Vol. 16 : No. 11< >
Editor’s Note: This comprehensive well-integrated article provides an excellent platform for both seasoned and novice online instructors. We recommend this article for inclusion in the handouts provided to distance-learning faculty to provide insights and a checklist for “covering the territory.”
Developing an Interactive Web-Based Classroom
Creating a successful interactive web-based learning environment can be a challenging task. There are many issues to consider in the design, development, and delivery of a web-based course. Instructors must rethink the way that they teach to create an interactive learning environment in a web-based format. Suggestions on how to address classroom management, technical difficulties, and course evaluation are given. Ideas to promote interactivity in online instruction are offered.
With the expansion of distance education programming, more and more instructors are considering the possibilities of online instruction as an alternative to their traditional classroom practice. Instructors who are novices in online instruction often assume that all they have to do is transfer the content of their traditional course into a few web documents, post it on a server, and then a web-based course is created. Although some educators will argue that a great deal of online instruction lends itself to this process, it is important to recognize that this practice, in itself, does not lead to quality instruction. Effective web-based instruction is much more complicated. It takes time, patience, and a willingness to be innovative.
When instructors come to discuss their plans for creating a web-based course, I immediately ask them why they want to do this. Quite frankly, most novice web-based instructors do not understand the amount of work it takes to design and maintain an interactive web-based course. Instructors need to know how to use the technology to manage their course effectively and how to adapt their content to the technology they will be using. Instructors new to distributed learning may first want to develop their web-based skills in a hybrid course format. A hybrid course involves the use of distributed instruction as a supplement or element in a traditional based course. For example, an English instructor may wish to use a bulletin board feature of a web-based courseware project for collaborative editing and review of papers. Students can post commentary on each other’s writing in this format for easier access even though their class is held on campus. Hybrid course designs often serve as better transitions from a traditional environments to distributed formats (particularly web-based platforms) because instructors can pace their understanding of how to integrate technology into their instruction.
However, if the instructor is determined to engage in the development of a web-based course, it is important that the instructor is thoroughly prepared for the development of the course. Rather than rushing out to develop new material for the web-based platform, it is first recommended to review the content from a parallel traditional course to determine if it can be easily modified for the web-based environment. By examining existing materials, it is easier to determine what additional content may be needed or further developed for online instruction. It is also a good idea to check if the material has already been presented in other web-based courses. This practice allows instructors to review how their content has been presented in this format. Instructors are strongly encouraged to look up web courses in their discipline. One useful site that offers a good sampling of web-based courses is the World Lecture Hall (http://www.utexas.edu/world/lecture/). Examining other web-based courses enables instructors to familiarize themselves with different models of design. This review is important because it allows instructors to recognize how variances in design can accommodate to their teaching style. Instructors also can obtain ideas for assignments, presentation of materials, and class activities.
After gathering suitable content for the course materials, it is best to create a detailed outline that addresses the characteristics of the audience, the objectives of the course, and the instructional goals of the course. If the instructor plans on working with an IT person to develop the course, this outline will establish the foundation for building the course. A course outline also gives the instructor greater control over the design of the course. This aspect proves important in meeting the overall objectives of the course. Instructors should also take time to review current research that outlines the strategies for teaching and learning in a distributed learning format. There are many web sites such as the Distance Education Clearinghouse http://www.uwex.edu/disted/resources.html that provide a number of useful resources on topics related to distance education instruction. In addition, it is highly recommended that instructors sign-on to a listserv related to distributed learning teaching. Listservs such as DEOS-L and WEB-TOLL are two very useful resources that generate discussion of a variety of useful topics related to distance education practice.
In addition to creating a course outline, it is also important to gather all the material possible that will be used to convey information about the course. According to Michael Zaccaria (2000) in “Criteria for an Effective Instructional Web Site,” the general content of an instructional web site should include the following information:
1. Instructor information, virtual office hours, announcements
2. Course description, course outlines, syllabi, and assignments
3. Lecture outlines, class notes, and web bibliographies
4. Testing and grading information, sample tests or test questions
5. Course management policies, means for submission of assignments
6. Interactive activities such as bulletin board, email links to classmates
7. Academic services support links such as the campus library and tutoring center
8. Links appropriate to lecture to assist students with review of material
9. Grade postings and/or a site by which students can check assignments
Password protection for pages with personal student content.
Instructors should gather most of the information they plan to use in their lessons prior to the development of the course. Problems may arise for those instructors that attempt to create content as they teach the course. These individuals need to realize that last minute additions of notes or slides from presentations can confuse students. In addition, technical support may not be readily available to make the changes as needed. The delay in posting the revised material may lead to additional problems for class management. If instructors need to make such amendments during the course, then it is important to alert the students in a formal manner so students can respond appropriately to the changes. One suggestion is to include a section on the first page of the course entitled “Important Updates” to list changes or important announcements such as rescheduling of assignment or project deadlines. Instructors should also be aware of technical staff policies regarding the revision of course material. Continuous last minute changes in a course design may not be feasible for a technical staff assigned to support all the distributed learning courses for a university. In addition, such actions demonstrate to students in the class that the instructor is not really prepared for the course.
Instructors should always be wary of creating web documents loaded with text from lecture notes or PowerPoint presentations. Although these methods are considered to be the easiest way of presenting information to online learners, Rick Ells (1999) notes: “Just making content available is not education. Learning requires action, interaction, and application.” Instructors need to provide students with “examples that relate the content to a context understood by the students.” (Willis 2001) Breaking text into instructional units (smaller parts) can enhance learning. Using links is much more easier for students to follow than sequencing pages of text. Several studies have shown that reading information from a screen can be as much as 30% slower than reading it from a paper. Pages that are entirely text-based can be difficult to read and extremely boring.
Instructors need to review the layout of their materials from a student’s perspective. It is important to be clear and concise. Students should not have to spend hours at a time to locate information on a course page. Tutorials, online exercises, and other activities that promote the self-direction of a learner will make the content of a web-based course much more interesting to students. When students are required to understand course material and then use it to accomplish a meaningful task, learning takes place.
In addition, instructors should never assume that students enrolled in a distributed learning course possess fluency in information technology or information literacy. At the beginning of the course, require students to initiate contact with one another through electronic mail. Have them send test messages. Have them send file attachments. If a courseware product is being used, ask students to engage in activities that make use of the features of the courseware product. The objective is to create activities that provide students with opportunities for developing their online competencies. Some activities may include: 1) requiring students to sign on to a listserv or newsgroup related to class content, 2) actively posting and responding to messages in a forum discussion, 3) evaluating and writing reviews of web sites related to topics being discussed in the course, 4) producing web bibliographies on a given topic, 5) preparing an online lesson for the rest of the class, and 6) developing additional course pages for the class.
Just as it is important to teach students the content of the course, it is important to build the students’ confidence in using the technologies in a distributed course. It is also important to assess the students’ skills in information literacy. Take note of which students fail to interact and encourage them to take a more active role in forum discussions. Spend time interacting with students that seem hesitant to participate in the chat rooms. Find ways to show your students how to locate information for class assignments. Introducing your students to online scholarly journals, quality web sites, and electronic resources is a good way to improve their skills in evaluating electronic information. The campus library staff may also have a web-based bibliographic instruction lesson or electronic reference guides that can be included in the instructor’s course as a lesson for doing research on the Internet. All web-based courses should not only have a link to the campus library, but an email link to the reference librarian who is the subject specialist for the discipline. Instructors can also invite guests to participate in the class discussion. Colleagues, students from other courses, and students enrolled in the traditional format of the class can be invited to participate in class activities. The goal is to give remote access students the same feeling of a campus community that their on-campus peers receive. This element can prove very significant in the retention of distributed learning students.
Instructors are also encouraged to continuously evaluate the content of the course. Instructors who use the same materials over and over again limit not only themselves, but also their students. If there are online papers or web sites that have related course information, put the URL in the content and introduce your students to “quality surfing”. Keep abreast of the latest information by having students subscribe to listservs related to the discipline. For example, students can sign on to lists related to the course topics or subject material. It is also important to talk to campus instructors who have already taught in the institution’s distance education program, particularly those who have presented their course in a web-based environment. As web-based veterans, these individuals will identify the strengths and weaknesses of administrative, technical, and academic support for web-based instruction at your institution. They also can recommend instructional sites to assist with locating free web tools for online instruction. This information can prove to be very helpful for saving time in course development.
Once instructors determine the content they will use for their web-based course, the next phase in the process is development. Some instructors opt to create their courses using software applications such as FrontPage, Dreamweaver, and Authorware. Others rely on using system software such as WebCT or Blackboard. Whatever method is adopted, it is crucial that instructors know in detail how to use and troubleshoot the potential problems that may arise in using the program. Not knowing the ins and outs about the potential technical limitations of the software and hardware will be problematic when trying to transform traditional learning activities into a web-based format. Also, if technical support is not readily available, how will instructors assist students with technical questions?
Some development considerations include the following questions:
Novice instructors often want to use a wide range of graphics to enhance the presentation of the course. The inclusion of graphics should relate to the text displayed. When using images, it is important to determine if the graphic is essential to enhance the content. Dynamic moving graphics should be used sparingly to avoid distraction. Graphics should always serve an instructional purpose. Pages that are filled with multimedia take much longer to download. This set-up can be extremely frustrating for students with slower modems. Graphic files should be kept as small as possible. The use of large graphic menus, banners, and progressive graphics can make a student wait 2 or 3 minutes to transfer and display the file. Instructors should consider using JPEG or GIF compression to reduce transfer time. Instructors need to realize that some graphics may not load properly with certain browsers. It is recommended that instructors examine their pages from different browsers to see what possible problems can occur. All graphics should include an “ALT-tag” description to ensure that students who cannot access the graphic can at least retrieve information on the graphic. It is also important to provide accessible materials for all students. The use of graphics can be extremely problematic for those students who have text-only browsers.
If instructors intend to use hyperlinks, it is necessary to check their availability. Links from journal articles or special reports may be archived into a site database and may not be able to access from the listed URL. Hyperlinks should only be included if they serve a direct purpose to the text. Links should be clearly labeled to give learners a better sense of organization of the site. Students should not be given series or lists of links without some form of description of the purpose of these materials. If the list is a selected bibliography of web-based readings, then the instructors should make certain that they have copyright privileges to post the materials on their sites. Links to full text articles, book excerpts, and other materials may need approval prior to inclusion in a course. It is best to check with the university’s copyright policy for electronic resources before adding them to a course.
Information for the course should always be presented in a
clear and concise manner. It is recommended that the home page of the course
reflect the most important information regarding the course. Changes in the
schedule, new information regarding assignments, virtual office hours, contact
information, and other important course information should be listed on the
first page students see when they log into the course. The course syllabus
should outline all rules, guidelines, standards and policies in detail to avoid
conflicts. A detailed description of what constitutes online academic misconduct
should be listed as well as the institution’s policy regarding cheating and
plagiarism. Once these standards are listed, it is imperative that instructors uphold them.
Some instructors make use of automated grade books that restrict access to students enrolled in the course. Students are then able to retrieve assignments, submit quiz or test answers, and obtain ongoing assessment for their work thus far. Other instructors enlist proctors at the remote sites to distribute and collect assignments and test materials. Some instructors even decide to forgo testing altogether, relying more so on the grading of online group projects and collaborative activities. For whichever method is adopted, a contingency plan for making up assignments and exams must be established prior to the start of the course. Students need to know what happens when they are unable to email assignments due to technical malfunctions? What back-up plan is offered for email attachments that are mysteriously lost in cyberspace? What exactly is expected of students in meeting course deadlines? What are the course deadlines? An instructor should have all of these questions answered prior to the actual instruction. It may be wise to include such information in a class FAQ or other section that lists course information. The more thorough the details of the course’s policies, the less likely problems will occur when students have concerns regarding the course.
Relying simply on email can create a host of problems for instructors who are not prepared for “email-overload”. Students tend to miss the instant feedback from their professors and often post messages several times a day because the instructor fails to respond in a prompt fashion. Hara and Kling (2000) found that students’ frustrations with web-based courses originated from “minimal and not timely feedback from the instructor and ambiguous instructions on the web site as well as through email.” Kember (1987) found that variables such as the “frequency and nature of contacts [and] the speed of response to student initiated contacts” influenced the students’ evaluation of online instruction.
Graham (2001) recommends that instructors should “establish policies describing the types of communication that should take place over different channels. Examples are: “Do not send technical support questions to the instructor; send them to tech email@example.com.” Or “The public discussion forum is to be used for all communication except grade related questions.” Graham also notes that instructors “set clear standards for instructors’ timelines for responding to messages.”
By having students enrolled in the course provide web biographies and in some cases, photos of themselves, they gain a sense of who is in the class. Biographies can contain information about their interests, studies, work experiences, location, educational experience, and reasons for taking the class. Instructors can also include a general web form template that enables students to create and add a personal web page for the class. Activities such as encouraging students to share their “coolest web sites” or “site of the week” gives the class a sense of community. Research by Kanuka and Anderson (1998) indicates that the greatest value of online interactions for students was a means of sharing and receiving information and to network with others. Hence, by establishing a sense of community in the web-based classroom, instructors may be able to illicit more active participation among students. Instructors can create electronic journals for students to write entries on course topics and discussions. Chat room activities through the use of bulletin boards or listservs can also foster a learning community. Chat rooms can be used for a number of traditional activities such as review and exam preparation, brainstorming sessions, group projects, and collaborative assessment. Willis (2001) also recommends that instructors make use of pre-class study questions to encourage critical thinking and informed participation.
In January 1995, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of the Census reported that 1 in 5 Americans have some kind of disability. In response, the American Disabilities Act was modified to include web accessibility for people with disabilities. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act also states that all public entities must provide equal access to electronic resources and information technology. Hence, as instructors begin to develop their web documents, they should adhere to universal design and web accessibility guidelines. The Web Accessibility Initiative offers guidelines to ensure the creation of accessible documents: http://www.w3.org/WAI. Even if instructors plan to use dynamic elements in the web-based course, it is important to evaluate their page from the perspective of students with disabilities. There are several web resources and organizations that provide information on adaptive technology and web accessibility workshops. Instructors must realize that web accessibility is important for all students. Different browsers, slower modems, and traffic on the network all influence accessibility of web documents. To check accessibility of a web tool called “Bobby” (http://www.cast.org/bobby) serves as a validation device to check the accessibility limitations on a given site. It is highly recommended that instructors run this diagnostic on their course pages to see what type of material students with disabilities may not be able to access.
Novice web-based instructors are sometimes so preoccupied with the facets of creating their course that they fail to examine how their remote access students will receive academic support in the virtual setting. It is important that instructors take time to examine the availability of online tutoring, the campus library’s electronic resources, and other online student services. Providing links to resources such as the web version of the online newspaper or academic department web site offers students a connection to the college. Instructors should also see what other collegiate electronic resources are available for students. Online clubs and other electronic communities can also be recommended to the students. Some campuses even create a virtual student center for their web-based participants. Students should also be encouraged to participate in online academic conferences. Instructors should look for conferences related to the course subject. Fees for such activities are usually less than the cost of a course textbook.
Students can gain a great deal of information from the experience and participate in the forums at the conference. Some students may even be encouraged to present papers at these conferences.
The delivery of a course is important because students unfamiliar with the online learning environment may need additional assistance to accommodate to all the features of the course. Stokes (2000) found that “preparing students to take online interactive courses involves more than teaching technical skills. Abilities related to time management, self-discipline, independent learning, active information seeking, and constructing must exist.” Instructors may wish to give their students self-assessments to determine the level of skills and competencies students possess. This information is helpful to gather prior to the start of the course to make modifications if necessary for students who may need additional assistance. With this information, instructors can then provide an orientation for the students. This orientation may be in person or online, but it will help students understand how to navigate through the course pages. In addition, some instructors may wish to mail students introductory packets that include the course syllabus, description of hardware and software requirements for the course, and information regarding technical and academic support. All instructors should provide an individualized orientation to their course regardless of what type of orientation the university provides for remote access students.
Prior to the start of the course, it is highly recommended to test the delivery. Perhaps the best way to test the delivery of a web-based course is to become the end user. Be the student who will access the course materials with the wrong hardware. See what happens. Certainly the instructor is aware of the hardware requirements for the course, but have the students been informed? Review how well the audio and video clips function within the framework of the course. Read instructions for assignments. Do they make sense? Note how long it takes to download or retrieve information. Navigate through the course from the perspective of a student. Try to send an assignment following the instructions listed on the site. Try to access the grade book, the hyperlinks, and other files in the course. If it is too difficult to remain objective in this evaluation of the course, enlist colleagues to review and evaluate the layout of the course.
Throughout the creation of a course, it is important to evaluate the process of design, development, and delivery. Even before the course is presented to the students, it is recommended that instructors determine how they will evaluate the success of the course. Evaluation should be done in a multi-level format. All too often distance education instructors rely on only summative evaluations to determine the success of their course.
Willis (2001) suggests that instructors should conduct formative evaluations that examine the outcomes of individual lessons. “These mini-evaluations might focus on course strengths and weaknesses, technical or delivery concerns, and content areas in need of further coverage.” Willis also suggests that instructors conduct summative evaluations after the instruction is completed. This type of evaluation is similar to the traditional course evaluation instructors ask students to complete at the end of a semester.
Quantitative and qualitative evaluation should also be conducted because both forms rely on responses from students regarding the design, development, and delivery of the course. Asking students to discuss concerns they had about the course often generates the best information regarding flaws with the effectiveness of the course. Instructors can ask students to journal their concerns throughout the course and share the notes with others. Sometimes students are reluctant to criticize instructional practice and offering them a forum to do so may help in improving the delivery of content.
Instructors should also engage in self-evaluation. Self-assessment is often overlooked in distance education. Instructors should keep a log of their email interactions with students and examine the ways in which information could have been communicated better. Instructors should also examine the number of questions students had relating to content areas to determine if additional clarification is necessary to improve the presentation of information. Projects such as the Flashlight project (http://22.214.171.124/flshlght.htm) develop tools for evaluation for educational uses of technology.
Once instructors review the evaluation data, it is important to revise the course. There is always room for improvement in every form of instruction. Instructors willing to revise and improve their course development tend to build confidence in future presentations of the course. Major revisions in the course should always be tested prior to implementation of the course, particularly if these revisions include incorporating new technologies such as streaming audio or video. All course revisions should be documented for future reference to share with colleagues who may be considering developing web-based courses.
Developing successful interactive web-based courses takes time, but the benefits far outweigh the challenges. Web-based instruction enables educators to expand access to learning. The variety of techniques and methods of delivery enhance the quality of instruction to support different learning styles much more readily than in the traditional classroom setting. Students must take a more active role in their learning and in the process, develop their skills in information technology and information literacy. Instructors should realize the importance of establishing good practices in the design, development, and delivery of their web-based courses. The success of distributed learning depends upon it.
Rick Ells. 1999. Basic Premises of This Workshop. Effective Use of the Web For Education: Design Principles and Pedagogy. [Online]. Available: http://staff.washington.edu/rells/effective/premises.html.
Graham, C. 2001. Seven Principles of Effective Teaching: A Practical Lens for Evaluating Online Courses. Technology Source. [Online] Available: http://horizon.unc.edu/TS/default.asp?show=article&id=839.
Hara, Noriko and Rob Kling. 1999. Students’ Frustrations With a Web-based Distance Education Course. First Monday. [Online] Available: http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue4_12/hara/index.html.
Kanuka, Heather, and Anderson, Terry. 1998. Online Social Interchange, Discord and Knowledge Construction. Journal of Distance Education. 13 (1). 57-74.
Kember, David. 1991. Some Factors Affecting Attrition and Performance in a Distance Education Course at the University of Papua, New Guinea. Distance Education. 2 (2). 164-88.
Klemm, William. Creating Online Courses – A Step-by-Step Guide. Technology Source. http://horizon.unc.edu/TS/default.asp?show=article&id=861.
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Stokes, S. 2000. Preparing Students to Take Online Interactive Course. The Internet and Higher Education. 2(2-3) 161-169.
Willis, B. Strategies For Teaching at a Distance. Distance Education – Strategies and Tools. [Online] Available: http://www.uidaho.edu/evo/dist2.html.
Young, G. 2000. Dispatches from Distance Education When the class is always in session. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 43-45.
Zaccaria, Michael. “Criteria for an Effective Instructional Web-Site” Handout presented at Sixth Annual Mid-Atlantic College Conference: Teaching, learning, and Managing with Technology. Friday October 20, 2000. Montgomery County Community College. Blue Bell, Pa.
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