1 The Online Instructional Dynamic: A Study of Community College Faculty Teaching Online Courses and Their Perceptions of Barriers to Student Success A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty Of Drexel University by Jory Andrew Hadsell in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Education December 2012
2 Copyright 2012 Jory Andrew Hadsell. All Rights Reserved.
4 Abstract The Online Instructional Dynamic: A Study of Community College Faculty Teaching Online Courses and Their Perceptions of Barriers to Student Success Jory Andrew Hadsell, Ed.D. Drexel University, December 2012 Chairperson: W. Edward Bureau, Ph.D. Online students at some California community colleges are experiencing lower success rates than their peers in face-to-face versions of the same courses. Insight into the forces shaping student success in online courses is needed to address such disparities. The purpose of this study was to explore, in-depth, the lived experiences of faculty teaching courses online at a California community college to inform instructional practice so barriers to student success may be avoided. This online instructional dynamic is defined as the experiences surrounding instructor-student interaction, including factors impacted by the use of various technologies and instructional design approaches. The following questions guided the study: 1) How do faculty perceive their interactions with students in an online course? 2) What instructional practices do faculty believe have a positive impact on student success in their courses? 3) Why do faculty members believe the identified instructional practices have positive impacts on student success? A phenomenological research design was employed. Participants consisted of eight community college faculty with significant teaching experience in online Math, English, or Business courses. Data were gathered via in-depth interviews, observation, iv
5 and artifact analysis. A computerized qualitative analysis software program was used to code and analyze the data for emergent themes. The study included five major findings: a) Challenges teaching in an online environment, b) Communication issues, c) Potential hindering factors for online students, d) Overall perceptions of the online instructional dynamic, and e) Practices that promote engagement and success. Results of the study included: a) The online teaching model presents unique challenges for faculty, b) Communication challenges may hamper online effectiveness, c) Student population differences may make comparisons difficult between face-to-face and online, and d) Online teaching is both frustrating and enriching for faculty. The study conclusions were: a) Challenges adapting technique and content to the online environment, b) Dominant communication strategies may lead to frustration, c) Student perceptions and attitudes may hinder success, d) Teaching online is both frustrating and rewarding, and e) Six identified practices faculty believe have positive impacts on student success. Recommendations for institutional leaders and further research are provided. v
6 Dedication To my family, without whom this would not have been possible. To Michelle: Your support and love knows no bounds. Every day you amaze me. The best is yet to come. To Abbey, Andrew and Ava: Your futures are as bright as your smiles, which have sustained me and still encourage me to reach for the stars. I know someday you will, too. To Rebecca Grace: Someday. vi
7 Acknowledgments The creation of this research project and my travels along the pathway of researching, writing, and analysis have been the product of more than just myself. In fact, it has been a transformative project that has come to pass with the help of so many wonderful and talented people. In particular, I would like to thank my supervising professor, Dr. Ed Bureau, for being the guide on this journey. You were never afraid to let me wander off the path, knowing that I would learn something from it, and being there to help me re-focus when the time came. I will always owe you the iceberg. I would also like to thank Dr. Kathy Geller, whose critical eye, reminders of the recursive process and good humor helped me form the basis of this study so early on. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Henry Burnett, whose perspective gained from his years of expertise as a leader in technology within California community colleges and the University of California strengthened the research. In addition, I would be remiss if I did not thank Dr. Rhonda Rios Kravitz for the gentle nudges she gave me, encouraging me to pursue doctoral study and her unwavering personal and professional support and encouragement throughout this process. To my partner in crime, fellow technology guru, and a genuine speaker of truths Melissa Green. You do not know how important your contributions have been, both in content and in spirit. You have reminded me that sometimes it is necessary to be disruptive, just as the sand must irritate the oyster to eventually produce a pearl. Also, to those from my Drexel University doctoral cohort who have been with me every step of the way we have encouraged one another while also providing the vii
8 occasional push, when necessary. I cannot thank you enough and look forward to our next projects and new opportunities to collaborate. To all of my family and friends who have put up with me as my nights and weekends were spent in solitude, thank you for tolerating me, bringing me nourishment when necessary, and encouraging me to keep going. Your thoughtfulness and support are appreciated. Finally, I wish to thank the participants in this study, who willfully gave their time and their words to this research. It is through your experiences, your stories, and your vulnerabilities that you have given life and depth to this study. You are the true pioneers, and I hope my work brings honor to your voices and the important work you do every day for your students. viii
9 Table of Contents ABSTRACT... iv LIST OF TABLES... xi LIST OF FIGURES... xii 1. INTRODUCTION TO THE PROBLEM...1 Statement of the Problem to Be Researched...3 Purpose and Significance of the Problem...3 Research Questions...9 The Conceptual Framework...10 Definition of Terms...16 Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations...19 Summary LITERATURE REVIEW...22 Introduction...22 Conceptual Framework...22 Literature Review...24 Summary RESEARCH METHODOLOGY...42 Introduction...42 Site and Population...43 Research Design and Rationale...47 ix
10 Research Methods...50 Ethical Considerations FINDINGS, RESULTS, AND INTERPRETATIONS...58 Introduction...58 Findings...59 Results and Interpretations...97 Summary CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS Introduction Conclusions Recommendations Summary LIST OF REFERENCES APPENDIX A: INTERVIEW PROTOCOL APPENDIX B: OBSERVATION PROTOCOL APPENDIX C: ARTIFACT REVIEW PROTOCOL APPENDIX D: INVITATION TO PARTICIPATE IN A QUALITATIVE RESEARCH STUDY ABOUT ONLINE EDUCATION x
11 List of Tables 1. SCC Online Course Success Rates (in %) by TOP Codes (Fall 2008) Timeline for Data Analysis and Reporting List of Single-word or Phrase Responses...91 xi
12 List of Figures 1. Examining the online instructional dynamic A conceptual framework of the online instructional dynamic A conceptual framework of the online instructional dynamic Simplified version of the Stevick-Colaizzi-Keen method The stages of data collection Findings and sub-findings of the study Word cloud of single-word or phrase responses...92 xii
13 1 Chapter 1: Introduction to the Research This study focuses on understanding why community college students taking classes online in some disciplines experience lower success rates than their counterparts in face-to-face sections of the same course. A phenomenological approach is used to gain insight into the lived experiences of faculty teaching courses online, including identification of effective instructional practices and potential barriers to student success in the online learning environment. The goal of this study is to better inform institutional and individual faculty practices aimed at raising student success rates in online courses at community colleges. The research was conducted at Sacramento City College, one of four colleges within the Los Rios Community College District (LRCCD). The LRCCD is one of the largest community college districts in California and serves the greater capital region. Introduction to the Problem Online education is rapidly growing in prevalence within the higher education segment of the United States. Institutions across all segments of higher education are steadily shifting programs and enrollments toward a model in which online learning comprises a significant share of instruction. Advances in online technologies, personal connectivity, emerging systems of collaboration, and social networking tools are creating exciting opportunities for learning in the virtual space. The growth of online course offerings as a share of overall instruction has been phenomenal. In California, the community college system, the largest system of higher education in the United States, with over 3.8 million students per year, has experienced a
14 2 surge in the demand for online course offerings (California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office [CCCCO], 2010). Between the academic years, California s community colleges experienced a collective 17.57% growth rate for distance education (primarily online) courses, versus a rise of 3.26% in traditional oncampus courses during the same time period (CCCCO, 2009). This trend is not limited to the Golden State. In 2008, distance education courses comprised roughly 9% of all course credits in the Minnesota public higher education system. That same year, the state legislature approved an aggressive plan to offer 25% of all college credits via online learning by the year 2015 (Bonk, 2009). The rapid growth of online education over the past decade has come with plenty of controversy and concern from the academic community. There have been calls for increased scrutiny of online courses and programs by critics, accreditors, and legislators concerned about instructional quality and rigor. Generally, concerns about online coursework tend to center around two primary issues: course completion and success rates. This chapter begins with a statement of the problem to be researched, which is then framed by the study s purpose, significance, and research questions. Then, as part of the conceptual framework for the study, the researcher s own philosophical stances are outlined and his own experiences related to the topic are bracketed in order to set the stage for the phenomenological study. This conceptual framework also includes three synthesized streams of literature forming the basis for the study of the phenomenon. These elements are followed by the definitions for key terms used in the study, along
15 3 with a section outlining the assumptions, limitations, and delimitations of the study. The chapter ends with a brief summary. Statement of the Problem to Be Researched Within California s community colleges, students taking online courses in some subject areas are experiencing lower success rates than their peers in face-to-face courses, and greater insight into the forces shaping student success in online courses is necessary for institutional leaders and faculty to address such disparities. Purpose and Significance of the Problem Purpose The purpose of this phenomenological study is to explore, in-depth, the lived experiences of faculty teaching courses online at a California community college in order to inform instructional practice so barriers to student success may be avoided. This online instructional dynamic is defined as the experiences surrounding instructor-student interaction in the online environment, including factors impacted by the use of various technologies and instructional design approaches. The various expectations, experiences, and general perceptions of individual faculty will be explored so approaches leading to broad achievement of student learning outcomes may be identified. Through this research, institutions of learning can become better equipped to support faculty-student interaction in ways that support student success in online courses, and individual faculty can better prepare themselves and their students for success in online courses. Significance of the Problem Online learning has exploded onto the higher education scene, largely within the past decade. The rapid growth of this instructional modality has outpaced the ability of
16 4 researchers to fully understand the implications of online learning across various student populations. In 2009, in what appears to have been an attempt to provide educators with insight into effectiveness of online learning, the U.S. Department of Education conducted a meta-analysis of 28 separate studies of online learning. The findings, embraced by proponents of online learning, indicated that learning outcomes in online courses were equivalent to or better than those in face-to-face courses (Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, & Jones, 2009). The findings included that on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction (Means et al., 2009, p. ix). The U.S. Department of Education report was criticized by some researchers, and in a separate review, Jaggars and Bailey (2010) conducted an independent analysis of these same studies but controlled for various factors which, in the researchers opinions, limited the broad applicability of several of the studies. For example, several of the studies included in the report did not use student populations enrolled in semester-length undergraduate or graduate courses. After tightening the criteria for inclusion of research studies in the analysis, the result was a narrowing from the 28 studies included by the U.S. Department of Education down to a meta-analysis of seven remaining studies. Based on these studies, Jaggars and Bailey concluded there were no statistically significant differences in achievement of learning outcomes in online and face-to-face courses. However, they did find that underprepared and lower-income students, many of whom study at community colleges, may struggle to succeed in fully online courses. While Jaggars and Bailey noted in their findings the potential benefits of online education for well-prepared and motivated students, they cautioned educators about the impact of
17 5 online classes on other populations. For low-income and underprepared students, however, an expansion of online education may not substantially improve access and may undercut academic success and progression through school (Jaggars & Bailey, 2010, p. 11). This leads to an interesting gap in the research, much of which measures online student success with better prepared students found in university settings as compared to students studying online at community colleges who may be less academically prepared. California s community college system is facing unprecedented challenges, many of which are brought about by state funding challenges. Increased calls for financial accountability have brought a renewed focus on efficient use of resources, namely ensuring student success and limiting course repetition (California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force, 2012). As part of the intense focus on ensuring student success, an examination of factors impacting the gap between online and face-to-face student success rates must occur. Both institutional and instructional strategies must be developed to address disparities in success rates, which may exist between online and face-to-face courses. The Los Rios Community College District (LRCCD) is a large community college district serving the greater Sacramento, California, metropolitan area. It is comprised of four separate colleges, each serving a different geographic portion of the region. In 2010, the Los Rios Office of Institutional Research published a research brief analyzing online course enrollment and student success data for Sacramento City College, the second-largest college in the district, serving a very demographically diverse community population. In the report, a taxonomy of programs or TOPS code is used
18 6 to group disciplines into program categories, as is frequently done for comparative purposes. In studying those disciplines offering online courses between 2004 and 2008, the research showed that overall During the past five fall semesters, the course success rates of online courses in most of the academic disciplines offering online classes have improved (Los Rios Community College District Office of Institutional Research, 2010, p. 3). The data in the report also led to an interesting finding, which is part of the impetus for this study. Table 1, which contains the Fall 2008 online and face-to-face success data, demonstrates the difference in success rates by program area, illuminated in the conclusion to the report. In conclusion, it appears that for the majority of online classes at Sacramento City College, students are doing well and that in several disciplines their success rates have exceeded those of face-to-face classes in the same disciplines. Yet, there are online courses in a few disciplines where students are having difficulties and it gives the college an opportunity to further investigate and understand what the issues are and to begin the process of making improvements to help students succeed in all online courses. (Los Rios Community College District Office of Institutional Research, 2010, p. 3)
19 7 Table 1 SCC Online Course Success Rates (in %) by TOP Codes (Fall 2008) Academic Disciplines by TOP Code Online Success Rate Face-to-Face Success Rate Difference (Online:F2F) Business & Management Education Engineering & Industrial Technology Family & Consumer Sciences Fine & Applied Arts Health Humanities (Letters) Information Technology Interdisciplinary Studies Mathematics Media & Communications Physical Sciences Psychology Public & Protective Services Social Sciences Adapted from Los Rios Community College District Office of Institutional Research, 2010, p. 3. In discussing the significance of online courses to Sacramento City College, and the ramifications of the apparent disparity in success rates across programs, the report pointed to the need for qualitative research into this phenomenon. Discussions with program coordinators and faculty teaching these online classes, as well as feedback from students enrolled in these classes, may yield valuable clues on how to modify and fine-tune these online courses to increase student success in the future. (Los Rios Community College District Office of Institutional Research, 2010, p. 3) In a subsequent institutional research report titled Who s Online and How Are They Doing? (2011), the Los Rios Community College District compared course withdrawal and success rates of students taking online courses and students taking these same courses in a face-to-face modality between 2006 and The district-wide research spanned all four colleges and focused on three subject areas: composition, algebra, and introductory business courses. Major findings of the study included the assertion that
20 8 while improvements could be seen in online success rates over the years, overall, students in the face-to-face versions of the composition and algebra courses had higher success rates than their online counterparts. Meanwhile, the researchers found that students enrolled in the introductory online business course sections had equivalent or better success rates than those in the face-to-face modality. With regard to course completion, the report also noted, percentages of students withdrawing from online classes were higher compared with those withdrawing from face-to-face classes (Los Rios Community College District Office of Institutional Research, 2011, p. 8). The impact of several demographic variables such as gender, race, age, first-generation status, income, and employment were discussed in the report, which ended with a cautionary note for those involved in online learning at the four colleges within the district. As noted in our earlier report on Student Success in Online Classes released last year, online course offerings play an increasingly important role in the district and across the country. Before further expansion in the district is planned, however, the structure and instructional strategies currently being used in the online courses in English Writing and Math should be examined more closely and changes made in order to improve student learning. (Los Rios Community College District Office of Institutional Research, 2011, p. 9) Based on the outcome of the report, faculty and administrators at each college are actively searching for ways to better understand why students are more successful online in some disciplines than others, as compared to students in face-to-face courses. It is this conclusion, specifically regarding online English and Math courses, as opposed to the generally more successful online Business courses that provides the basis for examining the structure of courses and instructional methods employed by the population in this study: English, Math, and Business department faculty. Additionally, it should be noted
21 9 the researcher was not involved in the creation or dissemination of the aforementioned Los Rios research reports. Within the academic community, there is evidence that faculty, student, and institutional engagement are tied to increases in student success in online courses. The instructor plays an instrumental role in setting the tone, expectations, and patterns of engagement in an online course (Angelino, Williams, & Natvig, 2007; Betts, 2008; Dennen, Darabi, & Smith, 2007). Because of the central role of the instructor, an examination of the faculty-student interaction dynamic in online courses may be helpful in understanding impediments to student success in online courses. This study examined the central role of the instructor within the online instructional dynamic in various online English, Math, and Business courses at Sacramento City College. Research Questions To determine the stated objectives of this study, the following questions guided the research: 1. How do faculty perceive their interactions with students in an online course? 2. What instructional practices do faculty believe have a positive impact on student success in their courses? 3. Why do faculty members believe the identified instructional practices have positive impacts on student success? To address the questions, a phenomenological research design was employed to explore faculty experiences within the online instructional dynamic and identify instructional practices viewed by faculty as impacting online student success.
22 10 The Conceptual Framework About the Researcher This study was conducted using a social constructivist approach to learning and instruction from a pragmatic or emergent perspective (Gredler, 1997; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The researcher believes meaning can be ascribed and knowledge gained through the combined perspectives of the individual learner and the larger learning community. Social contexts may be used to construct meaning for the participants, which may be of particular interest in online courses, wherein the social connection to other learners may be a significant factor in determining the achievement of learning outcomes. The framework for this study reflects the social constructivist philosophy, which lies at the heart of the research. In addition to the pragmatic, social constructivist perspective, there are also elements of epistemology driving the researcher s focus for this research. Online education is relatively new to the realm of education, and the researcher believes an understanding of how faculty attitudes and beliefs about the modality have been shaped can lead to a more robust conversation across the academy about best practices in online education. Therefore, by understanding how we know what we know about the online teaching experience, teaching practice can be improved in the future. Reflecting on one s own experiences with a phenomenon or situation is advised when conducting a phenomenological study. In this way, the researcher can set aside pre-existing beliefs or assumptions about the phenomenon (Marshall & Rossman, 2006). With regard to phenomenology, researchers must bracket out, as much as possible, their own experiences (Creswell, 2007, p. 61). At the time of this study, the researcher was
23 11 employed as the faculty coordinator for distance education at the study site, providing coordination across all academic disciplines across the college. He had been employed in this capacity for over six years, and, therefore, brought to the inquiry practical knowledge of online learning, instructional development processes, experience as an online instructor, and a history of interaction with some of the study participants. In this way, the researcher was uniquely suited to ask informed questions about the online instructional dynamic and related elements. Such knowledge was undoubtedly helpful in conducting the research. However, the researcher also acknowledged the need to see the study through the eyes of the participants was paramount in understanding the true essence of the online instructional dynamic. Therefore, the researcher was committed to engaging in critical self-reflection throughout the research process in order to set aside any preconceived notions impacting the study. Further, the researcher was committed to maintaining procedural safeguards, such as triangulation of data sources, triangulation of methodology, and regular dialogue with advisors. Assumptions related to the research are outlined later in this chapter. Research Framework Several forces were examined to determine their impact on the online instructional dynamic. Through the lens of this study, the overlapping attributes were studied based on the mental models included in Figure 1.
24 12 Conceptualizing the Online Instructional Dynamic Rests on the effectiveness of communication between both parties Requires shared goal of maximizing learning through interaction, discussion, feedback May be highly variable depending on the individual instructor and student Faculty Intended methods of engagement (course design) Student Student expectations for engagement with instructor and content Use of technology to bridge potential communication gaps Level of academic preparedness Experiences as an instructor in prior online courses Demographic factors influencing behaviors Figure 1. Examining the online instructional dynamic. The online instructional dynamic is shaped by both faculty and student factors. Through an exploration of the experiences of faculty in teaching courses online, the mental model can be enhanced with greater clarity, most specifically in terms of the impact on student success in online courses.
25 13 Figure 2. A conceptual framework of the online instructional dynamic. In terms of relevant theory and research, existing studies and literature will be evaluated to provide an informed framework for studying the phenomenon. Figure 2 demonstrates the overlapping areas of theory and research used in this study. The online instructional dynamic lies at the nexus of these three areas of theory and is the focus of this study as it relates to student success. First, a discovery of various elements of faculty presence must be investigated to understand how a regular presence on the part of the course instructor may impact the dynamic. These elements of faculty presence frequency of contact, timeliness of responding to students or providing feedback, and incorporation of the instructor s personality comprise a theoretical construct of faculty presence in an online course.
26 14 It may be particularly important that students receive regular and timely contact from their instructor when taking online courses (Angelino et al., 2007). Students expect to encounter the instructor s presence regularly, and the value of instructor-student contact appears to be in its frequency, and not necessarily in its depth (Dennen et al., 2007). Further, lack of training or experience using interactive technologies must not be an excuse for failure to engage students online. When students in online classes receive grades or degrees for clicking through pages rather than for engaging in real, deep learning experiences, then concerns of those critical of online learning can suddenly be validated. Online classes require faculty who are engaging, innovative, and who know how to personalize the online student experience (Bonk, 2009). The second major area of theory examined relates to the instructional design of the online course. Increased levels of student engagement may impact student achievement and success; therefore, it is essential a survey of considerations impacting instructional design be included as part of the basis for this study. Literature shows the more ways students can interact with their peers and feel connected to their coursework, the more engagement and persistence increases. Social networking and participation in online college webcasts or special events are examples of this type of engaging activity (Betts, 2008). Additionally, faculty should engage students early and often to maintain a sense of engagement and momentum within the course. Instructors should move beyond basic faculty-student interactions and build in mechanisms for student-to-student interaction, facilitating spontaneous interactions that help create a more cohesive and dynamic learning community (Angelino et al., 2007). How often and for how long students interact with particular course elements does appear to impact student success
27 15 rates in online classes (Fritz, 2010). A thorough analysis, however, must also take into account differences in faculty pedagogy and utilization of the learning management system. Social learning contexts often depend upon appropriate instructional design, as evidenced by parallel increases in peer engagement online and course success (Macfadyen & Dawson, 2010). Finally, from a social constructivist perspective, the role of technology-mediated communication in shaping the form and content of faculty-student interaction must be examined, since this very mediation may function as a substitute for human face-to-face interaction. Because technological tools for communication continue to emerge at a rapid speed, we do not fully understand the impact of certain communication technologies on human behavior. Within the context of faculty-student interaction, there may be a role reversal of sorts that occurs when faculty use emergent technologies less familiar to them than to the typically younger students. Arnold (2007) found that faculty tend to use technology at a fairly remedial level, as compared to students using the same technologies. These well-meaning instructors may be attempting to infuse technology into their communication patterns to increase student satisfaction levels (Giesbers, Rienties, Gijselaers, Segers, & Tempelaar, 2009). Understanding student technology preferences and the relevance of various tools to instruction may provide clarity for faculty attempting to raise student satisfaction and success rates. The impact of technology-mediated communication, and perhaps more importantly, faculty perceptions of how to best use technology to communicate with their students, comprise a core element of the framework for this study.
28 16 Definition of Terms Asynchronous An indication that communication or coursework is not expected to be completed at a pre-scheduled meeting time. Asynchronous courses do not have regular meeting times, though there may be course milestone dates and times. Students in asynchronous courses complete assignments and engage in communication at varying times. Computer-mediated communication The use of computerized technology as a medium for interaction between two or more individuals. In the online learning context, this refers to the use of computer or telecommunications technology to facilitate conversations or interchanges between the instructor and students. Course completion Occurs when a student registered for a course maintains participation through the course end date. Course completion does not necessarily infer the receipt of a passing grade. Students who receive any grade for a course other than W ( Withdrawal ) or I ( Incomplete ) are considered to have completed the course, either successfully or unsuccessfully. For example, a student who fails a course is considered to have completed it unsuccessfully, since the student maintained enrollment and participation throughout but did not receive a passing grade. D2L See Desire2Learn.
29 17 Desire2Learn A vendor-based learning management system used for online courses. It is also referred to as D2L. Distance education Also referred to as distance learning, this term refers to coursework in which the instructor and student are separated by time, distance, or both. Most forms of distance education require interaction through the assistance of synchronous or asynchronous communication technology. Because online learning is now the dominant form of distance education, some individuals use these terms interchangeably. Distance learning See distance education. Face-to-face course A traditional, classroom-based course in which students and instructor meet in the same room, at the same time. There are typically no online instructional hours required in a face-to-face course. Hybrid course A course taught partially online and partially face-to-face. The proportion of online versus face-to-face time may vary by course. Learning management system A Learning management system (LMS) is web-based software that provides an electronic learning environment for students and faculty, wherein typical course activities can be managed. A typical LMS might include features such as an
30 18 online grade book, discussion forums, the ability to administer online quizzes, accept document attachments, or other common features of online courses. Online instructional dynamic The experiences surrounding instructor-student interaction in the online environment, to include factors impacted by prior experiences, the use of various communication technologies, and instructional design approaches. Persistence Maintaining student enrollment in a course for the duration of the scheduled term. Social networking Online websites and Internet-based applications allowing users to create an account, a personal profile, and share text, photos, status updates, or other information across the Internet with other individuals, based on social preferences. Success rate The percentage of students who complete a course and receive a passing grade. Success in a course, for purposes of this study, is measured by percentage of students receiving the grade of A, B, or C, or CR (credit) in a course offering. Synchronous An indication that communication or coursework is expected occur at a prescheduled meeting time. Synchronous courses require participation of the student and instructor at the same time, regardless of place. For example, a synchronous
31 19 course may use online conferencing technology to allow students and the instructor to meet at the same time from different locations. Underprepared student A student who does not yet possess the academic background or level of prior preparation typically required for success in a course. Assumptions, Limitations, and Delimitations Assumptions Having worked in the field of distance education for over 14 years, the researcher has included certain educated assumptions in the study. Four major assumptions underlie the structure and methodology of this study. The first assumption in the study is that for students, a feeling of isolation in an online class can cause students to lose interest, motivation, and momentum. Therefore, strategies for ongoing student engagement are viewed as important in understanding how individual faculty value their interactions with students and see their own role as the leader of an online course. Second, while great strides have been made in the sophistication of online learning pedagogy and technologies, the researcher understands online learning as we know it today is still in its relative adolescence. That is, those responsible for teaching courses online today are still, to a large degree, learning how to effectively use the technologies and discovering new approaches. The third major assumption underlying this research is that a characteristic of great teachers is their willingness to try new approaches, which sometimes fail. In exploring the online instructional dynamic, the researcher sought to hear not only about successes teaching students online, but also recollections of experiments that failed to
32 20 produce results. It is through these moments where the great learning moments often happen. The fourth assumption underlying the research is that students who do not succeed in taking online courses may not always fail for academic reasons, but for lifestyle related reasons. Students commonly rate attributes such as convenience, ability to fit in studies along with full-time employment, or flexibility needed due to family responsibilities as reasons for choosing to study online. The researcher assumes that due to such factors, it is likely success rates for online courses may always suffer as students who are, themselves, overcommitted, start online courses with the best of intentions, only to realize later that they cannot handle learning online in addition to other life responsibilities. Any fair comparison of online and face-to-face success rates should take this into consideration. These assumptions, taken together, are reflective of the researcher s mental models. Limitations This study is intended to provide insight into the experiences of online instructors with regard to the online instructional dynamic. As such, the study aims to give voice to the faculty participants and draw from their rich backgrounds and experiences in teaching both online and face-to-face courses. A limitation of this study is that feedback from students is not actively incorporated into the study design. Due to the scope of such a study and feasibility concerns, the student population was not included in the qualitative study. However, through artifact analysis and reviews of institutional data, it is anticipated that major themes surrounding student satisfaction with online learning may still emerge.
33 21 Another limitation of the study is that it is being conducted at only a single site. Therefore, it is possible that the culture or approach of the institution could influence the mental models of study participants. Therefore, attempts to generalize findings from the study to other settings should be made with the requisite judgment and caution required. Delimitations As noted later in the study, participants include faculty with significant experience teaching both online and face-to-face courses at Sacramento City College. Instructors participating in the study span several curricular content specialties, with all reasonable efforts being made to provide a representative cross-section of faculty teaching online. Summary Online class offerings are rapidly becoming a larger and more significant share of course offerings in higher education. There are discrepancies between success rates in online and face-to-face courses, which seem to vary by discipline. The online instructional dynamic, as explained in this chapter, lies at the heart of understanding how approaches may be modified to bolster student success in online courses. This study employed a phenomenological qualitative research methodology, with the goal of developing a deep understanding of the online instructional dynamic. The study was conducted at Sacramento City College, a large, urban community college. Through a careful examination of the online instructional dynamic, approaches can be developed to creatively and effectively engage students as an attempt to bolster success in online courses.
34 22 Chapter 2: Literature Review Introduction The purpose of this phenomenological study was to explore, in-depth, the lived experiences of faculty teaching courses online at a California community college in order to inform instructional practice so barriers to student success may be avoided. Within the California community colleges, the average overall course success rate, as measured by the percentage of students receiving passing grades in a course, have remained consistent at 65% for years. At the end of 2008, success rates for online courses within these same institutions averaged 54% (CCCCO, 2009). Faculty often report difficulty establishing dynamic connections with students in the online environment. This may make it difficult to gather sufficient feedback to judge the effectiveness of the overall instructional approach or to measure student mastery of content in time to make necessary adjustments. To aid institutions and individual faculty in designing approaches that lead to higher success rates in online courses, further exploration of the online instructional dynamic may yield useful insights into how faculty can approach interaction and engagement with online students in ways that bolster success. Conceptual Framework Models for enhancing the online instructional dynamic may be uncovered by examining elements of faculty presence in online courses, exploring the unique dynamics of technology-mediated communication, and understanding how online course design impacts interaction between faculty and students. There is a need to examine emerging, innovative approaches to student engagement that allow for increased interactivity,
35 23 personalization, flexibility, and portability of course content and activities. This study explored, from the faculty perspective, the phenomenon lying at the convergence of these three theoretical constructs. Figure 3. A conceptual framework of the online instructional dynamic. The conceptual framework for this exploration of the problem is built upon three areas of study that converge in the online environment and impact instructional design of online classes and the faculty response to student learning behaviors. First, there are numerous factors that may influence an instructor s mental model for delivery of online instruction. Such factors may impact the level of direct interaction and involvement the instructor seeks with his or her students in an online course. These elements of faculty online presence may be a result of underlying mental models surrounding online
36 24 education. For example, transitioning a course from a traditional to online setting may present major barriers for faculty who are not well prepared (Ray, 2009). Lack of institutional support for incorporation of best practices into online course design may impact the ambitions and motivation of faculty when building new online courses. Seeking to understand how these mental models shift based on positive or negative interactions within the institution and with online students over a period of time may serve to inform future models for engaging online students (Green, Alejandro, & Brown, 2009). Second, the nature of technology-mediated communication in the online environment is sufficiently different from traditional, classroom-based learning environments, and, therefore, requires additional consideration on the part of the instructor. Preparation, training, and prior experience may impact the ability of an instructor to make the most effective use of emergent technologies (Chen, Lambert, & Guidry, 2010). By maximizing and enhancing contact between the instructor and student, levels of student engagement can be raised and the effects measured (Dennen et al., 2007). Third, there is evidence that course designs that create opportunities for online students to interact across a dynamic online community within a course, and, therefore, experience heightened levels of engagement, tend to achieve higher rates of course success (Betts, 2008; Farahani, 2003). An exploration of course designs that effectively facilitate dynamic interaction is an essential construct of the research in this study.
37 25 Literature Review By combining three constructs and the related literature the role of faculty presence in an online course, effective navigation of the challenges surrounding technology-mediated communication, and exploration of online course designs that foster high levels of student engagement potential solutions for bridging the gap between face-to-face and online student success may be identified. These three streams of literature, as outlined in this chapter, provide an actionable framework that may serve to guide faculty and students in more engaging and successful learning experiences. Learning and communication technologies have evolved at a staggering pace in the past decade, radically changing the online teaching and learning landscape. An analysis of the intersection between the literature about online course design, faculty presence, and technology-mediated communication informed this study. Faculty Presence As evidenced by the literature, the concept of faculty presence in online courses is complex and has direct ramifications on the student experience. Within the framework of this study, the various elements of faculty presence are important factors in understanding student motivation and achievement. Many leading experts in the field of education advocate for heightened levels of faculty-student interaction in online courses in order to create a robust instructional presence in the course. The literature suggests faculty should embrace interactive, collaborative, and authentic learning exercises, avoiding activities students may perceive as boring, isolated, or artificial. However, there is growing evidence that the promptness of instructor feedback may be more important than the depth of responses to students. Students who perceive
38 26 high levels of faculty presence tend to perceive higher levels of achievement, though not all faculty-initiated interaction appears to add value. The instructor may use his or her role to evoke student motivation and spur students to persist in online learning environments. There is some concern, though, that variance in faculty presence and motivation may require a more consistent institutional approach to connecting disengaged students with various support resources. A specific analysis of each piece of literature comprising this stream of research follows. Angelino, Williams, and Natvig (2007). According to this study, students who feel disconnected or physically isolated from their classmates are more likely to drop out of online programs. This article outlined the importance of early and frequent facultystudent contact as a means of engaging students early on in the coursework. Student peer interaction was also noted as a way of building engagement within the class, and this research showed that faculty should make a deliberate effort to build a learning community. One trait of effective online instructors is the encouragement of spontaneous interactions between students (Angelino et al., 2007). This research is clearly relevant to addressing the disparity in success rates between online and traditional courses within the community college system and speaks to best practices for online student engagement. Bailey and Card (2009). This phenomenological research study by Bailey and Card (2009) examined faculty perceptions of effective pedagogical practices in online learning through the lens of award-winning South Dakota online teaching faculty. Eight effective pedagogical practices were identified in the findings: fostering relationships, engagement, timeliness, communication, organization, technology, flexibility, and high expectations. The findings were presented within the multiple frameworks of andragogy,
39 27 constructivism, and transformative learning. Discussion within the study pointed toward a need for institutions to focus on networking and professional development for faculty teaching online courses, as many college instructors may have never had a course in teaching or education. Several of the eight key findings, such as fostering relationships, engagement, timeliness, and communication, are highly relevant to the issues of faculty presence and motivation. Bonk (2009). Bonk outlined the open nature of learning and the need for faculty and institutions to embrace innovative, open learning platforms and methodologies that allow students to learn anytime, anywhere with innovative, engaging, and personalized learning environments promoting their success. Bonk is critical of online courses that mimic face-to-face course experiences and are perceived as boring by online students, and he advocates for interactivity with and among students. Bonk s research and experiences as a leader in distance learning and open content underscores the need for learners to have identified goals with no room for busywork or artificial learning assignments (Bonk, 2009). Chickering and Ehrmann (1996). As a follow-up to the earlier, renowned work of Chickering and Gamson in Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (1987), the work by Chickering and Ehrmann (1996) provides a technological lens through which the seven principles for good practice can be examined. Of these seven principles, five of them relate directly to interaction and can be influenced by technology. Themes from the authors included the need for faculty to critically evaluate learning technologies before requiring students to use them, ensuring that time on task is spent working on authentic, rather than artificial, problems of relevance to students, and
40 28 emphasizing collaborative and non-competitive or isolated activities (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996). This work indicates the online environment is adaptable to the seven principles for good practice and underscores the value of effective instructor communication and course design. Christian and John (2010). Christian and John (2010) presented a study in which the frequency of instructor intervention in online courses showed no significant correlation to student persistence or success. In particular, the study found that online discussion assignments might have a negative impact on student persistence in online courses, contrary to most identified best practices. Additionally, there were some counterintuitive findings that appeared to indicate students enrolled in larger online class sections may become more invested in the coursework and fare better than students enrolled in smaller course sections, possibly because faculty teaching large course sections online tend to implement more automated instructional design methods allowing the instructor to handle a larger volume of students (Christian & John, 2010). This study is relevant because it lends itself to the potential conclusion that not all instructor-student interaction spurs success online. Dennen, Darabi, and Smith (2007). According to this study, communication in online courses is viewed differently by students and instructors. Students reported higher levels of satisfaction with the course when they felt their interpersonal needs were being met by the instructor, which was in contrast to the faculty belief that student learning was more closely tied to clearly stated expectations, well-defined content, and quality feedback. Implications from this study include the concept that the timeliness of instructor feedback may be more important than the depth or quality of feedback, as
41 29 students seek a regular instructor presence in online courses. Additionally, students indicated that maintaining whole class presence, such as through announcements or group s, may be more important than responding individually to each student for every assignment (Dennen et al., 2007). Findings from this study give tremendous insight into the communication needs of students and highlight what can often be a disparity of perceived need for communication between faculty and students online. Fritz (2010). This research focused on early alert activities and data measurement techniques that functioned as predictors of non-success in online courses. In this study, Fritz (2010) found that students directly engaged via alerts, when they were missing from an online course for a period of time, experienced better retention and success rates than their counterparts in the control group, who did not receive alerts about their lack of course progress. Additionally, Fritz found varied results in relying on the instructor to be the primary contact to alert students, given the varying motivation and attention of instructors to this task. This research demonstrated that while institutions may be concerned about online student success rates, the practice of relying solely on course instructors to identify disengaged students may be problematic. Green, Alejandro, and Brown (2009). This quantitative research study conducted at both CSU, Fullerton and East Carolina University examined factors influencing faculty retention in online programs and provided an analysis of factors across multiple faculty groups, such as tenured, non-tenured, and adjunct instructors. Relevant findings include recommendations for veteran faculty mentors, ongoing professional development, and administrative effort in facilitating a rich community for online faculty. Literature reviewed included a focus on motivating factors, encouraging
42 30 factors, and discouraging factors in faculty involvement in teaching online. Prominent discouraging factors found in this study were concerns about the time commitment, workload impact, and lack of institutional support, all of which may impact faculty motivation and enthusiasm for the online modality. This contrasts with factors that would motivate faculty, including continuous training provided by the university, financial compensation linked to increased workload, increased institutional support, and mentoring from veteran distance educators (Green et al., 2009). This study provides evidence of an emergent theme in the literature a perceived need on the part of faculty for increased training and professional development, and other forms of institutional support, to maintain interest and motivation to continue teaching online. Picciano (2002). Picciano (2002) examined student perceptions about interaction in online courses and measured their perceived levels of learning. According to this research, there was a positive correlation between students perceptions that an online course was interactive and the amount of learning that took place in the course (Picciano, 2002). This work indicates that student perceptions about their online experience influence their levels of satisfaction with a course. As it becomes evident that student perceptions have an impact on satisfaction with the online learning environment, further examination of the nexus between positive interactivity and increased success may be necessary. Technology-mediated Communication By their very nature, online courses rely on the use of technology to bridge the distance between the instructor and students. In asynchronous course designs, technology acts as an intermediary, allowing students and instructors to work and
43 31 communicate with one another at any time. We do not yet fully understand which technologies provide the most benefit to online learners or instructors. By examining the use of several of these types of technologies, faculty can begin to understand how to more effectively utilize technologies for communication with a technologically savvy set of students enrolled in online courses. Overall, recent studies on the impact of technology on student and faculty perceptions provide perspective on the complexities of fostering human relationships via electronic communication. To fully understand the role of technology-mediated communication in the instructional environment, human elements of student perception, motivation, preference, satisfaction, and communication styles must be considered. Most surprisingly, the literature appears to show mixed results for newer, more ubiquitous conferencing technologies such as Skype, whereas older technologies, such as and online discussion boards, may be perceived by students as more valuable to the learning experience. Generally, students perceive the utility of asynchronous discussion boards and as allowing for richer, reflective learning experiences. Students may indicate a more positive view of course instructors who use synchronous conferencing tools, as this provides a sense of a more available instructor and more feedback. Students may not, however, value the use of conferencing tools for collaborative (peer-to-peer) work. A specific analysis of each piece of literature comprising this stream of research follows. Arnold (2007). This study found that many instructors use technology at very basic levels, even though technological advances have brought huge improvements to the online learning process. Teachers routinely need technology skill remediation as part of preparation for teaching in classrooms and virtual environments. Because many faculty
44 32 lack institutional access to this type of training, technology may be used in very basic ways that do not take full advantage of the potential capabilities it could bring to the teaching and learning process. This is relevant research with regard to the nature of technology-mediated communication in that it reflects what may be a common situation wherein teachers technology skills are inferior to those of their students. This highlights one of the major challenges facing teachers who attempt to use technology in their courses with a more technologically savvy cadre of students. Chen, Lambert, and Guidry (2010). This quantitative primary research study used existing data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to explore the relationship between technology use and student learning in online courses. The most relevant finding to this study was that there appeared to be a positive correlation between use of technology and measures of engagement (Chen et al., 2010). This relates to the theoretical framework of the study in that faculty preparation, experience, and training impact their ability to experiment with and utilize emergent technologies, which may increase avenues for student engagement (course design, which promotes interaction). This study linked to key findings from Bailey and Card (2009) that technology competency and flexibility are necessary skills when engaging in technology-mediated communication with students. Incorporating technology elements in the course design is important, since a key finding was that students who use Internet technologies for learning are more likely to use higher level thinking skills, reflection, and integrative learning in their studies. Giesbers, Rienties, Gijselaers, Segers, and Tempelaar (2009). In a study of two student cohorts completing economics courses in the Netherlands, research findings
45 33 indicated students perceived better instruction was occurring when web conferencing was included in course design. Interestingly, though, learning satisfaction did not seem to increase when the web conferencing was included. Students seemed to be more satisfied with use of discussion forums in the online courses, in spite of some obvious disadvantages, such as the speed of interaction, ability to effectively convey emotion, and delays in receiving instructor feedback. Advantages of discussion forums, however, included the fact that participants had more time to think, could be more reflective in their discussion, and were able to build more effective arguments before responding. Students who used web conferencing tools as part of the class, in addition to discussion forums, perceived the conferencing tools to be an unnecessary extra. Interestingly, the immediacy of feedback from the instructor via web conferencing did lead to more positive student perceptions of the instructor. This research provides an interesting perspective regarding newer conferencing tools and their use in relationship to established technologies, such as text-based discussion boards, which are not widely seen as innovative technology. Griffiths and Graham (2010). In this study, the researchers found that the use of video, even in asynchronous contexts, improved perceptions of instructor access among students. Additionally, this study found that using video in online courses could serve as a catalyst for the establishment of positive and motivational relationships between students and instructors. Students who find that their online instructor is readily accessible may have higher motivation levels. These findings are important in that the use of rich media technologies, such as video, need not be limited to synchronous use to
46 34 be considered an effective tool for engaging students and increasing faculty presence in online courses. Salloum (2011). This research study focused on the use of computer-mediated communication technologies in online courses, with tools ranging from text chat and e- mail, to Skype and Wimba synchronous communication technologies. Interestingly, students rated as the most helpful technology, followed by news updates and discussion forums rated as helpful by two-thirds of respondents, with the Wimba online conferencing tool being used by about one half of the subjects in the study. Students did not find the telephone or Skype conferencing to be useful tools in their online courses. Text-based discussion forums were preferred, and students reported greater perceptions of teaching and cognitive presence with this tool, which may encourage higher order thinking and reflection versus Wimba or video conferencing tools, which are more immediate in nature. Interestingly, was widely seen by students as the tool most able to create social presence in online courses. Skylar (2009). Skylar (2009) sought to determine if there were differences in performance between students accessing course content in synchronous interactive formats (web-based conferencing) versus asynchronous text-based lecture formats, as well as determine student preference for synchronous web-based lectures or asynchronous text-based lecture courses. The study resulted in findings that both methods of online instruction are effective, though three-fourths of the students indicated a preference or courses using synchronous web-based conference technologies. Implications may include the fact that interactivity in an online course is an important factor in student perceptions of student satisfaction.
47 35 Online Course Design Course design may play an important role in providing an environment that nurtures creativity, collaboration, and social learning. By exploring course design principles that create opportunities for collaboration in the online environment, the online instructional dynamic can be better understood. Online courses should be designed using instructional methods and tools that facilitate interactivity, social learning, and engagement within the faculty-student, student-student, and student-content contexts of engagement. Constructivist theory holds that students are able to assimilate learning into their own experiences, particularly through social learning that allows for shared learning experiences with their peers. Students actively engaged in online coursework report higher levels of satisfaction and are more likely to persist in their courses. The social and community building aspects of online learning are strategically important to lessening feelings of isolation and assuaging anxiety students may have about taking courses in an online environment. In general, the relevancy and impact of online course design in creating online learning environments that foster student success cannot be understated. Creativity, collaboration, interactivity, community building, and innovation are all elements underlying outstanding instructional design strategies in online courses. While these ideals may not always be successfully implemented in every online course, the role of faculty as developers of innovative content, community builders, and judicious users of technology is evident throughout this stream of literature. A specific analysis of each piece of literature comprising this stream of research follows.
48 36 Arbaugh and Benbunan-Fich (2006). Arbaugh and Benbunan-Fich (2006) focused on the relationship between learning outcomes and instructional methodology in online courses using a sample of graduate students in a Master of Business Administration program. Relevant findings to this study include the concept that creating course elements (assignments) that could be used for truly collaborative learning was difficult in a learning management system-based online environment. The implication is that online course design should, minimally, contain opportunities for students to collaborate through synchronous online meetings, as collaboration in online courses showed a positive effect on learning outcomes. Betts (2008). In examining the role of Online Human Touch (OHT) in online education, Betts (2008) used a framework based on engagement, community development, personalized communication, work-integrated learning, and data-driven decision making. This concept offers specific, actionable methods for building engagement and retaining online students. The OHT model builds on Tinto s (1975) research and Theory of Student Departure. The core of this theory is that students engaged in the institution are less likely to leave (depart) the institution (Tinto, 1987). Intentional faculty and institutional engagement can be built into courses through techniques such as personally introducing online students to student services professionals and engaging students in online presentations that bring college life to the online world, according to Betts (2008). This actionable research is highly replicable and the philosophies examined go to the core of the issue of student engagement as a driver of student success.
49 37 Conrad (2002). The work of Conrad (2002) focused on students at the beginning of online coursework. Part of the population had taken online courses before and some had not. Noteworthy findings included that learners, many of whom were not new to online learning, reported apprehension or fear upon beginning an online course. Participants noted they preferred to access courses in advance of the start date, for purposes of exploration and planning the course around other life obligations. Interestingly, the results yielded little indication that the instructor was a major driver of student engagement at the beginning of a course. Instead, learner-content interaction was much more important in terms of engaging students in an online course (Conrad, 2002). The clear implications of this study are that faculty may need to pay additional attention to the instructional design concepts, content preparation, and completeness of content in order to facilitate better instructional design and increased levels of student engagement. This study points out that course design concepts are important to creating an engaging online course, and there may be limits to the power of faculty persona in creating an atmosphere of engagement. Farahani (2003). Farahani s (2003) work examined the role of student engagement and community through the lens of constructivist theory, which argues that interaction with the instructor, other students, and the course content helps students construct meaning out of their experiences and knowledge. This research demonstrates the importance of a social participation structure within online courses, as this serves to help students create a deeper understanding of course content based on their connections to classmates and shared experiences. Farahani s work also found that faculty tend to value the role of social learning less than students, particularly at the community college
50 38 level, where instructors believe the course content is sufficiently basic as to demand an exclusive focus on the basic content (Farahani, 2003). This research is important, as it highlighted some basic assumptions made by faculty, particularly at the community college level. These basic assumptions may be driving higher attrition rates in online courses at community colleges, given both the lack of social learning and the student population, which may be more easily discouraged from continuing coursework (Jaggars & Bailey, 2010). Farahani s work also serves to inform online course design through the focus on constructivist theory and social learning elements. Macfadyen and Dawson (2010). MacFadyen and Dawson (2010) studied analytic measures of online student activities and found that different pedagogical approaches employed by faculty lead to a wide variety of methods for monitoring student progress and engagement. In this study, the researchers found that in online courses, the degree of engagement with peers was an important indicator of success. This work underscores how varied course designs may prevent standardized measures of student engagement in online courses. This research is relevant to the study of online course design in California community colleges, which generally use a decentralized instructional design model relying on individual faculty expertise in developing course structure and content. Kim, Kwon, and Cho (2011). This quantitative study of students at an online university in Korea examined how the variables of media integration, quality instruction, and interactivity related to social presence and learning satisfaction in online courses. The findings included that media integration (including use of diverse media formats and personalization, such as pictures and use of emoticons), quality instruction, and
51 39 interactivity are good predictors of social presence. However, only media integration and quality instruction are predictors of learning satisfaction. Therefore, interactivity is important in social presence; however, it is not a predictor of learning satisfaction in and of itself. Another key finding was that social presence must accumulate to a point of critical mass in a course in order for it to have a direct effect on the students learning experiences. Also, gender and previous experience in online courses were found to have no relationship to social presence or learning satisfaction. This study may be limited in generalization to western institutions, as it was conducted with a Korean site and population. However, its usefulness is in connecting social presence and technology with this study of the online instructional dynamic, particularly as it relates to the thread of online course design facilitating interactivity and social learning. Ray (2009). This quantitative research study conducted by Ray (2009) used a quantitative approach to examine faculty perceptions about training, professional development, and requirements for training prior to teaching online. Relevant findings included the desire by online teaching faculty to have ongoing opportunities for professional development, the importance of training prior to teaching online, and the belief that training in online pedagogy and technology should be required before a faculty member creates or teaches a course online for the first time. Additionally, faculty respondents indicated it is very difficult to transition a class from a traditional setting into the online modality. Further, most of those surveyed received no training prior to being selected to teach online. This study fits well in the online course design portion of the theoretical framework. It reiterates a recurring theme in the literature, a perceived need
52 40 on the part of faculty for institutional training and professional development surrounding online instruction. Faculty need to be prepared, either through experience, training, or a combination of both, to effectively engage students through creative and innovative means to maximize student engagement online. Summary Through the examination of the three streams of research included in this review, we can better examine how various elements of faculty presence, complexities of technology-mediated communication, and factors influencing online course design converge to create a complex online instructional dynamic in online courses. The research shows a need for increased faculty preparation and ongoing professional development, as the online teaching environment continues to be subject to rapid shifts in available technologies, changes in student expectations and mastery of technology, and a generally lagging pace for innovation in course design beyond what is offered by conventional learning management systems. Elements from all three streams of literature impact student success in online courses in that the online instructional dynamic is inextricably linked to these elements. Faculty cannot engage students effectively, if they do not have a readily evident presence in an online course. Similarly, if the students and instructor operate on different planes with regard to the ability to use technology for communication, or knowledge of social norms for use of various communication technologies, then each might as well speak a different language than the other. Finally, if courses are not created using innovative teaching methods and flexible designs that incorporate elements of interactivity among peers and social constructivist principles, creation of a dynamic learning community may
53 41 be difficult to achieve in an online format. Therefore, further study of the online instructional dynamic is warranted to better understand how faculty and students can engage in practices that facilitate effective communication in online courses.
54 42 Chapter 3: Research Methodology Introduction The purpose of this phenomenological study was to explore, in-depth, the lived experiences of faculty teaching courses online at a California community college in order to inform instructional practice so barriers to student success may be avoided. Through qualitative inquiry, the researcher gathered data about the online instructional dynamic as themes emerged from the data. To determine the stated objectives of this study, the following questions were used to guide the research: a) How do faculty perceive their interactions with students in an online course? b) What instructional practices do faculty believe have a positive impact on student success in their courses? c) Why do faculty members believe the identified instructional practices have positive impacts on student success? To address these questions, a phenomenological research design was employed, using faculty perceptions of the online instructional dynamic to examine the participants lived experiences teaching courses online and identify instructional practices viewed by faculty as impacting online student success. The various expectations, experiences, and general perceptions of individual faculty were explored so approaches leading to broad achievement of student learning outcomes may be identified. The intent was to understand how faculty experiences within the online instructional dynamic impact mental models and instructional practice and identify typical ways faculty may seek to change the design of their online courses to increase student success. Additionally, barriers to student persistence and student success may be noted if instructional practices identified are at odds with prevailing norms for online
55 43 coursework at community colleges. In-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with experienced online instructors from subject areas where online success rates are of particular concern. The Los Rios Community College District Office of Institutional Research (2011) has noted two subject areas in which online success rates appear quite disparate from those of face-to-face courses: English Writing (composition) and Mathematics (algebra). A third subject area, Business (introductory level), was noted as having online success rates that meet or exceed those of students in the face-to-face courses. Therefore, faculty from these three subject areas at Sacramento City College were interviewed to provide insight into factors related to the online instructional dynamic that may be impacting success rates in these online courses. Data gathered from instructors teaching courses with higher success rates (introductory Business courses) were studied along with data from faculty teaching courses with lower success rates (English and Math). Interviews, review of relevant artifacts, and field notes gathered (including observations) were utilized as a method for triangulation of data. This chapter describes the population, site, and considerations regarding access to the site. Next, the research design and rationale are introduced, followed by a list and description of the specific methods used to collect and analyze data. The chapter ends with a discussion of ethical considerations associated with this study. Site and Population Population Description The participants in this study were community college faculty who taught online courses in the English, Mathematics, and Business departments at Sacramento City College, one of four colleges comprising the Los Rios Community College District
56 44 (LRCCD), which serves the greater Sacramento, California, region. The participants varied in academic rank, including Assistant Professor (Tenure-Track), and Professor (Tenured), determined by length of college service and the tenure review process. Each participant holds a graduate degree in his or her discipline, with a master s degree comprising the minimum educational qualification. The range of online teaching experience for participants varied; however, all participants had taught both online and face-to-face courses in the subject area for at least two semesters at the institution. In terms of the population size, in-depth interviews and observations were conducted with eight faculty meeting the criteria. Three were from the English Department, three were from the Business Department, and two were from the Math Department. The prerequisites for participation reasonably ensured that study participants and their courses were reasonably seasoned in the online teaching and learning environment. Therefore, providing participants with an introduction to online teaching pedagogy was not required as part of this study. Because the faculty participants may have had prior professional development opportunities related to online teaching and may also have been familiar with general student demographics and motivation factors, they were well prepared to discuss the nature of their experiences teaching students online, including discussion of critical differences from teaching faceto-face courses and how they possibly impacted the online instructional dynamic. With regard to the demographic traits of the population for this study, only general demographic data across all employee groups was available. However, there is no reason to believe the demographic data for all employee groups at Sacramento City College varied widely from that of the faculty participants. This demographic data show
57 45 that most were residents of the greater Sacramento area or other areas of Northern California that lie within reasonable commuting distance to the main campus in Sacramento. Approximately 61% of employees identify as being of Caucasian descent, with African-American, Asian, and Hispanic employee groups comprising the remaining major groups, at 9%, 12%, and 10%, respectively. In recent years, there has been a steady decrease in Caucasian hires with the African-American employee group growing the most quickly. In terms of gender, the college employs 61% women and 39% men (Sacramento City College, 2009). Again, while this employee data is not specific only to faculty, they provide insight into the demographically diverse population of participants. Site Description The study was conducted using faculty participants from Sacramento City College (SCC), a two-year community college located on an urban campus in the downtown area of Sacramento, California. The college is one of four colleges comprising the Los Rios Community College District, which serves California s greater capital region. The college attracts approximately 26,000 student enrollments per semester in general education, career technical education, developmental and basic skills education, lower division post-secondary education (transfer emphasis), and distance education programs (Sacramento City College, 2011). Sacramento City College is the seventh oldest community college in California, and the single oldest institution of higher learning in Sacramento. The college maintains a distance education program and two college centers located in the nearby communities of Davis and West Sacramento. SCC serves the greater Sacramento Region, including all of Sacramento, Yolo, and parts of Solano, and San Joaquin counties. The main campus
58 46 lies directly between the affluent Land Park neighborhood to the west, the lower income neighborhoods of Oak Park to the east and South Sacramento to the south, and the commercial core of downtown Sacramento to the north. The on-campus student body is a mixture of affluent and low-income students, with an array of international, local, and immigrant populations. In terms of cultural, socio-economic, and age demographics, the student population is quite diverse. In the fall of 2008, no single ethnic group represented more than 33% of the overall student population, though there have been steady increases in the African-American and Hispanic student populations over the past few years. Students whose primary language is English represent 80% of the student body. The gender distribution among students is approximately 58% female to 42% male. Of incoming freshmen, nearly 75% are under age 20, 15% are ages 21-30, and 9% of incoming students are over age 30. Firstgeneration college students represent 41% of incoming students, with 49.6% of incoming students working full- or part-time while enrolled (Sacramento City College, 2009). The Distance Education Program, which facilitates learning primarily through online and hybrid courses, served 4,539 individual students as of the fall 2011 semester (Hadsell, 2011). Most students taking online courses at Sacramento City College are from within California. While the majority of students taking classes online are from the Northern California region, there is a small percentage of students who take classes from other parts of the state or from other states. The college began offering online courses in 2001 with course offerings and enrollments growing steadily over time. With the growth of online learning technologies and changing student demand for more flexible learning
59 47 opportunities, the online learning modality is now the dominant form of distance education across the college. Site Access Given the practical nature of this study, the researcher is uniquely situated to gain access to the site and population as both a faculty member and the college-wide distance education program coordinator. As the researcher is conducting backyard research (Creswell, 2007), he has relatively direct access to faculty, as well as institutional data. The ethical considerations and ramifications of backyard research are further discussed as part of the ethical considerations for this study. However, because human subjects were interviewed as part of the research process, institutional research board (IRB) approval was sought and granted from both the institution sponsoring the research (Drexel University) and the subject institution (Sacramento City College). Both organizations have their own institutional research boards, approval processes, and associated certification procedures. This topic is further discussed in the Ethical Considerations section of this chapter. Research Design and Rationale This study was conducted using a phenomenological approach to qualitative inquiry. The goal of phenomenological research is to gather data informing the research questions by understanding the essence of the phenomenon being studied, in this case, the online instructional dynamic, using an inductive process of inquiry (Creswell, 2008; Merriam, 2009; Moustakas, 1994). It is the work of the phenomenologist to depict the essence or basic structure of the experience (Merriam, 2009, p. 25). The researcher, as an individual with significant experience in the field of online education, explored his
60 48 own experiences to become aware of any assumptions or prejudices he brought to this study in an attempt to set aside preconceived notions of the online instructional dynamic, so he could objectively immerse himself in the phenomenon from the point of view of the participants. Moustakas (1994) used the Greek word epoche to refer to this process of bracketing out and suspending judgment, noting In the Epoche, the everyday understandings, judgments, and knowings are set aside, and the phenomena are revisited (Moustakas, 1994, p. 33). Using this methodology, the researcher explored the online instructional dynamic through the eyes of those closest to it, the faculty teaching online classes. The design of this study included the use of in-depth, semi-structured interviews aimed at drawing out the core experiences and thinking of the participants; a review of relevant artifacts for content review purposes; and field notes containing data gathered through observations. Qualitative data gathered through the interviews and artifact reviews were analyzed for emergent themes using narrative analysis. Specifically, a simplified version of the Stevick-Colaizzi-Keen method discussed by Moustakas (as cited in Creswell, 2007) was utilized (see Figure 4). Through horizontalization of significant statements, development of themes, and creation of textural and structural descriptions, a culminating final composite description of the online instructional dynamic was developed as part of the findings of this study. This composite description relays the essence of the experience while addressing the research questions in this study.
61 49 Composite Description (Essence) Epoche or Personal Bracketing Signficant Statements (Horizontalization) Themes (Meaning Units) Textural Description Structural Description Figure 4. Simplified version of the Stevick-Colaizzi-Keen method. A qualitative, phenomenological approach was chosen because while quantitative data about student success rates is available, little research exists as to why online students seem to have lower success rates in some disciplines and not others. A qualitative approach was determined to be most appropriate for this study because of the need for the researcher to be immersed within the research and to develop a complex, detailed understanding of the issues as explained by the human participants in the study (Creswell, 2007). A rich understanding of the individuals involved in online education, including their environments and stories, is necessary to provide appropriate context. The qualitative approach is also preferable when elements of a study are difficult to quantify without the ability to probe deeply into the issues and to identify relationships that would not be readily identifiable without conducting in-depth interviews or analysis of physical artifacts. Further, two recent institutional research reports set the stage for this study, and both recommended an in-depth examination of instructional practices and other factors impacting student success in online courses. The 2010 report Online Course Enrollments
62 50 & Success By TOP Codes explicitly called for research involving in-depth interviews by recommending, Discussions with program coordinators and faculty teaching these online classes may yield valuable clues on how to modify and fine-tune these online courses to increase student success (Los Rios Community College District Office of Institutional Research, 2010, p. 4). The following year, the report Who s Online and How Are They Doing? also recommended a qualitative research approach in that the structure and instructional strategies currently being used in the online courses in English Writing and Math should be examined more closely and changes made in order to improve student learning (Los Rios Community College District Office of Institutional Research, 2011, p. 9). Therefore, the use of phenomenology was chosen due to these recommendations and the need to understand the essence of what is happening in the online instructional dynamic. Because Sacramento City College is reasonably representative of many other community colleges within California, the results may have the potential to inform instructional practice in ways that could benefit other community colleges dealing with similar issues. Research Methods Introduction List of Methods Used Methods utilized for data collection as part of this phenomenological research study included: a) semi-structured interviews with participants; b) artifact review; c) field notes, including observation logs. Stages of Data Collection Data collection advanced in stages once approvals from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) for Drexel University and Sacramento City College were granted.
63 51 Following IRB approval, participants were recruited for this study. Because of the backyard nature of the research, many participants were acquaintances or colleagues of the researcher, though care was exercised to ensure biases were not introduced in the selection of participants. Once the faculty participants were identified, individual interviews were scheduled. Prior to the first interview, the researcher bracketed out his own experiences and viewpoints, setting them aside so as not to bias the study. During interviews, personal experiences with the online instructional dynamic were probed and opportunities to examine artifacts or documents, such as course syllabi or instructor websites, were identified. Field notes were maintained, including data gathered via observation of participants. Interviews were then transcribed, and lists of significant statements surrounding the online instructional dynamic were developed (horizontalization). From this list of significant statements, emergent themes within the data were identified. From this list of themes, a textural description outlining the what of the experience was written including examples from the significant statement to carry forward the voices of the study participants. A structural description the how of the experience was then constructed to provide context to the experiences contained in the textural description. The final stage in gathering the data was the assimilation of the textural and structural descriptions into a composite description. The composite description represents the essence of the online instructional dynamic and was the culminating step in analyzing the data. Figure 5 demonstrates the various stages of data collection. The proposed timeline for data collection, analysis, and reporting is presented in Table 2.
64 52 Bracketing Interviews Artifact Analysis Horizontalization Emergent Themes Textural Description Structural Description Composite Description Figure 5. The stages of data collection. Table 2 Timeline for Data Analysis and Reporting Activity Date Development of research proposal April, 2012 Doctoral committee review and revisions May, 2012 Proposal defense hearing and approval May, 2012 IRB Certification Drexel University June, 2012 IRB Certification Sacramento City College June, 2012 Recruitment of participants July/August, 2012 Field research Interviews July/August, 2012 Field research Artifact review August/September, 2012 Data analysis Modified Stevick-Colaizzi-Keen method September, 2012 Report findings and discussion of findings October, 2012 Document revisions November, 2012 Submission and defense of dissertation December, 2012
65 53 Description of Methods Used The following instruments, techniques for inviting and selecting participants, collecting data, and analyzing data were used in this qualitative study in keeping with the phenomenological research approach. Instruments Utilized Interview protocol. Individual, face-to-face interviews were conducted with participants. An interview protocol form was used to identify primary questions to be asked of the interviewee; document the time, location, and position of the interviewee; and to record field notes during the interview. The Interview Protocol forms were maintained within the codebook for confidentiality and archival purposes. Questions contained in the interview protocol were used as the basis for the semi-structured interview (see Appendix A). Observation protocol and field notes. An observation protocol form was developed to allow the researcher to document observations during the face-to-face interview, such as non-verbal cues or environmental factors. Notations were made during interviews. Following each interview, reflective notes were added to the form by the researcher to provide additional context surrounding the interviewing process (see Appendix B). Field notes containing data gathered through field research were maintained by the researcher. Artifact review protocol. Artifacts pertaining to the participants, as well as the broader context of online learning environments at the research site, were analyzed for emergent themes as part of the study. References to artifacts were made by participants during the interviews. With appropriate permissions, the researcher reviewed relevant
66 54 artifacts, performing both content analysis and descriptive analysis, as appropriate. Notes, including any copies of the paper artifacts reviewed, were maintained within the codebook for archival and comparative purposes using the Artifact Review Protocol (see Appendix C). Participant Selection This study required the participation of individual faculty from three academic disciplines, English, Math, and Business, for a total of eight participants. Participants must have taught both face-to-face and online courses in their respective disciplines, with a minimum of two semesters of experience in the online modality. College class schedule reports were analyzed to develop a pool of potential participants from each discipline meeting these criteria. Identification and Invitation Participants identified as meeting the criteria for this study were provided with the Invitation to Participate in a Qualitative Research Study About Online Education notice via electronic mail (see Appendix D). The communication advised them of procedural safeguards, such as the voluntary nature of their participation, ability to cease participation at any time, and issues of confidentiality, and provided them with a reasonable timeframe within which to respond. Due to the timing of the data collection phase falling near the summer recess, additional follow-up contacts were attempted via telephone or in-person to secure participants for the study. Data Collection During the field research, individual face-to-face interviews were conducted with study participants at a convenient time and location. The researcher held the stance that
67 55 interviewees provide a multi-layered set of rich data in the form of interviews and artifacts. Interviews were scheduled for minutes, and both interview protocol and observation protocol forms were used to document responses to interview questions, nonverbal cues, and environmental observations as field notes. The audio portion of the interviews was recorded and transcribed by the researcher. Follow-up information for access to artifacts specifically mentioned during interviews was sought at the conclusion of the interview. Interview documentation and field notes were retained as part of the codebook until the conclusion of the study. Data Analysis During the analysis phase, a transcript of each interview was created and reviewed for emergent themes. Codes were assigned to relevant themes, which form the basis for interpretation and the findings of the study. While interview responses were accepted at face value, consideration was also provided to unspoken cues through techniques such as textual analysis, interpretation of non-verbal communication, and filtering of responses through an understanding of the particular paradigm (thoughts, beliefs, experiences, and philosophy) through which the subject presents his or her view of the online teaching and learning experience. This is the basis from which the constructivist elements emerge within the interpretation of the fieldwork. Field notes, consisting primarily of the Interview Protocol (see Appendix A) and Observational Protocol (see Appendix B) were examined to provide context to responses provided during the interview. Relevant artifacts were examined for relationships to themes that emerged (or failed to emerge) during the interviews. Significant statements that emerged during interviews or artifact review were analyzed using Moustakas s
68 56 (1994) modified Stevick-Colaizzi-Keen method (as cited in Creswell, 2007). This began with the process of horizontalization, which led to the discovery of emergent themes and textural and structural descriptions (Creswell, 2007; Moustakas, 1994), and culminated in a composite description that represents the essence of the phenomenon, called the essential, invariant structure (or essence) (Creswell, 2007, p. 62, emphasis in original). The composite description is presented in the form of rich description in the Findings section of Chapter 4. When the composite description was complete, a recursive look at the emergent themes from the data was conducted to compare elements of the composite description with the emergent themes from the field research. The outcome is a rich discussion of particular challenges faced in effectively engaging students in online learning, with a presentation of an interpretation of the findings and recommendations for further study of the online instructional dynamic as it relates to student success. Ethical Considerations Since human subjects are used as collaborators and studied as part of the research, institutional research board (IRB) approval was sought and granted from both the sponsoring institution (Drexel University) and the site where the research was conducted (Sacramento City College). Both organizations have their own institutional research boards, approval processes, and associated certification procedures. Research did not commence until IRB approval was certified. The researcher made every reasonable effort to safeguard the confidentiality of all participants in this study. As a precaution, participants were randomly assigned pseudonyms a means of protecting their identities. Additionally, because this was an
69 57 action research study taking place within a place of employment, all study participants were made aware that the role of the researcher would be different, and separate, from the researcher s primary role within the organization as distance education coordinator. The researcher was acutely aware of his dual roles in this regard. Assurances were provided to study participants that the researcher would ensure there be no reprisals or employment-related ramifications resulting from participation in this study. However, it was also communicated to participants that the goal of this study was to improve instructional practice leading to higher success rates in online courses. Therefore, conclusions drawn from this research study may be used by the researcher in his regular role as Distance Education Coordinator for purposes of program planning, while also protecting the confidentiality of study participants. For example, findings from the study are presented in a manner in which data could not be disaggregated so as to identify any particular participant. The participants can be assured that no identifiable information about their experiences in this study would be leaked to other nonparticipants within the college, including other colleagues. Because the participants in the study came from three identified departments, steps were taken to aggregate themes uncovered in the data in such a manner as to remove the identification of participants departmental affiliation as much as was feasible. In this way, participants could be assured that findings would not be linked directly to any single college department.
70 58 Chapter 4: Findings, Results, and Interpretations Introduction This chapter lists the findings, results, and interpretations of the researcher with respect to this study. It begins with a restatement of the purpose of the study, followed by the research questions and the findings from the field research and data analysis. Findings are presented using thick, rich description from representative excerpts of interview transcripts, observation notes, and artifact review. Participant responses are linked to pseudonyms, used to mask the individual identities of the participants. The final results of the study are then presented, along with the researcher s interpretations as they related to existing literature, theory, and practice. The chapter concludes with a brief summary of content and key points presented in this chapter. Purpose Statement The purpose of this phenomenological study was to explore, in-depth, the lived experiences of faculty teaching courses online at a California community college to inform instructional practice so that barriers to student success may be avoided. Research Questions The following research questions guided the research to determine the stated objectives of this study: 1. How do faculty perceive their interactions with students in an online course? 2. What instructional practices do faculty believe have a positive impact on student success in their courses?
71 59 3. Why do faculty members believe the identified instructional practices have positive impacts on student success? Findings The findings presented in this chapter represent the culmination of this study, which was conducted utilizing a phenomenological approach to field research and data analysis (Moustakas, 1994). Five major themes emerged from the data collected and analyzed, which consisted of transcripts from in-depth semi-structured interviews with experienced online educators, field notes, and artifact reviews. The five findings of this study are: 1) Challenges Teaching in an Online Environment, 2) Communication Issues, 3) Potential Hindering Factors for Online Students, 4) Overall Perceptions of the Online Instructional Dynamic, and 5) Practices Which Promote Engagement and Success. Each finding contains sub-findings, detailed in Figure 6 and are described in full detail throughout this chapter.
72 60 Challenges Teaching in an Online Environment Communication Issues Potential Hindering Factors for Online Students Overall Perceptions of the Online Instructional Dynamic Practices Which Promote Engagement and Success Time-Intensive Nature of Online Teaching Challenges Presented by Asynchronous Forms of Communication Misperceptions About Convenience, Flexibility, and Ease Remain Easily Accessible with Short Response Times Use Tools and Reports to Monitor Student Progress Discipline- Specific Content Considerations Challenges of Text-based Communication Commitment, Discipline, and Maintaining Frequency Clustering of Single Word or Phrase Responses (See Table 7) Only Use Discussion Boards When Appropriate Help Students Set Realistic Expectations at the Outset The "Always On" and Mobile Instructor Difficulty Establishing a Personal Connection with Students First Time College Student Readiness Provide Explicitly Clear Instructions and Use Time Checkpoints Intentionally Try to Engage and Motivate Students Figure 6. Findings and sub-findings of the study.
73 61 Challenges Teaching in an Online Environment Study participants identified several challenges for faculty who teach community college courses online, as opposed to traditional, classroom-based courses. Participants report that these challenges have an impact on how they design courses and interact with students in the online environment. The responses centered around three main considerations, which impact the effectiveness of the instructor in an online course: a) time and effort that must be devoted to content creation, course administration activities, and a heavy grading load; b) discipline-specific considerations in adapting content or instructional methods to the online modality; and c) demand for an always on mobile instructor. Time-intensive Nature of Online Teaching Study participants identified increased time demands as an important element of teaching online community college courses. Examples included time spent creating content, communicating with students, and course administration activities. Participants universally expressed significant concerns regarding the amount of time spent on these activities when compared to instructional activities for courses taught face-to-face. Time demands are most severe during the first few semesters of teaching a course online. When asked about the first few semesters teaching online, one participant noted, An unbelievable number of hours, is what it was first like (Kathryn). Lorraine echoed this concern saying, For me, it s very time intensive. Faculty interviewed did indicate that with time, the process of managing the various demands of the online classroom can become more manageable.
74 One of the things I tell instructors who are considering working online is, first of all, when you re setting up those courses for those first three semesters, honestly, it s way more work. Be prepared for that. Be prepared to babysit your class daily, four, five, six times. Because students are going to be, You ve got screwed up dates here. You ve got one over here, and another over there. This isn t working. And it takes you a while, especially as you re learning the system. But, of course, that gets easier and easier. (Kenneth) On an ongoing basis, development of online content by the instructor, such as lectures or videos, takes far more time to complete than expected. One faculty member reflected, specifically, on the difficulty of staying current with both technology and course content, while still trying to focus on student engagement. I didn t know necessarily how much work it would be for me to develop it. I didn t recognize that teaching online is really a whole set, a whole different mentality, than teaching face-to-face. And that there would be such a constant learning of there s one of content that s always happening, and there s always one of technology. So you kind of put yourself on this dual path. And you have to work harder to engage students, don t you? (Anna) In addition to the increase in overall faculty time demanded by online courses, participants expressed concern that much of this additional time is spent on course administration or grading rather than direct instruction or interaction with the students. Responses noted during observations showed participant behaviors as they discussed the time demands of course administration and grading versus what they considered teaching, a seemingly primary focus of online instruction. As they spoke, leaning forward, several participants raised their voices noticeably, and their facial expressions became pronounced, sometimes, almost as if they were pleading for understanding. I would say it s more administrative than teaching in class. You have to put the checklist up, you have to be ahead of your students by a week instead of just a day...like in a lecture class, you can kind of push that a little bit. So it s more administrative. You have to be on top of who s watching your videos and who s not. (Evan) 62
75 63 Kathryn became emphatic when talking about additional grading workload, noting the importance of time management. The intensity of her voice changed, becoming stronger and more pointed, and she shook her head then threw up her hands while saying: You ve got to be in there a few days a week doing stuff, scoring things, kicking it back at them, giving them feedback. Otherwise, and I ve experienced this, all of a sudden, there s fifteen assignments, ninety people have given you papers. Then you just want to slit your wrists. You re never going to get out of that hole. So I learned that, to stay on top of stuff. (Kathryn) Additionally, participants perceived that the often invisible nature of online teaching activities has led to a lack of recognition for the time and effort invested by online teaching faculty. One professor stated, I don t get the feeling that everyone really appreciates the time and energy that it takes. I mean, how hard can it be teaching online? So I think it s. Institutionally, I don t think we get it (Anna). Similarly, a colleague explained, So what happens is, it becomes completely not doable from your end, because there s too much grading. That s really the big issue. It s just craziness (Kathryn). The time intensive nature of teaching online can take its toll on the faculty member, as underscored by comments best expressed by one participant. I talk to other people who I feel like are really putting the time in and giving them [students] the right amount of exercises that are that are doing their job. And it seems like we re always stressed out, that we never, ever feel like we re caught up. If someone s really being honest and they re like, Oh my God, I ve got all of these assignments in my Dropbox that I ve got to grade. And it s very time consuming, and that s deceptive. (Sandra) Participants expressed frustration that a significant amount of their time was spent on what they perceived as tangential or administrative issues. Examples included time spent answering non-content related questions from students about course logistics,
76 64 technology issues, or keeping tabs on which students have not completed assignments. Nicholas commented on a common concern, It tends to be, in terms of the communication from them to me, there s fewer [subject-related] questions, and it s more arranging test times, and questions about course policies (Nicholas). According to Evan, It is a challenge to keep them on task, because that s not my strong point. My strong point is being in the classroom and teaching. My strong point is not doing the administrative type of stuff. Discipline-specific Content Considerations Participants described dealing with specialized concerns related to individual teaching disciplines as an important element of teaching online community college courses. Both technological and methodological constraints are seen as impacting the ability to teach particular subject areas online. One Math instructor discussed some of the challenges of teaching math online and how these issues impact students. I could be wrong, but I have this perception that classes, like maybe English, and stuff where the students might read a book and then discuss it on the discussion board, that that works better. I felt like the main barrier was this barrier where you need to be able to write symbols in Math, and you need to be able to talk about them as you re writing. (Nicholas) Such content considerations are not unique to math courses, as pointed out by a colleague from the Business Department, who commented, As our department has expanded into doing more stuff online, that [course] was just an obvious one because it s a survey course. It s not too complex. There are some business topics that just don t work well (Kathryn). While instructors in some disciplines may feel hindered by the online modality as it relates to their particular content, this was not a consistent experience across
77 65 disciplines. Participants from the English Department expressed enthusiasm for how the online modality appears to provide a superior environment for student learning within that discipline. When you think about how you become a better writer, you practice writing. If you re face to face, the majority of class time is spent talking and discussing. And then students are expected to write outside of the classroom. Well, that s 54 hours of student time that s not spent practicing writing. So in the online format, that s all they do is write. All of their discussions are keyboarded. And, of course, the other side of writing is reading. The more you read, the better you write. So this is it s perfect. It may not be perfect for all disciplines, but for writing, I think it s just made. It s reading centered, it s writing intense. (Carla) Faculty sometimes creatively use technology to mediate concerns about the ability to effectively teach or learn specialized course content. For example, tools such as the Skype online conferencing platform were noted to be useful in providing a medium for back and forth discussion in real-time. Composition is a complex process, and trying to make sure they understand each one of those pieces. And usually when they re asking a question, it s not just a simple, Here s the answer. There s usually a lot more involved in that. So I m always a little bit worried, which is why I started using Skype. Then I can actually see their face, too, that sort of Lost in Space stare. (Kenneth) Participants acknowledged that being resourceful with technology alone is not always enough to support every student. During one interview, a professor explained: I had a second language student transfer in to take [the course] this summer. I said, You d really be better off to take it in a regular semester where you can go into the Writing Center and get some help. (Lorraine) Field research yielded an obvious finding that one of the three disciplines studied, Math, has a particularly acute challenge which may directly impact teaching and learning in the online environment. Faculty teaching Math courses online expressed significant complaints about the technology available for inputting and displaying equations in the
78 66 learning management system and explained how this creates a technology barrier for students. As Nicholas explained, For me, again, my main perception of the difference is it s hard to do Math by typing. And in Math notes, just by themselves, don t really cut it. Although, students seem to have gotten more used to it. For example, when I first started, I was pretty uncertain that using the little carrot symbol to indicate an exponent I was afraid that would throw students off, because anything that s visually different for students at that level tends to throw them off. I mean, they ll get bogged down by the difference between round parenthesis and brackets, even though in Math they re really equivalent. But I discovered that students are okay with that. I could be wrong, but I have this perception that classes like maybe English and stuff where the students might read a book and then discuss it on the discussion board, that that works better. But yeah, I felt like the main barrier was this barrier where you need to be able to write symbols in Math, and you need to be able to talk about them as you re writing. And doing the equations on the discussion board, the equation editor is kind of crappy, and you can t really well, I won t get into that. It s kind of crappy, so it s hard for them to use. And I felt like that was just another barrier. So I ve backed off from using the discussion board. I think if there was a really nice, easy to use equation editor, it might be better. (Nicholas) Evan offered insight into how the incremental improvements in technology over time have slowly made things better for online Math students. He explained how his experiences, including earlier failures trying to engage students in typical ways, led him to discover innovative ways to better engage Math students. So it [teaching online] was something new and different, and I thought I d try it. And when I first started, I would say it was very unsuccessful, because the technology wasn t there yet that we needed for our Math students. A lot of it was getting students engaged in that way [discussion boards] or in chat rooms, it just it doesn t work in Math. You need to do something different. So I kind of stumbled my way and figured out what to do. (Evan) The Always On and Mobile Instructor Study participants identified remaining accessible to students and having the ability to leverage mobile technologies as an important element of teaching online community college courses. Most professors reported maintaining a seemingly constant
79 67 state of availability to their online students, working every day of the week, carrying mobile devices, and answering student questions well outside of regular working hours, to include various times of day or night. These behaviors were described by nearly all participants, regardless of factors such as age, gender, or academic discipline. Concerns regarding the students inability to get instant answers to questions they may have, such as might happen in a face-to-face classroom, were frequently cited as a motivation for this behavior on the part of instructors. I have them do something to have them show me they learned the concept. But they don t have that instant ask questions stuff. So, because I am a geek, and because I have an ipad and I carry it with me 24/7, I encourage them to me, and I answer very quickly. I m able to take care of the immediacy of their questions that way. So it s not quite as spontaneous as being in the classroom, but I make it as spontaneous as I possibly can. (Lorraine) The temptation to monitor student questions and concerns day and night can be strong. One instructor revealed during an interview, followed by a smile, I m online pretty much every day. Sundays I try not to go online, but I am probably peeking and looking (Anna). Another noted that working weekends is part of the normal routine to control workload during the regular workweek. Mobile technologies have also made it easier for faculty to take the classroom with them, wherever they go. I m super mobile. Like, on the weekends, I usually work every weekend. I find that if because I have stuff due on Sundays. So, to just allow a whole weekend of me not going in there usually means for a really ugly Monday and Tuesday, so I like to at least go in. Sort of like just cleaning out your and making sure that it s not getting all clogged up. So, you know, I need my laptop to be checking s to see if students are sending questions. (Kathryn) Participants discussed the realities of trying to maintain a high level of access for online students, which can lead to frustration for instructors. This was a common comment, which was best expressed by one participant.
80 Thank goodness for iphones, right? You re on a pretty short leash with all this technology. So we have to turn it off. It s like, okay, what do I look at? It s hard for me to it s addictive. I m like co-dependent. I feel more obligated to the online students because they haven t had the opportunity to see me in the classroom. So as a result I m thinking, Well, what if this is the only day they can get a hold of me? We might talk in class. Now, I m reading everybody s comments. And then trying to think of something witty to say is just like It s like, it s midnight, and I don t really want to say anything. (Sandra) Study participants commonly described the struggle to find a balance between remaining accessible, checking in with students, and maintaining personal boundaries. So it is very easy for it to become a 24/7 thing. That was one of the first things I had to learn, was when to turn it off. The still goes to my phone. I still see it. My phone is sitting next to me all night charging, so I turn off all sounds on my iphone, because that s when all the s are coming in from students, because they re up at 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning. I hear those and I think, The work is building up right now, and I m sleeping. (Kenneth) Participants noted that mobile computing options, such as a tablet device, phone, laptop, or home computer, have enabled them to be more productive. It was noted that such productivity gains are often the result of finding a distraction-free environment in which to work. During an interview, one participant exhibited signs of visible frustration when asked if time was better spent teaching online from an on- or off-campus location. It s mostly a blend of home and mobile. I have everything set up on my home computer. Everything is there. It s easier for me to work at home for the online classes. You know, I can t work here (Lorraine). Another stated, I find it difficult to work here. If I close the door, I can. But if the door is open, forget it. There s a constant stream of people stopping to talk to me (Kathryn). Some faculty reported having greater access to technology from their home computers. One participant commented, I work primarily at home. One, because I know I can do it without interruption. The other thing is, I can do 68
81 69 it with the equipment I need (Anna). Another participant stated, Wherever I am, my laptop goes with me. And I just work when I can (Kenneth). While faculty generally reported a preference to work on their online courses from off-campus locations, a noteworthy exception was faculty who reported having young children in their household. Using mobile computing approaches to gain productivity can be difficult if family interruptions replace those experienced on campus. I would say lately I do most of my work in the office, because I have small kids at home, and it s hard to get anything done. But before I had kids, I did a lot of the stuff at home. I had my desk set up, and I d make my videos at home. So it s really the kid factor that forces me to do my work here. (Evan) Faculty participants who identified having young children at home consistently expressed that they tended to work on campus due to the possibility of interruption at home. Communication Challenges Study participants identified communication issues as having a direct impact on both the instructor and learner in an online community college course. Communication between students and faculty in an asynchronous online course presents a unique set of challenges. Communication issues identified by participants centered on three main elements: a) challenges presented by asynchronous forms of communication, b) challenges of text-based communication, and c) difficulty establishing a personal connection with students. Challenges presented by asynchronous forms of communication. Study participants identified challenges presented by asynchronous forms of communication as an important element of teaching online community college courses. Common concerns centered around a lack of a shared time for learning activities, difficulty creating a
82 70 community of learners, the highly individualized nature of communication, and a perceived inability for the instructor or students to spontaneously contribute to conversation. Nicholas highlighted some of the challenges presented when there is not a set time for shared interaction or class activities in which passive learning can occur. With face-to-face classes, students come they have a scheduled time to come and have Math go in their ears, whether it penetrates or not. And online students don t have that. So with face-to-face students, they automatically have an opportunity to ask questions. And I think that makes a difference. And not just because they re there with other people and seeing me. But it s a scheduled time where they hear other people s questions, and there s.i think they almost can t help learning something. And then once you learn something, you have this feeling of a little bit of success, and it motivates you to at least attempt something. (Nicholas) Participants expressed concerns that teaching completely asynchronous online courses can make it difficult to create an online learning community, impacting both students and the instructor. What s missing is the sparkle. When you put a joke on your welcome page, you re not going to hear the laughter of the students. And that s a big part of why we enjoy teaching; it s that kind of community atmosphere that we have when we re face to face. The other thing you miss is body language, or just facial expressions, in terms of interpreting communications. That s a little bit lacking in online. You just don t get the nuances that help clarify meaning. So I think it s a little easier to misinterpret or miscommunication online. But I think it s a richer interaction, because you interact with everybody. (Carla) Challenges building this sense of shared presence contribute to a typical situation online in which messages are received individually by students at different times, making it difficult to establish a sense of shared meaning and leading to repetitive questions from students. Kathryn explained, In a face-to-face class, I can hit 45 people I can just talk to 45 people. And if three people have questions, they raise their hands, and everybody
83 71 hears the answers. It s not like holding a class discussion where I say it once, and everybody hears it, echoed Kenneth. Participants described the pitfalls of communication methods that individually engage students rather than providing for an open conversation, which could potentially benefit the entire class. Individual messages between students and instructors are frequently used for communication. Participants described that while provides convenience and flexibility, it segments the communication in a way that does not typically occur in a traditional classroom. I try to discourage . And the reason is, first of all, it brings it outside the classroom. It s like a student asking you a question in the hallway. Sometimes students ask me questions in the hallway. I say, Ask that again when we get in the classroom, because everybody needs to hear that answer. (Anna) Asynchronous communication presents challenges for faculty in effectively creating student groups in online classes, particularly the difficulties in establishing group communication norms. Many participants assign group work in their face-to-face courses regularly, but related they were hesitant to do so online. Students grow frustrated quickly with others who cannot be available at the same time, and online groups require heavy involvement on the part of the instructor. If a student doesn t play in one week, then your group has really fallen apart, particularly online. And so the recovery from that and then it frustrates the group members because, I m here. Where is this person? And it s not easy to rope back together. And then, I think that probably what would make it more successful is me even managing it more intensely. And quite frankly, I don t have the time or the energy to do that. (Anna) Asynchronous communication modes impact the ability to have spontaneous discussion with a student, or to answer questions efficiently. Most participants utilized e- mail as the dominant form of communication with their students. They reported that, at
84 72 times, this presents challenges if the conversation needs to move beyond short responses. It is often difficult to convey in-depth meaning through discussion or illustration using alone. Participants expressed a preference for having real-time communication options that could be employed in situations when immediate or in-depth feedback is required. Kenneth explained: The thesis statement is everything when it comes to literary analysis. It has to be argumentative. And in this case, I m focusing just on interpretive essays. And students don t necessarily have a grasp of that. And so they ll send me a thesis, Is this right? And I ll reply back in an , and I finally just said, You know what? Can we Skype this? That would be a lot easier if we could have a dialog between us. And those students who ve taken advantage of it, we d Skype for five or ten minutes. And they re like, Great, I ve got it. Thank you. This was fantastic, versus who knows how many hours between sending s, phoning back and forth. Scheduling online office hours on-demand, rather than being available at a pre-set time, was reported as most beneficial to students. Evan relayed experiences trying to hold regular online chat sessions for which there were no pre-scheduled appointments, noting, I tried to hold an online office hour in a chat room. I would be sitting at home in my chat room. No one. That was not successful at all. We are in a very asynchronous society right now. It didn t work. Scheduling considerations may present significant obstacles, however, when instructors seek to use synchronous technologies for providing feedback or clarification to students. Kathryn explained how it can sometimes be difficult to connect with students in real time. Occasionally, I ve talked on the phone with people, but I don t do that a whole lot, because I sort of feel like the reason they re taking online is for the convenience of working at midnight, or that sort of thing, so I don t want to bog people down with the phone. Sometimes, we just have to talk on the phone. And I also encourage online students to come to my office hours. But a lot of times they can t, for the same reasons they can t come to classes.
85 73 Kenneth echoed these concerns about online office hours which are set solely based on the instructor s schedule. Particularly, one of the difficult things for online - even though I would have office hours online - online students aren t online at a regular time. So it s almost I m just grading, you know Which is kind of the same as my face-toface hours, actually. But, certainly with my onliners, they re scattered. So holding a set time for an office hour for them I m required to do it, and I still do it, but what I ve often done is just said, Send me an . Let me know what works for you, and we ll set a time. But now, for the summer, I ve started using Skype. So if the students have video capability, it s exactly the same as a face-toface office hour. I ve used it several times. Carla relayed similar concerns, explaining, You re not there at the same time, and you lose the sparkle. But you know, I can use Skype during my online office hours, so we can see each other. It rarely happens, though. But I m available. Kenneth also described how changing societal norms surrounding communication have altered students expectations about being contacted via telephone. I think it s very similar to sort of the social etiquette of text messaging and cell phones now. It s almost rude to make an unannounced phone call. So, you know, it s always best to send a text message first and say, Hey, is it alright if I give you a call? Participants described using online video, both for real-time conferencing and also in the form of instructor-created videos, as a way to create a more shared and humanizing experience as a counterweight to the challenges posed by the asynchronous nature of their online classes. I started using videos, and students really like that. And it doesn t really matter what It almost doesn t matter what I say, because it does. But it seems to be a presence that otherwise doesn t exist. And I ve kind of experimented with that. I started videos to just introduce the week. And then I wanted to use videos to talk about the things I thought were most important in the class. And then I started using them to talk about something in particular that maybe students were doing, like everybody was screwing up subject-verb agreement, or whatever it might be. Or everybody is missing the point of primary data. What is that really like? And
86 the engagement increased. Students started talking to each other about it, and so it became fun. It s time consuming. I haven t done it as much as I liked, but I find it to be a very effective way to not only communicate with students, but to create a presence with students, and to also answer questions, and get students kind of, you know, I really am here. (Anna) Challenges of text-based communication. Study participants identified challenges presented when using text-based forms of communication, primarily , as a medium for asking and answering questions or providing feedback as an important element of teaching online community college courses. Faculty reported they sometimes found it difficult to provide context and clarity in response to student questions, and students sometimes appeared to have difficulty posing targeted questions, instead asking very broad questions that were difficult or highly inefficient to answer through a written medium. For example, Nicholas explained how the use of as a primary communication causes problems for students in his online Math courses. Yeah, I think in Math, you need to be able to ask questions about it, and that s harder to do online. I think that would be the main issue, is just that it s harder to ask questions, and that would impact success to a certain extent. The main thing that concerns me is the face-to-face students can ask Math questions easily just by opening their mouth and asking them, whereas the online students have this barrier that it s hard to type out Math. The difficulty with doing Math in typing, that not only made it difficult for me to answer questions, but it made it difficult for the students to ask questions. Because they would typically be ing me, and so what they would fall back on is, I don t understand how to do this problem. Can you please explain the whole thing? And so, my help wasn t as targeted as I would have liked it to have been. (Nicholas) Participants reported receiving, on average, fewer questions about course content, and significantly more questions regarding course administration issues. Many participants also noted they found it a hindrance they could not easily communicate with the whole class at one time in a method allowing all students to hear each others' questions and the corresponding answers. Anna described how she preferred to have 74
87 75 students ask questions using discussion boards within the learning management system, because she saw that as keeping the conversation within the classroom, where others may also benefit. I try to discourage . And the reason is, first of all, it brings it outside the classroom. It s like a student asking you a question in the hallway. Sometimes students ask me questions in the hallway. I say, Ask that again when we get in the classroom, because everybody needs to hear that answer. (Anna) Kathryn offered a similar viewpoint, underscoring one of the major communication differences between online and face-to-face instruction. Like, in a face-to-face class, I can hit 45 people I can just talk to 45 people. And if three people have questions, they raise their hands, and everybody hears the answers. You just can t create that very easily in an online environment. (Kathryn) On the whole, participants conveyed, through their expressions, gestures, and body language, genuine disappointment about the lack of content-related questions they received and incredulousness at what they perceived to be often unbelievable excuses provided by students seeking forgiveness and full credit after missing an assignment due date. Faculty offered general concerns that providing feedback or answering student questions via alone may not be sufficient, as the sender of the message, the instructor, cannot adequately assess that the student has understood the feedback or answer provided. Participants described the irony in the situation, as students may prefer to use since it is viewed as more manageable and convenient. However, in spite of the convenience it offers students, the reluctance of many to ask content-related questions via is viewed as detracting from online students potential success in a course. Kenneth described the phenomenon well, in a manner representative of the perceptions of the other participants.
88 They prefer, I think, the . While I may not necessarily, because I m always worried that they might not fully grasp the answers. And I tell my students, Read the lecture first. Then check what the readings are, do the readings, then jump into the assignments. Move through in that order. And they don t. Surprise, they don t. In fact, quite often, I was receiving s from students who were asking questions that were very obviously answered in my lecture. And it was just like, "Hey, I know they re not short, but it s information you need." (Kenneth) The word drama was used by multiple participants as a descriptor for the content of s frequently received from students. Communicating strictly via written word creates a communication environment in which it is difficult to gauge syntax and tone of messages. Not only can the tone be misleading, but students sometimes are less respectful and more brazen than they would probably be in a face-to-face course. This is exacerbated by the inability of the instructor to read a student's non-verbal cues. Lorraine and Sandra described some of their experiences in this regard. We read what students are saying through their body language. It becomes more difficult to read through their written word. We get the tone thing comes in, so much we think a student is being confrontational. Yet if we had that student sitting in our office face-to-face or in the classroom, we wouldn t see them as quite that confrontational. So that s a big challenge for me. But I Do I miss them online? I think I see them online just as much as I do face-to-face. (Lorraine) My mother died, my father died it s drama. I get drama. I had somebody who just started to , and not, Hi, no introduction. She didn t even say hi. And it was two days after the summer school session ended. I got kicked out of my house by my parents. That was her first sentence. And she just went on with all the drama, and that s why she couldn t take an exam and a quiz, and da, da, da. I get a lot of drama. I get a lot of the people dying and the I mean, I know they do, but you know. I get a lot of drama. Once in a while I get questions about the project. But not a lot of content questions. Not typically, no. It s more, Save me, I screwed up, and, I ve got this long story that I m going to tell you why I should be able to turn this in. (Sandra) Difficulty establishing a personal connection with students. Study participants identified difficulty establishing personal connections with students as an important 76
89 77 element of teaching online community college courses. Participants described the negative implications of an impersonal teacher-learner relationship for both instructors and students, and the challenges they have faced in this regard. It has been difficult for faculty to convey their own personalities effectively to online students, given the constraints of technology and asynchronous learning. This poses a very real challenge for faculty teaching online, and there are many intangible consequences to this phenomenon. For example, Nicholas described how he received fewer clarifying questions from online students about assignments. I feel a little bit out of touch with my students. I m pushing out to them as much math as I think I am with my face-to-face students, but I m not getting the questions back that I do face-to-face. So when I say out of touch, I think what I mean is I don t feel like I have as good a feel for where they need more help as I do with face-to-face students. The most significant challenge is the same one that I face in all of my classes, which is motivating my students to do their homework. In terms specific to online classes, the biggest challenge is, I think, giving them some sort of personal feel some sort of feeling that I m a person, they re people, and we re having some sort of personal interaction that gives them some sort of emotional investment in doing well. I know it mattered to me when I was a student, how I felt about the teacher. If I liked the teacher or felt a little closer to the teacher, I wanted to do well, not for them exactly, but I guess I wanted them to have a good opinion of me. And if I didn t like them, then I didn t care as much. (Nicholas) Another common problem participants face teaching online is difficulty reasoning with an entire class of students at once. This can lead instructors to be more directive with coursework than they might typically be in a face-to-face course. Kathryn described her experiences trying to build an online community of learners without having face-to-face contact. She conveyed how in the past, she had trouble sensing when students needed more help in a particular area because she could not see the blank looks on some students faces.
90 Well, teaching face-to-face is much easier, I think. Because you have that regular contact where you re developing a relationship with people. And in terms of assessing if students are moving along, it s so easy. You just do a quick little question out to the group, and you can see who s getting it and who s not getting it. But in an online class, it s very challenging. The difference is in my faceto-face, I can reason with them. I can talk to the whole group at once. I could do that in the discussion board, I could make an announcement. I m really busy, so I m not going to get to that. But then I sound like a whiner. Because that s the thing. In the online, you re just a person over here. As much as I try to create community, they really just don t know me. Whereas, my face-to-face students, and the hybrid students, we develop relationships. And they cut me slack. They re like, She s a nice lady. I know she s not doing this on purpose. Whereas, people get more hostile more quickly in the online, I notice. (Kathryn) Sandra echoed Kathryn s comments, sharing how difficult it can be to get students to become engaged. I think sometimes when you re not in a classroom situation and you re looking at talking to people, I don t know if people would always contact me. Every week I post the assignments, and I always have a statement, Please contact me if you have any questions, if I can be of any help. And I remind them of all the ways to get a hold of me, even though it s all over. It s posted in the syllabus and so forth. And it s just that approachability. I wonder sometimes if people don t necessarily ask questions that maybe they would if they were in class. I don t know. It s weird when they come in [during office hours] and start talking to you, and you go, Okay, you re a student of mine, and you must be in one of my online classes yeah. (Sandra) Participants described the importance of seeming real to their students and how the efforts they have undertaken to bring some of their own unique personalities into the online classes. Anna discussed the importance of the instructor s personality and presence in the online learning environment and how she has been frustrated trying to bring her persona to life for her online students. The most frustrating thing for me is getting students to see my personality. It just does not translate. I mean, I do a lot of things, but it just does not translate. I think part of that is just the nature of the beast. I mean, when I teach a class online, I m really being more directive than if I were in a classroom. A classroom allows me to use a lot of humor, a lot of anecdotes. I don t spend time doing that; 78
91 I don t spend time necessarily putting humor in because it would seem like a filler online. So it s really hard for students to get a feel for who you are. (Anna) Several participants directly addressed difficulty conveying humor through online means, and the negative impacts on both student and instructor motivation when there is not a human bond. Carla discussed the need to be able to bring humor into classes online, and how she thought a lack of humor or personality impacted student motivation. I consider myself a pretty good classroom teacher. I m funny, I know how to motivate people. That s how I learned. There were no computers. And that s what I felt comfortable with. Online was something completely new. I had taught television classes before. So I was comfortable with a distance education model. But I missed this sparkle of the human interaction of the classroom. So I tried to compensate as much as I can by telling jokes online, or being funny or being entertaining, but there s that challenge to overcome as well. But the distance means you lose the sparkle, and some people need that. Some people need the social interaction to motivate them to do the work, to avoid the shame and guilt. And they like coming to class just because they can come and see their friends. We enjoy being with people more than we do on the phone, perhaps. (Carla) Participants widely believed the lack of a personal connection between student and instructor can result in an online experience that is more directive and transactional than what would likely occur in a physical classroom, resulting in a low degree of motivation for students to engage others in class. The participants displayed visible signs of frustration when discussing this topic. Such signs were evident while observing as each recounted his or her own challenges struggling, particularly early on, with ways to effectively connect with students. For example, Lorraine discussed her early realization that her personality might not come through to her online students. I m going back to the very first semester that we had Desire2Learn here. And [a colleague] and I were the guinea pigs. And we were on each other s courses. We talked to each other daily. And he said, How do I get my persona? How do I get my personality into an online class? And now I look back on my early days of teaching online, there was so much I needed to know before getting on there. 79
92 What students need to do, how often you need to contact them, how available, ways of being available to students. I didn t know all that stuff. I didn t want to present just a canned class. Here, just take this multiple choice quiz, and I won t be here. It ll be self grading. So I didn t know how to bring myself into the online environment as much as I needed to be. (Lorraine) Observations and changes in demeanor, such as changes in the pitch or intensity of participants voices, shifting body language, leaning forward, and changing facial expressions while explaining, were observed by the researcher. The struggle to convey one s own humanity as an online instructor and to forge a meaningful bond with students clearly bothered each of the study participants. Kenneth made the point, as did others, that it is difficult for instructors to assess their own performance and improve course design if there is not an acceptable level of individual engagement with students. In a face-to-face class, you re familiar with the student. You know their name, their face is familiar to you. Hopefully if they drop, you bump into them somewhere else on campus and you say, Hey, what happened? With an online student, they just go away. And there s no way to go, what happened? What went wrong? (Kenneth) Some, such as Evan, described how they have begun to overcome this problem. Videos are understood by the participants to be a way in which to present oneself to students in a manner that allows for more personal interaction. Evan uses videos extensively now, and has seen course success rates increase dramatically. Being accountable to someone in a classroom is a very different kind of thing than being accountable to someone on the computer screen. I teach because I like my students. And so you don t get that connection. It s not the same over . I would send s, but you don t get that response back in general. They didn t come to office hours or get help. It was very disconnected. I started making my own videos at home with my digital camera and posting them on Youtube. And so I had handouts, and then video to go with it. That seemed to help, because it was me. You saw my hand, you could hear my voice, and that helped. The downside was that everyone in the world could see them. They re still up there. And I make mistakes when I teach. And when I make mistakes in my videos, I would leave them there, because I make mistakes when I teach in the 80
93 classroom, too. And then I will alert students, "There s a mistake in here, keep your eye out for it." Sometimes I give them extra credit for finding it. So it helps them pay attention. And they think my videos are funny, because I do some of them at home, and I have small kids. So they ll hear my kids in the background or something. They think that s amusing. So it just helps to humanize, and I think really personal connections are huge in education, especially at the remedial level. My pass rates are now equal to my in-class pass rates. And what I find interesting about that is they feel much more connected to me because they watch my videos all the time. Potential Hindering Factors for Online Students Study participants identified several factors they believed have a potential hindering effect on the success of students in an online community college course. These factors center around student misperceptions of online learning, individual personal characteristics, and first-time college student readiness. Participants described regularly encountering students with misperceptions about the rigor of online classes or who lacked the personal characteristics or college readiness to have a high likelihood of success in their courses. Misperceptions about convenience, flexibility, and ease. Study participants identified student misperceptions about the convenience, flexibility, or ease associated with online courses as an important element of teaching online at a community college. Online courses are commonly perceived to be and sometimes marketed as more convenient than taking face-to-face courses on-campus. Faculty related how commonly reported misconceptions about the flexible nature of online courses can lead to student expectations that often cannot be met. Participants explained observing a pattern of students who enroll in online classes because of the promise of convenience. Participants worried that when convenience is coupled with the idea of flexibility, online courses may become a magnet for well-intentioned over-achieving students, and conversely, their less 81
94 82 motivated or less capable counterparts. Faculty explained how the lure of flexibility often induces students who have significant responsibilities outside of school to take courses because they believe the coursework can be squeezed in around other work or family obligations. Some of these students succeed, and others fail miserably. Carla told how she encountered students regularly who took on a heavier course load because they thought the flexibility and convenience of learning online would allow them to reach their goals sooner. Some of my students need to be really shepherded a lot more closely, because they know an online class allows them to take more classes than they would if face to face, especially if they re working full time, or they re pregnant, or they re a new mom. I have students admit to me that they re full time students at both ARC and here, or FLC and here, and taking ten classes. That s not uncommon for students to take a full load at ARC and then a couple of onlines here. So, it allows them to move towards accomplishing their academic goals more quickly, but it also tempts students to take on more than they can handle. (Carla) Faculty reported a common perception that many of these same students would never enroll in a face-to-face course due to the time commitment required, yet somehow the students think they can be successful online. Some participants even told how they have surveyed or asked their students if they would be taking their current course face-to-face if it were not available online. Lorraine provided an insightful description of her followup conversations with students who have un-enrolled from her online courses. I m asking them why they re leaving, and most are not prepared. Others, because they re taking too many classes. They re working full time and they have families. There s just no time. So time and preparation are the two biggies. You know, we get a different type of student in our online classes. If we lose them from the online classes, we re not going to get them in face-to-face classes. They re gone. Because I ve asked them that, too. One of the first things I asked them was, If this class were not available online, would you have signed up for a face-to-face class? And 98.3 I did the math 98.3 percent of them said "No." We ll lose them. (Lorraine)
95 83 Further, according to the participants, there remains a faulty perception among some students and educators that online classes are less rigorous than their on-campus counterparts. During interviews, the faculty participants conveyed that through their own experiences, both teaching and taking online courses, they believed the online modality required as much or more self-discipline, organization, and focus than face-to-face courses. Through their posture, facial expressions, head shaking, hand gestures, and changes in vocal tone, many participants expressed visible irritation at others' perception that online classes, in general, are easy. Kathryn wondered aloud if somehow the college bears responsibility for marketing online courses as a flexible alternative, a move that may have backfired. I think a lot of people are taking online classes because it s convenient, and I think a lot of them have the perception that it will be a really easy class. Somewhere out there they were making the mistake of making people believe that. (Kathryn) Kenneth was adamant in his response, raising his voice, gesturing with his hands, and shaking his head as he discussed how his experiences teaching online have shaped his viewpoint on the matter. I really believe that online is more rigorous. And I really do believe that when we see lower success rates in online, it doesn t mean that it s less successful. I think it really, honestly reflects poorly on face-to-face. I really do. I m not just saying that to be a comical guy, and be like, Ha ha ha, let s flip the tables on them. I really think that s the case. And I think that more and more, when I say, I m a teacher. I teach some courses online, people used to be like, Ha! Online! Ha! And more and more, I m having people go either, I ve taken online myself, or, I have a very close friend or family member who is taking online. It s kicking their butt. Yeah. It is. But I think we really need to put the message out there that just because you see what you want to see in the data, doesn t mean that that s actually what s there.
96 84 Commitment, discipline, and maintaining frequency. Participants described students personal qualities, such as commitment to learning, self-discipline, and frequent course activity, as significant factors contributing to the likelihood of success in an online community college course. Faculty explained how student attributes such as the ability to read independently, follow written directions, plan for frequent course activity, avoid procrastination, and take the course seriously are important for online learning and success. As Sandra explained: I think people who go in and take the class seriously, and they re willing to follow directions and actually read the information and follow it, I think they re going to do very well and get a lot out of the class. And that was kind of my feeling. And I think the same thing. I could have someone sitting in my classroom and really hanging on to every word and really taking in the information and doing well, and I can have someone in there that s texting and doing that kind of stuff. I think the online classes typically attract people that are maybe a little more serious, but I do have I mean, I can t say that I haven t had anybody who s a slacker online, but it s been pretty good. (Sandra) Study participants asserted that clarifying student expectations, at the outset of the course, is an important step in helping students determine whether they possess the attributes and study skills that promote success in the online classroom. Kenneth explained how he tries to help students set realistic expectations about his online course from the outset. He warned that students have no room for passivity in an online course. It took me a while to learn what my successful students do, and what my unsuccessful students do or don t do. And I pretty quickly realized that I have generally two types of students taking online classes. I give this speech in every orientation. And I ask it used to be, I would ask, How many of you have taken online courses? And maybe ten hands would go up. Now most of the hands go up. But there s always a few that say, This is my first online class. And I say, Okay. Those of you who ve taken online before, what is the reason why students are unsuccessful? And they ll all say because you re not disciplined, you re not focused on deadlines, nobody is there holding your hand telling you what to do, you lose track, and all of the sudden you re buried and behind, and they walk away. And I say, yes, that s absolutely correct. I usually have two
97 types of students who end up in the class: The "Type A": I ve got four kids, three jobs, and I m taking 21 units, 8-9 of which are online. And you re like, "Wow." And they do every assignment. They click on every link. They do everything. They ask every time they have a question. And they re frustrated when their 98 percent drops to a 97. I ve got that student. And then I ve got the, Dude, I don t have to go to class, student. And I say, If that s you, this probably isn t for you. So, pretty clearly, I realized that online attracts two very different types of students for two very different reasons. Your involvement is all of the work that you re doing. There s no passive student in an online environment. The passive student is a failing student in an online environment. (Kenneth) Participants explained how participation in online courses is typically measured by submission of assignments or online discussion, and how students who are passive learners in face-to-face courses struggle to succeed online. Anecdotal stories were told of students trying to complete all coursework on the weekends, or doing work erratically, as students might try to do enough work to pass an online course without, in the eyes of the faculty, devoting enough regular time and effort. Repeatedly, participants stressed the need for frequent student participation as a contributor to success. Kathryn described her approach with students, her technique for measuring participation and how she gets frustrated by students who are not fully committed to their own success. I give them the expectation that they will log into D2L two or three times a week at the minimum, and that they plan to spend about seven to nine hours a week on the class. And people are just like, What? They think that s insane. I still have people who try to do the class Sunday evenings, and they can t. They re not successful. What I did was, I went online and I scoured the universe for online attendance policies since our school didn t really have one. And I used the six percent rule. And basically figured out that if they completely did nothing in my class for a whole week, that that s six percent of the class. So my online policy is, if you miss an entire week, if you do nothing in a whole week, you re out. Or if you have two weeks of partial, you re out. And I do drop people. So in that class of seven, many, many, many of those people If you go to the list, it says instructor drop. I dropped them, because I ve had it. I ve absolutely had it, because you ve got people who have no intention of being a part of it. Those people typically don t do the discussions, or if they do, it s just weak. It s like, really? Why did you even bother to go in there and write that sentence? So, 85
98 yeah. I think they do hurt the quality of the class. And I don t know. If they re not trying to work the system, then there s just some really, really misinformed people about what online learning takes; what kind of commitment it takes from your own personal point of view. (Kathryn) Lorraine s experiences were similar, and her comments are representative of a doublestandard that emerged regarding how students are dropped (un-enrolled) by instructors for non-participation in online versus face-to-face courses. We drop students online for non-participation. We re not quite so ready to do that face-to-face. So, Joe ipod could come in for three weeks in a row, sit in the back row, and do absolutely nothing. But because he s present in the classroom, he s still enrolled. If Joe ipod sits home and does nothing for three weeks in an online class, we drop him. Students who log on the most are the ones who succeed. Those who log on once a week with a couple of quick "Hail Mary s" don t do very well. (Lorraine) A recurring part of this theme was instructors revealed they commonly felt it necessary to provide very explicit, step-by-step instructions to their online students since the instructor was not in the room with students to help them proceed if they did not understand what was expected. Participants expressed concern that they cannot be present to prompt students to complete individual tasks, or to correct students when they attempt to complete tasks out of order. One of Carla s responses provides additional context, in that the phenomenon of showing up face-to-face and failing to hand in work may, at times, bring a feeling of shame for the student. This pressure for students to complete tasks is less pronounced in an online environment. As Carla described, I do think it s more challenging to get students to do the work and on time than in face to face, because you don t have the shame or the guilt of their walking by you empty-handed. And students will admit that. I think it is harder for procrastinators and people who have difficulty in time management. They will tend, unless they love the class, the online classes will tend to drop to the bottom of the to do list, because they know that they re going to face the instructors in the other classes. (Carla) 86
99 87 In addition, concerns were raised that some struggling students do not seem to understand when they have fallen so far behind in an online class that the workload has cascaded to a point where achieving the course learning outcomes is not possible. Evan pointed out the dichotomy of trying to teach both his best and worst students online, a more extreme mix of students than he typically has in his face-to-face courses. Threads of sarcasm became evident as he described the self-determination and dedication necessary to succeed in an online course. It s easier if you have a place to go, at a time, and someone tells you what to do. So that s what I try to do for my students. Because I think most people are like that. I always get a handful of students who are on top of it and they re working ahead. I get my best students in my online classes, and my worst students in my online classes. And they do nothing yeah and at some point they re like, Should I drop? Well, you ve flunked the first three tests, and I can see that you haven t watched the videos. First-time College Student Readiness Study participants identified student readiness as an important element of teaching online community college courses. Examples included the mix of highly motivated and less motivated students in online classes, student struggles with content readiness, the need for more self-direction and structure than a face-to-face environment requires, and technology competency. In particular, participants commonly reported having a higher proportion of students doing either very well or very poorly in their online courses, with fewer average students than in their face-to-face classes. One professor commented, I always get a handful of students who are on top of it and they re working ahead. I get my best students in my online classes, and my worst students in my online classes (Evan). Some content may be too difficult for lower-level students, who are just beginning their
100 88 college careers, to begin with online. Kathryn commented that some topics are not suited to online learning at the community college level. There are some business topics that just don t work well, I think, in an online class, with our students. Maybe with Ph.D. candidates or Master s degree students, but, you know, some of the stuff is just too hard for people to be kind of on their own. (Kathryn) Participants perceived that a significant percentage of online community college students need more incremental direction from the instructor in an online class. Firsttime college students may lack critical academic skills for the more independent nature of online learning. Participants related strategies they use to provide more course structure. I have at least weekly announcements where I say, On Monday, do this. On Tuesday, do that, because they really crave that structure. And I didn t realize that at the beginning. I would just give them a schedule, sort of a spreadsheet schedule at the beginning of the semester saying what section they should be working on. And again, it depends on the level of the students you re teaching. I m teaching developmental level students here. So I ll say, On Monday, do this particular homework, and that particular quiz, and watch this particular lecture. It s not just, We re working on section 2.3, and you figure out what to do about that. (Nicholas) Several instructors discussed the effectiveness of this type of approach for increasing student engagement in their online courses. Additionally, participants related that among first-time college students, technological competency and resistance to using various learning technologies can be a surprising impediment to online success. Some faculty explained that in their introductory-level courses taught online, they sometimes encountered students who either did not have sufficient technology skills or who were resistant to the use of technology tools and struggled with basic computer functions. This resistance can cross generational boundaries in surprising ways, as discussed by some participants.
101 And so the technological issues: documents being lost, unfamiliarity with attachments and and just using software, the D2L, the technological You have an advantage if you can touch-type. And I see these, during my orientations, especially young women, 90 words a minute. And then some of the people like my age, what they might produce in a half hour writing sample might be one third, one quarter. It puts them at a disadvantage in an online class. (Carla) Kenneth made a noteworthy comment, as well, related to using synchronous conferencing tools, and that the varying technological skill sets of students can create problems in relying on any singular technology. He explained, I wish I could sort of mandate Skype usage, but I realize there s other issues that go along with that as well. But that would be my preferred, absolutely. Kathryn looked baffled when she described some of the resistance she received from students when it came to technology, and her comments underscored frequent comments by other participants that technology competency is not simply a generational or socio-economic issue. She shook her head and rolled her eyes while providing examples of how some students resist using various technologies while in an online course. I expected that students who were taking an online class like technology. It seems so obvious to me. But that is not true, necessarily. I wouldn t take an online class unless I liked computers. That seems obvious to me. There are so many fun internet-based free technologies, that really the biggest challenge is getting the students to be open to using them. I think they have some barriers to Not all the students, but some of the students are like, Oh, I don t know about this. I ve never used that before. The stereotype is that it would be the 40 year olds that would be anti, but I have plenty of 20 year olds who do not want to use Screencast-o-matic, because they just have this, they re like, I don t want to use that. I don t want to learn that. I don t know why you re making us do that. What does that have to do with [the course]? kind of a thing. It s not the majority of the class at all, but it s a significant enough number of people that I just think, "Wow. Really?" (Kathryn) 89
102 90 The experiences of the participants as related to student competence and resistance to technology were varied. Overall, participants were divided as to whether students brought enough skills or interest in technology to their online classes. Some faculty revealed a different side of the technology equation when it came to student technology adaptation. These participants experienced a more positive relationship between students and the technology required in an online course. For example, Lorraine described a much more technologically capable and interested set of students. In fact, her students have embraced the technology so much that she now uses some of it in her faceto-face courses, as well. She explained, Most of our students these days are cybersavvy. They live in a technological world. They embrace technology. And so I think it s enhanced it. It s why I carry it over into my face-to-face classes. Overall Perceptions of the Online Instructional Dynamic Participants in the study were asked to describe what it is like for them to teach online, using only single words or short phrases. Participants could utter as many descriptive words of phrases as they wished, and were given no time limit. During data analysis, phrases were condensed into similar groupings and each phrase was labeled with the same representative phrase. All responses were then compiled into a single list, including the frequency with which each word or phrase was given. Additionally, each response was classified as either "positive," "negative," or "neutral" based on the generally understood meaning within context and the observation non-verbal cues given by the participant offering the response. The list in Table 3 provides descriptive clarity to the essence of the online teaching experience. Responses are provided in alphabetical order.
103 91 Table 3 List of Single-word or Phrase Responses Response Frequency Positive/Negative/Neutral Access 1 Positive Active 1 Positive Challenging 2 Neutral Crazy 1 Negative Creative 1 Positive Cyber-communication 1 Neutral Demanding 1 Negative Disconnected 1 Negative Effective 1 Positive Engaging 1 Positive Exciting 1 Positive Flexible 1 Positive Frustrating 4 Negative Hard 3 Negative Hopeful 1 Positive In-flux 1 Neutral Insightful 1 Positive Inspiring 1 Positive Interaction 2 Neutral Joy 1 Positive Lonely 1 Negative Administrative 1 Negative One-on-one 1 Positive Overwhelming 1 Negative Rigorous 1 Positive Stressful 1 Negative Successful 1 Positive Time consuming 3 Negative Unappreciated 1 Negative Work 1 Negative Overall, 14 positive responses were given by participants, as compared to 19 negative responses and six neutral responses. Of the five responses that had a frequency higher than 1, the most common response was frustrating (4), followed by hard (3), time consuming (3), challenging (2), and interaction (2). Three of these five descriptive responses were classified as negative (frustrating, time consuming, hard), one
104 92 was classified as positive (interaction), and one was classified as neutral (challenging). Figure 7 provides a visual depiction of the single-word or short phrase responses in the form of a word cloud. The size of the words in Figure 7 is proportionate to the frequency with which these descriptors were provided by participants. Figure 7. Word cloud of single-word or phrase responses. Effective Practices for Increasing Success Throughout the interviews, observations, and artifact analysis, several practices were identified by the participants as having a positive impact on student success in the online environment. Each of these six practices were described by multiple participants as being essential to creating an environment in which students were more likely to succeed. Participants commonly explained they wished they had utilized these instructional practices at the outset of their online teaching careers and recommended that faculty just beginning to teach online learn from those who had gone before them, thereby implementing these recommendations. The six effective practices emerged as participants described their own perceptions of the online instructional dynamic and their
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