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Ensuring a Quality Online Learning Environment

Edna M. Meisel
Marshall University Graduate College

Kerri C. Lookabill
Mountain State University

     In the last decade, online education has increasingly become a mainstream component of higher education.  With this new mode of teaching, it is important to remember that the intent of the proponents of progressive educational practices is to enhance the strength of teacher creativity and student interests in the planning and implementation of curricula (Doll, 2000). With the upsurge in the use of online course delivery, it is essential that those who create and deliver such courses keep in mind these modern roles of the teacher and student. Unfortunately, not all online courses can be deemed as quality courses.  To combat this possible hazard, an adoption of online best practices can serve to guide instructors in the creation and delivery of their online courses. The use of best practices can help to ensure that online courses enhance teacher creativity and student growth academically and socially.

     There are several established, researched strategies that instructors can rely on when seeking guidance for creating and teaching an online course. Through a meta-analysis of the literature concerning the topic of online course delivery, Murphy (2008) summarized many sets of guidelines by identifying a list of quality online practices. Murphy provided the following issues to be addressed when planning and teaching a high quality online course: (a) support, (b) collaboration and teamwork, (c) flexibility, (d) feedback, (e) assessment, and (f) adult learning techniques.

     The first two guidelines are practices needed outside the actual course. Murphy (2008) describes support as administrative, technological, and faculty support provided by the instructor’s institution of learning. He defines collaboration and teamwork as peer instructors and staff who work together to develop and/or teach online courses.

     The rest of the guidelines are techniques needed within online courses. Murphy describes flexibility as the willingness of the instructor to offer opportunities for student input into the course and the instructor’s ability to anticipate and allow changes in the course, such as adjusted due dates, modified assignment descriptions, and consistency in frequent feedback. Assessment refers to providing a variety of assessment tools so that the instructor and the student are continuously aware of the student’s mastery of the content throughout the course. Assessment can include traditional tests and quizzes, but the instructor must go beyond traditional assessment to include more progressive techniques. Assessment plans such as authentic projects, real world problem solving opportunities, and student reflections greatly add to the quality of an online course.

     Finally, the best-practice of adult learning techniques refers to an overarching concern in online course delivery. Instructors of online courses must recognize the type of student who usually takes online courses. Murphy (2008) cites Gibbons and Wentworth (2004) to describe online learners as “the products of a fast moving society that value their productivity, their time, and want measurable results.”  Teaching techniques must be adopted that are geared towards a balance between teacher as guide and facilitator and student as self-directed learner. Therefore, online courses must embrace the idea that the students have something to offer the course from their life experiences. These students are more problem directed and look for intrinsic rewards from the course; therefore, assignments must be meaningful to them and worth their while to accomplish, not just for a grade, but for personal growth.

     Adult learning techniques should also include a strong social component to the course between teacher-student and student-student. Hull and Saxon (2009) found that even simple changes can make a big difference in a student’s online course experience when social interaction is considered. For example, these researchers found that an increase in teacher instructional statements and the inclusion of assignments that required student dialogue greatly increased the students’ learning outcomes of the course. Wallace (2003) asserts that this social aspect must also be addressed because of the strong relationship between learning content and social interaction. Online students often miss the face-to-face contact that traditional courses offer. Therefore, a high quality online course must use technology tools that enhance communication to ensure that students have the opportunity to interact socially with their classmates and the instructor for social and academic growth.

Online Instructional Planning

     Misulis (1997) contended that “regardless of the teaching model and methods used, effective instruction begins with careful, thorough, and organized planning on the part of the teacher” (p. 45).  Planning has been an important aspect of the education process for many years.  Early planning models developed by experts such as Tyler followed a rational model: develop objectives, develop activities to help students achieve objectives, and evaluate the students to determine if the objectives have been met (Sardo-Brown, 1990).  However, the planning process has evolved to focus more on designing learning activities that meet the diverse needs of the students to ensure that learning has taken place (Panasuk, Stone, & Todd, 2002).  Now that current educational models include online learning, planning processes have developed even more.  Xu and Morris (2007) contended that the planning model for face-to-face courses could be appropriate for online courses, but with different emphases i.e. course structure and interactive activities.  Overall, education experts agree that planning for online courses requires a change in the paradigm of teaching for instructors (Bates & Watson, 2008; Busch & Johnson; 2005; Fein & Logan, 2003; Rutherford, 2007).   Online courses are much affected by changes in knowledge, computers, and information technology; therefore, a systematic planning approach is needed for online educators (Yahya, 2000).      

     There are several planning models in use as guidelines for the development of online courses, all part of an instructional design (ID) approach or instructional system design approach (ISD).  These models contain common aspects such as knowledge of learner characteristics and abilities, knowledge of the content and its relationship to the learners, knowledge of teaching strategies and media, knowledge of the development/cost of the learning environment, and knowledge of evaluating the quality of instruction (Yahya, 2000).  Although there are many different online planning models available to instructors, the focus of this paper will be general planning strategies for online courses.

Same…Only Different

     Instructional planning for in-seat courses consists of two phases, time spent preparing lessons and materials prior to delivery and time spent reflecting on the effectiveness of instruction (Lookabill, 2008).  The actual delivery of the material occurs between the two planning phases.  During the planning of the course, many things must be considered: the objectives, the needs of the learners, the materials, time allowances, etc.  In addition, collaboration with other teachers is a good way to utilize the most effective teaching strategies.  After delivery of the lesson, the teacher should reflect on the success of the lesson and revise as needed for the next lesson which is more than likely in the near future.

     Instructional planning for online courses consists of the same phases as for in-seat instruction with some modifications.  First of all, the entire course must be ready at the start of the course.  Some figures indicate at least 80% of the work on the course should be done prior to the start of the course (Restauri, 2004), hundreds of up-front hours of development are necessary (Fein & Logan, 2003; Ganesan, 2005), and the planning time required is at least 50% more for online courses as compared to in-seat courses (Busch & Johnson, 2005; Whicker, 2004).  Furthermore, many of the students who take online courses are non-traditional adult learners who prefer to work at their own pace, so access to the entire course is a must.  These learners may not be able to attend college on a full-time basis; however, completion of online courses allows the students to continue working or raising children (Appana, 2008).

     In addition, collaboration is also recommended in the planning of online courses.  In fact, a characteristic of online planning is that it usually is accomplished by a team approach.  In fact, Restauri (2004) asserted that online courses taught by instructors who have developed the course singularly, show far less success than those developed by teams of people.  Many other researchers concurred that the development of the course should not be left up to the instructor alone (Appana, 2008; Fein & Logan, 2003; Xu & Morris, 2007).  Team members may include an instructor who is the expert in the content, an education specialist who is the expert in teaching the content in an online modality and/or by using a specific pedagogy or andragogy, an instructional designer, a technology specialist, and administrative specialists (Ganesan, 2005; Lim, 2001; Whicker, 2004; Xu & Morris, 2007).  The instructors served mainly as curricular experts, while the technology specialist is responsible for HTML coding, programming, graphic design.  Instructional designers developed the learning activities for the course (Xu & Morris, 2007). 

     Finally, activities for online courses must also be modified from that of an in-seat course.  First of all, the emphasis on teaching must change from transferring content information from the teacher to the students, usually accomplished through lecture, to interactivity among the instructor, the content, and the students in order for the students to make connections (Xu & Morris, 2007) and construct their own knowledge (Bellefeuille, Martin, & Buck, 2005).  Busch and Johnson (2005) informed that a major shift in instruction for online courses involves communication between the instructor and students so all course policies, assignment instructions, explanations, and assessments must be clearly defined for the students in order to avoid confusion.  Although feedback cannot always be synchronous, it can be fairly short-term.  The aforementioned instructional practices are used with some in-seat instruction; however, they are essential in an online setting.

Planning an Online Course

     Moreover, the instructional activities for online courses must be active and technologically rich.  Bellefeuille et al. (2005) concluded that instructional strategies such as scaffolding, direct instruction, experiential learning, and interactive instruction were also viable strategies to use in an online course.  Bates and Watson (2008) described several learning activities and how they could be modified for an online environment.  Lectures could be modified to students reading text, listening to audio, watching still or video images, or by communicating via email.  Activities may include games, puzzles, flash activities, and projects.  They preferred guided discovery activities such as observing events, asking questions, and conducting experiments, and they asserted that the instructor’s job was to provide access to learning material and practice opportunities to learners.  Christianson, Tiene, and Luft (2002) concluded that the most effective instructional strategies for online courses included individual work, small group work, and case studies while the most suitable assessment techniques included papers, projects, essay tests, portfolios, and group projects.  Rutherford (2007) suggested collaborative and community building activities for online courses.  Nelson (2008) and Fein and Logan (2003) firmly supported the use of problem-based learning for online course instructional techniques.  Problem-based learning techniques contend that learning takes placed based on interactions with the environment, occurs after a period of cognitive puzzlement, and is assessed by a process of social negotiation.  The theories behind problem-based learning align with constructivism and those of adult learning.  The recommended assessment techniques for problem-based learning are those of authentic assessment and self-assessment.  Ganesan (2005) and Fein and Logan (2003), like Rutherford, suggested authentic learning activities and an inquiry-based/project-based approach were best suited for online instruction.

     With online courses, instructional planning still takes place a little each day.  Decisions are based on the daily communication required between students and the instructor and lead to flexibility within the course.  For example, assignments may be altered per individual depending on the student’s major or life situation.  Evaluation and adjustment via reflection are also integral parts of an online course (Xu & Morris, 2007).  It is recommended that student reflections on how well the course is going be garnered throughout the course (Bellefeuille, et al., 2005) followed by a final course evaluation.  Instructor reflection is also important on a daily basis although major revisions may not be possible until the start of the next course session (Fein & Logan, 2003; Restauri, 2004).

An Online Teacher Education Program

     The Graduate School of Education and Professional Development (GSEPD) is a part of the Marshall University Graduate College, located in South Charleston, West Virginia. This higher education institution offers programs for teachers who want to gain new endorsements on their teaching licenses and/or work towards specialized master’s degrees in education. All of the courses of these endorsement programs and master’s degrees are offered electronically in order to address the upsurge in the teacher-students who are finding it much more convenient to take online courses to continue their education.

     One such program, called the Mathematics through Algebra I Program, is offered to teachers who want to add a Grade 5-9 Mathematics endorsement to their teaching license. Since 2005, one by one, the original face-to-face courses of this program have been modified and retooled to become online courses. From the beginning of this arduous task, it has been the goal of the math faculty involved to create high quality online courses. Meisel (one of the authors of this document) is the coordinator of this program and has been directly involved in the revisions of these classes from the start. The process has proven to be very dynamic as seen by the constant changes and modifications the online courses require due to new teaching ideas that occur to faculty as they teach the courses, student input, the improvement and availability of technology tools, and the changes in the online delivery systems used by Marshall University.

     The following describes some of the issues involved in developing and teaching the online courses of the Mathematics through Algebra I Program following the high quality online practices recommended by Murphy (2008) and the planning issues that must be considered for successful online course creation and delivery.

     Support: Fortunately, Marshall University offers a very structured support system for the development and teaching of online courses. A university wide technology department is available that oversees the creation, approval, and delivery of all online courses this university has to offer. This department provides individual attention to faculty members including technological help and teaching strategy aids for electronic courses. The technology department also continuously provides “help-desk” services to students via telephone, face-to-face meetings, or email. This kind of support allows faculty to plan the entire course upfront with the confidence that the course can be successfully delivered once it is up online. The administration is completely behind the philosophy of online courses and realizes the potential advantages and caveats inherent to online education. To provide continuous, updated support, faculty meetings are held monthly to discuss new issues that arise throughout the semester concerning online teaching and course development.

     Collaboration and Teamwork: All of the Mathematics through Algebra I Program online courses have been developed with a teamwork philosophy. The courses are constantly revised and improved through dialogue between the faculty members of this program. The math faculty welcomes student suggestions and concerns and works to incorporate these ideas into the improvement of the math e-courses. These are often presented through the course evaluations that the students find on the homepage of the online course. The administration of this graduate school will often put faculty teams together to create the online courses of new programs and make sure that technological help is available to the team.

     Flexibility: Every math course offered through this program contains due dates, rubrics, and clear instructions to guide students through sequenced modules that comprise the activities and assignments of the course. It is essential to have a comprehensive plan that students can follow to ensure they are able to finish the course within the semester. However, the due dates and instructions for assignments are not set in stone. If and when students feel they cannot submit work by a given due date, they are instructed to contact the Instructor and work out a new due date. No penalty points are given for late work as long as the Instructor was notified as soon as possible. This is in keeping with adult learning techniques in that the faculty acknowledges the unexpected issues that can crop up in an adult’s life. Also, if a student offers an alternate way to complete an assignment, he or she can work directly with the Instructor to change the requirements as long as it is in keeping with the main goals of the assignment. These changes have been something as simple as a student using a yard-stick instead of a meter-stick for a measurement assignment because that was available at his home. Or a more complex change was needed when a student asked if she could analyze a different article concerning educational research than the one given in the course because she was particularly interested in the subject of the alternate article.

     Feedback: The delivery system used by Marshall University offers many tools that the Instructor and students can use to provide feedback and communicate with each other. These tools include discussion boards, assignment drop-boxes, chat rooms, email, and tracking systems. The math faculty is encouraged to use the Microsoft Comment tool and the Adobe Acrobat Review and Comment tool to electronically add feedback directly into student assignments. The department as a whole also embraces the philosophy of revision of assignments for additional points to help students learn from mistakes. Also, when submitting online courses to the e-course approval committee, this group recommends that the Instructor clearly describe in the syllabus to students how long it will take to review and return assignments with feedback. It is recommended that this time period be from 2 to 5 days. It must also be made clear in the syllabus what is expected of student work throughout the course, grading policies, and Instructor contact information. Faculty are also strongly encouraged to reply to student emails and discussion postings on a daily bases.

MU Online - MU at Your Fingertips

     Assessment:  Each online course of the Mathematics through Algebra I Program has its share of traditional quizzes and math practice problems. There is always room for the practice of mathematical processes in a math class! However, in keeping with a more progressive philosophy, each course also includes activities that emphasize practical application or a deeper study of many math concepts. For example, the Geometry course includes an activity that helps students investigate the question “What does a degree look like?” Also within this course, students keep a journal of moon observations. This activity models the integration of math with science concepts while it also emphasizes the relationship between angles and the phases of the moon. In the Technical Mathematics course, students maintain reflection journals where they present their ideas about using technology in the math classroom, reflect on the teaching of certain math concepts to middle school students, and discuss the common misconceptions that students might exhibit while learning certain math concepts. In the Algebra course, students work through discovery activities created for middle school students so they can have the same experience in learning math concepts as their future students. Some of the Finite Math assignments have students conducting mini research activities to gather data for analysis using basic statistics. Throughout all of the math courses, technology assignments abound as students learn the ins and outs of the TI73 and TI83 graphing calculators, the Geometer’s Sketchpad, and Microsoft Excel. The math faculty is constantly on the outlook for assignment activities that can model progressive teaching techniques while also offering a variety of ways for the teacher-students to learn math concepts throughout the online courses.

     Adult learning techniques: One of the most common questions presented to online faculty is “How do you know the student is the one doing the work?” This will always be an issue in online learning about which an instructor must be concerned. One of the best ways to address this problem is to make the assignments meaningful for the students of the online course. Adults are busy and would rather dedicate their precious time to assignments and activities that they feel are worth their while. Therefore, many of the requirements of these online math courses are geared towards the teacher-student in mind. The courses include math lessons that will not only help the student of the course learn the math concepts but also model interesting and active ways to teach such math concepts. Teachers have a tendency to teach they way they were taught (Bean, 1995). Therefore, to model progressive teaching techniques and to make the courses more interesting for these teacher-students, how to teach the math concepts is also emphasized along with the learning of the math concepts. The social aspect of adult learning is addressed in the math courses by including a discussion component for many of the assignments. Students are required to address important issues concerning math education and math concepts and post these ideas to a discussion board. An additional requirement is for students to comment on each others’ postings and share ideas about the issues. For faculty-student interaction, students are encouraged to email, telephone, or even visit faculty in their offices if possible to discuss questions and concerns about the course. The faculty strives to emphasize that an online course can include direct contact with the instructor. As mentioned above, in keeping with adult learning techniques, flexible due dates and assignment requirements are incorporated into the delivery of the course; and the entire course is available to the student at the beginning of the semester so that the students can work through the course at their own pace.

     The Mathematics through Algebra I Program faculty strives to create and deliver high quality online courses. The work is never really finished as each course is constantly analyzed and revised when needed. The key is to take the time to plan and teach at a high quality level whenever possible and continue to look for ways to improve the course on a constant basis.


     To ensure success with any face-to-face or online course, instructors should incorporate best practices for instruction, and they must utilize instructional planning time in order to obtain knowledge about content and plan for student needs. In addition, courses are more successful when there is a support network of faculty, design specialists, technologists, and an involved administration.  The development of an online course is always changing because of new technologies and new research.  So it is the job of instructors to take the position of student themselves and continually learn about the availability of new tools and researched educational techniques to ensure a quality online environment. 


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