Moving a face-to-face credit course to an online environment is far more challenging than one might expect – as numerous experienced and esteemed professors have discovered. In this post learn vicariously through one professor’s experience of ‘what not to do’.
I’d like to introduce you to Professor Harding a history professor who is transitioning his face-to-face undergraduate history course to a twelve-week, 3-credit online course. Professor Harding, though fictitious embodies the typical errors made by most course instructors with little or no experience in online learning when moving their face-to-face course to the online environment.
The purpose of this post is to highlight common errors that I’ve observed and experienced as an instructional designer when assisting professors with their course transition to the online format. I also aim to provide guidance for educators involved in a similar course transition process along with resources for further support. My goal is to assist ‘Professor Harding’ [who represents all educators in this circumstance] with moving his course online, to ensure it is of high academic quality, rigorous and applicable to the realm of online learning. Below are five actions planned by Harding phrased as ‘what not to do’ followed with constructive recommendations.
[Please note that the recommendations should be considered a starting point for the transition process. A comprehensive strategy is needed for the design of any online course – what I’m covering here scratches the surface. I plan to follow this post with more in-depth design strategies in the following weeks].
- What not to do: Use the same face-to-face course syllabus: Professor Harding has a detailed syllabus he has perfected over years of teaching his face-to-face class and with a few minor modifications, he plans to use this syllabus for the online course.
Recommendations: This is a common error when transitioning a class to the online format, which is understandable considering the time, energy and effort invested in the face-to-face class. However, though the objectives and content for the course is already determined for the most part, creating a revised instructional strategy for the class in the online format is necessary. An instructional strategy for online learning involves unique pedagogical principles applicable to the delivery method, revised teaching methods, learning activities and assessments. For further resources on instructional strategy and course design consult the resources section at the end of this post.
- Create a new syllabus with the online student and the virtual environment in mind.
- Include course instructor contact information that will be accessible to online students: email, text number, Skype address, Google + contact info, etc.
- Consider recording and posting a brief video clip with course instructor reviewing the syllabus, just as he or she would in a face-to-face class.
- Post the syllabus in a PDF format for easy download, or use web pages within the course Learning Management System.
- Provide a list of Web resources that relate to and supplement the course content for deeper learning opportunities.
2. What not to do: Implement Course grading that relies heavily on exam assessments. Harding’s face-to-face course is heavily test based with 70% of course grade allocated to exams and tests, 25% to assignments and 5% to participation. Given the significant test and exam weight, Harding plans to mandate that students complete all exams and tests in a proctored setting to ensure academic integrity.
Recommendations: I recommend Prof Harding revise his grading structure. A heavily test based course [as this one] in the online environment is less than ideal for several reasons: 1) opportunity for cheating is increased, 2) student engagement is significantly lower, 3) ‘testing’ assesses recall of facts and lower level knowledge, providing less opportunity for development of critical thinking skills. Harding may want to consider test/exam weight of 40%, participation and contribution 10% and the remaining 50% consisting of a variety of assignments spread throughout the course. Furthermore, I suggest that Harding have only one proctored exam requirement (perhaps worth 20%), and one or two open-note tests with a time limit [all adding up to the 40% recommended grading weight].
Cheating, a concern in online courses can be minimized if not avoided by using a variety of assessment methods. Methods that might include participation and contribution activities (graded), through discussion boards or chat sessions which will establish a student’s individual ‘voice’, demonstrating his or her involvement in the course. Student participation also gives opportunity for the instructor to get to know the student that may help the instructor identify non-authentic work submitted for grading, work that may not be consistent with the student ‘voice’. Another assessment method might be a group assignment which if well designed, encourages collaboration and prompts students to engage with course content and construct new knowledge collectively. Including a peer review or peer-grading component is another strategy to authenticate student work.
3. What not to do: Assignments that lack detailed instructions: There are two assignments for this History course with descriptions of each in the course syllabus. Assignment details are outlined in two paragraphs within the syllabus, though professor Harding usually gives his face-to-face students enhanced instructions during his classroom lectures.
Keeping students on task, motivated and engaged in an online course requires a careful balance between graded student activities that require interaction [i.e. discussion forums] and individual assignments. It is more effective to have smaller assignments due throughout the course, with one cumulative assignment due at the end of the course than just one significant assignment required.
However, students are sensitive to ‘busy work’, assessment activities need to be clearly linked to the stated learning outcomes for the course. In our courses I suggest including a purpose statement, which highlights how the particular assignment benefits the student, furthers critical thinking and deep learning, and brings him or her closer to the course objectives.
- Provide clear, detailed instructions. Quality work from students is guided by clear, well-defined instructions.
- Consider using rubrics, which are excellent tools for outlining expectations and standards.
- Outline the purpose of the assignment – the why. Adult learners even more so than younger students want to know how the assignments and learning activities contribute to the big picture, the learning objectives of the course.
4. What not to do: Utilize the same course materials as used in F2F class. The course materials for the history class consist of a textbook, several handouts, and power point slides, all of which (except for textbook) the professor plans to post to the course home page.
Recommendations: Utilizing existing course resources is acceptable and encouraged though I suggest some modifications to the materials as listed below. Harding would also do well to take advantage of the rich resources available on the Web to supplement his existing course content.
- Ensure all course documents are in accessible formats. Adobe’s PDF format is universal, meaning students can download PDF course file regardless of which version of Microsoft Word they use, or Apple software.
- Limit file formats which use color for contrast (i.e. maps).
- Use Power Point files sparingly, if at all – usually such files are costly for students to print (as many students like to print all course materials) and usually convey minimal value in terms of course content given the medium.
Consider the following questions:
- What course content sources exist on the Web? What is already available in the form of e-books, association resources, scholarly resources, e-libraries, government sources etc.?
- What Web resources are available through your institution?
- What are your colleagues doing online with respect to using digital resources?
5. What not to do: Underestimate the amount of time needed for course transition. This is one of the most common mistakes of all, underestimating how much time is needed to bring a course to the online format.
Recommendations: Professor Harding is an experienced and esteemed professor at his institution with the ‘bones’ for a dynamic online history course. Harding would do well to approach the design process by enlisting support of available resources, either colleagues with experience in online teaching, instructional design support, books on online course design, and/or online resources available on the Web. Transitioning an existing course from a face-to-face format to the online learning environment requires an investment of time that is akin to developing a course from the ground-up.
I am confident Professor Harding’s course will be an engaging, rigorous, and interactive online course if he follows the recommendations. Though before the course can become a quality learning experience, there is much work to be done; time needed to develop an instructional strategy. I’ve selected a variety of resources for educators planning a course transition from F2F to the online format, or for those interested in learning more. One article, Teaching College Courses Online, is a gem, though it dates back to 2001, it is still applicable and relevant today, though this in itself is the topic for another post. In the following weeks I’ll be writing more posts on instructional design.
Note: If are are interested in upgrading a current online course, you may be interested in another post, How-to Retrofit an Online Course,
Resources (click on title to activate link):
- Teaching College Courses Online vs Face-to-Face, (April, 2001). THE Journal
- Getting Started Online, Office of the Chancellor, Minnesota States Colleges and Universities
- Nine steps to quality online learning, (June, 2012). Blog Post by Tony Bates, Research Associate Contact North
- Teach with OLI, Carnegie Mellon University