Putting a Class up on The Web

This article has been reprinted here with permission from the author.


Steve. G. Gabany, Ph.D.
Professor, Community Health
Department of Health & Safety
Indiana State University
Terre Haute, IN 47809
e-mail: hprgaby@scifac.indstate.edu


Introduction

This purposes of this paper are to 1) describe the process I used, the mistakes I made, and the successes I nonetheless realized in developing and offering a course completely on-line; 2) report preliminary results of an ongoing, national study of the experiences of faculty involved in on-line courses; and, 3) share some thoughts on how to develop an on-line course.

On-line Course Development and Experiences

Background

As I write this paper, I am in my second semester of teaching a distance-education class completely on-line from Indiana State University. The course is Health & Safety 221, Community Health Concepts. Students e-mail their assignments and comments on other students’ responses to a class Listserv (electronic discussion list) where I grade them. They submit their final exam answers directly to me through electronic mail.

I have taught this course in the classroom since fall 1988, both during traditional time slots and over three weekends. I have also taught distance education classes in another medium, via the two-way video, one-way audio real-time satellite television network operated by the Indiana Higher Education Telecommunication System (IHETS).

Community Health Concepts is an introductory, required, major course. However, the course has no prerequisites, and students from a wide variety of majors have enrolled in it over the years. Interestingly, the variety of students has not changed with the conversion.

I am a fairly knowledgeable end-user of computers, but not a computer expert. Before May, 1996, I did not know what HTML stood for, and my Internet experience was very limited. I have no training in graphic design, and I continue to wrestle with colors, and graphic placement and size.

My original motivation was to develop a textbook/study guide, independent study course. Integrating place-bound and on-campus students into the course was not my initial intention. Having had some experience with presentation software, I changed my mind and started to develop a televised-instruction format. At that point, I planned to teach the class in the campus television studio and have my lectures videotaped for future use by distance-education students. I actually produced a PowerPoint presentation for the first of ten lessons I planned to deliver by this method.

Two things caused me to change my mind once again and develop the course for delivery through the Internet: first, because of my emphasis on images, the PowerPoint presentation for the first lesson alone required almost 20 megabytes of disk storage. Clearly, managing files that large was not feasible. Second, in May, 1996, I attended the annual Distance Education Workshop presented by Indiana University’s School of Education in Bloomington, Indiana. I recommend it highly. When one speaker said, essentially, "You don’t do students any favor by denying them access to the most current, appropriate educational technology," I abandoned my presentation project, bought McFedries’ (1997) The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating HTML Web Pages, and started learning about HTML, FTP, and Bookmarks.

Development

Between May, 1996, and October, 1996, I spent an estimated 500 hours developing the course. We have a home computer, and I connect to the campus network through a modem. Given the distractions at work and the need for big blocks of time to search the Internet for sites and material, a home computer with the fastest modem supported is essential.

I use HTML Writer to author and edit the pages. My early experiences with WYSIWYG authoring tools proved disastrous, and I find that the advantage of having complete control over all of the design and format elements with HTML Writer outweighs its disadvantages. It is freeware, and since I am at this writing developing three additional on-line courses for the fall 1997 semester, I am unwilling to spend the time necessary to learn yet another software package. I currently maintain 67 files for this course through HTML Writer.

Although I sought and received much technical assistance from our computing staff and from our excellent Faculty Computing Resource Center, I did all the work. I received no release time or financial incentive to develop the course, nor do I receive either to offer it. As you will see, the one-person/no-compensation model appears to be the norm across the country.

My on-line material is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the textbook. I tried to design the on-line material to stimulate independent learning. In addition, I wanted a paperless class. I put the class outline, grading policy, and a Table of Contents on-line. Since I use only essay tests, e-mail and an electronic discussion list are natural means of communicating with and receiving assignments from students. I hoped that if students had unlimited access to the on-line material, they would print very few pages. This has proven to be the case.

By the beginning of the 1996 fall term, I had five of the ten lessons completed, and decided to use the semester as a beta test. By October, I has completed all of the lessons. The fifteen students who had enrolled in the course did not know that it was to be a "Web class" until the first day of classes. Most were excited about the prospect. All were apprehensive. So, too, was I.

I trained last semester’s and this semester’s students how to use e-mail, electronic discussion lists, and the Internet. While our students are increasingly "Net-literate," most use e-mail infrequently, and few are familiar with electronic discussion lists. I am preparing a generic, hard-copy "cookbook" for the fall semester that I intend to loan to students. While I hope this will reduce if not eliminate in-class training for on-campus students, it will become critical when "true" distance-education students enroll in the course.

During the first semester, I required students to attend class in person twice in order to assess the practicality of the course. I suspect that my emphasis on graphics and links to faraway sites caused them to find the textbook "boring." Upon reflection, they are right, and although it will cause heavy editing of my Web pages, I am changing textbooks for fall. Other than two days of training at the start of the term, my current 28 students will meet together only on the day of the final exam. They will actually submit their final through e-mail on or before that date. While I am available in all of the traditional ways, few students seek help in person. As it turns out, although the class is on-campus, the students could just as easily be spread across the state or the nation.

Because last semester’s students expressed concern about the "faceless" nature of the on-line course, I used a digital camera to put all of the current students’ pictures in a separate Web page. This was a good idea, and I recommend it. While two-way digital audio and video may become widely available in the next few years, I intend to continue this practice until this happens. I will ask distance-education students to send me a passport-type photo and scan it into the page.

I discuss my and the students’ evaluation of the course below. In summary, I am convinced that on-line, distance education works. Students like the freedom, and I can discern no decrement in the quality of their work. Perhaps because of relative anonymity or their ability to comment in absentia, I find my on-line students are more willing to criticize each other than are my in-class students.

The On-line Challenge

As you might imagine, having taught the course for a number of years, I had overheads, examples, and discussions pretty well organized. Having taught on television, I knew that the on-line course would not be business as usual. But, with the exception of one-way video, the teaching aids available in the television studio - an overhead projector, a VCR, and the like - are not much different from a normal classroom; it is still the professor standing up in front of the students.

The Internet is another game altogether. Personally, I find few things more boring than a computer screen full of text. What I did not anticipate, and perhaps could not have anticipated, what that after I established the theme of an individual lesson, I was completely at the mercy of what information I could find on the Web. That is, when it came to discussing cancer, did the American Cancer Society have a Web site? (Yes.) When I needed a picture of an automobile wreck, could I find one? (Yes, but it was hard.) The point is that I either had to re-think my "lectures," or fill the screen with text. I chose the former. However, this meant spending many hours searching for material, links, and images. I suspect it would be easier to develop a course initially on-line than convert an existing one, since one would not have such a mind-set about content.

My Mistakes

When I was contemplating the course, I did not spend enough time determining which delivery method best matched my preferred teaching style. Rather, I spent too much time worrying about what delivery method would reach the greatest number of students. This caused me to go in three different directions — independent-study guide, one-way video two-way audio delivery, and on-line. Try not to do that.

As noted, I was and am largely ignorant about graphic design. I should have been more persistent in seeking help. Because I did not, I continued to modify my basic page design until well into the project. Each time I did, I had to edit an increased number of files. I urge you to spend a great deal of time deciding how you want your page to "look" before you start adding content.

I did not organize my Netscape bookmarks into folders early enough. In short order, I had hundreds of links on all kinds of topics. Wanting to spend my time developing the course rather than organizing my bookmarks made the eventual effort more difficult than it needed to be. I advise you to create folders on every conceivable topic and sub-topic and organize your bookmarks early on!

My perception of students’ computing expertise exceeded reality by a wide margin. Actually, most of my students spent little time surfing the Net before my course. Our campus has an on-line help manual for students, but it is of no value to Web-illiterate students.

As an experienced user of electronic mail, I assumed I would experience little difficulty grading and responding to e-mailed assignments. However, the limitations of the e-mail software used at our campus - Pegasus - makes correcting grammar, spelling, and sentence construction virtually impossible without a complete re-write. And, of course, I can no longer make notes in the margin, redline, or use a "^" to insert a word or a phrase.

I also did not realize how much e-mail I would receive as students submitted their assignments and responded to others. The Pegasus mail program permits establishing folders and filtering messages. Now, when students send a message to the list, it drops straight into the class folder.

My Successes

Based on a single semester, students’ responses have been positive. This finding, too, is shared by faculty across disciplines and location. Although computing experience varied widely among my students, only one reported not liking computers at the beginning and the end of the course. Further they seem to spend about the same amount of time on-line as they would in the classroom - an average of three hours a week studying the textbook, and four hours per week completing the Web lessons. I appear to have guessed largely correctly on the student-workload issue. Although not having an easy way to correct their writing is frustrating, the quality of the content of their assignments is no different than for previous, in-class students. Finally, "class discussion" seems to have been facilitated rather than hampered by the use of an electronic discussion list.

Continuing Issues

Students know when assignments are due, and like being able to complete the on-line lessons at their leisure. However, particularly as the semester proceeds, they find it increasingly difficult to find a computer available in a lab. I believe campuses will soon have to confront the challenge of ensuring that students have personal access to the Internet from their "home."

Equipment failure and browser differences will continue to plague on-line faculty. Although my study confirms that Netscape continues to dominate on campuses across the country, even on my own campus, not all of the public computers have Netscape 3.0. My strategy has been to write HTML for the lowest common denominator browser.

Incidentally, students report appreciation at having been "forced" to learn computing and use the Internet. Repeatedly, they note that this experience has helped them complete assignments for other classes. A few have purchased computers and are now connected from home.

The students like the fact that they do not have to listen to boring (their word!) lectures. At the same time, however, they miss the face-to-face interaction with other students. We have Netscape Chat, but I do not anticipate integrating it until the fall of 1997. I have implemented two group assignments during the current term in hopes of increasing personal contact. This will continue to be an issue for distance-education students.

While some students reported procrastinating in completing the assignments, I find that true in all classes. I have, however, put some "pop-quiz" questions in the assignments this semester, in an attempt to increase attention to the material.

Study of On-line Faculty

This semester, I began an exploratory study of the experiences of faculty who are offering a full Internet course or one that assists their in-classroom course. I was especially interested in seeing if I could discern any development and implementation patterns Specifically, I asked, 1) what percent of the development effort did they, personally, perform; 2) whether they received any "release time" or financial incentive to develop or offer the course; and 3) what factor they found most difficult when developing and offering the course. I also asked about average enrollment and whether the faculty member could establish enrollment limits, which authoring tool they used, and what Internet browser dominated on their campus. Finally, I asked them to assess the effectiveness of their Internet course in comparison with a course in a traditional classroom setting.

Data Collection Method

My first call for responses went to the International Directory of Health Educators. A few faculty responded. One respondent suggested that I visit the World Lecture Hall (http://www.utexas.edu/world/lecture/index.htm), a site which collects Internet course material from many institutions categorized by discipline. I went through every category in a deliberate attempt to cover a wide spectrum. I visited course home pages, found, when I could, e-mail addresses, and sent my questionnaire.

Results

The study is on-going, and these results are preliminary. Because my first query went to an electronic discussion list, it is not possible to calculate response rate. To date, 35 faculty from 27 institutions have responded. One faculty member is in Australia, and another is in Canada. Two of the faculty offer an on-line course internationally.

Of the 35 respondents, 32 reported doing all of the development work themselves. The remaining three reported completing 80%, 85%, and 95%, respectively, of the effort themselves. It may be that such things as writing HTML code and searching for appropriate Web sites are not dissimilar from traditional classroom preparation - activities that are difficult to delegate. Conversely, it may be that faculty who have wanted to deliver their course on-line have had to "take it out of their hides."

Only one of the 35 respondents received any release time or financial incentive to develop the course - .25 - and none received either to offer it. One respondent also offers the course through extension and receives overload pay. To this point, it is clear that higher education institutions perceive the effort to develop or teach an on-line course as a regular part of the faculty member’s workload.

Many of the courses are supportive of classroom instruction; that is, they contain the course outline, grading policy, and lecture notes. As expected, most are new, but, surprisingly, many have very large enrollments. The average number of terms courses have been offered was 2.8, with 19 faculty having used this delivery method for two terms or less. Average class enrollment was 65 students, but enrollment ranged from 5 to 350. Faculty in the upper-enrollment range are using the Internet mainly to post their lecture notes. Seventeen of the faculty had an average enrollment of less than 40, and more than a few expressed concern over too-few students. Only one reported having any control over enrollment limits. It can be concluded that a variety of educational purposes can be served by on-line course material.

Sufficient time to develop and maintain the course material was the most common concern, noted by 12 of the respondents. Second in frequency was support — mainly technical, but administrative as well — as reported by four faculty. Most other difficulties centered around Web-page design issues, such as coding and including mathematical symbols. The time and effort to maintain their Web pages was reported as the most difficult part of offering a course by five faculty, and inadequate student computer literacy was noted by four faculty. Other concerns included student access to computing, and equipment failure.

While there is a clear trend toward more-sophisticated authoring software, such as Microsoft FrontPage and Netscape Communicator, fully 19 of the 35 faculty used a text editor to write HTML or a "basic" package such as BBEdit or HTML Writer. Other authoring software reported included Claris Homepage, Adobe PageMill, Word97, and Borland Quick Site Web Authoring.

Finally, although some reportedly wished it were otherwise, Netscape was reported as being the dominant Internet browser by every respondent. A few campuses had migrated from Mosaic, and a few apparently support more than one, letting individual faculty choose.

Conclusion

There is much on-line course activity taking place across the country and the world. A quick visit to those courses finds a robust use of the technology. However, authors are often operating in isolation. Many respondents asked me to share my findings with them, and many others did not know their course had been listed on the World Lecture Hall site. One curious design matter that I observed was a lack of a prominent "mailto" link. In many cases, it was necessary to find the "page maintained by" link at the bottom of the page. Perhaps, however, this is not accidental but deliberate.

A Development Model

I have identified five major steps in developing an on-line course. Although I did not follow these steps for my first effort, I am doing so for my second. Perhaps others will find my suggestions helpful.

Contemplation: This is a thinking step. The effort required to develop an on-line course is much greater than that required for in-class delivery. Think about these things before you jump in:

1) Why bother? Can you identify a particular audience — perhaps place-bound students you need to reach? Or, do you just think it would be fun? Don’t get caught up with "The Romance of Technology."

2) How do you like to teach? What is your preferred teaching style? What distance-education delivery method best matches your teaching style? For instance, those who like to lecture may not find the Internet an effective method.

3) How much you like computers? You have to spend lots of time on the computer developing and maintaining the course and interacting with students over e-mail. I currently spend at least half my day on the computer.

4) Are you relatively self-sufficient? You should be prepared to develop your material, largely, by yourself.

5) How much time do you have to develop your course? Plan to take a full year.

6) Can you devote big blocks of time to the project? Learning HTML is easy. Designing a simple Web page is not difficult. But it takes lots of time to find appropriate links and graphics. You cannot conduct those searches in 15-minute increments.

7) Do you recognize, and can you accept and adapt to your campus’ distance-education environment? Your institution may not place a high priority on distance education. If not, can you cope?

Pre-preparation: This is where you begin setting yourself in a distributed-education, on-line frame of mind. Here are some suggestions:

1) Use the Web as an adjunct to, not a substitution for your textbook, unless you have an on-line text. Like your lectures, make your on-line lessons add to, not replace, the text.

2) Think in terms of student-learning, not instructor-teaching. A full on-line course demands independent learning. Quizzes, tests, discussions, and assignments can all be done through e-mail, chat, and electronic discussion lists. Due dates can be established. But, as students in your "regular" class will or will not study the textbook, so, too, distributed-education students will or will not go through your on-line pages.

3) Adopt a "distributed-education" approach to your course. Personally, I will not allow off-campus students to complete my course "whenever." I will expect them to adhere to the same deadlines and interact with the remainder of the class, just as if they were on-campus. Finally, I intend to maintain the semester format for my Web classes. I believe that even for off-campus students, perhaps particularly for them, due dates are important.

4) Strive for a paperless class. Put your outline, syllabus, and grading policy on the Web. Use e-mail for assignments and quizzes. "Forms" can be developed for those who use objective tests.

Preparation: This is the stage at which you organize your time, hardware, and software. Here are some desirable goals:

1) Try to get release time from your department or school/college. You will spend the equivalent of half-time for one year developing your course.

2) Connect to the your campus’ computer from home. Unless you have a very light teaching schedule, there are too many interruptions to develop an on-line course at work.

3) Get the fastest modem supported by your campus. Put a second phone line in your house and hook your modem to it. Get McFredries’ The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating HTML Web Pages (1997); Netscape for your home and office; and a File Transfer Program (FTP) like CuteFTP or Norton Navigator. Organize your e-mail into folders.

4) Develop your course outline. I use Lessons, not Chapters. Some of my Lessons cover two or three Chapters. Every Lesson has an assignment. Again, some also have a pop quiz based on on-line material. Remember that you will want to develop Web pages for your course outline, grading policy, and due dates. Include a summary Table of Contents to your pages. This is an easy way for students to navigate among your pages. Include instructions on how off-campus students can enroll in your course.

Action: Finally, you start writing HTML! Here are some considerations:

1) Out-of-pocket development and maintenance costs of an on-line course for faculty and academic departments are $0. Once developed, implementing an on-line course costs academic departments nothing. If duplicating expenses are held down, a Web course is likely to cost departments less in supplies costs than an in-class course.

2) Treat everything on the Web as copyrighted unless the person who maintains the page specifically tells you otherwise. Use downloaded-on-demand graphics. This probably avoids copyright problems and saves you and the campus disk space.

3) Create a local file structure that mirrors your Web structure. For example, my Web address is: http://web.indstate.edu/hlthsfty/hlth221. Having directories and subdirectories on my hard and floppy disks with the same names makes it easier to stay organized. Create a separate images directory. If you put images in a directory separate from your pages, other faculty and students can use them without fear of deleting your course files.

4) Create a "boilerplate" page that contains headers, footers, and background information. This will help ensure a consistent look and will make it easier for you to concentrate on content. Keep your individual pages small. The more graphics you include, the longer it will take your page to download. Put some text at the top of the page to give students something to read while graphics are downloading.

5) Try to find long-lasting links. The life expectancy of personal Web pages may be increasing, but you will be in it for the long haul. Even over the course of one semester, some federal agency sites I was using changed their Internet addresses and deleted some images.

6) Keep It Simple. Students’ browsers may not support all the fancy stuff. Put a "Title" on each page. It will show up at the top of the browser and will eventually find its way into the Internet search engines. I use "Community Health Concepts — Lesson xx, Page xx."

7) Maintain a consistent look throughout. Changing the layout or the background color from one page to the next is distracting. If you include "Go-To Links" at top and bottom of each page, you’ll spare your students the aggravation of getting to the bottom and having to go back to the top to go anywhere except the next page. Be sure to include Home, Table of Contents, and an e-mail link in your Go-To section. Include a "Click here to go to Lesson xx, next page" link at the end of the page.

8) Avoid blinking text. Include "alt text" as part of your image HTML code. If the Internet cannot find your image, students will at least be able to tell what it was supposed to be. Since many images do not have meaningful file names, without "alt text," you may not be able to identify it, either. Include "align" in your image code. Without align, text sometimes does not flow properly around the image, although you can put an image in a table and avoid the wrap problem. Use "height" and "width" commands, in pixels, to control image size. Experiment to get a feel for how many pixels take up how much of the screen.

9) Get access to the Web server that will be hosting your files and set up your directories and subdirectories. Use FTP to upload your files. Try it out before the term starts. Run through your Lessons during the semester break. Are the links still "alive"? Are the images still downloading?

Reference

McFedries, P. (1997). The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating an HTML Web Page (2nd ed.). Indianapolis, Que.


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