Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Essential Design Elements for Successful Online Courses

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Essential Design Elements for Successful Online Courses

Article excerpt


Over a 4-term period from Spring 2000 to Fall 2001 an introductory, non-majors geology course was offered online at Brooklyn College, and was the subject of a two-year case study of the experiences and attitudes of the enrolled students. Three major course design aspects appeared to be most important for developing a sense of comfort regardless of the specific content or delivery techniques: 1) familiarity with online learning; ) navigation and link structure; and 3) communication. Iterative assessment and redevelopment of the course allowed for significant improvement in student comfort. Key points to consider when designing a web-based course include: 1) easing students into the new learning environment; 2) avoid complex networked navigation structures because simple, hierarchical navigation structures result in increased student comfort; 3) lead by example in email communication - email often and reply in a timely fashion; 4) let the computer act as a tutor in the form of interactive quizzes and tutorials; 5) be precise in the wording of all communication and instructions

Keywords: internet, navigation, communication


The internet is the newest technological innovation that has been touted to have the potential to revolutionize education. It holds the promise of making learning more accessible, improving the quality of learning and reducing the cost of education (e.g., Ostow, 1997). With such remarkable possibilities it is not surprising that many colleges encourage, or even mandate, as in the case of UCLA (Noble, 1997), the development and implementation of educational websites. The devout acceptance of web education as the future of teaching and learning is reflected in statements such as the following quote from "Transforming Higher Education: A Vision for Learning in the 21st Century" (Dolence and Norris,1995): "Those who realign their practices most effectively to Information Age standards will reap the substantial benefits. Those who do not will be replaced or diminished by more nimble competitors."

Is this technological revolution likely to come to pass, or is it as Grineski (1999) argues, merely a reflection of a strong, self-sustaining societal belief that technological advances hold the key to success? Earlier technologies such as television, videotapes and computers in the classroom also held the promise of educational revolution. However, an overwhelming number of studies concluded that there was no significant difference in learning outcomes when traditional techniques were compared with learning assisted by these technologies (see the more than 350 published studies compiled at http://teleeducation.nb. ca/nosignificantdifference). Clark (1994) argued that this "no significant difference phenomenon" demonstrates that learning is caused by the instructional methods embedded in the presentation media and not the media themselves. Accordingly, it is far more important to direct our attention to understanding how learning can be facilitated on the web and what basic design elements decrease student frustration and aid learning. This information can then be directly applied to the design of a new generation of web-based courses that incorporate instructional methods that are truly appropriate and adapted to web delivery. Only then will there be a possibility for a technological revolution in education.

Media researchers have noted that when new media are introduced, they initially replicate the functions of older media. For example, early movies were essentially celluloid versions of unaltered stage productions (Carpenter, 1972). When television was young, material was transferred unaltered from radio (McLuhan, 1964). Similarly, educators have transferred existing lecture-hall courses onto the web with little or no change and so have done little to exploit the potential of this new technology (Bork, 2000; Hokanson and Hooper, 2000). In fact, a simple transition of material from the classroom to the webpage would likely lose effect because much of the communication that takes place in a classroom is not easily translated with simple text: tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, environmental cues (Kupritz, 2000)

The transfer of traditional educational media to the web appears to be the current state of web-based education. …

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