Monday, April 24, 2006

Designing an online course - an open question

Last Friday I posted that I was working on a proposal to teach my majors' biology course online. I'm still in the initial design phase, and the course won't be run online for at least a year, but I've already identified one key question I need to answer: how much of the course should be run online?

Right now the course is a combination lecture and lab course that's taught entirely on campus; it has one large lecture section and multiple lab sections. The lecture meets twice a week, and then the students divide up into smaller lab sections that meet separately. I have no plans to change the labs - they will remain completely in-person (at least for now).

I can, however, see two possible ways to redesign the lecture:
  • Run the lecture portion of the course entirely online; the only time students would spend on campus is in the lab.
  • Run the lecture as a hybrid; I'd introduce much of the lecture content through online activities, but then have a weekly meeting (say once a week) on campus to highlight and discuss topics in a more traditional manner.
I can see benefits to both styles. If I ran the lecture entirely online, I could probably give the students much more feedback (via interactive activities) on their progress than I ever could in an in-person environment, and I'd have more freedom to use nontraditional techniques (e.g., getting the students using discussion boards, creating websites, doing online research, or blogging). And, even if the lecture was run entirely online, the students would still have time to interact with instructors in lab if they were confused about lecture content.

On the other hand, I can see how having a weekly meeting on campus could be helpful. I could spend a few minutes highlighting key points, and then spend most of the time doing in-class activities (e.g., discussions, problem sets). Heck, the in-class time could even be a straight lecture, if that was the best way to help students learn the material. I'm a bit concerned, however, that doing a hybrid might minimize the effectiveness of the online components of the course (e.g., students might come to rely on the in-class material to the exclusion of online material), and that discussions might end up focusing on only the questions of a few students, thus using time inefficiently.

Unfortunately, thanks to the school bureaucracy, I need to make this decision by the end of the week. So, if anyone has any suggestions or thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

[Update May 1: The proposal is in; see this post for more.]


Radagast said...

Importing comments:

RWP - That's great information; thanks for posting it. Your experience illustrates one of the downsides I can see to running the lecture as a hybrid: students might just perceive the course as now being half the work.

Do you have any hypotheses about why the students didn't do the online work? Any thoughts on what you could have done differently?
April 26, 2006, 10:55:01 PM PDT – Like – Reply

Check out the Master's of Life Science program at the University of Maryland.

All of my courses are entirely online, with modules created by the professors. Their are several ways to interact via discussion, email, and collaborative projects.

I don't miss going to lectures at all because I can work when I want.
April 26, 2006, 8:32:32 AM PDT – Like – Reply

Jessica: Actually, the plan right now is that the online (or hybrid) lecture will completely replace the face to face lecture in the class (i.e., once this version is developed, the in-person version won't be taught unless the online version flops). That's one reason why I'm seriously contemplating the hybrid lecture idea.
April 26, 2006, 7:18:50 AM PDT – Like – Reply

Let me tell you what happened to us when we did this.

Our department had made a deal with the devil (well, the computing center, actually), because our 1500-per-semester enrollment course, a data analysis course, was taking up too many of the campus labs. The deal was that we'd go from two labs a week to one (the one lecture per week wasn't affected) and we'd make up the lost lab time online.

We worked ourselves to death, creating multimedia presentations of material we no longer had time to cover in labs, interactive quizzes so students could see if they'd understood it, and so forth. When the online course went live, we told the students over and over again that if they didn't do the online portion before they came to lab, they'd be lost -- because the lab was based on the material presented online.

It was a disaster. For whatever reason, students did not doo the online portion. Students had no idea what we were doing in lab, and we went back to two labs per week.

I don't want to bring you down -- just let you know what happened when we did it.
April 26, 2006, 7:17:10 AM PDT – Like – Reply

Radagast said...

Importing comments:

I think that you should probably just go with the totally online version for now. The students who need more face to face interaction have the traditional class to offer that to them.
April 26, 2006, 4:43:43 AM PDT – Like – Reply

The problem with online courses is that some students do much better with relational learning - face to face, hearing it, feeling it. Yes, I know that 'feeling' isn't supposed to be part of a lecture, but your intensity, your passion for your subject comes through - hence the feeling. Many folks would do just fine with the lecture being on line. Others would fumble, not quite getting it because they learn from hearing, not reading/seeing. Could you offer both types - online and lecture...that way both needs could be met. The hybrid does a disserve to both methods.

Just a comment from one who likes relational learning...I get lots of info from others in the class as well.
April 24, 2006, 8:33:29 AM PDT – Like – Reply

I'm planning to continue holding face to face office hours; I hadn't thought of them as a critical element of teaching online, but now I can see how they might be useful. I'm also planning on being available via IM during my office hours.

Regarding the course design, that's a good way to look at it; once I get this proposal in I'm free to re-allocate the course hours every year.
April 24, 2006, 2:01:41 AM PDT – Like – Reply

Why don't you try the completely online version this year, assess it, and consider the hybrid next time you teach the course if completely online seems to have some gaps?

If students are meeting each other in the labs anyway they'll get the f2f interaction they need with each other - and as you say, with hybrid only you'll have more time to focus on feedback online.

Will you have f2f office hours for students who really want to talk with you f2f?
April 24, 2006, 1:29:28 AM PDT