Leading the Pack: From an On-Campus Program to
by Mary Anne Nixon and Beth
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How does an educational institution go about making a
successful transformation from a traditional on-campus graduate program to an
Internet-based program? At Western Carolina University, we approached the preliminary
steps of this process in three ways:
- Researching current literature on computers in education, distance
learning/education, teaching and technology, and educational pedagogy such as Bloom's
Taxonomy [is Taxonomy the title of the work?
If so, we need to italicize it.]
- Informally contacting colleagues at our institution and at others
who are experienced in distance learning activities. We benefited from the help of those
who had pioneered the process. The University of Montana provided valuable
information and held a workshop for WCU personnel involved and interested in distance
- Attending conferences designed to assist in the transition
process. These conferences were useful for establishing contacts as well as for the
information exchanged at formal workshop sessions.
We then identified five steps necessary to help us make this transition within Western
Carolina University culture: determining our mission and
goals, building a team, structuring the program, implementing the program, and continuing to
evaluate and refine the online offerings.
Step One: How We Determined Our Mission and Goals
The enrollment in our on-campus Master of Project Management
(MPM) degree program, offered by the College of Business, had been low compared to other master's-level business
programs. This was due in part to a prohibitive a one-year, on-campus commitment required
for the degree. Many prospective MPM students are full-time employees in business or
industry, have family obligations, or live a substantial commuting distance from the WCU
campus and could not relocate. We wanted to reach these prospective students, and we
wanted to respond to the global, rapidly increasing demand for project management
education. Thus, our major objective was to transition the
one-year, on-campus MPM degree program into an asynchronously delivered, comprehensive,
fully accredited, customer-centered, and real-world based Internet program.
We defined goals for the online program that supported the vision
and mission of our institution, performing a market analysis during this step of the
process. The results of this analysis confirmed a significant demand for a part-time MPM
graduate degree program and identified specific student needs: our prospective
student-customers wanted a degree program with a curriculum closely related to their
real-world project work, and they needed instruction accessible "anytime,
anywhere" in segments that would allow them to pursue quality learning while
maintaining their professional and family responsibilities.
Step Two: How We Built A Team
The initial MPM Distance Education team was appointed by the
administration to support the design and implementation of the transition. The team
consisted of faculty currently teaching in the on-campus program and administrators and
staff from the College of Business and the offices of Continuing Education and Summer
School, the Graduate School, the Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning,
and the Library. Team members prioritized effective communication and worked to provide
ongoing support for each other throughout the program development and implementation.
Step Three: How We Structured the Program
Three functional structures within WCUadministrative, technical, and
curricularwere essential to the support and implementation of the project:
- Administrative Component. The WCU administration provided
collaborative support to the program by "greasing" the wheels of funding and
other project needs. The
administration also coordinated activities across unit and departmental lines, controlled
academic standards, controlled budgets, created incentives, and eliminated barriers for
faculty participation (i.e., by determining teaching loads and areas of responsibility). A
steering committee with representatives from most of the administrative units named in
Step Two above continues to work as a problem-solving, decision-making body for the
project and as a catalyst for getting the job done right and on time.
- Technical Support Component. Accessing
technology has been a big challenge in implementing the program. Technology must be
up-to-date, and faculty and students must be comfortable using it for learning to
take place. Our most important decision in this area was selecting appropriate computer
tools for teaching and learning. The program design called for national and
international accessibility, restricting us to universally compatible technologies. To solve these issues, the faculty member with a background in
both the subject matter of the degree program itself and in education (co-author of this
paper) visualized her ideal "virtual classroom" and described the
tools she would use for communication, information dissemination, and information access.
- Curriculum Component. In order
to transform the existing degree program into an Internet-based program, the project
committee focused on:
- Faculty Collaboration Within Disciplines (Theory): The MPM
teaching faculty worked with other faculty in their respective disciplines to review and
update lists of competencies needed for program graduates. In this manner, the
entire College of Business faculty could contribute input into the design and the content
of a major shift in instructional delivery. The MPM teaching faculty, the Associate
Dean of the College of Business, and a curriculum specialist analyzed the knowledge
elements within these competencies and supplied additional learning elements. Routine
program updates do not completely revamp the curriculum; the focus of this one-time
analysis, however, was to revise the entire curriculum and to design an environment
conducive to online learning.
- Program Discipline (Practical Application): The MPM
teaching faculty then analyzed the course content in relationship to project management
practices and added missing knowledge elements. The needs of business and industry
reflected in our market analysis were further validated against the content of "A
Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge" (PMBOK),
which was written by practitioners and published by the Project Management Institute.
- Conformance With Accreditation And Certification: The
content elements were further reviewed by the MPM faculty and the Associate Dean of the
College of Business to ensure continued compliance with the accreditation standards
of the International Association of Management Education (AACSB) and the Southern
Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). This centered around monitoring program
currency, relevance, and continuous improvement. Since some agencies also require
notification and approval prior to making major changes in a degree program, it is
extremely important to remain in contact with them to maintain strong relationships.
- Sequencing and Formatting: The teaching faculty and
the Associate Dean, with instructional design help from the Curriculum Specialist,
determined the undergraduate prerequisites for success in the program and formatted the
major courses into six, six-hour, multi-disciplined courses. The courses were placed into
sequence to foster the skills and knowledge that a project manager would need in the life
cycle of a real-world project.
Step Four: How We Implemented the Program
The program is now ending its third full semester
(summer 1999)[NOTE: this should be changed since publication
has been shifted back--TR]; online pre-requisite courses are being
delivered for members of the second cohort. We have learned five important lessons
along the way:
- Life happens. Computer crashes and viruses do interrupt
instruction; one student's computer was even ruined by a lightening bolt. Generally,
students have responded to such emergencies by supporting their peers and using telephone
conferencing, faxes, and other modes of communication to contact each other and to notify
professors of delays.
- Flexibility is key. The instructors have learned to
maintain quality of instruction while retaining flexibility. They have found, for example,
that students in virtual classrooms produce higher-quality work when they have one big
project due every two weeks rather than small weekly assignments. They have therefore
adjusted their assignment deadlines to better suit student performance.
- Constant and timely communication is crucial. In using
e-mail, we have found that it is extremely important to acknowledge receipt of a message
and to respond promptly, even when students do not request an answer. For students, just
feeling "heard" has demonstrably improved performance and comfort with being a
"virtual student." Our students are all full-time employees and appreciate
timely responses, feedback, and input from teammates and professors.
- Delivery: Why is the consistent format a quality
standard? We recognized from the beginning that students need to be comfortable
with the way that the virtual classroom looks and operates. Professors use a lesson
template to provide mini-lectures, assignments, learning objectives, student activities,
evaluation methods, and hyperlinks to library and Internet resources. The template allows
for a consistent format across classes, which is a a critical quality standard in our
curriculum and courses. This template makes students comfortable in the virtual classroom;
they know where to look for assignments and the evaluation methods, where to post work
products, where to interact with teammates. The learning process can then progress
beyond technical and logistical problems into content analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
- Students want to meet . . . why? Since all of our
first cohort students lived in North Carolina and Georgia, some of them planned a
"meet the person behind the picture" party to add social interaction to the
academic context. They automatically gravitated to teammates, knowing that they
would remain teammates throughout their program.
Step Five: How We Have Continuously Evaluated and Refined
The most important step in development has involved consciously
analyzing our experiences. In a real-world project, the project manager can become
absorbed in putting out "fires" without determining the root cause of the crisis
and making changes to avoid future problems. Our Internet-based team must continuously
monitor the program and the customer relationship. We identify what works and what does
not, explore alternatives, standardize those things that work, and change those that do
not. We have found that some faculty members are more comfortable with developing online
courses than their colleagues and that the same computer tools are used with ease by some
and with difficulty by others.
The proprietary software used by the program provides multiple places and tools for
faculty and student use. We have selected the software which has worked best for
both our students and faculty: the online lesson assignment section and the classroom area
(which contains forums and threaded e-mail). We have also used on-line quiz tools and the
professors' office sites, but usually only at the beginning and the end of the courses.
Our student teams have not found the chat function user-friendly so they have ventured
out of the virtual classroom to locate software more responsive to their needs. For
example, one student team has used a program that notifies team members of important
requests for chat-time as soon as they log onto the Internet. They have found this
easier than logging onto the on-line classroom for synchronous discussions. The key
for us has been to remain open to student suggestions and to be flexible in planning and
implementing course delivery.
The time investment required to develop the first course was high (over 1,000 hours);
however, development of subsequent courses has been faster and easier. As we work, we
continue to respond to student suggestions and incorporate them into instructional design
processes and teaching techniques. For example, one professor changed from a
one-week assignment time frame to a two-week assignment time frame. This has
provided students with a longer lead-time to plan and coordinate their study
activities. We know that we must focus on the goals,
anticipate changes, and proceed forward to accomplish the mission and goals of the
The first cohort of students in the new program is completing
their third of six semesters and the second cohort (limited to 30 students) will begin in
the fall of 1999. Some of these new students are currently completing pre-requisite
courses on-line (summer 1999) [again, update this
information due to change in date of publication--TR].
Also, an international dimension is currently under negotiation: another international
institution may soon integrate some of our on-line classes, taught by WCU professors, into
its heretofore traditional program.
Western Carolina University, as a whole, is increasing the use of
computer technology in many areas. Since the fall of 1998, WCU has required all
entering freshmen to have and use a computer. Beginning in fall 1999, all freshmen
will be taught how to build academic Web page portfolios and publish them on the Internet.
Although no other full degree programs are offered at this time, the University's Faculty
Center staff have worked with over 250 faculty members in developing instructional
approaches, integrating computer technology, and building course Web pages. Some
faculty use the same proprietary software as the MPM program to provide instructional
activities in virtual classrooms: accounting, nursing, elementary education, educational
leadership, and adult education/community college education courses. WCU took a risk
in offering a degree program completely through online coursework. Leading the pack
as one of the first North Carolina schools to use "cutting edge" instructional
technology has been and continues to be challenging. One of the rewards lies in our
students' abilities to develop and use real-world computer and communication skills as
they accomplish their educational goals.
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