Strategic Planning of Online Instructional Programs: A Practitioner's Perspective
Steve Downey, University of Illinois
There's a fine line between an online course and an online curse. Unfortunately, that lost "o" all too frequently reappears in the "Oh, I wish we had done that" or "Oh, we didn't think about that" revelations made by online instructors and program coordinators as they realize they overlooked an important element in their online courses and programs. To that end, this practitioner-oriented article seeks to address some of the more commonly overlooked areas of online instructional development and to assist practitioners and administrators involved with, or considering the development of, online instructional programs in ensuring the courses they put online are as well planned and well executed.
The contents of this article covers a wide spectrum of topics, some of which are specific to educational technology while others venture into the realm of information technology—i.e., section B on technology planning. This was necessary to address the wide range of course/program stages with which readers may have experience—i.e., long-standing courses/programs to courses/programs still in the conceptual stage—and to acknowledge the broad spectrum of readership associated with this journal, i.e., public vs. private sector, higher education vs. secondary/K-12 vs. corporate. To accommodate this wide range of course/program circumstances and journal readership, this article was intentionally written in a modular style to allow readers to select topics most relevant to them.
Each of the five sections in this article, shown in the outline below, addresses a specific aspect of online program planning and development. Section A, Building a Strategic Plan, is an good beginning for readers still in the conceptual stage of their online course/program development. It walks readers through the steps of selecting and building a planning committee, conducting a strategic plan assessment, and carrying out the initial stages of implementation. Section B, Technology Planning and Selection, targets the hardware and information technology aspects of online instructional delivery. For those organizations developing or updating their telecommunications infrastructures, the contents of this section may prove especially useful. Section C, Systemic Instructional Design Considerations, examines the big picture issues of online instructional design—course selection, assessment methodologies, etc. Section D, Training and Support Program Necessities, addresses one of—if not the—most overlooked areas that turn a course into a curse. Consequently it should be an area of particular interest to all readers of this article. Section E, Addressing Administrative and Policy Issues, is the murkiest of the five areas as it involves legal and policy issues for which few precedents have been established. Given this fact, this area will continue to receive significant attention researchers, practitioners, and the general public as the online instruction movement continues to grow.A. Building a Strategic Plan
A.2. What occurs in Phase 1: Organizational Self Assessment?
A.3. What should happen in Phase 2: Environment Scanning?
A.4. What events transpire in Phase 3: Strategic Plan Development?
A.5. When do planners need to implement Phase 4: Refining the Plan?
B.2. What do planners need to consider when planning a network?
B.3. How do planners select the appropriate instructional delivery system?
C.2. What assessment strategies are appropriate for online instruction?
C.3. What technologies facilitate online assessment?
D.2. Why have training and support programs?
E.2. What evaluation methods are appropriate for online programs?
E.3. What legal issues could affect your online program?
E.4. What types of policy issues are likely confront online programs?
Last, though hopefully not least, for each section there is a collection
of resources (online and otherwise) that readers can utilize to further
fulfill their current and future needs. By utilizing the contents
of this article along with these and other resources, it is hoped that
instructors and administrators can build online instructional programs
that provide high quality online courses and avoid any online curses.
While there is no universal definition of strategic planning, it is generally accepted that strategic planning is a disciplined effort to produce actions which determine what an organization does and how well it does it. As with the definition, strategic planning models vary with regard to exactly what processes should be completed and in what order. In general, however, models typically include the following steps: Selection of Planning Personnel, Organizational Self Assessment, Environment Scanning, Strategic Plan Development, and Plan Refinement. Where they differ is in the order and emphasis of these items. The following five questions look at these common strategic planning considerations as they apply to online programs.
A.1. Who should be on a strategic planning team?
Building a team which is able to identify tasks, delegate responsibilities, and collaborate in an efficient and effective manner will go a long way in determining the quality of the planned online program. With this in mind, give long and considerable thought to who is invited to participate in the strategic planning team. To assist you selecting potential members, possible personnel sources for each area are listed for each group to be represented on the team. Note, not all of the personnel sources for each group will apply to every online instructional program/institution. Having said this, as a general rule, the team members should represent the following five groups:
2. Administration – needed for political support and/or planning coordination
3. Content Delivery Experts
4. End Users
5. External Representatives – community/business representatives
Select members who possess the potential to provide insight into the technological requirements and procedures necessary to fulfill the program’s long-term goals. Frequently these team members will be providing technical support throughout the program development and delivery process as advisory committee members and/or program evaluation team members. As a result, their input is critical for not only selecting appropriate technologies for the online program, but for allowing them to plan for and implement strategies and procedures necessary to support the decisions made during the online program’s planning process.
As for the types of personnel to consider, the need for technology-oriented team members should be readily evident. Their input will affect technology-related planning, purchasing, implementation, and maintenance decisions and operations throughout the lifetime of the online program. It is recommended that varying levels of technologists—from administrators to developers to hardware maintenance—be represented on the planning team.
In addition to the obvious need to include technology-oriented members, key political personnel should be the next consideration. Without political support most endeavors will fail. Therefore consider including key administrators, board members, and union representatives, if appropriate.
A large portion of the strategic planning team should consist of content delivery specialists, such as teachers, instructional designers, and learning specialists. The goals, ideas, and procedures generated by these individuals will drive many of the decisions faced by the planning team. For example, if the delivery specialists believe that a synchronous (or "live") delivery approach is the most appropriate method for assisting users in learning the content associated with an online course, strategic decisions regarding software, hardware, and online access must address this chosen format.
Many organizations mistakenly stop their selection process with these three groups. A common reason for these error is that these individuals are the most readily available personnel and that to include others can be a logistical hurdle that planners simple aren’t willing to tackle. Unfortunately, these planners are missing out on a lot of valuable information and insight available from groups such as end users, community representatives, and external consultants.
As the customers of the online program, end users should have every opportunity to participate in the development process. Their participation brings a critical perspective to development processes and issues. Their involvement becomes especially important in developing and testing the user interfaces (screen designs) to be used in the online program. For example, potential design oversights, such as failing to provide access to online content for users with disabilities, can be quickly identified and addressed. Having end users of varying skill levels and backgrounds also helps designers accommodate the diversity of users who may be accessing the online program. Potential sources for team member recruitment may come from learners enrolled in current or previous course offerings, students from other/existing online instructional programs, student/employee organizations, and even community centers for issues such as disability access.
Community representatives, such as parents, current/potential employers of end users, funding agency representatives, etc., are excellent reservoirs for human and informational resources. Many times they—or their contacts—will have quick, effective solutions to problems which may otherwise seems insurmountable.
This first formal phase to many planning models requires that an organization assess its current state of operations, which comes down to asking, "Where are you now?" The importance of this question cannot be overstated. This is because the information gathered during this self assessment is used repeatedly throughout the planning process (refer to Figure 1 for an illustration of this point).
"Where are you now?" essentially comes to down to asking the following questions:
By summarizing the current strengths and weaknesses of the an organization in this way, planners can target their design and development efforts with the precision needed to efficiently and effectively maximize resources and address unfulfilled gaps.
"What personnel resources are available?" focuses attention on identifying the key technical, administrative, instructional, and creative personnel available to the organization and includes both inside and outside personnel, i.e., consultants and community representatives.
While the discussion of the six personnel groups mentioned in Question A.1 emphasizes the each group’s contribution to the planning of an online program, a re-assessment of these groups should be conducted with an eye on identifying individuals who can/will participate in the implementation and operation of the online program.
In general, look for individuals to assist with:
With regard to the last three items, these individuals do not necessarily need a high degree of technical skills, however, they should have an interest in acquiring basic knowledge regarding online information and delivery. Ideally, they should also be individuals involved with courses which lend themselves to online delivery, either as instructors or as learners. Also, see Question B.1 for more on selecting possible online courses.
What physical resources are available? The existence of physical resources is another key issue to be assessed at this stage of planning. This includes the identification of computers, cables, peripherals, software, as well as the buildings in which they are located. The inclusion of buildings in this self assessment might seem a bit unusual, since most people already know what buildings exist in their organization. However, what most people don't know is the unique eccentricities of each building, such as if and where network cables can be placed. Most buildings where built prior to the advent of computer networks and the simple bundling of network cables and telecommunication wiring isn’t always possible. Many times buildings must be modified—sometimes significantly—in order to accommodate the demands of the added technologies. With regard to computers and accessories, e.g., software and peripherals, the identification of the type, quantity, and age of these items may well drives some of a later decisions in the planning process. For example if 80% of the organization’s 200 computers are Apples which are less than two years old, it would be difficult to justify the immediate replacement of these 160 machines in order to install a more powerful Windows NT-based network. If an IBM-compatible network, such as a Windows NT system, was the planning team’s long term choice, they would need to develop a phase-out plan to outline the eventual conversion of the Apples to IBM-compatibles.
"What intangible resources are available?" Money, political support, and time are key to the success of any innovative endeavor. Without these three items in adequate availability, the online program in all likelihood will not meet its objectives.
To ascertain these resources frequently requires the use of an advocate to serve as a champion for the program. Typically, these individuals carry a good deal of political sway within the organization and have accumulated a power base from which they can affect the development of programs such as an online program. To give the online program a reasonable chance of surviving, it would be prudent to begin the acquisition of political support by acquiring endorsements from one or more individuals who possess a strong political base from which to operate. With regard to money, several suggestions are made in Question 1.6 regarding potential sources of revenue.
A.3. What should happen in Phase 2 of the planning process: Environment Scanning?
In as much as Self Assessment looks at the internal state of the organization, this phase of the planning process looks at the state of the environment outside of the organization. This includes analyzing the market in which are organization operates, defining customer needs and wants, and analyzing the operations, successes, and failures of peer organizations.
What is the state of the market in which you operate? Within the last 25 years, education oriented organizations have undergone significant changes. Many of these changes are driven by new technologies, changes in social beliefs/norms, changes in Federal, state, and local laws, as well as changes in the resources available to the organizations. Technologies, in particular, have received a lot of attention in recent years. The advent and rapid expansion of computer-based technologies such as the Internet have driven many of the changes occurring in classrooms today. So much so that they have prompted the existence of this monograph. The organization's ability to capitalize upon these technologies, computer-based and otherwise, could go a long way in determining the organization's overall level of success. As a result, focus attention on analyzing computer-based technology trends, telecommunication developments, and software development announcements. In addition to technology issues, considerable time should be dedicated to the analyzing demographic, financial, and political changes that could affect the organizations long-term operations.
What do your customers (learners) want? Although it seems obvious to say this, regardless of how much time is dedicated to the development of online program, it will not be successful if it does not meet the needs and desires of the customers (learners). Therefore, planners need to determine exactly what the program’s intended customers want. Are customers wanting:
If done properly, the information gathered during this phase of the planning process should be of immense value to program planners and developers as they shape an online program fit needs of the organization’s current and future client base.
What are peer organizations doing? By analyzing the operations of peer organizations planners can gain insightful information regarding:
A.4. What sequence of events transpires in Phase 3: Strategic Plan Development?
All of the work to this point is done in preparation for the events which take place in completing this phase of the planning process. Using the information gathered from determining Where you are now? (Question A.2) and What conditions exist in the environment/marketplace? (Question A.3), it is now time to determine to Where you want to be in the future and then ascertaining How are you going to get to there.
Essentially, determining the Where do you want to be aspect is relatively easy and encompasses only the first three items on the checklist below. It is the planning of How are you going to get there that requires considerable thought and labor. The following list provides some procedures that are common to all strategic planning operations involving online program development. Use it as a starting point for the planning process, bearing in mind that not all online programs or the processes associated with them are the same. Therefore, each organization’s planning process may vary somewhat from the sequence provided below.
A.5. When do planners need to implement Phase 4: Refining the Plan?
Depending on the length of the planning and development process, environment (market) conditions will change, personnel will turn-over, technology will improve, budgets will change, along with other factors, the structure and quality of an online program can be significantly affected. As a result, planners periodically will need to adjust the parameters of the plans they develop to ensure they deliver a high quality product which meets their customers' wants and needs.
While this is a necessary step for all planning
operations, the events which occur during this phase are completely unique to
each online program. Therefore, the most appropriate advice that can offered at
this point is to remind planners that their revisions should be directed by the
program's mission and the wants and needs of their customers—both external and
Given the critical nature of that technologies play in developing and delivering online programs, this section focuses on issues specific to the planning and acquisition of necessary technologies. The following pages discuss issues of funding, network planning, and selecting instructional delivery technologies.
It is at this stage where the administrative and technology-oriented members of the planning team come to the forefront. Their knowledge and expertise should drive many of the decisions made in this area.
The task of estimating costs is a relatively simple, when viewed from big picture. Planners should begin with the Current Inventory, taken as part of the "Where are you now?" aspect of planning mentioned in Question A.2. The hardware, software, and technological skills currently possessed by the organization as stated in the Current Inventory are compared against the requirements necessary to fulfill the answer to the "Where do you want to be?" question in Question A.5. By identifying the gaps in existing resources, planners can quantify the each of the resource gaps (e.g., how many and what types of computers are needed, etc.) and their associated costs. The end result should form the initial budget estimates for the online program.
More than likely most of the cost estimates will be generated by the technology-oriented members of the planning team—due to their intimate knowledge of the content and likely sources of acquisitions. So while the technology oriented team members are busy compiling technology-related cost estimates, administrative and other team members should be seeking out to potential sources for funding the program. These sources could include but not be limited to:
Design the network for reality, not a virtual reality. Start by addressing the five planning factors listed below, each of which are described at an introductory level:
Existing Resources. First, it should be noted that existing resources should have been identified during the "Where are you now?" stage of the organization's self-assessment (Question A.2). If this hasn't been done, strategic planning coordinators need to return to the organizational self-assessment process and properly define their current state of operation. Assuming these steps were completed, planners can focus on network resource planning.
When someone thinks of networking resources, the first thing they typically think of is the hardware—servers, personal computers, routers, etc. However, what's often overlooked are the hidden or intangible items, such as a facility's ability to accommodate networking cables and the types of software available on the end users' computers. Before delving into the mysteries of hidden and intangible networking items, this discussion take care of the obvious items first; then it will return to the intangible items.
When looking at hardware requirements during the network planning, focus on defining the computing power necessary to deliver the desired instructional technologies on a reliable and continuous basis. Then ask "Does this capability currently exist in the organization?" If it does, then the program is way ahead of the game. If not, then planners will need to determine what kind of upgrades the organization and/or the users need to make in order to achieve this level of operation. Typically, this will require that planners establish an upgrade plan for computing resources in the organization. To develop such a plan, planners will need to know the number, type, and age of computers and communications infrastructure components currently in the organization (taken from the inventory in Question A.2). With this information in hand, planners can schedule the retirement and/or the upgrading of computers throughout the system with the final objective being the achievement of the operation of the desired networking system. If planners expect users to access the systems remotely (i.e., from home) tell the users up-front the minimum hardware requirements for accessing and using the online instruction program.
Now that the hardware aspect has been touched upon, it is time to investigate the frequently overlooked aspects of network planning. The most intangible aspect of any computing operation is its software. This is no less true of a network system. When planning the installation of a new networking system, it is imperative to examine existing software on computers to be connected to the network. For users accessing the system remotely, information must be provided to assist them in the examination of their systems as well. This may be written instructions or assistance provided over the phone by a member of the technical support staff. With this information in hand, planners need to determine if all of the computer use the same operating software, i.e., Macintosh, Windows 3.x, Windows 95/98, Windows NT, Linux, UNIX or something else. If they don't considerations must be given to the method in which these machines are to be networked. In addition, it is not unusual for applications loaded on the end-users' computer to conflict with the network operating software. For example, utility and diagnostic software for the Windows 95/98 environment may not be compatible with a Windows NT network system, even though both products carry the Windows moniker. The reason for this incompatibility is due to the fact that these two operating systems do not use the same file structure systems. Therefore, any organization wishing to install a Windows NT operating system on their users' computers would have to replace current Windows 95/98 applications which conflict with the new environment. Problems like the one described above are not unique to Windows products, they can occur anytime a new operating system is installed on a machine.
Another commonly overlooked problem is facilities accommodation. This is especially important for schools and organizations occupying buildings built before 1970. These older buildings were built before the arrival of widespread computing. As a result, they may not readily accommodate the telecommunications infrastructure necessary to install and operate a computer network. Most commonly, modifications are required in order to route network cables to their eventual destinations. This may mean drilling through walls, floors, and ceilings, installing air conditioning into locations designated to house electronic equipment, and in some cases installing satellite or microwave dishes on rooftops. The extent of these modifications often is dictated by the network scale—i.e., how large is the network. Networks range from small peer networks (two machines connected together) to local area networks (which can link multiple machines in a single or an entire building) to wide area networks (which can link machines across a campus or across town).
Network Speed (Bandwidth). Often associated with the network scale is network speed/bandwidth. Simply put, bandwidth refers to the network's capability to accommodate the data flowing across its lines. The greater the bandwidth, the more data it can handle. For now, it is sufficient to say that organizations need to ensure that the network to be used for the online program is capable of supporting the bandwidth demands of the instructional technologies to be used. For example, if video conferencing (which requires large amounts of data) is to be used as part of the instruction, the network should have sizable bandwidth available for the video conferencing to appear smooth and effective. If the available bandwidth is insufficient to support the desired instructional technologies, the content delivery will be slow—if it arrives at all.
Infrastructure Maintenance. As it is discussed here, infrastructure maintenance is not the simple upkeep and repair of the telecommunication equipment. At this stage, planners should be more concerned with who will be maintaining the infrastructure as opposed to how it will be done. Most medium-to-small systems, i.e., LAN networks, generally can be maintained by in-house technology personnel. Organizations with larger systems, however, often find it preferable to have an outside agency responsible for the maintenance of the telecommunication equipment. Typically, these are large organizations maintaining a wide and complex networking system. This preference for out-sourced support services often is driven by the organization's desire to minimize the costs associated with owning, repairing, and upgrading the networking equipment. In addition to the equipment costs, there is the cost of the personnel required to carryout these activities, which bring up the next decision factor: available human resources.
Human Resources. Given the rapidly changing nature of computing and networking technologies, organizations wishing to install and operate a network must make a long-term commitment to ensuring the employment of personnel capable of operating the system. This commitment also includes the allocation of resources to ensure the on-going training of these personnel so they can envision, design, and execute the plans of action needed to keep a network up to date and operating efficiently.
Financial Resources. Organizational commitment isn't limited to the human resource aspect of online instructional delivery. It should be readily apparent that all of the above items require money for their development, implementation, and enhancement. Organizations that are not committed to the long-term livelihood of an online instructional program leave themselves open to the political and economic erosions which can occur over time. To avoid these problems will require administration buy-in. One of the best ways to obtain this buy-in is to ensure that the online program is strongly tied to the organization's mission and goals and that the administrators recognize the benefit of the program to the organization and its attempt to fulfill these goals. In cases where revenues (tuition, etc.) are involved, programs should strive to achieve and maintain a degree of self sufficiency.
As the content developers identify the most appropriate delivery strategies, those individuals involved in the network planning process need to work toward making that realization happen. Obviously this will require collaboration between these two groups, which is why it is suggested that organizations have a blend of expertise on the planning committees. Then end result of this decision-making process frequently is a blend of technologies, not just a single delivery system/environment. Factors influencing the final selection of instruction delivery technologies will include some of the same five factors as mentioned in the network planning section.
Network speed—if the organization already has a network in place and doesn't plan on enhancing it for the online instructional program, make sure the technologies selected can efficiently make use of the network's bandwidth. Don't use technologies which could bring the network traffic down to a crawl, i.e., video conferencing. Conversely, if bandwidth is available to use don't cheat the program or the users, either.
Finally, whatever technologies are selected, make sure they are compliant with one or more of the
computing industry's open standards. Open standards are protocols that industry
leaders agree to support in order to ensure compatibility among computer-based
technologies. Examples of open standards include HTML for Web page development,
GIF and JPG for image formatting, etc. By using technologies that are compliant
with industry open standards, planners have reasonable certainty that content
developed using technology X can be accessed and used by technology Y. This is
especially important when multiple operating systems and software packages are
accessing the same network. It is also important when planning for upgrading and
converting technologies on the existing system.
While many of the instructional design issues (i.e., designing learning activities) can be addressed on a course-by-course basis, some problems cross the course-level boundaries and become systemic issues due to their impact on the online program's overall resources. Two of the more common issues are the selection of courses to be placed online and the methods and technologies to use for providing various levels of feedback to learners and it is these two items which are addressed in the pages throughout this section.
Considering this monograph is aimed at assisting educators design and develop online instructional systems, it should be noted that not all courses readily lend themselves to online delivery, due to the current limitations of computer-based technologies. Courses requiring personal interaction and sensory perceptions, for example, dramatic performance courses and food preparation/culinary courses would lose much of their essence if they were delivered online.
Traditionally, the first courses to be placed online typically have been lecture-oriented courses. This is due in large part to the ease of one-way information delivery associated with the Web. This is not to say that these courses can't be done interactively, either online or in a classroom; it is that they simply don't require it. Regardless of a course's original format, care must be taken to ensure that the courses delivered online are engaging and thought provoking, not just the digital equivalent of reading a textbook.
Bearing this in mind, a systematic method of identifying, assessing, and selecting potential courses for online development should be made by each organization. This may mean the development of specific criteria for course selection or at a minimum a review of the proposed course content and structure by a panel of online planning team members.
Several assessment strategies are available to online instructors. Which one is appropriate to a specific program will depend on:
slower: feedback may take several days
If students are accessing the network using relatively slow connections, 33.6 modems or slower, online assessments should probably be limited to what would be traditionally paper-based assessments: exams, essays, course projects, etc. These assessments may be completed in one sitting (i.e., online quizzes and exams) or they may be completed over a period of time (i.e., course-long projects).
If immediate feedback is desired for one or more of these assessments, some form of scripting will be required. Scripts are mini-programs typically used with Web-based technologies and are stored on the network server or in the Web pages accessed by the users. These scripts can analyze the students' responses and provide limited feedback as to the number correct/incorrect as well as potential remediation activities. Typically, scripts are limited to analyzing objectively scored assessments, multiple-choice, fill in the blank, etc. and do provide in-depth feedback for the learner. While it is technologically possible to analyze short-answer and essay responses with computer-based technologies, the programs required to carry-out these analyses are extremely complex and generally are beyond the means, financial and otherwise, of most organizations.
Another potential format, albeit a fairly uncommon one, is the use of audio recordings for students' presentations. While this format does require students to have access to a computer with a microphone and soundcard, these typically are standard items for recently purchased machines. Audio files can be recorded by the students, possibly ranging from 2-20 minutes, and then transferred to the instructor or to a site accessible to course members—based upon the assessment requirements set forth by the instructor.
If faster connection rates are available, i.e., 56K connections or better, various performance-based assessments become available through the use of conferencing technologies. These assessments include all of the formats mentioned for the slower connection rates as well as group presentations done through some form of conferencing. The exact conferencing format (audio- vs. video-based) would be dictated by the bandwidth of the network supporting the online instruction.
There are quite a few technologies readily available for conducting online assessments. Which technologies are appropriate for a specific online program will depend in large part upon the skill level possessed by the organization's personnel. If only basic skills related to online technologies are possessed by the organization's personnel, then Web server plug-ins and file transfer tools such as email attachment and file transfer software could be appropriate for the program. Web server plug-ins function as server scripts and allow instructors to capture student responses to online quizzes, exams, or any other assessment which uses a form on a Web page. These plug-ins typically do not provide any feedback to the students; they capture data only. The captured data is stored in a text file which can be imported into any word processing, spreadsheet, or database software package for review by the instructor. As for the email attachment and file transfer software, they allow instructors and students to send files, in any format, to other users and machines for review by the recipient(s).
At the high end of the spectrum are Java applets and
database-driven Web publishing. Using these technologies online programs can
provide immediate, dynamic feedback based upon students' responses. The depth
and complexity of this feedback generally is far greater than what can be
provided by the other technologies. On the downside, however, these technologies
require individuals with advanced knowledge in application development. As a
result they currently are not as widely employed in online assessment as the
other, simpler technologies—although Java-based assessment are becoming more
This section is aimed at describing the causes and rationale for developing and implementing training and support programs for faculty and students. This often overlooked aspect of online instructional programs is frequently a primary cause for program failures. Online program planners underestimate the importance of training and support programs only to realize too late that their instructions are capable of effectively using the online environment and technologies. Similarly, the lack of support systems often leave frustrated students out in the cold of Cyberspace, where their cries for help go unheard. Eventually, students will become feed-up with the program and leave. If left uncorrected, continued enrollment declines will cause the eventual cancellation of the program.
While the purpose of online instructional programs do not differ from their classroom-based brethren (e.g., to facilitate the development of knowledge and abilities of learners) the mechanisms for carrying out this purpose do differ. Although it may not be readily apparent, online instructors must modify their teaching styles to adapt to the requirements of these mechanisms. Its not unlike driving a car with an automatic transmission all through life and then trying to drive one with a manual transmission. The purpose in driving the car is the same—to transport one's self from one point to another. However by changing environments, from an automatic transmission to a manual transmission, the driver effectively must learn to drive a car again.
By developing and executing training and support programs for instructors and students, a program can minimize the stalls, jerking starts, and crashes that accompany the implementation of new technologies and programs. Some of the primary topics to be addresses in training programs should include:
Until this point, discussion in this section has been dedicated to training programs, their needs, and their recommended components. Now, it is appropriate to take time to talk about support programs. Support programs differ from training in a couple ways. First, their function is to assist individuals in addressing specific questions/problems, unlike training programs which are aimed at providing more general information and procedures. The most common form of support is the Help feature found in most software packages. An individual accesses the Help feature to figure out how to do a specific task and/or solve a specific program, then s/he closes it again. This on-demand use illustrates the next difference between support and training programs. Support programs receive sporadic, typically "as needed" use. Training programs, on the other hand, extend over a much longer time span, i.e., several hours, days, weeks.
By providing both formats to online instructors and
students, the broader orientation and learning needs can be addressed by the
training programs while the individualized help and problem-solving needs can be
handled by the support programs. As a result, everyone's needs can be better met
and the user's satisfaction levels remain higher (for instructors and students).
So long as the sun continues to rise in the East, there will continue to be administrative and policy concerns for programs. The fact that there is no sun in Cyberspace doesn't preclude online programs from being saddled with constraints like their traditional, classroom cousins. Bearing this in mind, this sections seeks to identify pertinent issues which could affect an online program. This include program oversight and evaluation, legal concerns, and a wide variety of policy matters. Given the unique circumstances surrounding most online programs, it is not always possible to provide general solutions for application by all online programs. Therefore, this section simply attempts to bring these issues to light so program planners and administrators can prepare for and address their potential impact on the online program itself.
As with traditional programs, the members of an online program's Advisory Committee should consist of individuals representing the program's stakeholder groups. In general, these groups will be the same as those identified in Question A.1, "Who should be on the strategic planning team?" They include:
The short answer to this question is, "It depends." Below, three of the more common evaluation scenarios for an online program are given: evaluating users' learning gains, evaluating the program's usability, and evaluating the program's financial viability. For more information about evaluation scenarios and methods, refer to the Resource list at the end of this article.
If the intent of an evaluation is to measure learning gains, then a goals-oriented or outcomes-oriented methodology should be used to determine if learners are meeting a predefined learning/performance criteria. This type of evaluation seeks to compare users' performance levels against fixed criteria. Possible criteria include an objectively selected predefined standard, student-stated goals (given at the start of the program/course), or even against the performance levels of learners in other programs—online and/or traditional. The end result of this type of evaluation is to determine the pedagogical effectiveness of the online program relative to the selected criteria.
If the evaluation of the program's usability and versatility are being evaluated then consumer-oriented or naturalistic approach would be better suited to the task. This type of evaluation attempts to ascertain the learners' opinions, preferences and desires regarding the program, its components, and characteristics. The end result is to improve the program's usefulness in the eyes of the learner.
Finally, if a program's cost justification is being evaluated then a management-oriented or legalistic approach should be used. This form of evaluation seeks to determine of the benefits of the program outweigh the drawbacks. Many times this comes down to a purely financial decision. Other times, the analysis is conducted from a social impact perspective. While the specific result for these evaluations varies based upon the type of analyses conducted; the general, overarching affect is to determine if the program should continue, expand, curtail, or halt. Bear in mind that every program and evaluation situation is different; therefore, one or more evaluation methodologies might be appropriate for the program's evaluative needs.
Three of the biggest issues currently associated with online instructional programs are:
Copyright infringement is another legal gray area for online programs. Federal and international laws are lagging the technological developments in cyberspace. As a result, no one is certain as to what constitutes infringement. Consider the following scenarios:
Although it is on a secure server, the magazine is losing the opportunity to earn revenue from the students. Therefore, it is a copyright violation.
What if the magazine is available online and a link is made to the article?
Assuming, that article is available to everyone, not just to subscribers of the online version of the magazine, then it is no longer an infringement. However, if the article is on a secure server and is intended only for online subscribers, then a link cannot be made to the article—again, because the magazine is losing the potential to earn revenues from online subscriptions.
Finally, what if an instructor digitizes only a portion of the article and places it on a secure server?
If the instructor is: (a) operating as an agent of an educational, governmental, or non-profit organization, (b) copying 10% or less of the article, and (c) using that portion of the article for instructional purposes only, then s/he can claim "fair use" under the 1997 United States Educational Fair Use Laws. However, if any of these three conditions do not apply, then it constitutes a copyright violation. For a copy of the Educational Fair Use laws, access the Library of Congress Web site or contact a local librarian. If educational fair use laws do not apply, contact the publishing organization about obtaining copyright clearances for the online program. Considering the relatively uncertain state of copyright laws, don't be surprised if clearance requirements vary widely from case-to-case.
Accessibility compliance has become a major issue for traditional and online instructional programs since the enacting of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under these laws, organizations must make reasonable accommodations for individuals with a disability. Due to the dynamic nature of networking technologies, no one is sure what "reasonable accommodates" are. What is unreasonable today is perfectly reasonable tomorrow. One strategy used by organizations is simply to offer online instruction in multiple formats, i.e., text only, text and audio together, audio only, text and video, and video only. While not all formats may be required for every situation, be aware that one or more formats could be required by law depending on the needs of a program's disabled students. If an organization already is offering, or planning on offering, instruction in multiple formats as a means of addressing the multiple learning/media styles of the learners, then the legal requirements imposed by the ADA should not be an additional burden.
Numerous policy issues exist for online program. This problem is compounded for online programs which tend to blur what are traditionally ‘clear cut' lines. For example, the artificially developed boundary lines used to cordon geographic areas in order to assign tuition rates, i.e., in-district versus out-of-district, in-state versus out-of-state. To carry this example slightly further, can a student from one secondary school enroll in an online program offered by another school? Technologically, there is no reason why s/he can't. However, from administrative stand-point this crossing of district boundaries can have political and financial repercussions. Politically, this scenario equates to ‘school choice' in Cyberspace. Financially, it will require state legislatures to devise new means of allocating funds to local districts. "Seat Time" will no longer be a basis for fund allocation. This shifting of funds to reflect changing student enrollments across district boundaries will cripple many schools, while rescuing others.
As the previous example illustrates, online programs have the potential to significantly restructure the way educational institutions conduct business. In the process, they'll restructure policies and regulation. Some of the more obvious policies which will be impacted are listed below. For organizational purposes, the list is split into two parts, faculty-oriented and student-oriented policies.
ResourcesA. Building a Strategic Plan
Builder.com - Spotlight on Network InfrastructureC. Systemic Instructional Design Considerations
Carnevale, D. (2000, February 20). Indiana U. scholar says distance education requires new approach to teaching. The chronicle of higher education. Available free online at http://www.chronicle.com/free/2000/02/2000022101u.htm.D. Training and Support Program Necessities
Carnevale, D. (2000, February 18). Instructors take a turn as students to learn about online teaching. The chronicle of higher education. Available free online at http://www.chronicle.com/free/2000/02/2000021801u.htm.E. Administrative and Policy Issues
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