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Notes from the CFT Library: Books on Teaching Online

This article was originally published in the Fall 2002 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

by Derek Bruff

As communication technologies become faster, more reliable, and less expensive, online distance education is becoming more practical. In fact, at the nation’s largest private university, the University of Phoenix, it is possible to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree entirely online. The technologies that enable online distance education are also being used to supplement courses taught in traditional face-to-face classrooms with online elements. For example, the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics offers online tutoring for calculus students using a graphical chat program called NetTutor. Course management systems such as Prometheus and OAK (powered by Blackboard), both used at Vanderbilt, include a variety of online tools, such as discussion forums, chat programs, and grade books, as well as space for posting lecture notes and assignments.

Developing effective ways to incorporate such online tools in a traditional classroom course can be challenging. The books reviewed in this article are written primarily for instructors teaching courses entirely online. However, much of the content of these books will also be useful for instructors who wish to take advantage of online communication tools in their face-to-face courses. In fact, the authors of these books are careful to present their material in ways useful to both types of instructors.

Many books on the topic of teaching online offer fairly practical advice on what types of teaching activities work well in an online environment and how to use various software tools that enable these activities. One of more useful books of this type is the first book reviewed below, Teaching Online: A Practical Guide , by Susan Ko and Steve Rossen. Books about online teaching based in education and organizational theory are more rare. The other books reviewed here, both by Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt, offer such a theory-based approach to teaching online.

Susan Ko and Steve Rossen. Teaching Online: A Practical Guide . Houghton Mifflin, 2001. 348 pages.

Teaching Online serves as a concise introduction to a variety of online teaching activities and the technologies that support them. Course activities such as lectures, simulations, discussion, group work, and assessment are discussed in the context of teaching online. This is followed by a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of a variety of technologies that enable online teaching, including Web sites, discussion boards, email, chat and whiteboard programs, and course management systems. Other topics include creating an online course syllabus; using others’ work legally and protecting one’s own work; and classroom management issues such as making online discussions effective and handling student behavior problems.

Teaching Online is much more practical than philosophical. Examples and case studies, both real and fictional, are used. Frequent computer screen shots illustrate important tools and activities, and while particular software tools (Netscape Composer, Paint Shop Pro, and RealProducer, among others) are used to clarify key concepts, the authors are careful not to limit their discussion to these programs.

Key terms are defined both in the text and in the glossary, making the guide useful for those just beginning to be familiar with online teaching technologies. The practical and concise writing, along with the useful index, makes for a great reference book for those with a little more experience. Veteran online instructors might want to seek a book with more theory and more emphasis on the assessment of online teaching techniques.

Much of the book will be useful to instructors wishing to incorporate online elements in a traditional face-to-face course, particularly the chapter titled “Integrating Online Elements in a Traditional Classroom.” One suggestion the authors give involves using an online discussion forum, such as ones available via Prometheus or OAK (powered by Blackboard), to improve a discussion-based class by having students post their initial reactions to a discussion topic online and read the postings before coming to class. This approach has the advantage of moving the “warm-up” phase of a discussion outside of the classroom, meaning that the time spent in the classroom on discussion will likely be more effectively spent. The approach also elicits comments by less vocal members of the class.

Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt. Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom . Jossey-Bass, 1999. 206 pages.

In their first book, Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace , Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt offer a well-developed model of online distance education based on theories from education and human and organization development. They base their approach on the idea of active learning – that learners create knowledge and meaning through discussion and experimentation. An essential component of this model is the presence of a learning community, which is more difficult to achieve when the learners are separated by time or distance. Drawing on methods they developed in their online courses, the authors emphasize the importance of creating a community space where learners can interact socially and include a chapter on transformative learning-“learning that is based on reflection and on the interpretation of the experiences, ideas, and assumptions gained through prior learning.” They also address the subject of evaluation and assessment of student learning, which can be more challenging in this context since the instructor surrenders some control of course content and goals to the active learners in the course.

The authors received Ph.D.’s in human and organizational systems from the Field Institute’s distance learning program and have since taught many online courses. That background is evident in their writing. They refer to relevant research from the fields of education, psychology, and human and organization development, but given how recent a development online education was when the book was written, much of the book is based on the authors’ experiences as online students and instructors. Throughout the book, excerpts from postings by students in the authors’ courses are used as illustrations, and six sample course syllabi are included in an appendix. Since the book is more theoretical than practical, there is almost no mention of specific software tools.

The book seems intended to be read whole chapters at a time and, as such, does not make for a quick reference book on online teaching. Also, all examples given are from the social sciences, and so instructors from other disciplines will have to use some creativity in applying the concepts presented to their own teaching. However, instructors wishing to incorporate educational theory into their online teaching will probably find the book very helpful. In addition, given the authors’ emphasis on the theory of community building, much of the book would be useful to instructors teaching graduate courses in the social sciences, whether they use online elements or not.

Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt. Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching . Jossey-Bass, 2001. 204 pages.

Palloff and Pratt’s second book, Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom , is just as firmly rooted in the theories of active learning and community building as their first, though it is, in some respects, lighter reading. The authors look at a much larger variety of issues associated with online teaching, but treat them with less depth. Parts of their first book are summarized or expanded upon, but they address several new categories of issues as well. A chapter on administrative concerns discusses faculty time and compensation, questions of tenure, and program planning and development. They give guidelines for choosing and evaluating software tools that are used to facilitate online teaching activities. Another chapter is devoted to considerations in the transformation of course from face-to-face to online delivery. The authors also include extensive discussion about online classroom dynamics from their perspective from the field of human and organization development.

The book seems intended for a fairly broad audience and does a good job of surveying online teaching issues faced by both faculty and administration. Given the rapidly changing arena of online teaching and the book’s more recent copyright date, Lessons feels a bit more up-to-date than the authors’ first book. However, both books offer pedagogical advice that should serve well regardless of future changes in technology.