Key Elements of Asynchronous Online Learning

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

– Albert Einstein

Chapter contents

4.1    Introduction

4.2    Conducting a Typical Asynchronous Course

4.3    Learning Management Systems (LMS)

4.4    Discussion Boards or Forums

4.5    Authoring Tools

4.6    Online Textbooks–Do They Work?

4.7    Videos

4.8    Activities that Add Value

4.9    Best Practice Course Design Principles

4.10  Applications


4.1 Introduction

The asynchronous approach to online teaching is the one most commonly employed. The following illustrates how a course is structured with the majority of its focus on asynchronous methods of teaching, with very little dedicated to synchronous techniques. A course on Engineering Cultures at Virginia Polytechnic Institute included videos of lectures, electronic copies of course resources and assignments, a discussion board and a scheduled one-hour weekly online discussion (presumably based around the discussion board).1 There was no use of synchronous technologies (such as web and video conferencing.

A survey of over 100 students at the University of Houston revealed some interesting comments about what is valued with online asynchronous education.2 The results revealed that students favored the simplicity and ease of navigation on the website. They did, however, regard the timely response from instructors and clearly stated course objectives as critical. Their appreciation of discussion boards, working in teams and e-lectures (e.g. synchronous online learning) did reveal a preference for a mixed approach. These issues will be examined in this chapter.

This chapter commences with a discussion on conducting a typical online course followed by the key tools of learning management systems, discussion boards and authoring tools. Other asynchronous issues such as the fast growing online textbooks and video technologies will then be detailed. The chapter will be concluded by listing valuable activities for asynchronous courses, best practice design principles and applications that will illustrate the points made.


4.2 Conducting a typical asynchronous course

How a typical asynchronous class is constructed and then conducted can be based on the well-known approach used by the University of Phoenix, but they will naturally vary from college to college.3

The initial stage involves structuring the course into appropriate modules. Each module has a set of learning objectives, reading assignments, lectures, white papers and discussion topics. To measure the degree of the student’s learning during the course assignments, quizzes and examinations are used. The virtual classroom is comprised of various rooms. These include a general discussion board, a lecture hall for the posting of lectures and supplementary materials, an assignment room where students post work and where viewing is limited to the instructor. The final room is for “chat”, for general non-course related discussions.

An instructor initiates a course by posting a brief "bio", a welcoming note, the course syllabus and lecture materials. Students are then expected to log in and post their background bio and commence text-chatting to each other. The instructor sets up a “filter” to track the members of the class in terms of their discussion contributions. This can also assist with the detection of plagiarism and the integrity of student submissions. Participation is a key part of the online course with some instructors giving it a grade of 30% of the overall mark. This is measured by the number of worthwhile contributions, especially on the discussion board.

The instructor provides students with personal feedback on their performances at the conclusion of a module. Detailed grade information during the course is useful as it clarifies the progress being made by students and helps minimize disagreements about how final course grades are reached.

A key building block of an asynchronous course is the learning management system and this is discussed next.


4.3 Learning management systems (LMS)

An Engineering Mechanics course on Statics at the University of Florida, with an enrolment of between 400 to 500, was converted to an online course with optional attendance.4 Three technologies were considered to have had a positive impact on its delivery. The first was the on-demand, high quality video and audio recordings. The second was the Sakai LMS that provided a consistent framework for the dissemination of course resources and the recording and private display of grades. The third was the use of Social Media (Twitter and Google+) for improved collaboration and the dissemination of priority information. Surveys revealed strong support for the blended approach and the overall attrition rate remained fairly static despite the new format.

As a group of e-learners grows, the management of the resources, learners and instructors becomes increasingly difficult.5 In our day-to-day activities, we reached over 200 learners on our advanced engineering diploma courses. At this point the two managers or student coordinators were receiving about 300 emails per day. These became frustrating because despite receiving the necessary information students still sent enquiries that ranged from webcast times (with some confusion arising from time zone scheduling), to the links to their virtual classroom to finding their results. Instructors were similarly inundated. To stabilize the situation it was necessary to introduce a Learning Management System (LMS). The one we chose (and there are many out there) was Moodle as the creators lived down the road from our office and it was free (although this is not necessarily the case when it is configured). Some training providers simply use the LMS as a stand-alone method of conducting an online course. The course readings and assignments can be uploaded to the LMS and the students can asynchronously “chat” with each other. We believe, however, that this is over-simplifying things. In addition, and more dangerously, an LMS can result in a barrier behind which the course providers isolate themselves from their learners. The lack of presence and direct communications between instructors and learners needs to be alleviated, instead, through the use of audio, video, text chatting and emails.

An LMS manages the learning events, instructors and students and is a critical component in any serious attempt at presenting online learning courses to significant numbers of students. Typically an LMS can:

• Manage the course materials–for the learners, the instructors and administrators– enabling easy access to reading materials.

• Notify learners of training events and modifications to schedules.

• Allow students and instructors to access training events from one site.

• Form communities where learners can (text) chat to each other.

• Launch online learning sessions from one location.

• Provide a central storage location for instructors developing materials.

• Set up quizzes and asynchronous online learning sessions.

It is useful to visualize an LMS as a busy train station–a terminus if you like, a central location where one meets with all the other passengers (learners). Here a train (course) is selected, provided one has purchased the appropriate ticket (course permissions). You can then board the train and set off on your journey.

Bear in mind that unless the LMS is extensively used by both instructors and students, it will fail. The consequences are dire for the instructors and learning coordinators, as their workloads will undoubtedly increase.

The terms Course Management System (CMS) and Learning Management System (LMS) have been used interchangeably in the online learning field.6 Today these two terms are often interchanged with a third; Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).7

Learning Management Systems

LMSs have evolved considerably from the original rather primitive CMSs. The functions of the former have expanded.8

Core features of an LMS are typically:

• Launching courses.

• Tracking student progress and completion.

• Following learning paths.

• Providing testing and evaluation.

• Providing reports.

Others include:

• Classroom management.

• Authoring of content.

• Virtual classrooms (synchronous presentations).

• Student portfolios.

An example of the operation of a typical LMS is given in Appendix B.

A survey of students at the College of Technology at Purdue University revealed a fairly low level of interaction with the Blackboard LMS. This may have been due to the enrolments of mainly traditional classroom learners (only 15% had taken an exclusive online course).9 Most felt, however, that access to course resources made it easier to track their progress and keep in touch with other course participants. Complaints included technical issues (slow and unresponsive); some were concerned by the lack of consistency and of the low level of usage of the LMS.

Corporate learning management systems

There are over 250 commercial learning management systems on the market and this excludes open source offerings such as Moodle.10 Perhaps the first real LMS was from PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations), put together in 1960 on a mainframe computer system at the University of Illinois.

The most common Learning Management Systems (LMS) or Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS) are WebCT and Blackboard, which merged in 2006. Other common ones are Sakai, Desire2Learn and Moodle.

The popular and free LMS Moodle (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) was developed in 2001 and is reported to have almost 50,000 sites around the world.11 The training institution using it needs to host the system or use an outside provider (such as Moodlerooms) to do the hosting. The topic or time-based structure of Moodle allows considerable flexibility. One slightly irritating restriction, on earlier versions of Moodle, was the limited space for comments by instructors on student work.

The costs of LMSs vary considerably, ranging from those that are offered free, such as Moodle, to those that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bear in mind, however, that a free open source system can cost a significant amount in installation and maintenance. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

A detailed history of LMSs can be found on Wikipedia under History of Virtual Learning Environments (the British term for an LMS). The term LMS originated in the early 90s. Another term used frequently, and coined in early 2000, is the term Learning Content Management System (LCMS). It allowed for the management of learning content within a central database. In this central database the instructor could store chunks of learning (often referred to as learning objects), and easily retrieve them by doing a search. These learning objects could then be appropriately combined to create a course. The idea was sound, but a little unwieldy and eventually enthusiasm waned. With individual formats, inter-changeability became an issue. One of the most common standards to allow compatibility between different content is called SCORM (Scalable Courseware Object Reference Model). This offering is now generally part of a standard LMS.

Two LMS standards were introduced to encourage interoperability with competing offerings. The first was the AICC (Aviation Industry Computer Computer-based training) and the second was SCORM (Shareable Content Object Reference Model). The founding companies for AICC were Boeing, Airbus and McDonnell-Douglas; most LMSs comply with this early standard. SCORM was developed by the US military and the picture for compliance is somewhat murkier here with two levels: Conformant and certified. Conformant means that the vendor certifies that the LMS follows the rules of SCORM for a particular release (1.1, 1.2 or 2004). Certification means that the LMS has been certified by ADL (the overarching body for SCORM) as compliant. However, currently very few LMSs are interoperable according to this standard.

A more exhaustive list of features of LMSs are as follows:12

• Communication Tools (discussion forums, discussion management, file exchange, internal email, online journal notes, real-time chat, whiteboard).

• Productivity Tools (bookmarks, calendar or progress review, searching within a course, help and orientation guide).

• Student Involvement Tools (group work, community networking, student portfolios).

• Course Delivery Tools (test types, automated testing management, automated testing support, online marking tools, online grade book, course management, student tracking).

• Content Development Tools (accessibility compliance, content sharing or reuse, course templates, customized look and feel, instructional design tools, instructional standards compliance).

• Administration Tools (authentication, course authorization, registration integration, hosted services).

• Assessment Tools (a key part of every LMS: the ability to author and manage the content for a course).

A Learning Management System (like Moodle) can be a useful tool for assessing how students use online resources. It can also be used by instructors to assess student trends and to help with the redesign of course materials where and when required.13

One of the inevitable challenges with an LMS is in implementing a system. The average time taken to achieve this would appear to be four weeks, but with some users reporting up to 26 weeks in extreme cases. To limit this time commitment, avoid customizing the LMS software for your particular application (besides the configuration of the system). Apart from the time, customized software platforms are horrendously difficult to maintain. Upgrading the LMS can be a thorn in your side and expensive; we have had a few difficulties recently with our open source Moodle LMS due to incompatibilities with the existing Windows web server on which it was running.

Learning management systems and the commuter student

It has been suggested that the average student now commutes to campus (as opposed to living on campus). These students represent a growing culture; fast growing and non-traditional. They tend to be mature-aged and the first generation of their families going to university. They are often supporting dependents and are from a previously disadvantaged group.14 A research study at the School of Engineering and Technology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis investigated how the online environment could benefit commuter students (with a focus on what is ideally required in an LMS). High quality and easy-to-use communication tools were identified as most important (for the posting of messages, course materials and grades, for instance). A standardized interface for all courses (and instructors) was also deemed necessary by the students. Further to this, the use of one LMS interface, for all university activities, was deemed vital. This included such activities as registration, fee payments, course resources, transcripts and university messages.

These two requirements of standard interface and only using one LMS interface strike a sympathetic chord with the first author, as he undertook a master’s degree at a well-known university where the lecturers were unenthusiastic about using any standardized interface (other than an occasional email) and the use of the LMS changed depending on the course presented. This caused enormous confusion for the students. They were required to recall multiple passwords and there was uncertainty about the best way to communicate with the lecturer and how to access course materials.

Ensuring success with a learning management system

Research has indicated that approximately 80% of organizations that implemented LMSs were either dissatisfied with the end result or only partially happy.15 Two areas of concern emerged as dominant; the time it took to get the LMS into operational mode and the unexpected effort necessary to maintain it. A few suggestions for the successful installation of an LMS:

• Clearly define (with input from all departments involved) the intended uses for the LMS. This could range from reducing the costs of training and automating training administration to minimizing the daily deluge of emails from students.

• Define the technology requirements. First, clarify how it will integrate with other systems (such as existing HR systems or client databases). Secondly, ensure that there is interoperability between the LMS and data from outside libraries and authoring tools used to create content (presumably to standards such as SCORM). Thirdly, confirm that data can migrate from existing tools (such as spread sheets, and Access databases) to the LMS. Finally, guarantee easy and effective access to the LMS from the students’ computers and other similar devices.

• Detail the administrative requirements for the LMS. This includes the day-to-day administration and must involve the people responsible for its maintenance and those performing such tasks as entering and updating new data (such as new employees, students and learning content), creating reports and handling upgrades.

• Consider carefully the acquisition and management of content for the LMS (from other libraries, for instance, or generated in-house). It is useful to tie the content to employee competency maps (sourced from their job descriptions).

• Market the LMS to all relevant users by carefully detailing its benefits. Part of this marketing strategy entails training all users on how to apply it and expeditiously fixing any bugs identified. With adequate momentum its use will become extensive and this will benefit the organization. During this process goals should be set to measure its success or otherwise.

Online annotation: software for quick feedback

Providing assignment feedback to students via the LMS is a long-winded exercise.16 This remains a significant LMS drawback. One of the best-known annotation approaches is Microsoft Word's Track Changes. Over the years there have been other attempts to provide a more open and collaborative mark-up system, but with limited success. Google Docs, however, is becoming more popular.

Benchmarking learning management systems

A benchmarking study of the LMS, across two Australian universities (Griffith and the University of Western Sydney), revealed similar results.17 A broad range of content was posted to the LMS (including course outlines, lecture notes and materials). Video casts, podcasts and lecture recordings, on the other hand, were not widely posted. Communication of important information to students was used extensively, but little usage was made of the collaborative features, such as the discussion and synchronous chat boards.

Students valued the clarity with which the LMS communicated the course requirements and its scope. Instructors appreciated the ease with which they could identify their students; whose names and photographs appeared alongside each other.

A Learning Management System is certainly a positive step forward from the old approach of placing everything up on an instructor’s web page.

Optimum layour of student interface

The optimal layout of the LMS’s Student Interface has been gleaned through research.18 The home page icons were usually the first point of access. Students became frustrated, however, with the multiple access points. These presented them with some confusion–if all were not accessed would crucial information be missed? Furthermore, there was an overriding fear of an unrecoverable error; for example, with the clicking of an exam icon a timer is inadvertently set. It is clear that explanations need to accompany the use of the LMS.

These remarks are backed up by a survey on the use of Blackboard conducted at Purdue University. It revealed that the ease of access of course materials and grades was regarded as an especially important task of an LMS.19 Most respondents preferred consistent use of the LMS by all instructors, rather than fractured and inconsistent applications. For both students and staff; reliability, speed, simplicity and the ease of navigation with standardized templates were considered optimal.

Learning in groups with an LMS

Teaching Introductory Physics to general education students can be a challenging proposition. There is a level of disinterest because they cannot visualize its link to their planned careers.20 To improve the learning experience, break classes into smaller groups of up to 11 students with each group assigned a different, but compulsory, presentation. Each group takes turns presenting its topic to the class, for between five and seven minutes, during the 10-week module. Use the Blackboard LMS to upload presentations, notes, photos, videos and other useful documents and links. This allows the class to access the materials. Most students will tackle the project with enthusiasm, particularly if the projects are aligned with their interests (a careful grouping of students is worthwhile, as a result). Collaboration and communication between students will develop. This type of exercise is especially successful with smaller groups.

Access to a free LMS via open source tools

Not all institutions have the financial resources necessary to purchase an online learning infrastructure.21 There are a few suggested Learning Management Systems that are free or open source and which are worthwhile investigating. These include: Moodle LogiCampus, Dokeos, ILIAS and Trellis. Bear in mind that while they are ostensibly free, they do consume considerable resources (time and skills) in setting up and maintaining.

Replacement of LMS

A survey revealed that approximately 80% of organizations reported the use of an LMS, but a third indicated that they were keen to replace them.22

Many of the respondents considered their top requirements of an LMS to be efficient learning tools (for assessment and web conferencing, for example), enterprise system integration capabilities (including ERP, email, sales, marketing and payroll), proficient reporting and ease of use.


4.4 Discussion boards or forums

These are commonly used in distance learning (particularly in asynchronous online learning) and can be part of an LMS, but because of their importance are considered separately.23 They assist in creating a sense of community and can counteract the higher attrition rates found in distance leaning. In order for them to genuinely add value to the learning process they require careful design and support by the instructor. Furthermore, students should be actively involved in their knowledge construction. To facilitate this process instructors can set up learning opportunities, provide quick feedback, engage in scaffolding (support in the learning process) and encouraging reflection. Passive posting of comments and simple recall questions, on the other hand, are not effective in building significant knowledge in the student. The study revealed that debates and argumentation, related to the discussion forums, resulted in students drawing on higher order learning skills. To this end the instructor should be responsible for the construction and management of appropriate debates that encourage and develop deeper thinking in the students.

There are a variety of terms used for these ‘discussions’; threaded discussions, discussion boards, discussion forums or a combination thereof.24 They can be conducted both asynchronously (chatting over a period of time) or synchronously (at the same time). Asynchronous discussions remain the more common format due to their flexibility.

There are four main benefits of discussion boards:

• They encourage sociability through the easy dialogue possible between people.

• They help alleviate feelings of isolation.

• Through interaction with others, knowledge absorption improves.

• They help students maintain their schedules and keep on track. By providing a window into how the student is faring, it enables timely corrective action.25

Asynchronous text discussion forums are often more effective than instantaneous, face-to-face exchanges because students have more time to reflect on the concepts and make meaningful contributions to particular topics. The instructor is also able to build an archive of each student's contribution during an entire course. This becomes, therefore, an objective and measurable discussion, something that is not possible in a face-to-face

verbal exchange?26

The discussion board is one of the best methods of learning in asynchronous distance education.27 Despite persistent concerns that the learning experience is hampered without face-to-face interaction, qualitative research has shown that the quality of discussions, in both online and face-to-face environments, is similar if meaningful questions are provided (with similar levels of instructor facilitation presumably).

Discussion forum guidelines

During a working discussion forum at the University of Tasmania (Launceston), four issues were identified in its design and execution:

• Discussions should be tightly integrated with other aspects of the course (such as objectives, content and assessments). Roughly, they should run for a week, with six topics per semester. The end of semesters should be avoided to ensure the heavy workload and pressure on students is not exacerbated.

• To encourage wider ranging debate and higher order thinking, topics for discussion should aim at divergent thinking (complex, ambiguous, open-ended components) as opposed to convergent thinking (well defined, with minimal room for different opinions).

• A threaded approach (grouping similar questions and replies), as opposed to a time chronological blog format, encourages discussions that explore topics more deeply.

• To optimize interactivity the moderator should contribute to discussions, keep groups to a maximum of eight and ensure discussion windows are limited to one to two weeks, for each topic.

• A suggested 10% of the total assessment should be allocated to the quantity and quality of discussions and 7% to the online conference.

An example

An undergraduate Construction Engineering course at the University of Southern Queensland added a discussion board in 2004, to assist students cover the large volume of materials for the course.28 This was introduced as a summative assessment. Students were randomly grouped, with eight in each group. Four topics were provided to each group during the semester. Students were given two weeks to discuss the topics and then they submitted a group response, based on a range of open-ended questions that allowed for a variety of answers. A total of 10% was allocated to each group discussion. Group members also had to rate their peers (from 100% to Nil). There were problems, one of which involved a time blowout; the discussion groups spent longer than the allocated 5 to 8 hours per topic (this included their own work, 3 to 4 postings on the discussion forum and the collation of the final submission). Staff became a little overwhelmed by the work it involved too, with the volume of traffic to the site and with the allocation of individual grades. The improvement in student grades that had been hoped for was unfortunately not witnessed. Discussion boards were retained, but their offerings were relegated to the formative assessment of students. More emphasis was placed on students to undertake formative assessments, however, before undertaking their summative assessments.

Increasing motivation through assessments and forums

It is challenging to achieve a high level of interaction in web discussion boards.29 A certain number of posts can be expected from students, but without adequate motivation they will rarely exceed the minimum requirements. It is best to encourage students to understand that collaboration and interaction can significantly improve their learning and are a good trade off against lack of time and flexibility. This is especially effective with adult students who are time poor.

The participation in forums is often considered to be disadvantageous as students believe they lose the competitive edge (as valuable knowledge is shared). Furthermore, they can be time consuming.30 To motivate students and ease these fears three approaches are proposed:

• Peer review. The quality of the posts is assessed by other students based on a marking scheme. This penalizes students who are unfair with their scoring.

• Score contributions. These are based on the number of messages posted, the average length of messages, the average number of replies per message and the average number of times a message is referenced by other messages.

• Instructor involvement. There is a strong and positive correlation between instructor involvement in the discussions and student involvement.

Student participation in forums is inevitably driven by its relationship to the final mark.

Interestingly, research has shown that the more time an instructor devotes to a discussion forum–through asking questions and providing guidance–the higher the student grades. There is, however, no correlation between the number of instructor posts and student grades.

The student facilitator

Classroom discussions, which are usually instructor-led, are often spontaneous, immediate, lively and unstructured. In contrast, online discussions are often asynchronous, reflective and tend to be more student-oriented or peer-to-peer discussions.31Online discussion sessions (whether synchronous or asynchronous) are becoming increasingly common, but this is being matched by the growth in the instructor’s workload. Materials need to be prepared, discussions facilitated and responses to student queries provided in a timely manner, 24/7. In order to alleviate this it is interesting to note that there is evidence that peer-to-peer learning is effective, even resulting in a depth of understanding in a topic. It also improves interpersonal and social skills. To test this, Griffith University in Queensland, Australia (in the School of Public Health) conducted student-centered online learning sessions. For each session, a student was nominated as, “content expert” and had to prepare and post a discussion primer online. In contrast to the traditional online forum, the instructor became somewhat removed from the process and this resulted in a reduced workload. Feedback on this student-centric peer-to-peer discussion forum evinced considerable support from students.

Wikis, blogs and discussion forums

As well as discussion forums, wikis and blogs have also both been used successfully in asynchronous learning, but with some notable differences between them.32

Wikis and discussion boards encourage contributions from a number of different participants, while a blog is generally driven by one student. A wiki is essentially a democratic structure with all users free to contribute, whereas a discussion forum is usually driven by an instructor and a blog is driven and owned by one individual.

High quality online discussions

There has been some debate about the value of threaded discussion forums in online courses.33 The challenges involve non-participating students and the measurement of a student’s real contribution to a discussion. An advantage for a participating student is the opportunity to reflect and carefully consider a posting before committing to it. There are some potential hiccups for participants, however, which would hamper their involvement in a discussion. These include a student’s feelings of rejection or worthlessness, and the risk of cyber-bullying is ever-present. A study conducted on this issue demonstrated a significant correlation between success in a course and good performance in contributing to online discussion forums. It should be noted that there is no clear evidence of forums resulting in improved learning. A few suggestions for hosting high quality online discussions follow:34

The design and development phase

• Create a general administration/instruction type thread.

• Depending on class and course size, create at least two to four threads per week that address key questions/issues being covered in class.

• Ensure the discussions are evidence-based and promote critical thinking.

• Clearly define the discussion requirements to the students.

• Grade participation–typically 25% of the overall grade.

Rules of involvement for students

• Read all contributions and commence posting comments within three days of the topic initiation.

• Respond to the original question posted with four significant contributions.

• Present commentary backed by evidence, rather than anecdotes or views inspired by intuitive feelings.

• Apply course knowledge with a high degree of critical thinking.

• Adhere to the rules of grammar and minimize the use of abbreviations.

Operational phase

• Provide a short introduction that gives some background to you as the facilitator (two or three sentences).

• Commence the postings with a sincere commentary to each and every student.

• Respond within a day to all queries made to you.

• Involve all students in the discussion concentrating particularly on those who are “lurkers” or who are shy.

• Deal immediately with the no-shows.

• Manage the discussions unobtrusively, minimize poor contributions and praise notable ones.

• Keep the focus on the weekly topics.

• Contribute substantively to discussions without impacting negatively on students.

• Challenge students with their contributions and encourage deep critical thinking.

• Help those students with poor language skills.

• Grade discussions quickly, at the end of each week.

• Manage administrative issues and other distractions in a timely fashion (e.g. no-shows, lurkers, inappropriate behavior, plagiarism).

• Limit your messages to a screen in length, focusing on the question or comment, but avoid meaninglessly short posts.

• Personalize your posting when responding to a person.

• Don’t generalize, be specific, objective and on-topic.

• Use good references to back up your opinions.

• Encourage responses to your comments by asking another open-ended questions.

• Avoid capitalizing your words (or shouting).

• Be professional and avoid personal attacks (or even hints of one). Focus on the issues–not the individual.

• Avoid humor/religion or sex-related comments.

• Never share other postings outside the forum (without specific permission).


4.5 Authoring tools

Online learning authoring tools

When instructors consider authoring tools for self-paced online learning, they generally request tools that allow for simplicity when updating content, user-friendly tools and those which provide support for multiple output formats.36

The simple versions include Lectora and Adobe’s Dreamweaver, allowing for simple page turning type courses. An LMS such as Blackboard can support these efforts too, however, and their simplicity makes it difficult to create anything very effective.

Other popular authoring tools include Authorware, DazzlerMax, ReadyGo, Flash, Camtasia and Captivate. Tools such as Authorware and Flash do require programming skills and time to create useful courses.

There are a number of low-cost or free software tools particularly useful for creating asynchronous presentations.37 Those that provide the best results are combinations of Microsoft PowerPoint and ISpringFree (facilitating the easy conversion of PowerPoints to flash movies which can then be embedded in presentations). They can also be used for pre-lab, lectures and homework and exam solutions. Microsoft Expression, which is good for screen capture when there is time, was used for software demonstrations. Other packages that were tested but discarded included Panopto (it integrated multiple video sources such as PowerPoint.pdf), and Camstudio (which captured screens and created .avi files and flash).

Try to avoid multimedia applications that are accessed only with the installation of special software, such as VPN clients. Ensure that any specific hardware requirements (such as headsets or performance of PC) are defined well in advance of the course. Make sure all web links are provided for ease of access to software that has to be installed. Finally, stick to formats where the student can access and view the files on multiple platforms (e.g. smartphones).

Common tools for online software engineering courses

Development tools include SmoothDraw and Camtasia.38 SmoothDraw is a graphics drawing tool (similar to Microsoft’s ubiquitous Paint program) allowing for natural painting and digital free hand drawing. When integrated with Camtasia (a screen capturing tool), it can be used for saving of contents in a variety of formats such as .wmv (Windows Media Video), .avi (Audio Video Interleave), .m4v (Podcasting, iPhones and iTunes), .mp3 (for Audio only), .mp4 (audio/video), .gif (animation) and .mov (QuickTime movies). Another useful tool for recording lectures is the Echo360 system, which allows instructors to record audio and video and allows for easy access by students.

Learning software packages (helped by Camtasia)

The Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute produced 10-minute video tutorials to support a variety of different packages such as ArcMap (a geographical Information package) and LS-DYNA/LSPrePost (Finite Element Analysis package).39

Students are often required to learn specific (commercial) software packages during their courses. It is difficult, however, to allocate sufficient time to do justice to them. Camtasia Studio, a screen video-capturing program that records actions by the instructor on a computer screen, was used here to provide a solution. Instructors were able to record live presentations and save them in any video format.

In response, a course website and server-based data storage area was created to provide online instruction, with example data sets for use in projects and assignments.


A novel approach, for a Heat Transfer course at the University of Central Oklahoma, was to use play-pause-rewind technology. This allowed students to gradually work through difficult problems in a systematic way after the classroom lecture had been concluded.40 The instructor used a smartpen (LivescribeTMEchoTM) to capture written notes (of a difficult problem) on special grid paper, with a microphone to record audio. This was then transferred to Adobe pdf format (supporting multimedia).

Delivery of a core course in checmical engineering

Students at the University of Washington’s College of Engineering often undertake work ("co-op") during their academic programs, during their summer vacations.41 As this clashes with on-campus courses it results in the inevitable delay in their graduations, as the students have to make up the lost time.

To surmount this problem the core units were created for off-campus use. The animations were created using Flash. The multimedia-authoring tool, Authorware, was used to create a high level of interactivity. A browser plug-in was required to run the program. Dreamweaver was used to build the website to provide access to the content with an interactive tool providing a threaded discussion board and email tool. The course was broken down into 10 chapters (aligned with the textbook) with each chapter subdivided into five to 10 lessons.


At the University of Colorado, Boulder, screencasts have been used to improve the performance of students on chemistry courses.42 A screencast is a short recording from a Tablet PC screen with narration by the instructor. It can be stopped, rewound or fast forwarded by the viewer. There have been many research studies commenting on the improved performance using screencasts, as supplementary materials to the normal lectures in class. Screencasts can be used to clarify difficult topics or problems, provide explanations to homework or tests, facilitate exam review and provide simple tutorials for software programs. Probably the most famous examples of screencasts have been those prepared by the non-profit Khan Academy for math, science and business courses which mainly target high school students.

The Camtasia software package (from Techsmith) has been used successfully for preparation of screencasts especially as it allows for later editing and quality improvements (such as the removal of audio crackles and pops). This is used in conjunction with Windows Journal–an easy to use package that provides lined paper, basic drawing and writing tools.

To achieve good quality screenshots it is best to commence with a clear goal, keep them short (a maximum of 10 minutes), ensure all external distractions and noise are kept to a minimum, speak naturally and openly and finally, proceed logically and simply through the presentation. Later in the editing process, highlight the key sections.

Over 225 screencasts for chemical engineering courses are available on, and iTunesU.

There are 2,000 visitors per month to the site and the screenshots were accessed 16,000 times in the first eight months of making them available. Over 98% of students at the University of Colorado found the screencasts useful or very useful.


4.6 Online textbooks-do they work?

Since the late 1990s, the demands in the textbook publishing market have gone from a simple textbook or guide to an instructor’s manual which includes 1,000 exam questions and PowerPoint presentations for use in lectures, all packaged on a CD-ROM for easy download. Instructors often prefer to construct their own textbooks from their own articles and from materials contained online.43

Figure 4.1: Examples of interactive texbooks


Despite rapid growth, little is known about the impact of online textbooks in engineering education in terms of growth rates, satisfaction and actual learning outcomes 4445 A digital textbook includes textbook content, homework questions and quizzes with automatic grading and answers, multimedia content, videos, podcasts and interactive simulations. Students find the online textbook an attractive proposition due to its much lower cost, portability and reduced environmental footprint. This should be contrasted with an eBook, which is simply an electronic version of a traditional paper book.

There is evidence that digital textbooks have been most effective in language, sociology and science, but less effective in English, where it is taught as a second language, and in mathematics.

Research with 220 students was conducted in the 2009/10 academic year at California Polytechnic State University regarding the use of online textbooks with disappointing results. It was focused on three undergraduate mechanical engineering courses: Manufacturing Organization, Introduction to Thermodynamics and Mechanical Controls. This research revealed that learning outcomes (as measured by pre-and post-course assessments) were similar to that of printed textbooks. However, there were negative impacts on the overall quality of the learning experience and students were not particularly enthused with online textbooks. Irritations were evident in additional time to complete assignments, precise numerical answers required (and an inability to be flexible in taking a range of answers) and other varied technical problems. Other problems were incorrectly graded problems and poor navigation in the web page. Increased time was experienced in completing assignments with an associated high degree of frustration.

The online textbook was thus not considered an effective learning tool by students. At this stage, it was remarked that online textbooks are probably only suitable for courses with a considerably lower level of technical complexity with less need for symbolic solutions (which require specific formatting). Extensive support should be provided by instructors to assist students in working with an online textbook and in checking for technical difficulties. Other problems were limited information on correct procedures in solving problems (as opposed to the answer).

The overall suggestion is that publishers have a considerable way to go to improve their product and special attention will have to be given to technically complicated courses that require highly specific formatted answers. More time and care is thus required from instructors in supporting online textbooks.

There has been some speculation about the superior results achieved with interactive textbooks with demonstrations of how the iPad and other tablets can replace boring and outdated textbooks.46 In the case of the iPad, a free application is downloaded from the Apple Store to operate the interactive textbooks which can be purchased from the iTunes website for less than $15 each. These interactive textbooks provide video tutorials, personalized instruction, scaffolding and help with homework as well as quizzes and teaching resources. Other features are social networking with other students as well highlighting text and seamless handing in of quizzes and homework.

Unfortunately, the economics here for high school students won’t quite stack up once the cost of the tablet ($500+ for an iPad, $200 for a smaller Google Nexus, etc.) and the life time of a school textbook (5 years) is taken into account. However, with college students with a more expensive range of textbooks required this might be a different situation. Pilot studies (conducted inevitably by the publishers) showed dramatically better results from students who used interactive textbooks compared to simply paper-based textbooks (Amelia Earhart Middle School in California). However, the statistical validity of these studies is debatable.

However, at the end of the day, no matter how interactive the textbook is, the student still needs to be motivated to learn with considerable self-discipline required if she is on her own. And, hands-on labs with real equipment, is another essential ingredient in cementing the understanding.

Care has to be taken about disconnection between learning contents of a course and the problem-solving activities.47 Often current book publisher’s (online) homework systems are not particularly intuitive and a source of frustration to students as they need immediate additional assistance. Care has to be taken for technical problems occurring for tests set up in Blackboard (especially formulas requiring precise answers).

Currently, apart from fluid mechanics and electrical circuit analysis (which is tied to a particular textbook) online homework offerings for engineering college courses have been minimal.48 Sapling Learning developed a series of online homework questions for chemical engineering (Material and Energy balances) to fill the paucity of new questions in this area and to ease the often severe grading workload. Each homework question was broken up into smaller parts with individual hints, with a complete solution provided if the student gives up or has achieved the correct answer. A tutorial approach was also provided, giving the learner new, simpler questions to walk them through smaller steps, if the initial solutions were incorrect. Research done at the Colorado School of Mines showed that working with these online homework questions improved the final grade compared to those students who didn’t undertake this.

However, it was found that creating online homework questions was not financially viable due to the high level of cost to create the questions. It was suggested that an approach would be to get faculty to collaborate in creating the necessary questions using the software system created by Sapling Learning.


4.7 Video

The use of video is a key part of asynchronous courses, and various aspects of it will be discussed below.

Video and audio streaming

Streaming media refers to streaming video with audio. Three programs to stream media are QuickTime, RealMedia and Windows Media.49 One of the most important reasons for using media streaming is the increased time spent by the viewer on site and improved content retention, as compared to that from a website without this facility. Research indicated that the viewer’s time on a website could be doubled using streaming media. Suggestions for improvements in the creation of streaming media, based on work done at Arizona State University, included ensuring that the university administration was supportive especially across the various departments that had to work together in creating streaming videos and to provide adequate staff training in the process and technologies of creating streaming media.

Liven it up with an amusing video

Students tend to be focused on an analytical viewpoint rather than physical intuition about an engineering system.50 A suggested approach (as outlined on the Moveit site) is to open with an interesting YouTube video of a real-life dynamic problem (e.g. a caber throw), followed by an idealized model of the dynamic scenario, a break down into phases, a simulation showing one approach to a final presentation. At this point they are required to create their own simulation using a programming language such as MATLAB. Comprehensive support during office hours and discussions were also provided to get them through the initial angst, which many students had of trying to model real world problems. The end result is that mastery is achieved by simply doing the work and having the necessary support.

Does video help with an online education?

A word of caution to those who believe video is a quick solution to the lack of a good instructor: It doesn’t always work as evidenced in the following example. In an online educational statistics course, a comparison was made between those students who were provided with seventeen video tutorials created using Camtasia with an average length of 14 minutes.51There was no statistical difference in academic performance between those who had access to the videos and those who didn’t.

Short engineering videos

Short electrical engineering videos were produced at the State University of Campinas in Brazil. Each was about 5 minutes, 15 frames per second (320 x 240 pixels) and requiring 150Kbps broadband connection using a camcorder.52 Video editing was done through Windows Movie Maker. The movies were complemented with circuit schematics, diagrams, and formulas before and after the theme addressed on video. Topics ranged from voltage current phase relationships, root mean square concepts to starting of an induction motor. These videos were placed up on YouTube and were well received by both students and practitioners in industry with the claim made that improved grades resulted.

Recording of chalkboard notes in video

One of the challenges is recording chalkboard notes in video format and hearing the lecture with reasonable quality.53 The Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy has developed a system (called Enhance your Audience or EyA) to capture video and audio with a webcam and USB microphone fixed on the wall as well as take photos every 15 seconds. A QuickTime synchronization track is added to the movie file thus providing a synchronization between the images and the movie.

Pre-recorded lectures

A portion of the lectures was replaced with pre-recorded video at California Polytechnic State University and the time used to undertake problem solving work during class.54 An anonymous survey of students indicated strong support for this change. There was some uncertainty as to whether this would translate into improved achievements and whether the students would actually watch all the videos (and thus lose out on a significant benefit in the theory work). There was some loss of ability to ask questions in the class with a normal lecture, but it was felt that most students didn’t pose questions.


4.8 Activities that add value

Although the focus of this book is on the synchronous experience, we do emphasize the need for a blended approach to derive an effective learning outcome, so there is always an asynchronous slant to even what appears to be a synchronous presentation.55 The following is a list of some great ideas for asynchronous presentations.


Assign someone from the group who can initiate an asynchronous discussion that everyone in the group can contribute to. At the end of the week, the instructor will then wrap up and pull the various threads together.

Web exploring

Get students to contribute with a list of web links pertaining to a particular discussion point. Each web link should be ranked and a short description placed next to it. This can be done within a synchronous session as well where one learner takes the entire class on a web tour.

Field experiences

Get students to observe specific field activities and comment on them relating to the material covered in the class. Instructors can then post comments to these field activities.

Case learning

Place a number of case studies up on the web and get the students to comment on them either asynchronously or synchronously. Alternatively, get the students to post their case studies up and invite comments on these.


Give everyone a partner and get them to (privately) critique each other’s work and provide general support such as session times / review of assignments / self tests. Obviously, avoid shared work being submitted unless actually requested.

Task choice

Get the students involved in selecting from a list of discussion topics and articles to read, provided by their instructor for the class to undertake as an activity.

Anonymous suggestion box

Get students to post suggestions anonymously about the course or improvements or other modifications. The instructor reflects on these and provides a general response to all the students.

Scavenger hunts

Get students to search for specific resources and to create a portfolio of resources on a topic. Make these available to all the class and give a prize to the student who achieves the best.


Get each student to conduct experiments with simulation software supplied. For example, conduct a process control experiment using the simulation software and get students to provide feedback to everyone in the class.


Get students to put together a project comprising a paper, PowerPoints and supporting video that they have created. Show the entire class each student’s submissions or the best submissions.

Online portfolios of work

Get students to post the work they have done in an online gallery for everyone to view.

Reflective writing

Students create an online blog or journal based on lectures / videos / readings and field activities. Instructors and peers provide feedback to this blog.

Online debates

Set up teams of students to debate an issue probably through a synchronous session but an asynchronous session may also be possible.

Learning analytics

It is probably not entirely appropriate to find this topic in this area but it does provide an enormous opportunity to improve a course.56

Learning analytics represents a fast growing opportunity in improving delivery of courses, counseling of students and modifying course content in mining the enormous amount of data generated by the learning management systems. Use of analytics could be used for example, to use data on results in an initial course to predict the level of success in a more advanced course.


4.9 Best practice course design principles

Recent research with engineering faculty using distance learning indicated clearly that physical meetings of the class body are not a necessary component for an asynchronous course.57 The 36% who did use such face-to-face meetings indicated that they were, “somewhat satisfied” with the experience. Interestingly enough, 88% of the survey respondents did not use other synchronous tools such as real-time videoconferencing Besides the most popular course tools being the obvious ones such as email / the web / chat rooms, digitized lectures and online lab modules and simulations were also commonly employed. However, collaborative student assignments were used by 76% of the respondents and regarded as useful.

Suggestions for online courses

A summary of online (mainly asynchronous) best practices, derived from numerous sources, are summarized below.58

Course design and delivery

• Consistency between different course modules is vital to improve quicker learning and satisfaction with new materials without having to learn new structures. A common approach should be built into the institution’s standards.

• Building courses on the run whilst teaching them should be avoided; everything should be ready to roll when the instructing commences.

• Focus on the student learning (guide-from-the-side) rather than teaching (sage-on-the-stage).

• Navigation around courses should be easy and obvious. Minimize the number of hypertext links on a page, as this can add to confusion.

• Maximize the amount of time on discussion and interaction, as this is where students believe they learn a lot.

• Although, it can be a very useful learning experience, bear in mind that students generally don’t regard collaborative group work as a positive learning experience.

• Align the time commitments of the course to evaluation outcomes (e.g. if lab work takes 30% of the time for a specific module, it should count towards 30% of the grade).

• Keep the course refreshed and seemingly new as an instructor, by posting something new every few days.

• Eliminate any incorrect postings or empty documents in the course.

• Strive to build up an online community early in the course by using a non-graded icebreaker session. This also helps familiarize everyone with the necessary tools and build up confidence in going on line.

• Try and automate testing and feedback where possible to enhance immediacy and effectiveness. Self-testing is a useful feature.

• Courses that encourage teamwork and collaboration and minimize discussion from students can be the most successful.

• Quick, timely and constructive feedback improves student satisfaction significantly. At the commencement of the course, define the parameters to ensure instructor and student expectations are managed.

• When chatting online, avoid attempting to respond to every student’s comment but try and activate the students to keep the discussions going with one student summarizing sessions, and others leading sessions or clarifying points.

• Devise tracking mechanisms to reward reading as well as responding to messages in discussion forums.

• Develop both divergent thinking (e.g. open ended questions) and convergent thinking (e.g. assignments, tutorials, small groups and self testing).

• Define clear and simple grading rubrics for participation which are then circulated to all.

• Use spoken explanations (in conversational language rather than lecturing) of animations (e.g. in PowerPoint slides) rather than simply using text. Ensure this is matched to the student’s optimal pace.

Student services

• Introduce students to the course providing a warm welcome, specific contact information, structure and operation of the course as well as assessment and evaluation procedures.

• Maximize the opportunities for students and instructors to meet each other at the commencement of the course. This will optimize the active learning process.

• Build in a student services area allowing for ad hoc discussions and easy access to college policy, procedures and details of the various programs offered. Build in a single point of contact for every 200 students. Student support should never be neglected in favor of course development and operation.

• Ensure human tutors are available with quick appropriate responses to the queries.


• Ensure strong quality control procedures and policies providing strong consistency across all offerings.

• All staff should be trained in processes of online course creation.

• Exemplars of outstanding online courses should be used as reference points for construction of new courses.

• Use external independent reviewers to examine generation of new courses as well as operation of the online courses.

• Instructors should see online courses more for active learning through communication and collaboration rather than simply as passive storage areas of content.

• Construct courses with a variety of resources from PowerPoint slides to reading materials. (text, case studies and journals).

• Avoid excessive multimedia in presentations; focus on simplicity that provides effective learning. Be cautious about bandwidth demands especially with use of video.

• Keep online classes compact; typical numbers suggested are around 25 students.

• Remember that course development for the online environment takes substantially more time than for traditional courses.

• Judiciously increase the amount of assessment and evaluation done online to minimize instructor time in marking scripts and in expanding the time in interacting with students.

An Instructor’s Perspective on Optimizing Asynchronous Distance Learning Distance learning's objectives are still no different to any other form of learning.5960 A few suggestions from the perspective of the instructor for creating and running an effective distance learning experience are presented below:

• The instructor should identify the body of knowledge on which the course is built and define from the outset what the learning objectives are, and also assess the grey areas of the course; those which are contentious, and which the students can be challenged to think about, assess and debate. Put as much information up and clarify difficult issues on the course management system for students to view.

• It is important to obtain one textbook which covers the foundation body of knowledge thoroughly and which is closely aligned to the course sequence and which the student can easily read (although accessing an online textbook through an electronic tablet may change this approach). Meaningful class participation comprises 30% to 40% of the overall grade. Although time consuming for the instructor, individual feedback at the end of each week to the student is vital. This is where they learn about their participation mark for the week with other comments about their performance.

• A structured presentation sequence for delivering the course topics should be clearly defined to the students. The foundations of the body of knowledge should be supplemented with instructor-led exercises, which are experiential and which deal with the grey or ambiguous areas of the course.

• Individual course modules should coherently fit into the overall course structure with no overlap and each component of a module should smoothly lead on from the previous one based on the overall module learning goals.

• Activities such as case studies, games, simulations, assignments and research work need to be added to the mix. Group assignments can be particularly successful in the online environment.

• Ensure that you carefully track all course document changes on your PC and update the course management system meticulously and logically.

• Endeavour to open up the course details to all students as early as possible–even up to six weeks before commencement to let everyone view the structure and operational details.

• Communicate personal (e.g. family problems and illness) and operational issues (e.g. travelling) to students with an astonishing level of frankness.

• Aim higher than students expect with responses to queries and marking of assignments.

• Finally, testing is important to demonstrate that the student has mastered the course materials.

The concluding point made is that the most productive activities are participation in classroom discussions, weekly feedback from the instructor and team assignments.

Multumedia design principles

Cognitive load

We’ve all had experiences with cognitive (over)load.61 You can probably remember a slide presentation you attended with tightly written text using multi-colored varying sized fonts, confusing graphics (often with no connection to the text), audios and animations all hammering away simultaneously.

Research has shown that the human brain can have two different channels to process verbal and visual input; but with a limited capacity attached to each channel. The learning process does however require a significant amount of cognitive processing in both verbal and visual channels.

A few suggestions to keep the cognitive load to what the learner can process:

• If there is too much visual information (e.g. graphics and text), give some consideration to moving some components to audio.

• If the content is too intensive and complex, try breaking it up into smaller chunks (perhaps under control of the learner).

• Ensure that relevant text, graphics and animation / videos are all tightly linked to each other (e.g. text describing a diagram with both on different pages).

Suggestions for good graphic and user interface design for online learning

There are some simple and common sense rules for good graphic and user interface design listed below.62 These are often ignored in favor of a more glitzy and complex approach, resulting in a more deleterious user experience.

Graphics and pictures

• Ensure that graphics and photographs actually help with the learning process and are relevant. Simplified sketches or graphics are preferred to full-on realistic pictures.

• Animations need to add real value to the learning experience and should not be simply flashing lights and jumping graphics.

• Test your graphics and animations on a test audience to find out the true learning that occurs.

• Keep the structure simple with no extraneous glitzy detail.

• Use bold colors and creative approaches to your graphics.

• Bear in mind that almost 1 in 10 males and 0.5% of females are color blind (particularly green and red), so avoid using colors for key learning points (e.g. do not say “click the red button” but “click the next button”).

• Well-chosen thoughtful graphics are generally preferable to bulleted text.


• For print stick to serif typefaces as these strings of text make it easier for the brain to interpret. A point size of 13 point and above is preferred to ensure all learners can easily read the text.

• Avoid placing your text against a busy background as it makes it hard to comprehend and read.

• Avoid screeds of text. Think like the learner in terms of ability to read large chunks of text by breaking it up with bullets (but with a maximum of six bullets per screen with six words per bullet) and graphics.

• Align graphics with your text.


• Consistent formatting is critical to the entire piece. This requires consistent colors, spacing of letters (or kerning), padding and line spacing.

• Use the PowerPoint master facility to ensure that your formatting.


• Place your work in the real working world in terms of context–not fantasy worlds. Ensure it comes across as authentic.

• Your ability to create a mental model is limited to five to seven items before you are overwhelmed. Ensure your visualization is kept below this density.

• Ensure novices are able to use restricted navigation but more sophisticated (knowledgeable) users can have more extensive navigational controls.

• Ensure that all navigation is intuitive and easy to use.

• Narrate a video or animation sequence rather than using onscreen text to present an explanation.

• Other findings were that elements such as video or online quizzes did not influence the amount students learn in online classes.63 Hence, adding more media into an online application does not contribute an additional amount to learning. It was also found that providing online quizzes does not seem to be more effective than simply providing homework.

Recommended multimedia design principles

When creating a multimedia learning tool, the following principles optimize the learning outcomes for a student.64 These include:

• Use spoken explanations rather than only text.

• Keep words and pictures together rather than presented in a serial form.

• Words and pictures presented together are more powerful than as individual elements.

• Do not lecture but chat in a conversational style when presenting materials.

• Eliminate extraneous detail and fluff (e.g. videos, graphics and text) and focus on the core elements to transfer knowledge.

• When narrating an animation it is confusing (and unnecessary) to add text as well (unless there are issues with comprehension of language).

• Clearly define the objectives and overall structure of the presentation at the commencement.

• Use signaling to indicate what is important to focus on within a multimedia demonstration.

• The learner should be able to maintain control over his pace of learning in a presentation.

A powerful way of getting one’s message across is to use video and graphics. People absorb concepts much quicker through the use of video and graphics than through text. This is why it is odd that text is used so extensively. This is probably due to text being easier to create than graphics or even a video. It’s even more powerful to have the short video clip available on demand when the learner requires it to understand how to deal with a problem.65

How much narration is required for an online course?

Some recent research noted that the students do not want an entire course to be narrated.66 It was also considered irritating having text on the screen read to them word-for-word. There should be the facility to turn audio off or on. Very few students felt that professional voice talent was required in the narration, as long as the voice wasn't irritating to listen to. Whilst a special Digital Audio Workstation is probably not warranted, it is still essential to have a good quality microphone and filter to eliminate pops and other extraneous sources of irritating noise.

Enhancing recordings of lectures

A popular way of retaining live lectures and creating online learning materials quickly is to record lectures (including slides / audio / video / notes etc.). However, an ongoing challenge with lecture recordings is the distinct lack of interactivity for learners apart from navigating and searching through the materials.67 There are no built-in quizzes to liven the interactivity up and indeed, no way of interacting with other learners. A suggested approach was to provide collaborative annotations to the lecture recordings thus promoting online discussion of the materials. When learners want to annotate a slide, they simply scroll to where they want to add a note, click on the spot and add in the duration for visibility to other learners (as this is a recording) and delineate the scope as being public (everyone can view), private (only the learner annotating can view) and group. These live lecture notes together with annotations can all be viewed online.

How much instruction is enough

The inevitable question always is how much instruction to students is sufficient?68 People are successful in a distance learning environment when they are internally motivated with self-esteem, a need to study and achieve, and the feeling of control of their learning. Research notes that distance learning students need large doses of support, guidance, instruction and feedback to succeed. An oft-quoted concern is that distance learning doesn’t provide sufficient depth in learning. This concept of, “deep learning” is defined as learning that achieves a sufficient depth of absorption of knowledge to allow the student to effectively apply higher order skills such as analysis and evaluation. Probably expected, but the research (conducted on a sample of 80 participants) revealed that a student’s level of comprehension is directly related to the amount of instruction.

Use of asynchronous audio communications

In communicating online, students often feel that there is a lack of connectivity.69 There is a correlation between the interaction with an instructor and an online learner’s sense of satisfaction and performance. This interaction is often through the type and frequency of feedback on assignments and course material. The instructors recorded audio either through stand alone MP3 audio files or embedded this feedback in Adobe PDF files (using Adobe Professional) and surveyed the 156 graduate students as to their reaction to this facility.

Students indicated that they preferred to receive a blend of both audio and text-based feedback. It also helped to increase the students’ feelings of instructor presence, improved their perceived understanding of the course and kept up their course engagement.


4.10 Applications

Smaller online classes but in line with MOOC trajectory

Ten prominent universities (including Duke, the University of North Carolina and Northwestern) have formed a consortium called Semester Online and are offering 30 online courses to their students and to others (who would have to apply and will have fees of $4,000 per course).70 These will be offered asynchronously through the educational platform 2U (formerly 2tor) where a smaller synchronous offering will provide a closer more interactive relationship between students and instructor. The consortium is also enthused with the idea of widening their range of courses.

Rochester institute of technology's experiences with online technologies

Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) has had significant experience with the online (mainly asynchronous) and blended paradigms since the early 90s and some of their experiences were as follows:71

Technology issues (such as incompatible versions of software) can be a course-killer and this is best dealt with by the students testing their equipment and software out before the course commences.

Students who have had no exposure to online learning need to be treated carefully for the first week to ensure that they start off correctly on the “right foot”. A specific forum should be set up to assist students with general aspects of an online course. Another forum should allow anonymous feedback on irritating aspects of the course without compromising the student’s identity.

RIT have deaf and hard of hearing students as part of their student population (part of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf) and care has to be taken to allow them to participate fully in asynchronous activities thus meaning that either captioning has to be provided for audio sessions (such as using Adobe Connect) or to reduce one’s reliance on audio.

Discussions are normally required (e.g. three posts per week within two days of a new lecture) but it is often difficult to get full student participation.

Students can often inundate instructors (via email and texting) with common questions on the material and it thus vital to capture these interchanges in a common public area.

A few other useful elements are a personal blog, say with a few postings a week, and only accessible by the instructor. A current affairs forum–not directly related to the course–can be useful. Finally, a team forum that can give some indication of team activities, can help in tracking individual team members’ contributions. A syllabus confirmation forum, where students confirm that they understand the syllabus, can be useful in case of later problems. A frequently-asked questions forum can defuse some of the day-to-day “common-garden” questions. Although this has been a rather glib summary of possible forums; before any implementation a careful assessment should be made that they will actually be used.

Online NMR spectroscopy course

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy is a tough course to understand concepts which are drawn from maths, physics and chemistry.72 An interactive online course was designed with interactive exercises, assignments and games. It would appear that students who used the online course as a supplement to their classroom sessions improved their grades. However, it was unsure whether this was simply due to the additional time spent by students studying materials.

Technological aspects of online learning

A survey was conducted with almost 5,000 students from 125 institutions to study technological aspects of online learning.73Almost half had never taken an online class (and thus there is a question mark over any responses from this group relating to online tools). Most students (74%) possessed broadband communication. The most popular LMS is Blackboard and WebCT (now a combined company) with a total take-up of almost 90%.

The most common tool was inevitably, email, followed by drop boxes in the LMS. Asynchronous (mainly text-based) technologies were the most common with the use of synchronous communications such as telephone, chat rooms and instant messaging the least used. However, students felt that learning effectiveness would be improved by the use of real-time and direct technologies such as instant messaging, live video and audioconferencing and telephone communications with the instructor.

Survey for elements driving student satisfaction

A survey was conducted of Steven Institute of Technology students taking courses through their Webcampus program in the Department of Systems Engineering and Engineering Management.74 The majority of the students were full-time working professionals with a strong focus on applying their knowledge learned directly to their work. 379 of the 483 students who took these courses over the period Fall 2005 to Fall 2006 responded.

The most valued components of the online classroom were a high degree of faculty participation in the online course content discussions (well beyond simply answering questions and giving feedback), detailed feedback to students on at least a weekly basis for assignments and individual or team progress; automated online quizzes which could be used repetitively and finally, audio lectures with lecture notes. There was no significant correlation between student satisfaction and the use of web conferencing in a course.

Conversion to asynchronous online course

At Binghamton University (part of the State University of New York system), an on-campus lab-based introductory circuits course was converted to an online format.75 Each module was self-contained with a short lecture, followed by a series of advanced examples integrated with homework, finished with a lab experiment and then a quiz. Support for the student comprised additional reading and forums (asynchronous) and a whiteboard (synchronous).

Some of the lessons learned from the conversion process and which were used to build a revised online course were the following:

• Keep recorded lectures short; a maximum of 20 minutes and of high audio and video quality with plenty of worked examples and minimal use of multimedia. De-emphasize the lecture as the central element of the course with a focus on examples and experiments.

• Ensure clear guidelines are provided at the outset of the course as to how the course will operate.

• Ensure tight co-ordination between lectures, homework and lab work.

• Increase reusability of content.

• Give students small specific sections of text to read rather than gigantic discourses.

• Keep lectures short and simple.

• Build in quizzes which can be taken numerous times and which count towards grades after each module.

• The experiments were converted from five long labs to ten to fifteen short shorter concept based labs (with a description on one page) that were thus quicker to go through.

• Use both synchronous and asynchronous methods of communication.

The Blackboard LMS was replaced with Moodle as there were some concerns with the quality of the discussion forum software. The experimental kit was challenging in keeping costs reasonable but giving a realistic experience and a computer sound card was used as an oscilloscope as well as signal generator (with the Osilloscope software from Christian Zeinitz) with breadboard, batteries and electronic components. There were problems experienced with exam distribution and a quiz and project based approach was taken for assessment. The online model (as used in the 2011 course) resulted in improved performance of the more capable students but higher attrition rates for the less capable students. In conclusion, the online students scored the same or better than the traditional classroom-based students in the concept inventory tests.

Comparison between asynchronous online and on-campus graduate level students

A comparison was made between graduate level engineering students at the University of Michigan-Dearborn College of Engineering and Computer Science–one group who undertook the study asynchronously and the other through the traditional on-campus method.76 There was a total attendance of 150 graduate students (with 32% doing the courses online) on both courses. Great efforts were made to ensure both groups were treated exactly the same especially in terms of the student application process and instructional activities. A dedicated website was created (presumably with associated LMS) and all lectures were recorded and distributed via streaming videos within a day of being presented. Instructors made themselves available for flexible, “virtual office hours” for the asynchronous students. In an assessment of students’ performance, both groups of students performed similarly, although it was noted that the spread of results was greater for the asynchronous students. A lower level of self-discipline and time management of the asynchronous students impacted on their performance (presumably because of their greater time pressures and other stresses). The instructors had to spend more time with the asynchronous students than with the on-campus students.

Additional online materials work

At the University of Sydney Medical Program, research showed that access to additional online materials (such as a video of the instructor presenting in the classroom) is a valuable resource for the self-directed learner with more active learning on the part of the student.77 It was suggested that an additional valuable supplement to online videos would be interactive links and quizzes to the slides allowing for self-evaluation on the part of the students. It would also be useful to include lecture recordings from previous years to be placed next to the current recordings to provide more materials for the student.


Massive Online Open Courses are a fast growing trend and are mainly undertaken in an asynchronous format.78

The structure and operation of MOOCs vary and are based around Learning Management Systems (e.g. Moodle), online groups such as Google and related platforms such as blogs, wikis, twitter and LinkedIn social or business networking tools. The emphasis is on self-directed learning and being proactive in the learning process.

A survey conducted by The Chronicl of Higher Education sent out to 184 lecturers who taught MOOCs came up with a few pointers on their operation.79 The main motivation for creating and running with them was an altruistic desire to increase access to higher education. The other one was professional motivation to extend one’s reach by a few order of magnitude (and thus to increase visibility).

Typically, a lecturer spent over 100 hours on creating a MOOC (recording videos / creating reading materials and quizzes) and eight to ten hours per week on course maintenance when it was operational. The average pass rate was about 7.5%. Most felt that MOOCs would drive down the overall cost of university education but most (72%) felt that their students should not get credit at their institution.

The associated discussion forum indicated the following:

• MOOCs are well thought out, professionally designed courses with some real time interaction with peer students assisting each other.

• The lack of interaction (and large class size) made the MOOC a weak form of distance education compared to the other online models.

• When a large number of students (some suggest a huge 95%) are not self-motivated, MOOCs are difficult for most to complete.

• Highly regarded star professors (from prestigious and exclusive institutions) have helped in the massive sign-ups to the MOOCs.

• MOOCs are very good for continuing education, but very poor for a person who is going to build their employment proposition on attendance and completion of MOOCs.

• MOOCs are a natural development from textbooks (perhaps they can be referred to as talking textbooks).

• MOOCs will provide more credibility to online education and whet the appetite for more, thus expanding the overall higher education “cake”.

• The formalized approach of MOOCs (with rigid timelines) makes it more successful than the self study approach.

• Most people would prefer a bricks-and-mortar approach but when one is working with a family, the online model is considerably more appealing.

• Proctoring (to minimize cheating) of online courses is a key to a long term success and acceptance of MOOCs.

Some suggestions before commencing a MOOC are to review the course outline, structure and time requirements to ensure it is for you. You may elect to only do portions of it.

During the MOOC, show courtesy by introducing yourself and your experience and expertise. It is important to participate to maximize the learning experience. Simply reading course and reference materials (either directly provided or suggested) are not enough and interaction with others is a key to success. Posting a comment about the readings is a key activity (after taking care not to simply create a new thread before checking).

An important consideration about MOOCs is that there are no classical instructors, as such. Courses are facilitated, often by other participants. In particularly large courses, it is unlikely that facilitators will answer all questions. On that note, it is likely that participants will be subjected to information overload and will have to be selective about what they read.

One should remember that even when the official MOOC has finished, there is still the opportunity to continue dialogue with the various groups that have formed.

Online course in Statics at Roger Williams University

An existing face-to-face course comprising 28 lessons was divided into 10 units built around course content.80 Each unit had videos, assigned readings from a textbook and a homework assignment. For every three lessons, there was an examination to test the knowledge of the students as videos of the lessons were not considered adequate on their own. A tablet and recording software (Microsoft One-Note) was used to break each lesson up into 15-20 minutes chunks of 10MByte MP4 files. Access to the instructor was provided through synchronous virtual office hours using Elluminate web conferencing software and supplemented with face-to-face office hours during the normal semester. This particular course was more successful during the course intermission (vacation) times as the students had fewer other competing courses to focus on.

The advantages of online delivery were simply flexibility in scheduling, students’ ability to work at their own pace and the wide variety of technologies in creating videos and resources. The disadvantages were that a high level of ongoing motivation was required, more up-front work was required from the instructor and there was minimal student-instructor contact.

The average grades for both online and traditional classroom sessions for the course were similar (although a direct comparison was somewhat flawed as the students self-selected into online or face-to-face sessions).

Don't bother about technology

An interesting suggestion, backed up by a student survey, is to minimize use of technology in presenting asynchronous courses for a lecturer converting from successfully presenting economics courses in a classroom format to online mode at California State University (East Bay).81 Readings and a weekly commentary were posted on the Blackboard LMS. Participation in the discussion board was not made mandatory. These were supplemented with 40 to 50 study questions, with an assignment drawing randomly from 20 or so of the study questions. Each assignment (forming a significant part of the final grade) was posted on Thursday morning and was due back by Saturday evening at 10pm. Students were given three attempts to complete the assignment, with a random draw of questions for each one and the last one graded. A student survey to approximately 60 students confirmed that PowerPoint and audio / visual lectures were not preferred, with the former being rejected by 85% and the latter 80%. There was some peevish commentary about ongoing technical problems with Blackboard and the need to enhance the technical support that was considered very weak and extraordinarily slow to respond.

Just in time teaching

The Just in Time Teaching (JITT) technique is used to improve the understanding of a lecture and increase interaction between student and instructor by adding in quizzes immediately before a (face-to-face) lecture commences.82

It was successfully applied at Humboldt State University for an engineering course on Introduction to Environmental Resources Engineering. Once a week, students were required to complete online quizzes on the Blackboard LMS, at least an hour before the lecture commenced. The quiz comprised at least two or three short questions (calculation and conceptual questions) and a feedback box on the course progress.

The benefits with this approach were increased student confidence, improved class discussion / interaction and increased immediate refocusing on the student’s real needs in the lecture. The disadvantages were dependence on internet reliability, repeated student attempts at the multiple choice questions resulting in eventual success without any learning, additional instructor stress with quick changes to the lectures required, increased preparation time for instructors and students and designing thought-provoking and useful quiz questions.

There is evidence that the JITT approach improved attendance and reduced attrition. In this particular course (in 2002), an average of 86% of students completed the quizzes over the semester with over 90% declaring this a useful innovation. Although the focus has been on classroom sessions, there is no reason this approach couldn’t be applied before an online web conferencing session.

Online tutoring applications

A proposed electronic tutoring system, called the Intelligent Interactive Tutoring System, was put together at Temple University to complement a human tutor.83 This tutor was web-based, interactive and could be configured by the instructor. The system was written in Java and used the MySQL database. The concept was that as the student worked through a problem, the tutoring software provided prompts for each stage. Once the solution provided matches for a particular stage, the student could move onto the next stage. The tutor recorded mistakes, which the instructor used later to help the student.

An effective use of an online tutor was noted at the University of Western Sydney with support for a blended learning unit entitled Introduction to Psychology of Health with over 750 students across three campuses.84 The tutor supported students in an asynchronous discussion forum; providing not only the standard question and answer service but also active teaching and helping students with learning (but not simply providing answers). Four important practices for successful online tutoring were considered to be:

• Respecting and valuing students for their backgrounds.

• Timeliness in responding quickly and effectively to students.

• Providing positive support and encouragement.

• Driving a culture of independence in a student's work.

The tutor seems to be effectively used with 1,000 requests in the first week and almost 20,000 requests in the second week immediately before submission of an assignment. In a survey, over 62% of the students indicated that the online tutor was essential to their study.

A computer aided learning program called CALMAT was developed by Jean Cook and colleagues at Glasgow Caledonian University to deliver the first year maths course online with a tutor.85 The course was an initial teacher education program to produce teachers of technology for Scottish Schools. Software is used to deliver the curriculum and assess students’ knowledge at the end. Staff workload has been significantly reduced as they no longer lecture or assess. Students like doing it this way as it is paced to their needs and they can attempt the tests when they feel ready. Retention rates (especially for class sizes of 50+) have been improved and are similar to those of small groups. One of the disadvantages is that students can take too long over preparing for the assignments.

A multimedia tutorial on how to use a digital storage oscilloscope with a function generator was constructed at Edith Cowan University for first year engineering students.86 It was found to be of significant benefit to students as compared to only having a worksheet detailing how to use it. It also significantly reduced the burden on the lab demonstrators.

An intelligent tutoring system was developed at Texas A&M University, College Station for PLCs.87 This was web-based using Visual Basic, a Microsoft Access database, and Macromedia Flash. The database stored the domain-specific knowledge and areas where the student had difficulties with questions from the tutor (referred to as misconceptions). A series of questions is posed to the student with three answers–correct, incorrect or no answer. Explanatory feedback was provided for questions answered incorrectly. When there were no more misconceptions or unknown facts, the tutor ceased asking questions. An analysis of student knowledge, indicated that this tutor helped to improve scores.

Key points and applications

Chapter 4

The following are the key points and applications from this chapter entitled: Key Elements of Asynchronous Online Learning.

1.  This is the most commonly used format for online courses.

2.  A Learning Management System (LMS) has a number of features: such as communication tools (e.g. discussion forums, internal emails, whiteboard), productivity tools (e.g. calendar and bookmarks), student involvement tools (e.g. group work), course delivery tools (e.g. course management and testing), course development tools, and administration and assessment tools.

3.  About 80% of organisations implementing LMSs are dissatisfied with the result. A few suggestions for a successful implementation include:

• Clearly define what you want to achieve with the LMS.

• Detail the technology requirements.

• Define the administrative requirements (e.g. with people).

• Assess the content requirements–either in-house or purchased.

• Market the LMS but provide training.

4.  Discussion forums should be:

• Tightly integrated with other aspects of the course such as content/objectives/labs.

• Encouraging of divergent thinking (open ended).

• Run with a threaded approach, which is preferred over the time chronological one.

• Moderated by someone who contributes judiciously to discussions.

• Set up so that 10% of the total assessment is allocated to discussions forums.

5.  A few suggestions on design of discussion forums include:

• Create a general administration thread.

• Create at least 2 to 4 new threads per week

• Place emphasis on evidence-based and promotion of critical thinking.

• Ensure students read all contributions within 3 days of topic initiation.

• Comprehensively introduce yourself as the facilitator.

• Respond within a day to all queries.

• Involve all students.

• Guide and contribute to discussions as facilitator.

• Personalize postings.

6.  Useful tools include Camtasia (recording the screen and audio), Smoothdraw (natural painting and freehand drawing), Flash and Authorware.

7.  An online or digital textbook includes textbook content, homework questions, quizzes, automatic grading, multimedia content, videos, podcasts and simulations. However, the market is still relatively immature and problematic for many offerings.

8.  Activities that add value to a students’ learning include:

• Reflections (instructor to summarize an asynchronous discussion).

• Web exploring (students to provide web links with a rating and description).

• Commenting on field experiences.

• Getting student pairs to critique each other’s work.

• Encouraging students to feedback experiences on use of a simulation package.

• Posting up online portfolios of work.

• Hosting online debates.

9.  Vigorously apply best practice course design principles.

10.  Multimedia Design Principles should be observed:

• Match student’s cognitive load to processing level.

• Ensure judicious use of graphics and photos.

• Animations should be appropriate.

• Use serif typefaces.

• Break up text and ensure it is readable.

• Consistent formatting is essential.