Online learning communities need to communicate and today I am going to invite the reader on a short tour of some of the important findings that our Group and our ONL 191 community have uncovered in our journey so far. Research into what contributes to successful online courses typically include a discussion on two important characteristics: Establishing a community and effective communication that engages the students. Strang [1] introduces a collection of common methods that support communication within online course communities – the top two being:

  • Discussion-board questions with required responses
  • All members of the community (teachers and students) post introductions on the discussion board

Other examples are illustrated in the survey below [1]:

Interviews with the survey respondents also revealed a recommendation for instructors to form a support group that meets at least once a week where ideas and experiences can be shared and questions answered. Building on this introduction, I found an interesting discussion on what makes for a successful online course in a paper investigating successful online courses in California community colleges.

In their paper on Successful Online Courses in California’s Community Colleges, Johnson et. al. ask “What is it that makes a a few online courses successful when most are not?” [2] To answer this question, the authors first provide a definition for success: “We define an online course as highly successful if at least 70 percent of its students earn a passing grade, and if student performance is at least as good as in traditional versions of the same course. Another key element in our definition of course success is whether students in an online course continue to do well in subsequent courses (either online or traditional) in the same subject. By all these standards, only about 11 percent of online courses in the 2013–14 academic year were highly successful.” [2] Important findings include:

  • The need to provide training and support to teachers on developing online courses – to get full benefit from the tools, teachers must be trained and supported
  • Mentoring students not just on the course material but on using the online tools – additional benefit can be derived by using online learning management systems that provide feedback on student performance (both to the student and to the instructor), which allows intervention to help students that are having a harder time
  • Facilitating communication in an online setting by using forums, chat rooms, and face-to-face meeting technology is important
  • Providing rapid feedback to student work – the authors provide examples in which the success rate of online courses exceeded the success rate of traditional courses because of the immediate feedback that students received from the online course
  • Students can often provide better answers to other student’s questions in community discussions and activities

In the Topic 3 discussions and examples, mentoring and coaching were not addressed; however, the authors in this paper note that mentoring is a critical success factor in teaching online courses. The authors then go into describing the two models used in developing online courses: The Individual Model and the System Model as summarized below:

  • The individual model is rooted in the academic tradition of giving faculty members substantial autonomy in course development. It offers greater flexibility and speed, but requires an instructor to take on the roles of subject matter expert, course designer, media developer, and—sometimes—programmer. The instructor is also the course advocate in the process of gaining distance-education course approval. Under the individual model, online course development typically does not start from scratch. Instead, faculty members design and develop courses based on what has worked for them in traditional classrooms. Learning materials from these classrooms are repurposed for online use. For a course to succeed, the instructor must know how to use the online platform effectively, and traditional course content must be adaptable to the new medium (Hawkes and Coldeway 2002). [2]
  • The systems model can better maximize the potential of the online medium. In this model, teams develop courses. An instructional designer takes the lead managerial role. The faculty member, acting as a subject expert, collaborates with a media developer, programmer,  and instructional designer. The model’s main advantage is the access to a variety of skills that no single person is likely to have (Oblinger and Hawkins 2006). The combination of project management practices and instructional design theory leads to greater course consistency and quality (Chapman and Nocolet 2003). [2]

Between these two models, the authors advocate the System Model based on their research findings that the System Model offers the most reliable and consistent approach to developing online courses – they counter the argument that the increase in investment and required costs are offset by greater quality and better student results. They also point out that it is easier to support a teacher with specialists than it is to train a teacher to be a master of all the skills required to develop a successful online course.

One of the key elements for success in education relies on effective communication and technology that engages the student. Taking PowerPoint as an example, James Thomas [3] illustrates the importance of communication on his April 15th (2019) blog where he discusses the often misused PowerPoint application. He points out that reading PowerPoint slides to students is not teaching and having students read PowerPoint slides is not learning. He also points out that the common phrase “death by PowerPoint” can be literal as illustrated in the two short excerpts and PowerPoint slide that contributed to the deaths of seven people.

Mr. Thomas wrote “As an educator I push against ‘death by PowerPoint’ and I’m fascinated with how we can improve the way we present and teach.  The fact is we know that PowerPoint kills.  Most often the only victims are our audience’s inspiration and interest.  This, however, is the story of a PowerPoint slide that actually helped kill seven people.

After discussing the case in detail, Mr. Thomas concludes “The salient point was whilst there was data showing that the tiles on the shuttle wing could tolerate being hit by the foam this was based on test conditions using foam more than 600 times smaller than that that had struck Columbia.  This is the slide the engineers chose to illustrate this point:” [3]

Mr. Thomas then summarizes the following six problems with the slide presented by Boeing engineers to NASA:

  • Confusing heading (is there a problem or not?)
  • Numerous facts presented with no explanation of relevance or importance
  • Most important points were buried at the least significant levels (four levels of indentation)
  • Use of general terminology that left the reader to come up with an interpretation (qualitative instead of quantitative descriptors)
  • Too much text for the reader to wade through
  • The most important message – that the “flight condition is significantly outside the test database” – is not explicitly stated (That the test used a sample insulation size of 3 cu Ln versus the 1920 cu Ln actual size of insulation that hit the shuttle wing – a 640 times difference in scale (1920  ÷ 3 = 640)

This image of the STS-107 shuttle Columbia crew in orbit was recovered from wreckage inside an undeveloped film canister. From left (bottom row): Kalpana Chawla, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon. From left (top row): David Brown, William McCool and Michael Anderson.(Image: © NASA/JSC)

Because of poor communication in the slide, NASA chose to allow the space shuttle to go ahead with its scheduled landing – instead of taking other options available that would have prevented a disaster. This points out that technology on its own is not sufficient – people need to invest in communicating effectively – in other words, keep the discussion pithy – short and to the point. And when there is something critical or important to convey – state it in a simple and obvious manner.

I highly recommend the following three articles from which I took my inspiration for this blog – each delves into their respective subject areas in more detail and offer valuable insights on establishing online communities that communicate effectively.

[1] Strang, T. Tools and Methods for Building Community in Online Courses (Blog). CENGAG. URL: https://blog.cengage.com/tools-methods-build-community-in-online-courses/

[2] Johnson, H., Cuellar, M., and Cook, K. Successful Online Courses in California’s Community Colleges. Public Policy Institute of California. 2015 June, URL: https://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_615HJR.pdf

[3] Thomas, J. Death by PowerPoint: The Slide That Killed Seven People (Blog). McDreemie-Musings. 2019 April 15. URL: https://mcdreeamiemusings.com/new-blog/2019/4/13/gsux1h6bnt8lqjd7w2t2mtvfg81uhx
Continuing the ONL 191 Group 12 Exploration into Community and Communication