Establishing an Online Educational Program

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As part of its graduate curriculum, Marywood College offers degrees in Instructional Technology and Communication Arts. In 1995, the college investigated the possibility of offering both programs' courses on an online basis. While the college has an established off-campus degree program, graduate course distribution through an online system was a new venture. Numerous questions were raised, and in fact, a few are still under discussion at the time of this writing. Using Marywood as an example, this article describes some of the issues surrounding the establishment of an online curriculum. It may also provide information to other institutions that are considering the launching of a similar venture.

Why Online?

A key question in the creation of an online program is why should it be used for distance education? There are other options, ranging from print to CD-ROMs to compressed video. The answer is two-fold. An online system can support, as will be described, a set of rich educational tools. It can also be cost-effective and reach a national and, possibly, an international student body (user base). Like any other information delivery vehicle, though, its selection should be based on a needs analysis. For example, compressed video is the distribution medium of choice for certain educational tasks since it can closely simulate an on-site classroom experience. But, its use is currently limited to institutions with the proper equipment. Transmission and hardware costs can also be high, and compatibility issues between different manufacturers' equipment still abound. In contrast, an online system's transmission and hardware requirements are reduced to a conventional telephone line, a personal computer, a modem and readily available software. These factors, when combined with the ubiquitous nature of the personal computer, can make an online system a cost-effective and widely accessible distance education option.

Establishment Phase

Once the decision to launch an online program is made, the next step is the program's placement. Should it be administratively housed in an existing department or in a new department? In Marywood's case, a distance education office, as part of a broader off-campus degree program (OCDP), already exists. Consequently, the decision was made to use the OCDP in consultation with the graduate school as the program's administrative base. The reasons for this decision, which may also hold true for institutions with similar administrative set-ups, are as follows.

  1. Unlike most academic departments, our OCDP has an established distance education record, albeit through other media (e.g., print-based). Consequently, since an online system can be viewed as another mechanism to deliver distance education, it may be more efficient and cost-effective to draw on the OCDP's experience rather than designating a new department to handle this operation.
  2. The typical academic department d'es not have the expertise, resources or time to administer an online program in addition to its on-campus program.
  3. From a marketing perspective, the OCDP can make all materials, ranging from manuals that may accompany a course to promotional brochures, uniform in appearance. Thus, an institution's identifying "look" is maintained regardless of the number of participating departments.
  4. The OCDP can help ensure that all delivered materials meet the institution's academic standards.
  5. The OCDP can serve as an information clearinghouse. New information can be readily exchanged across the campus, and when questions arise, a campus-wide forum can be created.

Academic Issues
The development of an online program will raise a number of academic issues. For courses slated for the program, these include:

  • Is a student's educational experience comparable to that of a traditional student?
  • What are the academic standards for an online course?

In brief, an online program can support unique educational and interactive features that make a student's experience comparable to that of a traditional student. As described in the next section, students can, for instance, participate in electronically mediated classroom discussions and Q&A sessions. Select readings, as well as other resources, are also available.

The second question -- academic standards -- has been discussed by the college's graduate curriculum committee. As is the case with most, if not all academic institutions, curriculum committees help set an institution's academic standards. At Marywood College, previously authorized Instructional Technology and Communication Arts courses were initially approved for the online program on an experimental basis. At this time, course instructors were slated to regularly meet with the committee for feedback and evaluative purposes. Since this program would be a new experience for the college, the trial period would generate data the committee could subsequently tap to either set new standards specifically geared for online courses, or to approve the use of the standards already in place.

Logistics:The Physical Connection

Developing an online program also raises a series of logistical issues. They are divided into two organizational categories: the physical connection and personnel resources. The physical connection is concerned with the communications system and channel that support the online program. Options range from a Web site to using a commercial Internet service provider. A Web site has two major advantages. First, the institution would have direct control over the online delivery mechanism. Thus, a customized home page, among other options, could be designed. If available, students could also have ready access to electronic registration, the library's card catalog and various Internet resources. Second, since the institution is running the Web site, the cost for delivering the online program may be minimized. The institution, though, must have the resources to set up and maintain the operation. The latter issue is the most pressing. For example, who is going to implement technical and design changes? Who is going to handle the technical problems that may arise when students try to connect with the online program? While it may be possible to deal with three or four students, what happens if there are 20, 30 or more students? Similarly, how are students going to link with the Web site?

Benefits of an Outside Provider

When the online program was initiated, Marywood did not have the personnel resources to handle all these concerns. For the reasons listed below, this led to the selection of a commercial service provider, America Online (AOL), as the delivery and support vehicle for specific activities.[1]

  1. AOL provides the telecommunications infrastructure for an online program, such as handling connection problems. AOL is also widely available, is computer platform independent and supports an Internet gateway.
  2. AOL, in conjunction with the Electronic University Network (EUN), can provide the electronic infrastructure. This includes, if so desired, handling course registration details as well as the design and organization of educational forums. In a typical scenario, the EUN can be an online program's structural core. When you enter the EUN, you are greeted by a listing and description of all the educational institutions that are running online courses. You can also gain access to an electronic academic center, a student union, a variety of educational services and course descriptions.
  3. In its most elementary form, an online course supplies students with lectures and other materials that can be downloaded. An instructional manual may also accompany the course, and there may be e-mail contact with the instructor. The AOL environment can greatly extend and enhance this operation. Besides e-mail, the entire class can participate in online discussions as well as Q&A sessions via their keyboards and Chat Rooms. A log of this real-time exchange can also be created, saved and reviewed. Thus, students and instructors can gain access to a record of a class discussion, something that is not available in a traditional classroom setting.
  4. An instructor can create folders to store text, graphics and other pertinent files for student use. Additional services are also available, including EUN-supported libraries where students can download and upload information.[2]
  5. AOL is an information storehouse that can complement an online course. For instance, instructional technology students can explore shareware and freeware educational titles as one requirement of a software evaluation course; communications technology students can download digital video files for a multimedia project. If a file is not available on AOL, it might be retrieved from the Internet via AOL's gateway.
  6. Students can participate in one of AOL's many information and news forums. A forum can serve as an electronic newspaper as well as a sounding board for fast-breaking and possibly controversial issues. Messages and questions can also be posted and read.
  7. While an institution can create its own database and series of services to support an online program, they probably cannot match the depth and breadth of the AOL and EUN operation. For example, in addition to Internet access, AOL and other commercial vendors have their own proprietary databases comprised of information ranging from electronic newspapers to government and business documents and journals. In AOL's case, this database is also married to a very user-friendly interface, an important consideration for an online student who is a computer novice.
  8. The EUN charges a fee for its services, which may vary by college. But, for reasons already stated, this can still be a cost-effective option for most institutions since it and AOL can supply the electronic and telecommunications infrastructures. More pointedly, EUN's presence on AOL, which already has an extensive user base, can help an institution to market its courses.

For students, while they may pay a higher tuition, they can now take a course at their convenience at home. For many students, especially those who live in remote geographical areas, an online program may also be their only educational option.[3] Finally, an institution can use AOL and EUN for its courses or it may opt to use AOL or an AOL-type organization in tandem with its own system. For example, students could take advantage of AOL's databases, Internet gateway and other resources, while the institution, for its part, may handle registration details and use its own computer for supporting discussion groups.

Logistics: Personnel Resources

If another institution is already running an online program, it may be valuable to examine how it handles personnel issues -- including teaching loads and possible funding limitations. Nevertheless, while you may get some pointers, most will have to be adapted for your institution's particular requirements.

  1. Is an online course comparable to an on-site campus course in regard to an instructor's teaching load? Even though e-mail and other online requirements may place a greater time demand on the instructor, will the institution recognize this factor? Is there a cap on the maximum number of students accepted into a course?
  2. Who pays for the instructor's telecommunications charges when he or she works at home? Depending on the set-up, is it the instructor's or the institution's responsibility?[4] If the latter, what kind of records must an instructor keep to document appropriate use of the online system?
  3. Will an instructor be paid for developing an online course? As part of the payment, will the instructor be responsible for writing the manual that usually accompanies an online, and for that matter, any distance education course?
  4. Writing a manual can be a long and laborious task that exceeds an instructor's financial compensation for this job. Thus, and if appropriate, can this activity also be construed as research? If not, will an untenured instructor, for example, be willing to spend less time on research, which may be required for tenure, to write a manual?
  5. How will tests be administered? Will they be conducted online or will proctors be employed at the remote sites?
  6. If proctors are used, do they have to meet specific educational or professional criteria? Are they going to be paid for their work or simply awarded an honorarium?
  7. Is an on-campus residency required for a course of study, such as a masters degree? A residency period can be used for work that may be impossible to complete, at least at this time, on an online basis (e.g., certain video production techniques).

Conclusion

The creation of an online program can be a complex operation. However, it can also be an exciting opportunity for both students and instructors. Instructors, for instance, may be able to reach a student body not bound by geography. They may also have an opportunity to develop new courses specifically geared for this delivery type. Students, for their part, may be able to take courses not locally offered. They will also be able to tap the ever-expanding information universe via the online program. A key element, though, to this type of program's success is the pre-production phase. The logistical and personnel questions outlined in this article should be addressed, at least on a rudimentary level, before a program is launched. Appropriate courses must also be selected and an administrative center should be identified.

Michael Mirabito is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Communication Arts Department at Marywood College in Pennsylvania. E-mail: Mirabito@ac.marywood.edu

References:

  1. Peggy Munkittrick, Marywood's Director of Distance Education, conducted the research to select AOL as the service provider for specific activities. These include taking advantage of its databases and Internet capabilities. Munkittrick, in conjunction with Sr. Patt Walsh, also provided the impetus for the overall design and implementation of Marywood's online program. Other program participants included Drs. Wilson, Gearity, Draina and the author.
  2. Conversation with Rick Eckel, EUN's Director of Online Services, 11/14/95. EUN can be reached at: (541) 482-5871.
  3. It should be noted that, if charged, the course fee supplements AOL's standard flat rate whereby users are credited a specific number of access hours per month. If this time limit is exceeded, a separate series of charges accrue. However, according to Munkittrick, past experience has shown that most online students can complete their work within the monthly time limit. In addition, even if an institution d'es launch an in-house online program, prospective students may face a variety of other telecommunications charges, especially if they live out of the institution's geographical area.
  4. EUN's advantage is that it picks-up the access charge.

Quick contact for companies or products mentioned: America Online, Vienna, VA, (800) 827-6364, to order free software & trial membership Electronic University Network (EUN), (541) 482-5871

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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