Student engagement is important when teaching any class. It is especially significant when faculty teach in the online learning environment where students are not only isolated from their instructor but from fellow students. Advances in online technologies are creating exciting opportunities for learning in the virtual space. Benefits of online learning are well-known, but online learning also has its disadvantages including high attrition rates due to diminished student engagement, inadequate training and support for teachers tasked with implementing and administering online courses, and the relative newness of the technologies themselves.
Introduction to the Three Streams
Online relationships with faculty and students. The first stream considered is the types of online relationships that exist between faculty and students. The fundamental differences that exist between online relationships compared to traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms is discussed first, followed by an assessment concerning how online relationships between faculty and students can be improved.
Developing effective online instructional practices. The second stream of interest concerns the types of instructional practices that are most effective in online settings, an issue that has become especially salient as more coursework is transferred to Web-based offerings. In some cases, additional training is required to help teachers become proficient in the use of the supporting technologies, while in other cases new pedagogical approaches are required.
Course development and design. The final stream of interest involves developing and designing curricular offerings that are appropriate for online venues, which involves more than a wholesale placement of existing coursework online and expecting positive academic outcomes.
Taken together, it is clear that all three of these streams represent essential components of an effective online learning environment and none of them can be excluded from the implementation and administration of online learning opportunities.
Discussion and Analysis of the Three Streams
Differences between Faculty-Student Online Relationships and Conventional Relationships. The research to date indicates that there is no “one-size-fits-all” learning approach that is most suitable in every situation (Lao & Gonzales, 2005). Rather, course content can be delivered through a wide range of learning venues that exist along a continuum of combinations of synchronous and asynchronous interactions.
These respective learning environments are described by Hall as follows:
1. Quadrant I (Asynchronous — Personal). This quadrant represents personalized learning such as writing or planning.
2. Quadrant II. The focus of this quadrant is on individual online learning such as taking a virtual facility tour or blogging.
3. Quadrant III. This quadrant involves team interactive learning on the Internet such as simulations and linear chatrooms.
4. Quadrant IV. The emphasis in this quadrant is on real time multi-student learning experiences such as team presentations and faculty lectures.
As a result, there are a wide range of online formats that can be used for faculty-student and student-student interactions, including chatrooms, bulletin boards and blogs. With respect to chatroom, there are two basic alternatives available: (a) linear (synchronous) and (b) threaded (asynchronous) (Hall, 2008). According to Hall, “In a linear chatroom environment students are encouraged to interact proactively in near real time to a specific case or problem. The primary focus is on the interactive process. Chatrooms and electronic bulletin boards have been successfully utilized in a variety of graduate level courses” (Hall, 2008, p. 2). Generally speaking, online learning venues that use mostly asynchronous methods are better suited for individual knowledge acquisition; by contrast, synchronous learning is typically more appropriate for multiple student learning settings (Hall, 2008). The typical characteristics of the support systems that are used for Web-based learning include the following:
1. They provide a high degree of interaction and collaboration;
2. They provide students with a dynamic and personal experience for continuous learning.
3. Such support systems offer learners a purposeful entry to the Internet and online resources, and to a new era of learning technologies.
4. They underpin new patterns of relationships between education and business that directly impact the learning process (Hall, 2008).
The foregoing will help educators better understand how faculty-students interactions take place in online venues, and improving these relationships is discussed further below.
Improving the Quality of Online Relationships. With respect to the quality of online relationships between faculty and students, there has been a general paucity of relevant research until relatively recently (Cohen & Ellis, 2005). Moreover, faculty members have been largely excluded in the research to date concerning distance education in general and online learning environments in particular until relatively recently (Hiltz & Goldman, 2004). The research to date indicates that in online learning settings:
1. Faculty changed their teaching persona toward more precision in their presentation of materials and instructions that emphasized communications with students.
2. Although instructors have experienced more difficulty getting their point across and were more constrained in managing on-the-spot behavioral issues and educational opportunities, they could also integrate online materials seamlessly into the course, draw from a broader pool of potential online guests, and often saw stronger one-to-one relationships formed in online courses than in face-to-face courses.
3. Instructors report increased course interaction.
4. Forging online learning relationships requires greater amounts of work
5. Faculty can frequently develop stronger one-to-one relationships with students in online courses than in face-to-face ones (Hiltz & Goldman, 2004).
Despite its relative newness and the constraints involved in deploying and administering online curricular offerings, many educators and students alike have reported positive results (Perreault, Waldman, Alexander & Zhao, 2008; Rabe-Hemp, Woollen & Humiston, 2009). For instance, according to Hiltz and Goldman, “An increasing number of researchers examining larger asynchronous learning networks have begun to characterize online teaching and learning as rewarding and satisfying” (2004, p. 190). Among the positive outcomes related to teaching online that have been reported by faculty that can reasonably be expected to affect the faculty-student relationship include the following:
1. More and higher quality interaction with students.
2. Convenience and flexibility for their teaching and student students’ learning.
3. Increased access to untapped student populations and increased access for student to higher education.
4. Better understanding of educational technology.
5. Enhanced opportunities for professional recognition and research.
6. High levels of student learning.
7. Greater necessity/opportunity for more systematic design of online instruction and a corollary positive impact on student learning and classroom teaching (Hiltz & Goldman, 2004, p. 180).
Although there remains a need for further research in this stream, Hiltz and Goldman (2004) emphasize that the research to date concerning multicourse as well as multi-institutional implementations of online learning support the above findings.
Statement concerning how together the stream supports the research problem. It is axiomatic that in order to improve something, it must first be measured and understood (Service, 2009). By examining the basic differences between traditional classroom instruction and online instructions, educators can gain an improved understanding of the intricacies of online interactions, how and why they are used and then take steps to improve the quality of these communications.
Introduction. The second stream of interest involves the types of instructional practices that are most effective in online venues. Although the pedagogical approaches that are used for delivering high-quality educational services in the classroom can be applied to online venues (Bressler, Bressler & Bressler, 2010), there is far more involved than simply transferring existing curricular offerings to a series of Web pages to assure student engagement in the curricular offerings (Sull, 2009).
Background and Overview. Like their conventional face-to-face counterparts, online instructional practices consist of three fundamental components: (a) content, (b) technology, and (c) pedagogy (Koeher et al., 2004). To help inform the analysis of instructional practices in online venues, Koeher and her colleagues (2004) provide definitions for the following relevant terms set forth in Table 1 below.
Definitions of Relevant Online Course Development and Design Terms
This refers to the actual subject matter that is to be learned/taught. Clearly the content to be covered in high-school social studies is very different from the content to be covered in a graduate course on political science. In the case of a particular course, this would mean the core ideas, knowledge, procedures, resources (reading lists, etc.) and representations that make up the course and subject matter.
This encompasses standard technologies such as books and chalk and blackboard, as well as more advanced technologies such as the Internet and digital video. Different ways of presenting and interacting with information on the screen are important factors when considering technology.
Content and technology have to come together to inform pedagogy. Pedagogy is viewed as the process and practice or methods of teaching and learning and it encompasses (among other things) overall educational purposes, values, aims as well as techniques or methods to be used in the classroom, the nature of the target audience and strategies for evaluating student understandings.
Source: Koehler et al., 2004, p. 27
Instructional practices in online learning environments are characterized by many of the same balancing requirements as their conventional classroom counterparts as well (Badke, 2008). For instance, Koeher et al. emphasize that, “Teaching and learning with technology exist in a dynamic transactional relationship between the three elements. A change in any one of the factors has to be ‘compensated’ by changes in the other two” (p. 27). Consequently, the type of instructional practices that may be best suited for one learning venue will likely be unsuitable and therefore ineffective in another setting. The goal, then, is to identify the optimal mix of the three elements to produce instructional practices for each setting (Koehler et al., 2004), and these issues are discussed further below.
Developing Effective Online Instructional Practices. Unfortunately, many educators may have become overly reliant on one teaching style to the exclusion of other approaches that may be more suitable for a given group of students. Prying busy teachers out of this “comfort zone of teaching” will require careful scrutiny of how these three elements affect teachers new to online learning environments to ensure they are provided with the support and training they need to succeed. This step, of course, is also true of conventional classroom instructional practices, but some educators may attempt to rely on what they know and fail to make the effort to realign their instructional practices with these emerging online learning environments. In this regard, Koehler et al. emphasize that, “When we talk about traditional face-to-face courses, these issues often remain in the background, because with years of practice and familiarity, faculty develop a series of pedagogical scripts that allow them to function without reflection” (p. 27).
Over time, these educators suggest that most teachers will gain the experience and expertise they need to use online learning venues to their best effect in the same fashion they have learned to accept other traditional teaching tools. For instance, Koehler et al. add that, “The content seems tried and true as does the kinds of representations we use. In addition the technologies we use become invisible — in that, we often do not consider them as being technologies at all (good examples being chalk boards and overhead projectors)” (2004, p. 27). In reality, an overhead projector might have seemed like Buck Rogers’ technology when it was first introduced into the classroom, but over time these technologies became fully integrated into the teaching repertoire. Moreover, just as all three of the streams discussed herein affect the overall delivery of online instruction, so too do all three of the constituent elements of online course development and design, content, technology and pedagogy. In this regard, Koehler et al. note that, “The incorporation of a new technology or new medium for teaching suddenly forces us to confront basic educational issues since this new technology or medium changes the relationship between all three elements” (2004, p. 27).
Unlike the three streams, though, the three constituent elements of online course design and development remain relatively new to many educators, and this newness requires a careful analysis of how these three elements apply to virtual settings (Koehler et al., 2004). As Koehler and her associates emphasize, “The addition of a new technology is not the same as adding another module to a course. It often raises fundamental questions about content and pedagogy that can overwhelm faculty” (p. 26). Therefore, identifying the level of educator awareness and understanding concerning these differences can help determine what type of training and support is required to maximize the return on investment in online curricular offerings (Koeher et al., 2004).
Statement concerning how together the stream supports the research problem. In order to realize the maximum return on the investment of scarce educational resources in online instruction, educators must gain competence in using the supporting technologies and recognize the differences involved between traditional classroom settings and online venues in order to develop effective instructional practices. The developmental and design aspects of this process are discussed further below.
Course development and design
Introduction. The final stream discussed below describes those factors that should be considered in developing and design online curricular offerings, followed by an examination of the constraints to promoting student engagement in online settings.
Factors to Consider in Online Course Development and Design
As noted above, this stream involves far more than simply placing existing course content online in a wholesale fashion and expecting positive academic outcomes. The course development and design process represent both an opportunity for participative interactions among faculty and students, but a number of factors must be taken into account in order to achieve optimal results (Puzziferro & Shelton, 2009; Podoll & Randle, 2006). The design of online courses should take into account a number of factors including students’:
1. Values and beliefs;
2. Personal abilities;
3. Orientations toward learning;
4. Level of readiness to embrace the online learning environment;
5. Motivation as an online learner (Bach, Haynes & Smith, 2007).
Although geographic proximity may limit the ability of students and faculty members to meet face-to-face, the research to date indicates that at least one such meeting is highly desirable to allow students to meet each other and their teachers before commencing with the online course of instruction (Bach et al., 2007). In fact, at least one face-to-face meeting has been shown to enhance student engagement and satisfaction (Bach et al., 2007). When this alternative is not available, a Web-based orientation can be provided and students can be required to participate in an introductory discussion board where they can post photographs of themselves and, based on a series of standard prompts from the moderator, provide some background information concerning their goals in the online learning environment in ways that can serve the same purposes as face-to-face meetings (Bach et al., 2007).
With respect to online course development, Bach and her associates (2007) describe the approach they used with good results. The step-by-step process used by Bach et al. (2007) is set forth in Table 2 below.
Steps to Developing Online Curricular Offerings
Each faculty member module contributes their concepts and ideas for the online module on an assigned topic.
Promote active student engagement with learning materials
Each contributor “buddies up” with a colleague to exchange ideas and suggestions.
Develop support for potential course designs.
Presentation of Core Ideas
A facilitator identifies core ideas among the recommendations.
Describe the structures of the course designs.
Each faculty member fine-tunes their assigned topics.
1. Develop online curricular offerings that provide students with appropriate visual and auditory support.
2. Identify at least two tasks for each topic for students to complete prior to and following their accession of the online learning material.
3. Identify additional resources for students to access online that relate to the topic.
4. Provides students with an opportunity to comment on course design.
Launch the online course.
Provide high-quality educational services in an online setting.
Source: Adapted from Bach et al., 2007, pp. 160-161
Constraints to Promoting Student Engagement in Online Settings. A study by Koehler, Mishra, Hershey and Peruski (2004) provides some useful guidance concerning the numerous challenges and obstacles facing educational institutions in developing and designing online curricular offerings. According to these educators, “We have been struck by how challenging the issues are for developing faculty to teach online, so that the educational experience is of high quality for both the faculty and the students” (Koehler et al., 2004, p. 26). In addition, because a great deal of scarce educational resources are being allocated for online course development and design, it is important for educational institutions to realize a sound return on these investments (Koehler et al., 2004).
The research to date indicates that the following represent some of the more salient constraints to effective online course development and design:
1. Faculty members, who are accustomed to only thinking about teaching and courses in a more traditional face-to-face classroom, are often reluctant to tackle the job of teaching in a technological medium. Many faculty do not find value in learning the details of technology, believing that it only takes time (a limited resource) away from thinking about pedagogy and the other responsibilities they have, and that they may care more about.
2. Faculty members are often not well versed in technology. Additionally, many have learned successfully to be students and instructors without the use of technology, and therefore often question its relevance.
3. Faculty members often have extremely busy schedules and thus have limited time to devote to learning new technologies. Preparing to teach a new course (or an online version of a current course) requires extensive investments of time, something most faculty find burdensome.
4. Institutions often lack opinion leaders who have taught online and who can act as role models for less experienced faculty. Current diffusion theories emphasize how important opinion leaders are for acceptance within the larger social system. Thus institutions must also find ways to support and develop opinion leaders before convincing some less interested faculty members to take the plunge.
5. Faculty members often have preconceived notions and attitudes about technologies. Furthermore, research has shown these attitudinal beliefs are far more important than structural and technical obstacles in influencing the use of technology in higher education; however, changing attitudes is a difficult and time-consuming task. Many institutions may not have the time or resources to devote to this undertaking (Koehler et al., 2004, p. 26).
In response to these challenges, a number of different approaches have been developed in recent years but in many cases, these approaches have failed to actively involve educators in the process or have been based on overly simplistic approaches that do not take into account the significant complexities that are involved in developing online curricular offerings (Koehler et al., 2004).
One solution that has been used to good effect to overcome these constraints to online course development and design is a collaborative, participative approach that actively involves both technicians and educators in the process. In this regard, Koehler et al. (2004) report that conventional approaches to online course development and design involve an “an inappropriate division of labor” because “The faculty develops the course content, while the technology programmers design widgets. These widgets are content neutral but, in some sense, constrain the kinds of representations possible” (p. 26). Furthermore, technicians may lack the insights and background needed to interpret the relevance of a particular course component while educators may likewise lack the expertise concerning the supporting technologies and their potentials. As a result, Koehler et al. conclude that, “Faculty are constrained by what is offered to them by the producer. As a consequence, overall course quality is likely to suffer” (2004, p. 26). To help overcome these constraints, these educators used a step-by-step approach as described in Table 3 below.
Steps to Overcoming Constraints to Online Course Development and Design
In this step, group members including faculty and technicians determine the best approach to:
1. Getting started as a design team (defining roles, learning to work together, etc.), and,
2. Deciding what an online class should be.
Solidifying roles, and grappling with the issues
This step includes defining respective roles and discussion concerning issues related to the relationship between content, technology, and pedagogy. For example, issues of graphic design can become central as groups experiment with different themes and layouts to identify graphics that fit the content, and the desired mood of the course (a factor in pedagogy). The design and the content need to be carefully synchronized with the technology available and what it allows. These interactions have an impact on the representation of the content in an online environment.
Bringing it All Together
This step requires a pragmatic assessment concerning the actual amount of time that will be required to implement, administer and evaluate the effectiveness of the online curricular offerings.
Measure and Evaluate
Ongoing iterative evaluation must be included as a component of the online course development and design process in order to identify opportunities for improving existing delivery methods as well as to incorporate newly identified resources and updated material that will be reflected in the actual presentation of the curricular offering online.
Source: Adapted from Koehler et al., 2004, p. 26
The framework described in Table 3 above has been shown to be useful in facilitating discussions between faculty members and technicians concerning the specific role of these technologies for teaching (Koehler et al., 2004). According to these educators, “More specifically, it lays out how we think about developing faculty to teach online, and how we think about what happens when groups design online courses” (p. 26).
Statement concerning how together the stream supports the research problem. Taken together, the research was consistent in emphasizing the need to improve student engagement through the effective development and design of online curricular offerings.
Bach, S., Haynews, P. & Smith, J.L. (2007). Online learning and teaching in higher education.
Maidenhead, England: Open University Press.
Badke, W. (2008, May/June). Information literacy and faculty. Online, 32(3), 47-49.
Bressler, L.A., Bressler, M.E. & Bressler, M.S. (2010). The role and relationship of hope, optimism and goal setting in achieving academic success: a study of students enrolled in online accounting courses. Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 14(4), 37-39.
Cohen M.S. & Ellis, T.J. (2005). Developing criteria for an online learning environment: from the student and faculty perspectives. Journal of Engineering Education, 93(2), 161-163.
Hall, O.P. (2008, September). Learning support systems for management education: Screening for success. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 4(3), 1-5.
Hiltz, S.R. & Goldman, R. (2004). Learning together online: Research on asynchronous learning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Koehler, M.J., Mishra, P., Hershel, K. & Peruski, L. (2004). With a little help from your students: A new model for faculty development and online course design. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 12(1), 25-27.
Lao, T. & Gonzales, C. (2005). Understanding online learning through a qualitative description of professors and students’ experiences. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education,
Perreault, H., Waldman, L., Alexander, M. & Zhao, J. (2008). Graduate business students’ perceptions of online learning: a five-year comparison. Delta Pi Epsilon Journal, 50(3),
Podoll, S. & Randle, D. (2005). Building a virtual high school … click by click the Journal,
Puzziferro, M. & Shelton, K. (2009). Challenging our assumptions about online learning: a vision for the next generation of online higher education. Distance Learning, 6(4), 9-11.
Rabe-Hemp, C., Woollen, S. & Humiston, G.S. (2009). A comparative analysis of student engagement, learning and satisfaction in lecture hall and online learning settings.
Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 10(2), 207-209.
Service, R.W. (2009). The leadership quotient: Measuring toward improve. Business Renaissance Quarterly, 4(1), 125-127.
Sull, E.C. (2009). Student engagement, motivation and rapport. Distance Learning, 6(3), 90-92.
Turbill, J. (2010). A face-to-face graduate class goes online: Challenges and successes.
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