Editor’s Note: This study determines how instructors use technologies in online courses based on their perceived importance and skill in application. It has specific data to compare relative values of asynchronous discussion, audio/video and real time chat.
Faculty Use of Technologies in Online Courses
Compared to courses delivered in the face to face setting, courses delivered entirely online rely more on technology. This study investigated the current state of faculty using technologies in online courses. Three technologies were examined in depth: asynchronous discussion, real-time chat, and audio/video. The following issues were investigated: how the technologies were used, how the instructors perceived the importance, necessity, and effectiveness of these technologies, and how skillful they were in using the technologies. The School of Education of a large Midwestern university in the United States was selected for the study. All the 30 instructors teaching online courses at the school were invited to participate in the study. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected through an electronic survey that consisted of closed-ended questions as well as a number of open-ended questions. .Findings of the study and implications for tool developers, university administrators, and instructional and technical support staff were discussed.
Keywords: use of technology, faculty, online courses, synchronous discussion, asynchronous discussion, real-time chat, audio/video technology, skills, importance, necessity, tools, implications.
Compared to courses delivered in the face to face setting, courses delivered entirely online rely more on technology (Bonk, 2001; Firdyiwek, 1999; Moore, 2003). Technology, especially the Internet, provides a common virtual space for students and instructors who are physically separated; it is widely acknowledged as an essential component of teaching and learning environments in the online setting.
As more and more technology tools become available for online education, there is an increasing interest among educators and other professionals in application of the tools in online courses (Hanna, 2003; Moore, 2003). Some researchers (e.g., Ansorge & Colley, 2003; Carmen & Haefner, 2002) argue that such technologies as asynchronous discussion board and real-time chat have potential to transform teaching and learning. At the same time, researchers realize that these technological tools, like other tools human beings developed, can be used in profound as well as very trivial and careless ways in educational practice (Althauser & Matuga, 1998; Ottenhoff & Lawrence, 1999).
Faculty members play a key role in using technology successfully in online courses (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2003; Willis, 1994), and their participation is believed to be inseparable for successful online programs (e.g., Schifter, 2004).
What is the current state of faculty using technologies in online courses? As many researchers (e.g., Bonk, 2001; Garrison et al, 2003; University of Illinois, 1999) point out, there is a pressing need to study this question. Answers to this question will help tool developers, instructional designers, instructors, and administrators in making decisions for their products, practices or services.
However, literature indicates that our understanding of the question is very limited (Garrison, et al, 2003; Zhai & Liu, 2005). Among the few available studies that investigate the question (e.g., Bonk, 2001), none of them are found to examine the question from different aspects in depth. This study attempts to make contribution to this area. Following aspects concerning faculty use of technologies in online courses are studied:
What technologies are used by the online instructors, how do they use the technologies, in which way and for what purpose(s)? How do the instructors perceive the importance, necessity, and effectiveness of the technologies they used in supporting their teaching and student learning? What new features do they expect the tools to have? Are their skills of using the technologies related to their perceptions of and the way they use the technologies?
Due to the plethora of available technologies, this study focuses on three important technologies in online courses, namely, asynchronous discussion, real-time (synchronous) chat, and audio/video. Other technologies and features such as teamwork, survey function and control of sharing level are also included this study but will be discussed in another paper.
Asynchronous discussion, also known as asynchronous communication, threads discussion, and delayed computer conferencing in the literature, has been used for over a decade (Garrison et al, 2003). It is argued to support greater independence and flexibility from temporal and geographical barriers (e.g., Feenberg, 1989), provides more reflective participation (e.g., Zhu, 1998), and helps students master content and develop their collaboration and critical thinking skills (e.g., Duffy, Dueber & Hawley, 1998). Literature shows that asynchronous discussion can be used in following ways: general discussions, exchanging ideas, working on specific topic areas, and peer commenting (Kang, 1998; Siegel & Kirkley, 1998). Duffy, Dueber and Hawley (1998) criticize that “many designers of conferencing systems have had a simplistic view of discussion as simply talking” (p.74), and argue for a more effective and pedagogical-based conferencing system to support online asynchronous discussion.
Real-time chat is known as synchronous discussion or synchronous communication. Unlike the delayed exchange (asynchronous discussion), real-time chat provides “teachers and students with a forum for an immediate and dynamic interchange of ideas” and “can be an exciting asset to collaborative learning environments” (Cooney, 1998. p.263). It can be used to foster group cohesion and decision making, brainstorming, and build high levels of socialization (Garrison et al, 2003; Kang, 1998). However, researchers (e.g., Zhai & Liu, 2005) find that real-time chat is used far from its full potential in some online courses.
Online courses are short in human communication compared to face-to-face courses from the viewpoint some online instructors and students (e.g., Bonk, Kim & Liu, 2005; Schifter & Monolescu, 2004). Audio and video technologies are argued to help humanize the content delivery of online courses and make learning more engaging and sustainable (e.g., Lee, Tan & Goh, 2004). Audio technologies can be used in such ways as prerecorded lectures, interviews with guests, and sound bytes of content relevant to the course study (McGreal & Elliott, 2004). While video technologies can help alleviate the “page-turning” boredom of online course, researchers find that they are not well utilized yet (e.g., Teng & Taveras, 2004). The stiff “talking head” of the instructor located at the corner of the course website is the image that quickly comes in one’s mind when one considers the use of video technologies in current online courses.
The School of Education (SoE) of a large public university in the Midwestern United States was selected for the study. Like many other schools, the SoE started to offer distance education courses in the form of correspondence courses. Its first online course was offered in 1995. Up to date, the SoE offered two masters programs, some professional development courses and undergraduate courses.
Thirty instructors teaching online courses in the SoE during the period from spring to fall of 2003 were invited to participate in the study. Twenty-two of them taught courses for masters programs, and eight taught professional development courses or undergraduate courses.
An electronic questionnaire was employed in the study. The questionnaire was comprised of ten sections, including asynchronous discussion, real-time online chat, audio/video, survey function, and control of sharing level, etc. A five-point scale was utilized to ask the participants to rate the importance and the effectiveness of the technologies and features they used, and their skill levels in using them. In addition to the close-ended questions, eleven open-ended questions were included in the survey. The open-ended questions were intended to investigate reasons behind the participants’ responses to the close-ended questions, and collect data that were difficult to be collected with close-ended questions.
The contact information of the 30 instructors was collected from the websites of the course(s) they taught. The questionnaire was sent to the instructors as an e-mail attachment in December of 2003. In the invitation e-mail, the purposes of the study were explained. To improve the survey return rate, the e-mail was personalized as much as possible. For instance, each of the participants was addressed by their name (i.e., Dr.xx, Prof. xx). The course the participant taught was also mentioned. The participants returned the survey via e-mail. Most participants returned the completed surveys the same day or the second day that the survey was sent out. A thank-you e-mail was sent to each respondent right after the completed survey was received. Some respondents were asked to elaborate some points they made by follow-up e-mails.
Responses to the close-ended questions were analyzed by SPSS. Percentage, mean, and standard deviation of individual items were calculated. Correlations between or among some relevant items were also examined. Data collected from the open-ended questions were analyzed manually. The frequency of each emerging theme was counted, and the representative quotations of the respondents were selected.
Twenty out of 30 participants completed the survey with a response rate at 66.7%. Among them, thirteen were females. Seven were males. Fifteen taught graduate courses, and five taught undergraduate courses and professional development courses.
Ninety percent of the respondents were found to use the course management systems (CMS) that the university provided, namely, SitesScape Forum (SSF) and Oncourse. Only five percent did not use the CMS, but the Bulletin Board System (BBS).
Respondents were asked to rate the importance of using asynchronous discussion in online courses with a five-point scale (1 = lowest importance, 5 = highest importance). Whereas 5% of the respondents rated the importance as the lowest, 70% of them rated it as the highest. On average, the respondents perceived using asynchronous discussion as being important or very important in online courses (M = 4.4, SD = 1.4).
Respondents who used asynchronous discussion in online courses described the way they used it. Their responses were listed according to the frequency of the themes from high to low:
Students shared their reading reaction, experience, and got support from peers and mentors/instructors;
Instructor assigned roles (facilitators/leaders and wrappers/summarizers, instigators, devil’s advocate) to students; word count for the discussion;
Instructor raised some discussion questions, students responded to the questions and responded to each other;
Peer-review posted projects and assignments;
Students posted their reading reaction first, then were responsible for responding to a certain number of their classmates’ postings;
Students discussed in teams of 4 or 5 at the end of the discussion period; each team posted a summary of their discussion to share with the whole class. The duty of facilitator rotated among the team members. Students completed peer evaluations on their peer performance. The instructor monitored the discussion and added occasional comments, especially if s/he thought they were getting off track.
Participants were asked to rate the effectiveness of the tool(s) that they used in supporting online asynchronous discussion with a five-point scale (1 = least effective, 5 = highest effective). Results showed that none of the respondents rated the effectiveness as the lowest, while 44.4% of them rated it as the highest. On average, the respondents believed that the tools they used were effective (M = 4.11, SD = .96).
Participants were surveyed on what new functions that they would like the tool(s) to have and which suggestions they might have for improving the tools they used. Their responses could be divided into two categories: (a) pedagogy related, including ability to hide posts until a student posts his (to ensure the first-level postings are original, not borrowing from others); ability to hide/change name for anonymity in discussions periodically; ability to easily create discussion group space; track of read and unread messages well; automatically formulate folders instead of thread; and ability to support graphic and video; (b) usability related, including ability to recall, delete, edit one’s own messages; ability to simultaneously view the posting to which one was replying; better threading of the discussion; a more user-friendly interface design; and easier printability and navigation.
Real-time (synchronous) Chat
Real-time chat tools that the respondents used included: Tapped-in, AOL instant messenger, MSN messenger, SchMooze, and the chat function supported by the CMS (i.e., SSF or Oncourse).
When asked about whether it was necessary to use real-time chat in online courses, 30% said “no”; 25% said “yes”; 25% of the respondents said it could be beneficial, but had some problems; 15% said it would depend on the characteristics of students, instructional goals, and technology consideration(s); 5% indicated that she did not know because she had not used this before.
Reasons that the respondents gave for why it was necessary to use could be put into two categories: (a) students felt more comfortable since real-time chat was more informal; it brought in some authenticity and helped build a sense of community; and (b) it was efficient to use real-time chat to communicate and give immediate feedback.
Problems and concerns that the respondents who held a negative or neutral position in using the real-time chat were listed as follows based on the order of the frequency from high to low: (a) it was difficult to arrange for both instructor and students because students were from different time zones and had different schedules; (b) asynchronous discussion was more important because it forced students to reflect more and provide them more time flexibility; (c) it would take away one of the advantages of taking online courses; and (d) it would be an unreasonable burden for students.
Respondents who reported that they used real-time chat in their online courses described the way they used it. Their responses were listed according to the order of frequency from high to low:
Had students share their ideas for their own or group project and get feedback from the instructor and peers;
Had students visit virtual environment to explore possibilities of use in their [student ]teaching
Used Instant Messenger for office hours: Students can “pop in” to ask questions; and see when students are online and remind them of things
Used for interaction with a guest speaker;
Introduced everyone to each other at the very beginning of semester, and to answer any concerns that have come up in terms of using the tool;
Used for unit wrap-ups, discussed the main topics of that week, and clarified assignments;
Used for readjust course schedule; and
Used for personal communication.
Participants were asked to rate their skills of using real-time chat with a five-point scale (1 = lowest, 5 = highest). Two respondents did not answer the question and indicated that they had not used the real-time chat and would not consider using it in the future. Among the other eighteen respondents, 33.3% of them rated their skills as lowest, while 27.8% of them rated their skills as highest.
Participants were asked whether it was necessary to use audio/video in online courses and why they thought that way. Only one respondent said “yes”. The reasons he stated were as follows:
It helps enhance the authenticity of a learning environment and create a psychological proximity in the geographically distributed learning community. In addition, both audio and video can enhance students understanding for learning concepts and principles, which is otherwise explained through heavy text. As the majority of the students had high-speed connection, downloading was not an issue.
Twenty percent of the respondents chose “no”. The reasons given included: “Current resources (without using audio/video) are sufficient and effective ‘in supporting students’ efforts to meet course objectives;” “Audio did not add much to course management, Asynchronous conferencing has, as literature also tells us, advantages and that is good enough (reflective & critical thinking, etc.) for my purposes of attaining high-level learning;” “Many people like anonymity.”
Thirty percent of the respondents believed it would depend on the course content, students (needs), instructor, circumstance, etc. As one of the respondents said,
In my classes, I don't really think it is necessary. But for other online courses that gear toward multimedia design and other visual/auditory-oriented subjects, audio/video supplement might be helpful.
Forty percent of the respondents believed that it was not absolutely necessary, but it could be useful, fun, and could increase class interactivity, etc. In the words of one respondent: “It’s not necessary, but it can be a useful tool…. some things are easier to show in a video clip, for instance, than to describe in words.” The other respondent (5%) said he did not know because he had not used audio/video in online courses before.
Participants were asked to describe the way they used it and their students’ responses to it. Five respondents answered this question but only three mentioned students’ responses. One respondent reported that she used a stream video related to interviews with online teachers and students that the course needed. According to her, students really liked it, but she had to send students a CD ROM via snail mail because about one-fourth of her students had technical problems in accessing it. Another respondent said that he used audio and video clips as examples since the course was about multimedia production, in which students were required to make audio and video clips on their own. However, he was not sure whether students liked the clips or not. Still another respondent reported that he created an audio clip of lecture. He had assumed that audio would be more interesting than reading a long document; however he was surprised when some students complained that they were visual learners and the clip did not have visual elements.
Participants who had not used audio/video in their courses were asked whether they would consider using it in the future. 42 % respondents said “yes” for the reason that it could enhance learning and enrich the online classroom to meet the learning styles of different students. One of them said that she would have to learn how to use it if it was indeed proven useful. 16.7% said they would not consider using it in the future. The rest of the respondents reported that whether they would consider using it depended on students’ needs. As one of them said, “It would have to really be worthwhile for me to use it, rather than a high-tech option.”
As reported earlier, almost all the respondents in the study were found to use course management systems in their online courses. This finding was consistent with what other studies found (e.g., Bonk, 2001; Teles, 2002). It also added empirical data to the literature that CMS has become mainstream practice in online courses (e.g., McLoughlin & Luca, 2000). The popularity of CMS indicated that tool developers, university administrators, instructional designers, and technical support staff would need to continuously improve the functions of CMS or provide technical and instructional support for using it.
There was a high consensus among the respondents concerning the importance of using asynchronous discussion in online courses. Eighty-five percent of them perceived it as the most important or very important. This finding was consistent with the relevant literature (e.g., Bonk, 2001; Bonk & King, 1998; Garrison et al, 2003; Teles, 2002). How the respondents used it such as assigning students different roles for weekly discussion, and asking students to facilitate the discussion in teams aforementioned was also supported by the relevant literature. This finding indicated that most instructors became familiar with using asynchronous discussion and were relatively skillful in using it.
It is worth noting that at the present time some conferencing systems have developed a number of pedagogical features suggested by Duffy et al. (1999). For instance, SSF enables instructors to track each post and see who has read it, thereby providing them with yet another index of student’s participation. The respondents in the study, on average, believed that the current asynchronous discussion tools were effective in supporting their teaching. However, based on the respondents’ suggestions it still seemed to be a need for the designers and developers to further improve the tools in both pedagogical and usability aspects.
Consistent with literature, the importance of using real-time chat including helping build a sense of community and giving immediate feedback efficiently was acknowledged by some respondents. The way how they used it was also consistent with what the literature suggested (e.g., Kang, 1998). Such strategies reported by the respondents as using it for office hours and interaction with a guest speaker indicated that some online instructors were able to use the technology in a very thoughtful and effective manner.
However, two-third of the respondents held a neutral or negative position on using it. The problems and concerns that they listed (e.g., hard to arrange because of different time zones and schedule) were reasonable. There are at least two things that administrators, instructional designers, and support staff members can do regarding helping online instructors to take advantages of using real-time chat. One is to help them realize what the advantages are; another is to provide them with strategies on how to tackle the problems and concerns in using it.
In addition, the finding of the study indicated that lack of skill and experience was another barrier for the instructors who did not utilize the technology well. Specifically, the respondents who rated their skills as the lowest were also those who had not used it. This further proved the need to expose the instructors to how to use the real time chat technically and pedagogically.
As aforementioned, among the 20 respondents only one chose “yes” when asked about the necessity of using audio/video in online courses. This indicated that the advantages of the technology seemed not to have been widely acknowledged. In addition, the technology did not seem to be utilized to its best capacity. For instance, Kirschner (1991) found that using audio clips as one way to give feedback to student took less instructor time and was perceived as being of higher quality than text-based feedback. Among the five respondents who described the way how they used in their courses, however, none of them indicated that they used the technology to give feedback or communicate with students. The finding implied that, like in the case of the real-time chat, administrators, instructional designers, and other support staff members need to provide online instructors with more opportunities to realize the advantages of audio/video technology and to help them improve instructional strategies in using it.
It is worth pointing out that compared to their responses to real-time chat, respondents who had not used audio/video seemed to be more willing to consider using it in their courses in the future. When surveyed for what new features were needed to better support asynchronous discussion, one respondent specifically listed the ability to support video. This is consistent with what other researchers found. For instance, Garrison et al. (2003) argued that “as tools become more efficient and less costly and bandwidth becomes cheaper and more widely available,” “most new computers come equipped with microphones and recording software, ad video recording systems can be purchased and install on newer computers for under $200,” there will be “considerable value” in adding such multimedia technology to the CMS (p.119).
When compared the respondents’ perceptions of the importance of the three technologies, asynchronous discussion seemed to be perceived more important than real time chat and audio/video technologies. The study also found that the respondents’ perceptions of the importance or necessity were related to how they perceived the benefits (or advantages) and challenges (or problems) of using the technology. Specially, the more benefits they perceived, the more likely they perceived the technology as important, and vice visa.
A positive correlation was also found between the perceived importance of the technology and how often the technology was used. Specifically, the more important of the technology was perceived, the more often the respondents tended to use it, and vice visa. Additionally, there was a positive correlation between the instructors’ skills of using the technology and how likely they used it.
The study attempted to investigate the current state of how instructors use technology in online courses. Major findings include that asynchronous discussion was perceived as being very important or necessary to be used in online courses; while audio/video and real time chat were perceived as less important or less necessary. How the instructors used the technologies in their courses was reported and connected to the relevant literature. Positive correlations were found between the instructors’ perceived importance and necessity of the technology and how likely they used it, between their skills of using the technology and how likely they used it. The findings of the study help add empirical data to the relevant research, and are expected to help online administrators, instructional designers, instructional and technical support staff, and tool developers with developing better tools, offering appropriate workshops, and providing corresponding support.
Limitations of the Study
The study had two major limitations. First, while the selected SoE was representative of the schools of this kind to some extent, this cannot warrant that the online courses it offered represent those offered in other institutions. Therefore, readers need to be cautious when making generalizations of the study findings. Second, even though the questionnaire was reviewed by three experts and tried out by two associate instructors before it was sent out, there was still room for improving it. For instance, a couple of respondents pointed out that some items of the questionnaire were not very specific to them.
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About the Author
Shijuan Liu is a doctoral candidate and an associate instructor in the department of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University, where she received her Masters of Science in Education in 2003. She also held a M.A. in Chinese Information Processing from Renmin University of China in 1996, where she taught Chinese as a foreign language and computer application to international students from all over the globe for five years. Currently, she is working on her dissertation, teaching computer education class to in-service teachers, and being involved in a number of research projects including studying online MBA programs of Kelly Business School of Indiana University.
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