Gaining Peer Acceptance for Online Courses at a Traditional College

While many thousands of classes are now offered online, most college faculty still teach in the traditional way, in face-to-face lecture/discussion classes. Acceptance of courses taught over the Web is a significant issue at many traditional campuses (Levenburg and Major, 1999). Faculty who have invested careers in developing traditional courses have a number of misgivings and questions about Web-delivery.

Beginning in the spring of 1998, we were the first to offer a class completely online at the University of South Carolina-Aiken, a public, four-year, mixed commuter and residential university with about 3,000 students. We have learned much along the way, including how to build faculty acceptance for online courses.

A survey by a faculty committee chaired by one of us indicated that while a slim majority of faculty had a positive interest in Web teaching, a large minority had reservations, including fear of lost interpersonal contact, testing security concerns, feeling that they were too busy, believing that the effort was not worth the payoff, or sensing that the reward system did not adequately reward this kind of innovation. We attempted to address this skepticism in designing our course and in presenting it to our peers. 

We would like to offer the following advice to others planning to put a course online:

1. Design the course to be as similar in structure and content as possible to the existing course. By changing content and structure as little as possible from the existing survey course, we both minimized the learning curve and created a course that appeared rather traditional to our peers. This made acceptance easier. Similarities and differences are outlined in the table below.
Comparisons Face-to-face Classes Web Classes
textbook traditional paper text same
chapters covered all chapters in text same
lecture short lecture on each chapter in class two to three page introductory lecture on Web
written assignments on text one essay and/or news story illustration short answer questions and one to three essays
supplementary assignments Web assignments on about half the chapters Web assignment on each chapter
discussions current events, questions on chapters, sometimes required in writing mandatory discussion list using question posed by professor for each chapter 
tests In class: 
80-90% objective; 
10-20% essay
take-home essay exams provided on Web, submitted via e-mail
coursework about one chapter a week asynchronous, but with about a 48-hour window per assignment; one chapter per week

2. Initially, offer students a choice by teaching only one section of a multiple section course over the Web, and make sure students are well informed of the choice. Before the first class was offered, we wrote stories about the class that appeared in the school newspaper and in local newspapers. Consequently, entering students were informed and advisors could offer other options to their students. Scheduling is a major problem for advisors and students at small schools with limited sections of many classes. This class could fit anyone's schedule. After positive faculty and student experiences, it is easier to expand into other courses with only one section.

3. Use traditional "take-home" format tests in the Web class, a format that is already well accepted by most faculty. Faculty peers were initially very concerned about how we would handle testing and test security. How could we ensure that the student is doing his or her own work? The answer is that with current technology we can't (Carlson, 1999). But to require students to come onto campus would undermine access to the very students for whom the course was designed. Tests proctored by third parties also have security problems. Online take-home exams are no different from the take-home tests that are standard fare in many traditional classes. Using "creative" essay questions that require students to apply what they have learned makes cheating harder. Asking friends for help isn't a realistic option when a good answer requires higher order thinking along with a great deal of supporting factual knowledge.

4. Meet concerns about comparative quality with objective testing. We designed a comprehensive general knowledge test that was given as a pretest and posttest (which did not count toward the course grade) to all students. Results indicated that Web students improved their factual knowledge at least as much as those in the face-to-face classes. In fact, students with lower GPA’s learned more factual knowledge in the Web class (Botsch and Botsch, "Audiences, Outcomes," 1999). Findings reported in the literature support the conclusion that students learn about the same amount in online and face-to-face classes (Levenberg and Major, 1998). We used the results of these tests in the many presentations we made to faculty groups.

5. Make interpersonal communication central to the Web class even if not in face-to-face form. Faculty bemoaned the loss of face-to-face interaction between the teacher and student in the "virtual" classroom. After all, one of the rewards of teaching is reaching out to and communicating with students. Some case studies report that students miss the face-to-face interaction (Garson, 1998). Other case studies suggest that this loss may be felt more by the faculty than by the students (Ruth, Foreman and Tschudy, 1999). This complaint has not arisen in the anonymous course evaluations that our students are required to complete. About a week into the semester, the professor breaks the ice with a "getting to know you" e-mail to all the students in the class and asks each student to do the same. Our impression is that interpersonal communication may actually be better in the Web than in the face-to-face class, where many students never learn the names of their fellow students and where the professor may have little personal contact with shy students.

6. Devise a structure that encourages thoughtful and meaningful class discussions. A related faculty fear was that Web classes would end meaningful class discussion—students live in the real world, so they must learn to interact with real people, not just a computer (Perley, 1999). Critics have argued that something is lost when students are unable to bounce their ideas off each other and respond to others. However, the students who self-select themselves into the Web class tend to be older and employed—they are far from isolated (Botsch and Botsch, 1999 [please specify which 1999 article you are citing here]). Moreover, much real world interaction does take place via e-mail in our contemporary wired world. Voluntary discussions do not work (Groeling, 1999), so we require that each student respond with at least one comment to each question we pose. Over the past two years, with an average of about 18 students in each class, the number of class discussion comments by students has ranged from about 250 to 400. Qualitatively, we found in an earlier study that about 90% of the comments were on topic and 41% were cogent in the sense that they began with believable premises, included relevant information, and had a valid logical form. Moreover, a distinct culture and sense of group cohesion developed among the students (Botsch and Botsch, "Culture," 1998).

7. Design the Web class to be at least as rigorous as the traditional class. One of the most serious peer concerns was that an online course would lack rigor. Our answer was to ensure that the Web classes were at least as rigorous and to measure learning, as noted above. Reading requirements were the same, but Web students were required to do more writing for each chapter. Although grade point averages did not differ among sections, Web students judged the course to be relatively more demanding in course evaluations.

8. Negotiate a small class size to alleviate peer fears that they will be forced to teach high-enrollment distance classes. Small classes have long been a matter of campus pride and a selling point for the university. Already overburdened faculty fear that with no physical classroom, administrators might see no limit on seats. We negotiated a 20 student Web class limit, a maximum limit for a good class (Boettcher, 1999), especially one with heavy writing requirements.

9. Focus on student acceptance to build peer (and administrative) acceptance. Demand for the Web class has been and continues to be high, especially among non-traditional students. In the market-driven world of academia, administrators are finding this to be a product that their customers want. Because these classes are an alternative to evening courses, they are potentially attractive to faculty with families who might otherwise be pressured to teach evening courses. This support has helped lead to the creation of a technology support center, another key ingredient for expanding online offerings (Carlson, 1999).


Teaching a Web class raises many issues. In this short article, we have touched only on ways we have increased peer acceptance. Presenting descriptive reports and analyses of comparative outcomes to as many campus groups as possible has been essential. We have not alleviated all fears, however; finding the time to prepare and teach Web courses continues to be a legitimate concern because Web teaching does take more time (Huebert, 1999; Boettcher, 1999). Faculty continue to fear that the reward structure is skewed toward traditional scholarship and will not adequately recognize these efforts (Kuzma, 1998; Levenburg and Major, 1998). Nevertheless, we have reached the point where Web courses are routinely accepted by peers, many of whom now seek us out for one-on-one advice, and are encouraged by administrators, who provide small grant support for Web course development.


Boettcher, J. V. (1999, April). Cyber course size: Pedagogy and politics. Syllabus. Pp. 42- 44.

Botsch, C. S. and Botsch, R. E. (1999). American National Government on the Web. Retrieved 10 March 2000 from the World Wide Web at 

Botsch, C. S. and Botsch, R. E. (1999, October 14). Audiences, outcomes and issues in distance and traditional classes: A comparative two year case study. Presented at the Distance 99 Conference.

Botsch, C. S. and Botsch, R. E. (1998, October 8). The culture of virtual discussion groups in Web classes. Presented at the Popular Culture/American Culture Association of the South.

Carlson, Rosemary. (1999, September). Migrating your course to the online environment. Syllabus. Pp. 20-24.

Garson, G. D. (1998, September). Evaluating implementation of Web-based teaching in political science. PS: Political Science and Politics (31). Pp.585-90. Retrieved 9 March 1999 from the World Wide Web at http://www/

Groeling, T. (1999). Virtual discussion: Web based discussion forums in political science. Presented at the 1999 American Political Science Association annual meeting. Retrieved 15 October 1999 from the World Wide Web at

Huebert, R. (1999). The design, development and delivery of an Internet based course: Experiences of a novice. Teaching Politics: Virtual Conference 1999. Retrieved 20 April 1999 from the World Wide Web at

Kuzma, L. M. (1998, September). The World Wide Web and active learning in the international relations classroom. PS: Political Science and Politics (31). Pp.578-84. Retrieved 9 March 1999 from the World Wide Web at

Levenburg, N. M. & Major, H.T. (1998, November). Distance learning: Implications for higher education in the 21st century." Technology Source. Retrieved 23 October 1999 from the World Wide Web.

Perley, James. (1999, September/October). "Back to the Future of Education: Real Teaching, Real Learning." The Technology Source. Retrieved 23 October 1999 from the World Wide Web at

Ruth, S., Foreman, J., and Tschudy, T. (1999, September/October) Exploring the middle ground: A course on teaming in cyberspace. The Technology Source Retrieved 22 October 1999 from the World Wide Web at