Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching
By Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt
College of Education
California State University, San Marcos
One of the hottest topics in higher education these days is teaching online, meaning designing and offering courses accessed via email and the web. Online accessibility is often seen as the new panacea for fixing the woes of personnel shortages in critical areas of many professions including nursing, engineering, and teaching. In the past few years, the CSU has devoted many resources to developing online courses for acquiring a teaching credential in order to address a critical shortage of teachers in California. This focus has received a lot of press and funding for development. While many universities offer a select few courses online, some offer entire degrees, credentials, certificates, or specific areas of emphasis. Corporations are also involved in this high-stakes endeavor, hiring content area experts and design masters to author and produce online courses that are then sold to universities and private corporations.
The research in online learning does provide much information on student outcomes across a variety of methods of instructional delivery. Very positive results have been documented when comparing the student outcomes across methods for delivery of instruction, and Palloff and Pratt, in Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching, do a great job of reviewing this research and providing well-referenced conclusions about the results. Many academicians will go through their careers claiming disaster as more and more facets of our curricula go "online." This book provides a positive, although not necessarily balanced, review of the current wisdom in the field in relation to student outcomes-based design. The authors are very positive about online teaching and learning, and perhaps do not present many of the difficulties involved.
As faculty, we are often requested, required, or recruited to transfer our courses into formats for online delivery. No matter how much background we have in technology, we may find this task a bit daunting at first. While there are very sophisticated courseware programs such as Blackboard and WebCT, it takes some on-the-job training and staff support for faculty to do an effective job and feel supported (not to mention rewarded) for these projects. The university or agency should also have sophisticated infrastructure in place in order to make these courses accessible to our students, including software, hardware, tech support, and registration and records support.
In their previous book Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 1999) Palloff and Pratt laid out information and suggestions for developing learning communities while teaching online courses. They also provided "a guidebook to the construction of an effective course for those entering the online arena for the first time" (p. xv). Since that time, as stated by the authors, "the most change has been in the realm of course delivery" (p. xiii).
In this new book, they provide valuable information centered on two major themes. Part One focuses on faculty, administrative, and technical issues and concerns related to course design and delivery. Part Two focuses on teaching and learning online, including course development, teaching online courses developed by others, course evaluation, learner characteristics, and improving student performance. The last chapter of the book provides a nice overview of "lessons learned" while teaching in the "cyberspace classroom."
The chapter format is very helpful, providing a clear introduction, a thorough and well-referenced review of the literature related to the themes of that chapter, practical recommendations, and a final tips section with a list of very helpful suggestions based upon the extensive experience of the authors.
The first chapter provides a foundation for the rest of this informative text through a discussion of "Online Learning in the New Millennium." The authors state that "in order to do a good job of constructing online courses, faculty need training that few campuses currently offer" (p. 6). A variety of courseware programs are overviewed and examples of web pages are provided as helpful exhibits. One of the most valuable discussions in this text is on the variance between faculty and administrative concerns related to online course design, delivery and management. This difference is summarized clearly in Table 1.1, "A Comparison of Faculty and Administrative Responses to Common Concerns" (p. 11). Needless to say, the issues of academic freedom and control are at logger-heads with administrative desires for ownership and economics. Palloff and Pratt discuss another critical issue, that of student outcomes, citing a recent Institute for Higher Education Policy Report by Phipps and Merisotis (1999) entitled What's the Difference? This important report is cited heavily throughout this new book.
Chapter Two, "The Art of Online Teaching," covers topics on who should teach online, training one should seek before launching into design and delivery, electronic pedagogy, and the keys to success. The information is well laid out and very practical, such as tips on ensuring access to and familiarity with technology, guidelines and procedures, achieving maximum participation, and promoting collaboration and reflection on the part of students. Transition to teaching online is supported through informative sections with very helpful information. At the last of this chapter a super list of "Tips for a Successful Online Course" is provided (p. 16).
Chapter Three on "Administrative Issues and Concerns" (p. 37) is a must read for all faculty. The section on "Faculty Time, Compensation, and Questions of Tenure " (p. 39) is a reality check for innovators, as online design and delivery is a very time-consuming process. The need for infrastructure, governance, and intellectual property rights is discussed. Chapter Four provides a good overview of various courseware options such as the use of Blackboard, WebCT, Convene, and eCollege. The concepts and skills of matching technology to course objectives and desired student outcomes, and tips on the strengths and weaknesses of various technologies in course design, are very helpful.
Section Two provides four chapters with detailed information on "Teaching and Learning in Cyberspace" (p. 65). These chapters provide in-depth information on the topics of "Transforming Courses for the Online Classroom" (Chapter Five), "Teaching Courses Developed by Others" (Chapter Six), "Working with the Virtual Student" (Chapter 7), and "Online Classroom Dynamics" (Chapter 8). The chapter format for each includes an introduction to the material covered, comprehensive information on the topic in a "how to" format, thorough references from the pertinent literature, and very handy tips on creating well-designed courses for online delivery. The exhibits provide examples of web pages including sample learning objectives (p. 72), course guidelines (p. 73), course assignments (p. 75), and a syllabus (p. 85).
The last chapter of this book, as the authors state, "reviews the most important lessons from the cyberspace classroom and then takes a look ahead into the near future of online education" (p. 152). The authors emphasize the need for course design to focus on interactivity and not on content alone, the changing roles and interactions of faculty and students, the need for faculty and students to receive training in online work, and the need for support and infrastructure for these endeavors. To address administrative and institutional needs, the authors provide information on the issues of strategic plans (p. 155), adequate infrastructure, and shared decision making and governance. As to the future, topics include accreditation, course and program development, corporate developers, and professional development. That's a lot of "development"!
The final sections of this book, the appendices, include "A Comparison of Syllabi For Online and Face-to-Face Delivery" (Resource A, p. 165); "Systems Theories Course in Blackboard, CourseInfo, and eCollege (Resource B, p. 177)", and "Additional Online Resources (Resource C, p 193). Resource C includes references and web sites for course authoring software, examples of online courses, technology planning, intellectual property rights and copyright, K-12 resources, and clearinghouse sites on distance learning.
This book, in summary, is an excellent resource for faculty taking up the challenge of online instruction. The chapters are well organized and provide both pertinent reviews of relevant literature that are well referenced and practical tips on how to actually do the work of online course design and teaching. Palloff and Pratt provide also very helpful insights into student learning styles, instructional needs, and approaches to online learning. This book would be a helpful addition to any library for faculty considering or already involved in online teaching.
Palloff, R., and Pratt, K. "Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom". San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.
Phipps, R., and Merisotis, J. "What's the Difference"? Washington, D.C.: Institute for Higher Education Policy, Apr. 1999.
Posted October 6, 2004.
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Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2004 by A. S. Parsons.