Why, What and How To Move To Online Courses

Why, What and How To Move To Online Courses
Summary: As K-12 and university institutions and school districts shift to an online strategy, an important question is to ask, which courses should be online, face-to-face or blended? Universities, school districts and educational institutions in general often wrestle with which courses should be online and which face-to-face (F2F). This article offers three considerations to help universities and learning institutions think through this decision.

To be or not to be … online: Why, what and how to move to online courses

Consideration 1: Why offer courses online?

Face-to-face classes offer a social experience, personal connections, structured learning and consistent communication. Online classes offer flexibility. For example, when universities typically offer online programs, they do so for a variety of reasons. Among these are:

  • Demand
    They know for sure that there is demand for an online program;
  • Limited physical space
    They have more courses and students than there is space;
  • Composition of student body
    They have a large or growing number of part-time students, students who live far from campus, or students who are working and need flexibility (these are often graduate programs);
  • Attrition
    There is attrition from certain types of F2F courses and university is trying an online alternative to address this attrition;
  • Open university system
    They want anyone who wants to be able to have access to low-cost or free learning opportunities;
  • Scheduling conflicts
    They may have scheduling conflicts within major areas of study and may want to offer some courses online to deal with this scheduling conflict;
  • Accelerated degree
    They may want to introduce summer programs and lack a number of face-to-face instructors during the summer;
  • Pull in distant resources
    They may have a “superstar” professor from a university in another country/region who has agreed to teach a course but cannot be physically present.

Consideration 2: What types of courses work best online?

In theory, then, for educational institutions, any course can be delivered online—but that doesn’t mean that it should. Which courses to put online should depend on the learning objectives—i.e., what learners should know and be able to do. This is a difficult task because not enough is known about the suitability of online instruction to particular learning objectives. Therefore, in debating whether to design a course for an online mode, consider the following:

  • Type of Instruction: Is the type of instruction directive or facilitative?
    If the mode of instruction is highly directive (i.e., lecture, demonstration, readings) versus facilitative (with the instructor facilitating group learning, group activities, and group discussions), online learning may be a better option than face-to-face learning. In such a mode of instruction, students can review online materials (videos, podcasts, and readings) over again as needed.
  • Degree of Interaction: Is there a lot of student-student or student-teacher interaction in this course?
    In an online course, peer and teacher interaction is primarily text-based, although audio and video components may be integrated into the course. If peer and teacher-student interaction is necessary—but does not necessarily need to happen at the same time, and you believe it can be adequately captured via text-based discussions, and you are able to facilitate these discussions—then an online course is a viable option. Or if students work primarily alone and group interaction is not a part of the course, then online can be a viable option.
  • Time-flexibility: Can students and instructors do activities at different times?
    If courses are time-flexible—where students and teachers do not need to be involved in the same activity at the same time, online learning can be an option.
  • Self-paced: Does it matter when and how students learn what they need to learn?
    In self-paced learning, the learner completes individually the course entirely independently, in his/her own time. Many online courses are in fact self-paced. The critical question here is which content is best learned alone and in a self-paced manner and which is better learned asynchronously with a cohort of learners?
  • Type of knowledge: Is the course focused on higher or lower order thinking?
    For courses that require lower-order thinking—memorization, understanding and comprehension—online courses can be very effective. (Online courses can work for learning that promotes higher-order thinking too, but assessment may be more complex and time consuming. And teaching higher order thinking skills is just plain harder, no matter the medium!)
  • Types of assessments: How will student knowledge and skills be assessed?
    There are still lots of questions around assessment in an online environment. If assessments are generally straightforward in nature—quizzes, tests, essays, portfolios—this can be easily done online (One area of which to be careful is student cheating). But online learning also supports alternative assessments (essays, projects, peer and whole class instruction (via, for example, web conferencing tools) and portfolios). The question to ask about assessment in an online environment is how can students demonstrate mastery in online courses? The same concerns hold for hands-on and skills-based instruction— how suitable is online instruction for teaching public speaking, learner-centered instruction, or interpersonal communication skills?
Consideration 3: How do we transition to online courses?

Once institutions have answered the above questions, they can begin to identify which courses should go online.

Most universities put courses online in a gradual fashion, for example:

  • Summer courses (e.g., 3 modules of 4 weeks each)
  • Pre-requisite courses
  • Basic introductory courses (either group-based or independent, self-study)
  • Literature and language courses (reading, writing and discussion—all of which could be done online)
  • Self-paced supplementary courses (remedial courses to get people up to speed on a topic)
  • Courses with a lot of reading, writing and test-taking
  • They may begin “certificate programs” in content for which there may not be demand on campus but greater demand among a broader audience (for example, a certificate in “social media