Anatomy of An Online Course

With working adultsbecoming an increasingly large percentage of our college populationand with greater numbers of students having computer and Internetexperience prior to entering college, opportunities must to be madeto better meet their needs, interests and work schedules. Onlinecourses can provide an alternative to regularly scheduled classes andcan deliver the same services as a regular classroom environment.Instead of oral communication, however, interaction betweeninstructor and students takes place using the computer.

What I would like to do inthis article is share with readers who have an interest in offeringonline instruction the answer to the often asked question, "How do Idevelop an online course?" The idea of developing an online ComputerFoundations course came to me at an NBEA conference after hearingother business educators tell of their online instructionalexperiences. Although I left the conference with a general idea ofwhat an online course is - the opportunity for students to completecoursework away from campus and interact with the instructor viaInternet - I left with no specifics. Exactly how d'es one prepare andimplement an online course?

After returning to campusI met with our college's instructional technology support specialistto learn more. She informed me that our school had already purchasedand installed a software program for online instructional purposes,but no one was currently using it. Because she was also interested inoffering online courses, she agreed to direct my activities and serveas program administrator for the class. (Although we use the TopClassDesktop Education Server software by WBT Systems, other programs areavailable.)

Step 1: CourseLayout

As I prepared the coursematerials and design, I tried to think of the kind of information Iwould want available to me if I were a student working on the courseat home. I would want access to chapter or project objectives andintended outcomes, the teacher's lecture notes, course activities andassignments, and answers to the end-of-the chapter questions(TopClass's "coursework" feature).

Throughout the course Iwould also want instructor assistance when I encountered problems(the program's e-mail feature); instructor guidance and reminders ofassignments and exam dates (the "announcement" or listserve feature);the opportunity to share with other class members my ideas("discussion" feature); and the ability to take tests ("testing"feature).

Based on theseprerequisites, my first task was to outline on paper the courselayout. Since the Computer Foundations course contains both a theorycomponent and a hands-on component, my layout addressed both. Itbegan with three major divisions: Course Introduction/Overview,Theory/Concepts, and Software Applications. In the TopClass programthese three categories are created within the menu selection entitled"Coursework" as directories or folders.

After organizing thecourse content, I then began typing (and typing and typing) thedocuments or files which would be included in each folder. Thesefiles are the instructional materials or Web pages that would beaccessed by students.

Online courses can provide an alternative to regularly scheduled classes and can deliver the same services as a regular classroom environment.

The CourseIntroduction/Overview directory includes the course syllabus;information about the instructor; and, most importantly, the courseschedule. The schedule provides students with an outline of weeklyactivities and assignments as well as test dates.

The Theory/Conceptsdirectory includes additional folders labeled by chapter. Eachchapter folder includes five files: chapter objectives and expectedoutcomes, instructor's lecture notes, related Web sites to visit (ashyperlinks), chapter assignments and practice tests.

The Software Applicationfolder includes additional subdirectories labeled by application: MSWord 97, MS Excel 97, MS Access 97 and MS PowerPoint 97. In eachfolder is a list of objectives and expected outcomes, a PowerPointpresentation demonstrating how to use the software, answers to theend-of chapter questions, project assignments and practicetests.

Step 2: HTMLConversion

After typing each of theindividual files or documents in MSWord, the next step was to converteach file to HTML format, as the documents become Web pages. AlthoughMS Word will allow you to save files in HTML format, I found thedocument never looked on the Internet as it looked in Word. ThereforeI purchased Microsoft FrontPage 98, an easy to use HTML conversionprogram that works much like a word processor. All I had to do wasopen the Word files in FrontPage, make formatting changes and thenresave. In hindsight, I should have typed the documents in FrontPageoriginally and avoided this second step or conversion process.

Step 3: Uploadingfiles to the Server/Editing

After saving all mydocuments in HTML format, I was ready to upload my files to theTopClass server. This is where I worked closely with our programadministrator. It is the administrator who has full access to theTopClass server and establishes the instructor's rights orprivileges. After logging on as the instructor, I first created allthe folders or directories and subdirectories, a process as easy asclicking on a folder or file icon and then naming it. Next I uploadedthe FrontPage files into their respective folders, an extremely easybut repetitious process.

Although the students took online tests during the term, they were required to attend class on the last day for a comprehensive final, which accounted for 40 percent of their final grade.

After uploading all files,I previewed them to see how they would look to students. I quicklydiscovered that it is easier and less time consuming to finalize adocument in FrontPage. Editing in TopClass is done in HTML format,which makes maneuvering around the codes and making changes moredifficult. However, the process of adding or deleting files orfolders in TopClass is as easy as clicking a button.

TestingOnline

Since my first experiencewith an online course was during an abbreviated course term (sixweeks), I utilized online testing. The TopClass testing featureallows the instructor to set up date and time restrictions.Therefore, students knew that they had a limited time to log on andtake the test.

The tests over thetheory/concepts were objective tests and were graded automatically -a feature the students liked immensely. (Inputting the test questionsinto TopClass, however, is a tedious process.) Tests for the softwareapplications component were hands-on. Students completed the exam inthe software application over which they were being tested. Theysaved the test document with their last name as the file name andthen sent it to me as an attachment. I graded it using highlights andtypewritten comments and then returned the graded test to them as anattachment. Although the students took online tests during the term,they were required to attend class on the last day for acomprehensive final, which accounted for 40 percent of their finalgrade.

The Initial ClassMeeting

A necessary and vitalcomponent of an online course is the initial meeting with students.It is during this orientation that I review the course objectives,layout and syllabus; expected outcomes; instructional materials;course schedule (weekly assignments/activities); and an overview ofthe TopClass program.

Because I have access tothe student roster prior to meeting with them, I enter all theirnames and passwords (Social Security numbers) into the systembeforehand. Thus, students are able to become familiar with thesoftware during this initial meeting. To enable me to keep up withstudents' progress throughout the term, students are expected to logon a minimum number of times per week. (TopClass provides theinstructor a record of student log-on dates, times andactivities.)

Since both my online andregular classes follow the same schedule of weekly activities, onlinestudents are invited to attend my regular class if they needhelp.

StudentEvaluations

At the end of the summerterm, I asked all students to complete a survey to evaluate thecourse, its contents, availability of the instructor, online softwarefeatures, testing procedures, etc.

Responses indicate thatthe online students in this class had a high overall level ofsatisfaction. All students who responded agreed that the class mettheir expectations. They also agreed that they were able to receivethe instructor's help when they needed it; at the same time, however,they seemed less willing to ask for help. Features of the onlineinstruction highly rated by students included the instructorannouncements, lecture notes, answers to the end-of-chapterquestions, and the lists of course objectives/expectedoutcomes.

Summary of Student Perceptions
of Online Computer Foundations Course

Item

Strongly Agree

Agree

Disagree

Strongly Disagree

This class met my expectations.

60%

40%



I received instructor help when I needed it.

80%

20%



I was encouraged to ask questions.

67%

33%



The Topclass announcement feature was helpful.

73%

27%



The TopClass Mail feature was helpful.

52%

27%

15%

6%

The "Discussion" was helpful.

40%

33%

27%


The list of "Web Sites to Visit" were helpful.

34%

40%

20%

6%

The PowerPoint presentations were helpful.

21%

36%

29%

14%

The Lecture Notes were helpful.

57%

36%

7%


The answers to end-of-chapter questions were helpful.

64%

29%

7%


The list of chapter or project objectives and expected outcomes was helpful.

43%

50%

7%


Although most studentsrated the PowerPoint presentations, discussion, and e-mail featuresfairly high, they used them less often. A frequent comment was thatthey found the PowerPoint presentations helpful, but running them athome was a slow procedure. Although the e-mail component wassatisfactory, the process of sending attachments was very cumbersometo them as it required numerous steps; and many students expressedreluctance in participating in online discussions.

When asked if they likedonline testing with the comprehensive exam carrying greater weight,all those who responded stated that they would prefer coming tocampus to take exams if test grades are more equally weighted. Anumber of students also suggested review sessions before tests. Table1 shows student perceptions of the online course.

Second TermRevisions

In response to students'comments and suggestions, I have made a few changes in the classformat. During this second term students are taking all exams oncampus. This modification results in their coming to campus about sixtimes in a 16- week period. At the same time it provides a moreequitable distribution of test grades since the final will not be soheavily weighted. In addition, I have included in the scheduleoptional test review days.

If the course is well designed and carefully implemented, online instruction can provide an effective educational environment and can be an enjoyable experience for both students and instructor - particularly if the students are motivated and self-disciplined and the instructor maintains continuous interaction with them.

In an effort to providemore variety to the course instruction for the second term, I alsochanged to textbooks which include supplementary CD-ROMs. The CD thataccompanies the theory/concepts textbook includes videos thatdemonstrate the hardware devices and various topics presented in thechapters. The CD-ROM that accompanies the applications textbookprovides tutorials that demonstrate how to use Windows 95 and thefour software programs. Since online courses provide little or nooral component, using the CD-ROMs are proving to be extremely helpfulto the students, as they present visual and auditory instruction inaddition to text.

Although TopClass allowsthe use of videos and graphics to be included as part of onlinecourse materials, they generally transmit over the Internet veryslowly; it is a much faster process if students can access them fromthe CD-ROM drives on their own computers.

Conclusion

Developing an onlinecourse consists of 1) planning and layout, 2) typing course materialsand 3) learning the online program. Implementation, however, is anongoing process. As the school term progresses and I learn more aboutthe students' needs and interests and respond to their questions, Ifind myself continuously making changes to improve the course tobetter meet their needs.

If the course is welldesigned and carefully implemented, online instruction can provide aneffective educational environment and can be an enjoyable experiencefor both students and instructor - particularly if the students aremotivated and self-disciplined and the instructor maintainscontinuous interaction with them. Although an informal evaluationinstrument reveals an overall satisfaction of students with thiscourse, additional research is needed to assess further theeffectiveness of online instruction.


Linda Cooper is aProfessor in the Division of Economics & Business at Macon StateCollege and has been teaching Computer Foundations courses for sevenyears. She earned her doctorate degree at the University of Tennesseein Adult and Technological Education.

E-mail: lcooper@cennet.mc.peachnet.edu

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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