ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

One course, two ways
lessons learned from teaching the same graduate course online and face-to-face

By Karen Hughes Miller / October 2005

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

Although I have taught, researched, and published on the subject of Web-based instruction, nothing has given me more perspective (or more surprises) than teaching two sections of the same graduate course, one online and one face-to-face. This article addresses the differences in communicating with students in the online versus face-to-realms, the differences in time and effort supporting the two groups, and some lessons learned in organizing and planning coursework for the two course sections. While communications seemed less spontaneous online than face-to-face, they may have been more thoughtful. And, although my online students and I believed we were prepared for the extra time needed to teach and learn online, those demands jolted us into inventing better organizational strategies.

The course was Instructional Design and Development, a graduate course in the University of Louisville (U of L) College of Education and Human Development. The online or face-to-face choice was available to students in the spring of 2004 and again in the spring of 2005. The course was opened to both masters and doctoral students, most of whom were already employed full-time in their professional areas: P-12 teaching and administration, commercial and industrial training, and higher education administration.


While many educators agree that communication is at the heart of instruction, it is surprising how complex instructional communication can be. In the traditional classroom, we use tone of voice, body language, and eye contact to support our message and must still work hard to make a point. But when teaching online, we must convey almost all of that expression through the computer keyboard. Teaching online is rather like rewriting the same book each semester to accommodate a new set of readers. Even though we have done it all before, we cannot let the message get stale.

Instructional Content
Presenting the "core" instructional content in this course was actually the easiest area of communication. Both the online and face-to-face sections used the same textbook, and each was supported by its own Blackboard electronic course management site. I had learned from other instructors and from the U of L instructional support team (at the Delphi Center for Teaching and Learning) that using the same site to support both the online and the face-to-face sections was a tactical error. It was actually more efficient to develop and clone the online site---then modify it for the face-to-face section---than it was to take time explaining to students the differences in calendars and assignments. Having separate course sites also provided individual Discussion Boards, sets of student homepages, rosters, and electronic grade books.

Academic accrediting organizations such as the Southern Association of Colleges and School (SACS) make it clear that course offerings online must be as similar to face-to-face courses as possible. This is also good pedagogy. In my course, to meet the needs of distant students who might not have access to the university library, both sites included links to resource sites, PDF files of journal articles, digital worksheets, and even online applets for building instructional rubrics. This self-contained approach also appealed to face-to-face students, most of whom were on campus only one or two evenings a week. The course statistics report available to instructors in Blackboard showed that students used these resources frequently and that students in both sections did the majority of their work very late in the evening.

Course Requirements
It is hard to imagine that students in a traditional graduate course would assume they needed to attend class only when it suited their schedules. However, I have had a few online students who assumed that "distance education" equated to "asynchronous education" and they could work at their own pace, i.e. leave it all to the end of the semester. After seeing a few students make that bad choice in the spring of 2004, I placed more emphasis on "keeping up" the following spring. Not that there is anything wrong with asynchronous design, but this course was built to model several specific principles including the strength of peer-to-peer teaching. Adding comments to a discussion board that we covered six weeks ago benefited no one. I worked to ensure that students understood that timeliness, frequency, and the quality of comments were included in the participation grade.

In order to build a feeling of membership in a learning community, schedules for both sections included semester breaks and university holidays. I also posted Education Graduate Student Association (EGSA) announcements on both course sites. Although attending campus events was not a practical option for the far distant students, I encouraged all students to vote for their EGSA departmental representatives and use other online resources such as student workshop notes posted on the EGSA web site.

Student presentations were a key component of the course. In both sections, peer reviews were grounded in the same rubric with only a few practical alterations. For example, face-to-face presentations were limited to 20 minutes and time management was included in the rubric. Length rather than time management was the relevant issue in virtual (online) presentations.

If there was any inequity between the performances of online and face-to-face students, it was that online students who had more background in instructional technology were able to develop more impressive lessons or training packages than were technology novices. The level of technical sophistication for these lessons was not scored on either section rubric; however, during both the 2004 and 2005 courses I saw more positive peer review scores for online presentations that included Flash or PowerPoint animations than for the more basic presentations. The face-to-face student presentations were not limited to online delivery and several students developed very hands-on lessons such as how to use graphing calculators and digital cameras. An interesting side effect of the digital/non-digital divide was that both student groups began to realize the differences in design needs for online and face-to-face instruction.

Discussion and Critique
The most difficult hurtle in teaching the online sections was convincing online students that was it acceptable to challenge me and to critique other students' work as long as it was done in a professional manner. For the face-to-face students, this was a non-issue. Online students, however, who met their classmates and me only though our online homepages, seemed more reserved. Not until I modeled open discussion and critique in the weekly discussion boards did they begin to warm up. For example, if an online student made a particularly good point, I could re-title my reply with a "heads up" for the whole class to read that dialog. And, if someone really missed the point or leapt to the wrong conclusion I could explain (in a supportive way) how and why their comment missed the mark.

When a teachable moment occurred, I reiterated the point in the announcements section of the course site. Likewise, if a student or I found a good new web resource, I mentioned that link in announcements. Although the traditional approach is to reserve announcements for course management issues, I have found that area to be an extremely effective place to deliver newly found instructional content. I think of announcements as the beginning of my class meeting since it is the first thing students see when they log in.

Student-to-student conversation in the face-to-face sections occurred naturally. To encourage constructive dialog among online students, I looked for opportunities to ask individual students to contribute. For example, in Kentucky P-12 education, developing KWL charts is especially popular in teaching thematic units. These three-column charts ask students to list what they Know, what they Want to know, and eventually what they Learned. My P-12 teaching students were able to discuss this design tool immediately, but it was new to the trainers and postsecondary administration students. By asking one of my P-12 teaching students to explain the KWL, we began a conversation. I then expanded the conversation with examples of how KWL was also a great warm-up exercise for adult training sessions. Students soon realized that I was in the conversation, not just observing from afar.

It was interesting to see friendships develop among the face-to-face and online students, and they developed at about the same pace. Students often shared training-design examples from their professional lives, and those conversations occasionally drifted into personal chat. If it became too chatty, I posted a reminder note that when we wanted to share a comment with everyone, we used the reply button but if it was a personal (out of class) comment, we could use the personal email link. I made the decision for both course sites not to allow anonymous postings with the exception of a feedback section about the course itself. Perhaps because all postings were identified, or perhaps because we had built a good learning community, no students were ever rude or inappropriate in their online comments.

Time and Effort

My largest time commitment to this course occurred in the fall of 2003 while developing the original online course site. Looking at this as a faculty workload issue, it took approximately as long to develop the course site as it would to develop and teach a face-to-face section of the course. My perception was the same as reported by both Visser (2000) and Lazarus (2003), that the essential time difference between online and face-to-face instruction was in the preparation rather than the delivery. More research is needed, but it is likely that differences in academic disciplines, instructor attitudes, and technical support may have an impact.

At U of L, we found that when course includes an online site, students tend to go to the site early in the semester and print out most of the major resources to create a workbook (Miller, 2004). Therefore, it makes sense for instructors to have their course sites well-developed before the semester begins. This has two positive outcomes: Students have a realistic overview of the scope of materials at the beginning of the semester, and the instructor can devote time to teaching rather than materials development as the course progresses. That is not to say that new resources cannot be added during the semester, but when this occurs students should be notified so new material is not overlooked. Perreault et al. (2002) and O'Quinn & Corry (2002) found faculty-student interaction was the most critical component of successful online teaching, so if the course site is ready at the beginning of the course, faculty time can be devoted to students.

A frequent comment made by online students was that the course took "far more time" than they anticipated. I have only anecdotal evidence relating to my own courses, but my educated guess is that students' time is doubled when working online. This makes sense in a discussion-driven course because it takes longer to read and type than it does to speak and listen. In addition, it may take students longer to formulate questions when they are working alone at a keyboard than it does in the heat of a classroom discussion. Not only is writing a more complex cognitive task than is speaking, but also it is human nature to reflect a bit more over the written word, especially for students who are used to having their writing graded.

Because of this increased time commitment, near distant students should think of the time saved in the commute to campus and search for the elusive parking space as a resource to spend on improving their performance in the course. Far distant students should consider the value of accessing courses not otherwise available in their geographic area and commit to dedicating the time needed to perform well. For all online students, although there is no time saved, there is far greater control over when the time is spent. The instructor's obligation is to help distant students recognize the need for time management early in the semester so they can be successful.

Lessons Learned

Reflecting on this experience, it seems that teaching and learning online in my field, instructional design, can be every bit as effective as teaching and learning face-to-face, but it may be less efficient. It requires more instructor time during development and more student time during the course, although in each case there is more control over work time. The important advantage of online instruction is that students have a far greater range of courses and programs available, regardless of their location.

Working online not only limits the format of teacher/student communications but also has an impact on student-to-student communications. Although the instructor can facilitate dialog, there are usually a few students who seem less comfortable speaking through the keyboard. This issue, however, may become less important in the near future as the text-message generation moves to online learning.

Online students' presentation of work is more limited than face-to-face students' because their delivery must be digital, but this should not create an unfair advantage for students who have higher technical skills. In this case, although instructional technology (IT) is important in my department, the IT course is not a prerequisite for this course. To generalize, online instructors must make sure that their rubrics do not favor technologically skilled students if technology is not the primary focus of the course.

Having well-developed course sites was an advantage not only online students but also to face-to-face students because it helped them organize their materials. It also helped me as an instructor keep track of materials, student work, and the parallel schedules. The greatest enhancement to efficiency was being able to use the same basic course site for both courses sections over several semesters. As Pachnowski and Jurczyk (2003) found, the more often a course site was used and refined, the more effective it became. Time saved on developing and organizing course materials could be spent interacting with students and that, after all, is the best part of teaching.


1. Lazarus, B. D. (2003). Teaching courses online: How much time does it take? JALN, 7(3), 47-54. Available online at

2. Miller, K. H. (2004). The Law Catches Up with Distance Education: Voice Recognition Software Makes Online Legal Instruction More Efficient, Effective. T.H.E. Journal, February, 2004.

3. O'Quinn, L., & Corry. M. (2002). Factors that deter faculty from participating in distance education. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 5(4). Available online at

4. Pachnowski, L. M., & Jurczyk, J. P. (2003). Perceptions of faculty on the effect of distance learning on faculty preparation time. The Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 6(3). Available online at

5. Perreault, H, Waldman, L., Alexander, M., & Zhao, J. (2002, July/August). Overcoming barriers to successful delivery of distance learning courses. Journal of Education for Business, 77, 313-318.

6. Visser, J. A. (2000). Faculty work in developing and teaching web-based distance courses: A case study of time and effort. The American Journal of Distance Education, 14(3), 21-31.


  • There are no comments at this time.