What Can Online Course Components Teach about Improving Instruction and Learning?

Article excerpt

Course design techniques learned from the initial online offering of a general education Oral Communication course can enhance traditional course formats. Electronic course components can increase instructor efficiency while enriching student learning. The use of technology prevents farming out courses to more poorly trained personnel and can stem the tide of unmanageably large sections. Enlisting students in course maintenance and update increases their involvement in the course while conserving instructor time and assuring current, accurate material. Electronic augmentations allow for "layered learning," which permits students to experience course material in many different modes while preserving class time for personal interactions and practice of performance techniques.

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Writing in 1918, Thorstein Veblen lamented the "businesslike expediency" that had replaced ecclesiastical authority as the ruling principle of higher education (1976, p. 507). Veblen labeled the modern university a "corporation of learning" that placed profitability above knowledge (1976, p. 524). In lean economic times, however, fiscal responsibility demands that colleges and universities find ways to educate students both effectively and efficiently. Increasingly, higher education has turned to technology, specifically using online courses and course components to approach this objective. To what extent, however, can efforts to "electronify" traditional instruction improve learning while reducing costs and maintaining student satisfaction with their educational experience?

Williams (1989)proposes several productive directions for research on communication technologies. Among the questions most germane to this essay are: "What are the rhetorical strategies for overcoming the transmission limits--often depersonalization--imposed by some media technologies? ... As routine communication is accommodated by technologies, what communication priorities should be given to face-to-face opportunities?" (p. 217) Scholars still sometimes lament the dearth of theoretical frameworks for analyzing computer-mediated communication. Dordick (1989) observed that mass communication theories seem inapplicable to the communication environments created via computers, and traditional interpersonal theories fail to account sufficiently for asynchronous communication.

Aside from the need to develop theories that clarify how computer-mediated communication operates, at least two forces converge to stimulate development of technologically enhanced pedagogy: economic constraints and preservation of quality. The needs to conserve funds and to improve quality might sound antagonistic or even antithetical. This essay explores how technological innovations, many derived from the initial online offering of the basic communication course, not only can reconcile but improve both economic efficiency and instructional effectiveness. Electronically enhanced course components also present opportunities to enhance student educational experiences.

Instructional delivery methods can be plotted along a continuum that runs from traditional, face-face class meetings to totally online courses that have no direct interpersonal contact. Increasingly, courses are falling between these extremes. Experience with online courses can illuminate the reasons why computer-mediated course delivery can be integrated productively into a variety of course formats. The examples and data in this study are derived from our department's inaugural online general education course in oral communication. This course, required for all students, covers interviewing, interpersonal communication, group problem-solving, and public speaking. It was offered for the first time in Fall 2001, so the data are preliminary.

To determine how online components might affect instructional delivery and learning outcomes, we are experimenting with importing electronic course components into the Fundamentals of Oral Communication course. …