Lessons in Launching Web-based Graduate Courses

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The enormous growthof the Internet has opened new means of delivering university courseswithout geographic boundaries. As a result, educators are faced witha number of opportunities and challenges. If a school ignores thischance, it faces losing students to other institutions that actquickly to exploit a new method of reaching them. Those academics wholeap into this new arena are faced with numerous challenges that mustbe overcome. Their institutions must be assured that students whoearn credits on the Internet have accomplished the learningobjectives that are appropriate for those courses.

This articledescribes the alliance of two universities to facilitate their entryin Internet-based distance learning. The report outlines the stepstaken in launching graduate credit-bearing courses using the Web toconnect professors and students and covers the institutionalpartnership, strategy, course selection, course development,students, course structure, technology, post class survey and lessonslearned. As this g'es to press, the Internet-based courses are beingoffered for a second semester and additional courses are underdevelopment.

InstitutionalPartners

The University ofDallas Graduate School of Management (UD), located in Irving, Texas,and Pace University's School of Computer Science and InformationSystems (Pace), located in New York City and White Plains, New York,have joined forces as institutional Internet partners. PaceUniversity's School of Computer Science and Information Systems hasbeen offering graduate degrees in computer science, informationsystems, and telecommunications since 1983. A variety of distancelearning methods have been used during the years. Professors havetaught courses using IBM's CNET, a one-way video, two-way audiosatellite network, as well as using the University's internal closedcircuit TV network. Since 1995, with funding provided by the AlfredP. Sloan Foundation, Pace has been actively involved in thedevelopment of courses to be taught asynchronously over the Internetand the World Wide Web. In 1996, Pace introduced a number ofnon-credit and credit-bearing courses for Internetdelivery.

The University ofDallas Graduate School of Management has been offering specializedMBA degrees for over 30 years. For most of that time UD has beeninvolved in distance learning. UD participates in the Dallas-FortWorth Alliance for Higher Education, where professors lecture usingclosed-circuit TV from the campus to students' places of employment.In 1994, UD launched the Health Services MBA over WestcottCommunications' nationwide satellite-training network to health careprofessionals. Learners never have to travel to campus except for thegraduation celebration. With these and other initiatives, UD is nostranger to distance learning and, in early 1997, wanted to beginusing the Internet as an additional tool to reachstudents.

The University ofDallas and Pace University each offers a graduate degree inTelecommunications (Pace has a Master of Science degree and UD has anMBA). Both offer a telecommunications certificate as a subset oftheir degree programs. In the spring of 1997, UD developed a plan tooffer its five-course certificate program on the Internet. In orderto facilitate the rapid deployment of these courses, UD decided topartner with Pace. This report focuses on UD's launch ofInternet-delivered graduate level credit-bearing courses and itsexperience in doing so through its partnership with Pace.

CourseDevelopment

Pace University'sstrategy is to offer the full Master of Science in Computer Scienceand Master of Science in Telecommunications degrees over theInternet. The short-term goal is to offer the six-course Certificatein Telecommunications by the spring of 1998. Those six courses arenow in place and may be taken by anyone on the planet that wishes todo so. In addition, all six of these courses are fully applicable tothe Master of Science in Telecommunications degree. The developmentof the full degree is to be completed by the end of 1998.

UD's long-rangestrategy is to offer a full MBA over the Internet, which is expectedto be implemented by the turn of the century. A short-term goal isthe launching of the five-course Certificate program inTelecommunications Management by the fall of 1998. At that time, UDcan open its enrollment to anyone with access to the Internet whomeets the admissions requirements. UD will have a truly globalreach.

Pace University andUD have used technology to deliver standard credit-bearing graduatecourses for some time. Distance learning serves as an extension ofon-campus programs. This same philosophy has guided the developmentof courses for the Internet where the goal is to ensure maximumconsistency between the two delivery formats. This is accomplished byusing the same instructors, text books, assignments, semesterduration and grading criteria for the Internet courses as are usedfor traditional classroom courses.

Over a four-monthperiod, UD developed three graduate courses that were initiallyoffered in the fall of 1997. Each one of the courses has its ownunique pedagogy. Telecommunications for Managers, an introductorycourse, is lecture-oriented. Telecommunications Public Policy isbased on current regulatory actions and is more discussion-based.Telecommunications Applications and Business Issues pivots around amajor case study that is completed by groups of four to six studentsworking on a team. Each team works separately on its solution. Usingthis mix of courses has enabled Pace and UD to learn a great dealabout how to best use the Internet and the World Wide Web in avariety of teaching situations.

The Pace and UDteam established these criteria for development:

  • Select as course developer an experienced classroom professor who has taught the class before;
  • Contract for this service separately from the teaching agreement; and
  • Arrange for the developer to teach the course for (at least) the first time it would be offered on the Internet.

The Pace team wascomposed of the Assistant Dean from the School of Computer Scienceand Information Systems, who has pioneered Asynchronous DistanceLearning, and two programmer/analysts. The UD team consisted of threeGraduate School of Management professors, the Director of the Centerfor Distance Learning and an Information Technology analyst withInternet experience. As stated earlier, Pace had been developingAsynchronous Distance Learning non-credit and credit-bearing coursessince 1995. The UD team reviewed these courses on the 'Net andfrequently talked or e-mailed the Pace support team for suggestions.The Pace staff worked with each UD developer in preparing thematerial for the Internet. The entire HTML coding and Web sitemanagement were done by the Pace programmer/analysts.

For projectmanagement, the UD team met biweekly during the four-monthdevelopment period, May to August 1997, to exchange ideas and methodswith each other. The UD developers would report on their progress anddiscuss issues they faced in converting their courses to theInternet. In this way each learned from the others, and a greaterdegree of consistency between courses was achieved than if each hadworked in isolation. Most meetings included a conference call to thePace support team for their advice and to update them regarding thedevelopers' plans.

IntendedAudiences

As part of theoverall development plan, the three Internet-delivered coursesoutlined above were introduced by UD in the fall 1997 semester. Theywere advertised to continuing MBA students so that the UD staff mightgain experience with online education before developing more coursesand going "global." Thirty students completed these courses withclass sizes ranging from seven to 15. The Internet-delivered coursesare intended for these audiences:

  • Regular MBA students in the Dallas area who

    a) find the online mode a convenience,
    b) travel a great deal and cannot make it to weekly classes, or
    c) transfer to another city before completing their degree.

  • Potential students with Internet connectivity anywhere in the world.

When classes began,several students asked when they would "meet." They assumed thattheir classmates were all in the Dallas area and that there would beface-to-face meetings as part of the experience. (Actually, onestudent was living in California, having been transferred aftercompleting 80% of her UD MBA.) Since UD's long-range plan is todeliver these courses to students on a worldwide basis, the classeswere conducted totally "at a distance." Most students understood thatclass attendance was virtual. However, some students were frustratedby the lack of traditional class sessions.

CourseStructure

This method ofcourse delivery is described as "Asynchronous Distance Learning" andis described in greater detail on Pace University's Web site. Theterm asynchronous refers to the fact that the student and professordo not need to interact in real time. Rather, the interaction takesplace on the network at times convenient for each person. Theseclasses are: instructor led; 13 weeks in duration; similar inrequirements to those of the classroom equivalent; and similar inenrollment procedures to those normally used.

UD's first day ofclass for the semester is a Monday. The Internet students areexpected to log-on that day or as soon as possible thereafter. Classruns asynchronously for one week per module. A module is theeducational equivalent of one 3-1/2 hour classroom session plus allthe assignments for the week. The first day of the next week the newassignment is posted to the Internet. Students are assigned readingsfrom the text book(s), must access information on the Internetprepared by the professor, and interact with other students and theprofessor on the Internet threaded discussion site.

The professor isexpected to sign on to the threaded discussion multiple times duringthe week, preferably daily, to review the students' postings and addhis or her comments. Students are able to correspond with theprofessor via e-mail or the threaded discussion database. Studentsare encouraged to carry on discussions with other students. In someclasses, teamwork is required, which is accomplished by means of aprivate threaded discussion.

Meeting inCyberspace

The students andprofessors meet in cyberspace. Each must have Internet access and aWeb browser, such as Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer.Students are urged to have Internet experience prior to enrolling inthe class, since the University's intent is to teach the particularsubject with as little learning overhead as possible. The studentsstart with an e-mail from the University that gives them the URL forthe course materials and instructions for online registration.Students complete an online form and are sent an e-mail with theirlog-on ID and password that they use throughout thecourse.

Armed with thelog-on ID and password, students are ready to start the course. ThePace University Web staff makes the week's assignment available atthe appropriate time. This prevents students from getting ahead ofthe group for weekly assignments. Of course, students are free tostart semester-long individual research projects as early in thesemester as they want. Course information that the students must viewor read is prepared in HTML format.

When a studentreaches the point when they must interact with others in the class,he or she uses the WebBoard. This is Web conferencing software thatfacilitates threaded discussions and real-time chat sessions.Information is maintained on the WebBoard that is useful in managingthe class. This includes everyone's e-mail address, the number oftimes each student has logged on, the number of postings each hasmade and other useful facts.

Communications fromthe professor to the students may be done on WebBoard or via e-mail.Private correspondence from teacher to student or vice versa is doneusing e-mail. Students submit research papers and presentations usingspecified software packages such as Microsoft Word 7.0 or Power Point7.0 for Win95.

Case study teams aregiven private WebBoard space to facilitate their interaction. Uponcompletion of the case assignment, the team either posts the solutionon the WebBoard for all to see or sends it to the professor viae-mail, depending on the professor's instruction.

Post-ClassSurveys

The team used threemethods of collecting comments and suggestions: normal courseevaluations; a focus group; and a detailed post-class survey fromboth professors and students. The results were very encouraging. Forexample, eight out of 10 students who responded said they would takeanother Internet-based course even though the same proportion said ittook more time than a classroom course. A summary of the findingsfrom the student surveys is shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Studentreactions to taking an Internet-based course

Would you do it again?

Yes...

8

How much time?




Same as classroom

2


More than classroom

8

Was class worthwhile?


10


When asked if they would recommend taking an Internet-based course toothers, one student said: "Yes. Believe it or not, I actually feltthat my asynchronous instructor was easier to approach with questionsthan my classroom teachers. I had two other classes thatsemester."

On the question ofthe time required, both students and professors said that theInternet-based course took substantially more. The three professorswere unanimous on the issue, while eight of 10 students who respondedto the survey indicated that it took more time than in the classroom.Here is what one student said: "Yes. Significantly more time wasrequired (20-40% more) due to the nature of the extensive reading andthe frequent checking of the WebBoard postings."

The team feels thatthis question did not capture the issue of "total time." That is, theclassroom requires extensive commuting from work to class as well astime spent waiting for classes to start, breaks, and time to returnhome after the evening class session. However, the fact that bothstudents and professors reported that the class took more time isimportant when comparing the two delivery methods.

At the focus groupmeeting, the team received a number of sound ideas, some of whichhave been implemented in this semester's courses. The mostsignificant observations were these:

  • Implement streaming audio to enhance the lecture portion of the course. This would reduce the amount of reading and enhance the variety of delivery. This could be done by a "voice over" with a Power Point presentation adding interest and, perhaps, improving retention. Our team is investigating the use of RealNetworks' RealAudio.
  • Improve instructions for the WebBoard to empower students to use its many facilities and reduce the frustration linked with learning another system. The team has done this by implementing more complete online instructions. The professors have been reinforcing this with tips on WebBoard use during the class.
  • Change the class to require more interaction among students, not just requiring the discussion questions be answered. Facilitating discussion is the duty of the professor who must keep track of the involvement of all students and encourage those who are not participating actively to do so.

PowerfulImplications

Educationinstitutions are rushing to exploit the Internet in a variety ofways. Delivering courses at a distance is just one; however, theimplications are powerful and the concerns are well founded. As theteam from Pace and UD learned, there are many considerationssurrounding the launching of Internet courses. Support frommanagement is vital. There must be a well-constructed developmentplan. The technology and the technical support staff must be inplace. Faculty members must be willing to learn a fundamentally newway of conveying the message and ensuring that the requisite learningtakes place. Administrative systems must be in place to facilitatethis new approach. Finally, students must understand the benefits, aswell as the challenges, that they face. The goal of breaking thenormal bounds on graduate education makes this effort exciting andworthwhile.


Stan Kroder is Program Director, Telecommunications Management, andDirector, Center for Distance Learning, at the University of Dallas.He leads his school's efforts in distance learning and teachestelecommunications courses in the traditional classroom, ininteractive video settings and over the Internet. He also consultsand teaches seminars on telecommunications topics for leadingcorporations internationally.
E-mail: skroder@alum.mit.edu

Jayne Suess isAdjunct Professor, University of Dallas. She has assisted in theinstruction of a telecommunications course in interactive video modeand has researched course instruction over the Internet. She isemployed full-time as Information Systems Project Leader by a leadingtelecommunications company.
E-mail: jmsuess@fastlane.net

David Sachs isAssistant Dean, School of Computer Science and Information Systems,Pace University, White Plains, New York. He has been activelyinvolved in corporate computer science and telecommunicationseducation since 1983. Dr. Sachs has been developing courses to betaught to well-known corporate clients such as MCI and IBM. He is afrequent presenter at Internet World conferences throughout theworld, and has written five books about the Internet. His most recentbook is The 7 Keys To Effective Web Sites, published by PrenticeHall.
E-mail: dsachs@pace.edu


URLs for Institutions:

University of Dallas- http://gsm.udallas.edu/(click on Center for Distance Learning)
Pace University - http://csis.pace.edu/async

Products mentioned:

WebBoard; O'Reilly& Associates, Sebastopol, CA, (707) 829-0515, http://webboard.oreilly.com.
RealAudio; RealNetworks, Seattle, WA, (206) 674-2700,www.real.com.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.

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