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Thursday, March 3, 2011

On Teaching Online

Online teaching is certainly different from classroom teaching, and like most long-time teachers, before I tried it I was a skeptic.  I doubted that a credible, challenging, graduate-level course could be delivered over the Internet.  That was back about 2002 or 2003, when Plymouth State was still a college, and the Plymouth State University College of Business Administration was still the PSC Business Department.  We have all come a long, long way in the past eight or nine years.  For me, one of the most surprising and happy developments of the period has been the realization that effective online teaching at the MBA level is not only possible, it is in some ways better than classroom teaching.  I have no doubt that my online courses are as rigorous, and are more demanding (on me and on my students) than my face-to-face classes ever were.

I use the same textbook in both venues.  I cover the same material.  I use just as many Harvard Business School case studies.  With the help of the steadily evolving online teaching software (WebCT, then Blackboard, and now Moodle), I am in communication with my class all week long, and the interpersonal rapport that develops as students struggle with case analyses, and we exchange e-mails and forum posts, can be intense.  When I end up actually meeting one of my online course alumni, as at the Graduate Commencement each May, it is as if I am seeing a long-lost friend. Often, I receive spontaneous hugs!

You see, in the typical face-to-face class, a small percentage of the class, the well-prepared few, can lead during a case discussion, and the smart but ill-prepared class members can tag along, and contribute a cogent question or comment, thus appearing to be "with it."  It is difficult to know who is really working and learning until written assignments are due... often only twice during a course, as was the pattern even at Harvard Business School back in the Sixties.  (Those case-based "Bluebook" exams were the shortest four hour periods of my life.)

In contrast, my online students must post written work each week, and also take a quiz on each assigned chapter in the text.  The latter are a small percentage of the graded work but are a way of making sure that the textbook's boilerplate is actually read.  In some MBA programs I would not use a textbook in an operations or management accounting course, but our MBAs run the gamut from CPAs and engineers to artists, poets, and MDs, and need the theory and vocabulary lessons that a well-written textbook can provide.  Still, the meat of my graduate courses is in the cases.  So, learning to teach cases effectively online was my biggest concern as I started my online teaching career some nine years back.

I posed that problem to Royce Robertson, then a young IT staff member at Plymouth State who was charged with supporting us teachers in our early forays into online education.  Royce and I discussed ways to make case analysis meaningful for the students, ensuring that all would get a chance to attack unfamiliar business situations on their own, and thus avoid having a few eager beavers dominating the discussions and hogging the learning process.

Case analysis is a matter of studying the situation described in a case, sifting the relevant from the irrelevant data, identifying the problems, opportunities, and areas requiring management attention in the case, then setting objectives, identifying alternative courses of action, weighing their costs, practicality, and probabilities of success against a chosen set of criteria, making a decision, and then boiling it all down to an action plan.  That is real work.  It is also the heart of the "vicarious experience" that makes for quality in an MBA program.  Graduates of case-based courses can think.  They do not fear the unfamiliar, they enjoy its challenges.  How could I see to it that my online MBA students got that kind of a learning opportunity?

The answer that Royce and I came up with was what I call "paired discussions."  Each week, students are assigned to a group of two, one as Analyst, and the other as Respondent, and placed in a private online discussion forum.  Analysts must post their case analysis, insofar as they can take it in the time available, not later than midnight on Saturday night.  Respondents must post by midnight, Sunday.  Then, on a weeknight, the whole class gathers in a synchronous chat session.  The chats can be amazing.  There might be as many opinions as there were groups (we cap our online course sections at 20, so ten groups would be the limit).  The discussion is lively.  Sometimes, I reveal in the chat session (with permission from the student) a good spreadsheet or other interesting item posted by a student in the forum.  The objective of the chat is constructive, not competitive.  The goal is to leave this two-hour chat with a better understanding of the case for all concerned.

Following the chat, I grade each student's work in the private forums.  The average of these post grades is the single most heavily weighted grade item, usually 50 to 60 % of the final grade.

Each paired team is encouraged to discuss the case all week long.  The Analysts must post first, but they are not condemned to work in a vacuum.  In the following week, I shuffle the groups, and swap roles.  So normally no one is Analyst two weeks in a row, and everyone gets to work with a wide set of classmates.

The amount and quality of the work I see in these case discussion forums is generally gratifying.  It seems that the MBA students are a proud and self-respecting bunch of people.  None of them wants to let a teammate down, or be seen as a slacker.  So, they really get into the cases.  (The similarity to the mentor system of warrior training in ancient Greece has often occurred to me.)   And rather than seeing two papers, or two exams, from each student in a term, I see eight quizzes and nine or ten written case analyses, all of which are graded.

By the way, my students have been most kind to me in their online course evaluations, which are done confidentially after each iteration of every course taught in our College of Business Administration. The courses have worked.

This week, for our spring quarter, for the first time I have launched two different online courses in parallel, Operations Management and International Business.  Please, wish me luck!


  1. Duncan, I am glad to hear the paired discussion is still working for you. I still remember those meetings. I am grateful that there were Plymouth State pioneers - like you - who made the decision to evolve with purpose. Thanks for the mention. All is well here in Syracuse. Winters are long and my mountain bike is lonely but we survive. Royce Robertson

  2. Wow, Royce, I was amazed to hear from you the day after my post! You are missed at PSU, but we wish you all the best over there at 'Cuse!

  3. Duncan,
    It is my pleasure to be in your Operations Management class this spring 2011. It pleases me to know that I will be taught by such a mentor as yourself. Your enthusiasm is most inspiring.

    I look forward to our lively discussions and applying the knowledge to my career!
    Thank you in advance.

    -Joanne Hosni

  4. Hi Duncan,
    I look forward to this course and to getting to know you.

    A couple of quick notes:

    The online experience is really much closer to "life" as it is now lived. I worked for a company with headquarters in Belgium. Although I worked there for several months, most of my contact was via email, chat, and video conferencing. None of it slowed us down a bit. My kids keep in contact with their friends all over the world (and their parents, as well) via email and facebook. Never any problems. In today's world, the only time you have 30 people in a room is for a wedding or a funeral!

    Secondly, this jumped to mind because of an MFA I'm pursuing concurrently. DaDa was an art movement in the early 20th century. Wikipedia describes it, "The movement primarily involved visual arts, literature—poetry, art manifestoes, art theory—theatre, and graphic design, and concentrated its anti-war politics through a rejection of the prevailing standards in art through anti-art cultural works. Its purpose was to ridicule what its participants considered to be the meaninglessness of the modern world. In addition to being anti-war, dada was also anti-bourgeois and anarchist in nature." ;-)

    Finally, yes, I'm a pilot and love flying... but who can afford it? Your photos (in your profile) reminded me of a great flight I did from LEB to PWM and back... about the same time of year.


    Dick Schellens

  5. Even though teaching or teaching methods are not part of my expertise, i do agree that online teaching should be implemented more frequently due to the fact that many young people are internet users and maybe would prefer this method. Vlad Ciurca

  6. Duncan, Thank you for directing me to this blog post. While our intention is to be primarily classroom based, you have enthused me about opportunities to use our technology (Moodle, LiveText) to facilitate student-to-student interactions and peer coaching between classes, to insure that students are actually working between classes, and to integrate both into the assessment and grading protocols.

    Cheri Thomas

  7. As I prepare to teach my first online course, you have certainly provided me with some rich 'food for thought'. I can only hope my classes will be as rewarding as yours appear to have been and continue to be.

    Charles Harris

  8. I am a Research Associate and part time PhD student at Oxford Brookes University (UK) looking to join an education forum and community. I'm looking to interact with like-minded people who have a profound interest in education and learning. I have an interest in online learning delivery, VLE and technology based learning. HRM Dissertations | Finance Dissertations Thanks again.

    1. Pete:
      Thanks for your comment. Please feel free to find me on Facebook, and send me a message there. I shall reply with my e-mail address. That will allow us to continue to communicate about teaching, if you wish to do so.


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