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2001 Paper Presentations

PRACTICE AND PEDAGOGY IN UNIVERSITY WEB TEACHING

Bonnie Morihara
Oregon University System, USA, <bonnie_morihara@ous.edu>

ABSTRACT

Why do instructors choose to teach online? How do they adapt their teaching roles to the medium? What have instructors discovered about online teaching and learning? These questions underlie my research on university-level web teaching. The web courses examined in this study suggest that four aspects of a web teaching environment (e-mail; reflectivity supported by asynchronous communication; hyperlearning; and the freedom of the instructor to concentrate on concepts, process and learner-centered activities) form the basis of an effective pedagogy for online teaching and learning.

PARTICIPANTS/COURSES

This was a qualitative study of the practice and pedagogy of university web teaching. Research methods included a series of interviews with eight faculty using the web for teaching at a single public university. One web course per participant was also examined for teaching methodologies, instructional design, and procedures for promoting interaction and student learning. The eight instructors/courses selected represented different disciplines (four in hard sciences, four in liberal arts) and included both undergraduate and graduate courses. Half of the instructors taught web-only courses; half had a major portion of their courses on the web, and also met students in regularly scheduled face-to-face class sessions. Other aspects of diversity within the participants included gender (3 females, 5 males), ethnicity (1 African-American, 7 European-American), tenure status, full-time postsecondary teaching experience (1 to 40 years), web teaching experience (1 to 5 years; 2 to 5 courses developed) and level of technical expertise. Participants are referred to throughout the study as "instructors" or "teachers."

CONTEXT

Instructors teaching on the web in 1998 (when data were collected for this study) are thought of as "innovators" (2.5% of the population) and "early adopters" (13.5%), according to Rogers' (1995) schema for the diffusion of innovation. Each faculty interviewed made a deliberate choice to develop a web course, unlike the situation today where some faculty are directed to convert face-to-face courses for web delivery.

One of the most noticeable trends in online teaching between 1998 and 2001 is the growth in the use of course authoring software. None of the eight courses examined for this study used a course authoring system such as Blackboard, WebCT, eCollege, or others so commonplace today. The variability in the "look" and instructional design of the courses was more obvious than is seen in most courseware-created courses nowadays, and generally reflected the instructor's teaching philosophy. Six of the eight courses studied were written in HTML, while two courses incorporated HTML and Perl. Most instructors applied their own coding (some as part of a team of developers) and one instructor unschooled in HTML hired a graduate student to convert the course for the web. Password protection of courses was used by only the two instructors who coded in Perl/HTML. The remaining six courses were freely viewable to anyone with the URL.

CONTEXT

Naming Conventions
Instructors have been given "made-up" names for purposes of reference and to preserve confidentiality. Participants were assigned names that would identify gender, whether courses were web-only or web-assisted, and whether courses were a hard/soft science. All web-only instructors are identified by names beginning with "T" for "total," and those teaching web-assisted courses by names beginning with "P" for "partial." Four instructors who taught hard science courses have one-syllable names, and those with liberal arts courses have two-syllable names.

Table 1 compares notable aspects of the participants' web courses: undergraduate/graduate, number of students, number of face-to-face meetings required, course development by team or individual, course taught by team or individual, textbook required for course, and the level of interactivity observed-whether primarily between teacher/student, between student/student, or a combination.

Table 1:  Review of Web Courses
 name   level   students   face-to-face   development   teaching   textbook   interactivity 
Tammy  G 3 0 team self no S-T; S-S
Ted  U 25  exams  team team yes S-S; S-T
 Thomas  U 35 1 team self yes S-T; S-S
Travis  U 50 0 team team no S-S; S-T
Peg  U 30 all self self yes S-T
Peter  U/G 60 all self self yes S-T
Pam  U/G 90 all self self yes S-T
Paul  U 170 all self self yes S-T

Although statistical generalizations cannot be drawn in this type of case study, it is interesting to note that all of the total-web courses were team-developed, while none of the partial-web courses were. Furthermore, the two team-taught courses were total-web courses. The total-web courses all incorporated student/student interactive assignments (with two courses relying heavily on this type of assignment), while interactivity in the partial-web courses was either in-class or between teacher/student via individual e-mail or class mailing list. Two total-web instructors chose to use no textbook, relying instead on extensive support material in the body of the course and in hyperlinks. The number of students in courses is also noteworthy: the total-web courses had student enrollments of 3 to 50 (mean = 28.25), while the partial-web courses had student enrollments of 30 to 170 (mean = 87.5). Many experienced web teachers currently recommend enrollments of 10 to 25 in totally online courses in order to ensure quality teaching and learning.

REASONS FOR TEACHING ON THE WEB

In the course of two extensive open-ended interviews of each instructor, numerous reasons were identified as to why instructors chose to teach on the web.

  • The first three reasons (curiosity/creativity, accessibility to instructor's ideas, and connection to extensive outside resources) were mentioned by all instructors. Curiosity and creativity are key aspects of the innovator/early adopter personality. (Rogers, 1995)
  • Facilitating reflective dialogue was mentioned by six of eight instructors.
  • Flexibility in teaching schedules was mentioned by all of the total-web teachers and one of the partial-web teachers.
  • All the hard science instructors mentioned that making sure students could access essential content and ensuring that charts, graphs, and images were readily available to students were important reasons they used the web for teaching.
  • The majority of reasons for choosing web teaching reflect the perspective of the teacher. Learner-centered reasons are also reflected in reasons 4, 5, 7, 11, 12, and 13.
Table 2:  Reasons Given for Teaching on the Web
Reason Mentioned by
1. curiosity and creativity, i.e., to explore a new and interesting teaching medium Tammy, Ted, Thomas, Travis
Pam, Paul, Peg, Peter
2. to make instructor's notes, explanations and ideas available to students Tammy, Ted, Thomas, Travis
Pam, Paul, Peg, Peter
3. to connect to outside and up-to-date resources Tammy, Ted, Thomas, Travis
Paul, Pam, Peg, Peter
4. to provide a vehicle for reflective dialogue [asynchronous, to allow time for thinking before responding] Tammy, Ted, Thomas, Travis
Peg, Peter
5. to provide a convenient way for all students to ask questions or make comments Tammy, Thomas
Pam, Peg, Peter
6. to give instructor flexibility in teaching schedule Tammy, Ted, Thomas, Travis
Peg
7. to serve distant students [off-campus students and campus-based students that may be prevented from attending classes] Tammy, Travis
Paul, Peg, Peter
8. to disseminate knowledge to non-class members Tammy, Travis
Peg, Peter
9. to make sure essential content knowledge for which students are responsible is available Ted
Pam, Paul, Peg
10. to make slides, graphics, and images readily available to students  
Pam, Paul, Peg
11. to support multiple ways of knowing and learning Ted, Travis

12. to facilitate dyad or small group learning Ted, Travis

13. to facilitate autonomous learning Travis
Pam
14. to organize and professionalize instructor's lectures   Peg, Peter
15. to be up-to-date, on the cutting edge Thomas
Peter
16. to give instructor flexibility in office hours Travis
Pam
17. to provide prerequisite background knowledge   Peg

WEB TEACHING: IN THEIR OWN WORDS

The heart of qualitative research resides in the experiences/context of the participants' own words. Since this paper is a summary of only the key findings from a lengthier study (Morihara, 1999), a few representative quotations are provided below without comment to enable readers to hear the voices of the eight web teachers interviewed. These are followed by a section on the pedagogy of web teaching.

Face-to-Face vs. Web-only Teaching

  • "I think that face-to-face teaching is an absolutely essential component to web teaching. Students see how I go through the notes, how I do things, what things are emphasized. That human element is critical." (Paul)
  • "I like cracking jokes in class and getting a reaction right away. I like hearing the oohs and ahhs when I put up a really cool website." (Pam)
  • "I have not used [the web] to replace me, and that's a genuine decision½ I really feel like the [face-to-face] connection between student and teacher is pretty important for them to actually learn. I think they catch on more that way." (Peter)
  • "I don't think I'd want to teach all web, or all distance, where you never see the students. However, that's a biased answer based on the old paradigm. The web, the internet, now is so much more interactive." (Peg)
  • "I would not be happy to see education go 100% to online methods." (Travis)
  • "[Face-to-face teaching] requires a whole lot less preparation [than web teaching]." (Ted)
  • "You really are more of a coach than a lecturer in a web-only class." (Ted)
  • "I'm more 'mentorish' on the web and more 'authoritative' face-to-face. Well, that fits the medium. I'm more 'hierarchical' face-to-face and more 'heterarchical' on the web." (Thomas)

Drawbacks of the Web for Teaching/Learning

  • "Students think that because it's on the web it's accurate." (Pam)
  • "Research seems to be a little less thorough because it's so easy to get-to search a subject, get it, print it out, and you don't really know what you're doing. You're just getting it." (Thomas)
  • "Time management becomes an amplified issue; it's what students were poor at to start with, and they're poorer at it when they get in [a web class] situation." (Ted)
  • "It's real easy to get caught up in all the technology, and think like you've got to make this thing totally snazzy ÷ with all kinds of moving animation and video ÷ when it just gets in the way; the novelty of it gets in the way of the teaching." (Peter)

Web Pedagogy

  • In a web course, you need to "anticipate all kinds of learning styles." (Pam)
  • "The web speaks to students with particular learning styles that are not spoken to in the classroom situation." (Ted)
  • "This [course] was written as a web-only experience in an attempt to actually teach better. One of the things we realized from the outset we could do is include a lot more active learning, a lot more interactivity than you can in a classroom setting, which tends to be extremely passive ÷ especially in large lectures." (Ted)
  • "[We incorporated] passive receptive learning with heavy visual; the active textual learning which is directive: 'Write this down and do this;' and then this interactive learning [dyad, small groups, and listserv assignments]. And so by making a series out of those three different modes of learning, our idea is that we'll catch most of [the students]." (Travis)
  • "Interestingly, the global discussion ÷ since it's just setting up an e-mail list and putting everybody on it ÷ is where most teachers tend to start. Of all the models [peer-peer, intra-group, inter-group, and global discussion] this is the most difficult one to write a designed activity for. So it's fascinating that the technology misleads us into what I think is the hardest thing. It's really hard to write a good activity for [global discussion]." (Travis)
  • "There is one thing a lot of people don't differentiate, and that's information on the web versus teaching on the web. That's really critical. We have to remember and understand that [web courses] are not just books with a few activities thrown in." (Peg)
  • "[I'm interested in changing] the conversation from one of looking at the possibilities in terms of what I can put on the web, what I can deliver, what I can do, how long it takes, and what I can build, to a much more student- and professor-centered conversation that's saying: What is it that I want to accomplish? And what is it that I want the students to learn?" (Ted)
  • "Those universities that are successful, those faculty that are successful, are going to have to start relying on a team approach, and universities are going to compete ÷ and this is the important point ÷ not on the technological level, but on the pedagogic level." (Ted)

THE PEDAGOGY OF WEB TEACHING

Teaching on the web is sufficiently different from teaching face-to-face to raise various questions about instructional design; the nature of teacher/student, student/student, and student/media interactions; and the process and outcomes of student learning. One instructor commented, "The web technology has allowed us to think about different ways that students learn, probably more so than if we were doing the same thing over and over again [in the classroom]. I realized early on that I could not take the [face-to-face] class as I taught it and put it up [on the web]. It wouldn't work."

There was a distinction between the ways that the partial-web teachers and the total-web teachers used the web. Although both partial- and total-web teachers used the web for current resources and requisite background, and to organize lecture notes, the total-web teachers also used the web as a venue for students' reflections and incorporated online dialogue to support the construction of knowledge. This is a significant pedagogical difference. For the partial-web teachers, the web course was primarily a depository for information. For the total-web teachers, it also became an interactive vehicle for the support of inquiry, dialogue, problem-solving, and reflection. The focus of the web-assisted courses was primarily on content, whereas the web-only courses incorporated both content and process.

A related phenomenon regarding web teaching and teacher change is the evolution of roles noted by the web-only teachers from lecturer/expert to guide, facilitator, and co-learner. An award-winning web instructor who favors a learner-centered pedagogy indicated that he could only escape from the expert position inherent in face-to-face teaching through his online teaching (Merickel, 2000). Expectation and tradition are so strong in the face-to-face university classroom that professors retain the expert role even when acting as facilitator or delegator (Grasha, 1994). In the more self-directed learning environment of the web-only classes in this study, instructors became more facilitators in the online dialogue and feedback on assignments, as well as co-learners.

FOUR FOUNDATIONS OF A WEB PEDAGOGY

The experiences of both the total- and partial-web teachers highlight a number of aspects of the web teaching environment that foster a new pedagogy. Four in particular are: (1) extensive use of e-mail, (2) "think time" made possible by asynchronous communication, (3) "hyperlearning" possibilities, and (4) freedom of the instructor to concentrate on processes and concepts.

1.   E-mail. E-mail is not unique to web classes, and has become almost ubiquitous on college campuses over the past few years. In 1998, e-mail was less widely used to support student/teacher communication, but it was a prominent feature in each of the eight web courses in this study. The web teachers noted a number of advantages of e-mail communication that influence a web pedagogy. One noted, "With [large] class sizes [the web offers] the ability for students to follow up with questions" better than in the classroom. Others spoke of e-mail as a way for students to ask questions with less fear of embarrassment than in the classroom. Two instructors incorporated assignments into their web classes that required students to communicate by e-mail with off-campus subject matter experts. Some faculty regularly used questions and reflections posted by students as the starting point for mini-lessons for the whole class. One declared that e-mail could increase student participation beyond what is possible in a time-bound classroom. Other faculty observed that e-mail interaction tends to lower the instructor/student power differential common in a college classroom.
     
2.  

Asynchronicity and Reflection. Asynchronous communication supports both student and teacher reflectivity, and this reflectivity can lead to deeper, more meaningful learning than is typical in a face-to-face classroom. Noting that many students are more comfortable when they have time to think before responding (as opposed to speaking spontaneously), a faculty member said, "On the web it's easier to deal with issues, concepts, and ideas than it is in the classroom." In-class discussions rely on students' memories of what they've read, while asynchronous web discussions allow students time to recheck, rethink, and focus on the question. One faculty member contrasted the superficiality of ordinary classroom discussions with the deep reflection and mindfulness observed in asynchronous online dialogues. Palloff and Pratt (2001) noted similarly, "The reflective process embedded in online learning is one of its hallmarks and most exciting features. If an instructor is willing to give up control of the learning process and truly act as a facilitator, he or she may be amazed at the depth of engagement with learning and the material that can occur as a result (Palloff & Pratt, 2001, p. 34).

     
3.  

Hyperlearning. The connection to a vast network of global resources combined with the hyperlink capabilities of web technology is another key foundation for a new pedagogy. Spiro, Feltovich, Jacobson and Coulson (1992) outlined a theory of cognitive flexibility that applies to knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. Their theory can be illustrated through a metaphor of criss-crossing the landscape: viewing a situation from the perspective of differing standpoints and making meaningful connections when pathways intersect. Spiro et al. (1992) proposed that this metaphor also represents the way that hyperlink-supported learning functions.

Hypertext can support a pedagogy very different from that which can be supported by using traditional linear narrative form. One faculty member noted, "It really did take some time for reflection about not thinking linearly." Another explained, "When you link a word, that word now has at least a dual use, in the sense that you're emphasizing something here, and at the same time emphasizing that the person could or should leave. In other words, you're directing them toward the meaning of the text and away from it altogether, simultaneously!"

What I'm looking for is a language of hypertext such that we're able to think in terms of using linkage as a method for students to actually navigate the thinking. Right now we pretty much treat links as if they were all the same species. However, why you go somewhere else, and how those two pages are connected, is variable. And we could use those variations in purposeful ways to teach people by actually experiencing the change. For example, you could create associative links that only showed that there was some kind of common element between the two, and you were linking the commonality. Or, there could be some kind of historical link that showed that there was some kind of generative relationship between these two. . . . Or, you could do additive links . . . where you could take two elements and add them together and get a third different thing. (total-web teacher)

Hypertext is a vehicle for both broader and deeper exploration of content. "Hypertext documents allow the teacher to share information, insight, and questions in a much less intrusive, authoritarian manner, essentially behind the text½ Much more is contained in the hypertext document than could possibly be mentioned in a class." (Woodlief, 1997, p. 3) A faculty member confirmed this was the reason her web course was much better than a traditional lecture-based course: "Mainly what I've done is not assume the information I do in lecture ÷ that they should have had in prerequisites. On the web I don't assume that and I add it in." Another web teacher incorporated a sophisticated version of programmed learning by using what he referred to as "conditional links" to send students to different URLs depending on their answers to online quizzes and various other activities. These hyperlinks became the basis for "a dynamically regenerated syllabus" which addressed individual students' differing needs.
Using hypertext is a more critical decision pedagogically than using larger font size, bold fonts, bullets, or underlining in a standard written document. Hyperlinked ideas are perceived as being most important, while unlinked ideas might be dismissed by unwary readers. The author of a hypertext document can "lay out an argument through the omission or addition of particular items that support the point being made" (Gilster, 1997, p. 131). One web teacher warned, "When we create a site using these linkages, we're actually manifesting our conceptions of the subject matter. I think it's really important for educators to be aware of that, and to be wary of it, because they could do weird things, like exclusions."
     
4.   Process-centered focus. A fourth foundation for a new web pedagogy is the shift to a more process- and learner-centered orientation made possible by having course content accessible on the web pages. One faculty member stated, "I don't have the fear any more that if I don't cover a topic in class it won't be covered." Both partial- and total-web teachers reported that having content material on their websites ÷ up-to-date and as they wished to present it, not as a textbook presented it ÷ freed them to "cover less and do more examples," to "work more on issues and the student point of view," and have more "discussion and practical application and less dissemination of knowledge" in teaching the course. This supports the argument of Palloff and Pratt (2001), "In order for online courses to be successful, the faculty-centered focus [of traditional postsecondary education] needs to change to a learner-centered focus." (p. 47)

CONCLUSION

The opinions of the participants in this study indicate that most college level courses would support student learning more effectively with the addition of a website and web-based activities. Moreover, each teacher who uses the web will use it in a way that supports his/her teaching philosophy. All the partial-web teachers believed the addition of the web element to face-to-face teaching significantly improved their courses, adding modalities and expanded learning opportunities. Likewise, all the total-web teachers believed the web-only environment supported important pedagogical goals and promoted student outcomes that they were less able to achieve in the traditional expert-novice classroom relationship.

The web courses examined in this study suggest that four aspects of a web teaching environment (e-mail, asynchronous communication, hyperlearning, and the freedom of the instructor to concentrate more on concepts and process since the content is covered on the website) are elements that can be leveraged to improve postsecondary web teaching and deepen student learning, perhaps beyond results capable of achievement in traditional face-to-face teaching.

REFERENCES

Gilster, P. (1997). Digital literacy. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Grasha, A. F. (1994). A matter of style: The teacher as expert, formal authority, personal model, facilitator, and delagator. College Teaching, 42, 142-149.

Merickel, M. (2000). Private communication, January 2000.

Morihara, B. (1999). University web teaching practice and pedagogy. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Oregon State University, Corvallis.

Palloff, R.M. & Pratt, K. (2001). Lessons from the cyberspace classroom: The realities of online teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rogers, E. (1995). Diffusion of innovations. (4th ed.). New York: The Free Press.

Spiro, R.J., Feltovich, P.J., Jacobson, M.I., & Coulson, R.L. (1992). Cognitive flexibility, constructivism and hypertext: Random access instruction for advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In T. M. Duffy & D. J. Jonassen (Eds.), Constructivism and technology of instruction: A conversation (pp. 57-75). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Woodlief, A. M., (1997). Changing the paradigm: Hypertext and interactive, student-centered learning. In J. L. Morrison (Ed.), Technology tools for today's campuses [CD-ROM]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation.

 

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