Here are some of the questions that I would ask If I were a potential student evaluating the quality of an online degree program:
1. Does the class have a regular live online meeting scheduled?
2. How often does this meeting take place?
3. Is the class meeting designed and run by the course faculty member?
4. What is the average number of students in the meeting?
5. What synchronous online learning technology is utilized for this class meeting?
6. What is the educational philosophy that informs the design of the class meetings?
7. Are student groups provided with an online meeting platform for small group work?
In my experience it is the answer to these 7 questions that often provides a window into understanding the quality of inputs and investments into an online course or program.
An online class session is one of those technology enabled educational environments that does not scale.
There is hard limit for the size that a synchronous online discussion can be productive. Over about 35 participants any online discussion becomes an online presentation. Utilizing online meeting software as a platform to transfer knowledge may work very well in a webinar setting, but is a poor use of the technology in a course.
Planning and running high quality online course discussions is expensive in both faculty and instructional designer time for planning, and in the ed tech's team time for running and supporting the online class.
What any perspective student should look for is an online (synchronous) class that is held at a regular interval (weekly), and is designed around a seminar rather than a presentation model.
The online discussion should contain a mix of teaching (mostly synthesis of key points), class discussion, student presentations, and debates.
When I talk about online classes I always try to use the word "discussion" rather than "meeting" or even "class," as a synchronous online discussion should be inclusive, intimate, relaxed, and engaging.
It is important that the web based discussion platform has robust webcam as well as audio support. The seminar model requires that everyone participate equally, that the faculty member be but on a similar discussion and interaction plane as the students.
Anyone that has ever tried to run an online meeting knows about all the technical issues that can bedevil this medium. Getting everyone's webcam and audio working can be a real challenge. The rate of technical failure for online meetings remains stubbornly high, with participants having issues with everything from logging in to getting locked out, to getting their webcams working, to having two-audio work without too much distortion and noise.
Arriving at a place where the technology recedes into the background with an online synchronous class, particularly one built on vibrant exchange and discussion, is a significant technical and user support challenge. It is worth asking if the online course or program that you are considering is investing in this form of online learning, and what resources they are devoting for both pre-class discussion preparations and for troubleshooting issues once the synchronous online classes begin.
Planning, running, and supporting high quality online synchronous class discussions is one reason that high quality online learning is not less expensive to produce than face-to-face courses. The real expense of synchronous online teaching is not in licensing the platform, but in the time it takes for instructors and the teaching team (learning designers, technology professionals) to build a high quality learning experience.
What web-based live class discussions can do is bring students to courses and programs that they would otherwise be shutout. The ability to participate in an intensive seminar from anywhere in the world, without the need to quit a job or move a family, represents the real potential of online learning combined with synchronous online learning platforms.
When it comes to judging the quality of online teaching we need to ask about both the asynchronous environment (discussion boards, blogs, video lectures, assessments, etc.) as well as the synchronous online classes.
When it come to online learning we need to talk much more about the live web class.
What is your experience teaching classes with online meeting or class platforms?
What online class platform does your institution use?
What best practices for live online classes can you share?