Tribulations of online course approvals

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John Thelin writes in Inside Higher Ed about the process of developing online courses: “Professors and Online Learning”.

The official approval process was markedly different from the course preparation experience. It combined the slow pace of regular course proposal with added delays in deliberations because it was a Distance Learning course, especially at the higher levels of universitywide review. Approval and encouragement came promptly from my department and our college curriculum committee and from my dean all of whom had an interest in having our college venture into online courses and who understood that time was of the essence if an online course were to be available soon to students. However, at the next levels, the Senate committee reviews involved little in the way of acquiring skills or rethinking teaching design or course substance. It was characterized by objections or clarifications about relatively small details and was marked by long periods of waiting for word of approval to go on to the next step.
After subcommittee review, the most surprising finding was that in the Senate Council, and the full Faculty Senate, there were obstructionist colleagues.

There are some really useful ideas in this essay, which is mostly optimistic about the role of online learning in the future of college education. An essential point that must be made more widely known is that effective online courses are not cheap to produce. It is much, much cheaper to pay a faculty member to walk into a seminar room and conduct a discussion than it is to pay the same faculty member to produce watchable online content, design and monitor online forums that allow effective student interaction, and receive the supplemental training necessary to make everything consistent with university policies on accessibility.

Can the outcome justify the expense? Not in every case, and universities should think about how they contribute to a broader landscape of online curricular materials. They also need to think about what materials can be effectively reused by other instructors besides the one who designs them. These aspects require much more thought than the typical decisions about course readings and resources for classroom-based courses. In fact, the major use of many online resources will be to supplement classroom experiences in other universities.