Crossing the E-boarders:
The Road to Developing Online Courses
The story that follows is about the development of an online module. It is a story of how the module has evolved over the years to be successful, the lessons learnt, and a reflection on the development process of designing online courses.
The journey begins
My e-learning journey began eight years ago when I was working with the Department for Continuing Education at the University of Oxford. Their first online course in computing was underway and I got involved in its development and teaching. Given that this was a large project, it needed a team approach and I became part of and had the support of the development team, such as the instructional, graphic and web designers, content researchers, and technical support staff. The delivery team included a number of lead and support tutors. I was involved with this project for several years and gained valuable experience.
At Brookes, having had the experience of developing and teaching an online course along with a good understanding of the technologies involved as a pilot for initiating online learning within the Department of Computing, I developed my first online module: IT Assisted Communications and Study Skills. The module was designed for first-year undergraduate students making extensive use of ICT communication tools. I felt that I needed a contingency plan in case things did not work out as planned, hence in its first run the module ran in parallel to an onsite counterpart. For this run, students who took the online module were volunteers. During the next run, the students were given the option of choosing their mode of study. Finally it is now being delivered only online and can be accessed anywhere and anytime via the Internet. Although the online version is taken by on-campus students, the students have no face-to-face contact with the staff. All the material delivery, assessment, and communication take place electronically. All the supporting course materials are kept simple, allowing easy access for students with basic machines.
Initially the module was delivered on platforms other than WebCT. Dealing with platform compatibilities, however, was proving to be counterproductive. It made me rethink my instructional design strategy and the choice of platform. With WebCT becoming the University standard and the emergence of the media unit, I decided on adopting WebCT as a platform. Like many commercial platforms WebCT is not ideal and can be quite frustrating at times. This is compensated, however, by the valuable support that the media unit can provide. I now believe that simple structures work best and it is not the platform but the student-staff and student-student interaction strategies that are the heart and soul of the online course and once this is achieved successfully the platform becomes secondary.
I found that the initial run of the online module was educational and provided me with great insight on developing online courses without a team. My earlier focus was on material rather than on interaction opportunities, but as I discovered my omissions I began to redeem them. It also made me realise that apart from my experience I needed to learn about online learning, its pedagogies, and relating issues in greater depth. I took up courses in e-learning, which have left me without inhibitions and quite innovative with online development. I have now moved away from a dependency on a lecture mode of content presentation towards more interactive and collaborative learning. My instructional design strategies are around the communication capabilities and content resources available on the web. The modules now make use of various electronic sources such as news resources, e-books, online tutorial guides, digital libraries, and databases. I find that these resources help support discovery learning by students and creation of a learning community. This is the approach I took to make my online module a success story.
One of the most important lessons of this story is the realisation that e-learning requires us to rethink our learning and teaching strategies and to refresh ourselves on the principles of learning, teaching, and instructional design which are critical to ensure quality modules. It requires thinking about staff and student readiness, not only in terms of using the tools but regarding our ways of teaching and learning. In essence staff and students must develop new habits, which is achievable by retraining. Managing and teaching an online course has distinct set of challenges‰¥äfor example the perception by some students of 24 hours, 7 days-a-week tutor-availability. In this case clear communication rules have to be set (e.g. tutor-response time). A simple process like this would eliminate frustrations for both tutor and the student. Another example is the perception by some staff of an online course to be a simple low-cost process of converting existing on-campus courses into electronic form. In actual fact designing online modules requires cycle of design, redesign, update, and change, making use of successes and new technology and learning from evaluations.
Fig. 1 Online Course Life Cycle
In my concluding thoughts I would like to emphasise that online learning is an evolutionary step away from our traditional classroom-centric model towards web-centric model and this idea of moving to a new teaching and learning space is perhaps a new for some of us. Some of us may feel that it is not possible to create an enriched learning environment that traditional face-to-face teaching has to offer. Others may feel that it is not possible to develop and cultivate good teaching practises. However, as we become more experienced in this new way of learning and teaching in the virtual classroom, we may find this to be an effective change for both staff and students and perhaps in the future will be a common teaching strategy.
Samia Kamal is a Brookes Teaching Fellow and teaches in the School of Technology. She is also an Academic Conduct Officer in that school