Pioneer or Guinea Pig? Top Ten Take Home Lessons On Starting An On-Line Course

Chuck Curtis

Department of Plant Pathology
The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio 43210

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This paper is not for the seasoned web veteran. It may be best utilized by the computer-novice professor who, although not a computer whiz, is willing to learn. Maybe you were invited (asked) by the department to ‘do something’ on the web, or perhaps you were just curious about starting an on-line classroom. As higher education drifts away from lecture driven teacher-centered learning to more student-centered learning classrooms there is reason to develop more on-line learning opportunities.

Knowing that any work of this nature should not be attempted without counsel I sought help from our campus experts, attended distance learning workshops on and off campus, wrote a grant, and consulted with administration. Fully armed with this wisdom, I began preparing my 2-credit, elective Plant Pathology 201 Social Impact course a la ‘on-line.’

Many fine articles exist recommending instructional design for distance education (Cyrs and Conway, 1998; Nally, 1996; The Communicators Handbook, 1996). Systematic planning of instructional design maximizes learning and makes the task more effective because ‘there is a logical process to follow when designing a distance education.’ "True enough," I thought. The steps are to describe the overall goal, define the learner, write the important learner-centered objectives (the reader should note the non-plant pathological terminology), develop content, select your instructional delivery method or strategy, and, finally, create the all important evaluation. Surely with all these in mind I will succeed…or will I? Here is what impressed me most about creating an asynchronous course:

Top Ten Take Home Lessons

  1. Do not try to be a hero or heroine and attempt to completely invent a brand new web course from scratch. The best thing is to prepare an existing course already on the books. Conversion of the lecture to web design instruction will be much easier than attempting to invent a brand new web course.
  2. Formatting Text-Too Much, or Too Little? One of the biggest problems is determining what you believe the balance is between what students should know, and then what they will find interesting to view and read. For example, is there too much text on the page, or too little text? Does the text just run on and on? How much is just about right? Are students lost in plant pathology jargon even though they have a glossary? What kind of graphics should I use to hold interest and easily demonstrate the point?
  3. Get a student intern or designer to do your page logos and make your sessions come together. Page headers should be thematic, symbolic, or illustrative. You can try to do graphic design yourself but there is simply too much there to deal with, such as appropriate typefaces, serifs, layouts, visuals, spacing, and design processes. Designers take years to learn these things, and students are sometimes quite adept at it. Use them and be happier.J
  4. Check other web sites carefully. Review colleagues’ and non-colleagues’ sites for ideas on presentations and text. What you may want to use could already be available. This saves you time in thinking about organizing and visualizing your materials.
  5. Time required? There is some sort of conventional rule I hear at the distance education meetings that asynchronous web courses take at least 5 to 6 times more effort to develop than a conventional course. Do not believe this. It will take at least an order of magnitude. By the time your course is at the starting gate you have invested an immense amount of time on your project. Remember to include all the evenings and weekends tinkering around with the details to capture your material and text ‘just right’.
  6. Copyrights-watch out for this. It is surprising at all the choices available. For example, one popular newspaper wanted a $100 fee, non-refundable, requiring you to include a lengthy comment about the copyright policy and a copyright signage. Their lengthy note must be posted at the end of the page, then the permission is good for only 6 months, . Oddly, some newspapers will not respond to your inquiry for permissions, whereas others, like the Columbus Dispatch will just want a simple credit line. Permissions must be granted and it will be cumbersome in some cases. What is a web teacher to do? From your careful examination of other sites, request permission to link to that site and direct your students to the page you want them to see. This is far more convenient and is more interesting for students in most cases. I found linking to be a good method; linking has secondary gains in that it lets the word out that you are using their site.  They are often appreciative and this helps you network with new colleagues.
  7. Emoticons-Use them, but don’t over do it J Students do not know the context or how you are feeling about certain items, and vice-versa. Students cannot pick up verbal and non-verbal clues via the web, so set the example using a few emoticons in pre-class emails and encourage them to do the same.
  8. WebCT version changes-Just as you begin to achieve excellence at WebCT, the version interface changes. Be prepared, remembering that the technology changes rapidly and nothing is fixed in time.
  9. Technical Help-God bless the students! The part-time student designer/helpers will be a source of technical strength. They are good at the technology and much more adept and quicker than I will ever be.
  10. Beta testing. Obtain student inputs before releasing your course to the whole world. Undergo a field test with a small class to gather feedback and other assessments to help improve for a future offering to a larger group of students.

Again, It is important not to try to do all this by yourself, but don’t be discouraged either. With a desire to learn and explore the new technology it can be fun and interesting. Be aware of the time needed. An "anytime anywhere" course is attractive to students on campus as well as off campus.


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