations, either face-to-face or online. Five colleges offer demo classes to explain the online class software. Marylhurst University feels this information is so important, they had their web pages created professionally.
Colleges offer quizzes to help a student see if they would do well in an online class. These are either simple text pages or web page forms that develop a score. Based on their score, students are advised if this medium might work for them.
Two institutions offer students policy statements regarding their use of the college's online classes. One is titled 'students' rights and responsibilities' and the other is 'what is expected of online students'.
A problem with beginning students is their not having the needed technology to succeed in an online class. Every college lists minimum hardware requirements. Two institutions offer browser checks, software that will check the student's browser version and Java capability. They can alert the student to technical problems before a class begins.
Once the students begin class, how to keep them there? If an instructor has motivated students dedicated to taking their class, there is no problem. If an instructor is not so lucky, strategies are needed to keep students in the class. An important strategy is preparation, such as offering an expanded syllabus and a thorough class schedule.
The most common strategy reported to reduce dropouts is constant, quick and thorough communication with students. Instructors reported they must reply promptly to student messages. Nothing will lose a student faster than their feeling ignored by the instructor. Also, communication between students can be of great help. A Chemeketa Community College instructor assigns student cohorts in her class, and the students in these smaller groups support one another. An upbeat, positive attitude in instructor messages is important, as is becoming aware of the students' situations outside of class.
A common complaint I have heard lodged against online classes concerns student communication. Students may having good communication with the instructor, but are isolated from other students. They miss out on the interaction in a classroom. I asked instructors what strategies make each student feel he or she is part of a class. Most of the responses revolved around the use of discussion boards. While most instructors use the boards supplied with the web page software, one college reported using Webboard and one uses WebBBS.
Whole class and small group discussion is important. Other strategies include students collaborating on projects, peer-editing of documents, exchanging documents, conducting debates and role playing, commenting on each others essays and the use of guest speakers. Students are often prodded into communicating by being graded on their number and quality of responses. They are encouraged to respond to other students' comments.
Most instructors post weekly questions for discussion. One instructor at the University of Wyoming uses a student moderator. The instructor did not join in. One instructor has a small group work on a discussion for a period of time before their forum becomes public for all the class to read. For each discussion question, an instructor at Eastern Oregon University assigns a different student to compile the class's thoughts. The instructor reads only this one collated response.
Often, the first required entry in a forum is a personal introduction to the class. A few instructors offer their own introductions, with photo and even an audio clip. Instructors feel students need to see them as a person, rather than just an email entity.
A Chemeketa Community College instructor has done away with email altogether. Her students do all communication through the discussion board. Its allows the instructor to create forums and assign students to enter them. Therefore, each of her students has a private forum no one else may see, where all personal communication takes place.
One way to encourage student-to-student interaction is a social forum in the discussion board. Students are encouraged to use it for general conversations. Webboard allows students to directly email others after reading their posted comments. Webcourse in a Box allows one student to see a list of all student addresses and email the entire class. Instructors also post all student email addresses and even require private messages be sent to others.
A science instructor at Portland Community College announces a demonstration on the bulletin board. The students then predict the outcome before the instructor posts the actual demonstration and its results. The students then comment on their success or lack of success in predicting.
Although the most common form of communication is email, instructors are not tied to this technology. Most instructors encourage students to voice call, fax or (if possible) drop by the office. Several instructors told me they call students when needed. One instructor uses phone calls to deliver pop quizzes.
Delivering Online Programs
An instructor at Marylhurst University had an interesting comment. He felt many times administrations have endorsed online courses to add FTE without adding bricks and mortar. In a few cases, the faculty were pulled, kicking and screaming, into this medium. Since then, the enthusiasm of many administrations has waned because the high number of new students has not developed. The instructors have become more enthusiastic as they see its potential.
The distance education directors were asked if there have been any problems maintaining the credibility of online classes among the college's other faculty. What strategies have they used to over come any opposition? While most reported no problem, they still have strategies in place. Hiring the best faculty and using full time faculty, especially at first, has worked well. Peer review of online course content and online faculty qualifications are used. Division chairs or distance education directors check class content. Salt Lake Community College requires peer review of all online classes using a form developed for Washington State. Minimum standards are developed for classes.
Only one college does not ask students to evaluate their online classes and this college will have an evaluation procedure in place soon. Four colleges use the same evaluation form used in all classes. They may add questions specific to online classes. Two colleges reported working on a better form. I thought it interesting that only two colleges email their form, the rest use land mail. Five colleges use the evaluations to gather further information, such as why the student took an online class and would they do it again. Ecollege gathers such information on all students attending an institution but does not break down the results by class.
I found some ingenious methods of marketing online classes. Only one college did not list online classes in its regular class schedule. Brochures, mass mailings and local advertisements are also used. Advertising banners are placed on local ISP web pages. Advertisements are sent to high schools, colleges add themselves to Internet lists of online colleges; they register themselves with popular search engines and even pay search engines for a better placement in searches. Two reported no need for extra advertising.
The states of Oregon and Utah have distance education consortiums. Colleges in these states reported receiving students not otherwise available. None of the members of Western Governor's University reported significant numbers of students. Two member colleges are considering dropping their membership.
Supporting the Online Student
When asked about library access, all colleges reported students can search full-text magazine databases, although a few are experiencing problems with student authentication. All colleges offer an online card catalog. Online students can check out books and do interlibrary loan but only three of the colleges will mail books to the students. The others require students to pick up their books at a campus. Seven of the college bookstores offer online book orders either through their own web pages or those of a parent company.
Six colleges offer telephone-based technical support although the instructor is usually listed as the first source of help. The telephone support may only be available during office hours. The web page software typically offers some technical support, usually through their web pages. Ecollege offers telephone support seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
Two colleges now provide their students with ISP access but both will be soon getting out of this service. Two colleges reported needing more servers and people.
While two want to slow their growth, five others are looking at offering online degrees, offering more courses and targeting more students. They want to add corporate training and short courses. Marylhurst University wants to add more cohort teaching. Salt Lake Community College is looking at adding non-credit courses in OSHA training. The University of Wyoming wants to offer bachelors degree in nursing, business and real estate appraisal.
Different teaching strategies are needed for online classes. These strategies, rather than the course content, will determine if a class is successful. The instructors I talked with strive toward the same student outcomes as a face-to-face class. But they feel the Internet offers several additional tools to help them achieve these outcomes. It is important for instructors to adapt the technology to their teaching and not change their classes to fit the technology. Again and again I heard of the need for clear, thorough syllabi and student-friendly web pages.
A common teaching style in face-to-face classes works the poorest online. A straight lecture and test class is too sterile, given the many Internet resources that can create a more interactive class.
There may be times when an instructor feels face-to-face instruction is needed, such as during science labs. I see no problem with students meeting face-to-face to accomplish what is needed and conduct the rest of the class online. In the future, the line between face-to-face and online will fade. More classes will become a combination of the two.
I wonder if too much of the training offered new instructors covers the technical end, rather than its use in teaching. Technical training is needed, but so is information on how to teach online, what it will be like to teach online and what online students require.
One question asked if students should be advised to take a class face-to-face, if at all possible. Math instructors were the only ones I found who consistently said yes. Other instructors said no, without knowing more of the individual student's situation.
Several colleges offer excellent help to beginning students, all of which was developed locally. Anyone interested in developing their own help web pages must search other college's web pages to find good examples. How nice it would be to have a central repository of good ideas.