technology tip of the month Pointer and Clicker Article



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


In the last article, we discussed the many advantages that a guest lecturer can have on your online courses and how to bring out those advantages. But where can one go to find an effective guest lecturer. Furthermore, how can you know that it will be effective. From our experiences, we have found several valuable sources of guest lecturers and the studies that we have done to date have shown that it may not take as much as you think to make these experiences effective and valuable to the students. To bring these points out, two topics will be discussed in this article. First, we will discuss where to find good guest lecturers. Second, we will look at how effective guest lecturers have been in our program in a variety of circumstances.

Finding the Guest

Recruiting a good online guest lecturer can be the hardest challenge when considering to use a guest. Where can such a guest be found and how can you know that he/she will help the class? To begin answering these questions and others, keep in mind that to help insure a successful guest lecture, the guest must meet a variety of criteria. In this section we will discuss these needs and how they can be met.

Requirements of a Guest Lecturer

There are suprisingly few requirements of a guest lecture. Sure, we would recommend that the guest be fun loving, energetic, talkative (or writative to coin a new word), etc., but such are not really requirements. The list below outlines a few of the musts though.

  • The guest must be able to communicate well in writing.
    Most online courses will make wide use of written forms of communication (both synchronous and asynchronous). As we said in part 1, the lecture can be more than simply a one hour online presentation that everyone attends. It can involve a week of asynchronous interaction with the guest or other activities. Even if it is only 1 hour, this communication may be in writing and there may be a presentation (comprised mostly of words) to go along with the lecture. Thus, ability to communicate well in writing is important on some level.
  • The guest must be a content expert. If (s)he is not an expert on the topic, then there is no reason to bring them into the course. This may sound obvious, but in an online course involving asynchronous long term communication, the students will have potentially greater access to the guest. Questions can arise on a variety of topics, and you do not want the guest to be overwhelmed with subject matter (s)he is unfamiliar. [As a side note, let the students know that the guest is an expert in the particular topic to enhance their interest in the lecture.]

The following topics are listed more as recommended wants than necessities.

  • The guest needs to be willing to participate in an online course (or at least prepare materials). Obviously, the guest must at least prepare some materials as a necessity to create an online guest lecture. Otherwise, you are just putting his/her name on someone elses work. But you really want a little bit more than just the preparation of materials. Preferably, you want the guest to be willing to actually take an active role in the online course discussion, to answer student questions, and to reiterate important points among other things.
  • In order for the guest to be able to actively participate, the guest must be available. Fortunately, for any online asynchronous component, this is related more to willingness. As long as the guest is willing to log into the course at least once a day, things will go easier for the instructor.
  • In order to fully share his/her knowledge with the course, the guest needs to be familiar with the online environment at least to the extent that (s)he can navigate around the course management system used. As a minimal requirement, the guest should understand email.

There are probably other recommended items that you will think of such as the fun-loving energetic comment above, and these will most likely add to the enjoyment of the guest lecture. But that is not to say that they will not be enjoyable without it. You will see from the next discussion, that even when a guest lecture is completely uninvolved with the lecture and somewhat bland in writing style, the students may still find the lecture to have a positive impact on the course.

Finding the Guest

O.K., so you know the qualities that your guest lecturer needs to have, but where can you go about finding such a lecturer for an online course (or any course for that matter). You can break your resources into 3 categories to aid your search. These categories are the field, the course, and the book. Let's discuss each of these and how they can be used to find a guest.

The Field

The field is probably the most common source for the guest lecture. It includes anyone that you meet in your professional life. Often people think about the person down the hall or in the same department when thinking about in the field, but there are a few more sources to think about that may be overlooked. First, everyone attends conferences and meets people as they go to talks. How many talks have you been to that you thought would go great in a course you were teaching? Well, approach the person. You'd be surprised how often you'll receive a yes response when the person is available. Another resource did not exist as little as 10 years ago, but now may be one of the best resources out there. This resourse is the online listserv. Many people subscribe to various mailing lists and information sources. After a while, you will begin to notice who the experts are on various topics if you pay attention to the posts. You will also see that many people disagree on a number of topics. You could even go so far as to invite two guests with varying viewpoints to both present the variety and to spark discussion. A related resource are the various Ask-an-Expert Web sites out there. A few of them are linked below. Through these sites, you can quickly find experts on a given topic. Basically, the key to the field source for guest lecturers is to keep your eyes and ears open. You never know when an interesting individual will cross your path.

The Course

Within your teaching practice, you will often have the student(s) that excell. Have you ever wondered what happened to those students later on in life? In the online course, you have a unique opportunity in that you will often develop a more thorough understanding of your students through the online discussions that take place. You can also sometimes develop professional relationships that can continue after the course. You may also lose contact with the student and then hear about him/her later on at a talk or such. The point is that if they were good then, they are probably good now. If you come across a special student, don't be afraid to bring that student in later if a good relationship exists.

The Book

Finally, we all read some resources that we find especially informative on one topic or another. Authors are rarely told but often flattered to hear that someone has found their materials effective and useful. Why not go one step further and ask them to be a lecture in your course?

The unique lack of geographic boundary makes the online course an excellent opportunity to bring in just about anyone to your course. Hopefully these tips may have given you an idea for how to increase your own list of potential guests.

What Do Students Think?

We've been discussing throughout these articles our own impressions of the effectiveness of the guest lecture and given many reasons why that is so, but what about one of the most important reasons, the students. As part of our course evaluations, we have been posing questions to students about their experiences with the guest lecturers. We have also pulled comments from within our courses that deal specifically with the guest lecture. Overwhelmingly, the responses have been positive.

In our Online Learning: Overview course, evaluations were performed at the end of the course asking as one of the questions, "Did the guest lecture make a positive contribution to this course?" We looked at responses from 10 different sections of the course taught by 2 different instructors over a 2.5 year period utilizing 6 different guest lecturers (several gave more than one lecture). Course enrollments ranged from 11 to 17 students. Our return rate on these evaluations was from 30 to 100 % of students depending on the section. Within this setting, all returned evaluation responses to the above question were positive (although some contained both positive and neutral comments together).

Let's look at some of the comments students have returned to this open ended question that support some of our earlier discussion. You will see that there are many different reasons that students feel that the activity was positive, even if it was something as mundane as simply supplying one more resource to consider. In the list below, we have tried to list a few examples of comments that pertain to points made earlier in this report. We should note that there are also many comments that have been returned regarding the actual content of the lectures as well as numerous comments within the course (not part of the evaluation) such as "I really appreciate the help" etc., but these have been omitted. Often, key items that were returned for the course as a whole or for the week that pertained directly to the guest's topic would also contain comments about the guest. Once again, these were all positive or neutral in nature but did not directly relate to the topic of this report and have been omitted. Here is a collection of comments in no particular order. Names are replaced with bracket descriptions and additional notes that are not part of the quote are added in brackets.

  • [Comments pertaining to the additional perspective and information resource (either new or similar to that already displayed) added by the guest.]
    • "I enjoyed the information [the guest] provided."
    • [Here we see a somewhat neutral comment that still supports that the guest can be yet another resource to be utilized.] - "Yes, but...I don't think that I saw [the guest] to be any different than any of the other assigned readings..."
    • "Most definitely, the guest lecturer made a positive contribution to this course via sharing [the guest's] insight, experiences, culture, etc."
    • "Yes, added new ideas/thoughts to the mix."
    • "Very nice to add another 'live' voice to the discussion."
    • "It's always nice to have the perspective of another expert."
    • "[The guest] gave us another course to look at, and some more ideas..."
  • [Comments pertaining to the value of a variety of experiences within a course.]
    • "Yes, that was a nice touch and something I had not thought of before as part of an online course."
    • "Yes, particularly for breaking the routine of the course."
    • "Yes, an excellent change in the course dynamic..."
    • "Highly positive. This was a great addition and got me thinking about ways to incorporate collaborative TEACHING as well as collaborative learning in my own online courses."
  • [Comments pertaining to the way in which the guest interacted with the class.]
    • "More so in [the guest's] interaction and comments and sharing of ideas than [the guest's] notes."
    • "One thing I found interesting was that you could tell [the guest] had a different 'style' of responding - positive..."
  • [Comments pertaining to the connections that the guest can make with the real world that might have been missed by the instructor.]
    • "Yes. The guest lecturer helped illustrate the applicability of what we have been discussing."
    • "[The guest] gave us a full range of issues to think about and [the guest's] contributions were very concrete."
  • [And lots of these comments.]
    • "Yes, it was helpful."
    • "Very positive
    • "I think I should incorporate something similar in my online courses."

So as you can see, the students enjoyed the guest lecture and found it useful in our context. I should add that the comments for all of our various courses dealing with the guest lecturers are primarily positive, but only this course has been thoroughly analyzed. Comments, in addition to those above point out that the guest lectures are "great" and "enjoyable", etc.

Additional Comments Regarding Student Responses

Interestingly, the positive student feedback is independent of the opinion of the facilitator / instructor of the guest lecturers contribution to the course. There have been guest lecturers in our courses that have had little involvement with the course other than to post the original materials, and yet positive responses are still returned by the students. The question then becomes, is a "good" guest lecturer even necessary, or just one that meets the minimal criteria mentioned earlier.

Well, we usually ascribe the positive responses with inactive guest's to our instructo'rs ability to compensate as one possibility. A good instructor who is prepared and knowledgeable about the topic can make up for any short comings of the guest, even total absense. The instructor can spawn discussion of the topic and try rewording questions directed at the guest so that they can be answered by the instructor or redirected at the students. But such actions take time away from the instructor that could be used elsewhere. Thus, even though the students may not notice a bad lecturer, the instructor may and then have to compensate. Avoid these situations by insuring ahead of time that you have all of the materials, a good relationship with the guest, and acknowledgement of guest participation (among other topics discussed in part 1 of this paper). In this way, both the students and the instructor can come away with a positive experience.


Guest lectures enhance online courses in unique ways and present a useful resource towards the enrichment of online courses. In this report, we began by discussing several techniques that can help towards the creation of an effective guest lecture that will be enjoyable to both the students and the instructor. We then backed this discussion with student data showing that the use of guest lecturers can indeed enhance an online course from the student's perspective. We feel that the same is true for the instructor when properly applied. We hope that you find our suggestions useful, especially comments on how to locate a guest lecturer for your own practice.

One final note. We spent some time looking for outside resources on this topic and were hard pressed to find anything relating to actual research on the use of guest lecturers in the online environment. Most if not all references to the topic are simply "we use them" or "we don't use them" with several non-research backed arguments for the conclusion. While this paper does not itself constitute an in depth study on the topic, we hope that it will ignite the interest of future studies into the topic.


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