What is online instruction? For some individuals, it means putting their syllabus or their lecture notes online. Others attempt to push the current boundaries of cutting-edge multimedia in their Web-based courses. There are those who deliver synchronous online learning activities, while others prefer asynchronous activities. They are all "doing" online instruction. However, those who are successful online usually approach course development individually and instruction personally. In short, they select the tools and strategies that compliment their individual style of instruction.
Just as there are many ways to be effective in the traditional classroom, there are many ways to succeed online. One factor that contributes to success or the lack thereof is the instructor's style (Brown, 2001). If the tools utilized in the course run counter to this style, the effectiveness of the course will be limited. For example, some instructors in the traditional classroom bring subject matter to life visually and verbally; however, if they are forced into an environment where the primary means of delivery is text, they are lost. Before selecting the tools that will make up a course, educators should identify where their own strengths lie and what type of experience they want for their students.
I believe that one of my own strengths as an educator is the ability to facilitate discussion. My style is highly interactive: I want my students' learning experience to take place within a "community," not in isolation. I select teaching tools and strategies with this goal in mind. This article describes an online learning environment that produced a high level of student-to-instructor and student-to-student interactivity and, through the development of multiple technical student access options (referred to later as "multi-modal" options), ensured ample access to course materials and activities.
In the summer of 2001, I delivered an online course in instructional design (Exhibit 1). Offered through the College of Education at the University of Idaho, the course was a graduate-level seminar and was designed to be highly interactive. The purpose of the course was to assist educators in implementing quality instructional design principles into traditional and nontraditional educational settings. At the core of the course was an attempt to help students understand their instructional style (and that of others) and to develop a philosophy of instructional design that is fluid and flexible. In addition to theory, students investigated various tools and strategies that would assist them in the delivery of instruction and help nurture interaction. The student population was a mixture of working professionals, K-12 educators, and university instructors; they hailed from various locations throughout the globe (e.g., Australia, Canada, Taiwan, Tanzania, and the United Kingdom as well as the United States).
In an attempt to reduce any apprehensions about the course, I required students to complete a short computer survey before the start of the semester (Exhibit 2). Student apprehension is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it often results in increased diligence: students get nervous and engage the material early on. On the other hand, some students see online communication as learning a new language. As a result, they tend to concentrate on speaking that language rather than engaging the content of the course. To minimize the latter problem, I used the survey to ascertain the technical expertise, experience with tools of online instruction, and temperament of each enrollee. After examining their responses, I separated the students into small support groups, each of which contained a mix of expertise levels and experience. These groups were formed not only to explore course concepts, but also to serve as technical support systems for students unfamiliar with the tools of online learning. I found that students would communicate freely within their groups, without worrying about "bothering" the instructorwhich freed me from many of the troubleshooting duties I had assumed in similar courses.
Multi-Modal Delivery: Technological Infrastructure
When one designs instruction, it is good practice to implement learning environments that accommodate multiple learning styles (Gagne, Briggs, & Wager, 1992). For example, delivering redundant versions of the same material in auditory, visual, and textual modes will enhance the probability of addressing various learning styles (DeBourgh, 2002). The same principle is true in online instruction, but I carried this approach a step further in my preliminary design of the course. In addition to multiple learning modes, I offered multiple technology modes to my students.
Bandwidth is what allows instruction to take place online. Limited bandwidth impedes certain types of instructional activities. Many media-rich Web sites and online courses will not work properly for users who connect via a modem at 28.8 or even 56 kbps. To accommodate as wide an audience as possible, the multi-modal approach uses both high and low bandwidth content to create interactive experiences for all students.
Because levels of technology experience and Internet connectivity generally vary from student to student, I delivered content and course activities at multiple rates. The minimum connectivity rate for students in this course was 28.8 kbps; however, students with higher connectivity rates (T1, DSL, or ISDN) had access to a faster-working online environment. This approach did require a more extensive time commitment during the development phase of the course, but it reduced the number of hours required to troubleshoot network, technological, and connectivity problems after the class began. It also increased the potential class size and ensured a rewarding experience for all enrolled.
Another advantage of multi-modal delivery is that it inherently provides a back-up solution if problems occur in one technology. For example, if a lesson is delivered in both video/audio and flash/text media, and if the server responsible for the audio/video component crashes, students can still access the flash/text lesson. It is advisable to place redundant audio, video, text, and graphics content on separate servers if possible.
Multiple Learning Modes: Synchronous Environment
To achieve a high level of student connection (to me, the curriculum, and fellow students) early in the course, I used both synchronous and asynchronous learning environments.
For the synchronous element of the course, students met in a "live" setting as a class at various times throughout the semester. These sessions made up 25% of the course. They were not used for formal lectures; instead, they were designed to build a sense of community among the class members and were used primarily to clarify, discuss, and enhance concepts associated with the course. Students had the option of either going to a traditional classroom setting during the live sessions or participating online by using streaming media and chatroom technology. Using the multi-modal approach referenced above, students could connect to a high- or mid-range video stream or to an audio-only stream. Students who connected to the audio-only stream accessed the visuals and media used in the classroom via a Web site. They were told where to go and what to do as the session progressed. Students who connected via the Web could watch or listen (depending on the mode selected) to the discussion taking place in the traditional classroom and could ask or respond to questions via chatroom technology. The chatroom text was displayed for the students in the classroom to see as well. Although this approach was awkward at times due to bandwidth congestion and students' initial unfamiliarity with the communication protocol, it resulted in meaningful dialogue and was popular with the participants. I found that the synchronous sessions formed an immediate connection between me and the students and among the students themselves.
To ensure such productive interaction with the synchronous approach, I had to address the issue of international students and time zones. Given the international makeup of the course and the various time zones in which the students resided, I offered two live sessions: One session ran from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. and the other from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. (Pacific Standard Time). Although this schedule demanded more of my time, it gave all students an equal opportunity to participate in course discussions.
Multiple Learning Modes: An Asynchronous Environment with Personality
I delivered the remaining 75% of the course asynchronously. These sessions consisted of two components: content delivery and interaction/exploration. That is, students were initially exposed to course material via various modes of delivery, from video/audio discussion to text; they were then required to interact with and explore the concepts and ideas presented in the delivery session.
It was in the asynchronous online environment that I found the real challenge of developing a highly interactive learning space. Web courses often appear to be quite static (i.e., boring). Two factors account for this problem. First, the design of most Web courses tends simply to replicate the structure of a traditional course syllabus. Such a design does not promote a student's engagement with the material, the instructor, or other students. Second, instructors who use technology to deliver their lessons often follow the dry, rigid structure of a textbook, which prevents their personality from entering the teaching process. I acknowledge that the omission of an instructor's personality may be good in some cases; however, I generally find that instructors who open up to their students for the purpose of building "social presence" are more successful in establishing a sense of community in their classroom and thus improve the opportunity for interaction (Rovai, 2002).
With this in mind, I added a personal touch to many components in the course. One successful addition was "My Thoughts," a series of audio clips in which I commented on the specific material under discussion, why I thought it important, and how students were engaging with it and each other (Exhibit 3). "My Thoughts" were in no way formal lectures, just short commentaries on the topic from my perspective, similar to an office hour discussion. In accordance with the multi-modal approach, I also included these commentaries in text form, interspersed with graphics when appropriate (Exhibit 4). Within each audio/text file, I asked questions to which the students had to respond in our general threaded discussions. This approach encouraged student diligence in class and helped me verify who had accessed the materials.
Interaction and the Professional Mentor
The course relied heavily on dialogue. The primary modes of communication were threaded discussion (Exhibit 5), chatroom interaction, and e-mail. Given that there were 27 students enrolled in the course, management of such rich dialogue became time consuming. One solution that eased this workload was the recruitment of professional mentors, most of them working professionals who were interested in the course topic. The only requirement placed on the mentors was that they complete the course in its entirety. The mentors were not identified as such to the students; they were listed as fellow students in the online roster. This approach helped the students view the mentors as equals, which in turn made the students more willing to contradict, challenge, and debate the mentors. This activity also helped circumnavigate the typical instructor-student dynamic of intimidation, which tends to prevent any lively debates that might arise from a student's intellectual challenge to an instructor. The mentors' ability to generate dialogue and discussion was outstanding. As students became comfortable with the tools of communication, the discussion grew richer than anything I had found in a traditional classroom. Specifically, this online structure increased the scope and breadth of the dialogue.
To further reduce the threaded-discussion workload and keep me from having to respond to each student's posts, I used a listserv to synthesize discussions, point out inconsistencies, and encourage debate. For example, one way that I synthesized discussions was to look for students who had arrived at different conclusions on the same topic. Using a class listserv, I challenged the individual students (who had arrived a divergent conclusions) by name to elaborate on their conclusions back in the threaded-discussion area; I asked that they specifically address the student(s) with a differing viewpoint. This strategy not only ensured that all students in the class were exposed to the specific conversation thread, but also motivated students who had formulated their own conclusions to re-enter the conversation.
The instructional style I used in this course was highly interactive. For me, the primary purpose of education is to bring together a community of learners to investigate, explore, and assess specific topics. Although the delivery of content is key to the course, the discussion of that content brings it alive. Thus, my selection of online tools centered on facilitating discussion. A combination of approaches and tools allowed this course to reach its goal of high interactivity. No single approach or tool was overwhelmingly applauded by students; rather, each student had his or her favorite and least favorite aspect of the course (Exhibit 6). The varied design allowed for alternative interaction methods, which enabled students to express themselves in a format that fit their individual learning and communication styles.
When the diversity of learners is matched by diversity in content presentation, discussion formats, and response modes, online courses are one step closer to fulfilling their promise of individualized education for all.
Brown, J. S. (2001). Growing up digital: How the web changes work, education, and the ways people learn. USDLA Journal, 16(1). Retrieved July 30, 2002, from http://www.usdla.org/html/journal/FEB02_Issue/article01.html
DeBourgh, G. A. (2002, May/June). Simple elegance: Course management systems as pedagogical infrastructure to enhance science learning. The Technology Source. Retrieved July 30, 2002, from http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=277
Gagne, R. M., Briggs, L. J., & Wager, W. W. (1992). Principles of instructional design. Wadsworth: Thompson Learning.
Rovai, A. P. (April, 2002). Building sense of community at a distance. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Retrieved July 3, 2002, from http://www.irrodl.org/content/v3.1/rovai.htmlbrick busterdownloadable gamesaction gamespuzzle gamespc games