Understanding & Navigating The Online Course


Daryl had the excitement reminiscent of a major event – a birthday or family holiday – when he received his user ID and password for his first college course: “Building Construction for the Fire Service. Taught entirely online.” What a time saver, he thought. Now college courses he had been remiss in attending would be available anytime and anywhere he had an Internet connection. Sweet!

The sweetness soon soured into a blizzard of symbols and a lexicon he had never experienced: “DQs,” “alternative assessment,” course information documents and a syllabus that looked as long as the last book he had read. Daryl, a career firefighter who asked that his real name not be used, snapped shut the lid of his netbook, picked up the phone and called his college advisor. When his advisor answered, Daryl said accusingly, “You didn’t tell me how hard this online class would be, only that I could do this class at home or the station. I don’t know where to start.”

Daryl is not alone. Yet online courses follow a somewhat certain design. They are constructed first of a foundation that offers the strength for successive floors, walls, utilities and a roof. As the late fire science building construction patriarch Francis L. Brannigan pointed out, the failure of a continuous transmission of building loads to a foundation will result in partial or total collapse. The same can be said for the build-out of an online course; the foundation for course construction is the syllabus.

The Syllabus As a Tool

Nicola Martinez, Ph.D., faculty member and former director of curriculum and instructional design at Empire State College in New York, sees the syllabus as one of the most important documents in an online class.

“We call these course information documents,” she says. Regardless of the title used they are, “a really comprehensive set of documents that show student requirements” and how the course will progress throughout the term. The University of Texas, in a recent presentation by professors at its Health Science Center in Houston, explains that in a face-to-face environment, the syllabus can be abbreviated because verbal explanation is usually provided by the instructor. However, in the online course, no verbal clues are present so the syllabus must be a standalone document. Another professor writing about best practices in course design says that student failure to completely read the syllabus accounts for a majority of the confusion in her online courses.

Whatever terminology is associated with the syllabus, it constitutes a detailed blueprint of the course structure. It’s also a social contract between student and teacher. It spells out course goals and objectives, faculty and student roles and expectations, resources and due dates. Yet, these documents are not perfect and are subject to revision. As a result, students need to be attuned to course developments weekly, if not daily, to see any syllabus and course revisions.

Ed Kaplan, Section Chief/Education, Training and Partnerships, U.S. Fire Administration/National Fire Academy (NFA), says, “All of the associate’s and bachelor’s course outlines are found on the FESHE (Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education) model curriculum webpage and these serve as the format for their respective developments. For the associate’s courses outlines developed by the FESHE National Fire Science Degree Program Committee, the major fire service publishers write textbooks and develop instructor supplements from which fire science faculty can teach the courses. The bachelor’s courses are completely web-based courses developed by NFA in partnership with the seven Degrees at a Distance Program school faculty. Keeping both curriculums current is challenging and labor intensive requiring lengthy timelines for completion.”

Grading at a Distance

Issues of grading should be detailed in the syllabus too. This is often done via a grading rubric. A rubric can be a simple table that encompasses reallocation by topics such as class participation, midterm exam, quizzes, and final project or exam. A sample course grading rubric may look like this:

Activity PORTION of Grade

Participation 30%

Completes all DQs (10 points)

Uses cited research (10 points)

Contributes substantially

to course discussions (10 points)

Midterm Exam 20%

Quizzes 15%

Quiz 1 (5 points)

Quiz 2 (5 points)

Quiz 3 (5 points)

Capstone Project 35%

Thesis (5 points)

Organization (5 points)

Research: (10 points)

Writing quality (10 points)

Conclusion (5 points)

Total 100%

Discussion Questions

Online discussion questions (DQs) are a crucial part of education at a distance. Because there is no face-to-face interaction, written conversations are the currency of the DQ. They are used to express ideas, elicit comments, pose further questions and promote critical thinking.

“These often weekly questions, which relate course content, provide a timed discussion between students, are often moderated by the instructor,” Martinez says, noting that DQs provide a valuable learning tool for course participants. “Many times, discussion questions pose a question that students research to support their opinions. Especially in a course offering (large amounts of information), discussion questions can help bridge the theoretical to practical.”

Martinez has designed more than 1,000 online courses and was heavily involved in the FESHE program. She explains that discussion questions can also be a means of alternative assessment.

“Our research in effective online discussions shows that a good discussion takes about two weeks to mature,” Martinez says. “Discussions are generally paced over two weeks to allow students with busy schedules plenty of time to read comments by their peers and make their contributions. Faculty peer reviewers evaluate a course before it is opened to students to make sure that the pacing and workload are appropriate for the course level and credits.”

Kaplan says, “Framed discussions are one of the most effective ways by which we apply critical thinking and higher learning to the online version of our FESHE bachelor’s courses. In most instances, students must respond to an open-ended question, posed problem or scenario within each of the five modules with a 250-word reply in which your argument is punctually and grammatically correct and backed up with properly cited sources. You are also required to respond to two other classmates’ postings to the same question with a 125-word reply that meets the same academic rigor as your original posting. Contrast this with the traditional classroom participation format where students raise their hands and offer their thoughts and opinions verbally. In the online classroom, you’re thinking through your response and making your case in writing with supporting evidence and having to do so succinctly. Both offer two different skills sets, one requires succinct critical thought and presentation and the other, thinking on your feet and presenting oral arguments. Both are essential skills for leaders in any organization.”

Discussion questions also predominate at Empire State.

“We rely heavily on discussion to evaluate students,” Martinez says. “We might ask students to answer, in a minimum of 125 words, a posed question, then answer at least two other classmates using research. This might be 30% of their grade. This allows an instructor to evaluate students, because their responses will clearly indicate if they are reading material and learning it.”

Other alternative assessments, which are related to discussion questions, are reflective journals, student-created blogs and participation in a pro-con debate, according to Martinez.

“In my ‘Privacy, Security and Freedom: Social Concerns for the 21st Century’ course, students participate in a group policy development; they develop a policy based on a threat scenario that they develop,” Martinez says. “These kinds of assessments clearly indicate learning at a higher level and deeper (understanding) than a quiz or test might indicate.”

In what educators call the constructivist learning model, online discussions provide an arena where knowledge is shared among participants, especially when they provide solutions for real-life problem-solving. When designed correctly, discussion questions can also contribute to critical thinking and the formation of a sense of community in the virtual classroom. They are the basis for participation in many well-designed college courses.

Developing a strategy for posting discussion questions is something all online students should examine. One case study from the British Journal of Educational Technology (http://mason.gmu.edu/~ndabbagh/wblg/online-protocol.html) suggests several key attributes:

• Postings should be evenly distributed during the class

• Posting should be a minimum of one short paragraph and a maximum of two paragraphs

• Avoid postings that are limited to “I agree” or “great idea”

• Build on others’ responses to create threads

• Bringing related prior knowledge such as work experience.

Research Papers

Conducting researching for online course papers is not greatly different from the research one would do for a face-to-face course. However, the volume and quality of available research material via the Internet is a mixed blessing for online students. Some sources should not be cited in a college-level paper. Students should avoid blogs, wikis and other sources that cannot be authenticated. Sources generally cited in research papers include original research, review articles and case studies. Original research is usually reported in professional journals and includes raw data. Review articles are written by experienced researchers usually selected by journal editors and summarize major findings of a particular topic. Of course, case studies provide a narrative focused on a work or social unit depicting success or failure in an incident.

When Daryl prepared to write a paper concerning structural collapse based on various construction techniques at commercial structure fires, he used Google to research the topic. His findings included a December packing plant fire in Orlando, FL, that helped him expand his topic. His research included the Windsor Tower fire in Madrid, Spain, World Trade Center towers collapse and First Interstate Bank fire in Los Angeles, CA. When he found a passage that was useful to his topic, he made sure to quote or paraphrase the publication, include an in-text citation, and list the full reference on his reference page.

Teacher Presence

Martinez says that good curriculum design may allow an online course to stand alone, but in her experience the best courses are facilitated by an expert instructor.

“If we’re looking at teaching and learning, the teacher-to-learner experience is very valuable for the student,” she says. “The learner feels he or she has someone in the learning process who they can rely on. Quite a number of student surveys show that quality of instruction and teacher presence are highly related to student satisfaction.” Teacher presence is manifested in many ways, she says, including, “instructor announcements, which provide direction for students, prompt responses to emails, and qualitative feedback on assignments.”

Much scholarly writing is available concerning the appropriate level of teacher involvement in discussions. Some students feel the need to have an instructor provide a “correct answer.” Often, when discussion questions are open-ended, there is no correct answer. And too much instructor involvement in the discussion area can stifle student involvement and learning. It may be compared to reading test answers prior to a test.

Course Readings

Because an actual lecture may be limited to a streaming video or a written overview of a module’s content in the online environment, course readings are the lifeblood of asynchronous delivery. Reading assignments may be limited to the textbook, but usually include case studies, magazine articles, blogs, industry expert opinions and technical manuals.

Examples of case studies in fire science courses such as tactics, building construction, and private fire protection systems, include Firefighter Close Calls (http://www.firefighterclosecalls.com/home.php) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/). Some of the readings will be available online as a document or via a web link. The importance of case studies is how they relate to adult learning. Adults tend to perceive information as meaningful when it relates to their work. For example, when a firefighter reads an account of an “ordinary house fire” that results in injury of another firefighter, this information is far from theoretical.

Regardless of source, students often find the amount of reading stifling. Martinez suggests students become familiar with skimming and scanning reading strategies to assist them in tackling voluminous reading assignments.

Course Pacing & Communication

According to the University of Maryland University College’s Center for Teaching and Learning, some of the best-designed courses that lead to highest student satisfaction include these components: “When the instructor spells out a timeline for completing successive steps toward meeting objectives; opportunities where collaboration with others include alternative explanations of experience; and the sharing of experience and perceptions through discussions and well-designed group activities...” In other words, when students are left to complete the course of study using their own timelines, they are often dissatisfied with the course.

Yet flexible pacing is most often seen by students as an important component to a desirable online course. The flexibility students often cite involves being able to work ahead of syllabus deadlines. Because many adult online students are inherently disciplined and self-directed, their need to achieve course goals prior to due dates is an understandable trait. This ability to shift course demands is an obvious reason for students to choose an online course. However, if students leave a majority of the course work until the last few days of class, understandably, their learning experience is less than positive.

“Participating in an online course community contributes to student satisfaction, and going through a course with the same pacing as fellow students helps them stay on track for a successful course completion,” Martinez explains.

Another important component seen by students who have participated in online delivery is instructor-student communication. This feedback must be timely and consistent for the instructor to meet student expectations, which usually translates into overall student satisfaction. Communication policies should be spelled out in the syllabus. Often, an instructor will provide feedback within 24 hours. However, because students and instructor can miss each other by seconds in the online environment ? added to the reality of differing time zones ? the best-laid communication plans are left asunder. Feedback by an instructor to obvious course questions is important as well as feedback concerning discussion questions, written submissions and other areas crucial to student evaluation.

“Two-way communication in the online environment is vital to the success of the course,” says Gregory E. Gorbett, an assistant professor in the Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology Program at Eastern Kentucky University. “In the brick-and-mortar classrooms, it is easy to look at your audience and identify if they understand the directions for an assignment or the information presented. However, in the online classroom that visual cue is not present. To facilitate this aspect in online courses, the instructor and student must communicate in various other forms (i.e., discussion boards, email, telephone, video chat). It is the responsibility of the instructor to establish this atmosphere of open communication, where students feel comfortable asking questions. The instructor can do this through a variety of ways, but the most important is the feedback that the instructor provides each individual student in response to their discussion posts, assignments, and examinations. This lets the student know that the instructor truly does care about their education and success.”

The successful online course, which is measured in various ways such as student satisfaction, course outcomes, memorable content and relevance to adult learners, entails the dynamic interaction of course building blocks. The “enhanced syllabus” approach to online delivery has about as much relevance as a hot-riveted beam has to modern high-rise construction techniques. The best courses use many of these components to some degree. Courses that contain very little structure do not have the ability to propel the learner beyond the foundation of learning.

“The syllabus is the first indicator that the online course is solid,” Gorbett says. “If an instructor communicates their requirements clearly and in a detailed manner, it is a good indicator that this instructor and online program truly cares about ensuring student success. However, the syllabus by itself is not enough. The instructional design and the effective use of the available technology must be integrated to establish a solid online course. Technology ensures that communication between the instructor and students flows easily and reliably, as well as promoting peer interaction. Much of the learning that takes place in the classroom (regardless of delivery method) is based on the sharing of knowledge and life experiences of not only the instructor but also the other students in the class. Therefore, an online program that does not promote this interaction is a disservice to the student. Some programs are no more than a correspondence course with limited interaction with their peers and in my opinion does not constitute a good learning environment.”

Daryl took his academic advisor’s suggestion and attempted “Building Construction” with an open mind. He did not arrive at the class with a toolbox full of hammers, which would have led him to see each challenge as a nail. He was flexible and open-minded, and he allocated the necessary time to learn. He began by introducing himself to classmates, sending his instructor an email when he felt confused or was having problems, and completing assignments on time. He found the course rewarding.

“The class was fast-paced and by throwing myself into it I learned a lot,” he says. “I got a B, but I knew exactly how that happened. I saw that my initial concerns with my first course were exaggerated. I learned right away that spending the time, and not being reluctant to get involved with discussions, was the only way to make this happen.”

Will Daryl continue with his online education?

“At first, I didn’t think I could learn much this way…without sitting at a desk in the classroom,” Daryl says. “But I’ve already signed up for another course.”

PAUL SNODGRASS, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a firefighter with the Sarasota County, FL, Fire Department and a former fire chief. He is on the faculty at the University of Florida and an adjunct fire science instructor at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, FL, and Cogswell Polytechnical College in Sunnyvale, CA. Snodgrass holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Augsburg College and a master’s degree in education from the University of Phoenix. He has been writing about, designing and teaching online courses since 2005. He can be reached at e.educational@gmail.com