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Preparing to Teach Online

Kenneth Mentor J.D., Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice
University of North Carolina Pembroke

This presentation was prepared for the
Annual Meetings of the Western Society of Criminology
San Diego, February 21-24, 2002

Introduction

"Quality distance education." Some educators will suggest that this statement is an oxymoron. Considering the "correspondence courses" of the past, these educators have reason the be skeptical. Correspondence courses, by nature, require a trade-off between personalized education and efficiency. These programs often required a level of institutional support that could not be justified without a high number of students and/or limited contact with students. These early experiences with distance education walked the line between quality and quantity - often the choice was quantity.

Frustrated with problems associated with correspondence courses, educators moved to other modes of course delivery. The second generation of distance education relied on mail, teleconferencing,  video tapes, synchronous video, and travel. Institutions invested in expensive teleconferencing equipment and established satellite campuses where students would gather to participate in a televised class with a professor and group of students at other locations.  In other cases "distance education" meant that the educator would travel to meet with students. Other programs included a residential component that required students to travel to the university campus. Each of these models involved high costs to the institution and/or the student.  Pressures to reduce these costs often reduced the quality of the distance education experience.

Technological advances in distance education now have the potential to eliminate the quality/quantity tradeoff. The internet has the capacity to provide both asynchronous and synchronous learning opportunities. The flexibility provided by the internet allows courses and programs to be designed around proven strategies for teaching and learning. This can be accomplished without the significant expenses associated with video conferencing, travel, and other delivery methods. Today's web-based courses allow a structured experience that leads to a collaborative learning environment. In effect, every computer becomes a classroom. Students learn from the comfort of home while participating in a high quality learning environment that includes interaction with other learners. This is a significant improvement over distance models in which many offerings of a course were to a class of one.

Educators value a collaborative environment. Administrators value an efficient environment. Web-based courses have the potential to eliminate the conflicting demands of these values. However, this is accomplished through a shifting of institutional resources that place a greater burden on individual faculty members.

This is a double edged sword for educators. Quality control is gained as educators take responsibility for delivering course content. This relieves administrators from the burdens of coordinating the mailing of course materials, the hiring of graders, and communication with students in diverse locations. Web-based education also eliminates the need for "satellite campuses" with support staff, expensive teleconferencing equipment, and a range of additional costs. The on-campus costs of distance education are reduced to computers, software, and salaries - costs the university is accustomed to paying. Off-campus costs are shifted to students who are responsible for computer equipment and internet access - again, something many are paying for already.

The shifting of costs can be very compelling to administrators. This model can also be compelling to educators that long for efficiency, control, and academic freedom. We believe this trade-off can be beneficial to students and educators. Further, we proceed under the assumption that skilled distance educators will, when provided with adequate resources, create online learning environments that are equivalent to, or superior to, the learning environment found in "traditional" classrooms.

This page is devoted to a range of issues faced by educators that are working to provide courses, or entire programs, over the internet. This page includes links to distance education resources, criminal justice related distance programs, and a discussion of major issues related to distance education in criminal justice. 

Distance Education Resources

Designing a web-based course, or adding web content to a traditional course, is much more than placing lecture notes on the internet. Witty intellectual banter in the classroom can be a lot of fun, and many of us are good at this. How does the online educator translate these skills to a web-based course? Should you even try? The following links start with information that will help you decide how to structure your online materials.

Online vs. Traditional

This first group of links provide information about the relative strengths of traditional and distance education.

Course Design

Most online educators report that the initial course preparation time needed for the first online course greatly exceeds the amount of time needed to prepare a traditional course. Time demands can be significantly increased for an online educator with little experience in website design. As this is a typical situation, it is important to allow the time needed to acquire the skills needed to develop effecting pedagogical methods and material.

The following links, arranged by topic, offer a good place to get started. These links provide an overview of issues and resources related to an effort to get courses, and possibly entire degree programs, online.

Initial Planning

Will your course be entirely online or do you plan to offer online materials to a traditional course in a "hybrid" format? Will all communication be asynchronous, or will you attempt to create a simultaneous "online classroom" experience through chat rooms or other synchronous course tools? Are you trying to replicate what you do in the classroom, and are good at, or are you planning to try new things? Will you, and the others in class, be comfortable not seeing the faces of the professor and classmates? Will you adopt an organizational structure similar to the 15 week structure common in most universities (and textbooks)? Will exams be included? If so, what level of security is needed? If written assignments are required, how will they be submitted, graded, and returned?

So many questions! Planning for a high quality online course begins well in advance of the first effort to design a website. The educator must develop a picture of what this course will look like, and how it will function, before making the initial effort to design the course materials.

Course Content

Will your site include text versions of in-class lectures? What about PowerPoint presentations? Will you include a list of links? What about online discussions? Here are a few ideas:

Lectures:

PowerPoint presentations:

Links:

Online discussion:

Website Design

The internet is full of ugly pages with confusing organizational structures. We have all seen them - now you get a chance to do it right. Do you want, or need, a bunch of animated icons? Some think they are ugly while others find them to be cute. The process of designing a web site calls on organizational, and artistic, skills that may be somewhat dormant in educators. Your website is your public face to these students. Do you also want a photo of your real face on your site? If so, how do you do this? How do you do this without creating a page that will take two minutes to load on a slow internet connection?

Your personality will shine through to your students - take the time to design this component of your course so that you and your students are prepared for a high quality learning environment.

Course Delivery

Most universities have adopted "courseware" that is used to create and deliver web-based content. These programs solve many of the problems confronted by distance educators who attempt to design all course components from scratch. In general, these programs are very good. They are clearly superior to proprietary course tools provided by publishers. In fact, many publishers have abandoned efforts to provide course creation software and are offering course content that  can be included in popular courseware packages.

WebCT and Blackboard appear to have cornered the courseware market and many institutions have one or the other. Each of these delivery systems have limitations but they offer many advantages to the online educator. It is relatively easy to create a simple course website in just a few minutes - as long as training is provided. These programs also have the flexibility to serve the needs of more experienced web educators.

The adoption of either of these packages requires an institutional decision that is likely to be accompanied by various support systems. This support typically includes faculty training in the use of these programs. WebCT and Blackboard also include extensive support information on their websites. These sites include discipline specific information and opportunities to communicate with other distance educators. Much of the material n these sites is freely available.

Courseware solutions typically encourage faculty to post all course materials on the courseware server. The result is that all materials are password protected. One of the advantages of online course material is that this material is available for review by prospective students and the general public. This advantage is lost when all material is hidden behind a password. Of course, this decision is up to the individual faculty member. Some will prefer the secrecy offered by passwords while others see advantages to open access.

If full access is desired, the distance educator will need to find server space for the posting of course materials that are not contained within the structure of WebCT, Blackboard, or other course delivery tool. The logical solution is to post this material on University servers. In some cases this solution will result in costs to the department as computer support services attempts to recover some of their costs. If the cost for server space also includes help for faculty and students this may be a cost effective solution.

The ownership of course materials is another factor to be considered as you decide where to post your course material. Many institutions have created policies that claim ownership of all materials placed on university servers. It is a good idea to check on the policies of your institution before posting material on their servers.

Internet service providers offer an alternative that protects the educator's ownership rights. Some of these sites are free (with pop-ups or banners), others charge a minimal fee with limited support, and others offer full services including site design, hosting, and customer support.

There are many differences between these services. Some offer Microsoft FrontPage server extensions. This is a plus if you want to use some of the advanced features (site map, search, etc) available in FrontPage. Other services use UNIX or Linux servers - there are advantages to these as well. Database support might also be an important feature.

Shop carefully, looking for the features you will need for your courses. Customer support varies greatly. It might be helpful to ask a question of customer support before you commit to a service. The response will give you a good idea of what to expect if you continue your relationship. Finally, many of these services offer a lower rate if you commit to a longer agreement. It may be a good idea to try out the service for a shorter period of time before committing.

If you move your pages off the university servers you get to choose a cool domain name. The cost of registering a domain name has dropped significantly over the past couple of years. Use a search engine to search for "registering a domain name." You will be presented with many options. In general, each company goes through the same process, especially if you are registering a .com or .org name. Costs may vary so it is a good idea to be sure you are getting something for the additional cost.

In all cases, let the buyer beware. The "corporation" you are dealing with might be a 14-year-old with a server in the basement. This might actually be preferable to a large company. Select a solution that provides the level of service you need while providing a level of support and trust that makes you comfortable.

These links should help with these decisions:

Course Management

At this point your online course has been planned, designed, created, and posted. Be sure to test all the components. Ask a few colleagues, students, or others to test your site from their home or office computers. This process will provide good feedback for last minute changes. Screen resolutions, browser types, and connection speeds vary greatly from one user to another. A good test run will help you eliminate many potential problems.

It is finally time to welcome your students. Students comfort and experience level is an issue in any class. This is true for web-based classes, although the sources of discomfort may be different. The first few days of an online class are very important. It may be helpful to delay discussion of the subject matter until students are comfortable with the mode of delivery. You may want to place an end date of public discussion of issues related to course delivery. When the majority of students are comfortable with the format, further discussion of computer issues becomes a distraction. Remaining problems can be addressed on an individual basis without prolonging class discussion regarding course delivery.

Issues related to delivery that extend past the first couple weeks may be indicative of several issues. If these problems are related to design, it is important to address these problems as soon as possible. This can be relatively easy when compared to problems associated with a distance student's computer knowledge or equipment. It is not safe to assume that a student that registers for an online course is computer savvy. A clear statement of policy regarding equipment and support can eliminate or minimize these problems.

Online courses can place different demands on the educator's schedule. Students are often online late at night. If the professor is comfortable with this schedule he or she may find that this time presents an opportunity to interact with students. It can be strangely comforting to know that you are not the only one in class at 1:00 am. Of course, this schedule is not required and it is entirely possible to teach web-based courses on a 9-5 schedule. Set the expectations at the start so students understand, and respect, your schedule and work style.

Grading issues are also a bit different in a web-based course. We are all aware of "good" students that complete their work on team, every time, in a traditional classroom. These students keep up with their work because they carefully keep track of all deadlines. They know they completed and submitted a given assignment because the assignment was handed to the professor in class. These students often respond in a different way to online assignments. They can be uncomfortable with the uncertainty associated with the submission of an online assignment. Clicking a "send" button may not be enough for a student that worries about every assignment. They may submit an assignment several times, perhaps asking for a quick acknowledgement of each submission.

We are also familiar with the less motivated student. This student may exploit the uncertainty associated with the submission of online assignments. The online educator is placed in a difficult situation when a student, who was assumed to be AWOL, suddenly appears after a three week absence, claiming that he or she has been there all along.

Problems with each of these students can be reduced with a carefully worded course outline. This is especially important in a class that does not meet in person. Provide a clear listing of expectations, schedule, response time, and other issues. Quick grading of assignments, accompanied by an e-mail or online discussion post that announces that assignments have been graded, can reduce these problems. Problems can be reduced once students are comfortable with the online assignments and are aware that the professor is closely monitoring the class and assignments.

The following links address a range of course management issues:

The Next Course

Here is some good news. The first course can be a bit rough but at the end of the semester you have the framework for continued development of this course. You have also acquired the skills needed to try again.

Other Information

Examples

I leave my course information online and have provided links below. The internet provides a great opportunity to learn. Unfortunately, the commercialization of the Internet has made this tool less valuable to students and educators. I believe in free access to learning materials and have participated in enough publisher funded "focus groups" to know that publishers would prefer to limit free access to knowledge.

A downside of the choice to leave materials online is that this material has the potential to become outdated. An advantage is that potential students have an opportunity to review materials as they choose their courses. Another advantage is that any student, regardless of enrollment status, has access to quality course materials - just don't ask me to grade your papers!

Copyright concerns may also reduce the motivation to leave materials online. Ownership of online content is a contentious issue. As discussed above, Blackboard and WebCT allow the educator to place materials in password protected areas. In spite of my support of free access, I also place certain materials in password protected areas. Each online educator has the power to make decisions about access to course materials. The range of tools available to online educators allow this choice. "One size fits all" tools such as WebCT may cause educators to keep all their materials in one place. This can be a tempting option but remember that everything will be hidden behind a password. With a little creativity, and a few website creation skills, educators are empowered to provide full, limited, or no access to their materials.

Finally, will your materials be stolen? The reality is that it is very easy to steal entire websites and repackage them as your own. It is also very easy to discover these "copies" by doing a search of the web. Would a web educator be "flattered" if someone ripped off his or her course material? No, most would be offended. The only consolation is that if the "educator" is too lazy and/or uninspired to create unique web content at least the students will benefit from the once-removed efforts of a caring educator.

The following links provide examples of course web pages.

Links to Online Courses or Syllabi

Distance Education - C.J. Degree Programs

University-based

The links included on the left margin of this page include brief descriptions of many criminal justice programs in the United States. Many of these programs offer, or plan to offer, web-based courses or degrees. The following lists include programs that offer online coursework leading to a complete degree. These lists are limited to progra

Undergraduate Degrees

Internet-based

A growing number of criminal justice degree programs are being offered by internet-based institutions.  In contrast to traditional universities, these are "for profit" ventures.  Accreditation is typically from an organization that specializes in accrediting online degree programs.

Remember that an assumption of this presentation is that skilled distance educators will, when provided with adequate resources, create online learning environments that are equivalent to, or superior to, the learning environment found in "traditional" classrooms.  To be brutally honest, and perhaps somewhat biased, a review of the "for profit" educational sites cast doubt on the validity of that assumption.

I began to list several of these programs but discovered that these companies are paying search engines and other sources for referrals and clicks to their site.  Why should I use this page to give it away, especially when these programs appear to be below the standards we have come to expect, and work hard to maintain, in established Colleges and Universities?

Search for "online criminal justice degrees" on any search engine.  Since they pay for their positioning on search results, these programs will be at or near the top of the list.  Go ahead and click on the links - the search engine provider will bill the program for each referral.

Accreditation Issues

Distance Education - Administrative Issues

Institutions are rapidly adopting web-based models of distance education.  Departments, colleges, and individual faculty are being pressured to create online courses and programs, in spite of the lack of experience and expertise in distance education.  To make matters worse, those who are exerting this pressure may be similarly unprepared for the challenges of delivering and supporting web-based educational content.

Is the pressure to move toward web-based models a threat?  Does this pressure lead to opportunity for those that "take the bait?"  How does web-based education interact with intellectual property rights, academic freedom, and tenure?  What level of institutional support will be required?  The following links provide information about a range of issues to be considered.

General Issues

Infrastructure

Training

Ownership

Compensation

Tenure

Conclusion

The state of web-based education is somewhat unsettled.  Institutions have rapidly, and perhaps naively, expanded their offerings in web-based distance education.  Faculty members have devoted a significant amount of energy in their efforts to "go online."  Students have been lured by promises, either real or imagined, of an educational experience that fits into their busy schedules.

Distance education has always been promoted as a low-cost solution to many problems faced by higher education.  Eventually, institutions get around to counting money.  We are now reaching that stage and these institutions are discovering that distance education is not, at this point, as profitable as they anticipated (see the Chronicle of Higher Education article linked below).

Those who have experienced success in web-based education will be quick to point out that a focus on profitability diverts attention from the effectiveness of web-based course delivery.  Web-based courses have the potential to be at least as effective as traditional courses.  In addition, web-based courses meet distance needs that have always been active, especially in sparsely populated areas that cannot support traditional institutions.

Many educators that have integrated web content into their courses report high levels of satisfaction, both with the process and the result.  This effort requires a significant commitment in terms of time and energy.  Hopefully this page, and the links provided, will make this process more efficient. 

Educators have strong feelings about retaining academic freedom. Web-based education provides another battle ground regarding this issue. In many cases the educator feels liberated by an educational setting that offers an unprecedented level of control over course content. However, this freedom can be eliminated if online educators do not make informed arguments about the future of this method of course delivery. In effect, knowledge of the issues surrounding online education are important for all educators, even those who do not plan to teach online.

Web-based courses can be very time consuming, in the design stage as well as during the times in which the course is active.  As with any skill, the process gets easier with experience.  Course materials can start out very simply, perhaps just a course outline.  The simple process of posting a course outline will illustrate the potential of online content.  For example, lets assume your course outline discusses a required term paper.  As with a traditional course outline, you tell the students that you expect their papers to follow APA style. An online syllabus can include links to pages that describe APA style, formatting and organizational options for term papers, and examples of good papers from past classes. The richness of the online syllabus makes it easier for students to learn on their own, buying valuable time for more productive teaching and learning activity.

Web-based course content, when used a supplement to traditional material, can lead to increased flexibility in the classroom.  For example, the process of administering and grading exams can be very mechanical.  Class time spent on exams is not particularly productive.  If exams are placed online this time can be used for class activities that lead to additional learning experiences.  In effect, the mechanization of certain course elements allows the educator to focus on productive and rewarding class experiences.  When used in this way "distance" technology has the potential to lead to a more personal and student centered classroom experience.

Flexibility is one of the most attractive features of web-based courses. This flexibility extends to course design, content selection, and the use of time.  Students place a high value on the opportunity to participate in a class during times that fit their schedule.  Faculty have busy schedules and they also benefit from this flexibility.

Is web-based education for everyone?  No, of course not.  Is this method of delivery equally effective in all contexts?  Again, no.  However, for a growing number of administrators, educators, and students, web-based education makes a lot of sense.  Distance education has a past that has not always included successful innovation.  The internet offers an opportunity to resolve many of the problems associated with previous efforts to educate at a distance.  As such, the future of web-based education appears to be quite bright.  Through the careful efforts of educators, that potential may be reached. 

The Future

 

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