Vol. 16 : No. 10< >
Editor’s Note: Dr. Betz provides a practical and insightful template for distance learning praxis as implemented within the University of Phoenix Online. He explains how traditional education roles and practices are transformed and how to facilitate quality improvement in online learning and teaching.
A Case Study of Essentials of Practice at an Online University
As the momentum for offering online courses at all levels of the educational enterprise continues to show significant growth, expertise in the online medium is becoming more valuable. It was for this reason that I sought out a position with a prominent, online university about a year and a half ago. In a recent article, Faculty Training at an Online University (Muirhead & Betz, 2002), I described my experiences in preparing to become an online instructor at said online university. The major preparations were conducted in a four-week training course that stressed the basics of "facilitating"an online course.
Like any world class organization, an online university cannot allow one initial training course to suffice as a harbinger of educational quality and excellence. The next step in the quality assurance matriculation is a mentorship, in which faculty candidates offer their first course online under the watchful eye and expert guidance of a Mentor, who has undergone formal preparations for that role. In addition to the Training and Mentorship programs, online faculty members are encouraged to attend monthly meetings hosted by the Chairs of Program Areas. In these meetings, "topics of the day"related to courses in respective courses are discussed in interactive fashion. The meetings do not require that facilitators from all over the country fly to a central location. Instead, a dedicated virtual meeting hall, in this case an Outlook Express newsgroup, is accessed from each facilitator’s personal computer. The virtual meeting consists of prompted discussion threads related to departmental courses, which focus on ways to improve the curriculum and instruction of each.
While the monthly meetings of faculty in respective virtual departments give facilitators the opportunity to offer feedback to the curriculum developers and administrators about the courses that they have managed, there is more to improving online education than merely updating specific courses. Online education is a transformation of the traditional classroom, in which the teacher must exchange one stock set of skills for another, based upon what Perrin (2002) has called, "inherent qualities of the online technologies incorporated into the virtual classroom"(¶ 1).
To that end, interdepartmental meetings of the online faculty, General Faculty Meetings (GFM), are held every year, to discuss the essentials of online educational practice, apart from specific considerations of course-related curricular and instructional issues. Instead of the score or so participants involved in Departmental meetings, over 1200 online faculty attend, by subscribing to Outlook Express newsgroups, on invitation. During the most recent General Faculty Meeting, the focus was on establishing benchmarks of best practice for online courses related to the fundamentals or essentials of online facilitation. These essentials clarify the major distinctions between online and traditional education and included the following: Day 1, the syllabus, the lecture, and discussion questions; Day 2, facilitation techniques, and Day 3, evaluation and grading.
Day 1-- The Syllabus, the Lecture, and Discussion Questions
The online course syllabus takes on increased importance in the online environment because it must not only be very specific with respect to the many aspects of the course, but it must also be very complete (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2002). In the traditional setting, the syllabus is usually the first handout, and it gives students an overview of course expectations. However, the Instructor will be present at every class meeting to answer any questions or simply to communicate with students about specific course issues. With an online course, particularly in the absence of all face-to-face interaction between the facilitator and the students, a huge burden is placed on the syllabus to convey not only the usual agenda of course topics and evaluation guidelines but also all the elements of communication protocol and procedures.
The syllabus for an online course includes items not likely to be found in a traditional syllabus, so a checklist for syllabus items was offered at the GFM to ensure that all necessary elements are present. For example, a traditional class, while comprehensive, is not limited to the written description of the curriculum for the course. Instructors are at liberty to veer from the charted course, because adaptations and relevant explanations are easy to provide by the "live"instructor. The facilitator, who is often separated from students by literally thousands of miles, can not improvise on content and maintain course coherence. Exact specifications for course content must be included in the syllabus. Remember, the online faculty, like the student clientele, is scattered far and wide, so curriculum alignment for different facilitators of the same course is a more precarious commodity.
In a traditional course, the student is directed to attend one designated classroom where the course will be held. The online environment is more complex, because of the presence of the technology conundrum, inherent in online educational endeavors. The protocol and procedures of using software, email, newsgroups, and the World Wide Web, must be explained in exact detail. Further, attendance and class participation take on different meanings, and the rules for such must be conveyed in the syllabus. There are, it needs be said, other issues that require attention in a syllabus for an online course.
The preparation of quality lectures, a requirement at this online university, was the next topic of focus in the General Faculty Meeting. As Farrell states in a recent article, "In an online class, the instructor’s ‘stand-up’ lecture is replaced by notes. The lecture notes therefore need to be stimulating and informative thereby replacing the instructor (Farrell, 2001, ¶ 9)." Since the lecture takes the place of the instructor in setting the tone for the class and narrowing the curriculum to the major points of interest, its development and use is of paramount importance. The minimum word requirement is set at 1000, and the lecture can be based on one of two sources: course content objectives or course readings. Online faculty were provided a 14-point checklist for assuring the quality of online lectures. Some of the main points included:
The last indispensable component of online courses addressed in Day 1 of the General Faculty Meeting was Quality Discussion Questions. The topic of Discussion Questions is directly related to the broader concept of interaction between the student and the facilitator and between students. Interaction expert, Brent Muirhead, defines online interaction: "Interactivity involves participation by the learner in online communication between learners and with their class tutors"(Muirhead, 2001, ¶2). Discussion questions, which are posted at the beginning of the electronic week along with the online lecture, require students to thoughtfully contribute to a topical discussion and exchange views with other students and the facilitator. The medium for discussion questions is not a live chat session, but rather is a bulletin or discussion board. Major points related to the discussion questions’ checklist included:
Day 2 -- Facilitation.
The popular term, Instructor, is replaced by the term, Facilitator, in the online university’s lexicon. The content for Day 2 of the General Faculty Meeting was consumed by elaborating on the meaning, in terms of practice, of the revised term. The online instructor must facilitate discussions, learning team activities, and all the processes related to interaction. The essential fact behind the switch in terms from Instructor to Facilitator relates to a switch from instructor-centered learning to student-centered learning. Students are required to learn more independently, due to their physical separation from the Instructor. The Instructor likewise becomes more concerned with the reliability of course materials, i.e., syllabus, lecture, discussion questions, et al, to convey the desired implications for course content. As stated by Simonson, et al. (2002), "The Instructor is viewed as the facilitator of learning by guiding, rather than directing, the students, thus modeling a student-centered approach"(p.152). Ultimately, the role of the Facilitator in interaction with students becomes more tutorial in nature (Bork, 2001), in that each student is dealt with individually and prompted with scaffolding to realize growth in learning. It is perhaps this point that makes online courses meritorious.
The aspects of facilitation stressed in Day 2 of the General Faculty Meeting included a general overview of facilitation processes, criteria for student attendance and participation, and the management of learning teams. To these ends, checklists were provided to faculty for prioritizing the following:
(Quality feedback, 2002)
Day 3 -- Evaluation and Grading
The last day of the General Faculty Meeting focused on evaluation and grading of online students. Marzano (2000) has identified five purposes for grades: administrative (matriculation, placement, et al.), feedback about student achievement, guidance, instructional planning, and motivation. He goes on to explain, "The most important purpose for grades is to provide information or feedback to students…"(p. 23). Further, Muirhead states, "Research studies reveal that the quality of online education classes varies considerably due to instructors who fail to provide timely and consistent feedback to their students"(Muirhead & Betz, 2002). Clearly, a major consideration for online faculty, as evidenced in the GFM, is quality feedback to students. Feedback tells students what they have done well and, probably more importantly to them, what they should do to perform more effectively. In addition, feedback provided to students in the online milieu must be timely and meaningful. Highlights in the checklist about feedback provided to faculty include the following points:
The three-day General Faculty Meeting of over 1200 faculty of this "online university"emphasized fundamental concerns related to the practice of facilitating online courses. These concerns included the contents of course syllabi and lectures along with related discussion questions, the art and science of facilitating rather than instructing online courses, and the very important concept of evaluating students’ performances. The value of the meeting consisted chiefly in the provision of important checklists for guiding the facilitator to higher quality and more successful conduct of online courses.
Bork, A. (2001). What is needed for effective learning on the internet? Educational Technology & Society, 4 (3). Retrieved from http://ifets.ieee.org/periodical/vol_3_2001/bork.html
Farrell, B. (2001). Developing a successful online class: What works to keep the students motivated and interested? USDLA Journal, 15 (5). Retrieved from http://www.usdla.org/html/journal/May01_Issue/article08.html
Marzano, R. (2000). Transforming classroom grading. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Muirhead, B. (2000). Enhancing social interaction in computer-mediated distance education. Educational Technology & Society, 3 (4). Retrieved from http://ifets.ieee.org/periodical/vol_4_2000/discuss_august2000.html
Muirhead, B., & Betz, M. (2002). Faculty training at an online university. USDLA Journal, 16 (1). Retrieved from http://www.usdla.org/html/journal/JAN02_Issue/index.html
Quality discussion questions. (2002, May). Posted to Faculty-Meeting.05-28-02.GRM2.Materials.
Quality grading/feedback. (May, 2002). Posted to Faculty-Meeting.05-28-02.GFM2.Materials.
The quality lecture. (2002, May). Posted to Faculty-Meeting.05-28-02. GFM2.Materials.
Perrin, E. (2002). Podium: Online course designer. USDLA Journal, 16 (5). Retrieved from http://www.usdla.org/html/journal/May02_Issue/editor.html
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2003). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
About the Author
Muhammad K. Betz graduated from Ball State University with a B.S. in secondary education in 1976 and completed a M.Ed. (1984) and a Ph.D. (1990), specializing in Instructional Technology at the University of Texas at Austin. Currently, Dr. Betz is a Professor at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in teacher education. Dr. Betz is also a member of the Online Faculty at the University of Phoenix, in the areas of Curriculum & Technology and E-Education.
He writes frequently on topics related to online courses, educational technology, and teacher education. He is the Editor of the OATE (Oklahoma Association of Teacher Educators) Journal and was the Guest Editor of Educational Technology & Society, July, 2001, issue, "Curriculum, Instruction, Learning and the Internet".
He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.