Will you offer an online course in the future? It could be more likely than you think. Demand for such courses is growing rapidly. Many high schools and community colleges, following universities' leads, are expanding into distance learning. Major research universities are creating online graduate programs and are offering more and more of their existing courses online. Universities recognize that even traditional campus-resident students sometimes prefer online courses in order to resolve schedule conflicts or take popular courses when physical space limits enrollment. (A colleague of mine recently made online instruction an option for his class of 200, and 50 students—all of them campus residents—immediately switched to the online section.) Finally, the growing population of post-college learners creates a market for courses delivered online because rapid economic and technological changes create a need for life-long learning, more people have two or more careers in a lifetime, and workers and employers need just-in-time learning.
When creating an online course, there are certain key decisions to be made at the outset. Those decisions—crucial for anyone considering an online course, or even adding online content to a traditional course—can be summarized by three questions:
Question 1: Reasons to Create an Online Course
The primary reason for creating an online course is to provide access. Professionals who want to learn more in their field, for example, may have difficulty going back to school or even taking night classes. Oil workers in Venezuela who need petroleum engineering courses, in-service K-12 teachers who want formal course work in their subject, and ranchers in West Texas who want agribusiness courses—they all need these courses provided someplace other than a traditional academic setting. Likewise, high school or college students can take courses online that are not available at their own campuses. Home schooling, growing rapidly as an alternative to public schools, can also benefit from the educational richness of online courses.
But online courses provide more than just access. Good online courses offer a quality of instruction that cannot be matched by face-to-face instruction. Online instruction can incorporate a broader range of information, integrating course content with the informational resources of the Web. Students can interact and work together in ways that are not possible or practical in face-to-face education (Collison, Elbaum, Haavind, & Tinker, 2000). Space and time barriers to collaborative work on plans, projects, reports, and other learning tasks are removed. Virtual field trips to museums, historical sites, foreign countries, and the like already create learning opportunities that are not otherwise practical. The day is coming when such trips will be expanded to university research labs, corporate business offices, government agencies, and expeditions into remote parts of the world. ("The Quest Channel" is an existing low-tech example.)
Question 2: Justifying the Extra Work
Online courses present a few immediate and often time-consuming challenges. First, they require a lot of technical support. It is essential to have a Web server and a webmaster, and useful to have help from instructional designers. Second, online courses require a good deal of time using e-mail and electronic conferencing with students. Third, online courses frequently require the instructor to re-think some basic concepts, including how he or she approaches teaching. This is especially true for teachers accustomed to the lecture mode, because online teaching does not readily support lecturing. Even with streaming audio and video, online lectures are invariably less stimulating than face-to-face ones. Finally, online courses have to be marketed well in order to be effective. Competition among online courses is fierce, technology fees mean that online courses often cost more, and there is no complete national registry for online courses. A few years back, I created an online course in biomedical research, mainly because my career has been in that area. But since I failed to identify my market, enrollments remained low. I have since discovered a possible market among high school science teachers who want to be better equipped to talk about biomedical research and whose administration encourages post-graduate course work. Effective marketing often requires the help of a professional. At a minimum, the instructor needs to develop contacts and cultivate potential markets.
Despite these challenges, the benefits of an online course outweigh the time consumed creating it. Two benefits have already been named: increased access and the potential for improved quality of instruction. A third is perhaps the most important. Moving to online teaching forces critical reflection on teaching philosophy and goals, which improves the effectiveness of teaching—online or not. Online teaching also presents new opportunities for learning activities. Group cooperative learning, for example, is easier online, because asynchronous meetings eliminate schedule conflicts. Even synchronous meetings are easier online because space and distance barriers are removed.
Question 3: Designing and Packaging the Course
Initial Considerations. When designing an online course, you'll need to consider the following:
Choosing Software. Once these design issues are addressed, the next step is to decide how to deliver the course. The easiest way to get a course online is to use a commercial course management system (CMS), such as WebCT, Blackboard, First Class, or Top Class. Such systems are usually licensed and maintained by the institution, which may make a given platform mandatory for its telecampus. CMSs are very popular largely because they are template-driven: authors fill in forms, and Web pages magically appear.
CMSs have their limitations. While they they accomplish basic tasks easily, they generally:
My campus makes a CMS available but not mandatory. I chose to do it myself using a Web editor. I created the course in Microsoft FrontPage, which is no more difficult than Microsoft Word. In fact, learning FrontPage on my own took less time than learning WebCT in my university's formal training program.
Even without a CMS, I found I was able to incorporate necessary functions into my course Web site. Compare the popular functions of a CMS and my solutions:
A good online course has good content. The CMS wrapper doesn't provide this—the course author does. Authors also add learning aids with such features as automated self-study quizzes, crossword puzzles, slide shows, case study programs, intelligent-agent "bots," computer simulations, and computer conferencing environments. Too many online courses are casually generated without such features. The resources to create good Web pages make a CMS unnecessary—and teachers without the resources should perhaps not offer online courses.
Getting started. The most important thing about getting started is to get started early. When I created my course, it took the better part of a year even though I was converting the course from an existing one, I already knew how to build Web pages, and I had a student helper. If you're starting from the ground up, it will take even longer. Most of the time and effort goes to content and learning activities. There are many useful interactive devices that you can put in your pages, using JAVA script code that others have written (Ford, 1998; Flanagan, 1998; Goodman & Eich, 1998; Negrino & Smith, 1999).
If you are an experienced word-processor user, start learning a Web site creation and management tool, such as NetObjects, Fusion, Dreamweaver, or FrontPage, that is supported on your institution's Web server. Otherwise, consider a CMS. Make arrangements with a Web host, either one at your institution or one provided by a commercial Internet Service Provider host. Typically, a webmaster will give you space on the server and create the login access. The rest will be up to you.
Conclusion: Ten Lessons
My experiences with online courses have taught me the following:
Collison, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.
Klemm, W. R. (1998a). Eight ways to get students more engaged in online conferences. The Higher Education Journal, 26 (1), 62-64.
Klemm, W. R. (1998b). New ways to teach neuroscience: Integrating two teaching styles with two instructional technologies. Medical Teacher, 20, 364-370.
Klemm, W. R. (1998c). Using computer conferencing in teaching. Community College Journal Research & Practice, 22, 507-518.