The Design & Management of Effective Distance Learning Programs – Chapter 8

Chapter 8: Online Courses: Strategies for Success

Linda Cooper
Macon State College, USA

Copyright © 2002, Idea Group Publishing.

OVERVIEW

A number of post-secondary institutions are looking more seriously at offering online courses to meet the educational needs of a fast-paced, computer-literate society.

In 1998, Macon State College (MSC) began offering an online Business Computer Applications course, and since its inception, approximately 250 students have enrolled in the 16-week (one-semester) course. Business Computer Applications provides instruction in basic computer concepts and terminology as well as instruction using the software program, Microsoft Office. It is one of the core courses required of all business majors; however, many other students also enroll in the class.

This chapter provides instructors who are interested in offering online classes with various strategies used and found successful in the instruction of an online Business Computer Applications course. Topics such as the importance of an initial class meeting, providing diverse instructional materials, the value of student course evaluations, and the dilemma of student assessment procedures will be addressed.

Although a course management system (CMS) is used to manage the online Business Computer Applications course discussed in this chapter, many of the procedures incorporated can be effective in the facilitation of any online course. The advantages of using a CMS to implement and manage online courses will also be discussed later in this chapter.

INTRODUCTION

With working adults becoming an increasingly large percentage of the college population and with greater numbers of students having computer and Internet experience prior to entering college, a number of post-secondary institutions are looking more seriously at offering online instruction to meet students’ educational needs.

In fact, according to International Data, “the e-learning market, which includes Internet and Intranet courses, will grow from $4 billion to $15 billion worldwide in the four years ending in 2002” (Jones, 2000); and Market Data Retrieval recently reported that 72% of colleges responding to its Higher Ed Technology Survey offer distance-learning programs that involve online resources of some kind (Technology News, 2001).

This chapter provides instructors who are interested in offering online classes with various strategies used and found successful in the instruction of an online Business Computer Applications course. Topics such as the importance of an initial class meeting, providing diverse instructional materials, the value of student course evaluations, and the dilemma of student assessment procedures will be addressed.

Although a course management system (CMS) is used to manage the online Business Computer Applications course discussed in this chapter, many of the procedures incorporated can be effective in the facilitation of any online course. The advantages of using a CMS to implement and manage online courses will also be discussed later in this chapter.

PLANNING THE ONLINE COURSE

Online instruction can be offered in a variety of formats, and the process selected by instructors will depend on such factors as whether they are encouraged and supported by the administration, have the technological infrastructure available at their school to support online instruction, have access to technical support, or have technical knowledge and expertise themselves.

Once a decision is made regarding the technological format that will be used, the instructor can begin with the course design and planning and developing the course. During the planning stage, it is important that the instructor define course goals and objectives, identify interaction procedures to be used in the class, decide on instructional materials or course content, and determine how the course content will be organized and made available to students online (Cooper, 1999).

Implementation considerations by the instructor include such decisions as how to introduce students to the logistics of online learning, how to evaluate students on their understanding of course content and achievement of course objectives, how students will evaluate the effectiveness of online instruction, and how to continually improve the online course and the online learning process (Cooper, 1999).

Business Computer Applications Background

In 1998, Macon State College (MSC) began offering an online Business Computer Applications course, and since its inception, about 250 students have enrolled in the 16-week (one-semester) course. Approximately 20-25 students enroll in each of the online sections of the course. By limiting the number of students in the course, the instructor is better able to interact with all class members and will minimize the need for logistical support.

Business Computer Applications provides instruction in basic computer concepts and terminology as well as instruction using the software program, Microsoft Office. It is one of the core courses required of all business majors; however, many other students also enroll in the class.

In the past, the course has been taught only in the traditional format. Class activities included instructor lecture, student discussion, instructor demonstration, hands-on computer activities, etc., and although numerous sections of the class are still taught in this traditional format, online sections are offered as well. The online classes provide those students who may already be familiar with the course material, who find it difficult to attend classes on campus because of work or home scheduling conflicts, or who are motivated and able to manage their time effectively the opportunity to complete the class somewhat independently.

Enrollment in the online Business Computer Applications course requires that students have a 2.5 grade point average, Internet access, and access to a computer equipped with Microsoft Office software. Online students attend an initial class meeting or orientation session, during which they meet the instructor and each other and have the opportunity to ask questions.

Because the course provides instruction in theory (computer theory and concepts) and computer software applications (Microsoft Office), two textbooks are used. The theory book contains eight chapters and covers topics such as the history of computing; the design, function, and relationships between internal components of a computer; how data is processed and stored internally and externally; the effect of computers on society; and how to purchase computer hardware and software. Students are responsible for approximately one chapter per week and are tested after every two chapters. These exams are generally objective in nature, administered online, and graded automatically. Students take them on an assigned day but at a time convenient to them. When finished with the exams, students can see the correct answer to each of the questions, as well as their test grade. Students also take a comprehensive final exam over the theory textbook.

The Microsoft Office textbook is divided into six sections. Students learn how to work and manage files in the Windows environment (one-two weeks); how to use the Internet for communicating and research (one week); and how to use the software applications, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access (three weeks each), and Microsoft PowerPoint (one week). To help them with learning each of the applications, they have a CD-ROM tutorial and access to online videos in addition to step-by-step instructions provided in the textbook.

Students report to campus three times during the semester to take tests over the software applications. They are also required to research a business technology topic using the Internet and then write a research paper and create a PowerPoint presentation on that topic.

Student Profile

During the 1999-2000 academic year, the average student enrolled in the online Business Computer Applications course was 27 years in age, female (61%), and employed. In fact, of the online students, 56% were employed full-time, 28% were employed part-time, and 16% were unemployed. In most cases, the unemployed student was a stay-at-home mother with children.

In comparison, the average student enrolled in the traditional class during the 1999-2000 academic year was 23 years of age, also female (64%), and employed part-time. Of traditional students, 66% were employed part-time, 33%were employed full-time, and 7% were unemployed. Thus, the biggest difference between students enrolled in the online class and the traditional class was employment status (Cooper, 2001).

Initial Class Meeting

Because online learning is a new experience for most students, an initial class meeting is beneficial. It provides an excellent opportunity for students to meet the instructor and each other, ask questions, and become acquainted with course logistics (Cooper, 1999). Students also need to be aware of the hardware and software that they will need as well as the level of computing proficiency required (Hanna et al., 2000).

During the class meeting, it is helpful to go over information typically covered the first day of a regular class such as syllabus, textbook, instructor office hours, testing procedures, etc. In addition to the syllabus, one of the most beneficial handouts to both students and the instructor is the semester calendar (also available online), which includes a timeline or schedule of activities, assignments, and test dates for each week of the semester. Not only does the schedule provide students with a weekly “to do” list, but it also reminds students of their learning objectives and keeps both the students and the instructor on task.

The initial meeting also furnishes students with an explanation of what an online course is, the role of the instructor in the online classroom, student expectations, and the mechanics of how “everything works.” Because the instructor has access to the student roster prior to this meeting, it is advantageous to enter all user names into the system beforehand. Doing so allows students during this class session to log on with their assigned user name and password and actually navigate the course website and become familiar with the content and the various online features.

The opportunity for students to actually log onto the course website and become familiar with it helps answer any questions they might have and alleviates any anxieties that they might be experiencing. An introduction to the online course content can also prevent students when later working on their own from wasting time and becoming “frustrated with the system to the point where they abandon it and any subsequent attempts to master its content” (Bayram, 1999).

Given that the majority of problems students encounter are computer-related, it is also helpful to spend time during the initial class meeting demonstrating proper installation of the tutorial CD-ROM, downloading and installing video player software, running a PowerPoint presentation on the Internet, and sending and receiving attachments.

Since students tend to forget some of the information presented during the session, a “FAQ” or “frequently asked questions” link is added to the course homepage. This page provides answers to such questions as “How do I send an attachment?” “How do I install course software?” and “How do I get started in the course?” Should they need additional assistance with any of these operations, students are encouraged to visit the campus lab or contact the instructor.

It is also helpful during the initial class session to have students complete a survey or profile sheet. The information provided by them can be helpful in determining their learning needs and for providing them with diverse instructional materials. It can also help students assess their readiness for online learning (Hanna et al., 2000).

In addition, because students who miss the orientation session are more likely to drop the course, the entire session is videotaped and made available to them—both in the library and online.

When it is not possible to provide an initial class meeting for an online class, other strategies can be utilized. Prior to the beginning of class, the instructor can send students a letter or email introducing him/herself, welcoming students to the class, furnishing them the URL or online course website address, providing instructions for accessing the online learning materials, and highlighting specific online features or Web pages. Although the syllabus and course schedule are both provided online, it is helpful to also include them with the letter.

In this first written communication, it is also helpful if students are asked to communicate with the instructor during the first week of class either through email or telephone to ensure that they understand the content organization and their expectations as online students.

Online Communication

An important and necessary component to successful web-based instruction is ongoing communication. The instructor must be able to communicate with the students throughout the semester, and students must be able to communicate with the instructor and receive prompt assistance when they encounter problems or have questions. Students also need to be able to interact with one another.

Instructor-Student Communication

To maintain regular instructor-student communication, it is beneficial to send students a class announcement every week that provides an overview of the upcoming week’s activities, provides any additional information or explanations about course content or assignments, reminds them of test dates, and addresses any student concerns expressed to the instructor during the previous week.

To encourage discussion of course content and interaction of ideas in the Business Computer Applications course, the instructor posts content-related topics regularly. Discussion questions should require thought, problem solving, and/or research but should be brief, as students are more likely to participate if the topic is concise and does not require lengthy responses. Participation is a part of the students’ final grades, and although they are graded on the frequency of their participation, they are also graded on the quality of their input. Extra credit points are given to students who take the initiative to begin their own discussion of ideas and/or opinions.

Student-Instructor Communication

Because the students do not see the instructor on a daily basis, the instructor should check email and telephone messages frequently and on weekends if possible, so that students are able to get prompt responses when they do have questions or require assistance. In addition, by keeping specific office hours, the instructor assures students that he/she is available at specific times. To maintain continued student-instructor communication and to prevent students from simply “drifting off” during the semester, students are asked to email the instructor every couple of weeks to keep him/her informed of their progress.

Student-Student Communication

To encourage communication among students and to prevent them from feeling isolated in the class, students are required to participate regularly in class discussion. It is helpful at the beginning of class to have them share with the class some biographical information about themselves. Not only does it help them to get to know each other but to better “understand each other’s perspectives” (Hanna et al., 2000).

Using the CMS threaded discussion feature or a listserve, students can respond to topics presented by the instructor, ask questions, or read and respond to other class members’ comments or questions. Participation in discussion is very helpful as it enables them to assist each other in their understanding of course material and with assignments. All students in the class are able to read other students’ postings in the discussion mode. As mentioned previously, as an incentive to encourage students to initiate their own discussions with other class members, they are given extra credit points for doing so.

Although real-time or chat sessions can prove helpful for test review sessions and during scheduled instructor office hours, most students do not prefer this type of session for discussing course content in large groups. One reason is that when a large number of students are logged on at one time, it takes a considerable amount of time for the instructor and students to discuss a limited amount of course content. Inability to type or a lack of proficiency at using the keyboard also makes it difficult for students to respond quickly to a discussion question. Additionally, real-time chat sessions require that “all participants be online at the same time to communicate” and, therefore, often result in “conversation creep,” with the fastest computers getting the most “talk time” (Ciabattari, 1997).

An alternative to large group chat sessions is to assign groups of five or fewer students to a discussion group. In smaller groups, students will have a greater opportunity to participate and to improve the quality of discussion. Additionally, in smaller groups, students are more likely to discuss topics more freely, share their own experiences, and feel more a part of the class.

Students explain in their end-of-semester class evaluations that they generally prefer threaded discussions because they give them time to think about their responses first. Threaded discussions also enable them to participate at a more comfortable pace and at times more convenient to their schedules. In addition, by having access to their weekly assignments and related learning materials beforehand, as they do in the online Business Computer Applications course, they are able to progress through the course with fewer questions and without a great deal of instructor supervision or student assistance.

However, in online classes where instructors use chat sessions to present course assignments, announce test dates, and/or discuss course content, the chat sessions are basically a class meeting and the only source of receiving information for students; therefore, when students miss a session, they get behind in their work.

Regardless of whether the online class uses synchronous or asynchronous communication or both, as in any class some students participate much more readily in class discussion than others. By scheduling discussion sessions in both formats during the term, however, the instructor provides students with the opportunity to engage in the discussion format most convenient to them and with which they are most comfortable.

Diverse Instructional Materials

Since all students have different learning styles and respond differently to various learning activities, it is important to offer them instructional materials in a variety of formats. In addition to providing online learning materials for each module or chapter such as clearly stated learning objectives, lecture notes, and assignments, automatically graded self-tests that evaluate students on achievement of the stated objectives can be included. Answers to chapter questions, PowerPoint presentations that summarize the main points of each chapter or topic, online videos of class lectures, and links to textbook interactive websites can also be included.

The theory segment of the Business Computer Applications class is structured by textbook chapter. When students access the course homepage, one of the options or icons with which they are presented is the title and/or picture of the textbook. When students select this textbook icon, they view a list of chapters. When they select a particular chapter, they are presented with links to Web pages such as chapter objectives, lecture notes or study guides, assignments, readings, answers to end-of-the-chapter questions, practice tests, and the textbook website.

The Microsoft Office segment of the course is structured by software application. When students access the course homepage, they are presented with a link to the online learning resources of the Microsoft Office textbook. When students select this link, they view a list of the various software application modules: Windows Environment, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access, Microsoft PowerPoint, and the Internet. For each application module, there are links to module objectives, textbook readings, assignments, answers to end-of-the-chapter questions and select exercises, videos, assigned CD-ROM modules, practice tests, and textbook website.

Because students often feel that they are faced with a vast amount of information to read and do not have the advantage of hearing class lectures, it is helpful to provide test study guides and to schedule optional test review sessions either online or on-campus to help them prepare for exams.

In addition, because students in online classes often do not have access to fast Internet connections, it is advantageous to provide as many instructional materials as possible in CD-ROM format. In the Business Computer Applications course, students have a CD-ROM that provides an interactive tutorial to the computer applications. The tutorial is a simulation that sets objectives, asks students to complete specific tasks on the computer, shows them how to complete the task if they don’t know, and provides them with feedback after the completion of each task. By using the CD-ROM, students are able to work offline and actually receive individualized instruction in those areas with which they need assistance. CD-ROMs that include videos, interactive exercises, and glossaries today accompany a number of textbooks.

Many textbook vendors have also created their own websites for students to access, and many of these websites will send results of student exercises or practice tests to the instructor. By providing links to these sites, students are encouraged to access them.

Although students may choose not to access all of the online learning resources available to them, by presenting a variety of resources, the instructor increases the chances of reaching each of them at some level; therefore, the chances for learning are also increased.

Student Testing

A continuous dilemma for instructors of online classes is whether to utilize online testing or require students to come to campus to take exams. Objective style online tests can be automatically graded, and can provide immediate feedback to the students, and also eliminate instructor grading. In addition, if a CMS is utilized for online class management, the instructor is able to set up tests in advance.

The consequence of online testing though is that the instructor can never be sure if the student enrolled in the class actually took the test. In the Business Computer Applications course, this dilemma is resolved by requiring students to come to campus for a comprehensive final exam and counting it a substantial percentage of their final grade.

On the other hand, when students are required to come to campus for testing, it often presents a scheduling problem for them. However, on-campus testing does eliminate the need for a comprehensive exam counting such a large percentage of the grade.

For the Business Computer Applications course, both testing formats are utilized. For the hands-on computer exams, students come to campus. To prepare for the applications exams, students can take online practice tests and submit them to the instructor for checking.

For the theory segment of the course, students take online, automatically graded objective tests, and although they are required to take them on specific dates, they can take them at any time on those dates. The final exam then covers only the theory content and is administered on-campus. Thus far, this strategy seems to satisfy most of the students and eliminates the need to count the final exam such a large percentage.

ONLINE COURSE EVALUATIONS

In an effort to continually improve online instruction, frequent evaluations throughout the term are extremely useful. Aspacher (1997) suggests three separate evaluations during the course.

  • The first survey asking students to evaluate the orientation session can be distributed during the first week; the results are helpful in planning future orientation sessions. At the midpoint of the course a, telephone survey might be used to ask students about their satisfaction with how the class is progressing. At the end of the term, a more comprehensive written survey can be administered.

  • In the Business Computer Applications course, one of the options available to the students is an online “One-Minute Survey.” When students access this option, they are asked two simple questions: “What in this course helped your learning?” and “What in this course hindered your learning?” Although the instructor periodically prompts students to complete the survey, they may complete it at any time during the semester.

  • At the conclusion of the course, a more formal Online Course Evaluation form is sent to students as an attachment. They are asked to complete it, print it out, and bring it to class on final exam day. On the evaluation form they are asked to evaluate the course, its contents, availability of the instructor, learning resources, testing methods, and interaction procedures, as well as their understanding of the class organization and grading process. Students are also asked what features they liked best and least about the course and are encouraged to make practical suggestions to improve the course.

Student evaluations help determine the effectiveness of the various components of an online course and address areas that may need revision; they also communicate to students that their input is valuable.

Other Tips

Be Knowledgeable of Online Course Technology

By being familiar with the software and hardware used in the class and working through all online class components beforehand, the instructor will be able to answer students’ questions—both content-related and technical— promptly and with expertise. He or she will also be able to anticipate student needs and questions before the class begins, which can prevent student problems and frustration later.

Respond to Student Questions and Problems Quickly

By regularly checking email and telephone messages and promptly responding to students’ questions and concerns, the instructor lets the students know that he/she is readily available and interested in helping them. Prompt responses also keep students from feeling isolated in the class.

Student Withdrawals

A major obstacle facing online courses is the large number of student withdrawals. Students who enroll in an online course often do not understand the requirements necessary for succeeding. Consequently, they drop the course when they realize they need a more structured environment. Thus, providing information to both faculty and students prior to advisement and registration concerning content organization, student expectations, required hardware and software, and required computer proficiency is a necessary and important factor in student success.

Another step that might be taken to minimize the number of student withdrawals in online classes is to invite online class members to attend the regular class if they feel they need additional assistance. If both the online class and the regular or traditional class follow the same weekly schedule, it is easy for them to determine the classes they would like to attend.

Student Scheduling

Another approach to meet the needs and schedules of students interested in enrolling in an online course is to offer at least two sessions of the class— during the day and during the evening. Because students in the Business Computer Applications course are required to attend class for the orientation session and on selected exam dates, it is important that these sessions be offered at times conducive to their schedules.

Include Fun Activities

Including games or fun activities into the course can add variety to the course as well as make learning more fun for the students. “The World Wide Web provides a wonderful playground to explore and gain new ideas and insights into almost every conceivable topic” (Hanna et al., 2000).

Advantages of Using a Course Management System (CMS)

If teachers have access to a server but possess limited time or technical expertise, they might consider using a commercially developed course management system (CMS) to set up and manage the online class. With a CMS, instructors must still develop their own course content or individual files in HTML format (an easy process when using one of the HTML conversion programs), but the CMS software takes care of linking the documents for student navigation. Examples of such systems include Topclass, Web Course in a Box, and Web CT. The systems generally provide their own tools for communication such as email, threaded discussion, and teacher announcements. Additionally, these systems grade online student tests automatically and allow instructors to track student progress.

WebCT is the CMS used in the management of the Business Computer Applications course discussed in this chapter. The system is purchased by the school, housed on a school server, and administered by the Information Technology Department. Thus, it is available for use by any instructor in the school and alleviates faculty members from system administration responsibilities. The use of a CMS or course management system program offers many advantages.

First, all course content, links to websites, online tests, etc., can be set up prior to the beginning of class. Instructors do not need to be well-versed in programming or be computer experts; if they can create in HTML format the various documents that they want to make available to students (objectives, lecture notes, study guides), uploading them into the CMS is a very simple procedure. In addition, a CMS can make the course more visually appealing and more professional looking with little designer expertise on the part of the instructor.

“In-house” Communication

With a CMS, there is no need to establish separate listservs or keep track of student email addresses, as these functions are built-in components. Using the “email” feature, the instructor or students can send private or personal messages to each other, and email addresses of anyone enrolled in the course are accessible to all other class members.

Instructor announcements and topics for class discussions are sent to the entire class using the “discussion” mode. Real-time discussions are conducted through the “chat” mode.

Using a CMS, users are immediately notified when they log on if they have an email message or if a new discussion item has been posted, a feature that keeps them from having to navigate through the various links in order to read any new messages. Additionally when they log on, students receive pop-up reminders about tests that are scheduled on that day or within the next few days.

Ease of Use by Students

Because the course layout and content organization does not change during the semester, students become familiar with the location of all online components. In addition, they can continue working through class materials where they left off the last time they logged on.

Online Testing

By using a CMS, instructors can set up tests in advance. They can import test questions from test banks, assign points to each test question and set up date and time restrictions. Upon completion of the tests, students can see the correct answer to each question, read background information about each question and answer, and see their grades immediately. In addition, their grades are posted online so both they and the instructor can view them at any time during the semester.

Monitoring Student Activity

Using a CMS allows the instructor the capability to track student activity throughout the term. At any time during the semester, the instructor can check to see which modules students have accessed and the dates on which they accessed them. The instructor can also see which modules were accessed or completed more than once. Being able to do this gives the instructor the capability of observing which students are on task, which ones might need some personal assistance or encouragement, and which modules are giving students difficulty.

Integration of CMS and School Database

Lastly, by using a CMS such as WebCT, the school’s database can be used as a source for inputting students into the online class roster. For example, all instructors using the WebCT system follow a specific format when entering enrolled students; by doing so, they only have to enter students’ user names. They do not need to input student passwords, as their Social Security number is the automatically assigned password—although students can easily change it once they are enrolled into the online course. Additionally, when students log on, they are logged on to all WebCT online classes in which they are enrolled; and they have to remember only one user name and one password.

CONCLUSION

Online instruction can offer new challenges and opportunities to both students and teachers. They can provide an alternative to regularly scheduled classes and can deliver the same services as a regular classroom environment. Developing an online course consists of: (1) determining the most appropriate technological means for course facilitation and class interaction; (2) planning and developing diverse course materials; (3) deciding the most appropriate means for student assessment; and (4) determining an effective approach for online course evaluation.

A key to involving students in online learning is to provide them with an understanding of how the online class functions and what is expected of them as students. Such information can be provided in an orientation session or a package of introductory information mailed to the students prior to the beginning of class.

Implementation of an online class is an ongoing process. As students evaluate the various components of the course and its overall effectiveness, the instructor is able to make necessary revisions as well as plan and improve future online courses. Instructional materials, testing procedures, or scheduled meeting times may change as a result of both positive and negative class experiences or as students express their opinions of what helped or hindered their learning in the class. There are a number of instructional components and strategies to be considered by instructors or designers when creating and implementing an online course. Table 1 presents a checklist of those presented in this chapter.

Table 1: A short survey

Have you….

Yes

No

Included for each unit, chapter or module

List of objectives

Required readings

Vocabulary or list of important terms

Lecture notes and/or Study Guide

Assignments

Answers to Selected questions and/or exercises

Practice Exams

Powerpoint presentations

Online videos

Links to Web sites

Decided on Class Communication Procedures

Threaded discussion

Chat or Real-time discussion

Both

Determined Testing Format and Procedures

Online exams

On-campus exams

Both

Included the following in the introductory session or letter  

Explanation of online instruction/learning

Instructor’s role

Student expectations

Textbook organization

Syllabus

Course schedule or weekly calendar of activities, modules, and/or assignments

Exam dates and testing procedures

Course URL or Web site address

Instructions for logging on and maneuvering online course content

Answers to frequently asked questions

If the course is carefully planned and implemented and the instructor is open to student feedback and continuous improvement, online instruction can provide an effective educational environment and offer a viable alternative to traditional classroom instruction.

Additional research is needed, however, to assess the effectiveness of online instruction in this and other classes.

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