April 14th, 2014

Moving a Face-to-Face Course Online without Losing Student Engagement


The rapid growth and popularity of online learning is necessitating the creation of online courses that actively engage learners. Research has shown that effective integration of multimedia that is content relevant and pedagogically sound can be a valuable teaching tool for facilitating student learning (Mandernach, 2009).

In the Master of Finance program at Penn State World Campus, one of the faculty who teaches a very successful, popular foundational course was tasked with authoring an online course. As instructional designers, we worked with the faculty and our design team, including our in-house multimedia staff, to replicate the course for an online adult student audience. The use of multimedia was a necessary component in re-creating the dynamic aspects of the course that made it such a successful face-to-face class.

The Re-Design Process – Delivering the Content
The re-design process involved adapting the interactivity inherent in the face-to-face course to the online course. First, this particular faculty member infused a lot of his personality into his teaching. In order to replicate this in the online course, we had a multi-media specialist record his lectures in an empty classroom with the faculty member presenting his material just as he does in his traditional course, for example, using a white board to illustrate examples and problem exercises.

We also considered matters such as video length, titles, and flexibility. Each videotaped lecture was broken down into more manageable segments and placed into a video playlist. Each segment was labeled by the concept/principle or topic under discussion so students could easily manage, consume, and retain the content (Mayer, 1999). The strategy of segmenting the longer version into smaller chunks enabled students to refer to a specific topic more efficiently.

Practice, Feedback, and Assessments
Secondly, online practice activities and formative/summative assessments were similar to the activities used in the face-to-face classroom. Activities were mapped to the lesson and course objectives. Sample assignments included homework problem sets, quizzes, a midterm and final exam, and real-world case analyses. The learning management system (LMS) tools used included an online quiz tool, discussion boards, and drop boxes. Furthermore, students were asked to voluntarily complete a mid-course evaluation. Some questions asked were:

  • Rate the instructions for accessing information, submitting assignments and locating tools using a scale from 1 to 5 with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest score. (Overall rating was a 4.5/5.)
  • Rate the effectiveness of the activities, projects, and assignments. (Overall rating was a 4/5.)
  • I believe the course videos, transcripts, and interactive content were beneficial in the learning process. (Overall rating was a 4.2/5.)

The Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness (SRTE) ratings completed at the end of the semester had a response rate of 21.7%. The following questions are a few of the questions included in the survey using a Likert scale (Rating 1: Lowest Rating – 7: Highest Rating):

  • Rate the overall quality of this course. (Overall rating was a 6.2/7.)
  • Rate the overall quality of the instructor. (Overall rating was a 6.0/7.)

It is important to note that the same design group was involved with the design of an earlier course with this same faculty member and the overall SRTE ratings for the first offering of the course were below a 5.0/7. Lessons learned from the development process and student feedback assisted our group with the design and delivery of this course.

Lessons Learned
During the design/delivery process, we learned a great deal about the following issues involved in the multimedia design approach. These issues will need to be addressed thoroughly if we are to replicate this approach in the future.

  • Need for detail and redundancy: Careful consideration in the instructional planning for online learning must be completed at the early stages of development in order to provide students with clear expectations and well-written instructions that will assist them in completing assignments and achieving the course goals (Almala, 2007; Fish & Wickersham, 2009).
  • Replicability: How can new faculty bring their own presence to a course that was authored the original faculty member whose personality comes through so passionately?
  • Cost implications: Can the personality of the faculty author be minimized so that other faculty would feel comfortable teaching the course? What costs are involved? What multimedia tools are available to accomplish this task, if needed? Can several versions of the course exist without compromising the effectiveness of student learning?
  • Multimedia tools: What tools are available and easy to use in the absence of a multimedia specialist? Will the LMS support the tools? Will faculty and students be able to use the tools seamlessly without a steep learning curve?
  • Technology overload: Is there a point at which media rich courses contain too much media as to become distracting or overwhelming for adult students who have limited time to devote to their academic pursuits?
  • Accessibility: Will media rich courses not be compatible with some adult students’ computer capabilities? For example, in designing the course, we ensured that the videos were made accessible, also taking into account multiple learning styles. All videos were closed-captioned and included written transcripts. Instructor notes and supplemental files referenced in the lectures were uploaded to the course. This also enabled students to choose how they wanted to learn the content – viewing the videos, listening to the videos, reading the transcripts, or a mixture of any of these options. Additionally, we had to consider students with low-bandwidth capabilities. Thus, video lectures were published at varying bandwidth levels, which would adjust to the learners’ settings.

Based on our experience and student feedback, the use of multimedia was a necessary component in re-creating the dynamic aspects of the course. For example, the end-of-semester qualitative feedback we received from students regarding the best features of the course included these remarks:

“The instructor is a great lecturer and is engaging during his videos. He is extremely knowledgeable and I can learn easily from him.”

“The videos are the strongest part of the course as they help provide a framework for the rest of the materials.”

Almala, A. H. (2007). Review of current issues in quality e-learning environments. Distance Learning. (4)3, 23-30.

Fish, W. W. & Wickershar, L. E. (2009). Best practices for online instructors: Reminders. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 10(3), 279-284.

Mandernach, B. J. (2009). Effect of instructor-personalized multimedia in the online classroom. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10 (3), 1-19.

Mayer, R. E. (1999). Multimedia aids to problem-solving transfer. International Journal of Educational Research, 31 (7), 611-623.

Louise Sharrar and Paula Bigatel are instructional designers at Penn State World Campus.

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  • Cynthia C. Johnson

    I'm a novitiate in this new online learning arena. Nevertheless, I am becoming a firm believer in its relevance and in the possibilities it opens for learners globally. I have always wondered though whether all courses can be adapted for online instruction. As a science teacher I have always believed in the need for the practical component of science instruction to augment the theoretical components. How can this be facilitated online? Any suggestions?

    • Dan DeHass

      We have designed a scientific disciplines course using a variety of online learning tools. We included instructions and reporting of experiments that students were required to complete at home. Group work activities were also included . I am aware that MIT has created many courses with virtual labs where students experiment. It can be done, but takes some creativity..

      • Cynthia C. Johnson

        Great!! In the online instructional design course I am completing, I once designed a Science course that would necessitate the prospective students doing some simple experiments at home. But I was questioned by the facilitator as to the possibility of this and whether it would then still be a fully online course. I maintained that the practical work was possible, and yes, the course would still be fully online.

        Any possibility of having a look at your scientific disciplines course???? Are MIT's virtual lab courses accessible???

  • TBMichael

    What if student expectations of F2F courses and Web courses are different? What we've found is that students (and administrators) simply expect the online versions of classes to be watered-down versions of F2F classes. As a result, I've ended up teaching both modalities using identical materials. I update the online materials more frequently during the semester, and I add more freestanding weekly podcasts during the semester, but the core of the class remains exactly the same. The rest of the multimedia is exactly the same, because it's supposed to be the same class.

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  • kelly dodgion

    I am also quite new to the online learning community, but not as an educator such as yourselves. I am currently taking an online course; coincidentally about appropriately using technology as a means of imparting information whether it be synchronous or asynchronous.
    While it is important to consider content when designing online courses, one mustn't forget the delivery of the content, whether it be by text, video, audio, power point presentation, pre-recorded lectures, demonstrations or labs. Real-live and virtual students alike want a variety of engaging and enriching modes of conveying the course content. We want to feel connected to the class and the instructor. I applaud you for videotaping your lectures and segmenting and cataloguing them in to a video playlist. This is a great way to show case your dynamic personality & and passion for your course which can only prove to be motivating to the students. Plus, the playlist allows them to review the content on their time schedule & as often as needed to ensure comprehension.
    You mentioned that the LMS allowed for discussion boards & online quizzes. Discussion boards are another great way for students to interact & connect with fellow classmates & the instructor, especially when you become part of the discussion. Students can exchange ideas & experiences & learn from each other. It's always helpful to set clear guidelines for discussion board participation and to have a grading rubric so students know exactly how to participate….quality vs. quantity.

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