By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education
Over the ten years that I have been at Purdue University Calumet, I have seen the evolution of courses from being offered almost completely face-to-face to having a wide variety of hybrid and online offerings in all schools and departments. For a predominately commuter campus, the online format is a way to give students more choices and flexibility to fit around their busy schedules. The university has supported and encouraged this move to more online offerings.
About six years ago an online training/mentoring program was developed to train and certify faculty in the building of online courses. The idea was that if we are going to offer courses online, faculty would benefit from instructional designers helping them develop courses that fit seamlessly into the online environment. Although participants were taught some technology skills, the focus was on how to develop a pedagogically sound course using techniques and strategies that have proven successful in the online environment. Up to this time, faculty have generally had latitude in deciding how they want to deliver their courses and making decisions based on their own knowledge of the content and their students.
However, a conversation is now beginning that revolves around the role of technology, specifically online technology, in curriculum and curriculum development. In particular, questions are being raised about whether it is a personnel/faculty issue involving academic freedom to offer courses as the instructor sees fit, a curriculum issue, or something entirely different.
Some of the questions that have been raised are:
- Are there courses that do not lend themselves to the online environment?
- Who should decide to move (or not move) a course from face-to-face to hybrid or online?
- Should instructors be compelled by administrators to teach online?
- If a course is taught online, is it the same as the face-to-face course?
- If course delivery is changed from face-to-face to hybrid or online, should new curriculum documents be generated reflecting this? Should new course numbers be issued?
Over the next few months I anticipate a number of other questions to arise as we grapple with these questions. I asked Janet Buckenmeyer, PhD, to comment on this issue as well. She is chair of the Faculty Affairs Committee and of the Graduate Studies in Education Instructional Technology program at Purdue University Calumet. She has been involved in the training/mentoring program, is an instructional designer, and has been involved in Faculty Affairs for the past two years.
Lynn Zimmerman: I would like to hear how you perceive the various issues from your different perspectives. What have been the benefits and challenges of the training/mentoring program?
Janet Buckenmeyer: Currently about one-third of the faculty at our institution have benefited from participating in the training program. The research done on the program has shown that faculty not only have learned and implemented sound instructional design principles when developing online courses, but the instructional design skills have transferred to other courses they teach, whether online or traditional. Faculty report that they are far more comfortable with online delivery and that students learn at least equally as well in the online courses.
There is one major issue that still needs to be addressed. While we offer an online teaching faculty development mentoring program, and faculty are certified upon successful completion, it is NOT required that faculty participate. So, how does the university ensure that faculty teaching online courses have the necessary skills to create and implement online instruction? How does the university ensure quality in online curriculum?
LZ: How does it fit into the discussion about delivery issues that have recently been raised?
JB: The discussion about delivery issues concerns who makes the decision about course format? Prior to online courses, faculty had the sole authority to teach as he/she saw fit. We know from research that online courses require a different kind of instruction and necessitate a new model for instructors. Instructors who have the proven requisite skills should be able to make the determination about how his/her course should be delivered. But that has not been the case. Those decisions vary by department and by university. Again, how do universities ensure that online courses are only taught by qualified faculty?
LZ: How is the issue of course delivery curriculum-related and how is it faculty-related?
JB: Research asserts that online courses, when taught appropriately, can be as effective (and sometimes moreso) than traditional courses. For the most part, the issue of course delivery is a faculty issue because faculty are charged with curricular issues and with ensuring curricular quality at every university. There may be some courses that do not lend themselves to an online format; however, that determination should be made by faculty – whether individually or collectively.
Faculty are responsible for course quality through whatever delivery method they determine is best. Some faculty lecture; some use small groups and collaborative learning; some use hybrid approaches; etc.; and some choose to teach online. In each case, the individual faculty member is responsible for ensuring that course objectives are met. If objectives are not met, then that becomes a quality issue that is overseen by faculty governance at each university.
LZ: What do you see as other issues that are going to impact how we move forward?
JB: One issue that is pressing at every institution is to have consistency when ensuring quality. Universities have quality assurances in place in face-to-face settings. An online course should have similar quality assurances in place, such as ease of navigation, alignment of activities, objectives and assessment, and interactivity among students and instructors.
Further, teaching online is certainly a different experience than a face-to-face class. When done correctly, it takes more time to design and develop the course. It takes more time to monitor students in an online course. It is easy to be “on call” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. How are faculty compensated in terms of work-load and pay for the additional work an online course requires? How many students should be placed in an online course? Research suggests about 20 students per instructor, but in this day of budgetary issues, universities will feel the pressure to continually increase the number of students in online courses. How will universities deal with these competing pressures appropriately?
Hybrid courses (which include some traditional instruction and some online instruction) also qualify for the debate. Research shows that these types of courses may be most effective, since they take the best that each environment can offer.
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