Enhancing Online Faculty Productivity with WebCT

The San Diego Community College District created a successful training program for development of online courses using WebCT. Here, the dean of the program provides insights into efficient design, delivery, and assessment of online instruction.

Experienced online instructors can easily identify the most time-consuming tasks in course development, management, and delivery: course organization, the conversion of course materials for online delivery, student assessment, and interactive features. While at many colleges internal grants provide the incentive for faculty development of online courses, the sustainability of online instruction programs demands efficient use of faculty resources—strategies for the appropriate use of online course management systems.

At San Diego Community College District, instructors receive formal training in instructional design and strategic use of WebCT prior to teaching their first online course. WebCT’s many features for course organization, communications, and testing make it both a complex software program as well as a highly scalable solution for the delivery of online instruction.

Course Organization

First, for a multiple-section course, instructors need to decide whether to include students from all sections in the same course, or whether to create duplicate courses for each section. If no changes will be made to the course materials, the latter approach will work. But if the course is dynamic and evolving throughout the semester, the former works best. One way to manage a single course containing students from multiple sections using WebCT is to include, as a common component, course materials accessible to students in each section. Instructors can then develop customized discussion topics and tests for each section. The instructor can limit students’ access to portions of the course by utilizing the Selective-Release function of WebCT. By designating a hyperlink on WebCT course Organizer Page for Selective Release, the instructor can control when and to whom the hyperlink will appear based on students’ first name, last name, User ID, student records from Manage Students, and date.

Second, students are more successful and efficient when given limited navigational options. By providing clear and meaningful navigation throughout an online course, the instructor minimizes student communications devoted to technical and logistical questions rather than course content. Course developers have the option to remove or minimize navigation features on the Course Menu, Homepage, Action Menu, and Content Module Table of Contents, but not on Breadcrumbs and Course Map.

Students can link to specific areas of course content by selecting items from the Table of Contents of a Content Module. In WebCT, Content Modules provide an efficient way to organize course material. Course content can be organized into a Table of Contents that provides a sequential list of each course component. Each item listed in the Table of Contents is actually a hyperlink for students to click for quick access to text, multimedia, and HTML files.

Another efficient use of student and faculty time is to provide opportunities for students to demonstrate competency/mastery so that they can skip lessons and progress through the online course at a pace that is appropriate for them, thereby avoiding unnecessary student work and teacher grading. The Selective Release feature of WebCT allows the instructor to control access to selected portions of a course based on individual student performance.

Conversion to Online Delivery

Many instructors find that the process of converting existing documents for use in a WebCT course is tedious at best, and daunting at worst. First, all course materials need to be put into digital format such as word processor text, HTML, or PDF files.

Next, the instructor must upload the files into the WebCT course using File Manager. Some instructors speed up this process by combining all course-related materials into a single zipped file, compressed to take up less storage space and upload to WebCT more quickly.

Unfortunately, the use of files other than HTML or simple text in WebCT can create problems for students who do not have access to the plug-in software necessary to view the files. To circumvent this problem, instructors can include links to free downloads of the required software or plug-ins from the WebCT course Web site or a companion CD-ROM.

Many HTML editors, such as Dreamweaver and FrontPage, aid in the process of converting existing course materials into HTML or Web page format. But each editor requires time and training. Another option is to save and/or export documents into HTML format using tools found in most word processing programs. However, creation of an HTML document in Office 2000 adds special markup tags to the document that are problematic in WebCT. To avoid difficulties, instructors can install Microsoft Office 2000 HTML Filter when converting Word 2000 or Excel 2000 documents. Users can open the document to be filtered, then use the Export to HTML command on the File menu.

Finally, the Exchange zones of the WebCT Web site at www.webct.com/exchange/ provide several tools for converting existing materials into a WebCT course. For example, the WebCT Calendar Tool Text File Creator allows instructors to create a text file for uploading and importing to the Calendar Tool within WebCT. With this tool, the instructor can make a list of all desired calendar entries offline, then add them automatically and simultaneously to the WebCT Calendar. This is far less time-consuming than making individual calendar entries by typing information into various fields within the WebCT Calendar area.

Online Student Assessment

Successful online instruction demands frequent and varied student assessment, but assessing online students poses unique challenges. For instance, the need for more assessment requires alternative grading strategies, such as randomly selecting 50 percent of student submissions for detailed grading and comment. Another approach is to employ self-grading and peer grading. In addition, assessments that do not count toward the final course grade can provide feedback on student performance with less pressure on both instructor and students.

In courses delivered via WebCT, the Track Students tool, as well as the Search feature in Discussion Board and e-mail postings, provides ample information about the activities of individual students. In the Manage Students area, the Track Students tool gives instructors details about the progress of individual students through the course material. The instructor can obtain a listing of the pages in the content modules that students have visited and the date and order in which students visited each page. The instructor can also access a report on the number of times each student viewed and/or contributed to a Discussion posting. WebCT tracking tools can also be used to identify and diagnose student participation patterns for early intervention. For example, instructors can track the number of e-mails and/or bulletin board messages generated by individual students from the Track Students report, then sample these messages using the Search feature in Discussion to gauge the quality of their work and the thoughtfulness of their discussions.

To build a Question Database for creating tests while within WebCT, instructors must enter each question into the database separately. The process can be very time-consuming and has a high potential for error. Fortunately, instructors can create test questions outside of WebCT by following a specific set of formatting rules. Several tools exist for automating the process of converting existing tests offline for use in WebCT: Respondus, MakeQuiz, Quiz Parser, and Question Assistant. Each allows the instructor to create a test as a word processing document, formatting the questions so that they can be uploaded and imported to the Question Database within WebCT. Respondus is the most powerful and versatile of the tools. Quiz Parser, MakeQuiz, and Question Assistant can convert multiple choice and true-false questions from simple text files into a format for uploading into WebCT Question Database. Questions created using Question Assistant can be used on a Web site outside of WebCT for student self-review.

Interactivity

Innovative approaches to providing instructor-student interactivity are key to decreasing online course attrition rates. However, unless instructors set parameters for these interactions, the 24-hour/7-days-a-week expectations and assumptions of students can become overwhelming. Instructors might consider the benefits of organizing students into small groups for the purpose of coordinating their communications with the instructor and each other.

The Student Presentation tool under Manage Course in WebCT has a Group Generator for forming groups from the class list either manually or randomly, allowing e-mail to be delivered to all members of each group rather than to individual students. In the Discussions area of WebCT students and instructors can send, read, and search for messages. Using Topic Manager, the instructor can create discussion groups under private topics available only to the set of students selected by the instructor.

The designation of a group spokesperson will dramatically reduce the number of student-to-instructor interactions. The instructor can also lock a Discussion topic so that messages can still be read but no new messages can be posted. Because messages posted in the Discussions areas can be compiled and downloaded by students, students can communicate with each other about their questions to refine and consolidate their questions. Knowing that interactions with their instructor are limited, students may be motivated to enhance the quality and nature of their communications. In addition, instructors can assign students to summarize online group Discussions postings on a rotating basis every week. Instructors could also consider assigning different students each week to post a summary of the class discussion for the prior week, or respond to frequently asked questions in the Discussions area.

Challenge to Educators

Online course development and delivery need no longer be the exclusive responsibility of the instructor. At San Diego Community College District this past year, a team approach led to the development of SDCCD Online. The team of more than 50 faculty and staff volunteers from Miramar College, City College, Mesa College, and the Centers for Education and Technology coordinated faculty development, student support services, course development, and technical services for delivery of fully online instruction via WebCT. As a result, SDCCD Online now offers a fully online Associate in Arts degree in transfer studies and a Webmaster Certificate along with an online student services infrastructure, including online application, registration, library, counseling, bookstore, and tutoring. Clearly, effective and efficient online course development and management requires the coordinated efforts of instructors, students, and instructional technology consultants.

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