Science teaching, science learning
sharing evidence-based practices for undergraduate science faculty
In collaboration with Blaine Smith
Online courses are those in which at least 80 percent of course content is delivered online. Blended (sometimes called hybrid) instruction has between 30 and 80 percent of the course content delivered online with some face-to-face interaction. Blended and online courses not only change how content is delivered, they also redefine traditional educational roles and provide different opportunities for learning. As described by Palloff and Pratt (2013):
The online classroom is a potentially powerful teaching and learning arena in which new practices and new relationships can make significant contributions to learning. In order to harness the power this creates in education, instructors must be trained not only to use technology but also to shift the ways in which they organize and deliver material. Making this shift can increase the potential for learners to take charge of their own learning process and facilitate the development of a sense of community among them. (p.30)
This teaching guide presents research on the learning possibilities offered through online and blended learning, as well as effective practices for facilitating online courses.
Online learning is one of the fastest growing trends in educational uses of technology. A recent survey (Allen & Seaman, 2013) of more than 2,800 colleges and universities reported the following:
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education released a meta-analysis and review of empirical studies focused on online learning in K-12 schools and higher education from 1996-2008. Their findings revealed that “students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction” (p. xvi). In addition, they reported that blended instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage than purely online instruction (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia & Jones, 2010).
Although these results suggest that blended learning environments can provide a learning advantage when compared to purely face-to-face instruction, the researchers emphasized the findings “do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium…It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages” (p. xviii, original emphasis). In other words, it’s important for the instructor to create an interactive, supportive, and collaborative learning environment for students to reap the potential benefits afforded by online learning. Specific tips for facilitating an effective blended or online class can be found in the good practices section of this teaching guide.
As noted above, the research suggests that when facilitated effectively, online education can not only match, but also surpass traditional face-to-face learning (Means et al., 2010). Here are some of the potential benefits of online education:
Know Your Learner: A recent survey of 1,500 individuals nationwide, who were recently enrolled, currently enrolled, or planning to enroll in an online course found that a wide variety of students were drawn to online learning (Aslanian & Clinefelter, 2012). However, they also identified the following key themes in online students’ responses:
As you design your course, it’s important to develop as comprehensive a picture as possible of the specific students who will be enrolling in the class (Angelino, Williams & Natvig, 2007). Gaining a sense of their prior knowledge and technology competency will help you to know what supports they will need and tailor your instruction accordingly. A few ways to gain these insights include asking students to complete an online survey, concept inventory, or pre-assessment. In addition, students can reflect on their prior knowledge and experiences through an online discussion or blog post.
Develop Learning Goals: As with face-to-face instruction, it’s imperative to begin with the end in mind by developing learning goals first (Froyd, 2008). Ask yourself, what are the key concepts and/or skills students need to master by the end of the course? The answer to this question will help in developing course content, activities, and assessments that align with your learning goals, as well as choosing the appropriate technology (Caulfield, 2011).
Have Clear Expectations: Present clear guidelines for participation in the class, as well as specific information for students about course expectations and procedures. In addition, use rubrics to clearly communicate learning objectives and grading criteria for each learning activity in the course (e.g., quality online discussions) and incorporate them into student assessments (Palloff & Pratt, 2013). Lauren Palladino’s online module for a graduate astronomy class is a great example of how to present clear expectations early on.
Provide an obvious path through the material, and make sure guideposts are clear to the student. Savery (2005) explains that organization is essential since online learners need to fit the course into their crowded schedules. He emphasizes the importance of posting course assignments and due dates early and having clear directions. Shea and colleagues (Shea, Fredericksen, Pickett & Pelz, 2003; Shea, Pickett & Pelz, 2003) also explained the importance of clearly labeling and organizing course-level and section-level materials in order to create a path that students can follow. Burks Oakley at the University of Illinois as Springfield talks about the importance of online instructors’ organizational skills.
Organize the content in logical units, or modules, in which each module is organized around a major topic and contains relevant objectives, material, and associated activities. In the introduction to the module, include information about how long the student should expect to spend working on the module. This helps to keep students moving along at a similar pace (Shea, Fredericksen, Pickett & Pelz, 2003; Shea, Pickett & Pelz, 2003).
Within each module, present content in chunks that are easily digestible (Smith, 2008).
Promote Metacognitive Awareness. Since online learners have more autonomy and responsibility, it is crucial that are supported in planning, monitoring, and assessing their understanding and performance (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). As mentioned earlier, providing clear expectations and a clear path through the material can help students monitor their pace. In “Promoting Student Metacognition,” Tanner (2012) offers a handful of adaptable specific activities for promoting metacognition, including pre and post-assessments, reflective journals, and questions for students to ask themselves as they plan, monitor, and evaluate their thinking.
Maintain a Social Presence. Stay present and be responsive to student needs and concerns (Savery, 2005). The instructor should engage in a balanced level of participation and communication—both publicly and privately—so students know he or she is engaged and available. This includes modeling good participation by frequently contributing to discussions through responding to students’ posts and asking further questions. The instructor is instrumental for creating a warm and inviting atmosphere that promotes an online sense of community (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008; Jiang & Ting, 2000).
Promote Collaboration. As described by Palloff and Pratt (2013), “Collaborative learning processes help students achieve deeper levels of knowledge generation through the creation of shared goals, shared exploration, and a shared process of meaning making. In addition, collaborative activity can help to reduce the feeling s of isolation that can occur when students are working at a distance” (p. 39). Collaborative learning can be promoted through a variety of activities, including small group assignments, case studies, simulations, and group discussions.
Promote Active Learning. Chickering and Ehrmann (1996) explain that “learning is not a spectator sport…[Students] must talk about what they are learning, write reflectively about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves” (p. 5). Keeping in mind the characteristics of online learners, it’s also important to make tasks authentic for students. That is, complex tasks related to real-life experiences that can also be applied to future activities (Woo, Herrington, Agostinho & Reeves, 2007). Here are some specific ideas for online activities.
Incorporate Multiple Media. A key mistake instructors make is simply converting print materials for an online environment. Instead, leverage the possibilities of the Internet by considering various content sources and media formats to motivate learning and appeal to different learning styles (Mayer, 2001). CIRTL suggests that when selecting media for a course, think about how it accomplishes learning goals and how the medium will affect the learner (e.g., technology needs, download time, disabilities). In addition, Kapus (2010) recommends that when incorporating streaming media in a course to also post complete transcripts and encourage students to both watch the content and read the transcript.
Provide Adequate Technical Support. It should not be assumed that all students have experience with online learning or using the necessary technology. Provide ample technical support for learners by including links to resources, making yourself available to students, and promoting collaborative peer problem solving on the discussion board.
Respect Copyright Rules. The rules of fair use described here may apply to copyrighted material that you wish to excerpt.
Allen, E. & Seaman, J. (2013). Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States.Wellesley, MA: Babson College.
Angelino, L. M., Williams, F. K., & Natvig, D. (2007). Strategies to engage online students and reduce attrition rates. The Journal of Educators Online, 4(2), 1-14.
Aslanian, C. B., & Clinefelter, D. L. (2012). Online college students 2012: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc.
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Mind brain, experience and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Caulfield, J. (2011). How to Design and Teach a Hybrid Course. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Chickering, A. W. & Ehrmann, S. C. (1996). Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever. AAHE Bulletin, 49(1-10), 3-6.
Froyd, J. (2008, June). White paper on promising practices in undergraduate STEM education. Paper presented at the National Research Council’s Workshop Linking Evidence to Promising Practices in STEM Undergraduate Education, Washington, DC.
Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. D. (2008) Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Garrison, R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 87-105.
Jiang, M. & Ting, E. (2000). A study of factors influencing students’ perceived learning in a web-based course environment. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications 6(4), 317-338.
Kapus, J. (2010, June 25). Five quick tips for using streaming media in your blended or online courses.
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Smith, R. (2008). Conquering the content: A step-by-step guide to online course design. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Tanner, Kimberly D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 11, 113-120.Thalheimer, W. (2008). Providing learners with feedback, part 1: Research based recommendations for training, education, and e-learning.
Woo, Y., Herrington, J., Agopstinho, S., and Reeves, T.C. (2007). Implementing authentic tasks in web-based learning environments. Educause Quarterly 3, 36-43.
First published on the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching website.