"Sorting Out Different Expectations for Online Courses"
Description of the different expectations that shaped our university's first general education, distance education course and discussion of the accommodations made during three subsequent terms of teaching the course.
Three years ago, I created and taught our university's first online general education course, which may be viewed at the following location: http://asweb.unco.edu/depts/english/122online/122online.html . As I moved from the planning to the design and delivery stages of the project, I discovered that students, administrators, and colleagues had different expectations for distance learning, some of which have yet to be resolved. This paper outlines the disparities in expectations and discusses some of the resolutions that occurred during the last three years of offering the course.
First, I'd like to clarify my own expectations. I have long been curious about the effectiveness of a distance education writing course and welcomed the chance to explore its potential. I wanted to see if online teaching worked and was curious about the ways that it might overlap its face-to-face counterpart. I did not expect the online course to be more successful than a face-to-face course, I simply expected it to provide an alternative to teaching and learning in a traditional classroom. I reasoned that if the alternative worked, I could work towards creating an innovative distance education writing course that would reflect the ongoing changes in the ways in which we write.
I started out with the goal of helping students meet the course standards as published on the website. As I wanted students to be comfortable with the presentation, I structured the course similar to face-to-face courses. Students were expected to complete a few generating exercises, discuss the exercises, write, peer edit, rewrite, submit revised drafts to instructor for evaluation, and revise for a portfolio grade. The course would build student's confidence by requiring many pages of writing and improve their ability to express themselves by providing constant, gentle feedback about both the form and content of their work.
As I believed the emphasis should be on writing rather than technology, I wanted the interface between the technology and the learning to be as seamless as possible. In keeping with this notion, I planned to use chatrooms to stimulate discussions, online editors to assist in draft response, links to online references to stimulate research, and attachments to encourage a professional appearance in final products. In short, I hoped to create a lively virtual classroom. Accordingly, I expected those who enrolled in the course to be vaguely familiar with internet and wordprocessing technology and to be motivated to write as well as those entering traditional composition courses.
My target audience was first-year students living on or off campus. I thought the course might be attractive to those devoting most of their time to science or the performing arts and to the 80% of our student body who worked as well as attended class. I also thought the course might ease the enrollment problems in our Introduction to Composition courses. I proposed the course to our Deans and managed to obtain a course release from a technology grant to design and implement the offering. I also managed to obtain a graduate assistantship for Eric Sagel, a very talented graduate student, to assist in course design and implementation.
The design proved challenging. Not only did Eric and I have to negotiate our preferences for images, colors, and links, we also had to agree on how to integrate grammar, navigation, and enrichment information into the main body of the text without making it appear obtrusive. We had lengthy debates about content and design elements. We continually struggled with the issue of how much text to include in each frame. We revised the course several times. Finally, we settled on consistent images and colors for assignments and types of assignments, discovered non-intrusive ways of integrating grammar and navigation into the body of the instruction, and decided to use a textbook to back up the online explanations. It took 16 weeks to design and write over 400 frames. When our effort was featured in the student newspaper, we expected a course overload and wild support.
In anticipation of the additional time it would take to teach online, we asked for a lower enrollment cap. It was then that we discovered that some university administrators favored sponsoring only those online courses that would bring in additional revenue. During a meeting to determine enrollment procedures, one Dean commented that he didn't want to lower course caps, he wanted to raise them. In another meeting, an Assistant to the President responded that he thought students should pay extra for the convenience of working in their pajamas. The majority of the administrators present, however, thought that in order to be competitive, the university must develop an online presence, thereby indicating that they saw distance education as more of a strategy than a goal (Smith 1998) and confirming that they would support my efforts in this area. As a result of the enrollment discussions, we agreed on a pilot cap of 15 students, with an eventual cap of 25, the same cap as our face-to-face Introduction to Composition courses.
Just as the administrators had different expectations than the instructor, so the students had different expectations than either administrator or instructor. Within the first two weeks of the pilot, it became apparent that online students exhibited many of the characteristics of adult learners: sensitivity to time and cost factors, "just in time learning," etc. (Illich 1971, 158). In this particular instance, the online students ranked convenience above learning or cost. They did not want to meet in chatrooms at assigned times. They wanted to work at their own pace on their own time. Although they were willing to respond to other student's writing, at least one out of every three had difficulty responding to group discussions or adhering to any timeline other than final due dates for papers. In short, approximately one-third of the students expected a sort of online, independent study, correspondence course.
Among the remaining two thirds of the students enrolled in the course, contrary to the findings of Lebie, Rhoades and McGrath (1995), group interaction increased rather than decreased. Three weeks into the term, postings became more personal. Responses to drafts become more insightful. Additional "tag-ons," such as, "I hope everything goes well for you tomorrow," began to appear at the end of responses. Students were attempting to get to know each other. One student sent an email announcing she was sure she had seen another group member across a room. "I just knew it was Aaron, " she stated excitedly, thus supporting Holberg's assertion that friendly, personal tones are important in distance education (1989).
Changes in Expectations
Three years later, some of my expectations have been met while others have yet to be fulfilled. Due to varying degrees of technological expertise and differing access to technical resources, the course still retains a fairly traditional rather than innovative shape, with reading assignments and exercises, drafts and final papers due on assigned dates. Although some students are extremely adept at web technology, others do not know how to find the World Wide Web and a few more have difficulty viewing the website as a teaching/learning environment. Rather than consult the online syllabus, for example, some students ask about the next assignment via email. In addition, at least 10% are unfamiliar email and 70-80 % has never subscribed to a list. Even though we now provide technical instruction through campus computer labs, face-to-face meetings between student and instructor, and countless email messages, some students continue to have difficulty with lists, attachments, and online editors. Consequently, we have had to adjust to each student's level of technical mastery and differing resources. Those who continue to have difficulty finding and navigating the website or signing on lists receive their instructions through private email messages from the instructor. Those who cannot send attachments, send their papers and groupwork as one long email message.
As a result of the technical problems, the one unexpected feature that has developed is a biweekly communication called "Notes from Emily." I began sending these messages when I realized students were having difficulty finding and navigating the website. Although the number of students having difficulty with the technology decreases each term, I still send these messages two or three times a week. The messages feature general evaluative summaries of submitted work, chatty reminders of due dates, additional discussions of the writing process, and gentle pep talks. The students love them. Many send personal responses to at least one or two of the "Notes" each week. Although this increases my workload, it also creates the sense of community that I could not achieve with a chatroom. Some students enjoy our correspondence so much that they stop by my office to meet me, once again supporting Holberg's assertion that friendly, personal tones are important in distance education and that the emotional involvement between instructor and learning parties is likely to contribute to the learning pleasure. (1989).
Student attitudes remain optimistic. Although students often report that the course requires a lot of work, they also indicate that they are so grateful for the convenience of working online that they would be willing to complete any assignment although, as previously noted, some students still have difficulty submitting assignments in a timely fashion. Many students ask for clarification after drafts are returned, and all portfolios reveal conscious attempts to submit improved revisions. Thus far, there have been no objections to the use of an accompanying printed textbook, and student responses to the readings indicate that they take this reference seriously. In short, student efforts demonstrate both interest and improvement.
Administrative reaction to the use of technology has solidified over time. Colleagues in other disciplines are now integrating more technology into their courses and some are developing additional online courses. Even though English 122 online has never boasted full enrollment, the Deans have been satisfied because the course has helped to boost the image of the university and received praise from higher administrators, the Board of Trustees, and others. As predicted, I devote approximately 30-50% more time to teaching the online class than to traditional classes. As a result, the Deans have agreed to reduce the enrollment cap to 20.
Expectations vs. Success
In spite of the fact that my online course does not meet everyone's expectations, traditional academic indicators suggest that the course has been as successful at delivering writing instruction as face-to-face courses. The course has a 90-95% completion rate, with an average of one student withdrawing during the first week of the term. This is consistent with enrollments in face-to-face writing courses. Student evaluations consistently rate the course as 5 on a 1-5 point scale, with highest praise for the convenience, the instructor, the learning, and course design, in that order. All students complete the course. All students meet the course standards, and final grades do not very significantly from those in face-to-face courses. Administrators and colleagues seem satisfied as the course is frequently mentioned when I am introduced at meetings, and I have received favorable comments from faculty within and without the university.
As for my innovative course that will change the way we will deliver writing instruction, that will have to wait until the future. In the meantime, I must admit that I enjoy teaching online.
When designing an online course, educators need to take into account the disparate expectations of administrators, instructors, and students, for these expectations have a direct bearing on the success of the course. When disagreements over enrollment, content, design, or implementation occur, educators can accommodate the disparities by opting for more familiar constructs until such time as attitudes or technical expertise change.
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