Characteristics of Effective Distance Courses and Programs
Effective online courses have been offered in every content area from math to music and from physics to physical education. A review of these courses yields the following four common, essential characteristics: effective course structure and design, engaging learning activities, interactive learning communities, and effective assessment strategies.
Well-Designed and Structured to Support Learning
Just as with any course, effective online courses must be well planned and systematically designed to take advantage of the unique capabilities and constraints of the learning environment. Alley and Jansek (2001) list 10 characteristics of a high-quality online learning environment:
- Knowledge is constructed, not transmitted.
- Students can take full responsibility for their own learning.
- Students are motivated to want to learn.
- The course provides "mental white space" for reflection.
- Learning activities appropriately match student learning styles.
- Experiential, active learning augments the website environment.
- Solitary and interpersonal learning activities are interspersed.
- Inaccurate prior learning is identified and corrected.
- "Spiral learning" provides for revisiting and expanding prior lessons.
- The master teacher is able to guide the overall learning process.
Engaging, Collaborative Activities
Although some students prefer courses to be individual, tutorial-like ones in which they work at their own pace through a sequence of tasks, the most enjoyable courses seem to be those in which students are highly engaged in discussion and collaboration. Many online courses encourage this kind of engagement through the bulletin boards or conferences provided by CMSs. Klemm (1998) described eight ways of achieving more student engagement through online conferences:
- Require participation — Participation in each conference should be a required, graded activity rather than an optional one.
- Form learning teams — If handled properly, collaborative activities can encourage a "team spirit" toward learning.
- Make activity interesting — Consider student backgrounds, experiences, interests, and concerns.
- Don't settle for opinions — Student contributions should be based on their readings and research.
- Structure the activity — Have a specific set of tasks and a definite beginning and end to each.
- Require a deliverable — The activity should revolve around a product to develop and turn in.
- Know what you are aiming for — Set up expectations for adequate participation, and communicate them clearly to students. Instructors should provide consistent, ongoing critiques and feedback to encourage involvement.
- Use peer grading — Ask students to rate each other on their contributions to the conference. (This is the most controversial of Klemm's recommendations; not all experts agree this is feasible.)
An Interactive Learning Community
Teachers and students agree that online courses are more motivating if they simulate the community one finds in a good face-to-face course. Solloway and Harris (1999) say that so-called learning communities (groups of people who "meet" via email or web pages to support each other's learning) in web-based courses are the result of careful planning and strong support by the instructor and a support team. However, it is apparent that learning communities require more than just well-designed instruction. They also involve strategic, ongoing efforts by the instructor to encourage student-to-student interaction, as well as student-to-instructor interaction, and to have students get to know each other as learners and as people. They are communities in the truest, most culture-based sense of the word.
Effective Assessment Strategies for Online Courses and Programs
While alternative assessments are popular in online lessons, many online learning course systems also offer traditional assessment options. WebCT, for example, has a test module with which instructors can develop objective tests, have students take them online, grade them automatically, and summarize test results across the class.
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