Exploring an Effective and Efficient Online Course Management Model
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
In asynchronous distance education, which has flourished in recent years, a great deal of emphasis is placed on instructional design and technology. As this educational format enters the mainstream of higher education, educators will realize that perhaps the most daunting challenge is how to manage an online course effectively and efficiently. The challenge is particularly serious in institutions that do not employ teaching assistants (TAs). This study submits that both effectiveness and efficiency in managing online courses can be achieved. It further argues that without efficiency, effectiveness is doomed. While taking the desirability of effectiveness (defined as students' being motivated and actively engaged in a learning endeavor) as widely accepted, the focus of this study is on how to achieve efficiency in conjunction with effectiveness in light of a substantial amount of empirical experience in online teaching and online program management.
The Challenge of Efficiency in the Pursuit of Effectiveness
As with any other educational format, how to engage students in class activities as they are pertinent to the subject matter is a critical issue. For those subscribing to the cognitive school1, this issue may well be of paramount significance. Detractors of online education tend to fault distance education, especially the asynchronous format, based on the perception that such a format leaves students unattended. The reality is far more complex.
Except for the absence of joint physical presence of both instructor and students, the online format has more tools at its disposal in promoting students' participation and stimulating students' engagement. Many empirical studies confirm that students other than the most outspoken ones have better incentives and opportunities to participate in an online environment as opposed to a conventional classroom (Sherry & Wilson, 1997; Buchal, 1997). Participation at the group level or class level can be more easily arranged without concern for facility constraints. Student-instructor interactions and student-student interactions also become more intensive and timely.
The engagement in an online class is not intrinsically deficient or ineffective. Rather, it is primarily dependent on the structure of a particular online program and the style and sense of responsibility of a particular instructor. Essentially, the same variables -- whether online or in the classroom -- determine the overall level of engagement. There is also an issue of craft: an instructor with a strong sense of responsibility but a weak grasp of online course management strategies and techniques may not be as effective, and certainly not as efficient. The issue of craft actually has special appeal at this particular developmental stage of online education. Many faculty have braved the challenges of designing an online course only to find themselves facing the unexpected, greater challenge of how to effectively engage students while maintaining the manageability of their courses.
Efficiency can be determined by comparing benchmarked resource consumption per unit of output. As to the course management, the actual time spent by an instructor in delivering an online course can be compared with the average hours of time consumption in teaching a course of a certain standard size, online or in the classroom.2 If the delivery of an online course requires substantially more hours of the instructor's time3, there is clearly an efficiency problem. Without careful thought about the craft specific to online teaching, efficiency is not attainable.
In the conventional format, the time commitment to students in one class is finite. Other than the class time and possibly office hours, any additional time commitment is a function of assignments pre-determined by the instructor. The big specter that makes online course faculty feel very unsettled is the seemingly infinite potential for time commitment (McCollum, 1998). Whereas students may not be able to knock on the office door of an instructor anytime or ring the instructor's home, they can send the instructor email messages (even several in a row) at any time during the course. Increasingly, students' email messages are not even limited to legitimate reasons (McCollum, 1999). There is also an explosion of postings on class bulletin boards, ironically, if the instructor is very effective in engaging students. Instructors ask, How can I carry the same teaching load, especially in an institution without TAs, while taking upon myself the effective engagement of online students? This is a question either voiced in the open or looming large in the back of faculty members' minds.
Rationale for Effective and Efficient Online Course Management
Efficiency in essence refers to productivity measured by the quality and amount of output against the resources input. It is a relative concept; a lower quality or amount of output against a proportionally even lower input can produce a higher efficiency rate. In business, trade-offs are routinely made, either on the input side or the output side, in pursuit of better efficiency. Efficiency is, however, a quite alien concept in traditional education at the micro level (that is, at the course management level) as if the principles of economics have fallen into a vacuum.
Any lasting, successful, online management model must recognize the legitimacy of efficiency that is based on realistic input and output ratios. For most courses, the most precious resource is faculty time. An efficient course management model must strive to achieve the economic utilization of a finite, reasonable amount of faculty time.
One intrinsic advantage of online courses is their much greater potential to enable instructors to employ learner participation models in teaching. In many structured online courses4, students report that a major component of their learning is the mutual learning among classmates5. Such online courses rely, more than the seminar format in traditional teaching, on student participation. Within a general, instructor-defined subject frame, students exchange information, raise questions, present answers, debate alternatives, and reconcile differences. Virtual class participation has moved higher education ever closer to the goal of students being learners actively shaping their own learning through collaborative work.
Recognizing the legitimacy of efficiency in course management as well as the learner participation model is the conceptual foundation for constructing efficiency models for online course management. This is the first step. Without establishing the legitimacy of this foundation, efficiency is out of the question. The lack of efficiency will ultimately jeopardize the sustainability of effectiveness.
The next step is to keep abreast of students' major concerns. In a sense, this next step is to determine what categories of demands should be given priority given the limited supply of resources, primarily instructor time. In the context of this analysis, two concerns stand out:
Frequently, students would like clarifications on issues such as assignment due dates, presentation formats, group formation, and venue of delivery. In an online environment, students' reading capability, material access sequence, and prior experience can make larger differences in comprehending course requirements. The lack of physical communication cues found in face-to-face communication can sometimes render even good readers less certain about their understanding. Since the procedural issues tend to be clear-cut with little room for variation, students want to have any doubt removed before taking big steps.
Unless it is a very large class (i.e., larger than thirty), all serious students want to be noticed by the instructor. Each one of them wants to participate, to be recognized, and to have his/her specific issue(s) addressed.
Any successful course management model must reckon with these two concerns and sufficiently satisfy them.
Another principle in constructing the online course management model involves communication. Communication is context-dependent. The more detached from the context, the less clear the signals in the eyes of recipients. The context is composed of (1) time frame, (2) preceding event(s), and (3) identity of participants. A successful online management model is largely a successful online communication model which must be very mindful of the context in strategy formulation and technique utilization.
At the program-management level, as Doug Beckwith, a senior manager with the online campus of the University of Phoenix, points out, faculty familiarity with courseware features can make a difference in efficiency. Clearly, faculty and program management will need to budget sufficient "up front" time and resources for training.
Six Strategies and Techniques in Online Management
The following strategies have their conceptual foundation in the previously outlined pedagogical and communication principles. They have been developed over teaching thirteen online courses in two subject areas of the MBA Program of the University of Phoenix. They have also been shared, in the context of online program management, with twelve faculty involved in developing and delivering ten online courses in an undergraduate, interdisciplinary-studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Two of the courses are still under development, while eight have been beta-tested. Four of those tested courses have officially gone "live." The empirical result of the deployment of the model has been positive.
Clear distinction between Bulletin and Mail6
Stress to students up front that "bulletin" (the bulletin board) is where participation should take place. Unless it is something of a confidential nature or needs a specific response from the instructor, students should use only bulletin. To focus on bulletin is not only in accordance with the premise of the collaborative, cognitive learning model, but also the pursuit of efficiency. Since everyone in the class can read every posting, the instructor's time is used most efficiently.
The instructor does not need to reply to every posting on the bulletin immediately, if at all. Yet it is entirely a different matter in dealing with mail. Specifying instructor response time in mail processing may be necessary. In my own teaching, I log into the course six days a week, and this is my own policy, not a matter of University of Phoenix policy, but determined by a specific communication context. In my case, my response to a private message is no more than 48 hours after a student has sent a message, and most often, less than 36 hours. If you cannot do that, you need to provide students a clear response time -- within 72 hours, for instance. Otherwise, students may perceive you as unresponsive and also send you duplicate messages that will cause you the loss of time.
Bulletin Board Management
Although engaging students in participation may still be a problem for some faculty, many have already felt intimidated by the prospect of an inundation of students' postings. Without a TA, when a class has dozens of active students, the sheer volume of postings to read can be overwhelming. In my own experience, one University of Phoenix class with nine students had over 2300 postings in a span of just six weeks, not counting private communications.
Efficient course management strategy for bulletin board management may include the following:
1. Read the postings by all the students on all required subjects, but NOT every posting. First, read every third or fourth consecutive posting in a thread, rather than each one. Often the third or even the fourth posting will have the previous ones cited. Only occasionally does the instructor need to go back to read the second and/or the first posting in order to get the whole picture. When some very active students have multiple postings on the same subjects, make sure to read the postings of the less active students first. The instructor may also opt to skip some of those multiple postings of the very active students.
2. Require changing the subject line when the reply is substantially narrowed in focus or different from the original topic. This way, posting students are compelled to be more thoughtful and articulate rather than just being trigger-happy with their mice. The postings with clearly marked subject lines also allow the instructor to be more selective in reading postings. Emphasize that if a posting is no longer relevant to the theme of a thread, a new thread should be created. Instructors should be particularly concerned with practicing this rule, since starting a new thread is the best way to guide class-wide discussion. If you want to make sure that the whole class is going to notice a particular point you want to make, you should start a new thread. Even if you were technically replying to a posting of a student on a long thread, you may want to copy the relevant part of that student posting and create a new thread with a subject line reflecting your focus.
3. Whereas the previous four rules concern how to efficiently manage the main meeting room of the bulletin board7, this rule focuses on how to further maximize efficiency by using multiple rooms. Rooms other than the default main room can be created by the instructor based on either sub-class groupings, subject, or both. A class can be divided into groups either randomly or by students themselves. When there is an advantage to using role plays as an instructional technique, each group can assume a role. The same group may stay together throughout the course. The instructor should require each group to produce a summary of the discussion at a certain interval and post it to the main room. Instructors will visit each room from time to time, but only follow the main room closely.
For smaller classes, rooms can also be created based on subjects. The entire class will engage in the discussion in every room, but each room is only used for a limited time span. The purpose of such organization is to reduce crowding in the main room where hundreds of postings may disorient some students new to the online classroom or who have not followed the discussion for a couple of days.
An effective instructor teaching online can have a bloated e-mail bag if no efficiency strategy is in place. Students will likely send, from time to time, messages to the instructor that have class-wide relevance. Rather than replying to the individual who sent the message, copy/forward it to the bulletin. This way, the instructor's time is much better used than if he/she replied to several students separately. Another technique is to select a good assignment as a model and send it to the bulletin board with some key comments. In both cases, the instructor's time will yield much higher instructional output. Additionally, I encourage students to send messages critical of me or disagreeing with me to the bulletin.
Repository of Answers
In all computer-assisted instruction, creating readily pasteable instructional guidelines, clarifications, and subject discussions should be a given. Somewhat analogous to handwritten lecture notes, a repository of such readily pasteable notes should be steadily built up. They can have two general types: procedural and subject-related. The first type does not change much and also tends to occur at fairly regular junctures in the class. Such notes should not be dumped on students all at once. Rather, the instructor should anticipate when and what kind of learning needs will occur and post procedural messages only as those needs become prevalent and heightened. This way, there is less chance that students will misunderstand or miss the instruction.
Here are two examples drawn from my classes at the University of Phoenix. The first one is about the paper length specified for individual papers and group projects. Frequently, students will ask me by week one or two if longer papers will get them into trouble. I have a prepared answer which becomes a supplement to what is stated in my syllabus:
"… Let me make a confession, I don't actually count the words, and don't mind if the size is a bit long. What I cannot tolerate is the practice of what I call 'stuffing the paper' which is to expand the paper with lots of irrelevant material or repetitive texts. I would also object to long or excessive quotations. In other words, you should try to process the readings or the source data carefully, and paraphrase as much as possible, so what you provide is well-refined rather than close to raw material."
Also, regardless of whether students ask, I post the following note with little variation in week four, or about the time students are busy working on the first draft of their project.
Integration of the Group Project
"Not that I know anything in particular or definitive about your final projects, I just want to provide this note as a reference.
From my experience with past classes, I have noticed a somewhat common problem for the final project. It's about integration. Integration is critical in the success of a business organization, and so is the case in the success of each virtual organization you have created in this class. The weakness in integration may result in more or less contradictory arguments in the same project, like the executive summary made one point only to be refuted indirectly by a statement in the section x or the conclusion. That is what I call disintegration in terms of 'CONTENT.' Then we also have a phenomenon that some facts stated on page 1 or 2 would be repeated in a slight variation on page 5 or 6 as if they have not been presented at all. I don't mean just referring to something introduced earlier, but developing a whole passage as a brand new introduction. To me, that is a problem of disjoint in 'PRESENTATION.'
So, pls. do go extra step(s) to optimize the integration. "
I have invariably received responses from students appreciating this reminder.
Subject-related answers will require more customization depending on the context. Even so, cutting and pasting the prepared or previously used comments can be both fitting and time saving. In this category, I store some carefully thought-out comments or answers to previous students' postings that are specific to some common topics in a course. I have also selected some well-done papers and substantive discussions. I add to each one of them a brief comment to indicate my reason for the selection. Similarly, I take from students' postings some well-articulated and relevant experience as samples for illustrating class topics.
The University of Phoenix requires students to post a weekly summary. I took it upon myself to do the same. The instructor's summary can help students reinforce fresh learning. Since the class progresses in accordance with a well-laid-out structure and articulated weekly learning objectives, each week's summary does not have to change very much. Customization is focused on "unfinished business" if there is an intensive, collective interest of a particular class on a particular topic. Customization can also recognize relatively broadly the contributions of the class, even if no specific names are mentioned. Quotations or paraphrased views from students' postings can be cited as such contributions. Students will feel that you have followed their discussions closely, even though you may not jump in at many of their exchanges.
The best help is self help. This is especially true in an online environment. Over time, an instructor acquires a good feel as to what kinds of issues and questions are most common among students. Instructors can then create collections of tips and place them in a glossary. You still need to remind students or guide them on using those tips.
Assignment Editing with Advanced Word Processing Features
When it comes to grading papers, using the computer can actually be easier than using a pen if instructors use some advanced features like "Track Change" that come with the newer versions of major word processors.
The success of any structured online program must stem from both effectiveness and efficiency. Effectiveness in student engagement can be achieved program-wide and on a lasting basis only if faculty manage their time efficiently. Lack of efficiency will lead to the exhaustion of program resources over time and the subsequent decline of instructional effectiveness. With the monumental expansion of the asynchronous, online delivery format in higher education, more and more efforts have to be devoted to developing efficient models in effectively engaging students.
(1) There are some controversies over the gist of cognitive theories (Brown, 1978; Johnson & Erneling, 1997; Moore, 1998). The reference here is in essence about the interactivity in learning. Knowledge is not so much transferred via one-way instructional flow, but rather is acquired through well-guided learning experiences between the learner and the instructor and among learners. For such learning models, learners will have certain decision-making powers in selecting learning strategies.
(2) As the focus of this article is on course management, only the time spent on delivering a course is considered, excluding the time spent on course design.
(3) One big advantage for both instructor and students in asynchronous learning is "time shifting" whereby a participant can organize his/her schedule flexibly and reduce the pressure on some highly contested blocks of time while making better use of other, more fragmented or less exploitable blocks of time. In the context of this article, the "time shifting" factor is not considered.
(4) This refers to courses that are scheduled in a fixed time frame within which a group of students have the same assignments and requirements, including virtual class participation.
(5) Students' feedback in courses taught and faculty reports cited on the Distance Education Online Symposium listserve hosted at DEOS-L@LISTS.PSU.EDU
(6) The terms of technical features are used in WebCT, the courseware UW-Green Bay uses, but most of the comparable features can be found in any major courseware.
(7) The room may be called a "forum" or "newsgroup" or something else, but all refer to a separate, membership-restricted or publicly accessible, virtual gathering place by the whole class or a class sub-group.
Buchal, R. (1997). Collaborative learning and interdisciplinary student teams. TheNode.org, the Node Learning Technologies Network. http://thenode.org/pedagogy/resource.cfm?ID=109&Subj=31&Loc=PED
Brown, A.L. (1978). Knowing when, where, and how to remember: A problem of metacognition. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology (pp. 79-165). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Johnson, E. M. & Erneling, C. (1997). The future of the cognitive revolution. New York: Oxford University Press.
McCollum, K. (1998, June 26). Computer requirement for students changes professors' duties as well. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A22.
McCollum, K. (1999, September 17).On line, ways to misbehave can outpace college rules. The Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A35.
Moore, B.J. (1998). Situated cognition versus traditional cognitive theories of learning. Education, 119 (1), 161-72.
Sherry, L. & Wilson, B. (1997). Transformative communications as a stimulus to web communications. In B. Khan (Ed.), Web-based instruction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
Doug Beckwith, Academic Affairs Manager of University of Phoenix Online, has provided valuable comments on this piece.