Student perceptions of online courses are likely influenced by two overarching aspects of quality: instructor quality and course design quality (Ortiz-Rodriguez, Telg, Irani, Roberts & Rhoades, 2005). Both of these forces in online education may be analyzed using a well-known model of instructional design - Gagnés instructional design and cognition theory, the centerpiece of which are the nine events of instruction (Gagné, Wager, Golas, & Keller, 2004). Multiple studies positively correlate learner attitudes and perceptions of the online course to instructor quality. Early studies evaluating instructor quality attempted to correlate instructor quality with the attitude and perception of the learner, but not directly to learner success or course design quality. Researchers of online courses, such as Palloff & Pratt (2003), discussed the role of the instructor in depth while neglecting the roles of the learner, the institution, and course design. The main focus remained instructor-centered, and highlighted key instructor tasks such as understanding the virtual learner in terms of roles the learner plays, fostering team roles for the learner, designing an effective course orientation, and identifying potential legal issues the instructor might face (Palloff & Pratt, 2002, p. 16). A distant secondary focus was on effective course design. This highlighted instructor tasks in building an effective online learning community without highlighting the roles effective communication tools would play.
Few studies have included effective communications tools as a major determinant of learner perceptions. Reasons for this include the complexity of defining and operationalizing course design quality and instructor quality, the rapid advances in the technology of online learning, the difficulty of innovation diffusion in a complex system like education, and a cultural assumption that a good instructor is the center of good instruction.
Some researchers, such as Achtemeier, Morris, & Finnegan (2003), found that many of the tools used by colleges and universities for assessing the quality of online courses and programs do not measure important principles of online teaching and learning. Based on course evaluation instruments from thirteen institutions, the researchers determined that only eight of the eighteen identified teaching and learning principles were assessed. Specifically missing were questions about key communication components and tools used in online instruction, including cooperation among learners, active learning, learner-instructor interaction, and learner-learner interaction. Also missing were specific ties to accepted theories of education. Other, more limited research examining online course communications has found that communication tools do impact learner perception and success. For example, Conrad (2002) found that learners judge instructors based on how clearly and completely online course materials communicate course details.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Course Management System (CMS): A web-based tool that allows instructors, universities, and corporations to develop and support online education. CMS software allows instructors to manage materials distribution, assignments, communications and other aspects of instruction for their courses. An example is Blackboard.
E-mmediacy Strategies: Any of several online communications strategies, such as name recognition or classroom demeanor, which replace non-verbal communications in the traditional classroom. These strategies are associated with subjective evaluations about the “presence” of the teacher. These are linked, in turn, to learners’ positive feelings about the course and instructor.
Synchronous: Online communication tools that allow instructors and learners to interact and effectively communicate when they are connected to the course management system at the same time. These tools allow users to text chat, conference call, video teleconference, use an online whiteboard, and view presentation materials while performing these other tasks
Immediacy Strategies: Any of several nonverbal communications, such as eye contact, gestures, smiles, and humor which are associated with subjective evaluations about the “presence” of the teacher. These are linked, in turn, to learners’ positive feelings about the course and instructor.
Online Learning Community: A virtual place on the Internet that addresses the learning needs of its members through proactive and collaborative partnerships. Through social networking and computer-mediated communication, people work as a community to achieve a shared learning objective. Learning objectives may be proposed by an instructor or may arise out of discussions between participants that reflect personal interests. In an online community, people communicate via textual discussion (synchronous or asynchronous), audio, video, or other Internet-supported devices.
Asynchronous: Online communication tools that allow learners and instructors to effectively communicate regardless of whether they are connected to the course management system simultaneously. In effect, these tools allow users to leave messages for each other, which can be accesses and viewed, saved, considered, and responded to at a later time.