Online undergraduate course: Issues and innovation in American classrooms

Kristen Stephens, Associate Professor of the Practice, Program in Education

Project Description

Kristen Stephens’s Education 168 course for Summer 2010 was planned specifically as an online course from the start (one of the first online undergraduate courses offered in the summer at Duke), one of only two undergraduate courses at Duke offered in this mode. The course was structured around a series of asynchronous Blackboard ‘modules’ (sets of readings, videos, and interactive content, plus discussion and small assessments) plus a series of virtual 2 – 3 hour audio/video discussion sessions using Adobe Connect.

A screenshot of a typical Blackboard module. Note learning goals and instructions, followed by links and embedded content

A screenshot of a typical Blackboard module. Note learning goals and instructions, followed by links and embedded content

During these sessions, students collaborated in group activities using Adobe Connect’s ‘breakout room’ feature, and then met up again as a full class to continue the discussion. One class session also involved a videoconference between the students at a distance (all participating via Adobe Connect) and a local Duke class led by David Malone. As an aside, Stephens, her TA and Malone reported that the students participating at a distance were far more “engaged” in the discussion than the students in the live, local course.

A screenshot from an Adobe Connect session. Note that students can enable their own webcams, though they most often would keep them off unless they were presenting or commenting.

A screenshot from an Adobe Connect session. Note that students can enable their own webcams, though they most often would keep them off unless they were presenting or commenting.


This course was deemed a success by both the faculty and students. The combination of technologies selected (primarily Blackboard and Adobe Connect) enabled the faculty member to achieve her learning goals for the students, and she felt that her vision of an interactive, engaging, discussion-based seminar on contemporary issues in education was achieved.

Stephens reported that from her standpoint, the course went very well. The course TA, Lauren Miller, who was heavily engaged in the course planning and delivery, also felt that the course was successful. Feedback from the students submitted via the standard course evaluation process indicated that the students agreed that the course was successful, rating it on average as good or better than other Trinity summer courses according to comparisons made by the Office of Assessment.

In addition to the standard set of course evaluation questions, supplementary questions were added regarding the technology used in support of the distance learning needs of the course. Student ratings of the technology indicated that they were comfortable using the technologies selected and that these technologies were effective in promoting and supporting interaction with both the instructor and the other students.  Comments from students made it clear that in fact the success of the technology exceeded their expectations in terms of reliability and effectiveness. Students unanimously agreed that they would recommend the course in this online format to other students.

Probably the most significant aspect of the success of this course was the extent to which the faculty member and TA were able to successfully create a course which was highly interactive. The faculty member felt that the students’ participation in online discussions exceeded her expectations, and using the breakout group functionality of Adobe Connect, the course not only included whole class but also small group discussions. As an illustration of this success, the instructor pointed out that when her class remotely joined a campus course taught by another education faculty member, the online students participating remotely appeared to her to be more vocal and engaged in the conversation than the students who were physically located on the Duke campus. The ability of Adobe Connect to allow side conversations (text chat) was noted by both the faculty and students as an enhancement to the class conversations, allowing students to ask side questions of the TA and others without interrupting the flow of the conversation in the online class.

Factors contributing to course success, as reported by the instructor and students

  • The on campus technology orientation session for the students prior to the start of the course,
  • The nature of the course, including its small size, seminar format, and contemporary issues focus, which was particularly conducive to lively conversation even in the online setting,
  • Having a TA, particularly to help in developing online course modules prior to the start of the course and to assist students during interactive Adobe Connect class sessions with side questions, technical issues, and managing the electronic whiteboard tool (when used) so the instructor could focus on facilitating the discussion,
  • The flexibility of the technologies selected, particularly the various features of the web conferencing software and its relative ease of use for both the students and instructor,
  • Setting realistic expectations for the technology up front with students regarding the potential for technology glitches,
  • Thoughtful advance design and preparation of online learning modules incorporating varied media types and content delivery approaches (rather than simply posting recorded lectures).

Challenges reported

  • The technology supported most of the activities that the instructor wished to include except one; namely, there was no way to incorporate pre-recorded video segments into the interactive class sessions via Adobe Connect. A reasonable workaround was identified (asking the students to go and watch the video and then return to the web conference for a discussion after a suitable period of time had elapsed).
  • Students experienced some occasional difficulties in their connectivity – in some cases they worked around these creatively by changing locations during the session (e.g., driving to a coffee shop and then logging back onto the discussion) or by viewing recordings or transcripts later to catch up on anything missed. Overall these issues did not seem to present much of a problem for any of the students.
  • Students had some scheduling difficulties given the wide range of time zones and the fact that some were working or interning during the course; however, the faculty member reported that all students were able to work out these issues and actively participate in the online discussions. It is important to note that all of the students participating were still in the continental US. Any future courses that involved students further abroad would make using synchronous technologies such as Adobe Connect much more difficult logistically.
  • The faculty member and her TA both indicated that the biggest difference in preparing the course was in the amount of advance preparation required, particularly the time spent locating and evaluating content for use in the online modules. Overall the faculty member indicated that she felt the total amount of time required to prepare and deliver the course was comparable to a campus-based course, but that much more of this time was spent on the front end rather than during the course.

Stephens plans to revise the course and teach it again in Summer 2011.
Read the full PDF report on both of the Summer 2010 undergraduate online courses.

Project start date:  2/24/2010
Funding awarded:  $1,500