Management of Online Learning

“Education seems to be in America the only commodity of which the customer tries to get as little he can for his money.”

– Max Forman

Chapter contents

14.1    Introduction

14.2    Planning and Design of Online Courses

14.3    Instructor Guidelines

14.4    Tutors and Tutorials

14.5    Suggestions for Students

14.6    Other Issues


14.1 Introduction

This chapter discusses how to apply online technologies to your engineering education and training. There is perhaps some overlap with some earlier chapters such as asynchronous and synchronous online technologies, but the central focus here will be on a more holistic set of issues.

One point that is often overlooked in implementing online education in a traditional environment is that online learning can represent a considerable change to what you are currently doing in terms of training and education. Thus, you need to ensure that you have a solid understanding of the big picture in terms of your organizational requirements, otherwise you may be disappointed with the results of your training innovations and inevitably create more problems than benefits.1


Figure 14.1: Online learning can significantly impact your organisation


We believe it can very difficult for a traditional college or university to implement a successful online learning program due to resistance from existing players who are used to the standard lecturing and lab environment. In addition, online learning can also cannabilize existing, traditional programs. This is the reason why it is often better to set

up a totally independent organizational structure for online learning, but this may also mean that some of the synergies are lost.

This chapter commences with a discussion on planning and design of online courses, followed by instructor guidelines. The use of online tutors, which can make a significant positive impact to a program, are examined next. Miscellaneous issues associated with management are then reviewed. The chapter concludes with a discussion on students managing themselves to be successful in online programs.


14.2 Planning and design of online courses

A few suggested items to consider with design, delivery of courses and student assessments are listed below.2

Design and delivery of online learning courses


• The type of course and its structure should be clearly advertised so that students are aware in intimate detail of the delivery of the course (traditional/online learning or blended) before commencing it.

• The requirements made on the student in terms of the course and what he or she is required to provide in terms of software/hardware and internet connection must be outlined in exhaustive detail.

• Administrative, technical and course support should be extended to all students (and instructors where required) so that any difficulties are dealt with as quickly as possible.

• Exhaustive training over a few weeks should be provided to the students regarding how to use the system and what to do (and where to go) when things go wrong with the software / remote lab or the internet connection.

Strong Learning Management System (LMS) support must be provided as a core resource with the entire course, instructor and student details provided for easy and regular access. This minimizes the exhaustive and repetitive demands made on administrative staff, thus freeing them up for higher quality support.

Suggestions on the omptimum structure of a good online program

A few suggestions on structuring a good online program include:3

Contact details of staff and support

Provide full contact details of course coordinators and instructors (including email / Skype / instant messaging and phone number)and best times to make contact for one-to-one help sessions as well as the expected time delay before responding to email and IM (instant messenger) communications. In addition, information should be provided on where a student can seek help quickly and effectively for IT-related problems (e.g. not being able to log on to a session). Other staffing contacts for finance queries, shipping of course resources and electronic libraries are also useful.

Research has showed that students put considerably more effort into constructing a thoughtful email to an instructor or their peers than they do for face-to-face communications.4 Hence, you will probably find using email a good form of communication.

Course information

A detailed course syllabus should include pre-requisites and hours required to work through the course, including actual course contact hours (lab and lecture)and study hours. A summary of the credit hours received and the transferability of these to other institutions and programs should be noted.

Course materials

Provide full details of what is required and where to purchase or obtain textbooks, software, cameras, calculators, computer and lab kits (where required).

Structure of the course

This should detail how the course is conducted (LMS / discussion boards / web conferencing, etc.), typical times and dates for delivery of assignments. In addition, details should be provided as to how the labs are to be undertaken.

The methodology for calculation of the final grade should also be indicated (e.g. quizzes (25%), lab reports (25%), discussion board participation (20%)and examinations (30%)). A supporting video or document providing examples of how a typical online course works would also be a useful resource for those who are not familiar with the process.

Course calendar

A detailed course calendar should provide dates and times for lectures, assignment due dates, lab reports and discussion board interactions, preferably in an easy to read format with multiple colors. Calendar changes should naturally be avoided at all costs, and if this cannot be avoided, it should be prominently announced well in advance through multiple channels repeatedly to ensure that everyone picks up on the changes.

Assignment, lab quiz and discussion board submissions

Students should clearly be advised of what is required in the assignments, lab and quiz submissions with achievable due dates. Method of submission and penalties for late submission should be indicated in unambiguous terms.

Grading policies should be indicated with time to return marked assignments defined.

Study tips, time and self-management skills

Online study can be considerably more challenging than for traditional residential college attendance and suggestions should be provided on how to study effectively with time and self-management skills training provided. Flexible online study is often “code” for no study and if a regular habit (location and times) for study can be set up, this can make the process considerably easier. Regular sessions should be provided with highly interactive web conference presentations should be set up to help students acquire these skills.

Locations and policies/procedures for proctored examinations should be noted well in advance of any examinations to enable the student to plan ahead.

Policies and procedures

A clear set of policies and procedures should be listed, and it should be easily accessible on the web. This would include such policies as netiquette (how to interact professionally on the web), plagiarism and academic dishonesty, appeals to grades, discrimination, ethics, integrity and conduct, student fees and refunds.

Things you should remember when engaging in online training:5

• Define the learning objectives. What do you want to achieve with the training and how will you measure the success or otherwise of the training experience?

• Assemble the materials so that they are suited to an online presentation.

• Check on whether the instructors are available on the dates and times required and have broadb and internet access.

• Make the marketing materials compelling and exciting to maximize the numbers attending.

• Automate the registration process and make it as easy as possible to attend. Ensure reminders are sent out regularly beforehand.

• Practise, practise and practise the materials to ensure an outstanding presentation.

• Ensure there is maximum interactivity in the presentation.

• Record all sessions and make available to everyone after checking the quality.

• Edit the recording if necessary to make it more easily viewable.

• Check whether the learning objectives were achieved.

• Implement action items during the session.

Key characteristics for ideal online learning

A Delphi process was used with experienced online instructors to identify the key characteristics of the ideal online learning environment for students.6 This was broken into 37 criteria broken over five broad categories. Some of these key attributes are listed below.

Assessment of students

• Quick access to grades.

• Tracking of individual responses (such as time and location).

• Provision of rating criteria and scale for discussion board postings thus allowing instructor to immediately rate a student’s contribution.

• A portfolio of work for each student, allowing for ongoing assessment.

• Easily accessible statistics on attendance of students.

Organizational issues

• Clear and modifiable structure of the course organization.

• Ability to break classes into smaller discussion groups.

• Confidential, easily accessible repository for instructor to store ongoing comments of students.

• Collaborative environment within the LMS for students to add/modify or delete assignments.

Synchronous features

• Synchronous real-time chat (and web conferencing) facility for students and instructors.

• Real-time chat facility that can be converted into an asynchronous threaded session in a discussion board.

Multimedia features

• Accessibility (through the LMS) by students of video and audio recordings of presentations, discussions or demonstrations.

Management utilities

• WYSIWYG type editing on whiteboard.

• Polling facility of students.

• Whiteboard facility accessible by all students and instructor.

• Online access to all materials (including textbooks).

• Software assistance with identification of plagiarized documents (such as TurnitIn).

• Online help facility for use of LMS and other tools.

Some suggestions for improved engagement in online learning are to:7

• Encourage students to focus on higher order thinking such as problem solving, assessment, and analysis and minimize the lower order tasks such as memorization and simple recall.

• Drive a high level of interaction between learners, their peers and instructors.

• Build in collaborative learning tasks between learners (e.g. work together on a project or in a lab).

• Provide frequent opportunities to practice the newfound skills and knowledge on applications.

Key success factors in online education

A few suggestions were made on achieving success in an online course.8 Providing variety in instructional methods helps enormously. This ranges from text readings, PowerPoint lectures, and research papers to the all-important hands-on exercises. Communication is probably the most important issue. This ranges from clear definition of what comprises the course in easy-to-read documentation to clear and unambiguous communications with students in discussion forums, phone, email and instant messaging (IM) chats. The course delivery and support mechanisms based on a variety of software platforms such as the LMS must be robust and technical support should be available for students at all times. Clarity in instructions, course objectives and student requirements is vital. Finally, content of the course should match the objectives and be of the highest quality.

The student should have a high level of self-esteem and a strong belief in him/herself. Other vital ingredients include taking personal responsibility for learning, skill in handling the technologies underpinning the online learning, superb time management, good organizational skills and self-discipline in engaging in what to many can be a lonely and solitary form of learning.


14.3 Instructor guidelines

A challenge in building an online engineering program is the lack of instructors and course designers competent in engineering online education.9 It is vital to maintain a high level of quality in the presentation and development of online courses. It is an improbable scenario to have members of the engineering faculty both build and teach online courses (as some universities seem determined to do). A possible solution is to have junior faculty involved with senior members in undertaking development.

Some useful tips about teaching online are discussed below. Remember that online learners are well-known for getting bored and moving onto other activities such as checking mail, chatting, texting or wafting around on the internet.

Teaching online is more work than in a classroom. It takes a considerable amount of time to convert materials across to being suitable for online delivery. Communication with students is an asynchronous process and this means keeping tabs on emails as they send their assignments in. This requires regular interfacing to students to avoid the workload for the instructor piling up. One of the perceived reasons for the workload appearing to be more than in a classroom setting is that the communications between instructor and student is sporadic using online methods with a discussion stretching over many days, whereas for a classroom, an issue is discussed and dealt with immediately.

Students need regular communication and quick feedback. Students in an online setting are operating in a vacuum and can often feel anxious due to the perceived isolation, so it is critical to keep in tight contact with students and to still their fears about the difficulty of the material and to ensure they get great support. Due to the tenuous nature of the medium, there are many examples of disinterested feedback from instructors who may take days or even weeks to respond. This is totally unacceptable and is the quickest way to destroy any confidence the student may have in the online medium.

Don't go overboard with the great tools that are available. One can do the most amazing things with video, animation and audio but often students have technological barriers to accessing them on their perhaps more limited machines. Flashy websites and glitzy effects don’t necessarily make for a better learning experience. Despite all the advances in technology, the most important thing is still the instructor and the way she teaches. Don’t overdo the technology.

Assignments and activities take longer online Carefully consider how you convert your classroom-based assignments across to online learning. Students can take considerably longer to complete their assignments as they are often interacting asynchronously with each other over a few days. Ensure that you interact with your student discussions and give them advice, feedback and support without dominating the forums with your superior knowledge of what has gone before in other related classes.

Deadlines are critical in online teaching. The phrases “self-paced”, “flexible learning” and “individual study” are often dangerous to apply. There is no doubt that online learning means that the students can work whenever they want–but they still need deadlines to work against. It is also helpful to make the deadlines consistent from week to week, e.g. submission by Wednesday and Friday midnight San Francisco time. Students often go off track and do minimal preparation work if they don’t have specific deadlines to work against.

Online learning is not for everyone. For many students, online learning will simply not work. They need to be surrounded by their buddies in a residential campus. Self-motivation is often extremely difficult when you are a red-blooded teenager. Ensure that the structure of the online course is absorbed by all the students and they underst and what is required of them. In addition, ensure that all students get a useful booklet on how to study and optimize their performance in an online environment.

Get continual feedback from students on how they are flying. Regular feedback, perhaps around the mid course point, is very useful. Sharing this feedback with the class can be very productive.

Collaborate with colleagues. It is always good to discuss online teaching issues with your colleagues and others working in the area. It is a pioneering technology and all sorts of new ideas and approaches are constantly emerging.

Transform your classroom learning with your experiences online. Teaching online can be particularly challenging; I would argue that it is actually considerably tougher than in a classroom setting. You can apply many of your online techniques, instructional materials and approaches to your classroom sessions with great results. A good online course provides detailed (and recorded) feedback on how each student grapples with the concepts and the learning that is happening.10

Create a sense of community. When commencing an online class, use an icebreaker to introduce participants to one another and to enable information sharing. Typical icebreakers are to request an introduction using less than 140 characters or something else that is low risk and interesting.

Block off space. As course participants are often still at their place of work or at home and are subject to the usual distractions from others around them, they should ensure that they work in a low distraction zone. Oddly enough, the same applies to instructors who often get harassed by colleagues even when presenting.

Add emotion and humor. Some personalization of who you are with a few humorous pictures, photos and cartoons and the odd joke can liven up the presentation and connect you to the other participants. However, watch out for bad or inappropriate jokes.

Participate until you are blue in the face. Learner participation is critical to the success and for real learning to occur.11 This has to be done every few minutes otherwise you have a one-way presentation that is of benefit to no one. Typical approaches include:

• Questions and answers.

• Conversations.

• Group work.

• Games.

• Exercises.

• Audience polls.

Tips on instructional design

There is always debate about the need for formal training in instructional design, but the truth is that we have come across many highly qualified instructional designers who are not particularly good at their job.12 Consider these ideas before jumping into your next project:

• Try and visualize the assessments for the course first. Consider what you think your students are going to be tested on back in their real world job, and ensure that your assessments are authentic and reflect the real world challenges of their job.

• Design your course objectives to be realistic and aligned with what your students are currently able to do and what you want them to do once they have finished this course.

• No matter how tempting it seems, it is physically impossible to take a huge amount of content-laded PowerPoint slides and to transform them quickly into a useful online course. Even with the current active discussion on rapid online learning, an online course is considerably more than regurgitating slides from a classroom session.

• Don’t inundate your students with information and training they don’t need. Or can perhaps access through alternative means. The training and education you want to give them must be powerful, compact and of relevance.

• Learning materials do not have to be exotic, full of odd animations and “jumping objects” but instead should be simple, clear and effective.

• Providing training and instruction does not mean your students will actually be learning, and that is the nub of the challenge: to actually get your students to perform activities, exercises and problem solving to engage in real learning. It is vital that you as an instructional designer grasp the need to create resources that the instructor can use to encourage real learning in their students.

Blogging, podcasting and clicking

Although discussed here in the context of a classroom-based mechanical engineering course, the three technologies of clicking, podcasting and blogging can equally be applied effectively in an online classroom.13 An example is given here of an application within an upper-division undergraduate engineering course in energy technologies, fuels, environmental impacts and public policies with 59 students. As is pointed out, media and technology are not what improve learning; having great instructors applying superb instructional strategies and content make the impact on student's learning.

Clickers are handheld devices that help in promoting interaction in a classroom. Students press a button and respond to questions. They can then see a distribution of the answers from the class on the clicker's display. This results in more interaction in what could otherwise be a dull lecture-based classroom especially with a large number of students. Instructors have to work on asking thought provoking questions.

Blogs can be used to promote student interactions and reflection on a particular topic. A blog, as most of us know, is generally a collection of text and images (and sometimes also audio, multimedia and video clips) and is normally relatively easy to construct.

Podcasting (a portmanteau of the terms iPod and broadcasting) includes many file types such as audio, video, slide presentations and .pdf files. Using RSS feeds ("Really Simple Syndication") podcasts can be "pushed" to the user's computer for viewing and listening every time there is an updated file. Generally, they are higher quality than streaming media and are easily available for quick review.

Students were required to blog three times during the semester on class-related topics, comment on other student's topics and create an original podcast. Other more traditional work included writing an original paper, conducting a research project and undertaking the end of course examination. A survey of the students indicated that only 54% considered podcasts a good way to learn technical content. 56% found the clickers helpful with a majority (54%) indicating that that these items made no difference to their class participation. 73% were positive about the benefits of blogging.

Overall, the use of these technologies was considered positive, but the podcasts can be time consuming to create and having students familiar with the relevant technologies (e.g. setting up RSS feeds) would help with expediting the creation of them. It is vital not to swamp the students with the technology of setting these facilities up, but to focus on the overall content instead.

Conversion from classroom – based to online courses

Even in a synchronous virtual classroom environment, classroom courses can rarely be transformed directly into online presentations without a significant rethink of the course.14 The John Hopkins University Engineering Department have used a course design matrix spreadsheet approach to ease the transformation process. It is likely in the transformation process that some of the existing resources and activities have to be modified or eliminated (e.g. active classroom debates and discussions)and new ones created (collaborative team work using web conferencing). Although overall there is considerable re-engineering of the course, an initial key consideration is to define what students are expected to learn during each week.

The first element is the creation of learning objectives using Bloom’s Taxonomy. Linked with this are the learning assessments (using discussions, papers, assignments, quizzes, presentations). Bloom’s Taxonomy provides a consistent terminology and helps to clearly define measurable learning tasks.

Assessments that are applicable to online learning include discussion boards, collaborative teamwork, problem solving, scenarios, essays, presentations and writing papers. Learning objects for each module include videos, demonstrations, textbook chapters and reading assignments. Some suggestions with learning objects are that the lectures should be approximately 10 minutes in duration, videos should be emphasized and readings should be a key element. An alignment between learning objectives, learning assessments and learning objects should be tested and modifications made in an iterative way to achieve this.

Faculty stretching themselves too thin

Concern has been expressed that course faculty were stretching themselves somewhat thinly in creating course content, developing the necessary online instructional materials and developing course websites.15 Even with the advent of course management systems such as WebCT and Blackboard, which simplified the creation of the course websites, members of the faculty are still unsure about the best layout and structure especially optimized for that from the viewpoint of the student. They do recommend that student satisfaction can be improved by having a standardized student interface with consistent labels, headings and icons. It can also reduce faculty time wasted in answering questions related to the structure, operation and organization of a course.

Preparation for online instructing

It is noted that faculty at many traditional universities are being pressured to teach online with minimal training in these technologies.16 It is difficult to move directly from a classroom environment to an online environment where, “Instructors cannot transplant their understandings, strategies, and skills from face-to-face to online teaching environments”.

This is in marked contrast to the major distance learning universities such as the University of Phoenix and Walden University which recruit based on online experience and provide extensive training in online technologies. A study showed that 40% of institutions did not provide any training or preparation for online instructors.17 Instructors who run successful online training programs have strong computer competencies, know how to use the course delivery system, have good support from their institution, are motivated to work in this environment, actively design courses that are student-centered and can teach effectively without non-verbal feedback from students.18

Chickering and Gamson’s seven principles are important in the context of what makes a good online instructor, noting that good practice in undergraduate education encourages student-faculty contact, encourages co-operation among students, encourages active learning, gives prompt feedback, emphasizes time-on-task, communicates high expectations and finally, respects diverse talents and ways of learning.19 This can be applied to both engineering online learning and remote labs education.

The first author conducted a survey of 120 members of faculty who taught online at two-year and four-year universities across the USA, particularly in North Carolina with a 38% response rate. The survey results indicated a clear understanding of the positive outcome in terms of best practice in online courses as a result of training faculty in online technologies and techniques. There was also agreement of the need for prompt feedback to students, setting a framework for a friendly online environment, guidance for students to external sources and providing detailed course syllabus information.

However, it was apparent that institutions still needed to devote considerably more effort to training online.

Three quick tips for instructors on online courses

In terms of good practice in instructing online, there were a few useful suggestions for instructors:20

• Quick and responsive feedback is required to all questions.

• Show a regular and committed presence in discussion boards and virtual classrooms.

• Ensure that expectations of students are clearly enunciated.

Blended learning challenges and opportunities21

The challenges and opportunities with blended learning can be broken up into three categories: Technology, Logistics and Student Behavior. Below are some suggestions for each category.

Technology. It is vital to watch your presentations from the perspective of your students. Problems experienced by students could be due to poor bandwidth issues and audio issues (e.g. defective microphone) but these can all be managed if the instructor is aware of them. Opportunities would be to harness the power of the vast array of audio visual equipment available these days. For example, the instructor could use a video link to provide close up views of a particular machine artefact to all students, instead of passing it around as would be done in a classroom session. In addition, providing video clips to enhance the learning experience is easy to arrange. Logistics. In allowing students to email numerous questions with the expectation of immediate responses provides considerably more work for instructors as compared to the classroom, where questions can be dealt with quickly. The prospect of having numerous students emailing homework to an instructor can be incredibly daunting, and in reality can be a logistical nightmare. While it is important for the instructor to focus on the course content and syllabus, instructional activities should not be neglected. Although course content is often covered faster (fewer interruptions from students) in the more formal video version of a course (compared to the less informal classroom session), it is vital to still give students time to reflect and comment.

The opportunity to use Learning Management Systems to drop off assignments, and discussion boards to reduce the overload on instructors should be used where possible. Instructors can take advantage of the distance learning environment to build up more independent learners and introduce students to each other more thoroughly. There is the opportunity to pair distance learning students with on-campus students to increase the sense of belonging.

Student behavior. Learners having grown up passively watching television, often fall back into this mode when watching course materials. Older research indicates that they tend to prefer face-to-face instruction rather than distance learning. Lack of immediate feedback from students and having the instructor as the sole source of learning makes things considerably more challenging. An opportunity exists to break up the class format every 20 minutes or so by using videos, encouraging comments from students and using other graphical aids. A method of encouraging students to actively take notes (rather than passively watching) is to withhold lecture notes or to leave gaps in the notes (red text to indicate important parts of the lecture notes) that need to be filled in by the student.

Academic honesty is always a challenge with distance learning students and standards cannot be lowered. Whilst qualified testing centers are the lowest risk option, it is possible to investigate open book examinations or to limit the time by using email or a fax machine to time stamp the submitted examination.

14.4 Tutors and tutorials

It was found that attendance and satisfactory completion of regular (typically weekly) online tutorials (as opposed to a few assignments) throughout an online course resulted in good performance in the final examination.22


Figure 14.2: One-to-one online tutoring with lab equipment


Online tutoring

The University of Houston implemented an online tutoring system for their students in quantitative courses such as statistics, computer applications and numerical methods.23 Tutoring provides for a high level of interactivity with student and tutor and an individualized level of transfer of knowledge, which is especially useful for isolated online students. It also minimizes student isolation, bypasses instructor time limitations and hopefully reduces the attrition rate. The key tools used were web conferencing packages such as Wimba and Elluminate.

Important issues were minimal voice delay, ability to share applications and upload files quickly, ease of use by all parties and capability to write difficult mathematical equations and symbols. A Cyberpad (from Adesso) was used as an electronic tablet allowing everything to be written in ordinary ink on plain paper. The online support was provided through the Instructional Support Services (ISS) lab which had trained tutors, a dedicated room equipped with 25 computers providing support in a range of issues from software installation, general course questions to faculty assistance with the LMS and use of Elluminate/Wimba web conferencing software. Online tutoring sessions were offered through an appointment system (as the ad hoc system of students fronting up randomly wasn’t every efficient). 22% of online students participated in tutoring; against that of 19% for on-site.

Students were unhappy with the technical difficulties with online support and resolution of problems. It was considered essential to promote the tutoring services as widely as possible. Finally, it was important to build into a well-disseminated privacy policy the feature of recording student sessions to avoid any fallout especially when distributing these recordings to a wider network of students. Overall, students found the tutorial sessions helpful.

Peer-assisted tutorial sessions

Although not necessarily directly part of online learning, an approach that can raise student scores is the use of peer-assisted learning (UK) or peer-assisted study sessions (Australia) and Supplementary Instruction (USA).24 This is a collaborative learning environment facilitated by appropriately trained senior students who do not teach new materials but that which has been taught in the course. Research has shown an improvement in grades for students participating in these sessions and has been demonstrated to be especially useful in engineering courses. Traditionally, these sessions are conducted in face-to-face sessions but there is no reason not to use a synchronous web conferencing session to achieve a similar result.

The online tutor

Universities can make the mistake of including distance learning under the umbrella of their traditional residential campus activities.25 Online tutoring is a key element in an online course and needs to be carefully arranged. Some other terms used as equivalents to that of an online tutor include coach, moderator, facilitator and mentor. Roles of a tutor include:

• Academic in providing intellectual support to the learner including such activities as providing scaffolding, guiding, focusing on appropriate content and synthesis of different viewpoints.

• Social in improving involvement in discussions, keeping the atmosphere, “warm and fuzzy” and dealing with disruptive behavior.

• Management in establishing and maintaining procedures, policies, setting learning objectives and distributing materials.

• Technological in supporting learners in effective application of technology (especially computer and internet-based) and troubleshooting problems.

Online tutoring places particular emphasis on possession of the following abilities and skills, written communications being more prevalent than verbal, working more formally, multitasking in dealing with multiple conversations simultaneously, instructing occurring at a wide range of times for short periods throughout the day and indeed, week, more emphasis on collaborative learning rather than directly instructor-led, encouraging of participation by all learners from varied backgrounds and being able to assess individual contributions and in provision of quick detailed feedback.

Due to the rapid development in the technology, it is often difficult to get someone with the immediate skills required, hence if the individual has the ability to gain the requisite skills then this would also be acceptable.

Tutoring and learning from your peers

Online mathematics and physics bridging courses have been effectively done for large numbers of students, by providing each student with a personal mentor (such as a second or third year student) who they can contact by phone or email.26 The course materials are provided in an asynchronous fashion. Extensive scaffolding was used to help bridge the gaps between what the student knows and the new knowledge they have to gain. The scaffolding is affected by asking leading questions and providing them with some information to help them internalize the knowledge required. Approximately 10-15 full-time mentors supported a staggering number of over 6,000 simultaneous learners. The online forums, comprising a few thous and participants, were used for extensive interaction between learners and their peers. The key is quick answering of questions, either from their peers or mentors.

Mentoring and tutoring of remote students

At Old Dominion University, the Civil Engineering Technology program has expanded over the years with an extensive distance learning component.27 In the distance learning class, students can meet for three hours per week every week with a fully interactive audio-based live class. These days, students are even more scattered geographically and thus due to the difficulties of travelling to a weekend lab, a local mentor was optionally allowed in place of a laboratory class at the remote site. A mentor was a licensed land surveyor close to the remote student who was prepared to make her time and resources available to the student. Resources comprised staff, equipment and field work so that the student could conduct lab activities close to the office or participate in typically surveying work. In addition, a good mentor could help develop career, life and business skills of the student and perhaps offer them a job. It was found that typically 10% to 15% of students used a mentor. The student was responsible for finding a local mentor and this task was made easier due to most of them working in a surveying or associated company.

In this case, the labwork comprised equipment exposure and basic data gathering with the lab report built around copies of field notes and presentation of the survey operations done. It was noted that student grades of labs and for the overall course were generally above the class mean.


14.5 Suggestions for students

Distance learning is considerably tougher than attending a traditional bricks and mortar institution.28 As we have discussed earlier, the distance learning environment ranges from the asynchronous one, which is very detached, to the more interactive synchronous one. Students have to be motivated, proactive and enthusiastic to succeed in the distance learning environment. Some suggestions are listed below to make students more successful in the distance learning environment.

Kick for a goal

Before commencing their studies, students should ensure that they have clear goals and know exactly why they are undertaking these studies. If they are ambivalent about why they are undertaking this path of study, they may be wasting their time. Strongly held goals act as a great motivator to complete studies with useful results.

Know the syllabus

Students should ensure that they know the syllabus and introductory documents and should keep them in an accessible place at all times. These give a strong “meta-view” of how to optimize use of online resources and who to access for a quick response to queries and problems.

Scheduling of assignments and other work is king

One of the key ways of measuring performance is undertaking and submitting assignments on time. A late assignment generally attracts a penalty and this is naturally to be avoided as this is generally no reflection on a student’s actual work quality. Naturally, with the vagaries of email and uploading materials, ensure that an assignment is indeed submitted and is in the system. Students should plan assignments and ensure that they have more than enough time to deliver on time. A sloppily constructed assignment written at the last minute is not only disrespectful to an instructor but it demeans the student and places a question mark over why they are doing the course in the first place.

Keep tabs on the Learning Management System (LMS)

The LMS is the alpha and omega of a student’s studies and is a key place for them to follow the course and to watch for additional resources being uploaded by the instructor. Students should track it as often as possible to keep up to date with department news, new reading resources and feedback on their work.

Learn step-by-step all the time

As some wag put it, “Inch by inch, it is a cinch.” The student is the only person who learns. The instructor cannot learn for them– and learning is a slow, incremental process. Students need to enhance their learning by insisting on learning one new concept every time they interact with other students, their instructor or their course materials and exercises.

Enhance your learning experiences with peers

One of the most powerful ways of learning is working with classmates. Students should be supportive and encouraging in their interactions with them, either via asynchronous posts or audio and video interaction in a virtual classroom.

Contribute to discussions

In asynchronous online learning, one of the key ways to interact (and indeed for the instructor to measure progress) is via chatting and posting thoughts and suggestions. This is how students learn: by interacting with the other students and the instructor.

Organization and administration should underpin everything a student doesAlthough everything is firmly electronic these days, a physical binder is often very useful to keep timetables, assignments, texts and research in one spot. This can be picked up at a moment’s notice. Contextualize everything

Instructors know (or should know) the importance of relating everything they discuss and present to the real world working life, so it is important for students to do the same. Students should take all the learning materials and relate (or contextualize) them to their work and career. Any old fool can regurgitate knowledge fed to them; this is the lowest level of learning. However, it requires considerable skill (and indeed agony) to analyze information, reconstruct it with other items of know-how (synthesize) into new solutions relating to real work. The highest form of learning is creating, where the students put together components to build a new product or system.

Assignment dates

It is interesting for both students and indeed instructors to know the best dates for returning assignments. A survey was conducted of 337 students enrolled in distance education courses at the College of Technology and Computer Science at East Carolina University.29 The key demographics of this student sample were 72% aged 30 years and above, 53% working towards a bachelor level degree with 45% towards a masters. The results indicated that online students prefer to work on assignments during weekends with assignments handed out at the same time every week and due at midnight or 8am on Sunday or Monday (and at the same time and day every week). They preferred assignments with an interactive component (and were not enthused with team projects). Typical distance education assignments included student discussion online, recorded lectures (presumably by the student), interactive labs and class chat sessions with an instructor.

14.6 Other issues

Personalized online homework is the way to go

In a Material and Energy Balances course at the Colorado School of Mines, research revealed that provision of personalized online homework as opposed to the usual static textbooks helped students achieve significantly better grades.30 Personalized online homework was where the instructor customized the homework problem set with slight numerical differences in each problem but with consistent content and concepts across the class. Students could continue to answer until they had achieved the correct answer (with 5% of the overall homework grade deducted for each incorrect answer). Some of the more difficult problems had step-by-step tutorials that were displayed after the student got the answer wrong. Full solutions were available for those problems that the student gave up on. Students nevertheless still preferred the standard textbook homework as opposed to online homework.


At SUNY, Adirondack, the Physics I class was made more interesting by requesting the students go through selected videos from MIT (with lecturer Walter H.G. Lewin) on the web with a tightly defined schedule during their homework time.31 Any questions could be answered quickly by email. The traditional class lecture time was then devoted to problem solving and undertaking tutorials of difficult components of the course. However, it was found that there was limited uptake of watching the videos and the old scenario of traditional lectures and homework was reestablished.

Assistance for learning disabled students

There has been a significant growth reported of students with a learning disability. For example, in the USA the percentage of students with a diagnosed learning disability grew from 2.3% in 1978 to 9% in 1998.32 A learning disability relates to an imperfect ability in one or more attributes such as being able to think, speak, read, write, spell, calculate and listen. A suggested solution was to use the AIM-Lab developed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the USA, which allowed students to access labs remotely. In addition, a chat facility (based on the internet Relay Chat open protocol from Mibbit) was provided. YouTube videos provided step-by-step instructions especially aimed at disabled students.

Another solution for disabled people is called iMSi, a virtual whiteboard which has a user-friendly interface allowing the student to zoom into parts of a document, oversized text on the GUI, automated voice for notes and lectures, a virtual keyboard and voice control (as opposed to text input) of software applications.33 Other features include audio/video streaming from the instructor, chat for the student and recordings of lectures with optional subtitles.

Youtube fridays

YouTube Fridays were set up to create a student-led activity at the Colorado School of Mines (at class at 8am on a Friday morning) for a thermodynamics course.34 Videos were selected by groups of three to four students. After showing the videos a short discussion followed on their relationship to the course topics. The YouTube videos played a key part in the “engineering estimate” sessions where various scenarios were assessed for being possible or unrealistic. A survey showed that the students (60%) felt that they had a better understanding of course topics as a result. There is no reason not to apply this technology in a totally online environment.

Students and time management

Time management is the process of determining one’s needs, setting objectives to achieve these needs, defining the tasks required, prioritizing them and then rigorously executing them (in their entirety) in this order.35

Research has showed that (logically) there is a relationship between time management skills and grades achieved. Face-to-face classes have built in temporal structures but online courses require other elements such as electronically enforced due dates, course calendars and electronic reminders (email/Facebook/discussion boards). Conversely, research at the University of Houston revealed that students perceive that online courses help them in developing time management skills and thus, in improving their self-regulatory skills.

Podcasts, wikis and blogs

As discussed above, one of the technologies most discussed (and indeed marketed) is podcasting, where a user can create and distribute audio and video content for distribution over the internet (and an iPod or equivalent).

Wikis are another popular form for use in learning. Anyone with a browser can access the web and make changes to an online document. These can be especially useful for giving immediate feedback to an article or piece of learning which everyone can view. However, in our experience (we used this on a few occasions for conference topics), engineering professionals were not overly enthusiastic about this medium, and it is difficult to manage, for example, when a user puts up some irrational, upsetting or meaningless comment onto a particular Wiki site.

Blogs (from “web” and “log”) are another important source of learning. A blogger updates a website containing his or her observations in chronological order. Often there is feedback from other readers (which can actually be more valuable than the original blog post) on a particular topic. There has been enormous growth in this medium, although most blog sites are rather mediocre, focusing on the blogger rather than passing on real learning to others.36

A survey (2009) of faculty and students indicated some ambivalence about incorporating social networking technologies (such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) into engineering education settings.37

Mathematically-oriented disciplines online

Distance learning online learning environments do not always provide effective tools for interacting in mathematically oriented disciplines mainly from the point of view of typed communications38 MSN Messenger was successfully tested together with an electronic ink function (both of which are free and easily available) and allowed for excellent interaction with diagrams, symbols and graphic charts that could be quickly created and easily modified.

Don't forget conferences

Engineering education conferences are accepted as a great way of staying up to date with the latest developments by meeting other colleagues and being exposed to new ideas and developments.39 Unfortunately the travel, accommodation and time costs can be high, especially for those in developing countries. This becomes the inevitable vicious circle with these educators steadily falling behind and becoming less effective as they are unable to attend conferences. A suggested (partial) remedy was to conduct e-conferences where papers were submitted a few weeks before a large annual conference. An example quoted was for the 6th World Engineering Congress on Engineering Education/2nd ASEE International Colloquium, where over 74 abstracts were submitted, with 49 papers finalized for posting to the website. Readers were invited to contribute to threaded discussions on each of the paper submissions. The suggestion was also made to video record the key sessions of the conference and to post these to a website for those who were unable to attend the associated conference.

Students may have different perceptions

Be wary of students who are merely engaging in online courses as they can’t make the other ones due to scheduling conflicts, work and personal commitments.38 Based on previous experiences with online learning, the student may also think this is an easier approach than doing a residential option and may not be prepared for the full-on nature of a proper online course.40

Handling resistance to change

You will undoubtedly find significant resistance to implementing online learning in your organization. People don’t like change–especially change as significant as this. Throughout the process of implementing online learning one should get the idea across that it isn’t the panacea to all the problems in the training world and whatever happens in the future, it will be part of the blended mix that one uses in training (and will probably not even be referred to as online learning but as yet another standard approach). At the end of the day, as discussed before, the instructor, instructional techniques and training resources are still the most critical elements in providing effective training–whether it be classroom or online learning.

Some tips in handling the changes required for online learning are:

• Be consistent in your message and what you expect everyone to do.

• Explain what online learning is (and what it is not). Get the strange terminology across to others in your organization.

• Be flexible to fit into what the organization is about in terms of training.

• Be frank and encourage open and honest discussion about the issues with implementing and using online learning. Do not fear the issues; online learning is a definite positive addition to the training landscape.

• Show enthusiasm and energy in leading the discussions and implementation of online learning.

• Underst and the organizational landscape regarding what has happened in the past with IT initiatives and be prepared to deal with these in the new implementation.

• Build networks with others in your organization and outside to build up support for your online learning initiatives.

• Market and promote online learning at every opportunity.41

One important point is that you will not find all staff enthusiastic about distance learning and it is a slow process to convince them of the merits of this approach.

An increase in interactivity can be delivered with a chat session in real-time between students and between student and instructor (compared to a chat session in a live traditional classroom which would be unduly disruptive if done too frequently).42

Some tips from a management perspective:

• Blended courses should be clearly advertised to eliminate any confusion with the student cohort with the structure, grading and attendance requirements clearly defined.

• The peculiar requirements for students to participate properly should be spelled out in exquisite detail to ensure student expectations are met.

• Support needs to be expanded for both students and instructors.

• Extensive training should be provided in how to use the presentation system as well as the learning management system.

• Student conduct required should be clearly spelt out in the forums (e.g. minimization of offensive language).

• Students take a few weeks to get comfortable with the synchronous approach and in connecting from outside the campus.

• Graduate courses are especially suitable for this form of learning.

Some of the negatives associated with the usual passive asynchronous online learning can be overcome by using blended learning with synchronous online learning, combined with recordings of sessions and use of a learning management package. This converts a passive delivery to a much more active learning experience.43

Planning of distance learning courses

A few timely suggestions on planning and structuring of distance learning courses are suggested by Anthony Trippe and discussed here.44 It is important to realize that it is impossible to present all the course materials in one synchronous lecture and the key points and difficult points (well, “grey” areas) should be emphasized in the presentation.

A key point is that what you present is only loosely linked to what the student will learn. The instructor cannot learn for the student, but can endeavor to facilitate learning by presenting a well structured course that encourages the student to learn at an optimal rate. The student is the only person who can learn. The concept of learning includes an increase in know-how and understanding, and an ability to apply the expertise and know-how gained. Perceiving the world through different eyes as a result of the learning gained is another result. As was discussed in an earlier chapter about the “No difference” phenomenon, the medium is essentially irrelevant to the learning process. The learning outcomes are what we are looking for. This is something that many instructors lose sight of as they tend to focus on the tools and technologies rather than the instructing process.

Body of knowledge. There is a body of knowledge that has to be transferred through to the student. This has to be identified by the instructor and clearly communicated to the student. There are, in addition, areas of the body of knowledge that are more challenging, perhaps ambiguous and which require interaction to clarify. The instructor should use these areas for the learning interactions between student and instructor and student and their peers. It is important to realize that the online course comprises much more than simply posting a lecture on the web but typically includes a reading assignment, a synchronous (and recorded) lecture, a case study where the knowledge is applied, a hands-on lab exercise or simulation and an assignment to demonstrate competence in the module. It is best to avoid doing an immediate test on the materials but to cover several modules before engaging in this.

The textbook that is used for the course should be tightly linked with the course and an outstanding resource being proven, practical, up-to-date, readable, graphics intensive and accurate (especially important for engineering and science subjects).

Considerable interaction. During periods of interaction, it is particularly important to focus on the challenging areas of the course, discussing up to date issues with the course topic and investigating ambiguous areas where the student may be struggling. A suggested approach is to make classroom participation up to 30% of the overall grade. Participation is obviously considerably more than a monosyllabic “yes” or “no”; in-depth commentary and deep research are necessary. It is critical that all students receive detailed feedback to their comments as quickly as possible.

Practical exercises Supplement the foundation materials with strongly practical, experience-based instructor-led exercises that focus on the challenging, “grey” areas of the course. The student has to then provide solutions to the exercises by a clearly defined deadline.

Many other activities. Try and be innovative and add many other activities to the standard course materials and exercises. This can include such activities as case studies, remote laboratories, simulations, games, essay assignments as well as problem and research assignments. Breaking the group up into teams to work on activities works well, although the less enthused students need to be driven or rated on their involvement. Team work skills are critical in the modern workplace so this is a worth while activity. It is possible to get the team members to rate each other anonymously to ensure a fair rating for everyone–but this is sometimes a hazardous issue to deal with.

Testing 1 2 3. Always be wary of transferring a testing protocol from the classroom sessions to the online environment. There is no simple way of re-using the existing classroom tests in an online environment bearing in mind the associated risks. The overall focus has to always be on the tests demonstrating mastery of the topic know-how. Tie in the testing with the weekly participation points. They should be well aligned.

Lecturer stuck behind the podium. When an image of the instructor presenting a session is provided to all the participants, he or she may prefer to stay in one position as the camera may not be able to track with sufficient quality and the lighting is set up for one position only.45 This can appear awkward to the others watching.

Instant messaging

With the current wide availability of high quality video, audio, whiteboard facilities provided by broadband, limiting one’s communication to instant messaging would appear to be an odd strategy. Yet this is exactly what is proposed here. Research reveals that most young students today are using instant messaging, but very few instructors are applying it as a tool in talking to their students.46 Instant messaging using Facebook chat, Gmail chat and Skype is a powerful and often underlooked tool for collaboration and teaching. Instant messaging can really improve instructor-student and student-student interaction and give enormous additional support to the student without unduly impinging on the instructor’s time, if managed correctly. The incredible popularity of the use of the relatively primitive SMS with mobile and cell phones shows that there is some merit in using this technology.

Students are always a bit wary of contacting instructors out of hours and burdening them with their problems, either face-to-face or via the telephone, as it is considered an inconvenience (and an irritation for the instructor). However, the use of an asynchronous medium such as instant messaging obviates this concern. If the instructor is online, the student can contact her and it is optional for the instructor to respond immediately or perhaps at a later stage. Hence, this makes the whole communication process considerably more efficient. Naturally, there are considerable inefficiencies built into using instant messaging with many useless messages sent. This has to be avoided. There was no evidence that this improved the grades of the top students, but the weaker students saw definite improvements in their results with use of this medium.

Some suggested best practices from this research are as follows:

• The instructor must investigate how her students communicate best. Instant messaging is likely to be the dominant medium for younger students. If this is the case, the teacher should encourage them to use this to communicate. Set ground rules on how you expect it to work and try to use it extensively.

• Set limits on your availability but make sure you are available when it is worthwhile to you and your students. Students often need help when working on a problem or just before an examination or hand-in of an assignment.

• As an instructor, be adventurous and thrive on multitasking with multiple sessions going on at the same time over extended periods of time.

• Text-only instant messaging is preferred. As soon as you use voice and audio with instant messaging you immediately become synchronous which pins you to the desk and makes it less convenient for you. The perceived barriers are much higher at this stage. Obviously, use video or a whiteboard when you need help with drawing equations or other visual tasks.

• Instant messaging is most effective when the instructor doesn’t directly answer a student’s question but responds with a probing question designed to help the student work out the solution him/herself.

Useful software programs

There are a variety of useful (and free) programs for scientific and engineering applications:47

Inkscape ( is an open source vector graphics editor and drawing tool similar to Illustrator, Coreldraw or Freehand.

Fleye ( allows the creation of graphs in engineering, physics and mathematics.

Jmol ( allows students to view molecules especially suitable for chemical engineering and chemistry topics. Rastop ( is similar but allows one to visualize more complex molecules of proteins and DNA.

ACD Chemsketch ( allows one to draw chemical structures and to view them in 2D or 3D.

Support staff

Support staff are absolutely critical to the success of technology-based distance learning programs in ensuring high quality recordings and delivery of sessions.48 Online course instructors quickly come to realize that the online course workload is considerably more than for a classroom session.49

Training of online instructors

One of the key ingredients in reducing student attrition is in having highly trained and effective instructors.50 Student satisfaction with courses increases with highly interactive instructors who clearly demonstrate care and interest. Suggestions for training of instructors include:

• Extensive familiarization training before the first course is presented by the new instructor. This training extends over multiple areas such as: organizational standards, policies and procedures, teaching philosophy, reviewing best practice online courses, presenting trial online courses, working effectively with the LMS, creating syllabi, participating in group exercises and providing feedback on typical student assignments.

• Support is provided for the first few online courses where other staff attend in a supportive role and give comments based on attendance and review of the recordings and then on an intermittent basis where regular reviews are conducted.

• Ongoing training in writing, critical thinking, student performance evaluation and collaborative virtual team working

Supplemental instruction

Supplemental instruction (SI or eSI for electronic distance learning) has demonstrated its capacity to improve student performance in courses that are challenging in an on-campus environment.51 SI was developed at the University of Missouri in 1973 by Dr Deanna Martin and has been implemented at over 600 institutions (mainly in the USA) with a demonstrated improvement in grades for participating students. As distance learning traditionally has a higher attrition rate (due to the need for more discipline in studying and erratic and limited communications with faculty) than for traditional on-campus courses, eSI may be very useful in this context. eSI leaders and supervisors receive training in the techniques of eSI which involve methods of session organization, problem solving techniques, successful student study habits, and test and note taking approaches. Distance learning eSI sessions have to be offered at multiple times during the day to capture those students who are working (in this case, they were offered at 11am to 1pm, 2pm to 5pm and after 5pm).

The actual provision of SI in a distance learning environment is considerably different to that in an on-campus environment. The LMS (WebCT in this case) provided all course information, lectures notes, the syllabus, course schedule and assignments in asynchronous mode. A discussion board could be used as well as the traditional email for communications. The primary tool was the CentraOne web conferencing software allowing for synchronous communications (and recording of the sessions for later use). The beauty of this approach is that both synchronous and asynchronous communications were being used to maximize the convenience and reach of the eSI sessions. Faculty indicated that it is imperative that the eSI leader is very responsive to emails and discussion postings. This clearly demonstrated to the students that the system is effective and makes them more enthused about attending eSI sessions.

Research was conducted for the Active Networks I course (offered by the University of North Carolina Charlotte) during 2002 to investigate the impact of eSI. There was enthusiastic attendance and interaction by students as the work became more challenging. The results were mixed in terms of improved performance with the last test showing a decline in test scores compared to the earlier ones (perhaps due to another event such as extraordinarily bad weather at the time of the final test). Yet the students were enthused by the additional opportunities for more tutorials and increased interaction with faculty and eSI leader. All in all, it is considered a worthwhile endeavor.

Perceptions of instructor

Research conducted on asynchronous classes showed that the students’ opinions of their instructors are relatively neutral (e.g. “My Instructor is effective in distance learning”).52 Perhaps students find the instructor hidden by the online medium. Even with frequent communications through email/announcements/group chat sessions, this would still appear to be insufficient. This should be kept in mind when assessing an instructor’s overall performance.

Cultural issues with online learning acceptance in Asia

Whereas the Western world seems to have embraced online learning (both the good and bad points), there is some uncertainty in Asia about this new form of education and it hasn’t been accepted with as much enthusiasm there.53 Admittedly, there are some issues

with American and European online learning presentations occurring at inconvenient times for Asians (e.g. different time zones), but the main reason is attributed to culture. Anecdotal evidence is that Asian professionals appear to prefer classroom sessions for their networking, social opportunities and because the instructor is regarded as the “supreme oracle” and perhaps even, authority figure. This is in contrast to the Western approach where the individual is perhaps emphasized more. Hence, care is required in assuming that the take-up for online learning is uniform across the world. It is not.

Instructional designers in the online learning world

A high quality online learning course is characterized by good quality learning techniques backed up with good education theory.54 Often course designers are seduced by the incredible (mainly computer-based) technologies available and lose sight of the main objective of a course: to transfer knowledge and expertise. Online education for instructional designers is a fast growing area with many different institutions offering these courses, particularly in North America. There is some debate between undertaking a shorter Graduate Certificate or a master degree with varying levels of enthusiasm for either offering. Typical coursework includes learning and design theories, models and instructional methodologies and strategies.

It is essential that anyone presenting or designing online learning courses obtains some form of training in this new area. In moving from the classroom to online learning, it should not be considered a mere or incremental adjustment but a complete transformation of the teaching and learning process. In examining the best program to undertake, developers should consider what it is they want to achieve; is it to be an instructional designer or instructor? The focus in any course today should be student-centered rather than the traditional behaviorist approach. Costs can vary dramatically from $40,000 at Florida State University for a Master of Science in Instructional Systems to $6,000 for an E-learning and Online Teaching Graduate Certificate.


It is suggested that any provision of education and training in engineering and sciences should be linked to creation of an ePortfolio for a student.55 ePortfolios allow students to store and modify information about their academic and broader graduate achievements as well as skills development. Personal achievements are also included. This tool allows a student to easily assess, reflect on and perhaps modify their personal development. These can be a valuable tool of assessment (for example to demonstrate compliance with professional engineering certification requirements) to show skills and knowledge development. Finally, it can be used to provide comprehensive evidence to a would-be employer. There are a number of wiki- and blog-based ePortfolio tools on the market, including the Blackboard ePortfolio tool for Vista which can be thus tightly integrated into the associated LMS.

The PebblePad ePortfolio tool was used for students at the University of South Australia engaged in a computer hardware design course to self-assess themselves against Engineers Australia criteria for stage 1 professional competencies and create reflective blogs.56 There was some initial consternation about the activity and perhaps a more descriptive rather than critical reflective result.

Online can be great for students with disabilities

Remote labs and online learning can be useful in assisting students with disabilities such as inability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or undertake mathematical calculations.57 A set of remote labs was devised for characterization of diodes, bipolar junction transistors, LEDs and complementary metal oxide semiconductor test circuits. The remote lab (called Automated internet Measurement Lab or AIM-lab) was based on the GPIB bus with experimental instrumentation comprising a Hewlett Packard direct current source/monitor with one source monitor for each measurement node. The student client interface connected through to the lab via her web browser and Java applet. The students, in using a videoconferencing tool (VIC) could interact with other students using text chat, audio and video while working in the lab. These multiple communication channels make for a more flexible ability to interface.

Why not swap courses

With the advent of the internet, a great suggestion is to export or swap courses between different university faculties on a worldwide basis.58 Restricted budgets, time restrictions and a shortage of qualified faculty make it challenging for any one faculty to offer a wide range of topics. Hence, in working with other faculties with tremendous programs, instructors can enhance their offerings dramatically. There are a number of challenges in accomplishing this such as payment for the course: how best to run the remote classroom and other miscellaneous expenses? Finally, how does an institution provide credit for a course from one university in another’s program? However, with the right will and enthusiasm, these problems can be overcome providing a far richer curriculum for students.

Ownership of instructors' course materials

Although copyright law can be rather painful to deal with, a rather murky issue which has to be dealt with vigorously is the precise ownership of the materials to an online course– the instructor who prepared them or the institution who remunerates her.59 The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines copyright as, “..the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (as a literary, musical or artistic work)”. The suggestion (at least under US law) is that if there isn’t an explicit written agreement between a lecturer and an institution, the general rule is that the institution owns the materials that lecturers produce as part of their job (or as known in US legal parlance, “work for hire”).

When the courses were presented in a face-to-face classroom format, the potential for conflict was not as great today in the online sphere where outstanding and leading-edge digital course materials can comm and a significant market with potentially lucrative revenues accruing. What has made the issue more complex is that it is unusual for all online course materials today to be sourced from the one instructor but are often an amalgam from different contributors (with the cost ultimately borne by the institution).

Solutions to this vexed problem range from institution to institution with some vesting ownership of the course materials in the instructor, others having joint ownership of the materials (between institution and instructor) to the institution (especially the for-profit ones) having complete ownership. Some universities have used scope for vesting ownership of course materials in the instructor as a way of compensating for perhaps, desultory salary packages and attracting outstanding talent.

Perhaps the best solution to the problem is to initially draw up a clear contract to define clearly how this issue is being dealt with. The precise way of dealing with the issue will, of course, vary but our suggestion is that as the level of contribution to a course materials ranges from minimal to considerable; a great way is to institute an agreement where the course materials developed solely by the instructor (presumably who is paid for by the institution for provision of this service) are jointly owned and can be used by both parties as they see fit. The remaining course materials would still be exclusively owned by the institution (and copyright of the institution). Naturally, the best approach, and the one that we use, is to commission someone to put the materials together, deliver and record this and to pay them for this. In this case, the copyright and ownership is exclusively vested in the organization paying for the work. In any event, it is unlikely that any institution can prevent a talented instructor presenting a topic of his demonstrated expertise to another institution for a fee (or selling a recording of those sessions for a fee) as long as he is not using resources paid for by the first institution.

Online office hours

Office hours, where an instructor is available for contact outside the classroom, can be made into a more-used resource by students when offered online.60 Anecdotally, it has been reported by many lecturers that office hours used by students can be sporadic with the majority of visits typically less than 10 minutes. An online approach to provision of office hours offers some quirky advantages to students in terms of providing them with anonymity (as they do not need to disclose their names), students can conduct peer-to-peer sessions with each other and they can (passively) watch other students being tutored.

One of the challenges with provision of office hours through the web to engineering and science students has been the difficulty in effectively writing mathematical symbols and formulae, and a solution has been crafted with the freely available enVision software package. This allows collaborative sharing of a whiteboard with a text chat facility. The authors indicate that on their first-year calculus course they have had numbers ranging from 10 up to 40 students (20% of their course) at their online office hours sessions. Further to using this approach to office hours for on-campus students, there is naturally a great opportunity to extend this to students on satellite campuses and to use this approach (and software) for purely online students.

Community college to university linkages

A successful model which is widely applied for remotely located students is in using community colleges to provide the lower level engineering subjects, and then to stream in the higher level courses to these remotely located classrooms through video and web conferencing software.61 The success of the model does require strong committed collaborative relationships to be developed between university and community college.

Scalability of online courses

Enrolments at East Carolina University in the Associates of Applied Science had jumped from 170 students (2005) to 451 (2008) with a large proportion doing their courses online.62 Due to concerns about the cost with the use of full-time faculty ranging from three full-time faculty ($165,000) to one Learner Manager and 12 Content Integrators ($103,000), the latter structure was followed. A Learner Manager (effectively the instructor) handled announcements, the syllabus, assignments, exams and overall management. The Content Integrators were PhD students who had to grade assignments, monitor the online discussions and answer day-to-day questions with each one allocated to a section comprising 25 students.

While there were significant financial savings allowing scalability in the number of students, there were some difficulties associated with using content integrators particularly with falling behind in the grading of students’ work. As a week turnaround had been guaranteed, this caused significant irritation on the part of the students. The online model does help to standardize the subject matter and grading.

Key points and applications

Chapter 14

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

1.  A good online program should include clearly structured and visible:

• Contact details of staff and support.

• Course information.

• Course materials.

• Structure.

• Course calendar.

• Assignment, lab, quiz and discussion boards submissions.

• Study tips, Time and Self management skills.

• Policies and procedures.

2.  Instructor Guidelines Teaching online is more work than in a classroom:

• Students need regular communications and quick feedback.

• Don’t go overboard with great tools available.

• Assignments and activities take longer online.

• Deadlines are critical in online teaching.

• Online learning is not for everyone.

• Get continual feedback from students.

• Collaborate with colleagues.

• Transform your classroom learning with your online experiences.

• Create a sense of community.

• Block off space to undertake online courses.

• Add emotion and humor.