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Re-Think, Re-Shift: Transforming Online Courses into Traditional Designs

This is the first in a two-part feature.

Online education in all of its forms continues to expand at a rapid pace. Although the term “online education” refers to any time a class or course uses online information to add value, most people consider the term to refer to web courses conducted entirely on the internet.

Institutions face both pressure and incentives to expand online offerings and options. Students now come to university with a high expectation of “interactive” learning, though they do not always comprehend all that can entail. Expectations push instructors to include more online elements into course design and work.

Pressure from incoming students to increase online options is matched by the institution’s drive to expand its footprint. Headcount remains a driving factor for many institutions of higher learning and e-courses represent a relatively cost-effective way to increase tuition and fee revenues. Online students do not take up dorm space, eat university food, or use other facilities, yet they pay the same tuition and, often, many or all of the fees imposed on traditional students.

Expansion of online offerings also increases the influence and impact of the institution of higher learning. Whether or not the institution cares depends on a few factors. First, universities with a prestigious reputation often compete with other elite schools and garnering both more and higher quality students enhances their profile. Second, it does give students in remote regions of the country access to higher education they might otherwise not receive. Teacher education programs, for example, increasingly teach remote students entirely online and do their placements in their hometowns.

As more instructors move to online education from traditional classrooms, they will need to think and work carefully to make sure that e-courses have the same effectiveness as face to face tuition. Instructors also need to consider the use of technology, the fine art of proportion in course materials and other requirements, and what their overall learning goals are for the students.

Regardless of the reason, higher education institutions will continue to create new online offerings and work to innovate new ways of delivering information. Those traditional instructors looking to jump onto the trend should consider these tips on how to transition from traditional face to face tuition to online web courses.

1. Make Sure the Material Remains Relevant After Transition

In education, relevance cannot constitute a one-way street. It must combine the vision of the instructor with the needs that students perceive for themselves. Instructors also need to remain cognizant of the big picture, which is making sure that the students each have the opportunity to gain something from the course that will serve them after their time in school ends.

Some instructors tailor their course materials around what students report they want to learn. Certainly, the student-centered course and traditional university have roots in medieval Italy, but this method of teaching has significant drawbacks. Students who lack knowledge have no idea what they need to know. They do not even comprehend the scope of what they do not know. They definitely would not knowingly select topics that pose difficulty or are tedious.  For example, any course on national history should include the history of the Reserve Bank. Few, including most instructors, would want to study the history of the Reserve Bank in depth, but monetary policy and the role of central banking is essential to understanding national development. Students may not understand the relevance, which is why their definition of the word should not be the only one in use.

Conversely, instructors need to think beyond their own experience and expertise when considering what information is relevant. As times change and professions evolve, what students need to know will also change. College instructors can grow too comfortable and continue to teach what was true in their youth, but may have changed over years or decades. Consider a journalism professor whose media experience formed in the days when newspapers and the evening news reigned supreme, but has not changed his course since. If he or she does not adapt, the course will lose relevance significantly.

Of course the instructor teaches best what he or she knows and understands best. While instructors should not try to teach in depth in subjects with which they have only a layman’s familiarity, they also have a responsibility to constantly expand their own knowledge as their careers develop. Paying attention to the direction of their field of instruction will help to ensure that the class and materials, as well as the instructor him or herself, remain relevant.

Instructors must adapt occasionally to match not so much what students want, but what they need. This means that student feedback must get analysed wisely. Some students will explain what they need from a course and why and their feedback should get consideration. Instructors, however, remain the expert. Their knowledge and experience must serve as the guide whenever adapting coursework. Of course, feedback from older students or the most thoughtful of the younger students should carry the most weight.

The concept of relevance applies to the discussion of online course offerings because instructors must radically revamp their course and its delivery to adapt it to whatever online format gets used. Reworking the course for online use often means splitting up hour lectures into much shorter learning modules that require different approaches. It grants a perfect opportunity for instructors to look at helpful feedback, research on his or her own, and consider how a course can be updated for the benefit of the students. If an instructor thinks carefully about what should remain relevant and what can be omitted, he or she will have a standard by which to measure materials to see if they stay or go.

2. Identify What E-Learning Course Format Will Be Used Depending on Mode of Learning

Online learning that uses internet-based courses can take three basic forms. Each one of these has varying degrees of flexibility as well as different levels of interaction between instructor and student, or also student to student.

An instructor’s choice of format often reflects the importance placed on direct interaction in achieving the goals set for the course. Does the instructor place great value in a real-time discussion that develops organically either with the individual student or with a group of students? If so, he or she must choose a format that allows for individual or group discussion.

The drawback of mandatory discussion time lies in the fact that it undercuts one of the biggest attractions of online learning, namely its flexibility. Many students sign up for online courses with the expectation that they can work on the course at a time of their convenience, within reason.

Asynchronous Learning

In asynchronous learning, interactions between instructor and student and student to student take place intermittently. Real-time interactions take place rarely, if ever. Examples of asynchronous learning include many of the free courses online, including self-paced courses. This style also includes courses that rely on online forum discussion groups and/or email for communication between student and instructor. The learner keeps more control of his or her own pace and schedule.

Asynchronous puts much of the onus and responsibility for progress on the student. The self-pacing can help students who grasp material more slowly or have a more meticulous style progress at their own speed. This works exceptionally well for the internally motivated and helps those who have busy and/or unpredictable schedules.

For the less motivated and those relying heavily on feedback, asynchronous learning can produce disaster.  Some individuals require more externally imposed discipline and need connections with instructors and other learners to feel less isolated.

Many college e-courses have moved to an asynchronous format, but asynchronous learning has really taken off in the world of corporate training.

Synchronous Learning

Instructors who choose the synchronous learning environment have opted to try and recreate the traditional classroom environment in an online setting. They tend to place more value on interaction and real-time, live discussion and other activities. Instructors in synchronous online learning also get to maintain more control over the online classroom.

Interaction in synchronous learning can take place in a variety of ways depending on the learning management platform. It can feature audio or video conferencing, internet telephone service, two way live broadcasts, or live chat.

Many students enjoy the availability of instant feedback and real-time interaction with instructors and students. Those who tend to feel isolated and disconnected with online courses will do better in a synchronous learning environment. With such students, frustration and confusion can build up in an online learning environment bereft of direct connections.

Blended or Hybrid Learning

Blended or hybrid learning combines elements of asynchronous and synchronous instruction. In some cases, a face to face aspect can also be included in the class. Creating hybrid courses can offer more flexibility than a synchronous or traditional class while providing more occasions for connection, feedback, and discussion.

It also gives the instructor more opportunity to have control of the course and create external motivation for less disciplined students.

Beware Students Who Take Advantage

Instructors who choose asynchronous learning to provide more flexibility to students should keep in mind those who game the system. It is admirable to extend as much flexibility as is possible to students, but make sure to put certain deadlines for assignments, exams, and other work into the course. No one wants to get stuck with grading all of the work at the last possible minute because students had maximum flexibility on when to complete tasks.

Structuring a course in such a way as to require students to have work completed by regularly scheduled milestones takes pressure off of the instructor while also keeping students on task.

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3. Research Instructional Design Options

Instructional design relates to online courses as a skeleton does to the human body. They provide the structure around which the instructor can build learning materials, assignments, examinations, papers, and other elements of course creation. Online learning has created new opportunities and challenges for instructional designers.

Instructional design is nothing new and was developed to help instructors structure traditional face to face courses if they needed such assistance. Today’s designers need to understand and utilise the technology, software tools, and multimedia in addition to the subject material. Instructors can build increasingly interactive courses with more depth and added value with text, audio, visual, and other options.

PowerPoint Add-Ins

Instructors can examine three major categories of online instructional design. The first offers PowerPoint add-ins. These are often the easiest for less experienced online instructors because most professionals, for better or worse, have constructed a PowerPoint presentation. These are also the least complex and easiest to construct, but have the most limitations of any of the options.

Additionally, one other major pitfall of PowerPoint must fall under consideration. Many people have little or no ability to craft a PowerPoint presentation that can hold an audience. Good PowerPoint is almost an art whereas bad PowerPoint ranks as almost as excruciating an experience as torture.

Finally, consider that online and remote learning means that presentations such as PowerPoint have a very limited appeal among students with even the best attention spans. Try to confine stand-alone online PowerPoint presentations to ten minutes or less. Online students have every distraction imaginable waiting to pry them away from their school work. Keeping presentations in short, easily digestible chunks will enhance attention and understanding.

Stand-Alone Software Tools

Stand-alone software tools offer another option for online instructional design. Unfortunately, these require the purchase of a separate license unless they are open source. Cost can be more or less depending upon the type of license and number of users, but is almost always borne by the organisation and not the instructor.

Cloud-Based E-Learning

Cloud-based options can work in many of the same ways as a stand alone software tool, but in this case is offered as a service to sign up for rather than a product to purchase and install. Because of lower overhead, cloud based systems bear less cost and lack maintenance or update issues.

These systems do not come without drawbacks. Any cloud based system in today’s environment of cyber criminals will raise more concerns about data security than a software based product on a computer. They also are only in their earliest stages of development, meaning they are more likely to carry bugs, but also offer tremendous opportunity for future development and innovation.

If the instructor is in a position to select which instructional design option would work best for his or her course, careful research should take place. This means an honest appraisal of not only the systems, but also the abilities of the instructor and potential student population. Human capabilities and disabilities should be considered as the most important factors when choosing an instructional design system

4. Consider How the Instructor Will Design and Plan Interaction

Interaction serves as the foundation of any online educational experience. Even when intermittent, instructors need to convey information, feedback, and assessment to students.  Students need interaction to learn and to confirm their progress in the course or the lack thereof.

Instructors need to consider how much interaction they need to have, what form it shall take, and who else can and should take part. Three general types of interaction take place in online learning.  When putting together online courses, instructors should consider how much of which type of interaction is desired and how it will relate to course materials, assignments, and other factors in course creation.

Also, instructors need to communicate with caution. A person cannot always communicate in the same way online as they do face to face. Textual communication can be fraught with danger for instructors unwilling or unable to practice precision in interactions with students.

Learner to Content

Learner to content opens up the most creative and exciting possibilities for instructors and learners. Content can come from any respectable source on the internet. Instructors should not, however, get carried away and overburden students with too many obligations.

In a traditional course, learner to content is often more restricted than in online learning. It normally takes the form of the course text and supplemental readings. In some cases, it could also include audio or video. Online courses could include a number of interactive materials, even including video games, simulations, or even virtual reality.

When evaluating how to structure learner to content interaction, instructors should consider a very important question. Will interaction with the material create changes in the student’s understanding? Does it inspire questions, further independent study, or another means that attracts the student toward learning more?

Learner to Instructor

Learner interaction with his or her instructor can take place in a wide variety of ways. Traditionally, most learner to instructor interaction takes place face to face during class or one on one during the instructor’s office hours. Lectures, class discussions, Socratic questioning sessions, and one on one conversation are just a few ways that this occurs. Students can pick up on more than just the words. Body language and facial expressions often communicate as effectively as speech.  The traditional class has the advantages of directness and immediacy. In this way, traditional classes have an advantage over their online counterparts.

Many of the learner to instructor interactions in online courses lack the immediacy and connection of a traditional course. Instructors need to decide if the level and quality of interaction available in a traditional class need to be replicated as much as possible in the online format. Video conferencing is one way to try and emulate the benefits of face to face interaction between instructor and learner.

On the other hand, instructors could decide to not try to copy this aspect of traditional interaction and rely more on communication through real-time live chat, discussion forums, or via email.

Regardless of what form interaction takes, instructors must make sure that communication remains clear and easy to understand. Forms of interaction easily understood face to face can be very easily misunderstood when communicated only in text. Sarcasm and humour in the best case scenario often comes across as confusing; in the worst case it can unintentionally strike the recipient as offensive or inappropriate. This happens because, relative to face to face discussion, simple text is more easily separated from the context of body language, expressions, and other communication. Word use must be very precise to prevent misunderstandings.

Also remember that while the spoken word disappears once uttered, typed text is forever. Anyone can save or screenshot the interaction. Again, this should cause instructors to think carefully about the words they use and how they could be interpreted or misinterpreted by students from diverse backgrounds. In today’s climate, any misinterpreted word or phrase could potentially end a career.

Learner to Learner

Again, traditional classes and the traditional university campus grant an edge in learner interaction for most. Just as in learner to instructor communication, face to face communication provides immediate results complete with non-verbal and verbal context support for understanding. Additionally, students can interact outside of the classroom quite easily.

That being said, one of the emerging problems with the millennial generation and those coming after lies in the declining ability of many individuals to conduct proper, appropriate, and successful personal interaction. One could argue that the rise of online communication across the board helped mightily to create this problem, but those who do experience these issues may experience more academic success in an e-course.

Learner to learner interaction in online classes may be more or less of a priority based on a number of factors. Some instructors place a high value on class discussion and will make online interaction relevant to the material part of the grade. Others do not prioritise learner to learner interaction. Instructors need to consider how important they consider this form of interaction as a mandatory part of the class.

Finally, instructors will need to prepare themselves to utilise classroom management skills online.  All of the evils of disconnected individuals interacting on social media can emerge in an online class. Make sure that the syllabus or class guidelines contain very strict and precise rules that forbid bullying, sexual harassment, and other negative interactions.

Just as important, make very clear whatever consequences will occur should such behavioirs occur. Remember that “I was just kidding” is often the excuse of an abusive individual. Kidding is only kidding when both parties appreciate the joke. Preparing for the worst behaviour will prevent headaches for the instructor when it inevitably occurs.

Of course all of these must adhere to the rules and regulations of the university or other institution of learning. Complying with these ensures that an instructor is covered should a dispute occur. When in doubt, always consult with the proper administrator to prevent any misunderstandings or issues.

5. Choosing the Right Instructional Technology Features to Fit Your Class

Getting the right instructional technology fit represents an important part of transforming a traditional face to face class into an e-course. This is especially true when it comes to matching technology features with modes of interaction. With the internet and learning management systems enabling access and use of a large number of possibilities, the instructor should work to only select what will work best. Too many options can confuse and frustrate many students.

Here are some options categorised by type of learner interaction:

Learner to Content

  • Virtual flashcards for classes that require factual or mathematical memorisation
  • RSS feeds to link students to accepted sources of news and information
  • Google Books, Gutenburg Project, and other sources of digitalised printed books
  • Links to national libraries and museums, such as National Library of Australia, the British Museum, and the National Archives of the United States
  • Online content related to assigned texts
  • Frequently Asked Questions

Learner to Instructor

  • Instructor generated content outside of specific class work, including videos, articles, speeches or talks, photographs, etc.
  • Lectures and other forms of presentations, but be mindful of attention spans and keep modules relatively short
  • Audio or visual conferencing to create real-time live interaction that allows for students to see more non-verbal communication or hear tones and voice inflections that add meaning
  • Real time live chat is convenient and still allows instantaneous responses

Learner to Learner

  • Online chats can serve as useful venues for class discussion or organised activities
  • Forums can serve many of the same purposes as chat. The disadvantage is lack of spontaneous exchange, but discussion can be more thoughtful since responses can happen at a more leisurely pace
  • Approved use of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.
  • Blogs can serve as a great way to serve interactions between learners and between learner and instructor. The main article can kick off a discussion which takes place in the comment section

These lists only scratch the surface of instruction interaction possibilities, but they also represent forms that students and instructors alike should be familiar with. Instructors should always keep an eye out for newly developed online learning tools that could fit their materials or modes of instruction and interaction better.

More insights and tips will be available in Part II.

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