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Trial by Fire: Lessons Learned in Developing and Delivering A Distance Learning Course

By Charie Faught / October 2011

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After a career as a healthcare compliance and privacy professional, I began my academic career at Montana Tech of the University of Montana in the fall of 2007. The Health Care Informatics (HCI) department was still new, with only three graduating classes. Given my background in healthcare systems, my primary objective was to teach students about the healthcare industry from an operations perspective. Students would need an understanding of how healthcare systems work in order to become effective health information technologists.

Upon my arrival, the head of the department made it clear that one of the primary strategic objectives of the department was to offer distance classes. Therefore, I began my academic career knowing that all the coursework would need to satisfy both the traditional classroom setting as well as distance students. Having never taken a distance course, this would be a challenge. I was fortunately given one semester to teach classes without distance sections.

Both the Montana University System and Montana Tech require distance courses to be equivalent to live or traditional classes. However, neither institution has set any formal standards for delivery methods, such as synchronous or asynchronous. While Montana Tech is supportive of teaching distance delivery courses, limited resources, such as faculty time, were available for both developing and instruction of distance courses. Based on the requirements and resource constraints, a blended format seemed to be the best fit.

HCI Classroom

The HCI department has the benefit of utilizing a "high tech" classroom. The classroom consists of an instructor's station with a number of features including a networked computer, three monitors, a virtual control panel that controls the audio, and visual set up of the room. The visual set up includes three projectors and also links the instructor's station to the student stations. The audio set up includes a microphone at the station, a lapel microphone, and an array microphone system. The classroom also includes 25 student stations, each with a desktop computer and screen. The classroom was therefore equipped to handle a blended class with both live and distance students.

First Phase: Blended Synchronous Delivery

The first online tool that the HCI department used was synchronous online delivery using I-link. The goal of the system was to have the traditional live classroom interact with distance students. The distance student would be able to view the main monitor and hear both the instructor and fellow students. The distance student would be able to ask questions using a headset at their work or home computer.

Challenge #1: Being a new instructor and creating distance classes at the same time. Many academic departments are mature, and therefore have access to resources such as relevant texts and instructor's resources. Health care informatics is a relatively new degree, with few texts or support materials. The challenge was to locate relevant materials either in journals, government sources, or the popular media to enhance the course content. Juggling both course creation and distance delivery at first was a constant challenge. Given that the majority of the students were traditional, I focused my efforts at first in the live classroom setting.

Challenge #2: Creating distance classes with little technical support. The first phase of development was based on a system purchased by the department rather than the school as a whole. When available, another instructor would attend class so as to help with the synchronous delivery management. Fortunately, there were only one or two distance students for any one class. However, the system often dropped the distant student, making the student reconnect to the classroom. If another instructor was available, then I could pause until the issue was resolved. If I had no help, the drop sometimes occurred without my noticing. The distant student then missed out on any material covered while the system was down.

Lessons learned. After a short period of use, the HCI department evaluated the distance delivery method. The technical difficulties limited the success of the distance program. The system frustrated me as well as the students. Further, having a synchronous delivery system was not viable for many students, including nursing students who were eligible for a minor from our program. Fortunately, both the department and the school were supportive of the learning experience, and realized the need to utilize a reliable and school wide distance delivery system.

Second Phase: Blended Asynchronous Delivery

One way to meet the needs of both traditional and nontraditional students is to utilize a user friendly course management system [1]. Like many schools, Montana Tech utilized the Blackboard system. In the fall of 2009, Montana Tech also purchased Wimba campus wide. From an instructor's standpoint, Wimba seemed to be comprehensive yet more user friendly than the version of I-link used the previous year.

Challenge: Meeting the needs of both traditional and nontraditional students. Components of Blackboard and Wimba were used for both distance and live students. Students from both sections were given access to archived lectures, discussion board assignments, written assignments in the Blackboard assignment area, quizzes, exams, announcements, and the grade book. As an instructor, I was able to send emails directly from Blackboard to announce quizzes or any other pertinent information.

The recording capabilities of Wimba allowed a student to choose between accessing the course room during the lecture or to listen to the lecture afterwards. However, several technical issues arose during the process of recording or listening to a lecture.

First, students had to make sure that their home system was compatible with all the necessary components. The distance learning coordinator at Montana Tech set up a link on the Montana Tech website with the necessary instructions. Second, the HCI classroom instructor's system had to be configured at the beginning of each class to record properly. One more than one occasion the audio was not configured, so the archive only had the visual PowerPoint presentation showing. Third, the audio recording was either from a lapel microphone or a microphone stationed at the instructor's console. When a student asked a question, it was necessary to repeat the question into the microphone, as the array microphones were not connected to the Wimba system.

Lessons learned: Effective use of the discussion board. The discussion board tool can be used for a variety of learning methods, including asynchronous and blended learning. Discussion board assignments can be used for assessment as well as promote student interaction and reflection [2]. Effective utilization of a discussion board can help create a "learning community" [2]. Of all the distance tools, the use of the discussion board was the most successful, especially for the course on healthcare ethics and regulations. Students were able to discuss more openly hot topic issues, and at the same time remain respectful. As an instructor, I took more of a "hands-off" approach, allowing the students to interact with each other with minimal guidance. However, one of the consistent student feedbacks from my courses as well as other distance courses at Montana Tech is more active participation from the instructor. As such, I now interact on the discussion board more often to provide both guidance and suggest areas to explore.

Third Phase: Online Classroom with No Live Section

Last academic year the Montana University System approved a master's certificate in Health Care Informatics. Given that the target audience was information technology and healthcare professionals, the decision was made to have an online only program. With four years of experience both in instruction and distance delivery, myself and the department felt that we were ready to meet the challenge.

Challenge #1: Aligning school resources with graduate school and working professional needs. Most of the graduate students are working professionals. Therefore, they are typically accessing the system off hours such as evenings and weekends. One of the first challenges was to walk each student through the new learning management system launched over the summer and how to access the discussion boards, assignments, and recorded lectures. In some instances, individual appointments were made to provide a phone consultation is setting up the student's system. One student was trying to access the learning management system at work, and firewall issues had to be managed.

Like my undergraduate courses the discussion board assignments are the main tool. The added requirement was for students to learn how to use the school library database to find peer-reviewed articles for the assignments. The department librarian has been a key resource in this area. The librarian not only created a library guide for the department, which is available on the library's website, but also a one page resource explaining how to access the library online. She is also working to create a YouTube video, which will also be sent to students.

Challenge #2: Recording lectures. Since the class is strictly online, I have opted to use Camtasia for the recorded lectures. Recording a lecture in the classroom is very different than sitting in my office speaking to a microphone. I do not have the ability to engage with others in my office, and therefore tend to stutter and pause much more frequently. Using Camtasia works well for this purpose, as it provides the ability to edit and cut out pauses and breaks. Camtasia does take longer, but the overall quality is worth the time.

Challenge #3: Keeping up with a dynamic group of professionals. While the number of students is small, the level of understanding and professionalism in the graduate class is high. I am constantly learning from all my students, as they come from different backgrounds and have a wide variety of experience. Providing meaningful feedback in the discussion area requires additional time and effort. Further, since they are accessing the system after work hours, I have altered my hours so that I can interact with the students in a timely manner. I typically am in the classroom at least one or two nights in the evening as well as during the weekend. I have also blocked off time during the week to record lectures and prepare assignments.

Lessons learned. The challenge of creating and maintaining an online course is just as difficult as a blended class. The unique needs of the students require more time and greater flexibility. Fortunately, the students are more than willing to provide feedback so that the course can be improved during the semester.


Like many departments and institutions, distance delivery at Montana Tech is growing and maturing. As a new faculty member, I started with little help in creating and maintaining distance courses. As the support grows, so does my comfort level in producing high quality distance courses that are equivalent in both content and quality to the traditional classroom setting. Even with the move to a new distance course management system, I am confident that students will obtain a high quality education at Montana Tech via distance learning.

About the Author

Charie Faught is an assistant professor in the Health Care Informatics program at Montana Tech of The University of Montana. She teaches blended learning courses to both traditional and distance students and online graduate courses. Prior to her current position, she worked as a compliance and privacy professional for a large integrated delivery system. Faught holds a Master of Health Administration (MHA) from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and is currently pursuing her Ph.D.


[1] Winogron, D. H. Access to college for nontraditional students: Distance education through flexibility and support. Distance Learning (2007);

[2] Vonderwell, S., Liang, X., and Alderman, K. (2007). Asynchronous discussions and assessments in online learning. Journal of Research on Technology in Education 39,3 (2007): 309-328.


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