The theory base in distance learning is chaotic and confused (McIsaac & Gunawardena, 1996) . This is the case in distance learning in general, and more so in the specific case of online teaching. The literature does not meaningfully guide the design and development of Internet courses (Brown & Wack, 1999; Schrum, 1998) . With the recent rapid rise in the number of Internet-based courses, this lack of well developed theory is becoming even more critical. Mosaic, the first widely adopted Internet browser was introduced in 1993 (Wiggins, 1994) and thousands of online courses have since been developed and delivered in and for higher education.
The explosive growth of Internet-based teaching in the face of a paucity of relevant research highlights the need to examine the issue of what determines an excellent online course. There are Internet courses reputed to be of superior quality, but what can be said of these? We conducted a multiple-case study of exemplary Internet courses, guided by two initial research questions:
A pilot study on a locally accessible online course was performed to develop and refine the computer-managed research database. The first phase in the formal study involved identifying exemplary Internet courses using the reputational case selection method of expert referral (LeCompte & Goetz, 1982) . Instructional technology subject matter experts (SMEs) were queried by email for attributes of exemplary online courses. Their responses were compiled and integrated to create an exemplar profile used to screen course nominations.
Having created a screening profile to identify an exemplary Internet course, nominations for exemplars for study were solicited from professional listservs (instructional technology, distance learning, and education), organizations that have evaluated Internet courses for awards and recognition, professional colleagues, and authors of current literature on online teaching.
The setting for this study was higher education in the English speaking world. A cluster of five courses was selected from a nomination pool of about 70, and studied concurrently. This method resulted in a highly efficient and uninterrupted flow of data, with the responses of one developer filling the lag time of another. This study aimed to look beyond the predefined attributes qualifying the courses as exemplars, for deeper and unforeseen insights on excellent Internet courses. Five sources of data were included in the study: (1) documents, such as course syllabi and online course materials, (2) archival records, such as threaded discussion board records, (3) interviews conducted by email, in person, and by telephone, (4) direct observation, including the researcher’s narrative log, journals of observations and reflections, and (5) artifacts such as student projects and papers. Data were analyzed and coded using qualitative research and case study conventions (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Stake, 1995; Yin, 1994) . One course was dropped from the study, as major course elements were found to be incomplete. Data saturation was reached with the remaining four courses in the study.
All four exemplars in the study used either WebCT or Blackboard, both online course platforms with a pronounced positivist orientation. That is to say the structure and tools provided in these programs seems designed to facilitate traditional instructivist pedagogies, and not as readily lend themselves to constructivist learning and instruction. The courses included in the study follow:
Course 1, titled Introduction to the Internet, was developed in the information sciences division of a large, urban community college in the Western U.S. This is the oldest course in the set (eleven cycles) and was co-developed and delivered by three information sciences staff members. Very popular (86 students), this course enrolls students both on and off campus. This course is an exemplar primarily due to its high state of refinement, and because the Internet is integral to the course content. This is a course about the Internet, delivered to college students, and it is itself nicely delivered via the Internet in a way that reveals and takes advantage of the WWW. Content expertise is the dominant quality in this course, although humor and teaching skill are also evident. The course was originally developed in HTML as a website and has now been adapted to WebCT.
Course 2, titled College Writing, was developed in the English department of a rural community college in the Northeastern U.S. Of the four exemplars in this study, this course at once makes the least visible, but possibly most effective use of technology. This is a course about writing, and technology is judiciously employed only if it supports this primary goal. More than any of the courses in this study, this course seems to fulfill Dede’s (1990) prediction that “Eventually, distance learning may be the preferred delivery system for certain types of instruction . . .” (p. 252). Although technology performs no direct role in teaching students to write well, it provides an efficient and nearly seamless student-to-teacher conduit for delivering documents for rapid evaluation and feedback. Technology also facilitates the delivery of modest volumes of declarative information, and provides a forum for discourse on writing. A major key to the success of this course is rapid, abundant feedback.
Course 3, titled Systematic Design of Technology-Based Instruction, was developed by the instructional technology department of an urban university in the Southwestern U.S. This is the most sophisticated and highly refined course of the set of online courses in this study, developed by a team of 11 who worked part-time on the project for several months. The entire course has a polished, commercial look and feel. A core course in a master’s degree program, this course enjoyed cycles of formative and summative evaluation. The program where this course originated has developed a detailed and credible philosophical foundation for online course construction. This philosophy thoroughly addresses the shared theoretical foundations of the online faculty, supportive research, and detailed design standards. A recently completed and archived episode of the course with 28 students was studied. The online platform in this course is WebCT. This developer is particularly successful in precipitating meaningful, thoughtful, and sustained student-to-student interactions on the course threaded discussion board. The course is also distinguished by detailed, timely feedback and meticulous attention to detail.
Course 4, titled Electromyography and Biofeedback, was developed in the Physical Therapy department of an urban university in the Southeastern U.S. This course represents a variation from the dominant style of online course development and application in that it satisfies most criteria for an exemplary Internet course, but is not designed or intended for a true distance learning role. The Internet serves as the content delivery technology and as an efficient repository for course documents and supplementary materials. The course would require little modification to be employed as a pure distance course, but presently serves as an Internet-mediated, technology-infused departure from the traditional college lecture course paradigm. In this course, distance learning and other technologies are primarily intended to supplement and replace traditional classroom methods, rather than to make the course accessible to distant students. This course was selected to provide balance and contrast to the majority style of online courses in the study. This is an upper division core course in a master’s degree physical therapy program. Except for a few mandatory classroom and laboratory sessions, regular attendance is not required. The dominant subjective feature of this course, and which pervades the course documents, instructional units, and conversation with the developer, is a powerful quality of content mastery. WebCT is the online platform used in this course. Of the four exemplars, this course incorporates the widest selection of technologies, and relies most heavily on laboriously constructed multimedia presentations.
Analysis of the data generated by the four courses yielded several attributes shared by the exemplars. Emergent themes were upheld in the study if evidenced deeply, in multiple data sources, and broadly, in a majority of courses. The following five emergent themes were revealed and borne out by the study:
1. Abundant, rapid feedback; this is the singular, most striking and consistent feature found across all exemplars in the study. All four developers of these online courses recognize the critical importance of this aspect of teaching, and take aggressive, consistent steps to satisfy it. Feedback in these courses is characterized by detail and liberal application in a variety of ways (discussion board comments, email responses, verbal encouragement, formal comments on student and group papers and projects, and others), and especially in its timeliness.
2. Exemplary online teachers demonstrate the attributes recognized in effective classroom teaching. Related to the emergent theme of abundant, rapid feedback, all of these online courses reveal convincing evidence that they are developed and delivered by teachers who would be described in the traditional classroom environment as competent, highly skilled, and diligent. Underlying this general and subjective assessment can be found a wealth of practices, skills, and attitudes that are generally said to be seen in good teachers, and specifically noted in much of the literature on effective teaching (Angelo, 1993; Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Langlois & Zales, 1992) . These developers, across the board, possess and employ a keen sense of humor. They convey a sense of excitement about their course content and a conviction that it is important. Their expectations are high and expressed clearly, and they have reached a level of manifest content expertise. They clearly care about the welfare of their students. They are confident, fair, friendly, good listeners (or readers), and again, are masters of effective feedback. Two of the four courses in this study are graduate level courses in professional master’s degree programs. Knowles’ (1980) theory of androgogy is therefore relevant, and these courses strongly evidence Knowles’ fundamental assumptions about designing instruction for adults.
3. Learning by doing; all of these courses include elements, sometimes substantial, of assignments and exercises wherein the subject content is mastered and or evaluated by doing rather than, or more than, reading (or listening). However, considering the overall construction of all four exemplars, the “doing” portion of the courses, although substantial and supportive of the emergent theme of “learning by doing,” is generally overshadowed by purely declarative material. Extracting the “doing” portion of most of these would leave much of what the student finds in these courses intact, but decidedly inferior.
4. Developers of exemplary online courses tend to perceive the absence of the traditional classroom's visual feedback and face-to-face interaction as a substantial instructional challenge. This tends to support Dede’s (1990) observation that, “The affective content of technology-mediated messages is muted compared to face-to-face interaction” (p. 259). The sense of uneasiness in the online teaching environment is expressed quietly, and often with a quality of sadness, that something human, but not essential to the instructional process, is missing. This perception is not about efficiency or effectiveness of instruction, or that students achieve objectives, but rather about an aspect of face-to-face teaching and learning that is tangential and unmeasured, but still important to most of these teachers.
5. Judicious selection of technologies; the developers of these exemplary courses are generally conservative and prudent in employing technologies in an instructional role. None of these courses include technology that would be considered exotic. In fact, the very best online courses in the study present an austere, almost Spartan quality. For example, the introductory writing course makes heavy instructional use of word processing applications and the ability to disseminate documents and written communications between students and instructor, and between students, almost instantly. It is difficult to overstate the facilitative role of technology in this type of course. The course is about writing, not technology, and the developer might have incorporated motion video, animated graphics, or gratuitous sounds, but these might well detract from the true mission of the course.
This study concludes that satisfaction of these attributes is necessary and sufficient to develop an online course of quality comparable to these courses identified as exemplars of Internet teaching.
Other findings of the study revealed in composite course developer survey responses include the following:
1. WebCT is the dominant platform for these courses, as well as the majority of courses nominated for the study. This study revealed no important technological advantage of one commercial online development platform over another. This study did not address the pedagogical influence of online course management tools (Firdyiwek, 1999) .
2. Course capacity varied markedly across the four exemplars, and this tended to be determined for administrative reasons to be the same as on-campus courses. This is in keeping with recent literature on student capacity in online courses (Harmon & Jones, 1999; Porter, 1997) .
3. All of the exemplars address incoming technical skills, although not rigorously. None of the courses verifies student mastery of technical skills. The matter of incoming technical skills was identified by one developer as a likely cause of high attrition.
4. These developers report that successful online students tend to have time management skills, solid incoming technical skills, and tend to be older.
5. There is general agreement in these developers that attrition in their online courses is somewhat greater than in their classroom courses, although none quantified this information.
6. These developers report little difference in online instructional style, compared to classroom style, as perceived by their students (revealed in student comments and course evaluations).
7. Reported email volume ranged from 20 to 75 messages per week. Only one of the developers posts a formal policy on instructor responses to student email messages.
8. Online course challenges reported by these developers included development time (the dominant challenge) as well as technology hurdles, and the tedium in codifying the course knowledge-base. The low bandwidth issue of the current Internet is perceived to be a major hindrance to more aggressive technology integration in online courses.
9. All of the developers believe that efficacy of their online courses is comparable to their traditional courses. Both advantages of disadvantages of online teaching are noted by most of the developers.
10. All of these courses developers, save one, classify themselves primarily as early adopters in the Rogers’ (1995) innovation classification ranking. (The single exception readily admits to being an innovator.) In all cases, there is objective evidence that all developers in this study might well be classified as innovators.
11. Responses were mixed regarding the importance of a face-to-face element in an online course. One course developer declares that this is unnecessary and a second considers a face-to-face component “helpful to some students.” The other two developers emphatically disagree, stating, “I cannot imagine a course without face-to-face interaction” and “face-to-face is always best.” Other relevant comments include a lament that, “there is nothing like a human voice” and an observation that textual substitutes such as “emoticons…do not measure up in communicating nuances and inflection.”
12. All of the developers in the study report a willingness to develop another online course.
13. These developers agree that student workload in their online courses is exactly the same or very similar to the classroom versions of the same courses (if they exist).
An expectation that exemplary online courses would employ a strongly constructivist underlying philosophy was not supported by this study. All of the developers of these exemplary courses tend to fall nearest the positivist pole of the positivist-pragmatist-interpretivist continuum. The set of learning theories that can be identified in these courses is best described as eclectic. These courses strongly support Cahoon’s (1998) observation that online teachers are learning to teach on the WWW as they go along. While some of the exemplars could be seen as fitting Willis’s (1995) characterization of “adding a bit of constructivist seasoning to the behavioral ID stew” (p. 9), others elevated student-to-student interaction using online tools to become a dominant instructional strategy. All four courses include elements of the active learning described by Bostock (1997) , the situated learning described by Choi and Hannafin (1995) , and even the events of instruction described by Gagne (1985) [only one course employs Gagne’s principles systematically and intentionally]. There is strong evidence that learning is taking place in these exemplary courses, based on the quality of discourse, and the quality and improvement in student performance in writing and other projects.
Perhaps the most pronounced and consistent link to learning theory found across these courses is Dede’s (1990) broad prescription that distance courses should create a shared environment, support interaction, and facilitate collective as well as individual learning. All of the developers of exemplary courses conducted entirely online in this study make substantial use of interactive online tools such as synchronous chatroom, threaded discussion board, instructor-student and student-student email, and course listservs to achieve precisely these goals. The majority of these exemplars, at least to some extent, objectify Dede’s early, think piece description of technology-mediated interactive learning (TMIL). However, only one of these developers cites Dede as an influence on course development and management, and it is not clear if evidence of these principles arises from intentional design, or simply because the developer(s) chose to use the available toolkit.
This study addressed the modest question of the nature of best teaching on the Internet at this (early) point in online course development. This study does not purport to answer the more important but formidable question of how to best teach on the Internet. This study was restricted to higher education, intentionally excluding Internet courses developed by nontraditional (virtual) institutions, and online courses for the corporate world. Another limitation of the study is that SMEs contributing exemplary case selection criteria were drawn only from the field of instructional technology. Although the exemplary online courses included tend to be of a highly declarative, positivist nature, it is recognized that the screening profile may tend to exclude courses with a more strongly constructivist approach. It is also recognized that at this very early point in online course experimentation, highly declarative courses, closely resembling traditional classroom courses, are likely to have been developed first, and there may not yet have been time for exemplary constructivist courses to appear.
The quality of these courses was found to be largely attributable to teaching skills and practices, rather than to application of technologies. Developers of exemplary online courses employ a variety of technologies, rarely exotic, but consistently demonstrate a limited, shared foundation of fundamental teaching skills, attributes, and attitudes. These courses are not defined by technology but by teaching. These exemplary courses are designed and implemented in a way that exploits the best qualities of effective instruction while maximizing the interactive potential in current online course tools. On the whole, these courses are not made exemplary by technical acumen or by mastery of exotic new instructional strategies--they are successful in large measure because their developers possessed or developed the fundamental attitudes, practices and skills of good teachers everywhere. The technology mastered in these online courses, although not seamless or without substantial demands, was not a barrier for these developers. The courses in this study reveal that these online tools are capable of managing a variety of course topics and instructional approaches. The primary implication of this study is that this study strongly suggests that successful classroom teachers contemplating online course development are likely to be better prepared for the challenge than they may suspect.
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About the Author:
Keith Hopper is employed as information technologist for PMSI - Project Mentors, Atlanta. He has ten years university teaching experience, several years commercial instructional software development experience, and Web course development experience in higher education. His research focus is technology applications in adult learning. This study was performed in his doctoral work at Georgia State University. He may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stephen Harmon is an Associate Professor of Instructional Technology and Associate Director of the Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development at Georgia State University. His research interests include the systemic implementation of Web-based instructional systems and performance support systems. He is also interested in international development through advanced technologies. He serves as Co-Editor of Instructional Technology Research Online (InTRO) at http://www.gsu.edu/intro. He may be reached via email at email@example.com.