Not long ago, a female undergraduate engineering student at the University of Colorado Boulder remarked that she enjoyed her online Shakespeare course because she had the time to thoughtfully compose an answer to a professor’s question before posting her response.
We can understand what she meant. Many of us have been in a classroom where fellow students eagerly vie for the teacher’s attention in order to answer a question. But we sit silently as the moment passes.
Today’s online courses provide opportunities and challenges to university students and faculty. The opportunity lies in the advances in technology that can be used to enhance teaching and learning. But, as one CU-Boulder faculty member noted in an evaluation of our summer online courses, “Technology is no panacea for hard work, either on the part of the students or the instructors. Good teaching, like successful learning, takes practice and effort.”
Online courses can augment the face-to-face courses that have traditionally been offered at residential, comprehensive universities like CU-Boulder. But they should be offered selectively, engaging our faculty and department chairs to identify courses well-suited for an online environment and involving instructional designers skilled in online course technology and development.
Building quality online courses mirrors many of the same steps used in building quality face-to-face courses. In “Teaching Online,” authors Susan Ko and Steve Rossen profile these steps, including identifying course goals and learning objectives; creating an effective online syllabus; developing presentations; planning student activities; and effective assessment.
Without face-to-face interaction, it can be challenging to determine whether students understand the course material. Faculty address this issue by including frequent quizzes; self-assessments; “threaded” discussions that engage the students in posting their views on a regular basis; Skype office hours; etc.
If online courses require the same effort as face-to-face courses, why bother with online courses at all? First, faculty and students teach and learn in various ways, and online courses can be viewed as another tool in the educational toolkit of a college or university. Second, online courses can enable use of technology that strengthens the course with multimedia and hyperlinks to special resources such as rare archive materials.
Third, online courses provide flexibility. At CU-Boulder, for example, about three-quarters of our degree students go home each summer. With online courses, these students can accelerate time to degree, take prerequisites, or focus on a single, particularly tough course. Online courses have also enabled CU-Boulder’s continuing education program to serve working professionals, active military personnel, and other students unable to take campus coursework.
Last fall, Stanford University offered an Artificial Intelligence course that enrolled 160,000 students from 190 countries. Gary Matkin from the University of California-Irvine noted, “The massive scale of this course attracted widespread attention from the media, higher education leaders, students and from venture capital firms looking for a new Facebook.”
The Stanford course received support from Google and was provided as a noncredit course. Other universities are now developing massive open online courses (MOOCs). The long-term funding model for MOOCs, their role in providing quality online coursework, and how credit might be awarded are all issues that schools of higher education are studying. Yet we will not sacrifice the quality of coursework and the energy of great teaching for the convenience of an online format.