While educators and institutions have focused on standardizing course design, they seldom consider dynamic, interactive activities, peer learning and collaboration (Colpaert, 2003; Fink, 2003). Moreover, little support provides direction for faculty to develop a facilitative teaching style of online instruction (or on-campus instruction) (Boice, 1996; Conrad & Donaldson, 2004). This paper provides a model which incorporates these elements and describes trends and lessons for faculty support, course design and facilitation. The model provides guidance in planning, designing and facilitating online courses. It is based on 16 years of distance learning research, design and teaching, extensive research training faculty across the USA and abroad, experience working with faculty in this process, and extensive continued literature reviews (Allen & Seamans, 2007; King, & Griggs, 2006; Wright, Sunal, & Wilson, 2006). The aim is to assist institutions and faculty in identifying how to envision, plan, design and facilitate online classes which will best address the many demands they need to satisfy.
Many learners are pursuing distance learning instruction due to the extreme demands on their time, and need for career advancement. The convenience and flexibility of instruction is certainly compelling; however, do online courses and programs provide substantial and suitable learning experiences for these learners? There are other motivations and incentives from an educational perspective (Allen & Seaman, 2007). Today, adults 18-72 are using the Internet for not only information, but also entertainment and socializing (Jones & Fox, 2009). Consider that the multitude of people engaged in informal learning via Internet searches, audio books, podcasts, and television programming highlights the fact that people of all ages seek learning opportunities when they have a critical need to gain knowledge and skills. (Berg, 2005; Christiansen, Johnson, & Horn, 2008; The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2004; Simonson et al., 2009). Nonetheless, traditional educational institutions tend to ignore this fact in the scope and design of distance learning offerings.
Instead, informal distance learning opportunities may be on-demand, highly dynamic, and result in turning the tables on traditional formats. Therefore, people arrive at traditional learning spaces expecting more technology that they can control. Control and flexibility have become major characteristics of continuous information gathering, daily learning and entertainment; therefore they need to be included in distance learning. Fueled by the technological delivery of 24/7 global information, users expect to pursue academic studies with the same tools, convenience, and global reach as their work, entertainment, and social engagement (Allen & Seamen, 2007; Tapscott, & Williams, 2006).
One of the greatest challenges that often arrives with ubiquitous technology is that educational institutions must set aside their preconceived notions of distance learning. In addition, it can be an opportunity to reframe student-teacher relationships, traditional program study restrictions, and student responsibility, allowing for new models to emerge (Fink, 2003; King & Griggs, 2006). When faculty and educational organizations are able to embrace what technology offers and learners seek, they become ready for a powerful educational revolution. Conversely, if institutions cannot embrace these opportunities, many educational leaders predict that learners will go outside traditional venues, and schools, colleges and universities will struggle with enrollments and income (Berg, 2002, 2005; Christensen et al., 2008; Simonson et al., 2009).
This article’s model of designing distance learning is built upon these premises. It provides a valuable introduction to envisioning, planning and designing distance learning courses which will sustain and advance academic integrity. Transforming learning with the capabilities of technology provides a robust environment for academics and learners to grow intellectually, creatively and responsibly.
In writing an article like this one, a few institutional assumptions have to be made. Such a step may be precarious; yet it provides a basis for determining organizational readiness and realistic organizational planning (Caffarella, 2002). If an educational institution doe not already have the following services reliably available within them or to them, they need to develop them in-house or outsource them. The fundamental services of concern include:
It is likely that faculty and administrators have strong institutional guidance and support for their distance learning efforts if these essential elements are in place. The technology systems and platforms provide the necessary tools to create engaging and effective online classes, and the formal agreements institutionalize the distance learning efforts. This latter is very important for all organizational parties, because if these issues are not addressed at the beginning of program or class design, intellectual property may be lost, or contested after the fact which could jeopardize the future of the efforts (King, 2008; King & Griggs, 2006; Simonson, et al., 2009).
It is important for educational organizations to realize that distance learning as we see it evidenced today, build upon trends which have continued for hundreds of years in our global world, and far predate technology-assisted efforts. Classic nations and cultures (Greece and Africa for example) used human couriers to deliver educational information across the miles. Who can forget mail correspondence courses? Indeed these originated in the 19th century. And many educators do not realize that television has been a major distance learning medium since the mid 20th century (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). As of 2010, the educational impact of Sesame Street®, This Old House®, or GED on TV® has spread across generations of people of all ages. These examples illustrate that television has the capacity and the public’s acceptance to deliver powerful instruction.
Distance learning courses and programs vitally serve a multitude of contexts, and content areas. Online learning in formal educational has matured significantly over 40 years (King & Griggs, 2006). Videoconferencing, teleconferencing, and then e-learning in business and popular use grew rapidly from the 1970s through the 2000s. UK and Australia academic institutions quickly embraced and adopted these distance learning initiatives due to their great interest in adult learner needs and innovative strategies, and extensive remote areas (in Australia) (King & Wang, 2007; Moore & Kearsley, 1996). However, the traditionalism of United States (USA) higher education academia did not widely embrace distance learning until 2005. 2008/2009 was a significant point in USA distance learning development when the US Department of Education (USDOE) enabled online postsecondary students to receive federal financial aid (US Department of Education, 2005-2006). The impact of this one federal policy decision on equalizing access and affordability of distance learning and traditional higher education is prime example of the primary role of policy in national distance learning initiatives.
Social Adoption of Technology. There were several events which contributed to a significant hardware and technical chain reaction during the late 1980s and 1990s and consequently accelerated the social adoption of technology. First was the shift from mainframe computing to the personal computer (PC) in the late 1980s. Technology specialists were needed during the early years of distance learning; however, with the PC, e-learning became more accessible and eventually ubiquitous.
The second major advancement was the use of HyperText Markup Language (HTML) as the standard for the World Wide Web in 1990 at the CERN Institute (Simonson et al., 2009). The use of HTML quickly led to “point and click” browsers that enabled nontechnical users to navigate the Internet with ease. Third, broadband Internet rolled out at affordable prices across the world creating the vital platform of connectivity. The fourth major influence was widespread social adoption of web based technology innovations by the general public (Allen & Seamen, 2007; Rogers, 1962). Today most people expect to access all their information needs instantly and constantly via Internet-connected digital devices.
Dynamic, customizable, social platforms and activities also drew mass numbers to them as the purchasing power of the young users, aka Digital Natives (Prensky, 2001; WGBH, 2008). Consider the vast impact and popularity of YouTube.com, MySpace.com, and iTunes. From cell phones to iPods, smart phones to iPads, the technology, and manufacturing industries raced to develop the next great application.
Due to the widespread social adoption of technology, today's faculty have a robust set of tools and a growing history of successful online learning with which to begin. In 2010 and beyond, some fields of distance learning will always seem to be light-years further ahead of others (Heron & Wright, 2006; King & Griggs, 2006). One needs only consider efforts to leverage Second Life, YouTube and iTunes to teach foreign languages, or medical science via virtual lab activities and surgeries (Todd & Himburg, 2007). This section will focus on best practice for distance learning, followed with a simple model for beginning design. All of the recommendations are built upon best practices of classroom pedagogy and andragogy. However, faculty and administrators alike must remember it is not simply a matter of posting a traditional class online: we must instead envision transforming courses to the potential of distance learning delivery.
Instructional Design. US Department of Education (2006) guidelines confirm that content experts need to be involved in the development of distance learning courses. Instructional designers specializing in supporting faculty in its development can be immensely helpful in preparing and creating online courses. At the very least, the faculty development center should provide support for faculty in learning skills or techniques which enable them to implement special capabilities in their online courses.
Rethinking Facilitation through Discussion Boards. Over the years, a pattern has developed where online educators think they have mastered discussion boards because they have learned how to ask questions. This is a sad fallacy, because if one does not think through the tremendous potential of online discussions, a great opportunity is missed and rote busy work begins to dominate the classes. Several recommendations and insights can help faculty to consider new models of facilitating online discussion boards (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004). Consider the following as individual faculty or in faculty small groups. (1) Relocating the professor’s comments to the discussion board grading area can liberate student voice and provide more space for peer learning. (2) Developing ground rules for discussion board participation heads off most difficulties and is a great opportunity to incorporate multicultural awareness, civility, responsibility for actions, etc. (3) Providing regular and specific feedback to students about the discussion board demonstrates that professors have purposefully stepped back from the discussion to honor student dialogue, but have not abdicated their instructional role. (4) Posting moderately complex questions which stimulate multiple viewpoints is much more successful in fostering student critical thinking than more simplistic questions. (5) Using real-life cases, scenarios or simulations related to the course content in the discussion board can be exceptionally successful for student engagement, participation and learning. (6) Swift, but initially private, intervention regarding student misjudgments in discussion board behavior is necessary. (7) Public intervention regarding such behavior is rarely required if number 6 is conducted quickly. (8) Reflection regarding the benefits of the evolution of a class discussion board and how to further develop practice for learning benefits may be successfully conducted formatively and summatively among students-professor, professor alone, and/or professor- professor.
Envision. Several progressive studies and efforts confirm that designing distance learning programs and courses beginning with the end (competency based design) in mind has many positive benefits (Brown, 2006; Wiggins & McTighe, 1989). By training faculty in such a model, they rethink their curriculum, content assumptions, and instructional beliefs, and can redesign courses to take greater advantage of the technology. Additionally, because access can be as convenient as their computer in the living room, bedroom, or study, or their cell phone, and time is not lost in travel to and from campus, students have more available time to work with the content. The greater amount of time and ability to invest effort in projects or assignments briefly several times during a week affords new formats and opportunities for instructional design. Two brief examples are provided here: (1) consider using ongoing simulations as each member in a political science class assume the role of a different member in the president’s cabinet and has to handle a national emergency, or (2) an in-depth scenario where class members have to collaborate to arrive at a solution. The logistics of such activities are cumbersome face to face and might dominate a traditional class for weeks, whereas online activities can be scheduled more conveniently.
Building upon the development of distance learning within our larger society and considerations for instructional design, this section turns to the often frustrating question, How Do I Design Online Learning? Surprisingly few people realize that online learning planning and design can be done sequentially in order to add to later. With this strategy, faculty do not have to be overwhelmed or confused. In this section, faculty learn several key stages of online course design development.
Step 1: Determine a Viable Phase Approach. The first step of this model is The Phase Approach which encourages faculty to recognize that designing their online course is only Phase One of their efforts. In this manner, faculty being to think of their work as progressing to future phases and reducing the expectation that everything must be completed in their first effort. This point is critical for most faculty who do not have the assistance of a full time technical or instructional design team. The phase approach incorporates a liberating and reassuring progressive development perspective and timeline. Instructors also have the same opportunity to try new online teaching approaches or activities and see if they work as planned. If there needs to be some redesigning of an activity, one readjusts the timelines and pilots that section again now or next semester (Caffarella, 2000; Lawler & King, 2000). Whether it is content sections, sequence or specific assignments, all can be adjusted without having to sacrifice quality and advancement.
Therefore, in Step 1 of this model, determine which aspect of the course to redesign/transform first. Identify if the final project, new assignments discussion, assessment or other aspect will be addressed. Then determine which is expected to be second, third, etc. This approach becomes the preliminary plan and can be changed as needs arise.
Step 2: Dare to Dream about the Content. Transforming a course to an online format might provide opportunities to include additional content which was too difficult to include in a traditional class (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004; Simonson et al., 2009). Because of the many robust online resources freely available, having students watch a larger variety of primary source videos, listen to audio and read additional material can be easily woven together into any LMS. For instance, rather than solely reading about global events and international history, students can read primary documents, see archived photographs, listen to interviews, and more.
Through this design process, faculty can also unleash their dreams and imaginations to develop or assemble resources which enable learners to explore new or deeper areas of course content based on their interests. As content experts, faculty may select accurate, inspiring, and thought-provoking video, audio and interactive online resources. Such dynamic learning experience may engage new sectors of students who might not have been interested in faculty disciplines before. Consider how using a variety of resources provides vibrant opportunities to experience how to sift fallacy from fact in online media.
Step 3: Reframe Learning Activities. Based on the examples provided above, consider which course activities need to be redesigned so that in-depth discussion and dialogue can occur in an online environment. Identify two or three activities which can be used in the first round of your course redesign. Using a variety of activities is beneficial, but build upon your expertise as an educator and refrain from overwhelming learners with too many different types of assignments to comprehend or too difficult technical requirements.
Step 4: Consider Unleashing the Crowd. Even if faculty have never used small or large group assignments in classes before, the online environment can provide a variety of benefits and means to facilitate them. Group interaction in the online environment provides another critical space for dialogue and discussion of content (Luppicini, 2007; Palloff & Pratt, 2005). In addition, groups incorporate peer learning opportunities. By students having to explain their understanding, choices and reasons to their classmates, they will explore the content more deeply and process it more fully.
Step 5: Ponder New Possibilities for Presenting Expert Content. One of the greatest frustrations with poorly designed online courses is that some do not provide students with any teacher-created content. Somehow these faculty believe having students read the text book and answer its questions will suffice to adequately meet learning objectives. Upon planning to design online courses, consider how to use the online environment to share your expertise. Again, dividing this large task is a liberating strategy to cope with this volume of the work.
First, decide the modes to use. For instance, perhaps it will be audio lectures, PowerPoint® or multimedia presentations, presentations accompanied by audio narration, video presentations of your lectures or discussions, or visual representations of lectures notes. One of the most powerful strategies is to incorporate a select few of these approaches and vary them. Not only do you maintain students’ interest more fully by switching from video clips, to audio, and then text, but you also appeal to different learning styles and preferences (King & Gura, 2009; Simonson et al., 2009). This experience is one which can be quite enjoyable; instructors have the opportunity to include and develop materials which would have been impractical within traditional settings.
Step 6: Leverage the Power of Peer Learning. Online learning environments provide an unparalleled opportunity to access the benefits of peer learning. As described, students can increase their understanding by communicating and exploring content with one another. However, another powerful dimension of peer learning is including students’ experiences to inform the dialogue and course discussions (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004; Luppicini, 2007; Palloff & Pratt, 2004). When learners share their responses to content, questions, scenarios, or problems posed by the faculty, it can be enriching and helpful for them to include connections to their own perspectives and experience. Rather than a black and white world with only faculty providing answers, instructors who encourage peer learning can develop a critical inquiry and learning community which respects and values diverse views. Indeed, one of the major reasons that peer learning is so powerful is that dialogue is the foundation of communicating and building critical thinking and transformative learning experiences (King, 2009).
Step 7: Strengthen Student Assessment. As mentioned above, the frequency and depth of student feedback is important in an online environment. There are many ways to include assessment with student feedback in online classes (Simonson et al., 2009). Consider first how to provide this guidance on an ongoing basis so that students frequently receive direction and support throughout the course. This strategy may include providing feedback on whatever is a frequent assignment, their journals, or discussion boards, etc. Second, provide extensive, swift written evaluations and remarks on larger assignments in order for learners to have ample detail and time to make improvements before their next assignment is due. Online classes can, as a group, surpass traditional courses in providing transparency in grading and cultivating student responsibility for progress when these recommendations are followed (Luppicini, 2007). Overtime, faculty develops greater skill in using online technologies and strategies to customize it for their preferred workflow.
Step 8: Increase Faculty Feedback. Faculty design of online courses needs to provide multiple means for faculty and student interaction. From online office hours, to responsive email policies, assessment feedback structures to phone or Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) advising appointments, there are many ways that faculty can choose formats to fit the needs of the students, suit their professional and personal needs, and address the unique qualities of the content area. (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004; Palloff & Pratt, 2004; Simonson et al., 2007). For instance, live virtual office hours with a shared screen might be an ideal way to help students work through difficulties in solving math problems, while a video camera conference may be more effective for a literature class discussion follow-up. Faculty can make initial selections, determine if they work well, and add more strategies over time.
The two greatest design and facilitation choices a faculty member can make to increase the success of their online instruction is to provide frequent, reliable, and helpful feedback to students and make the grading process transparent. Both are easy to accomplish in an online class. Before professors panic, let me say all that is needed is 2 sentences every week or two for the students to know you are connecting with them and providing direction. In practice, brief, but informative and consistent comments have been found to be very successful. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to develop rubrics for online assignments, including discussion board postings. These rubrics should not only include a numerical rating, but also qualities for each criterion. Faculty now can use the rubric as a grading form to evaluate student performance and need for improvement, and add personal comments at the bottom in short phrases or one or two sentences.
In addition, notice that the above description listed feedback about discussion board postings. A few critical points have emerged as we have learned more about this practice. (1) Grading for quantity of posts is inadequate and can be counterproductive, resulting in the littering of discussion boards with meaningless comments. (2) Grading for quality of postings is a powerful practice. (3) Providing specific feedback about the types of postings which you expect is well-received by students and increases the quality of discussion board dialogue. (4) Providing brief but frequent and specific feedback regarding discussion board participation demonstrates faculty value of the discussion forum and student participation.
The rubrics used for discussion forums need to incorporate the above criteria as well as content related ones. Greater transparency in student expectations through the use of rubrics and frequent feedback in the discussion board related to all online work increases student ownership, engagement, retention and learning. An added bonus is that these strategies to provide greater transparency for students also cultivate increased student responsibility for learning. Rather than professors perceived as giving grades, a meaningful shift occurs to learners earning grades. This shift of power significantly augments the facilitation model of faculty, and moves away from the lower cognitive skills involved in a spoon-feeding model (or banking model (Freire, 1980)) which many faculty resist (Fink, 2003).
Step 9: Elevate Online Course Evaluation. As indicated in many course and program planning design books, it is most effective to design programs with the evaluation in mind (Caffarella, 2002; Lawler & King, 2000). This maxim includes faculty incorporating strategies and feedback mechanisms for students/participants to share needs, problems and suggestions during and after a course delivery. Most faculty consider their courses as works in progress. To support this continuous design, online courses provide the means to systematically collect and easily analyze student feedback. It is interesting to note that as technology users become more comfortable with online technologies, they also expect more features and services in their courses. At this point, faculty can raise the ante of course expectations and design developments.
Step 10: Deliver, Improve & Repeat! The final step in the model ensures faculty recognize online course development as a continuing process. This model poses an iterative, continuous improvement cycle instead of a linear sequence. Learners will provide feedback, faculty will realize assignments and strategies to add and modify. Not to be alarmed, but faculty will find that each semester there are new developments and changes to be made to their online courses. Gladly, most LMS allow faculty to copy an entire course into the new semester’s space; this becomes the foundation. Next, faculty prioritize the changes which are most urgent for the next round of delivery.
Online learning has many possibilities for faculty to create interactive, anytime, anywhere learning experiences. However, faculty and administrators alike are wise to address some of the limitations before they begin. This paper has addressed some of the primary areas that can cause difficulty in online courses if omitted. Moreover, online discussions need to be handled with care and, of course, differently than face to face sessions. Students and teachers alike have no visual cues, facial expressions or tones of voice to communicate affect, emphasis or meaning. Therefore, laying or collectively developing ground rules for online discussion is a wise strategy for successful interpersonal communication in online forums. Faculty also want to consider that although they might not intervene directly into online discussions frequently, they are responsible for the safety and welfare of the participants in their course (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004; Palloff & Pratt, 2004). The unmonitored or unwatched discussion forum can be a disaster in the making. Conversely, online discussions provide a powerful opportunity for peer learning to a level which is often missed in face to face classrooms.
Regarding security issues, students need to understand privacy and online security issues (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004; Luppicini, 2007; Palloff & Pratt, 2004). In addition, wherever student conversation is being conducted, these should be secure and password protected.
Examples of essential policies include: protecting the privacy of their classmates, not forwarding classroom materials and having anti-virus and anti-spyware installed on their computers to protect their classmates and faculty from contaminated uploaded files. Faculty need to understand university policy regarding student information protection (in the USA it is FERPA). Such policies need to be closely adhered to by faculty, staff and students; the information technology department and dean’s office should have detailed information regarding these issues.
Finally, plagiarism is an issue which is highlighted in discussions of online courses, but is really no more prevalent than in traditional classes today. Just like in face to face classes, faculty provide in writing in the syllabus and review at the beginning of the course both a clear policy about the appropriate and inappropriate citation of another’s work, and the consequences of the plagiarism (Luppicini, 2004; Simonson et al., 2007). A good practice is also to state how faculty might monitor its abuse (perhaps through Google, or online services such as Turnitin.com). Rather than only making plagiarism a policing activity, faculty may emphasize the educational opportunity and how this approach is safeguarding learners’ professional futures (King & Gura, 2009).
Clearly, distance learning will continue to accelerate through organizational adoption and learner demand (Allen & Seamen, 2007; Christensen et al., 2008). Additionally, the prominence of informal learning through technology may force higher education to rethink delivery modes, accessibility and availability. This paper provides a model for faculty at all levels of technology expertise to envision, plan and design online learning courses. The greatest need is to reflect, consider and then move forward. It is much easier to modify a course gradually in phases than conquer the imposing vision of the whole course at once.
It is also exciting to realize that no one knows the specific details of the technology and instructional design which will emerge in the near or distant future. However, being involved in the adoption and transformation of current forms of distance learning enables astute faculty and administrators to be involved in charting a credible and valuable future.
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