Proceedings >> Session Highlights
If you attended these selected sessions, revisit important talking points
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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:
- Oral communication
- Scientific reasoning
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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 (www.microsoft.com)
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
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
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
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
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
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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.”