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The reluctant online professor

By Cynthia L. Corritore / November 2007

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Most faculty in higher education tend to teach the way they were taught—I know this is true for me. And like most of my colleagues today, I have never taken an online course as a student. So when I was asked to put my course online, I felt quite unprepared, even though I had done it once before. (I taught one course online seven years ago as a trial, and it did not go well.) So I started the experience with great reluctance and trepidation. Much to my surprise, I finished it jubilantly. It turned out to be one of the best classes I have ever taught.

The Mandate

I saw my previous experience with teaching online as an enormous time sink that did not improve learning. And I had hoped never to do it again. But the Dean of my college had a plan, and it involved an online version of a required MBA course I have taught in early summer for the past five years. It's a survey course that covers how information technologies are used in business. The students are working professionals, bright with little spare time. They do a fair amount of traveling for work and internships, which often precludes them from taking courses during the summer. In fact, that was the main reason this course was chosen to be put online.

I was not terribly fond of the course—in fact, I thought it was pretty boring, pedantic, and dry, and the MBA students who take it do not share my love of technology. While I try every year to communicate a deep appreciation for the pervasive role technology can and will play in their careers, most are simply there to get through the course as painlessly as possible.

The Beginning

The Dean's plan was ultimately, most or all sections of this course would be taught online. From the start, there was resistance to this plan from the other faculty who teach the course during the academic year. In fact they chafed at the idea, seeing it as trivializing the course. They felt that the course required face-to-face interaction for quality discussions, and that networking and developing relationships with the other students as they learned together was a critical part of the course that could not be duplicated online. By putting it online, they also felt that academic rigor would be reduced. So it was agreed that while my section of the course would be online, theirs could continue to be "onsite."

The College did make special resources available to me. I had access to the Director of our universities' highly successful online Ph.D. in pharmacy program; an expert in online course design; and a technologist who could set up campus-based tools for my use and give me advice on tools I sought out on my own.

The Course

I decided that I would start by re-engineering the course, transforming it from dry and boring to engaging, which would serve my larger goal of getting students to embrace technology and its role in their careers. I resolved to only use technology in the course if it 1) provided a clear advantage to learning, 2) allowed me to do something online that was not possible onsite, and 3) did not require extensive technological skill or time to implement or use. It was also important to employ technologies that were being used in the business world whenever possible, as this would benefit students in their careers.

I spent almost a year designing the new online course. Early on, I had an experience which strongly colored my course design: I became an online student! One of my high school children was taking a college online course and needed help, so I became her tutor. It was an eye-opening experience. As a result, I made a key observation: There must be one central place to quickly obtain all course information such as due dates, assignment descriptions, relevant materials, readings, and requirements. This "place" should serve as gatekeeper for the entire course.

I also decided to build the course around an "active learning" paradigm, in which students learn the basic information and concepts of the course on their own, often through required readings. When the class comes together, the teacher provides experiences for students in which they understand how to apply the concepts they've learned. This meant I had to eliminate traditional lecturing whenever possible, which was personally very difficult for me as I love to lecture. But I felt active learning, particularly for graduate students, could be a great way to increase learning and academic rigor for the course.

My focus on active learning also forced me to redefine my teaching role. In the new course my role was as an expert crafting a learning environment and experiences for students. I would be behind the scenes, facilitating deep learning of the course content and networking between students.

My early reluctance of online course had turned to excitement. While I spent a year planning, redesigning, and re-sculpting the course, I actually put it together mostly in one frenzied week. I did this alone, with some bursts of email questions to the technologist when I ran into snags. It was exhausting, but ultimately paid high dividends.

The Mechanics

Twenty-five students signed up for the new course with a waiting list of five. This was a first—typically there had been 15 or 20 in the course with no waiting list. About half of the students were physically out of town during the course on internships or work-related trips. We never met in person.

From the offset, I organized students into small, permanent teams of five. I tried for a heterogeneous mix of majors and work experience on each team. I felt these small teams would facilitate discussion, and my research bore this out. My previous attempts with full-class discussions had not worked out well at all. I decided the course grading scheme would have two elements: individual and team.

There were nine core components of the course:

  • Weekly chapter readings from a standard textbook (we used an ebook).
  • Weekly readings from a popular press business book (The World is Flat as an audio book).
  • My weekly 20-minute "Color Commentary" podcasts, based on with real-world examples and fueled by current events, to supplement the readings.
  • Weekly blog discussions within each team responding to questions from selected textbook case studies (discussions related to the speaker were also included here).
  • Weekly blog discussions within teams responding to posted questions about the popular press book readings.
  • Weekly one hour webinar given live by a local business CIO (Chief Information Officer). The format was a 20-minute talk on the topic of study followed by 40 minutes of Q&A from the students.
  • Weekly blog postings by each team of speaker questions to be asked during the webinar.
  • Weekly postings of team reflections about the week on Google Docs.
  • Final individual paper on a "technology in business" topic, presented as a webinar to the class.

I settled on five technologies to use in the course: 1) a simple website to serve as a gateway to the course, rather than a formal course management system, 2) blogs for team discussions, 3) podcasts (and optional RSS feeds), 4) GoogleDocs for collaborative work and the grade-sheet posting, and 5) an online webinar application for guest speakers. This was a simple set, readily available to everyone, and each had a small learning curve.

The gateway Web page provided a linked overview of everything a student needed to do including deliverables, organized by each day of the week, for each week of the course. All activities on the schedule were linked to detailed descriptions and specific grading criteria. I started the course with a short streaming video of myself talking in general about the course and the topic of information technology in business. I did this so that the students could put a face to my name and feel like they knew me better, making a connection with them and setting the tenor of the course. Likewise, the first postings on the team blogs were introductions for students to talk about themselves.

The course followed a uniform path each week. First students read the required textbook and popular press book readings, supplementing the textbook readings by listening to my related 20-minute podcasts. This took them to Monday mornings. At this point they began to discuss the content they had read about on their own in their two team blogs. Midweek we gathered online for an hour to listen to our weekly webinar speaker. The students asked the questions they had developed (and posted on their blog). For the remainder of the week the students continued discussions on their team blogs, incorporating the speaker experience into their discussion.

In order to make the blog discussions effective and vibrant, each student was required to post to both team blogs a minimum of once a day. I graded their postings individually as well as by team according to very specific criteria. Their grades were recorded on a Google spreadsheet so that they had access to the grades immediately along with detailed feedback.

In order to help the students to come up to speed easily and quickly with the course technologies, I made several small screenshot movies that showed them how to do things like blog, sign up for the podcasts (which were posted on the blog), download and install iTunes (for the podcasts), sign up for Google accounts, create and use Google Docs, access the Google Docs grade sheet, and use the webinar software (which had a small download).

The Outcome

As it turned out, this was one of the best courses, online or onsite, I have ever taught. Not only did I witness enormous engagement among almost all of the students, but the level of learning was much higher than in previous years. I was sorry when it ended. Many of my students agreed, and said so in their course evaluations.

There were several things that I believe made the course so successful. One key was the blog discussions. Initially, the posts read as individual, unrelated, formal discourses, even though I had provided guidelines and a movie about how to participate in a blog discussion. So, for the first two weeks of the course I graded the blog discussions very strictly and provided a great deal of individual and team feedback. I tried to convey that these discussions were analogous to classroom exchanges in which they must build on the ideas of others. It took about two weeks of low grades and extensive feedback, but they suddenly "got it." The blogs became surprisingly high-level, extremely energized discussions with application of course content, relevant life and work experiences, and examples from the students' independent research.

While posting every day caused significant complaints from the majority of students in the first week, by the end of the second week most were posting multiple times a day to each of their team blogs. It was extremely exciting to see all of this interaction happening, and it exceeded my expectations. I had never seen this level of discussion in a class, even onsite. My boring class had become exciting and engaging!

The team element of the course was another key to success. My experience with students is that they tend to become cohesive over time, but these online teams did that and more. I saw the students come together and develop into organized learning groups. Everyone was consistently positive and supportive of each other.

The weekly Webinars were outstanding. We always had more questions than time, and some speakers continued the conversation on the blog. The inclusion of an individual paper and presentation also added value to the course. Each student presented a five-minute webinar to the class summarizing what they felt were the most important points about the topic, using three to five PowerPoint slides. I particularly enjoyed that every student in the class learned how to give a webinar with no additional help from me, and was in fact eager to take the microphone and not relinquish it.

The feedback from the students on the course was very positive, better than I had received for the onsite course in previous years. One of my favorite written student comments was, "…I don't know how this course could be taught as effectively in the classroom."

I totally agree.

Lessons Learned

There isn't much I plan to change when I teach the course online again next May, but there are a few relatively minor problems still to be resolved. Our webinar software used VoIP, which always resulted in one or two students unable to either hear or talk. I intend to look into software that uses a cell phone bridge, which lets students simply dial in to participate. The synchronous webinars presented a scheduling problem which I can resolve buy holding these sessions between the end of the workday and the start of night classes, which at my University means 5:00 to 6:00 p.m.

Another unanticipated issue was that the students didn't know how to evaluate my "teaching." Many gave relatively averages marks for "teaching in this course" on the course evaluation tool, and then admitted in the comments that they didn't know how to evaluate the teaching in a no-lecture course. In hindsight I believe evaluations must be handled differently for online courses. As I cannot easily change the evaluation methodology for the university, next time I plan to talk explicitly to the class about the role of an online teacher—as a learning facilitator who crafts environment and experiences to enhance learning.

After it ended, the course seemed to me a prime example of "social computing." While I provided a contextual framework and structure for the students, the students themselves built the meat of the course. This is an exciting trend, and one I hadn't thought about much previously in an educational context.


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