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Just What Do They Know?

Assessing Student Technology Skills: A Case Study
Mary Beth Graham, Assistant Professor, Carroll Community College (MD)

According to the June 1996 report entitled, Getting America’s Students Ready for the 21st Century: Meeting the Technology Literacy Challenge, published by the US Department of Education, “Technological literacy…has become as fundamental to a person’s ability to navigate through society as traditional skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic.” Technology is certainly recognized by higher education as important; however, do we really know what technology skills our students possess, and how effectively they can apply these technology skills to real-world situations?

Measuring Technological Competence

In the past, we have approached students’ needs for “computer literacy” by requiring them to take a computer literacy course or pass a computer literacy test. But is this enough? We see students using computers all the time. But what are they really doing? In many cases, they are e-mailing, instant messaging, or searching for MP3s to download. Most can easily navigate the Internet or use the latest word processor. But, do students possess the skills that will allow them to use technology effectively in their careers? Are they learning or improving these technology skills as a result of their higher education?

Why student learning outcomes assessment? The 108th US Congress’ Committee on Education and the Workforce recently published its report entitled, Views and Estimates for FY 2005, wherein it announced its intention to “work with President Bush to implement a series of education initiatives…by holding schools accountable for improving student academic performance.” As part of the its efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, “the committee will work to address the rising tuition costs and hold institutions of higher education accountable to students, parents, and taxpayers…” On the state level, a recent progress report issued by the Maryland Higher Education Commission indicated that “within the next few years, greater attention is likely to be given to the results of assessment activities as key stakeholders inquire about the quality of learning that is taking place in college. Accreditation organizations are asking campuses to provide information about the outcomes of assessment efforts.” This report further states that “at the 2002 Governors’ Conference on Higher Education in Maryland, there was a consensus that assessment of student learning is not an optional activity.”

What d'es this mean to us? If your institution desires reaccreditation, you will need to assess what students are learning, not just what you are teaching. So, it is not sufficient to assume that our students have the minimal technology skills by completing a computer literacy course. Rather, we must treat technological competency as a core competency for the college student—as important as math and reading—an area of skills and knowledge that students will learn and refine throughout their college career. Our challenge? Develop expected learning outcomes (i.e., what we expect our students to learn throughout their college career), develop ways to assess these outcomes, and implement the process.

Carroll’s Technology Assessment

In order to meet these challenges, Carroll Community College (MD) embarked upon the task of developing and implementing a plan to assess technological application as a core competency. This assessment would go beyond the simple head count of which students took technology-related courses, and even beyond the typical survey where students would rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 across various areas of technology skills. Rather, it would measure how well students could apply their technological skills. The challenge? Find an effective, low-cost way to accomplish just this.

Where it began. In 1996, Carroll Community College formally defined areas considered to be core competencies, to be measured across the entire institution:

  • Technology
  • Library/research
  • Oral communication
  • Mathematics
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Scientific reasoning
  • Metacognition

Within each of these core areas, specific skills were identified that would be measured to assess students’ competence. Measurement would take place not only at the course, departmental, and program levels, but across the entire institution, regardless of the specific curriculum. Ultimately, all courses would seek to provide significant educational experiences to improve these areas of core competency. As the year 2000 approached, Carroll’s Outcomes Assessment Committee charged faculty and staff with the responsibility of forming subcommittees in order to develop and implement assessment plans for each of the predefined Core Competency areas.

The Technology Assessment Group

One subcommittee, the newly-formed Technology Assessment Group (TAG), was charged with developing and implementing a technology assessment plan that would measure student competency in Technological Application—the ability to effectively use computer terminology, software, and hardware. This overall definition was broken down into four areas: 1) Creating electronic documents (word processing, desktop publishing), 2) Organizing data (spreadsheet, database management), 3) Communicating electronically (e-mail), and 4) Presenting/communicating thoughts and ideas (presentation management). Our plan needed to address the following questions:

Is there any currently existing data? The only data available showed student completion of one of several computer technology courses that satisfied the computer literacy requirement. The problem: This showed student’s grades for only one course, and truly didn’t measure student learning as a result of taking this one course.

What assessment tools will be used to evaluate student achievement of the core competency? First, we needed to determine what specific skills should be measured (i.e., what skills are important and valued). This was quite a task. After a great deal of research, taking into account Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) objectives and other user certifications, the TAG committee developed its own list of word processing, spreadsheet, etc. skills that were important indicators of technological competency. Skills were identified as Level 1 (basic skills) and Level 2 (more advanced skills). Students would then be rated at a Level 0, 1, or 2 based upon the results of the assessment. Next, the TAG committee had to choose an assessment instrument (MOS, IC3, Tek.Xam, or a home-grown instrument?) The largest issue affecting this decision was cost. For example, the per-student cost for a MOS exam for one area (word processing, for example) could cost anywhere from $50 to $75. Given the intended sample size of 400 students, the cost would be prohibitive. So, although an existing instrument would be easiest to implement, we opted to develop our own assessment instrument, at least for the initial assessment.

What methodology will be associated with data collection? Since this was only an initial assessment of students’ technological application core competencies, it was decided to assess 100 students within each of the technology areas, for a total of 400 students. Courses and sections were chosen so that a majority of the students sampled had completed 30 credits or more at our college, and the sampling would evenly represent the various disciplines across the institution. Instructors for each section were asked to partner with us in developing their own in-class assessment that measured specific technology skills, but also would add to the overall learning experience for the course. Ultimately, this would allow the assessment to be seen as relevant to the student and would allow for assessment of the student’s ability to apply technology skills to real-life scenarios. Plus, the instructor would be less likely to “lose” the class time to an assessment that had no relation to the course itself. Assessments would be developed during Spring 2003 semester, modified as necessary over the summer, and implemented during the fall semester.

What preliminary assessments can be made about the evaluation of data? The TAG committee developed initial standards, or preliminary expectations, for the technology core competency assessment. These standards were based upon the expected percentage of students who would be evaluated at a Level 1 competency.

Assessment Completed and Lessons Learned

The technological application core competency assessment was completed in Fall 2003. It proved to be a time-intensive process, which was completed by all assigned faculty—most of whom did so in a very positive, helpful manner. This leads to the discussion of the key questions:

Would we conduct the assessment in the same manner again, using a home-grown instrument? Perhaps. There were definitely challenges faced in relying upon faculty to provide leadership in developing assessment activities for their own classes. Some faculty required more assistance than others. But in the end, all of the assessment activities developed by faculty were successful in providing an assessment of students’ technological competencies that also related well to the course material. The issue of cost is still relevant. To date, the cost of some of the well-known assessments (MOS, etc.) continues to rise.

Where do we go from here? After the initial comparison to expected results, the assessment results will be analyzed in detail to determine which areas of technological application require the most attention. As needed, development opportunities will be provided for faculty and staff. In order to fully assess student learning, this assessment process should be implemented for both incoming students as well as students who have completed 30 or more credits. Of course, the instrument and methodology will need to be modified for future assessments, based on analysis of this first assessment.

Implications for Other Institutions

Is Carroll Community College’s technology assessment the model for other institutions? Maybe, maybe not. It is presented here as a case study of how one college began the process. We have not reached the ultimate goal of adequately assessing student learning in the area of technological application, but we are at least one or two steps closer.


Online Pedagogy

Catalyst for Transforming the Teaching-Learning Enterprise
Karen Gersten, Associate Dean and Managing Director of Distance Learning, and Laura J. Evans, Dean and Vice Provost for Continuing Education, Roosevelt University (IL)

We present here the complex process of developing an academically and financially successful fully online program from both faculty and administrative perspectives, based on the case example of one private, tuition-driven institution. While this institution faced many common challenges in its attempt to initiate a fully online learning program—including resources and resistance from faculty and administration—it has met its goals of achieving learning outcomes, student and faculty satisfaction, and fiscal success through a student-centered model based on online pedagogy. We discuss here major elements of the process that resulted in an online program that has proven successful and sustainable over time.

Case Study: RUOnline

Roosevelt University (IL) in Chicago is an independent, private institution with a highly diverse student population. Administrators there gave little attention to online learning prior to 2000, and when they did, they focused on fiscal viability rather than on quality of learning. Everything changed for Roosevelt in June 2000 when the McCormick Tribune Foundation offered a generous two-year grant to initiate a fully online learning program. An administrative-faculty triad based in a non-traditional college was appointed to plan, design, and implement an online initiative to launch no later than 2002, when the grant funding would expire.

RUOnline premiered in Fall 2001 with 77 enrollments in seven courses. Three years later, the program yields approximately 700 enrollments in over 40 course sections each semester. The program offers one complete degree each at the bachelor’s and master’s levels as well as certificates and courses in several academic areas.

Through these programs, it has attracted new student populations to the university. Most importantly, it has moved both the faculty and administration from resistance to acceptance, and it has improved the quality of teaching and learning in both online and face-to-face formats.

Measuring Online Success: Some Guideposts

Many online programs have entered the academic arena. Some have become well-known and successful, some have maintained static enrollments, and others have ceased to exist. To embark on a successful online initiative, it is important to identify markers of success, to set targets in each of these areas, and to craft a strategic plan that defines an institutional approach to achieving and sustaining success. For RUOnline, primary measures of success included:

  • Recruiting new student populations to the university
  • Aiding student retention through student satisfaction
  • Achieving fiscal sustainability
  • Contributing to the university’s overall strategic plan

Recruiting new student populations. Through targeted marketing campaigns, RUOnline increased overall enrollment each semester since its launch in Fall 2001. More importantly, its enrollment changed from students who live and work near one of the university’s physical campuses to students in more than 15 states, including one student in Alaska and a member of the military stationed in Korea.

Retention through student satisfaction. It is one thing to attract new student populations; it is quite another to retain them. RUOnline focused on students and their attainment of academic goals in every aspect of program planning, from course design to faculty training to student service. This focus on student learning resulted in a high level of student satisfaction; in Spring 2004, 92 percent of fully online students who responded to an end-of-term survey said they learned as much or more in their online classes than in face-to-face classes. Because students are satisfied with their fully online learning experience, 90 to 98 percent have completed their courses each semester, and over 90 percent of students who begin online certificate or degree programs re-enroll in subsequent semesters. In addition, students who relocated after beginning their studies at a physical campus have been able to complete their Roosevelt University degrees as a result of the online program, increasing the university’s overall retention rates.

Fiscal viability. A program cannot be considered successful unless it is financially sustainable over time. The goal for RUOnline was to be financially self-sustaining no later than 2005, three years after the end of the grant period. RUOnline surpassed that goal. Not only is the program self-supporting; it is highly profitable. In fiscal year 2004, RUOnline generated 10 times its operational budget in tuition revenue, and its contribution margin increased from 22.56 percent in fiscal year 2003, to 50.51 percent in fiscal year 2004.

Achieving Online Success: Essential Elements

Supporting the university’s strategic plan. Strategic planning is the first and most fundamental step in implementing and sustaining a successful online program, and its success rests on its integration with institutional vision and mission, and coordination with the university’s strategic plan. Roosevelt University went through a major strategic planning initiative focused on student success and the university’s historic mission of access. RUOnline adopted this institutional focus and based its strategic vision in pedagogy and in extending the mission of access beyond the university’s physical borders. To do this, RUOnline founders read available research literature and studied a range of online programs including the most notable successes and the most profound failures because we could learn from each school’s experience.

RUOnline also sought external benchmarks against which it could evaluate its effectiveness. Initially, RUOnline used a research-driven list of quality markers for online education developed by the National Education Association and Blackboard Inc. [Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2000] and addressed each of the 24 benchmarks in the areas of institutional support, course development, teaching/learning, course structure, faculty support, and evaluation and assessment. RUOnline also used research on best practices in online learning, including Chickering and Gamson’s 1987 principles of effective teaching for the online environment [Chickering, A.W., & Gamson, Z.F., “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” American Association of Higher Education Bulletin], Chickering & Ehrman, 1996 [Chickering, A.W., & Ehrman, S.C., “Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever,” American Association of Higher Education Bulletin] and Cross’s 2003 analysis of teaching and learning in the next century [Cross, K.P., “Teaching and Learning in the Next Century,” The National Teaching and Learning Forum]. Currently, RUOnline uses the Statement of Commitment by the Regional Accrediting Associations for the Evaluation of Electronically Offered Degree and Certificate Programs (Higher Learning Commission, 2003) and 2004 research conducted by Carol A. Twigg through the Center for Academic Transformation, to guide its practice.

RUOnline: Pedagogical Practices

Student engagement. Connectivity is the key to RUOnline’s success, and connectivity g'es far beyond bandwidth. RUOnline attempts to achieve student engagement—a major factor in student success—by connecting students to course content, to the faculty member, to other students, and to Roosevelt University. Connections in each of these areas address principles of best practice identified by most current research, and at the same time, send a powerful message that RUOnline values personal connection over computer power.

Connectivity centers every aspect of RUOnline on student:

  • Learning, resulting in high levels of student satisfaction
  • Achievement of learning outcomes
  • High course completion and retention rates

Simple questions; profound results. Achieving student engagement begins with a course design process based on three simple questions:

  • What am I trying to do? (learning outcomes)
  • How am I trying to do it? (course content and teaching methodology)
  • How do I know if I did it? (assessment)

These simple questions refocus faculty from course content to student learning. The questions begin with the individual course, but they extend far beyond, influencing all teaching and learning conducted at the university. After defining course-specific learning, faculty consider how the learning outcomes of one course impact the academic program it serves, the college in which it is housed, and the mission of the university. This process and the research and strategy underlying it are detailed in a course development document given to each faculty developer.

Instructional design principles based in student learning. RUOnline bases its course design on certain fundamental principles shown to help students achieve learning outcomes. Individual design principles and their combination focus on helping students comprehend information, connect new learning to existing knowledge, and apply new concepts to concrete situations. Among these design principles are:

  • Chunking content into small blocks of material allows students to absorb and retain information more easily by aiding short-term memory.
  • Visual interest attracts and maintains student engagement, emphasizes levels of importance and relationships among elements of course content, and deepens the learning process. White space, graphics, colors, fonts, and lists are all ways to engage students in the learning process.
  • Formative assessment provides information to students and faculty as the online course progresses. Students can gauge their learning and make strategic changes they might need to ensure their success, and faculty can modify the course as dictated by student learning. This complements summative assessment that can be used to evaluate student progress and issue grades.
  • Participatory/active learning is key to online success. For students to take an active role in the learning community, the faculty role shifts from course leader to course facilitator who communicates passion for the content to the students and who empowers students to become increasingly autonomous learners. Group spaces, virtual classrooms, and whiteboards are tools that encourage active learning, but the faculty member’s role is pivotal.
Institutional Transformation

At Roosevelt University, faculty, students, administration, and curriculum have changed as more university constituents become involved with RUOnline.

Faculty. Many faculty, initially resistant to the concept of fully online learning, now embrace the student-centered concepts on which RUOnline is based and apply those concepts to all their teaching—online, face-to-face, and blended.

Administration. Because the initiation of fully online learning was externally funded, the university administration adopted a wait-and-see attitude until the program required investment of university resources. Because RUOnline demonstrated its fiscal viability far ahead of schedule, because numerous university constituents clearly benefited from the program, and because the university gained some national recognition for the academic integrity of its online programming, online education became regularized into the university’s scheduling process, “online” was added to Chicago and Schaumburg in the university’s logo, and online learning is a major component in the university’s current strategic plan.

Students. As a result of online learning, new students are attending Roosevelt, current students are taking more credit hours per semester, students who relocate or whose work and family demands make it impossible to attend on-campus classes are completing their Roosevelt degrees, and when given the choice, students are opting for online classes over their campus-based counterparts. In the two fully online degrees, online enrollments comprise 43 percent and 46 percent of total program enrollments, more than either of the two physical campuses. Students see multiple benefits of online learning as exemplified in the following student comment:

“I thought about how I almost didn’t start down this road of going back to school because of the cost and thinking I'm just too old. It made me realize how much I would be missing out on. I would never have the opportunity to meet so many people from so many backgrounds and occupations, and hear about such utterly amazing accomplishments! I love getting to know other people and this is a really great way to get a glimpse into people’s lives without feeling intrusive. My life is truly being enriched because of RUOnline. My lifestyle d'esn’t allow for me to get back to school any other way.”

Curriculum. Most compelling is the transformation in curriculum review and the desire to improve the quality of instruction. Rather than an individual orientation, faculty are working together to review courses, learning outcomes, best practices, and assessment tools, and to ensure each course’s fit in the programmatic mission. The result: a more energized faculty and a more contemporary and consistent curriculum.


RUOnline is in its infancy, and its impact on Roosevelt University is just beginning to be realized. Nonetheless, it already has had a profound impact on the way people at Roosevelt teach and learn. As program participation increases and administration attends more closely to online programming, RUOnline will continue to influence how Roosevelt engages in the business of higher education. As RUOnline evolves, however, one element will remain constant—the core value of student-centered learning.


Outsourcing: Build or Buy

Jason LaMar, Interim Director of Information Services, Ohio Wesleyan University
Aaron Thomason, Technology Specialist, University of Central Arkansas
William Riffee, Associate Provost and Dean, University of Florida

Once more we tackle the debatable question of whether institutions of higher education should “build or buy” technology solutions. You’ll find that there is not a quick, pat answer that we can apply to this argument. Every institution, every technology is different, and as such might be better suited for one or the other. In certain instances where an institution requires a highly specialized, “custom-built” technology solution, building it in-house may be necessary.

My institution, the University of Central Arkansas, has no mechanism by which individual colleges can collect data electronically from faculty and students. Our institution has an IT department to service the campus-wide technology needs (student and faculty e-mail, Web registration, help desk support), but the IT department has its hands full. Colleges are left on their own to figure out how to manage their own databases and collect what they need for accreditation and program improvement. In this decentralized architecture, colleges have to tackle the “build or buy” question themselves. My college could not find software off the shelf that would fit our exact needs, and in our minds outsourcing such a project loomed large as costing more than we could afford. For us, then, it was “build or bust.”

Owning a Solution Outright

One of the perks of choosing to build is that you own what you create, and I’m speaking about the feeling of “ownership” as much as I am speaking about the actual hardware and software. There are no ongoing licensing fees or inflated, outsourced maintenance costs, either. You are going to incur costs no matter which solution you build, but when you choose to build instead of buy, you get to continuously toss around functionality and design enhancements. You’ll no doubt want to establish procedures for seeing new features realized, but having the ability to tweak and fine-tune with minimum cost gets all your constituents involved in the development of a system that actually might accomplish your technology objectives. It’s exciting to build, but your first concern should be with which technologies.

Open Source or Microsoft?

If you are going to build in-house, Microsoft ( offers a broad range of solutions that will integrate well with one another. Furthermore, thousands of third-party solution providers offer products that are meant to work within the .NET framework. Most faculty and students are familiar with Microsoft Office and Microsoft Internet Explorer, and these play a huge role in any data-collection portions of your solution. From a programmer’s perspective, you always want to build with what you know; but from a college’s perspective, you want your solution built with something that is intuitive and easy to learn. You can build an intuitive client with either Microsoft or open source solutions, but you will build faster and more manageable code with Microsoft .NET.

Since the debate of this presentation is “build or buy,” I will simply say that I have been totally amazed by what is possible with Microsoft solutions. One of the biggest perks is that there are so many examples from which to learn. If you have to build in-house, that means you have to train someone in-house, and the availability of books and online help is by far in favor of Microsoft solutions.

Outsourcing in a Nutshell

The following are derived from various sources, including Educause publications, previous Syllabus conference speakers, and other higher education technology sources.

Definition of outsourcing. A long-term (greater than one year) contracting between a customer and a vendor in which the customer contracts all, or a major portion, of an organizational operation or function to the vendor. Can also include any measurable organizational activity that is contracted for any period of time to a third party.

Primary reasons for outsourcing. Lack of critical in-house IT skills, access to more advanced technologies, and reduce operating inefficiencies.

Moving ahead with outsourcing:

  • Develop a cost structure model that includes an estimate of full-time employees (FTEs) required to perform the set of tasks associated with the agreement, an “uplift” factor (i.e., profit margin), corporate overhead, management fees for equipment purchased by the outsourcing vendor, hardware and software costs, and an inflation factor.

  • Recognize that outsourcing decisions can be driven by cost, the need for speed to market, institutional capabilities, and the “worry factor” associated with critical projects.

  • Understand campus factors, establish rational decision points, and identify qualified vendors.

  • Prepare a comprehensive, detailed request for proposal (RFP) and carefully negotiate contract.

  • Assign senior talent to administer the contract, including regularly scheduled service level and contract reviews to ensure proper oversight.

Outsourcing: Do…

  • Spend time defining appropriate service levels.

  • Hire a full-time contract administrator.

  • Use or hire an experienced negotiator during contract negotiations. Remember that outsourcing vendors do this for a living.

  • Maintain a core staff of specialists to maintain knowledge of key systems and to support bringing services back in-house at the end of the agreement.

Outsourcing: Don’t…

  • Sign long-term contracts (example cited of a 10-year agreement for outsourcing administrative systems).
  • Enter into an outsourcing agreement without a plan to insource services at the end of the agreement.
  • Ignore or underestimate the impact of outsourcing agreements on institutional culture (e.g., salary differences, conflicting loyalty, fear of being fired).

Campus leadership concerns:

  • Costs. Cost of delivering IT services on campus is rising rapidly due to increasing demand for services, growing numbers of users, increased complexity of system integration, rising expectations of client service.
  • Services. Rapid evolution of and dependence on complex IT requirements through advanced enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, broadband networks, online student services, and Web-based instructional and course systems, including content management systems (CMS).
  • Staffing. Transition from relatively few IT users who understood the systems to virtually everyone on campus, regardless of knowledge, has required significant changes in technical support and infrastructure maintenance.
  • Competitiveness. A core concern, driven by media coverage of most-wired schools and popular press focusing on rankings and problem.

Debunking campus myths:

  • Higher education processes differ considerably from those found in the private sector, and my institution is markedly different from all other institutions.
  • Campuses need to remain self-sufficient, and we can’t outsource IT because it is strategic.
  • If we believe that a function is not performing well, we should outsource it.
  • Outsourcing IT will improve our competitiveness in distance education.
  • Campus IT costs are low because everyone pays on the margin.
  • IT budgets must operate within traditional fiscal-year boundaries.
  • We can save the most money by paring down the largest budget lines.
  • We will identify the low-cost bidder, then negotiate their price even lower because they should be “good citizens” and support higher education.
Lowering Costs

Total cost of ownership is often the crying point for those who choose to outsource. There are some technology services that make sense to outsource, but more for peace of mind than for lowering costs. Outsourcing has its place, but to apply the same cry—that cost of ownership would be too high for building an in-house developed solution—is ridiculous. There are many ways that you save by building a solution in-house.

For instance, you can lower costs by utilizing existing personnel to implement and build the system. Your system should improve efficiency enough to justify reassigning personnel to help in its construction. If you can’t get past this point, then I’m afraid you have no business considering building anything. For those of us who easily got past personnel assignment changes, however, you’ll find comfort in the fact that you can build over time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so take the time to plan on giving time to your developers. Going slowly in developing means you can build up to things that may require more money than you can spend up-front. Taking your time also saves you money because you can find viable alternatives that are less expensive.

If you go with Microsoft solutions, for instance, you’ll find a hefty educational discount on all of their products. Actually, you’ll find some of the largest discounts on the server software. Moreover, Microsoft bundles software and provides many free add-ons. For example, if you purchase a license for SQL Server 2000, you’ll get Microsoft Reporting Services for free. This saved my college $24,000, as we were close to purchasing a similar product when we learned of this add-on. Maintenance costs are lower overall, but if you run a central database server, you’ll need to budget for replacement hardware every three years. You can save money by using the older server as a test-and-development server.


This brings me to the concerns you should have if you pursue the “build” option: 1) You will be forced to think about failures, backup and recovery plans, testing, and deployment issues. Also keep in mind that a system that is constantly upgraded will need to be built to be scalable. 2) It takes time to learn the right way of building a solution. You should expect things to take considerable time, initially. You aren’t trying to build a solution overnight, so be sure to take small steps. 3) You’re going to hit a brick wall if you cannot retain on-staff those who build and manage the system. It’s always good policy to have two or more people who know your system inside and out. 4) Finally, and I believe most importantly, you have to maintain the courage you had in the first place to tackle building an in-house solution. Tons and tons of encouragement will help.

I speak from personal experience when I say that building technology solutions for my college has been one of the most exhilarating and yet also one of the most challenging things I have ever done. When I look at some of the systems we have put together ourselves, I don’t think there is any way that what we did could have been done by outsourcing.

Balancing Online Course Deadlines with the Need to Remain Flexible

Cindy Kenkel, Instructor, Northwest Missouri State University

“Sometimes life gets in the way” is a phrase many of us can relate to. Proponents of online education have been touting the benefits of asynchronous learning environments since its inception. However, these benefits generally refer to a student’s ability to complete the weekly or semiweekly assignments during a time period that allows them to fit nicely into a regular schedule, often accommodating full-time jobs and families. Generally, strict deadlines are still mandatory, but perhaps taking this flexibility to the next level will allow students to overcome obstacles or curve balls they encounter during the semester.

During the Fall 2003 semester, my online Human Resource class had 32 students (several of whom encountered obstacles that would have sent many traditional students to request a delayed grade or late drop request) who completed the course with higher than passing grades and an obvious mastery of the material.

Let me give you an idea of what my course involves: Most weeks, the course requires three to seven hours of outside reading, quiz taking, threaded discussions, and either a simple or extensive application assignment. Fifteen chapters were covered in a 15-week time period, along with three unit tests and one comprehensive final. Grades on the comprehensive final compared positively to the results of a traditional on-campus class completing the same material.

What transpired over the course of the trimester serves as a petri dish of situations that easily fit into the “life gets in the way” category. For instance (I’m not making this up), one student who has a full time job and is a mother of seven, had three children staying in the hospital, each for a week, and eventually ended up in the hospital herself after an unrelated serious car accident. In between, she changed jobs and still managed to complete every one of her assignments. On several occasions a deadline had to be extended by a day or two, but her dedication and my willingness to encourage her to take care of her family first, paid off. In addition, one class member lost a grandfather, another had a seriously ill father, and a third had complications with the birth of his second child; yet all managed to complete the coursework, barely missing a beat.

Just to add variety to the mix, I also had a student called up to report to the National Guard two weeks prior to the end of the semester. He, too, completed the course successfully. Another student with a new baby managed to complete the course while sending her husband back to Iraq to protect our country.

Of course, our experiences were not all bad. We also had a student who works the night shift as a supervisor at a local factory (also a mother of two) complete the course while training for a marathon. Adding significantly to class discussion were students in full-time professional positions, working in excess of 60 hours each week.

Is Your Online Course Really Flexible Enough?

Adhering to the weekly course outline is critical to maintaining lively threaded discussions and ensuring cramming is the exception rather than the rule in online courses. However, remaining flexible is also imperative. The students I mention above could easily have become discouraged and given up had they not been allowed the opportunity to make up their work. In a traditional classroom, students will request accommodating their needs if an illness or other situation conflicts with their scheduled course time. In an online situation, however, I’ve found the students are less likely to request a brief extension, assuming my answer will be, “You’ve had all week, why did you wait until the last minute?”

I have asked the students to provide in their own words their perception of how this learning experience was made possible despite their obstacles and roadblocks. As you read their responses, please consider how you will maintain control over the schedule while also meeting the needs of your diverse group of students.

Select Student Comments

“Online classes have given me the opportunity to be able to complete my degree. The flexibility and structure of these classes make it possible for me to continue my education while holding down a full-time job. I work in a fast-paced industry where my hours are never the same, and most of the time they exceed 50 hours per week, so going into a standard classroom setting was not an option for me to complete my degree. I have been taking online classes for the past three years and my current class, Human Resources, has been one of the most flexible classes I have taken. Having the assignments due by Sunday night really helped me out. Working all the hours I do, being able to get a textbook read and homework done by Friday was almost impossible. This flexibility made doing a good job on an assignment easier and allowed me to really grasp the concept better. I never felt rushed in class and was able to learn more in the process…”

“This learning experience was possible because of the flexibility online classes provide to me. I travel a lot for work and being able to access class by Internet is sometimes my only means of attending class. I went out of town for nearly 10 days in November and I didn’t miss out on anything. I was able to review and keep up on everything that was discussed in the class just like I had never been gone. The great thing is, I did all of this from a local library in the town in which I was staying.”

“I drive an hour and a half every day to go to work, and then work the night shift. Due to this complicated situation, online classes were a must in order to keep up this schedule. My other online course was actually very unorganized. The tests were scheduled for one week and then wouldn’t be available. It was kind of a ‘whenever you get it done, you do’ course. I like having the one week to do everything. I feel you know ahead of time exactly what you need to get done, and have all week to do it.”

“The assignments have not been any easier than in a normal classroom setting however, they have been much more enjoyable to me, because I can spend time with my family, and then do my schoolwork on my time, when it is convenient to me. [The instructor’s] flexibility had a tremendous impact on the performance of the students: Although we knew what was expected of us, [the instructor] also understood that the majority of us were non-traditional students with many responsibilities and could not always make school a top priority.”

“I certainly appreciated that the threaded discussions did not have to be done on any day or time in particular, but were due by the end of the week, like the other assignments. I typically have no time to think, breathe, or anything else until Sunday afternoon/evening because of my job and other commitments; therefore, the flexibility of this course was wonderful for me. I have taken other online courses that are flexible, but not as flexible as HR was. With the added flexibility, I felt much less stressed-out during the semester. Of course, I enjoyed this class more than others because I use the things that we learn, with my job. I cannot stress enough how important the flexibility was and how much I appreciate being able to basically do my homework when I have the time. I’m guessing that the majority of online students are in situations similar to mine (working adults with families and lots of other commitments) and we really, really need that flexibility! I actually had a very traumatic experience early in the semester, but was able to get through it and keep up with class because of the flexibility.”

Faculty Weigh In

To best evaluate how your level of flexibility matches other faculty, I developed a brief questionnaire and requested feedback from 42 faculty members who teach online classes at Northwest Missouri State University. Twenty-four surveys were returned from faculty with one to five years’ experience teaching online courses and one to 37 years in teaching traditional courses. Questions were designed to measure a faculty member’s unique teaching style and level of flexibility.


Key findings from the questionnaire, along with student feedback, have been used to support my three basic recommendations.

1—Prepare lessons in advance so students can be working ahead if their schedule allows. Seventy percent of faculty polled indicated they post all assignments and deadlines at the beginning of a course, while another 20 percent indicate major course assignments and deadlines are posted at the beginning of a course. Only six out of 24 faculty indicated assignments and deadlines were posted less than one month prior to due dates. The majority of faculty also indicated they encourage students to work ahead on assignments and material if they wish. Thirty percent indicated they strictly regulate the access of course material so all students are completing projects at roughly the same time.

2—Allow at least one week for students to finish threaded discussions, projects, and activities (many students need the entire weekend to complete a unit). While 75 percent of faculty log on to the course five times per week or daily, only one of the faculty members expects students to log on daily. Half indicate they expect students to log on weekly; 48 percent expect students to log on two to three times per week. Tests were rarely open for students to work on ahead of time, and 13 faculty members indicated they only open tests three days or less. Thirty percent of the faculty indicated academic dishonesty was their major concern or drawback related to an online course. Concerns for monitoring academic honesty outweighed the need for flexibility in this aspect. Tests do not need to be open for more than three days, but ideally, one of these days should be a Saturday or Sunday.

3—Add a statement to your syllabus or announcements indicating students should contact you if a serious family or work situation prohibits them from meeting a course deadline. Most faculty (100 percent) indicated they would treat a missed test or course assignment in the same manner they would for traditional in-class students. The most common response indicated faculty will allow make-up of an exam or major project if a student provides evidence that the deadline was not completed on time due to an emergency.

Although this level of flexibility has been offered, 78 percent of faculty indicate students never or rarely fail to turn in a major course project. One faculty member stated, “Online students are more apt to make deadlines automatically. They do not complain as much as the sometimes pampered on-campus students.”

Final Thoughts

Six faculty mentioned not connecting with the students in the online environment as a major drawback compared to a traditional classroom. Comments were: “Lacks in-person interaction.” “More impersonal.” “Do miss personal, face-to-face interaction.” “Face-to-face is missing.” Perhaps noticing when a student who normally meets each deadline hasn’t logged on in his or her usual pattern (just as you would notice an empty seat in traditional class) will help fill this void. Rather than waiting for the student to request an extension on a deadline, initiate the dialog over e-mail or pick up the phone and call to see if “life has gotten in the way.”

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