Students and Faculty Respond to Online Distance Courses at Grant MacEwan Community College


The Learn Online project ( at Grant MacEwan Community College (GMCC) in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is a project to convert selected distance education courses in the Health and Community Studies division to a Web-based format using TopClass and WebCT courseware and a collaborative design-team approach. The design team includes the instructor, an instructional designer and an Internet specialist. The services of a course editor and a graphic artist are contracted as required. Three courses were selected for evaluation over one year by a part-time research coordinator. The information gained from the research will inform further online course development efforts. Four courses have been offered at least once and the seven courses currently in development are being piloted during the 1999/2000 school year.


Team-Based Course Development: Benefits and Barriers

The benefits of a collaborative team approach are many. Converting courses to a Web-based format has been a learning experience for everyone involved in the project. As this is the first initiative of its kind at the college, support and procedural issues have been discussed by the project group, and first steps are being taken to ensure that services such as technical support for distance students are available. Also, because of the different stakeholders involved in the process, information about the project is more widely shared than if it occurred within one department.


As project members gain expertise in developing different kinds of courses, they are using the technology in more interesting ways to deliver course material. The discussions between the instructor, the instructional designer and the Internet specialist give the design team a broader range of technical and pedagogical options with which to address instructional design issues, and more opportunities during the development process to assess instructional design decisions. Evaluating faculty and student experiences with the online courses gives the design team valuable information about what students and faculty believe is working and what elements need improvement.


A trade-off, or disadvantage, of a collaborative team approach is the extra time needed to share and discuss ideas, to address issues that arise from the development process, and the cost associated with a longer development period. The investment in a collaborative course development team now will, we believe, yield benefits for future course development at GMCC in terms of lessons learned through experience and research.


Student Response to Online Learning: Accessibility and Flexibility

Students enrolled in Health and Community Studies courses tend to be mature students with job and family responsibilities who are interested in GMCC courses to further their career through professional development, or are interested in changing careers. Distance self-study printed courses have been used for 15 years to provide educational opportunities to students who cannot otherwise attend on-campus day courses. Students in Health and Community Studies programs are often not required to be computer literate in their professions, or are familiar only with computer applications specific to their jobs.


With these types of students in mind, several guiding questions were asked about developing online courses:


·         What is the minimum computer competency required for students taking online courses?

·         What is GMCC’s role in providing students with basic computer skills?

·         Will having more multimedia elements and higher computer specifications prevent students from accessing the course online?


Ensuring that students are capable of taking a course online requires more screening during the recruitment process. Information about computer requirements is posted on the Learn Online Web page, and a sample course will be added to help both staff and prospective students understand what students will face when learning online.


Surveyed students indicated that the Learn Online courses were their first experience taking a course online. Students had few problems learning to use the courseware to do learning activities and submit assignments. Any difficulties they did have decreased by the end of the course, suggesting that they learned how to use the courseware to do course activities. Some of the problems students noted included:


·         Having to wait a long time for pages to load due to a slow (14.4 Kbps) modem speed;

·         Difficulty submitting assignments by e-mail;

·         Difficulty keeping sections of the course they had printed out in order;

·         Frustration with cumbersome navigation through the course structure;
·         Frustration with links to Web sites that didn’t work;

·         Difficulty finding appropriate information due to the large amount of information available on the Web; and
·         Needing clarification from the instructor about assignment or activity directions.


Students liked the flexibility of the online courses and the feeling of connection to other students and to the instructor when compared with print-based courses. They liked information about relevant Web sites and the ease of getting online and submitting assignments through e-mail. More than one student noted the course content itself as the greatest benefit of the course — an important reminder that students are most concerned with the course content, regardless of the course format.


We have found student support to be an important issue in providing online courses. Most surveyed students were interested in accessing online tutorials on computer skills. Faculty agreed that students need more advanced preparation, as they feel that some students overestimate their computer skills. Some distance student services are already in place, namely off-campus access to the library catalogue and databases, as well as a virtual reference desk. An online technical help desk is being piloted and evaluated in the 1999/2000 school year. Online registration and payment procedures, while possible with the implementation of a secure server, require further planning and negotiation across college departments. Another potential future project is to develop step-by-step online student tutorials on essential computer applications used in online courses.


Faculty Response to Online   Teaching: Learning By Doing

The faculty teaching online did not have much experience with this delivery method. For most, this was their first time teaching a Web-based course, although all have experience teaching print-based distance courses. After teaching one course, the instructors felt comfortable with the courseware, although some wanted to learn more about administrative functions such as tracking student work and record-keeping. The instructors were excited about the possibility of online discussions using asynchronous bulletin boards, but expressed frustrations over the difficulties in facilitating good discussion. Several factors contributed to less than satisfactory online discussions:


·         Small class sizes.
·         Lack of student incentive to participate in online discussions, which were mandatory but not marked.
 ·       Students went through the course at different rates, so were sometimes out of step with the content being discussed.
·         The student dominating the discussion with minimal input from other students.


Despite these frustrations, the instructors felt that the ability to communicate through e-mail was important, particularly at the beginning of the semester, to ensure that everyone involved in the course shared a common understanding of what was expected of them and what would be happening in the course. One instructor commented that online communication allowed distance instructors the chance to share the “a-ha!” experience that happens in the classroom, as well as their enthusiasm for the subject. However, e-mail did not completely replace the telephone. More than one instructor felt that the telephone is still the best way to resolve student difficulties with course assignments or technical problems. In one example, the instructor had extensive phone communication with a student to resolve a problem sending e-mail within TopClass.


The instructors expressed concerns about how much time should be spent responding to e-mail, participating in discussions and following student activities through the course. The immediacy of feedback, which the instructors liked, also raised student expectations of instructor availability. One student wanted instructor support on the weekends, and many students liked the increased interaction with the instructor when compared with print-based courses.

Technical difficulties were present during the semester but did not interfere substantially with the courses. Some problems that occurred prior to the semester, during the testing period, were resolved when a new server and an upgraded version of WebCT were installed. Problems with retrieving student e-mail within TopClass were sorted out after intensive troubleshooting. Instructors and the instructional designer spent most of their problem-solving time resolving problems students had with their own equipment or their Internet connection. For the pilot offering of Learn Online courses in the Winter 1999 semester, the instructional designer provided e-mail and telephone technical support to both students and instructors. The college’s Computing Help Desk currently assists in student support, as well.


Instructors involved in the Learn Online project have been willing and courageous explorers of online teaching. Through their willingness to learn while doing, we are better able to understand what instructors need to know and need to be able to do before attempting to develop and teach online courses.


In the focus group discussion with online instructors, a list of instructor competencies was presented, to clarify areas of faculty development that need to be addressed. The competencies included:

  • Comfort and effectiveness with all technology used in the course
  • Ability to model useful technology 
  • Ability to track student activities in the course
  • Willingness to be innovative in teaching methods
  • Willingness to be innovative in use of technology
  • Willingness to learn while doing
  • Willingness to work cooperatively with technical support/design staff
  • Tolerance of change
  • Ability to commit significant time to the course
  • Ability to handle a high amount of interaction with students
  • Being a good facilitator of communication
  • Being able to write clear, focused messages
  • Providing clear expectations of student responsibilities in course


One suggested addition to this list is the ability to design discussions to involve the students.

Learning to teach online by doing it is an adventurous plunge into the sometimes turbulent waters of technologically mediated education. One of the questions emerging from the Learn Online project is: What is the best way to develop the skills faculty will need in order to develop and teach courses online, given existing professional development efforts within the college? With that question in mind, a series of workshops on Web-based course development and the use of TopClass and WebCT have been offered through our Instructional Media and Design department.


Both faculty and students prefer learning computer skills as needed. Putting step-by-step tutorials on using TopClass and WebCT on the Learn Online Web site is one way to provide a basic training resource. At this early stage of online course development, much depends on the willingness of the faculty to take on the challenging prospect of online course development and on the forging of new collaborative relationships across departments within the college.


Cheryl White is Research Coordinator of Learn Online at Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.


E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.