Online Instruction: What works, what doesn't?

T.H.E. Journal has published a study where researchers interviewed 21 online instructors with a series of open-ended essay questions. We review their findings and add our own comments [in brackets]:

A lot of issues related to bandwidth limitations and the dominance of text in Web-based classes. [While wider bandwidth systems are being installed all the time, it seems that a lot of that extra capacity is being soaked up
by new users, rather than allowing faster access to existing users. This problem may be around a while. One solution: don't rely solely on the Internet as your delivery medium. Text is more accessible to people in
PRINT so leave it that way, exploit the Internet for its strengths as a visual medium, and a point of access to current information].

Some instructors feel as if a lifetime of teaching skills goes by the wayside. They can not use their presence and their classroom skills to get their point across. Nor can they use their oral skills to improvise on the
spot to deal with behaviour problems or educational opportunities. [Synchronous communication methods such as chat provide a forum for immediate and personalised feedback, but they require a new set of skills
from facilitators. They don't however facilitate the 80% of communication that is non-verbal. Look carefully at your learner profile, face-to-face contact may well be an essential component of your delivery mechanism.]

Because of the reliance on text-based communication and a lack of visual cues, every aspect of the course has to be laid out in meticulous detail to avoid misunderstandings. [In many face-to-face environments, presentation
materials such as OHPs, handouts etc. account for less than a third of the process of instruction. The bulk comes from the interaction between instructor and learner. Migrating to an online environment necessitates
finding ways of capturing this process. Online courses that rely solely on the conversion of existing teaching resources will lack this depth of structure, and are consequently more likely to result in shallow learning
and low motivation and retention levels.]

They respond to threaded discussion questions, evaluate assignments, and above all answer questions clearing up ambiguities, often spending an inordinate amount of time communicating by e-mail. [Fact: it takes longer to type something than say it. While online learning remains text based, it will always take more time to communicate. Because it is often asynchronous, the process will continue to be repetitive for instructors. Solutions: design learning activities that provide extensive feedback for students; design instructor communication so that it addresses a range of issues in one hit; build communication between learners so they support each other.]

The Web environment presents a number of educational opportunities and advantages over traditional classes, such as many informational resources that can be seamlessly integrated into the class. [Proper integration not
only requires making access to the resources, but also putting in place learning activities that guide learners in the use of the resources.]

The fact that students must write their thoughts down, and the realisation that those thoughts will be exposed semi-permanently to others in the class seem to result in a deeper level of discourse.

There is an initial feeling of anonymity, which allows students who are usually shy in the face-to-face classroom to participate in the online classroom.

[These two points together illustrate one of the fundamental differences between emailing an instructor and posting to a threaded list: privacy versus exposure. When dealing with reticent learners, good communications systems will build confidence with the technology through private email communication prior to 'group' communication.]

This same feeling of anonymity creates some political differences, such as more equality between the students and professor in an online class. [Very true. Learners will often be quite vocal and insistent in an online environment in a way they wouldn't face-to-face. Instructors who prefer to maintain a level of professional status in their relationship with learners may not be comfortable in an online environment.

Learning Management Systems: Dotcom collapses, minimising your risk

Choosing the right Learning Management System
A recent Updater looked at a range of issues you should consider when selecting a LMS. We've got another one to add to the list: financial viability of the provider. Recently there's been a rash of mergers and shutdowns, precipitated in part by the broader Dotcom shakedown. Some examples:
Click2learn has bought Intelliprep
Pensare is closing its doors is turning out the lights (CyberU will provide Headlight's former customers with continued service)
SmartForce announced it will buy icGlobal
Saba will acquire Human Performance Technologies
Centra acquired MindLever
(Source: Brandon Hall)

This raises the issue of service continuity when buying into a prorietary system. The downside of buying into a proprietary system is that the more time and effort invested in building up courseware, the greater difficulty there is in migrating to a new system. When buying into a system you're betting that it will survive financially, and that it isn't going to get behind the pack with emerging technologies.

Other options to consider:
Go with a service that delivers your content for you, and let them worry about maintaining the infrastructure. While you'll pay higher service costs, you'll find it easier to change providers if necessary.

In the early stages, don't rush in and buy into a system. Take time to experiment and develop a clear understanding of your organisations needs, and also gather information on who the leaders are with the sort of delivery infrastructure you require. The chances are that you will have a range of knowledge management and skills development issues to address, whatever system you use. Make inroads here first before limiting yourself to an off-the-shelf delivery system.

About the Author

Phil has been involved in a number of projects in the field of flexible delivery, both research based and product-based. In addition he has developed a number of industry based flexible delivery packages and open learning packages in the Polytechnic sector. He also works as a staff development consultant.