Increasing Productivity in Course Delivery

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Coming from a traditional academic background, I was quite skeptical about teaching a quantitative course as an online course. After all, I felt students needed contact with their professors. I have been teaching at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ for 25 years. One of the biggest complaints students would make on course critiques was that the professor was not as accessible as they would have liked. Although students meet with the professor in class for two and one half hours in a face-to-face manner, they feel something is still missing. Given this as a background, I wondered why the powers that be were pushing for the addition of online courses.

When I spoke to my dean, he explained that online courses in our College of Business are not meant to serve as a substitute for traditional courses, but are to be used to supplement our teaching approach. We would be able to reach out to other students who have various difficulties in taking the traditional courses, or to those who would like another approach to learning, or to those who wish to take a course from their workplace or from home. About 75 percent of the student body at William Paterson do not reside on campus. They typically commute from home and work. A goal suggested by our College of Business is to improve teaching effectiveness, and one of the many ways proposed to aid in this endeavor is to include online courses.

About a year ago, I sat in on a presentation that gave an overview of online courses. The idea was quite fascinating. I wondered how effective an online course would be, and whether students would really get out of it the same things that a traditional course could offer. Could one teach an equation online? Could a student understand the concepts involved in forecasting or an inventory model while sitting by his computer? Because the university became more involved in exploring online learning, they began looking for interested faculty. After speaking in more depth to the director of the program, Mr. Peter J. Shapiro, I was impressed with the readiness of the staff to help in any way possible to make this a reality. I felt it was a worthwhile challenge and decided to give it a try.

 

Deciding to Teach Online

I wanted to offer an online course for Production and Operations Management. This course includes techniques and methods used by management to plan and control manufacturing and other operating systems. Quantitative methods and analytical techniques are stressed for operating system design, productivity, inventory, quality and capacity management. This course meets twice a week, typically during the day, or once a week in the evening. In the summer, it meets four days a week for about two hours. I decided I would offer this course in the summer of 2000.

For the last few years, the university has utilized TopClass to help instructors in the design of their online courses. In brief, TopClass is a course content delivery and learning management system. It provides instructors with the ability to make course materials available on the Web, to gauge students' knowledge and progress, and to enhance communication between students and instructors, as well as among students themselves through the use of discussion lists, a built-in e-mail system, class announcements and various utilities. Courses in TopClass are delivered via the Internet in a Web-deliverable format, such as HTML, Java, or JavaScript. Beginning next semester, though, we will have the option of using Blackboard. I did not have to use HTML to use TopClass. Typically, all documents were typed in Word and were then easily uploaded in a matter of seconds to the appropriate location within TopClass. The student would easily be able to view the course Web site from anywhere that allows access to the Internet. This seemed to be a plus for our students, since many of them are commuters.

 

Requirements for Designing a Successful Course

1. Flexibility

Although the college has a great library, I didn't want to require students to deal with it unless they so desired. I wanted students to have access to any information available on the Web. Moreover, students have different learning styles. Some will thrive in group settings, while others prefer working independently. I wanted to be able to provide both of these aspects of teaching.

2. Current events

I wanted to have students utilize newspaper articles that would show them how POM is presently being used. Too often, material presented in textbooks is not current. In addition, students can't really appreciate the material as well as they can when it is read in a current newspaper. My aim was not only to provide this material to my students, but also to have some mechanism whereby I could check whether the students had read it. One way was to provide questions on each reading assignment that would have to be handed in.

3. Company tours

I wanted to utilize the computer for some virtual tours of various companies. I know, from previous semesters, that students expressed interest in being able to see what a company d'es. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to arrange for a class trip to a company. Students are too pressed for time when they come to class. I was never able to find a common time when students would be able to take a physical tour. I was looking for software that would provide some interesting walk-through tours. I needed a way to make sure students were taking these "tours." I would need some questions provided at the end of each tour that students could e-mail to me.

4. Textbook connection

Although I was not treating this course as a traditional one, I felt a textbook should be required. Students feel more at home when there is reading material designed to supplement the computer. I did not feel the computer would suffice to provide this material. Here again, I would have an opportunity to get feedback from the students on the chapter if required quiz questions were posed. It would be ideal if the students could take home exams on each chapter and get immediate feedback after answering the questions. The grades they would receive on the feedback were not as important as their being able to see the results. In fact, as long as a student answered most of the questions correctly, he or she would get full credit for the assignment.

5. Interaction within groups

One component necessary to help make this a true online course is interaction by students. In a traditional course, this is somewhat difficult to accomplish, especially with the shy students who sit in the back. I felt I could overcome this barrier by introducing case studies, which would require input from all. I assigned three case studies. The class was divided into four groups that consisted of four students. Each student was to read and analyze the case. Each group would communicate in its TopClass discussion group and share thoughts on the case. On the due date, one student from each group would submit the answers from the group to me. We would then meet in class to discuss the answers live.

6. Interaction between groups

Besides having a few students interact in each group, each student should interact with someone else in the class. This was accomplished by requiring each student to answer the current events questions (see item 2) and then comment or add to another student's answer as well. The idea was to simulate in-class discussion, to assure that students read some of the other answers from the current events, and toincrease student interaction.

7. Actual class interaction

This is one area of online teaching that I treat in a more traditional manner. It is fine for a student to take a course exclusively on the computer. It is fine that he or she can correspond with the various members of the class and the professor by computer interaction. However, I feel students would still prefer having some traditional contact with the professor. This accomplishes the following:

  • It reduces unnecessary computer anxiety.
  • It enables the professor to meet the students.
  • It enables the student to share any concerns about the course with the professor.
  • It enables the professor to show the students in the computer lab how to speed delivery of assignments, as well as discuss any problems students experience while using TopClass.
  • It enables the professor to demonstrate some applications, which would otherwise be difficult. For example, I am able to cover topics with my students dealing with forecasting, seasonal indices and inventory models more easily.
  • It enables students to see problems and exercises worked out from beginning to end.

Although packets are mailed to students explaining the technology that will be used in the course before the course begins, hands-on training is critical for both the teacher and the students. I feel it is absolutely necessary to have a pre-class or first-class session in which the students learn about the delivery technology, and are able to ask questions about the course in person.

The Class

I taught this course in the second summer session of 2000. The class met four days a week. There are typically seven distinct areas that are filled in throughout the course. These are: class, chapters, quizzes, a virtual tour, The New York Times, current events and cases.

The class was typically reserved for answering technical questions, going over discussion questions from the text, reviewing exercises from the end of chapters, and demonstrating software concepts. I assumed the students would find this component of the course beneficial even though it was an online course. For example, when the topic of forecasting was covered, I used Excel to show the class how to do a scatter diagram, and how to do some elementary regression analysis. When inventory analysis was covered, I was able to use Excel once more to create equations and to perform some sensitivity analysis. Despite the thought that most students would prefer not to be in class, I found it somewhat interesting that they all felt this was a worthwhile component of the course. In a survey I had the students complete, one of the questions asked was: "How valuable do you feel contact time is in this course?" Some of the responses were:

  • Class interaction between instructor and student is very important because at least everyone can express their feelings and problems at the same time.
  • It is good to come to the class to see how things are going.
  • When you don't have contact, it is easy to lose focus.
  • It is good getting other opinions and "hearing" the other answers.
  • The class should be divided equally, meaning half time in class and doing work online the second half.

As in a traditional course, I wanted to have students read chapters. My students had no problem with the fact they were required to read chapters. Each chapter had a dozen questions, which drew information straight from the reading. The textbook I used had quizzes already prepared and was set up so students could e-mail me their responses. The students' quizzes were immediately graded. In addition, I told my students I wasn't concerned about whether they got all the answers correct. The quizzes were incorporated to show me that the students were reading the information.

One reason I chose the text I did was that it had virtual tours. Students are always interested in how the real world operates. In my earlier courses, I would usually bring in videos to demonstrate how companies are practicing some area of POM. Students were typically interested in it. Virtual tours gave the student another way of seeing how companies operate. I had my students take more than a dozen tours, which varied from an automobile manufacturer to a hospital. In addition, the tours contained questions, which students e-mailed to me.

In another course I teach, Technology Applications, I have the students bring in The New York Times once or twice a week to discuss hardware, software, and various applications and stories that pertain to technology. Often students would be lax and either forget to bring the paper or not really research it before class. This text provided a New York Times "OM Theme of the Times." Students would get a copy of the 12-page paper, which looked like the Times. In it were numerous texts based on recent articles that dealt with POM. They were all neatly laid out as if from the paper itself. Articles dealing with quality control, productivity, global issues, etc. were all nicely covered. I had my students read and answer questions for eight of these articles. As with the Virtual Tours, questions were provided on the home page and students e-mailed me their answers for each article read.

The current events section was the part of the course that was the least liked, although students found it beneficial. My textbook provided summary articles from various sources, such as Business Week. Students are able to access these articles. At the end of the article is a section titled "Talking it Over and Thinking it Through," which consists of questions designed to engage the students and stimulate class discussion. Questions relate to the current event topic and to ideas and theories that were likely to be covered in the course lectures. The major complaint I received was that students felt the questions were not exactly associated with the article. In the future, I might eliminate the questions and just leave the article for class discussion, if time permits.

I had my students read and answer questions about three cases. The cases were relatively short, usually one page in length. My objective was to get each group of students to work on each case either in class or in TopClass, have them provide me with a unified answer in TopClass, and come to class to present it in front of the other groups. We would then discuss the various answers.

Online Course Evaluation

I handed out a questionnaire towards the middle of the semester. It consisted of seven questions, some of which could be useful for any online course. The questions were:

1. What is the best thing about taking an online course?

2. What is the worst thing about taking an online course?

3. Do you put in more work in an online course compared to a traditional one?

4. Has this course met your expectations?

5. Rating 1 the lowest and 10 the highest, what were your thoughts about the course before the semester began, and what are your thoughts now?

6. Do you feel class contact time is important in an online course?

7. Other suggestions?

Responses to these questions follow.

Question 1:

I found typical responses concerning what is best. Some answers were:

  • Very convenient.
  • You learn more.
  • Great learning experience.
  • Freedom to complete the work on our own time.
  • Very relaxed setting when you don't worry about midterms and finals that most people cram for the night before.
  • Open book for all assignments and you can work in the comfort of your home.

Question 2:

The students provided some interesting responses. Some were:

  • There is no real contact with other students or the teacher.
  • Fear that not all e-mails have been properly received.
  • A lot of reading and research is required.
  • Time consuming.

Question 3:

Sixty percent of the students said they put in more work than in a traditional course. The remainder said it was the same.

Other comments were that:

  • It keeps me motivated.
  • I feel I am always on the computer.
  • More reading is required.

Question 4:

Eighty percent of the students felt it met their expectations. Others preferred a pure traditional approach.

Question 5:

Based on the statistical analysis, it seems that students' feelings concerning the course improved as the semester continued.

Question 6:

As indicated before, every student felt class time is important. Some felt that class time is necessary in order to hear others' opinions, and others felt that going to class is necessary in order to discuss assignments and problems.

Question 7:

The most significant suggestion, which sums up online instruction, was:

"It's a lot of work for an online class, but I guess that's what you are here for."

Conclusion

There is no doubt that an online course serves as a useful tool that helps students learn. Students, who were apprehensive at first about this type of delivery, are typically very satisfied with it. However, we must realize that actual class contact could prove more beneficial than a pure online course. Students want it and need it. Can a video or discussion group serve as a substitute? I seriously doubt it. We must take responsibility in combining the best of distance learning with traditional learning in order to enhance our students' college education.

Leonard Presby is a professor in the department of Marketing and Management Science at William Paterson University, Wayne, NJ. Dr. Presby received his Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from New York University in 1974. He has worked as MIS director in a major hospital, has worked at IBM, has published three books, and has taught at William Paterson University since 1975.

E-mail: presbyl@wpunj.edu

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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