Posted on 6/25/2009
Liz Stover, left, and Cheryl Murphy received an award at the annual Blackboard users' conference in Washington, D.C.
Online course delivery is no longer the wave of the future – it’s here – and a University of Arkansas faculty-staff team is riding high on that wave.
Cheryl Murphy, associate professor of educational technology in the College of Education and Health Professions, and Liz Stover, an instructional designer with the Global Campus, recently won an Exemplary Course Award from Blackboard Inc. They will receive the award at Blackboard’s annual users’ conference in July in Washington, D.C.
Blackboard is a global leader in enterprise technology and innovative solutions that improve the experience of millions of students and learners around the world every day. The annual award recognizes faculty who develop exciting and innovative courses that represent the very best in e-learning, according to Blackboard officials. This year’s entries were evaluated in a rigorous peer-review process by a panel of more than 135 faculty judges from institutions around the world.
Murphy teaches and serves as program coordinator of the Master of Education degree in educational technology. It’s a 33-hour non-thesis online master’s program that prepares students for professional positions as educational technologists of education, business, government and the health professions.
The award-winning course that Murphy and Stover designed and Murphy delivered is called Instructional Design Theories and Models. There were 18 students enrolled in the graduate-level course in the fall of 2008, the first time it was offered in the current format.
Murphy explained that there are several misconceptions about online courses, from the perspective of both faculty and students.
“From a student’s standpoint, they think an online course will be easier,” she said. “Every semester, I have students drop a class just for that reason. They say, ‘You’re asking us to do a lot.’ When this program was converted to an all-online degree, I literally took the face-to-face ETEC courses and put them online. I didn’t change the rigor. There are still large papers required, still deadlines, still group projects. There’s no compromise in quality.”
Students also think that they can work at their own pace, Murphy said, but the course follows a set schedule with an assignment due each week.
“We get together online every week,” she said. “Students must interact with each other and with me. They must be visible. They can’t disappear for two weeks and not have a point reduction. The same rules apply; they have to be present but it’s an online presence.”
It’s common for faculty to believe an online course is less work than teaching face-to-face, Murphy said.
“You don’t just throw stuff out there and become a grader,” she said. “You have to be very active and involved. I attend all the live sessions and I have online office hours.”
Murphy also regularly e-mails students and, if she gets a question from one that answering could help everyone, she sends both an e-mail to all students and posts a recorded answer on Blackboard.
“Students were having trouble posting to a wiki, so I recorded myself logging in and making a post and then posted that demo for the students,” she said. “It does take a large amount of time if you want to teach well in the classroom. The same is true for online courses. Classes can be terrible online and they can be terrible face-to-face. If faculty members are not responsive to students, that’s a missed opportunity.”
While online instruction is pedagogically sound, the challenge to instructors is finding the most effective tool for the task, Murphy said.
“There are different techniques you can use to take up papers,” she continued. “In a face-to-face class, it’s easy. It can be more difficult in an online setting. One reason we won this award is that we use a multitude of technologies. They liked the way we used the technologies – it was not just for technology’s sake. We had a clear purpose for each tool and they enhanced learning.”
The course includes an interactive session each week that Murphy called Thursday Night Live.
“We read a case study and one student guides us through the discussion,” she said. “We hash out what went wrong with the implementation, then the students write a reflective paper.
“We use a tool called Elluminate that allows students to log on and talk online. They can upload PowerPoint files and other files. As long as they can log onto the Internet and have a microphone on their computer, they can participate.”
For the Blackboard competition, the courses were evaluated on a rubric based on four categories: course design, interaction and collaboration, assessment, and learner support.
The reviewers want to see that the course site is easy for the user to navigate and the objectives are listed, that students can find resources easily to support the content presented, that any technical assistance an online student would need is available and that assessments accurately reflect whether learning is occurring, according to Murphy. Stover’s contribution to the course was essential, she said.
“As an instructional designer, Liz Stover helps faculty by providing a template that ensures all of these things are occurring,” Murphy said. “She also makes sure that all aspects of the course are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Although her field is educational technology, Murphy said most faculty members are not familiar enough with online instruction to design a course on their own and still incorporate the industry’s best practices.
“The instructional design service provided by the Global Campus is vitally important in our effort to give students the highest quality instruction possible,” she said.
Stover said putting together the submission packet for the award will ultimately enable the Global Campus to encourage other faculty members to teach online.
“We’re pushing distance education, and this was a good course to model,” she said. “The rubric used by Blackboard provided an incentive for me to meet the highest standards for usability and accessibility. It also afforded me the opportunity to model best practices and engage faculty in meaningful dialogue concerning effective online instruction. As a result of this program, I was able to work with a faculty member to critically analyze the use of numerous online best practices within a single course. The course now serves as a model where best practices can be concretely demonstrated to other faculty during development and evaluation activities.”
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