The University of South Carolina's College of Nursing offers several upper-division undergraduate online courses to accommodate on-campus students' busy schedules. Between 230 and 250 students typically enroll in each of these courses, and despite these relatively large sections, the courses are engaging and effective.
In an interview with Online Classroom, educators in the college talked about the design, facilitation, and management of these courses.
“In a large online course, you can pretty much do anything you can do in a small-enrollment course, through an elaborate design process, tight structure, and organization. But you have to change your thinking and use a variety of tools to create as rich a presence as you would in a small-enrollment course,” says Vera Polyakova-Norwood, director of distributed learning for the College of Nursing.
The courses feature multimedia lectures, readings, and activities that have students apply content to realistic situations.
For example, in an evidence-based practice course, Mary Boyd has students participate in a lifestyle questionnaire that is a real research project. “The students are actually the sample for this mini research project, and after they have taken the survey and filled out some demographic information, our statistician analyzes the data, and I report the results to the students in a video,” she says.
“When designing a course, in addition to posting all the content ahead of time, we make sure that each week contains one of these engagement/participation activities. We know from the research that at the baccalaureate level, academic success is very strongly correlated with attendance and participation, so we make sure that students have to do something each week,” Polyakova-Norwood says.
The activities often are fairly basic. To create a discussion-like activity, an instructor can post a question or case study in a weekly guide for the students to reflect on. Their answers can be collected through a survey, and the instructor can share the survey results and provide video commentary.
In a course on the care of older adults, students view a YouTube video about older adults, reflect on it, and explain what they learned from this activity.
“But then the important part would be for the faculty member to provide feedback on that exercise,” Polyakova-Norwood says. “If the assignment is to watch a video and post your thoughts, and that's the end of it, then it's dead. If it's to reflect and post your thoughts, and [the instructor] will give you feedback on where you are in your thought process, that's a totally different thing.”
Another assignment that has students apply their learning to realistic situations is a debate scenario that Boyd uses in her course. There are 29 clinical groups in the course, and each group signs up for a debate topic. A recent debate addressed the question of whether family members should be allowed to stay in the room while a family member is being resuscitated. Each clinical group divides into pro and con sides. Each debate occurs asynchronously within a one-week period in which the teams review the literature and pull articles that support their side of the debate. The teams write opening statements and rebuttals. Then the rest of the class weighs in, and finally each team does a summation. After the summation, each team comes together to go over the evidence, and each student decides which side of the debate he or she supports. Each team then writes evidence-based practice guidelines based on the debate and posts those to a wiki.
“This simulates what they will do as graduates when they come upon a practice problem that they need more information about or something that's puzzling to them,” Boyd says.
Those not directly involved in the debate are required to follow each debate, complete a survey, and offer feedback. The survey asks students how the debate has affected their understanding of the topic, which helps measure the effectiveness of this activity.
Meticulous organization is the key to making this assignment work. Guidelines explain exactly what the students need to do day by day throughout the debate, when they need to post opening arguments or rebuttals, and so forth. A detailed grading rubric explains the requirements of each part of the debate.
In addition to these guidelines, Boyd created a screencast that shows students how to access the materials for the debates and explains the guidelines. “After that, there should be no reason at all that they should be lost,” Boyd says.
“During the process of designing a course and preparing for implementation, we have to think of every tiny detail, build a very complex infrastructure for communication, and ask whether it's manageable on the students' end. Can they keep up with all of this? Are the instructions clear? Is it manageable on the instructor's side?” Polyakova-Norwood says.
In a high-enrollment course, students' questions about content can quickly accumulate. In order to reduce the burden on the instructors, students are instructed to post their content questions to a discussion board thread called “Questions about Course Content” rather than email the instructor. “Every day I go to the discussion board and look for those questions and answer them there. I tell the students, ‘If you post your question there, everybody has the advantage of seeing the question and the answer.' And I tell students, ‘If you see a question and know the answer, go ahead and answer it,'” Boyd says.
Planning for feedback is an important part of preparing a high-enrollment online course. “My recommendation is that each week the faculty should provide feedback on the previous week's activities, which we do as a video recorded either in Adobe Connect or with a Web cam. These are comments on how the previous week went and what students need to focus on during the upcoming week. This is feedback to the whole class,” Polyakova-Norwood says.
If there's a group activity, the instructor should provide feedback to the group in the group area within the LMS.
Then there's individual feedback, which needs to be carefully planned in a high-enrollment online course so the instructor is not overwhelmed. “You have to plan out your schedule so you do have time every day to devote to providing some feedback,” says Beverly Baliko, who teaches an online senior year leadership course in the College of Nursing. “You don't have to provide paragraphs and paragraphs of feedback, but you should tailor it to what the students have submitted.”
“[Feedback] has to be meticulously planned so that the faculty member would know, ‘Monday morning, I'm recording my overview of the previous week and posting it to the course. During the group activities such as debate or group presentations, I am providing feedback to each of the participating groups. And if there's an individual assignment that students submitted, the faculty member has to budget her time to make sure she can provide feedback to the individual students. We plan all that way ahead of time,” Polyakova-Norwood says.
Students need to feel that their instructor is involved and that they belong to a learning community. To create a sense of presence and community within a large online course, Boyd has students post introductions during the first week and avoids major assignments. “We want them to look around the Blackboard site and see how the course is organized. We also ask them to go to the class discussion board and post a greeting to their classmates. We all spend the first week greeting them individually. I go to each student's post, greet the student, and make some comments about what he or she has posted. We try to make the students feel [that they are] welcome in the course and that we are paying attention to them as individuals,” Boyd says.
As the course progresses, frequent announcements can remind students of the instructor's presence. “Videos help,” Baliko says. “Even if you don't have anything substantive to say, frequent announcements remind students that you're paying attention to what they're doing.”
In addition to solving a “scheduling nightmare,” these high-enrollment online courses, in some ways, provide more interaction than students would experience in a face-to-face class of a similar size. “The students really do get more of my time in my online classes than they would in a face-to-face class,” Boyd says.
Polyakova-Norwood adds that in a large lecture, an instructor may break for questions and directly engage a handful of students, whereas in a well-designed and properly executed large online course, all the students can be actively engaged on a regular basis through a combination of individual, group, and entire-class activities.