2001 - Guest
Lecturers in the Online Environment (Part 1 of 2)
E. Varvel Jr.
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
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
still a somewhat new phenomena, this question might be left to methods
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
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
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
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.