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Teaching an online course - the debriefing: Dr. Arsham

First published June 21, 2001.

We recently caught up with Dr. Hossein Arsham, a Wright Distinguished Research Professor of Statistics and Management Science at University of Baltimore. He is fresh from the experience of teaching two courses of the first all-online accredited Web MBA programme. In this interview, we aim to distill from his unique experience, some finer points of teaching and learning online.

elearningpost: You've just completed teaching two online courses at the University of Baltimore's Web MBA programme. Can you give us a brief on these courses?

Arsham: In fact, I taught the first course in this Web MBA program, which was Business Statistics. A second course in this same program was Management Science. This was a unique challenge because of the scientific nature of these courses. Both courses were successful and certainly enhanced my teaching ability to communicate more effectively with my students.

elearningpost: When it comes to building quality e-commerce websites, much emphasis is paid on establishing and following a well-tuned Web project method. This method goes into the details of the commercial, technical, creative, and content aspects of the project. During the creation of the Web MBA course, can you describe the project method that was followed?

Arsham: E-Commerce website design is like packaging a product to sell well. However, design of a website for a course is facilitating learning more than teaching. Since the University of Baltimore was the first school to offer all-online accredited Web MBA, I had to make fast and important decisions, such as how to begin, how to operate, and how to make e-learning successful and enjoyable. In creating the Web sites in both courses, it was beneficial to see what is taking place on WWW. I've devoted considerable amount of time, searching the Web and collecting reliable relevant information, which was available at that time and then published two articles, such as "Statistics on the Web" for professional journals.

"Launching headfirst into Web-based instruction is not for the timid. Many are jumping on the "bandwagon" and using Web based materials in their teaching, but just how effective are the efforts? If you can't teach better with technology, don't use it! "

It takes a great deal of time to determine which of these materials, and others like them, are best suited for any given topic as supplements to your lecture motes and the textbook you are using. Educators should not merely find sites and assign them without thoroughly investigating the validity of each page. Launching headfirst into Web-based instruction is not for the timid. Many are jumping on the "bandwagon" and using Web based materials in their teaching, but just how effective are the efforts? If you can't teach better with technology, don't use it! Merely using Web-based materials in the classroom or assigning URLs for supplementary reading may not be an effective use of these materials. There must be forethought and careful planning in order to make this a meaningful experience for the educator and the student.

elearningpost: Was the instructional content for the Web MBA course created specifically for the Web, or was it re-purposed content from existing instructional notes? Can you describe the content creation process?

Arsham: Although the intellectual contents of my online courses are the same as the face-to-face classes, the means of delivering are different. The content creation process was dynamic in a sense that, although I had weekly lecture notes and homework assignments, etceteras, I had to shift some material within two consecutive weeks in order to have a smooth transition from topic to topic.

elearningpost: Research points out that the dropout rate for online educational programs is much higher than that of traditional educational programs. Is it true in your experience as well? What factors, in your opinion, are the main culprits for such dropouts?

Arsham: In my courses, the dropout rate was zero. However, I had a few cases where a few students became frustrated with the weekly demands on their time and effort. The reason was I had to make sure that every student understood the material. I used e-mail to encourage these students to persist and to express what they did not understand. The main reason for dropout is that the student feels no one cares. When the student receives e-mail from the professor, the student is more likely to continue.

I recall one student who had not submitted his weekly homework on time; so, I sent an e-mail to him, asking how are you doing? I have not heard from you. The student replied that he was on a business trip and he would send his homework within a day. And he thanked me for not considering him to be only a social security number.

"Learning online is not for everyone. Students must be motivated, self-directed, and willing to work on their own. Good time management skills, motivation and self-discipline are required to complete the course work at a distance. Online learner must be able to extract information from different types of resources provided by the instructor."

Learning online is not for everyone. Students must be motivated, self-directed, and willing to work on their own. Good time management skills, motivation and self-discipline are required to complete the course work at a distance. Online learner must be able to extract information from different types of resources provided by the instructor.

On the Web the class moves along as a group. If one feels he cannot keep up, then the student may drop. And like face-to-face education, evaluation of students is on a weekly basis, not just midterm and final examinations. When the student knows how is progressing, the student can make adjustments. Unfortunately, a few students may feel that learning must be focused mainly on passing tests.

One basic requirement is a level of comfort with technology. People who've never used a computer before are not good candidates for successful online education. An online class isn't for you if you've always chosen to sit in the back of the classroom, because more responsibility is put on the learner in an online class.

Ideal candidates for online learning are those students who are highly motivated, disciplined enough to complete course assignments on time without outside prodding, and who don't mind working in relative isolation

Employers are likely to be cautious, if not skeptical. The belief is that an online degree is an interesting exercise, but it is not going to be rewarding or valuable as a full-time traditional degree. This is partly, because most employers have traditional degrees and may be reluctant to hire someone with a credential not yet established.

elearningpost: Now, although there are many touted pedagogical benefits of online learning communities, many of us are still grappling with the challenges of creating and sustaining such learning communities. What are your experiences in fostering such communities?

Arsham: The Web MBA students have different talents and different undergraduate degrees. Therefore, some are better than others in quantitative skills, technology, and verbal expression. So the first thing I do is send them an individual questionnaire to find out their backgrounds. Then I form the groups to make sure I have one strong quantitative person on each team. They are required to work in their team prior to submitting their homework individually.

The Forum on the course website is utilized for questioning among the groups. I get in the forum discussion whenever I feel it is needed.

Perhaps the single biggest advantage in online learning programs is interactivity they offer. One of the biggest issues facing universities wading into online learning is interactivity, both in its level and mode. Just what constitutes 'interactivity' is hardly clear. To some people, it means enabling learners and instructors to share ideas in a virtual chat room; to others, merely posting questions on a bulletin board qualifies as interactivity. As the cost of technology decreases, many universities are finding ways to bring the benefits of the classroom into a distance-learning setting.

elearningpost: How do evaluate the effectiveness of a online course like the Web MBA? Its equivalent in corporate training, the ROI (return on investment) can make or break an e-learning initiative. Can you explain some of the critical factors that went into the evaluation process?

Arsham: We evaluate the Web MBA courses based on two criteria: One is the student's evaluation of the technology, such as design of the Web course, use of the forum, etceteras. The student also evaluates the professor using the same form that is used in the face-to-face classroom.

elearningpost: With your experience in teaching both face-to-face and online, do you feel that there is a need for a different instructional design model for teaching online, which takes into considerations the unique affordances of the Web?

Arsham: Teaching on the Web is not really about distance learning. It is a new kind of education and a new way of learning. The teacher has to be available everyday. Students expect instant response. For each course you are teaching, you should expect spending much more (two to three times) amount of time compared with face-to-face teaching.

The Instructor has to make choices before starting on new technology. New technologies can be seen as a means of linking students with each other or with you. The following questions might be also relevant to teachers and students:

Interactivity Is a Must: Students will enjoy the course more if they are able to complete the tasks. Interactive online materials can give the student more rapid feedback than when work is turned in on paper and the evaluation comes back in a week.

"In interactivity, what I seek is "what's going on in the student's head", in the dialogue between 'what I already think I know' and 'what I am trying to understand at this moment with the help of these resources'. If the computer can facilitate this, then hooray."

In interactivity, what I seek is "what's going on in the student's head", in the dialogue between 'what I already think I know' and 'what I am trying to understand at this moment with the help of these resources'. If the computer can facilitate this, then hooray. But let's face it, books have facilitated this dialogue for the 'mentally engaged' student for centuries! The problem we have always faced is that you can't see that interaction taking place in the student's mind, so there are no guarantees; and how do you get the mental engagement in the first place? It can be a cop-out to assume that interaction with a keyboard is a visible sign of mental engagement and interaction.

elearningpost: There is a lot of discussion on how to create and manage effective online instruction ? the do's and don'ts for educators and administrators, but not much discourse to help online students grasp the intricacies of online learning. What would be your advice to potential online students? what can they expect and how best can they get the most out of such a program?

Arsham: In the very near future, we will be a "learning society" in which education is universally accessible, and lifelong learning is promoted among young students and working adults alike. To learn is to face this transformation.

Since there are no regular class sessions, students should spend the equivalent of the class time on the course (3 hours), plus the amount of time an instructor expects students to spend outside of class. Altogether then, you should expect to spend about 10 hours per week

Although online courses is self-paced, there are deadlines to meet. On the other hand, you have plenty of opportunities to fit course work into student own schedule and work ahead of the weekly schedule if you are allowed.

The online learning is not learning without a teacher. You must reach out for a supportive learning environments. I do advocate individual mentoring.

There are advantages in taking an online course. Among others, it venture into "distance learning" has much to offer in the way of convenience. By taking a course online, you are not required to be on campus or to attend classes at a scheduled time. However, you have to meet deadlines and since you are engaging in group learning activities you should make every effort to participate within your collaborative learning environment.

In providing typed responses for course assignments think paragraphs, not sentences! That means that you should avoid overly brief responses. You cannot deal adequately with a complex issue in a quick sentence or two. You want to show that you have given a matter serious thought.

"If you do not understand the weekly assignment or material covered for the week, don't panic! Remember that other students probably are facing the same problems. Don't expect to understand or remember everything in a first reading. You should expect to read some material over several times before it becomes clear."

If you do not understand the weekly assignment or material covered for the week, don't panic! Remember that other students probably are facing the same problems. Don't expect to understand or remember everything in a first reading. You should expect to read some material over several times before it becomes clear. Exchanging messages within your group can be very helpful. Someone else may understand something you do not, and you may have information that someone else needs. Sometimes messages back and forth about a problem will clarify it. Do not hesitate to seek for help.

Learning online is not like "an independent study course" where I am basically "on my own"
and working in isolation. The weekly activities are structured enough that you should know what you need to do in the course rather than having to invent activities on your own. In addition, you are expected to interact with there students in a dialogue. Think of this as a conversation with your fellow students. You will feel more involved and motivated in taking the course the more you participate in the discussion opportunities. Finally, communicate with your instructor as needed. He is there to assist you.

You may expect as much as feedback you need. The instructor will try to answer e-mail messages promptly, although he cannot be on-call constantly, waiting for messages. You can be pretty sure of a response within 24 hours. Your best hope for an immediate response would be an e-mail message during his online office hours.

Because the instructor cannot see you it is your responsibility to maintain a high level of engagement. Your encouragement, introducing your experience and reactions is critical to the your success.

To make an online course a success in making a good grade you must make a good use of the analyzing tools presented in the course, how deeply and thoughtfully you probe the issues involved in an assignment, and how well you explain and defend the positions you take. The most likely shortcomings that hold down grades are:

  1. departing from the instructions for an assignment;
  2. failing to complete every part of the assignment; and
  3. being too brief.

To avoid these shortcomings then, you need to read over the background information and instructions for an assignment carefully, make sure that you completed each and every element of the assignment; and explain your position in detail rather than relying on a sentence or two to solve every issue. My final advice about grading: Stick with the course and finish !!!

elearningpost: If you had the chance to redo your course, would you do it differently? If yes, what would be the some of the factors that you would change?

Arsham: Student must have a variety of possibilities from which to choose. I will try to give more flexible assignments, giving the students choice of the site to review. I am hoping that, more motivated students will pick the "harder" assignments and feel challenged by them. When you're not in the classroom, you miss the glimmer of awareness in students' eyes. It's difficult to tell whether they are getting the subject or not.

Both courses were successful with the students rating the professor an average of 5 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest rating. The reason is that I gave personal attention to each student to make sure each student was understanding the material. I used open-ended questions, and their responses indicated how well they understood the material. This is the hardest part of teaching on the Web-to make sure the student understands. Learning vs. teaching: on the Web the student needs to be self -directed. The professor facilitates the learning process.

About Dr. Hossein Arsham

Dr. Hossein Arsham is Wright Distinguished Research Professor of Statistics and Management Science Division of Economics, Finance, and Management Science,University of Baltimore. His teaching, research, and consulting areas are multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary on Optimization, Systems Simulation, and Statistical Data Analysis. You can visit his homepage, or e-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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