Setting Up An Online Learning Experience
What is the significance of knowing the technology available to you?
“…a critical understanding of what we use in today’s classroom, and why we use it, is the foundation on which teaching and learning in the 21st century must be predicated”
(Burke, 2013, p.57).
The capacity of information and communication technologies to enhance learning and assessment is ever increasing as ICTs offer more and more “opportunities for sharing information, resources and expertise, as well as for networking with student peers and teachers” (Dunn et al, 2005, p.41). According to Dunn et al (2005), ICTs have transformed the nature of distance education because “no longer do students have to learn in isolation from others in their cohort” (p.41), with online discussions and interaction through a range of learning and assessment tasks … much in demand by students in both distance and face-to-face teaching settings” (p.41).
Given the technology-dependence of delivering online course, it is especially important that online instructors know what technology is available to them, so that they can explore ways to improve, enrich, and diversify the overall experience for online students (Paul & Cochran, 2013).
Technology is often described as “essentially a double-edged sword, bringing great benefits to students while potentially introducing increased risks for misuse” (Paul & Cochran, 2013, p.53); therefore, it is of paramount importance that online instructors take a critical view of technology and “its profound and life-changing effects on learners today is necessary and essential if we are to provide the very best educational opportunities and experiences …” (Burke, 2013, p.58).
“…it is not technology and media per se that drive student behaviour [sic] but the way they are used to support teaching and learning. Although technologies potentially offer a vast range of opportunities to enhance distance learning and support…, they need to be ‘constructively aligned’, that is, carefully integrated into programme design and assessment”
(Rogerson-Revell, 2015, pp.129-130).
Thus, it is important for the instructor/course designer to pick and choose so as to capitalize on the benefits of new technologies and to ensure the integration of technology, pedagogy, and quality. Johnson (2014) suggests that in their choice of technology instructors/course designers be guided by the seven principles of good practice developed by Chikering and Gamson:
Technology becomes an instructional lever if it:
- Encourages contact between students and faculty;
- Helps develop reciprocity and cooperation among students;
- Promotes active learning;
- Helps provide prompt feedback;
- Facilitates time management for the students and the instructor;
- Provides opportunities for authentic learning;
- Allows to present learning materials in ways consistent with different learning styles.
However, to be able to evaluate a technology as an effective instructional lever, it is necessary for the instructor/course designer to be familiar with the technology.
When familiarizing themselves with technology, instructors/course designers should start with the CMS/LMS in place at their institution(s) (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010). If possible, it is a good idea to stay within the CMS/LMS as going outside the CMS/LMS may introduce extra challenges (e.g. access, extra expense) for both instructors and students (Laureate Education, 2011).
Another point to consider is the technical skills of the students and “her or his comfort with the online environment” (Conrad & Donaldson, 211, p.39). “While students have different skill level with technology, success of an online student nonetheless depends to a considerable extent not only on learning and assessment, but also on these technological skills” (Paul & Cochran, 2013, p.53). Paul and Cochran (2013) insist that technologies selected for a course should be “intuitive for students to use and have an effective and accessible help system” (p.53).
“While there is an obvious relationship between the student and the technologies they must utilize in an online class, there is much variability in the satisfaction of the students with this relationship. Some students will find the technology requirements for online courses to be rather elementary, while others (often nontraditional students) may have more struggles and frustrations. As a result, online programs should take some steps to improve the relationship between students and technology required for the online courses”
(Paul & Cochran, 2013, pp.52-53).
Another very practical consideration in favor of instructor-technology familiarity is that “technically prepared faculty have been found to spend more time on actual teaching than on the technical aspects as compared to less prepared faculty since the technology presumably becomes second nature with more understanding” (Paul & Cochran, 2013, p.55).
Why is it essential to communicate clear expectations to learners?
“Setting expectations is an important step for a faculty member to make in an online course. These expectations should not only communicate the deliverables for the course, but also the nature of the interaction between faculty and students and between the students. This is more critical … since self-motivation can be more difficult in an online environment. Expecting students to perform well has been found to be a self-fulfilling prophecy”
(Paul & Cochran, 2013, p.52).
As Rogerson-Revell (2015) put it, “it can be difficult in distance learning, without face-to-face interaction, to convey the teaching and learning ethos adopted within a particular programme” (p.130), which may result in a mismatch in expectations held by the instructor and the students. For this reason, it is essential that the instructor be explicit in his/her “explanations to students of the purpose of online work and [his/her] expectations of the activities they will undertake” (Sharpe & Benfield, as quoted in Rogerson-Revell, 2015, p.130).
Communicating clear expectations to learners is imperative for creating effective online experiences since the majority of distance learners are “time limited and trying to fit their studies in alongside work and personal commitments” (Rogerson-Revell, 2-15, p.131). Setting clear expectations allows the learners to manage their time more efficiently, which greatly facilitates the learning process and significantly contributes to online learner satisfaction (Boettcher & Conrad, 2011).
What additional considerations should the instructor take into account when setting up an online learning experience?
Better safe than sorry
As Boettcher and Conrad (2010) have it, “there is much to do before your students arrive at your course” (p.55), and there are quite a few considerations for the instructor to take into account when setting up an online learning experience. Out of the ten tips for course beginnings developed by Boettcher and Conrad (2010), I would like emphasize the following:
- Ensuring that the course site is ready for the students to use;
- Ensuring that the essential course elements, such as the syllabus, the weekly plans and discussion postings for the first weeks, have been fully developed and/or adapted to the online environment;
- Ensuring that personnel have been assigned “to help student in the areas of technical support, student services, and library resources” and that the students have received “a list of contact numbers and descriptions of the people and resources available” to them (p.70);
- Evaluating the course for quality;
- “Launching your social presence in your course” (p.75) and encouraging the students to launch theirs;
- Getting to know the students’ zones of proximal development through getting-acquainted-cognitively postings.
This may sound like a lot of work, which it surely is, but this work is manageable (Boettcher & Conrad, 2010) and, when thoroughly done, will yield fruit in terms of student satisfaction, student retention, and better learning outcomes.
Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. (2010). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Burke, L. (2013). Educational and online technologies and the way we learn. International Schools Journal, 32(2), 57-65.
Conrad, R., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction (Updated ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Dunn, L., Morgan, C., Parry, S., & O’Reilly, M. (2005). The student assessment handbook: New directions in traditional & online assessment. London, NY: Routledge Falmer (Taylor & Francis Group).
Johnson, S. (2014). Applying the seven principles of good practice: Technology as a lever – in an online research course. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 13(2), 41-50.
Laureate Education (Producer). (2011). Performance assessments in online environments [Video file]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu.
Paul, J.A., & Cochran, J.D. (2013). Key interactions for online programs between faculty, students, technologies, and educational institutions: A holistic framework. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 14 (1), 49-62.
Rogerson-Revell, P. (2015)/ Constructively aligning technologies with learning and assessment in a distance education master’s programme. Distance Education, 36(1), 129-147.