Online education is rapidly becoming the preferred choice by many students pursing an academic degree. An online course is defined as having at least 80% of the course content delivered online. Blended courses deliver 30% to 80% of course content online. Online students benefit from not being susceptible to professorial lack of preparation, obfuscation, or favoritism (for whatever reason) sometimes experienced in physical classrooms. More important, dedicated online teachers invariably end up providing more individualized attention to student responses precisely because they are written. The “accountability factor” goes way up in online education. Exchanges between learners and teacher, and between learners themselves, become quality-driven due to the restrictions of the medium.
Institutions of higher learning have discovered that online programs offer access to various segments of the population who previously experienced conflicts between commitments to both family and work. In an online course, students access the course materials over the Internet at any time of the day or night, from any location, throughout the world.
The Graduate School of Sullivan University in Louisville, Kentucky, an Academic Partner with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is the first academic institution to develop a 100% Online Master of Science in Dispute Resolution (MSDR). Sullivan’s web-based degree program allows students throughout the world to “log on” and access complete course materials, discussions, databases, and assignments—regardless of time zone. Similarly, Concord Law School is the first institution to offer a Juris Doctor (JD) degree earned wholly online via state-of-the-art technology. With the latest Internet-adaptive technologies, the Concord program offers excellent course instruction combined with flexibility, specifically designed to fit into today’s busy lifestyles.
There are many valid reasons for applauding online programs, but one traditional element missing in online instruction is the face-to-face interactions with the instructor and other learners. This is a cause for concern for ADR educators since the field of conflict management and dispute resolution traditionally use simulations and group interactions as core elements for instructional critique and training. Granted, that not all face-to-face learning is equally effective or beneficial, online students do not have the benefit or pleasure of the uninhibited, often rapid exchanges when one is in a physical room. Technology simply cannot overcome that barrier. Sullivan University has altogether bypassed this problem in its online degree by abandoning artificial role simulations altogether, substituting instead real-world, supervised ADR experiences in the workplace.
Instructors can find comfort in the fact that online course development involves expertise in many traditional course development techniques and skills. However, as stated above, the lack of person-to-person interactions is an essential distinction in online teaching. This factor makes designing interactive course content one of the most important elements in facilitating online student instruction. Course design will necessitate creative and innovative approaches on the part of the instructor that will significantly impact the effectiveness of the online program.
The Sloan Consortium is a consortium of institutions and organizations committed to quality online education. The 2003 Sloan Survey of Online Learning is a research study designed to answer the following four questions related to online education:
Question #1: Will students embrace online education as a delivery method? Survey Results:
Question #2: Will institutions embrace online education as a delivery method?
So how will you as an instructor capitalize on these statistics by incorporating the above-mentioned resources and activities in an online course? Here is an 8-step approach to assist you in designing an online ADR program:
STEP 1 Exploring Web-based Teaching Strategies and Technologies
Traditional instructors must redesign their course materials to fit the online format. Students and instructors must possess a minimum level of computer literacy in order to function successfully in the online environment. Likewise, user-friendly and reliable technology is crucial. The web is saturated with resources, learning activities, and creative teaching activities useful for designing a successful ADR web-based program. The instructor can compile online resources by creating links to scholarly articles, websites, and other materials relevant to course content material. Utilization of various web search engines to research resources and teaching methodologies will translate into a successful online program. However, in order for online education to be successful, the curriculum, the instructor, the technology, and the student must come together to create a dynamic and synergetic environment.
STEP 2 Constructing the Online Course Syllabus
The syllabus should serve as a complete guide to the course objectives/learning outcomes. A comprehensive syllabus should include:
STEP 3 Course Content Research and Resource Development
This will prove to be the most time-consuming phase of course development. The instructor must compose a course description narrative from the catalog description. After developing a description of the course the instructor will be able to select required and supplemental textbooks and other course related resources. The tables of contents in the selected textbook(s) are useful in deciding the major lesson topic areas. During this phase, the instructor will utilize various research methodologies to compile topic specific materials and coordinate weekly assignments and activities for each lesson.
Step 4 Designing Web-based Learning Activities
Students will be able to contribute to the learning process by engaging in the following learning activities:
STEP 5 Assigning Weekly Coursework
Each week throughout the course, extensive reading, and researching, evaluating, and writing assignments are required. The instructor may assign readings from the textbook, website links and other online materials, writing assignments, and group/team projects. Students work on their own time submitting weekly assignments by email or fax.
STEP 6 Providing Asynchronous Interaction
Asynchronous interaction (where simultaneous responses are not required by the assignments) allow for freedom of time so students can participate as their schedules and lifestyle dictate. Fellow classmates can post team presentations and individual comments/discussion items on the Discussion Board of the virtual classroom for asynchronous review and discussion. Also, the instructor may utilize the Discussion Board to post discussion topics related to weekly readings, weekly assignments and/or team activities/projects.
Providing Synchronous Interaction The instructor must post office hours where students can make appointments for synchronous—simultaneous, or “real-time” interactions. Synchronous tools and software provide immediacy and enhanced modes of problem solving and decision-making.
A student lounge with live chat forums can be created in the virtual classroom to facilitate real-time communication among individual students and team members. Students may be encouraged to meet weekly as a group in the Chat Area of the lounge. The student lounge should be a site for students only. However, the instructor can arrange his/her schedule to be available during this time slot for any instant messages. These chat-rooms sometimes can generate responses that are more candid than physical exchanges. The purpose is to develop student rapport and create a learning community.
This can be a time for students to address assignments, individual progress, thoughts and emotions about how the course is proceeding—or they may just “chat” about unrelated matters.
STEP 8 Establishing Evaluation Criteria
Students are evaluated on a combination of factors – individual assignments, group activities/assignments, and participation in class discussions. The virtual classroom can also incorporate web-based technologies to integrate online quizzes and tests. Online quizzing/testing may be a good source of immediate feedback, as well as student self-assessment. In addition, extensive writing is often required in online courses. A formal written paper may be required at the end of the course to summarize course content. Additionally, evaluations consisting of weekly self-evaluation forms, an end-of-the-course self evaluation form and a course evaluation form may be completed and submitted by the student.
The above dialogue is the result of “perils and tribulations” I encountered while developing my first online ADR course. Hopefully, your journey will be made a little smoother by my experience.
The “up-side” is that as a full-time government employee with a private mediation practice, online teaching allows me to reach beyond Los Angeles to the very ends of the earth’s telephone connections. I’ll accept the perils in exchange for the privileges! What about you? Go for it!
I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman. Sizing the Opportunity: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2002 and 2003. The Sloan Consortium, 2003.