technology tip of the month Pointer and Clicker Article



July/August 2001 - Guest Lecturers in the Online Environment (Part 1 of 2)
By: Virgil E. Varvel Jr.
Keywords: Guest Lecture, Online Education, Lecture, Alternative, Quality; Content Delivery; Collaborative Teaching


Guest lectures have long been known to offer the possibility of enhancing student learning, but this belief has been based for the most part from experiences in the face-to-face classroom and lecture hall environments. Can the same be true in the online environment? As online education is still a somewhat new phenomena, this question might be left to methods as exact as the Magic 8-Ball to decide. But this does not need to be the case. Our experiences with a wide variety of guest lecturers have shown that online guest lectures can and should be a success. Rather than "Are guest lectures successful in an online environment?", the question should instead be, "How do I set up an online guest lecture so that it will have the highest likelihood of being successful?"

The keys to a successful guest lecture involve controlling for potential risk factors while creating an environment in which the special benefits of an online guest lecture can be realized. This paper will outline effective techniques for doing both. In addition, in the next installment of ION's Pointers and Clickers, we will outline tried and true methods for seeking out the good guest lecturer. Finally, we will look at student responses to online guest lecturers concerning the quality of the experience.

Controlling the Risks

Before we look at the benefits of the online guest lecture, it is important to note that like all guest lectures, there can be dangers. The good news is that these dangers can be controlled, leaving only the benefits behind.

The first and primary risk that is always present in any form of technology dependent activity, is technology breakdown. True, most technology woes will have nothing to do with the lecture, such as server down-time, but the potential exists for guest dependent technology failure. The guest's computer may break down at an inopportune time. The guest's Internet access may wane for a few days. The guest may not completely understand the technology. Three keys will help control for these risks.

First, make sure that any guest lecture, especially one that is not geographically located at the same site as the main course developer/instructor, has access to computer support personel. This support can be the guest him/herself if he/she is a computer expert, but some form of verification of computer support should occur prior to committing to the guest.

Second is computer access. If the guest only has access to one computer with a single point of Internet entry, then any technology failure will result in a loss of the guest's participation. Most faculty should have access to the Internet both at home and at work, preferably over a different or at least independent means of obtaining Internet service (for example, a local area network failure in an individual's office space will not necessarily effect dial-up access to the same institution). If the guest only has one means of connecting to the Internet, it may be wise to verify that the guest would be willing to seek out alternatives, such as a local library, should he/she suffer a computer problem.

The third technology factor deals with the ability to actually use the technology. You may want to think twice before scheduling a guest lecturer in an online class if the lecturer just learned how to turn on a computer yesterday. But even a veteran computer user may have difficulty in the online course, if the guest is unfamiliar with the course management system. Students often go through an orientation period before beginning an online course, including receiving training in one form or another in the use of the course management system, especially the discussion forums to be used in the course. Just because a guest lecturer may only participate in the course for a short period of time, this same orientation time may be required in order for the guest to become familiar with the online tools for the course. If necessary, the guest should be trained in the software prior to beginning his/her guest appearance. This training can occur online through an online tutorial. The key though is that the training should occur.

Not all risk factors in an online course are technology related. Sometimes, the risks are simply due to natural human dynamics. We have identified three primary risk factors in this respect.

The first human factor involves participation. On the extreme end, there is always the possibility that every indication will point towards the guest being ready to go, and then, one week before the scheduled time of the guest appearance, he/she backs out. When this happens, and if you teach long enough it probably will eventually, your options could be slim. But, as the Boy Scouts of America would say, "Be prepared." Just as this is true for your regular online course materials, so too is this true for the online guest lecture. Waiting until one week before the lecture/discussion may be too late. Try to get the materials on the guest lecture as soon as possible. Hopefully, you can have them well in advance, so that you can arrange the lessons and assignments around the guest appearance..

Participation can have many meanings as well. The guest may take the title to heart and believe that all he/she has to do is to present an online lecture, which amounts to little more than placing a file online. There we go, job done. In some instances, perhaps this is all that the course instructor wanted based on previous face-to-face lecture experiences. Guest lecturers in traditional classrooms are often available for a single class period that is dominated by the lecture. The inherent structure of the power-relationships in the traditional classroom makes it unlikely however that students will be able to readily access the entire resources of the guest's expertise and experience. The discussion-based online course, in contrast, is inherently more collegial in nature, and it is in that collegiality and discussion centered atmosphere that the power of the virutal guest lectureship lies. Students have the potential to acquire full access to the instructor. The asynchronous discussion allows everyone to have equal access to the guest who can periodically respond to student inquiry. The risk though is that this potential will never be realized. Everyone must realize that the guest lecture is not a week off for the instructor. Students will not only continue to have questions for the main instructor, but the potential for a non-participating guest requires that the instructor be prepared to step-in and address student questions that may appear based on the guest lecture. Being prepared to meet this need by thoroughly reviewing all guest lecture materials is the cornerstone to this preparedness and should be considered a must for the instructor.

Another risk factor is in some ways related to the permanence of the online discussion. In an online course, all asynchronous discourse (and most synchronous discourse since it should always be archived) remains long after it is initially placed within the course discussion forum. Consider what happens then when the guest lecture "says" something that is contrary to what the instructor for the course had already stated or will state. In a face-to-face class, when something is said, there is not necessarily a permanent record of that statement unless it also appears in a handout. The students may simply consider the statement a slip of the tongue and refer to the core course materials for the correct information. The same may not be true in an online course. Sometimes, this alternative perspective may be welcome when two philosophies are somewhat equally accepted, but if the instructor says that DNA forms a right-handed helix and the guest says that it is left (somewhat of a stretch since I can't imagine that particular example happening, but you get the idea), who are the students to believe. Furthermore, the conflict may diminish the students' trust in further statements made by the main instructor. Once again, the key relates to the instructor having the guest lecture materials well ahead of time to read through them and verify the content of the lecture. If there are discrepancies, one can then discuss them and come to an agreement before presenting the information to the students.

Bringing Out the Benefits

From the previous discussion, it can be seen that being prepared will help to control for the possible pitfalls of the online guest lecture. With this knowledge in hand, the benefits of the online guest lecture begin to take precedence. The virtual guest lecture can enhance the quality of student learning in multiple ways.

  • They add interest and excitement, which can increase student involvement. The students may have a personal interest in the thoughts of the guest lecturer. The guest lecturer could be a renowned expert in the field or the author of the course textbook. There are many reasons why the students might find it particularly interesting to have access to the guest lecturer. If their interest is perked, the students are more likely to want to get involved. This involvement and the ensuing discourse can add synergy to the online learning so that everyone can feed off of the energy and knowledge of other participants.
  • They provide students with alternative perspectives, opinions, and personal experiences that can reinforce the teachings of the instructor. The guest lecture may have stories or anecdotes other than those used by the instructor. If multiple perspectives arive at the same conclusion, that conclusion can be reinforced in the minds of the students.
  • They provide expertise in select areas within which the instructor may have limited knowledge. Not everyone that teaching a course is an expert on every aspect taught within the course. In fact, few instructors probably are. The key is to know who is and to find ways to get them involved in the course so as to best benefit the students.
  • They provide the instructor an opportunity to concentrate more on the students. If the instructor is less involved in the teaching of the content, then more time becomes available to take a step back and view the discussions taking place in the course. The instructor can pay more attention to who is posting comments, at what level of quality those messages are, and whether the conversation has sparked an interesting tangent discussion to give a few examples. The instructor can furthermore take the time to try and get some of the less active students involved in the course through personal messages and/or emails.
  • They present an opportunity to utilize alternative technologies and teaching techniques into the course (flexibility). The guest lecturer may have a method of delivering content that is different from the main instructor. For example, the instructor may be using video in several parts of the course. The guest may instead opt to use illustrated audio (similar to RealPresenter). The variation can remove the chance that repetitiveness could begin to bore some students.
  • They increase the access to the expert. The expert can be anywhere at anytime. Not only can all students asks questions of the guest on their own time, but now that given instructor can be anywhere. Unlike the face-to-face guest lecture, the virtual guest lecture does not need to even be in the same country as the students in the course, as long as he/she has Internet access. Consider for example the benefits of having an archeologist in Egypt discuss first hand knowledge of the pyramid in an online course that is taught by an instructor in the continental U.S.

We can see that there are many potential benefits of the virtual guest lecture. So what can one do to help insure that these benefits will be brought out during a virtual guest lecture?

Just as being prepared is the key to controlling the potential pitfalls of an online guest lecture, so too is being prepared the key to bringing out the potential benefits. Only, in this case, it is everyone that needs to be prepared. We have found that the following techniques can help to reach the required level of preparedness, and they help to insure a positive guest lecture experience.

First and foremost, the instructor needs to be prepared. Try to have all of the materials for the lecture / discussion well ahead of time. Read these materials yourself so that you can be prepared to answer student questions in case of guest lecturer absense. Furthermore, make sure that they make sense and place them appropriately within the course Website. Furthermore, once you have knowledge of the materials to be presented, prepare questions to help initiate discussion on the topic of the lecture. Discussion is one of the keys to a successful online course, and discussion is much easier to initiate if the students have something on which to frame that discussion.

In addition to yourself, you need to prepare the students. Begin by introducing the topic of the lecture and the guest lecturer. Let them know who will be speaking an perhaps there will be common thread that may spark an interest. You might even consider having an ice-breaking activity to get things started.

Next, outline the lecture. Let everyone know exactly what will be going on during the lecture so that no one is confused and everyone is ready to participate. Provide an advanced planner if necessary giving a flow chart of the lecture and key points for which to keep an eye out. List exactly what your expectations are of the students during the guest lecture. Let them know that the atmosphere is an open one and that student comments are welcome.

Back up any lecture / discussion with additional resources to be read ahead of time. The guest lecture may have some of these resources to provide as well. The reason to read them ahead of time is to give everyone some background knowledge on the topic prior to the availability of the guest expert. In this way, students will have the most opportunity to take advantage of the presence with fruitful questions and pertinent discussion.

Also, provide an activity to go along with the lecture. The activity should provide an opportunity for everyone to get involved somehow with the lecture so that it becomes less of a task and more of an experience. You want everyone to feel a part of the learning process and you want that process to directly relate to the content. If possible, have the lecturer take part in the activity as well to provide additional insight and to continue to spark student interest.

Finally, the guest lecture needs to be prepared. Some of this aspect was mentioned previously with respect to an introduction to the technology, but there is more involved in an online course than just technology. We don't want to forget the instruction aspects. The best way to help insure that a guest will prepare a pertinent and informative lecture is to give him/her a clear understanding of what it is he/she is preparing. To begin with, the purpose of the lecture should be understood by all so that the guest understands what it is that the students are supposed to get out of the lecture / discussion. For the guest to prepare an appropriate lecture, he/she also needs to understand the audience of that lecture. The guest should be given a clear understanding of the student makeup of the class and what techniques have been working with the class thus far. Try not to bring out any of the negatives with the class, but rather focus on the positives to avoid biasing the instructor and to keep the attitude of the guest positive at the onset of the lecture. Also, do not forget to introduce your perspective. The only way to make sure that there is not a conflict between your message and the message of the guest lecturer is to make sure that the guest lecturer understands what your perspective is. There may still be some conflict, but it can be displayed to the students in a contructive manner in which the reasonings behind the perspectives can be discussed rather than allowing a who's right mentallity to form.

Preparing the guest lecture helps in a few other respects as well. An expert may sometimes see something as obvious and skip it subconsciously when discussing it. When someone else goes to read over the materials, the ommission becomes apparent and there can be resultant confusion. Therefore, you are given another reason to read through the guest lecture materials ahead of time. You form a checks and balances for the guest lecture to correct for possible ommissions. Lastly, if you provide the guest lecturer with a clear understanding of the lesson and all activities described in the syllabus for that lecture / discussion, the guest may come up with new ideas that you had not thought of. New activities may result that enhance student learning.

Part 1 Conclusion

This article centered on a few techniques that can help to insure a successful online guest lecture experience. When properly implemented, the virtual guest lecture can be of great benefit to the instructor and the student. In the second part of this discussion, we will discuss how to go about finding a guest lecture for your online courses. Furthermore, we will reveal the positive feedback that we have received demonstrating the effectiveness of our guest lecture program.


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