Will you offer an online course in the future? It could be more likely than you think. Demand for such courses is growing rapidly. Many high schools and community colleges, following universities' leads, are expanding into distance learning. Major research universities are creating online graduate programs and are offering more and more of their existing courses online. Universities recognize that even traditional campus-resident students sometimes prefer online courses in order to resolve schedule conflicts or take popular courses when physical space limits enrollment. (A colleague of mine recently made online instruction an option for his class of 200, and 50 students—all of them campus residentsimmediately switched to the online section.) Finally, the growing population of post-college learners creates a market for courses delivered online because rapid economic and technological changes create a need for life-long learning, more people have two or more careers in a lifetime, and workers and employers need just-in-time learning.
When creating an online course, there are certain key decisions to be made at the outset. Those decisions—crucial for anyone considering an online course, or even adding online content to a traditional course—can be summarized by three questions:
- What are my reasons for creating an online course?
- Do these reasons justify the extra work?
- Once I decide to offer an online course, should I package it in a "turn-key" commercial system like BlackBoard or WebCT, or do it myself with Web-creation software such as NetObjects Fusion, DreamWeaver, or FrontPage?
Question 1: Reasons to Create an Online Course
The primary reason for creating an online course is to provide access. Professionals who want to learn more in their field, for example, may have difficulty going back to school or even taking night classes. Oil workers in Venezuela who need petroleum engineering courses, in-service K-12 teachers who want formal course work in their subject, and ranchers in West Texas who want agribusiness courses—they all need these courses provided someplace other than a traditional academic setting. Likewise, high school or college students can take courses online that are not available at their own campuses. Home schooling, growing rapidly as an alternative to public schools, can also benefit from the educational richness of online courses.
But online courses provide more than just access. Good online courses offer a quality of instruction that cannot be matched by face-to-face instruction. Online instruction can incorporate a broader range of information, integrating course content with the informational resources of the Web. Students can interact and work together in ways that are not possible or practical in face-to-face education (Collison, Elbaum, Haavind, & Tinker, 2000). Space and time barriers to collaborative work on plans, projects, reports, and other learning tasks are removed. Virtual field trips to museums, historical sites, foreign countries, and the like already create learning opportunities that are not otherwise practical. The day is coming when such trips will be expanded to university research labs, corporate business offices, government agencies, and expeditions into remote parts of the world. ("The Quest Channel" is an existing low-tech example.)
Question 2: Justifying the Extra Work
Online courses present a few immediate and often time-consuming challenges. First, they require a lot of technical support. It is essential to have a Web server and a webmaster, and useful to have help from instructional designers. Second, online courses require a good deal of time using e-mail and electronic conferencing with students. Third, online courses frequently require the instructor to re-think some basic concepts, including how he or she approaches teaching. This is especially true for teachers accustomed to the lecture mode, because online teaching does not readily support lecturing. Even with streaming audio and video, online lectures are invariably less stimulating than face-to-face ones. Finally, online courses have to be marketed well in order to be effective. Competition among online courses is fierce, technology fees mean that online courses often cost more, and there is no complete national registry for online courses. A few years back, I created an online course in biomedical research, mainly because my career has been in that area. But since I failed to identify my market, enrollments remained low. I have since discovered a possible market among high school science teachers who want to be better equipped to talk about biomedical research and whose administration encourages post-graduate course work. Effective marketing often requires the help of a professional. At a minimum, the instructor needs to develop contacts and cultivate potential markets.
Despite these challenges, the benefits of an online course outweigh the time consumed creating it. Two benefits have already been named: increased access and the potential for improved quality of instruction. A third is perhaps the most important. Moving to online teaching forces critical reflection on teaching philosophy and goals, which improves the effectiveness of teaching—online or not. Online teaching also presents new opportunities for learning activities. Group cooperative learning, for example, is easier online, because asynchronous meetings eliminate schedule conflicts. Even synchronous meetings are easier online because space and distance barriers are removed.
Question 3: Designing and Packaging the Course
Initial Considerations. When designing an online course, you'll need to consider the following:
- How to revise existing learning activities to make them suitable for online delivery, or how to create new ones. Online courses benefit from such learning activities as topic dialogue, group-based decision making, case studies, reports, and "Web Quests" (systematic searches of Web sites to solve a problem or develop a cohesive information base).
- How to administer examinations. Exams may need to be proctored by third parties. A greater percentage of the final grade may be based on the learning activities described above rather than on exams.
- How to handle electronic interactions. Typical e-mail discussions not only generate too much mail but also lead to superficial opinion exchanges. (See Collison, Elbaum, Haavind, & Tinker  for remedies.) I find it more satisfying to use asynchronous computer conferencing with a focus on teamwork and academic deliverables. Groups need constructivist activities that generate a product, such as a group decision, plan, project, report, or case study (see Klemm, 1998 a-c and the On-line Collaboration Applications in Education and Training Web site). In an asynchronous electronic conference, students can post messages and work on group projects when it is most convenient for them. Materials are always available for annotation and update.
- How to provide information using methods other than lectures. Simply putting lecture notes on a Web site is not enough. Online tutorials and slide shows help, as do textbooks, articles, and links to Web sites. Compulsive lecturers may broadcast lectures via streaming audio and video, but why bother when the Web opens the opportunity for more active and student-centered learning?
- What to put on the home page. The home page should contain what you'd provide on the first day of a traditional class: links to course objectives, course organization (what topics will be covered when), grading standards, and contact information (the professor's e-mail and phone number, as well as a link to his or her personal Web site). You might also include a site map and a search field. Casual viewers should have free access to this page, but you can restrict access to the rest of the site by requiring an ID and password. (See my course home page for an example.)
Choosing Software. Once these design issues are addressed, the next step is to decide how to deliver the course. The easiest way to get a course online is to use a commercial course management system (CMS), such as WebCT, Blackboard, First Class, or Top Class. Such systems are usually licensed and maintained by the institution, which may make a given platform mandatory for its telecampus. CMSs are very popular largely because they are template-driven: authors fill in forms, and Web pages magically appear.
CMSs have their limitations. While they they accomplish basic tasks easily, they generally:
- require a third-party administrator for many functions
- lack flexibility and limit design options
- perform certain functions unsatisfactorily (e.g., group-based production of academic deliverables)
- omit certain features instructors may want (e.g., seamless integration with other software)
- risk obsolescence when better technology comes along
- cost a lot
- enforce conformity
My campus makes a CMS available but not mandatory. I chose to do it myself using a Web editor. I created the course in Microsoft FrontPage, which is no more difficult than Microsoft Word. In fact, learning FrontPage on my own took less time than learning WebCT in my university's formal training program.
Even without a CMS, I found I was able to incorporate necessary functions into my course Web site. Compare the popular functions of a CMS and my solutions:
- Automated registration and grade books. Most CMSs allow
students to register for courses online and to be entered automatically in a
grading spreadsheet. My webmaster created an HTML form for online
registration; the information can be downloaded into an Excel spreadsheet
for grading. Other registration functions (fee payment, grade records, etc.)
are handled in the old fashioned way, at the registrar's office.
- Restricted access, for authorized students only. A few lines of
Visual Basic code do the same for my homemade Web site.
- Scheduling calendars. I already have very good scheduling
software through Palm Pilot and Groupwise. For a Web course, I can easily create
an HTML course calendar in WordPerfect (but apparently
- E-mail support. My students and I use the university's e-mail
system, as do professors and students at most institutions.
- Bulletin-board discussion forums. I find this popular feature of CMSs limiting. Such "threaded" topic discussions consist of separate e-mail messages, which do not convert easily to academic deliverables. For my course, I use FORUM98, a program that uses hypertext as the organizing principle. Students can write "in the margins" with in-context pop-up notes and links to other documents, and can insert text and graphics on the same shared pages. This is more advanced than using e-mail software that can send HTML links. It is not a typical threaded-topic discussion board because FORUM documents are hypertext linked. You don't attach notes to other notes; you attach notes to specific places within a note. Users can create "community documents" in which a student group can jointly edit and make annotations directly on the document itself (Klemm, 1998c).
A good online course has good content. The CMS wrapper doesn't provide this—the course author does. Authors also add learning aids with such features as automated self-study quizzes, crossword puzzles, slide shows, case study programs, intelligent-agent "bots," computer simulations, and computer conferencing environments. Too many online courses are casually generated without such features. The resources to create good Web pages make a CMS unnecessary—and teachers without the resources should perhaps not offer online courses.
Getting started. The most important thing about getting started is to get started early. When I created my course, it took the better part of a year even though I was converting the course from an existing one, I already knew how to build Web pages, and I had a student helper. If you're starting from the ground up, it will take even longer. Most of the time and effort goes to content and learning activities. There are many useful interactive devices that you can put in your pages, using JAVA script code that others have written (Ford, 1998; Flanagan, 1998; Goodman & Eich, 1998; Negrino & Smith, 1999).
If you are an experienced word-processor user, start learning a Web site creation and management tool, such as NetObjects, Fusion, Dreamweaver, or FrontPage, that is supported on your institution's Web server. Otherwise, consider a CMS. Make arrangements with a Web host, either one at your institution or one provided by a commercial Internet Service Provider host. Typically, a webmaster will give you space on the server and create the login access. The rest will be up to you.
Conclusion: Ten Lessons
My experiences with online courses have taught me the following:
- Have a good reason to build an online course. For my first
online course, I did not identify a market, nor did I have a good way to inform
people about the course, so my enrollment suffered.
- Convert an existing course rather than create a new one.
Creating new subject matter while building an online course can be
- Initiate the effort well in advance of "delivery" date. It
took me a year to get my course online, and I am still making
- Change your teaching style and philosophy. The unexpected
advantage of the online environment is that it weans me away from traditional
lectures into the more satisfying world of instructional management. Now my goal
is not to transmit information from my notes to student notes, but to help
students find, digest, assimilate, and apply knowledge.
- Use content other than that at your Web site. Too many online
instructors think that all course content has to be on their course's Web site. Not
so. You do not have to provide all the content (textbooks were not made obsolete
by the Web). Internet courses are readily enriched by linking to other Web sites
and to electronic libraries. Even with hard copy magazine and journal articles, the
old-fashioned Xerox approach is still useful. For example, I saved myself a lot of
time and effort by mailing paper copies of published readings (many journals have
liberal permission policies for educational uses).
- Focus on content and learning activities, not technical frills.
The time I spent on graphics and features such as grade books reduced the
amount of time available for content and learning activities.
- Enforce deadlines. Students who procrastinate impair group work.
To address this problem, I set rigid deadlines for every major activity.
- Put the burden of communication on students. I prefer team activities
and assignments to open discussion forums because team activities encourage
more—and better—participation. In those teams, the burden of communication
is on the students; I only monitor the process. I do not allow "lurking,"
where students do no more than read the commentary of others. Part of the
final grade includes peer assessment of each student's contribution to
the team effort.
- Do your own course maintenance. I like being in control of my own
course and having the technical skills to be largely independent of campus
tech support. This also encourages me to improve course content and keep
- Automate. Automated electronic grade books are helpful if you have
a huge class. Another device I find useful is automated feedback on assignments.
My students reply via e-email to open-ended questions on their reading
assignments. When I receive their responses, I reply with a "boilerplate"
answer that includes key points students should provide at exam times.
The next time I teach the course, I will provide my opinions about each
reading (my students have requested this) in a similar boilerplate posted
in FORUM. My students will be invited to annotate my opinions. A third
automated device is Get Smart,
an electronic flashcard system I designed with my colleague Jim Snell.
We have also developed automated ways to deliver and score case studies
and to create a "20 questions" game with academic material. Others have
produced crossword puzzle software that can be adapted for academic material
(see crosswordkit.com or Crossword Express).
Collison, G., Elbaum, B., Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.
Klemm, W. R. (1998a). Eight ways to get students more engaged in online conferences. The Higher Education Journal, 26 (1), 62-64.
Klemm, W. R. (1998b). New ways to teach neuroscience: Integrating two teaching styles with two instructional technologies. Medical Teacher, 20, 364-370.
Klemm, W. R. (1998c). Using computer conferencing in teaching. Community College Journal Research & Practice, 22, 507-518.