Learning From Online

Most professors agree that more work goes into designing an online course than a face-to-face one. But if those professors are interested in improving their teaching skills, it might be worth the extra effort.

So say researchers at Purdue University at Calumet, who believe that learning how to do distance education properly can make professors better at designing and administering their classroom-based courses.

"Most of the professors who teach at the university level have had no experience with pedagogy or instruction in general," says Janet Buckenmeyer, chair of the instructional technology master’s program at Calumet. "They’re content experts, not teaching experts."

Since most professors have spent their lives holding forth from the front of a lecture hall, many have not had to engineer their lesson plans with the sort of rigor required of a well-designed online course, Buckenmeyer says.

When teaching online, she says, "You have to pay more attention to the navigation of the course, the clarity of the course, the objectives of the course, the reason why you’re assigning activities and assessments, [and make] certain everything is perfectly clear to the students. In a face-to-face situation, you can get by with just coming in and not having prepared and winging a class session. You can’t do that online.”

Or rather, you can’t do that online if you expect students to learn well. “You can develop a really bad online course,” says Buckenmeyer, without necessarily knowing it. In order to teach well online, she says, professors need guidance.

That was the thesis behind the creation of Calumet’s Distance Education Mentoring Project.

The project takes faculty who are looking to adapt their classroom courses to the online environment and teams them up with Web-savvy colleagues. Those mentors advise the novices on best practices for online course design and oversee them through the first semester of the online version of the course. (An article detailing the project, authored by Buckenmeyer and two colleagues, is scheduled to appear in the January issue of the International Journal of E-Learning.)

Emily Hixon, an assistant professor of educational psychology at Calumet, is collaborating with Buckenmeyer and others to explore more formally how distance-education mentoring programs might affect professors’ teaching principles. While their research is still “in its infancy” — they are currently waiting on survey results — they state in a research brief that “there seems to anecdotal evidence that many faculty members experience shifts in pedagogical beliefs after developing and teaching an online course."

The Calumet researchers plan to present their preliminary findings at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in April.

One of the researchers, Casimir Barczyk, a veteran professor at the Calumet school of management, is an alumnus of the Distance Education Mentoring Project. He says he was leery of the program at first, but was won over in the process of adapting a course on human resources management to the Web, and joined the research team about nine months later.

Barczyk had been a professor at the management school for more than two decades, including eight years teaching courses online, when he was instructed to undergo mentoring after students habitually dropped out of his online courses, or gave them poor reviews.

“I was skeptical,” Barczyk says. “I said, ‘What can I possibly learn — I’m a full professor, I’ve been doing classroom education for over 20 years, I’ve been doing online education for about eight years, so what can I possibly learn?’ ”

What he learned was how to engineer assignments and assessments toward explicit educational objectives. If Barczyk needs students to learn how to think analytically about hiring rubrics, for example, he would not use simple true or false question to evaluate their progress.

After learning the value of objectives-oriented course design in his online courses, he applied the same principles to the classroom courses he had taught for decades. Student performance improved in both, he says.


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