About Online Courses

Conversation with Bob Ehrhart, Natural Resources Instructor

Bob Ehrhart, one of our most experienced distance instructors, recently answered some of the frequently asked questions instructors might have about distance courses. Bob has a great knowledge and understanding of the distance program and students, as he has been a program leader for the distance Natural Resource program since 1999, has taught five different distance courses and has advised more than 100 distance students.

1. What makes a good online course?

  • First, solid information. On the assumption that the purpose in taking online courses is to learn something, the material presented must be appropriate.
  • Second, the material must be "packaged" and presented in a way students can understand. You don't get the feedback of raised hands, or raised eyebrows, when you're online. What's transmitted is pretty useless if it isn't received at the other end.
  • Third, a good on-line course takes advantage of the technology available without going beyond what meets the needs of the course AND the technical capability of the students' equipment and skills.
  • Fourth, the material must be structured and presented in a way that captures and holds the students' attention. It should involve a lot of graphics (pictures, diagrams, simple charts/graphs, etc).

2. Who is taking online courses?

A vast range of people. In the Natural Resources B.S. degree program for OSU, for example, I am talking with people from more than 20 states. The majority are women, but not overwhelmingly so. A surprising number are interested in switching career fields. All age groups from 18 to 60s appear to be represented.

Two biggest reasons for distance (online or video; we have some of both) are: place bound (can't leave where they are located) and/or job-bound (can't get to classes during the day). Greater flexibility for scheduling "class time" is a definite plus. This flexibility can be a trap, however, and requires self-discipline.

3. What makes a good distance student?

Self-motivation is probably the most important requirement. Need to be a self-starter and able to press on when faced with competing demands/desires. Someone who takes responsibility, but also is not afraid to ask questions. Ability to discipline one's self and establish routines. A supportive family is a definite plus. Someone who can see the end goal even when it's still way out there. Minimum technical skills and computer experience required, but must be willing to grapple with this "new" technology. In most cases, only have to know how to get on and off the net.

4. What makes for a good distance instructor?

Got time for a short novella? Seriously, I can only begin to scratch the surface. Very important is a willingness to commit time and energy. Online courses take as much time as classroom courses, albeit often in different ways. For example, what could be covered in a two minute explanation in a classroom might involve several emails back and forth. At the same time, there are ways to structure the course through OSU's learning management system to make these demands manageable. The ability to "visualize" the student at the other end and to empathize with his or her situation is critical. It's easy to forget each distance student is as much an individual as each warm body sitting in front of you in a classroom. It’s essential to evaluate your presentation from the perspective of the student who doesn't see your gestures, facial expressions, corrections, etc. Reduce the ambiguity! Responsiveness to student inquiries reaps rewards ten-fold; lack of responsiveness is a definite turn-off. Instructors must be imaginative and creative in selecting, organizing and presenting material. A "textbook on the web" (nothing but text) is about as unimaginative as one can get. On-line probably requires more creativity than classroom, with emphasis on visual orientation, also on ways to get students interacting among themselves and with the instructor. Actually, it’s surprisingly easy to establish this interaction. Finally, in-depth knowledge of the subject matter must be a given.

5. What about lab work?

This varies from course to course and subject to subject. It is one of the major concerns. Courses are available in such subjects as biology, geology and others that provide lab kits sent to the students. Obviously, there are things that can't be done this way. Again, creativity is the key. Of course, when we start talking about some chemistry experiments, I'd probably want to check my house insurance level! In the riparian ecology and management course I developed, I show the students on video how to inventory and evaluate a riparian area; then they will take a form I send them and conduct an assessment on a stream near them. Their responses must include supporting photographs. This issue of labs and field work is another area where creativity and a solid understanding not only of the material but of exactly what we want our students to learn are critical.