Inside Online Schools

Inside Online Schools

Many are skeptical about online education. They wonder if it's as good as classroom based education, if it's worth the cost, or if it really will help them in their careers. I suspect that online education seems untrustworthy in part because the people behind online education, and the processes they go through to create programs and courses, remain shrouded in mystery. Any one of the more than three million students taking a class can tell you about their personal experiences in an online course. It's rare, however, that you are given the designer and instructor's perspectives.

Who is an Online Educator?

Considering the world of online education now ranges from online elementary schools to online grad schools, more and more teachers at traditional schools are considering a move into the online education field.

In the majority of cases, an online educator is a person with scholarly credentials and experiences that qualify them to teach in any university. This means that the instructor has or is working on their PhD or other terminal degree in their field of specialization. In the majority of cases, these advanced degrees are from universities that are ground based and have established reputations. Therefore, online instructors, like those in any college classroom, have proven to an accredited institution that they are experts in their field of study and in the classroom. Frequently, online educators teach online courses in addition to classroom-based courses.

Why Does Someone Choose to Teach Online?

Instructors choose to get involved in online education for a variety of reasons. Many are excited by the possibilities new technologies offer educators and students. Additionally, almost everyone in the university system knows that online learning will only become a more popular and standard practice in the future, and instructors are eager to be a part of this trend. Like students, many instructors appreciate the flexibility of online education. This flexibility isn't just about when and where a student does the work or an instructor does the teaching. For many instructors, online technologies offer new methods for delivering content and ensuring student success that are unavailable in traditional classroom settings.

In my case, I have chosen to teach online courses for two primary reasons. Firstly, I appreciate the fact that my course can bring my field of specialization, British literature, to people who might not otherwise have access to such a course. When I teach on campus, many students take my classes simply in order to fulfill a basic university requirement. This is rarely the case in my online courses. Students from all over the country take courses like mine because they are genuinely interested in finding out more about the subject. I appreciate being able to offer them the opportunity to explore their interest.

On campus, many majors demand high course loads, and many students don't have the time to take a course like mine that might appeal to their personal interests. An online course gives these students the opportunity to take a class about a subject that they really love, but may not have the time to find out more about. In short, online education means that I can reach more students from more places and share with them the experience of reading and learning more about the course subject matter.

Secondly, the technological developments in online education facilitate the delivery of information to students in new and exciting ways. Often, these new technologies create learning opportunities that can't be replicated in a classroom. These technologies can replace traditional classroom teaching techniques (like lectures and discussions) with new forms of education that draw students in and help them master the course material.

For example, when teaching British literature, I spend a lot of time contextualizing literary texts by examining art works. In the classroom, I do this by projecting a picture of an artwork onto a screen. After projecting the image, I give a mini lecture and invite students to respond in a class discussion. This is almost always a fun and exciting experience. But I inevitably leave these kinds of classes worrying over the student who didnӴ participate, or the student who may not have gotten my point as clearly as I would have liked.

In an online environment, I can participate in the creation of new technologies that allow my students to click on, explore, and even build virtual reality environments that more fully integrate their experience of the course material with their personal learning preferences. Students get the best of both worlds: they can read or listen to a podcast of a lecture, participate in discussion via a discussion board or e-mails with me, and more actively engage with the artworks and texts we're discussing through their own online exploration.

In short, online instructors are often the same instructors that you encounter in a classroom on campus. They've demonstrated their expertise in teaching and in their field of research. Furthermore, many instructors are drawn to online education's ability to reach more people and deliver information in ways that are more successful and engaging that traditional classroom lectures and discussions.

What Goes in to Designing and Implementing an Online Course?

An online course is designed and implemented differently than a campus based course. In many cases, campus based courses are designed by an individual instructor based on his or her own teaching experience and field of expertise. When an instructor is assigned or requests to teach a course, that instructor looks to the departmental and university guidelines that clearly state the course objectives. The instructor might also examine syllabi and assignments that previous instructors have filed. Then, the instructor tailors the course based on their individual specializations in order to meet the learning outcomes set forward by the department and the university. This is largely a solitary endeavor.

While the instructor has the basic information about the course at hand, and examples of previous, similar courses, the instructor chooses the texts and assigns the requirements for their course on their own. Classroom instructors usually share their syllabi and teaching ideas with other professors, but the content of the day to day activities in the classroom usually unfolds as the class progresses and at the individual instructor's discretion.

This is not the case in an online course. Conceiving, designing, and implementing courses entails much more collaboration, and day to day activities are developed fully before students take the first class. When I design a course for the Center for Distance and Independent Study at the University of Missouri, I draw on the established learning outcomes for the course, the available syllabi on file, and my own field of expertise. I then write a course proposal. This proposal is approved first my department chair, then by a panel of officials in the Center who seek approval for the course from other university officials. They consider the merits of the course and ask themselves how well conceived it is, if it's appropriate for students, if it will result in positive learning outcomes, how it will appeal to student's needs, and the ways in which it might (and might not) work online.

Next, experts from the Center and I have a consultation. Together, we come up with strategies for making the course work online. We have to draw on our different fields of knowledge in order to develop creative new technologies that ensure students get the most from the course. Before they officially accept the course, the Center requests a sample lesson. I write this lesson and create the content, assignments, and interactive online activities. If the Center approves of the first lesson, they will give me the green light to develop the other lessons. After months of writing the course content, often hundreds of pages, and developing the assignments, grading criteria, and instructor's manuals, I submit the course to the Center.

The Center spends several months revising the course with the help of a panel of experts. They might change some of the content to reflect new developments in research. Or they may simply work to make my writing clearer for a student audience, or enhance the digital technologies we use. A team of experts turn the content I generate in a well conceived online course.

Once the course is designed, the Center sends it back to me for final improvements. Before we make the course widely available to students, we run a test section to work out any last minute kinks. This kind of collaborative revision almost never happens in classroom based courses where the test run of a course is often the first class the instructor teaches. When that instructor realizes that students didn't master certain skills, or were unhappy with certain assignments and texts, then the instructor makes changes that go into effect the next time he or she teaches the course. Furthermore, few classroom instructors can spend months, or even a year, developing a course in consultation with other experts before they teach it. The collaborative nature of online education allows for this kind of sustained development.

How is an Online Course Taught?

Once a course is designed and implemented and students enroll, the instructor's role varies from course to course. In some courses, the instructor may interact with the student very little. Tests can be graded automatically by a computer program. But in most courses, instructors give students regular feedback on their assignments. They also engage with students via e-mail and online discussion boards. Like many other instructors, I try my best to replicate online the kinds of interactions I have with students in a bricks and mortar classroom.

Instructors usually offer students personalized comments on every assignment that are tailored to the student's specific learning needs. Secondly, many instructors participate in online discussion with students via e-mail and discussion boards. Some may even have access to video conferencing and live chat rooms. Finally, many instructors build into their courses programs and interactive activities that put the student in communication with the student. For example, in my own courses, we run "ask the expert" java script programs. In sections of the course where I anticipate student questions, students are prompted to write in their own answers to the questions, then click on a button that reveals my answer.

What does your Instructor Want from You?

To some extent, however, many students still report feeling that the instructor-student interaction in online courses isn't quite as personal and direct as they would like it to be. In many ways, this is an unfortunate but inevitable side effect of distance learning. This barrier to online education will change, however, as online courses increasingly use technologies such as virtual classrooms and video conferences to help instructors and students connect. It's important for students to realize that their instructors want to be in contact with them. I don't know of a single instructor who doesn't want their students to send them their questions or concerns, test run new ideas to their instructors, or try to establish a closer intellectual relationship.

What your instructors most want to see is a desire to learn and a sincere effort that demonstrates that desire. While all online courses require a degree of self motivation on the student's part, too often students approach online courses with a sense of going at it alone. Know that online instructors are experienced experts who have chosen to teach and design their courses in order to reach more students. Don't hesitate to contact your instructors. Take advantage of online discussion boards, e-mails, chat rooms, and video conferencing to get the most out of your instructor and the class. Remember that your instructors are live people on the other side of the computer screen who put hard work and effort in designing the class and who want you to both enjoy and succeed in the course.