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Perspectives: Developing Successful and Effective Online Courses

This week, Diverse Online is running a series of stories on technology and distance learning to complement the March 19 Technology edition.


Colleges and universities today are catering to the demand for distance learning options more than ever before. According to the Sloan Consortium, almost 3.9 million students took at least one online course during the 2007 fall/winter semester. Online learning continues to grow in appeal because of the convenience it affords students to complete coursework from just about anywhere via the Internet. It also has created an exciting environment that allows people from a broad geographic range and diverse cultural backgrounds to exchange ideas in a virtual classroom setting.

With tough economic times driving more students to higher education, distance learning can be expected to experience an increase in demand from this evolving student population. As an example, the total number of online DeVry University undergraduate and graduate course-takers in the November 2008 session increased 25.5 percent to 51,628 versus 41,128 in the same session a year ago.

As online enrollment increases, traditional onsite college professors are seeking more information about e-learning and what it takes to teach a successful online course. DeVry University and its Keller Graduate School of Management are at the forefront of online education, having offered online curriculum since 1995. Here is some advice our online faculty has to share for conducting successful online courses.

 Focus on instruction and learning objectives: Online courses should have strong instructional design development and accommodate the three learning styles — visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Courses must be carefully organized, well written and easy to navigate with clear expectations for grading, syllabi and assignments. Online classes must be engaging and contain interactive elements including simulations, quizzes, tutorials, video elements and other course components that require students to become active participants and are appealing to all styles of learning.

In order to ensure quality in an online program, never lose sight of the educational objectives. Courses should be created using instructional designers and include faculty and departmental peer review. Typically, online courses are built in collaboration with other professors teaching the same instructional material. Quality in online courses comes not only from well-designed lectures and rigorous assignments but also from the level of interaction that students have with the professor and their fellow students.

Interact with students: Communication is the key to successful online education. Interaction can be either synchronous, including chats and conferencing, or asynchronous, such as e-mail and forums. Some students like the excitement and spontaneity of real-time events, making synchronous activities such as question-and-answer or review sessions effective learning tools. Others prefer the reflective nature and flexibility of asynchronous interaction, which may include discussions, problem solving, and information-sharing techniques. A high level of interaction between students and their professor is typically achieved through threaded discussions, which establish a positive community of learners and can help eliminate the feeling of isolation that some online learners experience. Part of a successful communication process also includes frequent faculty assessment with timely feedback. Professors need to be readily available for questions and answers to keep students on the track to success.

Offer academic support around the clock: Another aspect that adds to successful online curriculum is the availability of adequate support systems. DeVry students tell us they want academic resources to be available 24 hours a day. As much as possible, we offer writing and math support when the students want and need it, with a short wait time for online tutors. We also offer synchronous learning sessions in our courses. These sessions give students the opportunity to meet with a professor and other students who are taking the same course. Assignments are reviewed, more examples are provided and students are able to ask questions. Since not all students attend the synchronous sessions, they are recorded for convenience. Our students also express their appreciation for having access to resources such as student services and student finance. Students expect quick and accurate information using the method of communication that works best for them, such as Web site help, phone, e-mail and chat.

Accessible technical support: Access to technical support for the student and the professor is essential for a successful online course because both should be able to troubleshoot any technical difficulty. This allows the e-learning process to run as smoothly as possible. Also, if you are teaching an online course, do not be afraid to use tools such as, software that streamlines the grading process by allowing educators to easily identify those students who plagiarize.

Put in the time: My final advice to online professors is to be ready to spend more time on your online course than your on-site course. To make the best use of your time, collaborate with colleagues who are teaching the same course to build lectures and share assignments. Students want to interact with professors a minimum of four times per week, which helps reduce the feeling of isolation in online classes. In addition, do not be afraid to learn the new technologies that your students are using. Embrace change!


Steve Riehs is president of DeVry Online Services.

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