Teaching On-line and Traditional Courses

(click here for earlier version)

I teach two introductory service courses each semester. In the Spring, 1999 semester, the one, called Environmental Geology, had 65 students enrolled, and 45 students were enrolled in the other course, called Environmental Problems. There is some overlap of content, but the two courses are considerably different because of the way they are taught. The larger one meets in a large room, twice a week for 75 minutes, and teaching is done largely by lecture. The other course is taught entirely on-line, so the students do not "meet" in the traditional sense.

When applied to these courses, the word teaching means different things. In the traditionally taught course, the students spend most of the time listening to me lecture. There are discussions, films, and occasionally in-class exercises, but the teaching-learning link is oral. I transmit information and the students write down what they think is likely to show up on a (multiple-choice) test. Students in the on-line course have a different experience because there are no lectures and no face-to-face interactions. Communication is usually confined to email (or FAX) and the lag in time between a message and a response (the format of this medium is said to be "asynchronous") imposes constraints on what kinds of things can be done. Unless one recognizes the existence of these constraints, an on-line course will not be a good experience for either instructor or students.

The economy of scale associated with putting large numbers of students in a room and letting one instructor "teach" them all simultaneously is the reason that large lectures are commonly used in introductory science courses. But the time I spend merely conveying information in a lecture sometimes seems redundant; students could just as easily get that information from the textbook. The majority of the teaching that goes on in my large lectures occurs when I go beyond the immediate subject and discuss (and expect the students to discuss) how the material affects them. It seems a cliche to say that students learn content only when they are able to internalize the material. But merely telling students that the material is important or relevant to their lives is not sufficient: we tell them things like that all the time, and they know better. Sometimes I have the students work in groups, discussing some aspect of the topic of the week. I can do this with 65 students, of whom 45 attend regularly. I would need a couple of teaching assistants to do that in a section of 100 to 150 students, which I sometimes teach. The challenge to the instructor is to devise ways to present material in terms of schemata (contexts, internal associations, whatever one calls them) that the students already possess.

Of course, those instructors whose courses are prerequisites for advanced courses may not feel they have the luxury to devote much time to relevance. They are under pressure to deliver content, and the most efficient way to do that is to explain the material as clearly as possible, as quickly as possible, and assume that understanding is measured adequately on tests. In this atmosphere, it is easy to assume that students who do poorly on tests are not serious students, because the material was explained clearly. So, the lectures in many introductory courses are too intensive to be interesting, and students do not learn much that stays with them. The linkage between delivery of material and understanding of that material is not strong in these courses because the instructors' goals for themselves are based on delivery of content and their goals for the students are based on proficiency. The "disconnect" between goals is a serious constraint in this kind of course.

If the face-to-face instruction in a traditionally taught is subject to serious constraints, what should we expect from courses taught in an asynchronous learning environment? The constraints facing on-line instruction seem enormous at first glance. We cannot present content as we do in a lecture course because the class does not meet in a room at specified times. For the same reason, we get no real-time feedback from the students, such as puzzled looks, body language, etc. Using email to ask questions has advantages and disadvantages. The questions can be "asked" at any time of the day or night, but the lag time between a student's question and my response may sometimes seem excessive to the student.

A few comments on course design in my two courses seem appropriate before giving an example of the differences between teaching traditional and on-line courses. The most important thing an "on-line" instructor can do is recognize that goals based on content may be inappropriate. Proficiency-based goals are easier to devise and implement in an asynchronous environment. Instead of asking what facts you expect students to know at the end of the course, ask what kinds of things you want them to be able to do. Being able to do something requires a degree of internalization that goes far beyond memorization. With a set of skills as goals in place, you can then think about how to ensure that your students develop them. You have to build into the course ways for students to internalize the material. Developing proficiency is a slow process, even when one has a knowledge-base to work with; beginners need even more time. Instructors who worry about covering a specific amount of content are likely to skimp on the time students need to develop skills. Skills are more important than content because skills are more likely to be transferable to new situations than is knowledge of facts. Once you know how you will ensure that students achieve the goals, you can decide what parts of the traditional subject matter lend themselves to accomplishing the goals. Content comes in at the end of the process.

The inverted approach to the way I used to design courses that is described above is appropriate for any course, taught in any manner, but it is very important in designing an on-line course. Unless you have clear ideas about what the students will be doing to develop the skills that represent the goals, the course will not differ significantly from a correspondence course.

Now an example of teaching on-line and traditional courses. Water pollution is a topic covered in both of the introductory service courses I teach. I introduce the subject in the traditional course by discussing septic systems. I go through the steps needed to get a septic permit for a building lot for two reasons. First, some of them will need to know the information at some time in the future. But the real reason is that the discussion teaches them something about the properties of soils and the manner in which soils filter pollutants out of groundwater. The average age of my students is about 28, so many of them have or have had septic systems. Their experiences with systems that work and ones that have not worked properly provide a context for them to associate abstract subjects such as permeability and bacterial recycling of organic nutrients. With that material stored in context, I can then go on to what occurs in a municipal wastewater treatment plant; students recognize that the processes are largely the same as those occurring in their yards, albeit on a larger scale. Not all topics lend themselves to this approach, so many of my lectures are not as pedagogically efficient as the ones on pollution. Even Ted Williams only batted .400. The point is that the approach is more important than the actual content covered. The students have to recognize that a subject is meaningful to them without the need for me to say so.

I use a different approach in covering pollution in my on-line course, one that relies on the students learning how to learn about the subject. I write some "text" to serve as background material and post it on the course's Web Site, and then have the students "discuss" on a listserv how they would study the subject. They are asked to devise an outline on water pollution that could be used as the basis for a paper on the subject. They post their ideas on a newsgroup and come up with a "class outline" on the subject. Then they search the Internet for articles relevant to the parts of the outline, summarize the articles, and post them on the newsgroup. At the end of a specified period of time, they use the summaries to write a four page paper on the subject.

In addition to the background material I post on the Web Site, I give students some practice in developing the critical thinking skills they need to complete the project. The Web Site contains short discussions on how to devise and revise an outline, how to summarize articles, how to evaluate the credibility of the authors, etc. Each section has an example and an exercise for them to do. The first few weeks of the semester are spent working through these exercises. Students post their attempts and I comment on each of them. Then they begin a real project. They do three projects (such as water pollution) in the course of the semester. The important things students get out of this course involve learning how to learn. They get practice in developing strategies to help them delve into a subject. Along the way, they also learn something about pollution (and rain forests, and global warming, etc.) but the skills are the important part of the course.

It is fairly easy to track the learning process in this course because I monitor the listserv and newsgroup each day. I record information on who is participating and on the quality of the participation. That information represents 40% of their grade for each project. In addition to the summaries students post, they interact with each other. During the course of the semester, I see some students chatting with each other, chiding some for not participating, and encouraging others who seem discouraged. The "community" that develops may not be as strong as in some traditional (low enrollment) courses, but it seems to be attractive to those in the on-line course. Conversations on the listserv suggest that by the end of the semester students appreciate the value of preparing an outline of a subject before starting to write about it, but I cannot do a formal comparison of the learning in the two courses because the students' experiences differ so much.

So, to summarize the differences between the two courses, the on-line course is structured in a way that encourages active learning and a group effort, whereas for the most part, the traditional course involves passive learning, even when I can tap into students' existing schemata. The time devoted to the two courses differs markedly. I spend a great deal more time monitoring email traffic in the on-line course than I do preparing and delivering lectures in the traditional course. The time requirement has not changed much from the first time I taught the on-line course. I had to become fairly computer literate to teach the on-line course. I began this project when it was necessary to learn how to write HTML code. That was useful because although today's word processors write the code for me, I am not always pleased with their default settings, so sometimes I have to change the source code "by hand." In addition, technical support people are not always available when they are needed, so I have to know what to do when the server on which the newsgroup resides goes down. These skills take time to develop, time which is not spent on activities considered "productive" by promotion committees. A number of conferencing software packages are available that will help an instructor manage the activities in an on-line course (or in an on-line component of a lecture course). I have not used them because the system I developed works for me. But someone who wants to experiment with on-line teaching should examine what is available. Let someone else do the development work for you. So on-line teaching is not for everyone. But getting started is not as formidable a task as many think, and it can be a rewarding experience.