Online Courses - Tips for Making Them Work

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A number of post-secondary institutions are lookingmore seriously at offering online courses to meet the educational needs of afast-paced, computer-literate society. Over the past four semesters,approximately 200 students have enrolled in an online Computer Foundationscourse at Macon State College. The course includes basic computer concepts andterminology, as well as instruction using MS Office 97. Although I use a CMS tomanage my online course, many of the procedures I have incorporated can beeffective in the facilitation of any online course.

What Iwould like to do in this article is share various actions I have taken over thelast four semesters to increase students’ learning opportunities and improvetheir overall satisfaction with the course.

Onlineinstruction can be offered in a variety of formats, and the process selected bythe instructor will depend on a number of factors, such as administrativesupport, technical knowledge and expertise of the instructor, technical supportoffered by the school, and the school’s technical infrastructure (Cooper 1999).Regardless of whether instructors choose to develop their own Web pages, use acomputer-based classroom management system such as Topclass, Web CT, or Web ina Box, or utilize an online system developed by a textbook vendor, there aresteps and procedures that the instructor can take to encourage interactionamong instructor and students, increase students’ opportunities for learning,and improve students’ overall satisfaction with the class.

 

InitialClass Meeting

Becauseonline learning is a new experience for most students, an initial class meetingis beneficial. It provides an excellent opportunity for students to meet theinstructor and each other, ask questions, and become acquainted with the courselogistics (Cooper 1999).

During theclass meeting, I go over information typically covered the first day of aregular class, such as syllabus, textbook, instructor office hours, testingprocedures, etc. One of the most beneficial handouts to both students andinstructor is the semester calendar (also available online), which includes aschedule of activities, assignments, and test dates for each week of thesemester. Not only d'es the schedule provide students with a weekly “to dolist,” but it also reminds students of their learning objectives and keepseveryone on task.

The initialmeeting also furnishes students with an explanation of what an online course isand how everything works. Because I have access to the student roster prior tothis meeting, I enter all user names (students’ last names) and passwords intothe computer beforehand. Doing so allows students during this class session tolog on with their assigned user name and actually navigate the course Web siteand become familiar with the content and various features.

Since themajority of problems students encounter are hardware related, I also spend timeduring the initial class meeting demonstrating proper installation of atutorial CD-ROM that we use, downloading and installing video player software,running a PowerPoint presentation on the Internet, and sending and receivingattachments. Should they need additional assistance with any of theseoperations, students are encouraged to visit the campus lab.

I havefound that students who miss the orientation session are more likely to dropthe course. Because the volume of information presented during this meeting istoo much for some students to process at one time, I videotape the session andmake the video available to them — both in the library and online.

 

OnlineCommunication

Animportant and necessary component to successful Web-based instruction isongoing communication. The instructor must be able to communicate with thestudents throughout the semester, and students must be able to communicate withthe instructor so they can receive prompt assistance when they encounterproblems or have questions. Students also need to be able to interact with oneanother.

 

Instructor/Student Communication: Tomaintain regular instructor/student communication, every Friday afternoon Isend to the class an announcement that reviews the upcoming week’s activities,provides any additional information or explanations about assignments, remindsthe class of test dates, and addresses any concerns students have expressed tome during the past week.

 

Student/Instructor Communication: Since studentsdo not see me on a daily basis I check my e-mail frequently and on weekends sothat they are able to get prompt responses when they do have questions or require assistance. In addition, I keep specificoffice hours so students can be assured that I am available at certain timesshould they need to reach me via telephone or e-mail. To maintaincontinued student/instructor communication and to prevent students from simply“drifting off” during the semester, I ask them to e-mail me at least every otherweek to keep me informed of their progress.

 

Student/Student Communication: Toencourage communication among students and to prevent them from feelingisolated in the class, students are required to participate regularly in classdiscussion. Using the CMS threaded discussion feature, students can makecomments or ask questions and can also respond to other class members’ commentsor questions. Participation in discussion is very helpful as it enables them tohelp each other with assignments and understanding of course material. Postingsmade by students in the discussion mode are received by all other students inthe class.

 

MonitoringStudent Activity

Using aCMS allows me to track student activity throughout the term. At any time duringthe semester, I can check to see which modules students have accessed and thedates on which they accessed them, in addition to the modules that are beingaccessed more than once. This lets me observe which students are on task andwhich ones might need some personal assistance or encouragement, as well aswhich modules are giving students difficulty.

DiverseInstructional Materials

Becauseall students have different learning styles and respond differently to variouslearning activities, it is important to offer them instructional materials in avariety of formats. In addition to the basic textual modules or documents suchas learning objectives, lecture notes, and answers to chapter questions, Iinclude PowerPoint presentations to accompany each chapter or topic,automatically graded practice exams, and links to interactive Web sites. Mostrecently, I added online videos of my regular class lectures. The videos havebeen well received by students, as they offer both a verbal explanation andvisual demonstration of information typically accessed only by text. Inaddition, they are usually more interesting and easier to understand than text.If synchronous capabilities are available, interactive question-and-answer orchat sessions can take place in real-time, an especially useful feature forhelp sessions.

Additionallearning resources are also available from textbook vendors. A number oftextbooks are now accompanied by CD-ROMs, which include videos, interactiveexercises, glossaries, and links to a variety of Web sites. For even moreinteractive learning exercises and activities, vendors have created their ownWeb sites for students to access, and many of these Web sites will send resultsof student exercises or practice tests to the instructor. I include links to thesesites in my course modules.

Althoughstudents may not access all learning resources, if a wide variety of materialsin different formats is available for student access, the chances of reachingeach student at some level are increased.

 

StudentTesting

Acontinuous dilemma for instructors of online classes is whether to utilizeonline testing or require students to come to campus to take exams. Objectivestyle online tests can be tedious to set up, but when they are automaticallygraded, they provide immediate feedback to the students and also eliminateinstructor grading. Most course management systems allow the instructor tocreate online exams beforehand, with date and time restrictions.

Theconsequence of online testing, though, is that the instructor can never be sureif the student enrolled in the class actually took the test. During the times Ihave utilized online testing, I resolved this dilemma by requiring students tocome to campus for a comprehensive final exam; and I counted it a substantialpercentage of their final grade.

On theother hand, when students are required to come to campus for testing, it oftenpresents a scheduling problem for them. In addition, students often viewon-campus tests as being contradictory to the major goal of online classes.However, on-campus testing d'es eliminate the need for a comprehensive examcounting such a large percentage of the final grade.

For myComputer Foundations course, I have attempted a compromise by using bothtesting formats. For the hands-on computer exams, students come to campus. Forthe theory segment of the course, they take online, automatically gradedobjective tests. Although they are required to take them on specific dates,they can be taken at any time on those dates. The final exam then covers onlythe theory content and is administered on campus. Thus far, this strategy seemsto satisfy most of the students.

 

OnlineCourse Evaluations

In an effort to continually improve my online course, at the end ofeach semester I send students an Online Course Evaluation form as an attachmentand ask them to bring it to class on final exam day. On the evaluation formthey are asked to evaluate the course, its contents, availability of theinstructor, online software features, testing methods, and interactionprocedures, as well as their understanding of the class organization andgrading process. Students are also asked what features they like best and leastabout the course and are encouraged to make practical suggestions to improvethe course.

Studentevaluations help determine the effectiveness of the various components of anonline course and address areas that may need revision. They also communicateto students that their input is valuable. As a result of the studentevaluations, I have made a number of positive revisions to the course.

 

OtherTips

Student Withdrawals: One of the biggestproblems facing online instruction is the lack of understanding among facultyand students. Students who enroll in an online course often do not understandthe requirements necessary for succeeding. Consequently, they drop the coursewhen they realize they need a more structured environment. Thus, providinginformation to both faculty and students prior to advisement and registrationis a necessary and important factor in student success.

Anotherstep I take to minimize the number of student withdrawals is that I inviteonline class members to attend my regular class if they feel they needadditional assistance. Both the online class and the regular Computer Foundationsclass follow the same schedule, which makes it easy for them to determine theclasses they would like to attend.

 

Student Scheduling: One other approach that Ihave taken to meet the needs and schedules of students interested in enrollingin our online course is to offer at least two sessions of the class — duringthe day and during the evening. Because we do require students to attend classat least twice — the orientation session and final exam session — it isimportant that these sessions be offered at times conducive to their schedules.

 

Study Guides and Reviews: Becausestudents feel they are faced with a vast amount of information to read and donot have the benefit of hearing in classroom lectures which information theinstructor emphasizes or deems most important, many students have requestedexam study guides. Many have also requested review days prior to the finalexam. As a result of their requests, I have added written study guides to theonline course content and an optional final exam review session to the classcalendar.

Conclusion

Onlineinstruction can offer new challenges and opportunities to both students andinstructors. If the course is carefully planned and implemented and theinstructor is open to student feedback and continuous improvement, onlineinstruction can provide an effective educational environment and offer a viablealternative to traditional classroom instruction.

 

 

Linda Cooper is aprofessor in the division of Business Administration at Macon State College andhas been teaching Computer Foundations courses for eight years. She earned herdoctorate degree at the University of Tennessee in Adult and TechnologicalEducation.

 

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

 

 

 

References

Anspacher. 1997. “Designing a Curriculum to Meet theNeeds of Online Faculty and Students.” Washington, D.C.: The College Board:Delivering Online Courses. November.

 

Cooper, Linda. “Planning an Online Course.” Submittedto Business Education Forum for publication October 1999.

 

Cooper, L. 1999. “Anatomy of an Online Course.” T.H.E.Journal, 26 (7): February, 45-51.

 

Serwatka. 1999. “Internet Distance Learning: How Do IPut My Course on the Web?” T.H.E. Journal, 26 (10): May,71-74.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.

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