Cohesiveness in Online Program Development

Faculty Focus: C.B. Chastain, College of Veterinary Medicine

For the last two years, a group of faculty in the College of Veterinary Medicine has been developing an online program in Veterinary Biomedical Technology. In the early stages of development, we learned that tools and methods for developing courses are extensive, to the point of being confusing because of the wide variety of possibilities. Similarly, we realized that confusion could be compounded if our online program was simply a ragtag assembly of unconnected courses. Failure to design a cohesive program of courses would result in difficulty in navigating among courses within the program, obstacles in carrying strengths from one course to other courses in the program, and an inability to create a program brand.

Therefore, we placed a high priority on creating cohesion among the courses in the Veterinary Medical Technology program. We recognized that cohesion is not the same as uniformity, therefore allowing considerable latitude for instructors to use their own style of teaching and assessment, and achieve a feeling of course ownership.

We defined five components of cohesion in our program. The components are: early promotion of the value of cohesion, consistent terminology, program template for courses, monthly meetings on online teaching, and continual maintenance of courses.

Promoting the Value of Cohesion

During initial organizational meetings for the online program, we discussed and defined the benefits of cohesion across our courses. Our consensus was that course cohesion was advantageous to students as well as instructors. Using a consistent terminology for learning blocks and a template for the appearance of courses would allow new instructors, particularly faculty and adjunct instructors new to online teaching, to develop their courses with less confusion and delay.

Consistent Terminology

The ability to converse clearly with others in a program is dependent on all instructors using the same terminology. We decided to divide learning blocks and student assessments into weekly groups. The terms we used were Unit, Session, and Module. There are roughly eight Units in one course. Each Unit contains two Sessions. A Session is composed of Modules. Modules contain the equivalent amount of instruction typically delivered in a 50-minute classroom lecture.

Program Template for Courses

We developed a course template to facilitate development in the program and to provide consistent navigation for students across courses. For example, the same eight main navigation links are used in each course. The links are Announcements, Syllabus and Schedule, Instructor Information, Course Units, Assignments, Discussion Boards, Grades, and Exams.

Monthly Meetings on Online Teaching

Each month in the college, we hold meetings to update everyone on program progress, set goals, share tips and discuss problems. The meetings serve as an important outlet for us to share ideas, foster a feeling of community, and establish realistic expectations for online teaching. Our meetings are open to all of the college’s faculty and staff. As a result, they occasionally provide an opportunity to recruit new instructors for online teaching.

Maintaining Course Sites

We initially enlisted part-time help from student workers to assist online instructors in managing teaching materials in their course template. Although this was beneficial, the constant turnover of students resulted in a loss of continuity and repeated need for training new assistants. As a result, we recently hired one half-time staff member whose duties include assisting faculty with entering and editing course materials, moderating Discussion Boards, checking for outdated links or materials, and ensuring textbook availability in the college bookstore. The staff member does not make changes to teaching materials or student assessments without an instructor’s prior written approval and guidance.

Conclusion

It is too early to determine if the online program of Veterinary Biomedical Technology will be successful in terms of reaching a level of financial self-sufficiency. University funding models and the nation’s economy are still in flux. However, most of the short-term educational goals have been met without experiencing the confusion and delays that could have occurred without program cohesion.

Dr. CB Chastain, Director, College of Veterinary Medicine, shares his experience with using ET@MO’s Quality Course Peer Review service for instructors teaching fully online or hybrid/blended courses.