Online education: lessons for administrators and instructors.
Universities and colleges (Technology application)
Universities and colleges (United States)
Teaching (Methods)
Online education (Influence)
Singh, Parbudyal
Pan, William
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Name: College Student Journal Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama) Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 Project Innovation (Alabama) ISSN: 0146-3934
Date: June, 2004 Source Volume: 38 Source Issue: 2
Computer Subject: Technology application
Product Code: 8220000 Colleges & Universities NAICS Code: 61131 Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools SIC Code: 8221 Colleges and universities
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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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 alike.

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 less contact.

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 pedagogical tool.


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