Colleges and universities are increasingly using online education
across North America. There is, however, a debate on the effectiveness
of this new technology as a pedagogical tool. In this paper, using our
experiences in teaching more than l0 online courses, we examine the role
of online education, its advantages and disadvantages, methods of
delivery, and discuss possible ways in improving the effectiveness of
this new teaching instrument.
Online education is creating excitement and debate among educators
in colleges and universities in the United States and elsewhere. A
review of the literature suggests a few general themes for implementing
online courses and programs: expanding access to under-served
populations; alleviating classroom capacity constraints; capitalizing on
emerging market opportunities, such as working adults; and, serving as a
catalyst for institutional transformation (Aron, 1999; Berger, 1999;
Eastman & Swift, 2001; Fornaciari, Forte, & Matthews, 1999;
Oliver, 1999; Volery & Lord, 2000; Webster & Hackley, 1997).
Online education has grown significantly over the past decade
(McGinn, 2000). Urdan and Weggen (2000) state that revenues from
Web-based training for online education are forecasted to climb from
$550 million in 1998 to $11.4 billion in 2003, and as John Chambers, CEO
of Cisco, states "education over the Internet is so big, it is
going to make e-mail look like a rounding error" (Chambers, 1999).
The number of colleges and universities offering online education has
also increased dramatically--from 93 in 1993 to 762 in 1997 (Hankin,
1999), including many established universities such as Duke, New York
University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford
University (Eastman and Swift, 2001). One report states that U.S.
universities offered over 54,000 courses online with an enrollment of
over 1.6 million students in 2000 (Driver, 2002).
As a result of this phenomenal adoption and growth of online
education, it is imperative that educators systematize its use so as to
minimize inefficiencies and increase effectiveness. In this paper, we
focus on how instructors may enhance the effectiveness of online
education based on an introspective analysis of the authors'
experiences in the virtual classroom.
To address the issue of enhancing the effectiveness of online
delivery of education, the authors drew from their own experiences in
teaching business courses online. Together, the authors have taught over
10 courses online. The courses ranged from 10-14 weeks in duration. In
an attempt to effectively capture the totality of their experiences, the
instructors did an analysis of student comments on the discussion
boards, chat rooms, and e-mail threads that relate to the effectiveness
of their online courses. The formal student evaluations of the courses
were also examined for related comments and responses. Further,
inferences were drawn from the variations in the effectiveness of
individual courses when some changes were instituted.
Summary of Delivery and Evaluation Techniques
The online course structure is generally very similar to the
in-class course. In fact, in many cases, the online courses are also
taught in-class using the same syllabi, as in the case of the online
courses taught by the authors. In summary, students are required to
complete one module each week usually based on a distinct topic not
unlike the regular classroom session. They are required to complete the
readings, view the presentation online and/or a summary of the session
on the Blackboard Discussion Board, and then complete the assignments.
Students are required to participate in the threaded discussions where
they can use their knowledge and experiences in initiating or adding to
a thread. This learning cycle repeats itself through out the course. A
few special features need elaboration.
E-Lectures: A student can listen and/or read the E-Lecture over and
over again in a 24/7 Cyber World until he/she understands the content of
the course material.
Threaded Discussions: This is also called the conference function
or the Online Discussion Board. Students can post their responses to
issues/answers to specific questions in this public arena for everyone
(including the instructor) to read and react. It is an ideal forum to
discuss a controversial issue extensively. It is also very useful to
share and discuss current events and research not covered or
inadequately covered in the readings.
Announcements and Personal Communication: Blackboard allows the
Instructor to make timely announcements using a special feature.
Individual students or groups of students can also be contacted. The
announcement and communication functions can be used to inform students
about upcoming important dates or events, among other things.
Real Time Discussions (Live Chat): In the absence of the physical
face-to-face interaction between the instructor and students, and among
students, the real time discussion or live chat sessions are the next
best alternative. The live chat group sessions can be organized and
implemented with a small group of students, or the entire class, once
they agree in advance to meet in cyberspace at a specific time period.
Students can also meet among themselves.
Furthermore, one of the authors require students in his online
statistical courses to visit the University campus twice, once at the
very beginning of the term for orientation to the course structure and
to meet the instructor and their fellow students, and another time at
the end of the term to take the comprehensive final examination in
person. Both authors use a range of evaluative criteria to assess
students' performance, including participation, tests, term papers,
and weekly chapter assignments.
Online education has both disadvantages and advantages. Mary
Burgan, the General Secretary of the American Association of University
Professors, captured some of the possible pitfalls in her address to the
U.S. Congressional Web-based Education Commission in July 2000. First,
from a pedagogical perspective, there are concerns about the accuracy,
lack of complexity and depth, and the commercialization of the Web,
suggesting flaws in the quality of information, and the possibility of
bias. Second, there is a real concern about student isolation and the
impact on team and inter-personal skills. Third, there is the issue of
access to modern technology, especially by minority and lower-income
families/students. Finally, in terms of intellectual property, the use
of copyrighted material in web-based education, and the issue of who
owns the material created for web-based instruction, are also issues
that need resolution (Burgan, 2000).
Despite the foregoing concerns, some of which will unfortunately
persist over time, it is the opinion of both instructors that online
education can be as good as, or even of better quality than in-class
sessions, with the ultimate effect being a better learning experience
for the student. The limited research evidence supports this contention
(Alavi, Yoo & Vogel, 1997; Driver, 2002; Dutton, Dutton & Perry,
2001; Thirunarayanan & Perez-Prado, 2002; Wetzel, Radtke &
Stern, 1994). However, this depends on the implementation of several
quality control measures.
First, individualized, customer-tailor-made education requires that
the instructor pay specific attention to the learning experience of
every student. In reality, some students will inevitably be left behind
in any learning environment. How to help these students to catch up with
the course materials is a challenge to the instructor. One therefore has
to design the mechanics of the individualized learning system in such a
way that it has to be effective on the one hand, and on the other hand,
it should not become too burdensome to the student and the instructor
Second, by using the feedback tools offered by most enabling
technological platforms, including Blackboard and WebCT, the instructor
can solicit the feedback from students quickly and make the necessary
adjustments and improve the teaching and learning process accordingly.
It is therefore advisable that the instructors continuously use these
feedback mechanisms to modify the course material, as appropriate.
Third, delivering the course material online usually requires much
more effort and time from the instructor than that in the traditional
classroom mode of delivery on campus. It is therefore important for the
successful online instructor to secure the continuous and unwavering
support from the university's administrative and technical staff in
advance and at all times throughout the course.
Based on the experiences of the authors, there are many advantages
of the Web-based learning for students, once properly administered:
1. Convenience: The study time is generally any time the student
chooses to study, except when instructors choose to use specified times
for chat room sessions. The place is also up the student to decide. This
means that it can be anywhere a student accesses the course material
through the use of Internet and the World Wide Web.
2. Feedback: When the HTML format and the email link build into the
e-lecture online course material, the student's feedback and
reaction data can be quickly collected. This self-administered online
testing can provide the student a very useful self-evaluation and
self-learning mechanism. As a result of this continuous evaluation and
outcome assessment process, plus the timely intervention by the
instructor, the student's learning is likely to be improved.
3. Learner control: In the Web-based online course, the individual
student usually has more to say on what and/or how he/she wishes to
learn through customized feedback, for instance. In instances where
instructors post their entire lectures online, students have a chance to
review the whole lecture over and over again.
4. Contact: The new broadband communication technology also makes
it feasible to have more, not less instructor-to-student contact and
peer-to-peer contact. The most often heard complaint and a potentially
reoccurring problem is the perception that the Web-based online course
lacks face-to-face interactions between student and instructor. The
adoption of a well-designed teaching strategy and communication
technology may minimize, if not reverse, the misconception that there is
5. Interactivity: An effective learning environment is one in which
there are always frequent and meaningful interactions among students,
and between student and the instructor. In a Web-based online course,
most often a mechanism is built into the online course structure so that
the instructor can provide students efficient feedback on assignments
and email questions. Students can also chat with their fellow students
by using the "real time discussion" (or chat) function. That
is, the interaction among participants can be synchronous (i.e., in real
time) or asynchronous. In short, different kinds of teacher vs. student
and the student vs. student interactions are implemented.
6. Accessibility: For students who live far from the educational
centers and/or who have limited time for on-campus education, the
Web-based online course seems to be the viable alternative. In fact,
with the Web-based Internet online course, students at any age and
living anywhere enhance their access to lifelong learning possibilities.
In order to make the Web-based online course a resounding success
story and avoid pitfalls, several critical issues should be raised and
resolved by the instructor and the institution serving as the home for
the course. First, both parties should resolve the copyright issue. Who
is the copyright holder of the Web-based online course? Does the
intellectual property belong to the instructor, who designs the course
framework and writes the lecture notes? Or does this intellectual
property belong to the institution, which provides the computer hardware
and software system for running the course? The controversy over
intellectual property rights with respect to online materials is not
settled (Shedletsky and Aitken, 2001). An institution may or may not
allow faculty to own the online course. Instructors should seek clarity
on this issue with their respective institutions.
Second, instructors must design high-quality course materials and
lectures. In addition to the actual knowledge being disseminated in the
course, the instructor must master the supporting technology. He/she
must be properly trained. Instructors must also take cognizance of the
fact that students learn differently online, and this must be considered
when developing the course, including the structure of the experiential
exercises, lectures, assignments, etc. The instructor should construct
the Web-based online course to satisfy the needs and desires of the
individual student (Oliver, 1999).
Third, instructors must use appropriate technology and utilize
multiple methods of communication. The quality and richness of the
medium used in online education are critical factors. The network setup
must allow for both synchronous and asynchronous communication; students
should have convenient access; and the time for document exchange must
be kept at a minimum. A "rich" medium is one that allows for
both synchronous and asynchronous communication and supports a variety
of didactical elements, such as text, graphics, audio, and video
messages (Daft and Lengel, 1986; Volery and Lord, 2000). Instructors
should also try to use all four of the basic communication methods with
students: e-mail, announcements though the course website, the
discussion board, and the chat room (Gibson, Tesone, and Blackwell,
2001). The first three are asynchronous and the latter, synchronous.
Finally, instructors must emphasize the importance of participation
in enhancing the online learning experience. For many courses, including
those in management, it is essential for students to participate to
ensure success in the online course. It is important to note that,
according to many experts, online education, compared to the traditional
classroom, promotes more equal interactivity among class and group
members (Larson, 2002). That is, it "creates a 'leveling'
effect among team members. All members are equal" (Aubrey &
Felkins, 1988: 162). In-class shyness tends to decrease or vanish
(Murphy, 2000). In fact, an AACSB report stated that "online
learning allows everyone to participate equally, unlike the classroom
where three or four may dominate a discussion based on their verbal
ability or their presence" (AACSB, 1998: 7).
In conclusion, once effectively managed, online education can be of
the same quality as, or even better than the regular in-class session
(Alavi, Yoo & Vogel, 1997; Driver, 2002; Dutton, Dutton & Perry,
2001). Online education offers a potentially richer medium than
classroom instruction but it is not simply a matter of computer access
and training to faculty and students. Rather, as Alavi, Yoo and Vogel
(1997:1311) state, "effective use and integration of computers into
classrooms requires a departure from traditional interaction modes so
that a technology-mediated learning environment becomes pedagogically
effective and even superior to alternative modes of learning and
instruction." Once effectively managed, online education can foster
increased participation by students. As Berger (1999: 690) found,
"one of the most striking benefits of online education, from an
instructor's point of view, is more personal dialogue with
students. I have found the intimacy of dialogue to be much greater with
the anonymity of Web-based instruction than in a typical classroom.
Students reported that electronic communication freed them to be more
revealing and to participate more than in a typical classroom." As
a result of these and other benefits discussed earlier, online education
will continue to be used by many students, instructors and institutions
in North America and elsewhere. Hopefully, this paper will add to the
debate on its usefulness and how we can improve the medium as a
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