Kenneth W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
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Creating Online Learning Environments: Skills and Challenges

Kenneth W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Criminology
University of North Carolina Wilmington

The internet provides teaching and learning opportunities that did not exist just a few years ago. The internet can be used as an effective teaching tool. However, many educators lack the skills necessary to take full advantage of new teaching technologies. Faculty members who are considering the adoption of online teaching tools are confronted with many questions and challenges. This article discusses these questions and challenges and provides guidance to educators attempting to integrate new teaching tools.

"Quality distance education." Some educators will suggest that this statement is an oxymoron. Considering a few of the "correspondence courses" in the past, educators have reason to 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 (Imel, 1996; Ostendorf, 1997; Teaster and Blieszner, 1999). 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 (Caffarella et al., 1992; Matthews, 1999). Pressures to reduce these costs often reduced the quality of the distance education experience.

Technological advances in distance education 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 can be 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 who long for efficiency, control, and academic freedom. Another issue that is active when we compare administrator and professor roles is related to issues regarding the delivery of online course content. The administrative requirements for offering online courses are very different from those required of a traditional student. As a result, administrators may get caught up in a narrow focus on deliver while forgetting pedagogical issues. For example, administrators may focus on courseware (WebCt, Blackboard, etc), additional costs of a distance course, providing texts to a distance student, and other mechanical issues. At first, educators may also fall into this trap as they focus on the mechanics of placing course materials online. The mechanics of providing course materials are fairly simple. However, most educators may not be familiar with the steps and tools that are required. This paper is intended to help with these questions.

The more seasoned online educator knows that ?courseware? is not the course. Phipps and Merisotis (2001) review a list of ?benchmarks? for quality online education. They reported that learning outcomes - not the availability of existing technology ? should determine the technology being used to deliver course content. From a pedagogical standpoint, a ?one size fits all? solution is not the goal. Ideally, all online educators will follow the same line of thinking and will know that getting online is easy. The real challenge is to ?teach? online. The effectiveness of distance learning is based on preparation, the educator?s understanding of the needs of the students, and an understanding of the target population (Omoregie, 1997).  This paper attempts to ?pull back the curtain? in the hope that the mechanical steps are made less cumbersome so the online educator can concentrate on teaching.

Comparing Distance and Traditional Courses

Designing a web-based course, or adding web content to a traditional course, is much more than placing lecture notes on the internet. Different skills are requires d in an online learning environment. For example, 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 the educator even try? The following discussion begins with information that will help potential online educators decide how to structure their online materials.

Should an online course mirror a traditional course, or should the technology be used to create a different course. In the classroom, the educator may be fulfilling a role of the ?sage on the stage. Distance courses may require that the educator become the ?guide on the side.? Bates (1995) suggests that rather than using technology to replicate traditional methods, emerging technology should be used to improve instruction. Holmberg (1989) also discusses these two schools of thought and concludes that distance education as a mode of education in its own right has very different consequences and should not be viewed as a substitute for face-to-face instruction. The potential online educator must define their online role, acknowledging that the new role may be somewhat different from a more established, and comfortable, role.

Is online education second rate? Gagne and Shepherd (2001) addressed this issue and report the performance of students in a distance course was similar to the performance of students in the on-campus course and student evaluations of the course were similar. Tucker (2001) compared traditional and online courses and reported tat her research concurred with the body of knowledge that finds that distance education is not inferior to traditional education. Tucker?s research found no significant differences between pre-test scores, homework grades, research paper grades and final course grades. Phipps, et al. (1999) reviewed early studies that compared traditional and distance courses and report that most studies conclude that distance learning courses compare favorably with classroom-based instruction and enjoy high student satisfaction, regardless of the technology used. They report that many experimental studies demonstrate that students participating in distance learning courses perform as well as their counterparts in a traditional classroom setting. Student performance, as measured by grades and test scores, is similar in each format. However, the authors caution that these studies were, in many cases, incomplete or based on questionable research methodology.

Course Design Issues

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. Remember that the goal is to work through the mechanics of online delivery as efficiently as possible while creating an online course that will result in a positive teaching and learning experience. Several issues need to be considered in the early stages of course design.

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? Will your course include text versions of in-class lectures? What about PowerPoint presentations? Will you include a list of links? What about online discussions?

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. The following discussion highlights several issues related to initioal planning about the mechanics of online course delivery

Design and Delivery

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.

The internet is also loaded with information and examples that will help the online educator who is struggling to visualize how the eventual course will appear. Internet content is much more robust that pages with flat text. As such, a certain degree of creativity and artistry will lead to a more satisfying product. Search the internet for pages related to ?web site design.? This search will lead to ideas and advice regarding the ?look and feel? of a website, including information about navigations problems that can be avoided. The internet also allows a quick comparison of the features of various web-authoring tools. Even if the online educator is limited to a particular version of courseware, knowledge of web site design and page authoring can help the educator who is trying to work around some of the limitations inherent in courseware.

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 adopted one or the other. Each of these delivery systems has 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. While those who provide technical support are not always educators, they do know how to work around the mechanics of course delivery. Technical support staff can be very helpful to the online educator who has a vision of how a class should look, ideas about online teaching strategies, and a desire to get to the task of teaching without worrying about whether chat rooms, discussion forums, testing, whiteboards, or other tools are going to function as needed.

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 versions of courseware. 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 ?web hosts? offer an alternative that helps to protect 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. Many web hosts offer a lower rate if you commit to a longer agreement. However, 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. Of course, this situation may 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. Again, it is a good idea to test the service with an easy preliminary question. This will allow a comparison of response rates, communication skills, and other factors that will determine whether future service requests will be handled in an acceptable manner.

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. Although you have put a lot of time into planning, don?t expect everything to be easy. Online courses are new to students too. The comfort and experience level of students 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.


Online courses are not for everyone. This applies to faculty as well as students. However, the demand is growing and online teaching skills are in high demand. The total enrollment in all distance education courses has been estimated at 1.6 million students (Boettcher, 2000). We can expect this number to continue to grow. The demand for online courses is very strong. This is especially true in criminal justice and other disciplines that provide educational services to many working students. However, distance education is still evolving and changes should be expected. For example, costs may be higher than anticipated by educators. The true costs are difficult to measure and savings may not be as high as administrators believe (Carr, 2001; Ng, 2000).

Here is some good news. The first course can be a bit rough, but at the end of the semester the first time distance educator has developed the framework for continued development of this course. The educator has also acquired the skills needed to try again. With advance planning, which get easier with each course, the online educator will find that each course gets easier. As in traditional classroom-based teaching, the conscientious educator is constantly learning through experience. As with online education, this process can include a certain degree of trial and error.

Today?s educators are in a unique situation. Most educators learned to teach, in part, through exposure to good teachers. The modeling of good teaching educates future educators, who have traditionally relied on similar techniques. Many of today?s educators face a ?generation gap? in teaching. Many educators are being asked to rapidly develop and embrace a teaching style, and a method of delivery, that was not available during the educator?s time as a student. Criminal justice educators who were educated with a steady diet of ?cops, courts, and corrections? may feel poorly suited for a task that involved html, url?s, web-based course outlines with hot links, streaming video, asynchronous ?discussions,? and many of the other tools used by online educators. Many educators are understandably reluctant to embrace online education. However, we may have reached a point where there is no turning back.


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