I was recently asked to participate in a survey by a colleague at CU Online answering questions about the nature of online courses and the future of digital education. My responses are below. Enjoy!

What key pieces need to be in place in order to have a successful online course?

A successful online course needs to facilitate and measure the learning activities of students while negotiating a virtual and often time-shifted form of interaction.

Successful online courses most often require tools that enable the sharing of documents and multimedia as well as enabling various forms of interaction between the instructor and students. Today this is usually based around a centralized Learning Management System (LMS), but increasingly we are seeing quality online courses turn to the integration of disparate yet best-in-class tools.

For example, instead of relying on the built-in discussion board of an LMS, an online instructor may use Google+ Hangouts for synchronous interaction, while integrating Voicethread discussions and wikis for collaborative work.

What does a successful online course look like to you?

Since students are remote and interactions are often (but not always) asynchronous, careful thought must be put into what resources are curated and how they are accessed, how communication is handled between the instructor and students, and what kinds of activities, projects, and assessments are in place to help students absorb ideas and information. Students need to be given ample opportunities for practice and mastery of skills and synthesis of knowledge. All of this should be in service of the course goals and objectives.

A successful course, then, provides all of these things which you might call the “design” of the course. On top of that, the instructor needs to do well in facilitating the course by providing prompt, quality feedback and support to students.

How would you go about ensuring first-time online course students enroll in another online course (currently, the drop-out rate of first-time online students is quite staggering – 50-70%)?

Students need to receive good information about the expectations of an online course. Online courses are not easier than face to face courses, and just because you can often time-shift your work to accommodate your full time job doesn’t mean that the workload is any less than a normal class. I believe that some of the drop-out rate stems from mismanaged expectations about what the “convenience” of an online class really means — in truth it means the student is even more responsible than in F2F courses for practicing good time management skills!

Students also need to be engaged early and often. The more that the instructor can foster the sense of community, the less alienated the students will feel. Courses need to be easy to navigate, and the assignments need to be obvious and achievable.

What tools/techniques do you use for the not-so-experienced online student?

Different students may thrive under different kinds of support. Some may be content to experiment and “dive-in” with occasional questions, while others will want to be walked through the basics from the start. It’s important to be flexible and provide access to multiple avenues of support.

Any new tool or form of interaction should be introduced early and eased into. If a major class project involves analyzing a case study in a Wiki, I would provide many opportunities to become comfortable in using a Wiki long before the student has to do higher level work in the tool.

Where do you feel online education is moving toward – more acceptance/more courses offered, or more of a plateau with no real growth?

I feel that the sweet spot is in blended/hybrid courses. I think eventually the idea of an offline silo-ed “Face to Face” (F2F) course will be recognized as patent nonsense when there are so many compelling uses for digital collaboration and curation of content on the web and between mobile devices. Even if a course remains focused on periodic F2F group meetings, we will use our myriad devices to share documents, collaborate, and practice what we are learning.

So, in summary of my view, even if the growth of fully online courses plateaus, I think all courses will become more digital and more blended as time goes on.

Why do you think some instructors are reluctant to teach online – is it a generational thing?

I think there is still a misguided perception that online courses are somehow “inferior”. Research has clearly shown that online courses can be every bit as good as face to face courses, so I think this perception will slowly give way to a more nuanced view. One that recognizes the challenges, but also validates the tremendous opportunities in digital education.

I think there is also an element of fear of the unknown. If they’ve never taught online before, it can seem daunting to change how they have been teaching.

Sometimes the faculty reluctance is justified. If their department or institution isn’t recognizing that the effort involved in developing and teaching online courses is NOT less than a F2F course and isn’t properly supporting or compensating for that work, then the reluctance is fully justified in my eyes!