Dreaming of designing and teaching a Web-based psychology course? For some faculty, what may be a pipe dream now, could be a reality by next fall.

Universities and colleges across the country are experimenting with Web-based courses, establishing distance-education policies and considering whether to invest hundreds of thousands, even millions, in multimedia software and other technology. In one example, the Kentucky Virtual University--the state's official virtual campus--has earmarked $1.5 million to provide interest-free loans to schools and professors who develop Web-based courses.

But the real challenge may be making the shift from class-based to Web-based teaching, say faculty who are testing the waters of online learning. "The learning curve is steep," says Margaret Bly Turner, PhD, a professor of psychology at Edison Community College who has been teaching Web-based courses for more than three years. "Professors need to really want to do this."

Among the challenges, say Turner and others, are learning how to write course material and objectives to fit the Web format, sorting and organizing the deluge of e-mail such courses generate, and keeping up-to-date with technology.

But by following some advice from seasoned faculty--such as finding a technology mentor and learning ways to build a Web-based community, exchanging the classroom for a chat room can be a smooth and exciting quest.

"Faculty have to readjust their thinking about their roles," says Brian Austin, PhD, dean of the School of Psychology at Capella University, a distance-learning university based in Minneapolis. "Most faculty think of themselves as information dispensers in the classroom. Here, they must be learning outcome managers."

Be an online student

A great way to prepare for teaching an online course, say faculty, is to take a course or workshop on Web-based teaching or Web-based course design.

That's how psychology professor Sheryl Hartman, PhD, prepared for her first Web-based introduction to psychology course. The how-to class, offered at Miami Dade Community College, covered the nuts and bolts of how to use an instructional software platform--a Web-course management system--to design the course, how to create online tests, manage students and monitor their progress.

A similar course is a requirement for all faculty at Capella University, which offers master's and doctoral programs in psychology. The course teaches beginners how to design Web-based learning activities, encourage interaction at a distance and gauge students online learning. For faculty without a course at their institution or at nearby community colleges, other options include workshops offered by Web-based teaching software companies such as WebCT, www.webct.com, and Blackboard, www.blackboard.com.

Those companies and others also offer newsletters and discussion boards where faculty can pose questions and share ideas with other e-educators.

"Definitely dialogue with people who have done it," advises Jill Caire, PhD, who participated on listservs to prepare herself for teaching at The Fielding Institute, a distance learning university that offers the first APA-approved doctoral program in clinical psychology that includes distance learning.

Find a tech expert

Just as car lovers appreciate a reliable mechanic, Web-based professors say it's essential to have a technology expert to turn to when hardware and software problems arise, a virus strikes, or the server is down.

"Don't be macho," says Kenneth Weaver, PhD, a psychology professor at Emporia State University who teaches statistics online. "You must have a connection with someone whom you have confidence can answer your questions quickly."

When he began teaching on the Web two years ago, Weaver quickly established a relationship with the chair of his university's department of instructional design and technology, who answers his questions quickly and offers onsite support. Another faculty member in that department helps Weaver with more conceptual problems, such as how he can make material more accessible, improve students' interest, and better integrate text and graphics.

Miami Dade's Hartman, who uses WebCT software for her course, regularly uses the company's 800 tech-assistance hotline when she needs support.

"There is always someone available who can help me," she says.

Librarians are another potential support system. "Librarians are closet techies," says Turner at Edison Community College. She sends her students to librarians for assistance in setting up e-mail accounts and Web access because they "tend to stay current with changing technology."

Lighten your load

Planning and teaching a Web-based class demands an enormous time commitment, say faculty. That may mean that it's not the semester to pick up another committee or activity.

"It requires far more time than teaching in a classroom," says Austin, who has been involved in graduate training for 33 years. "For an online class, I probably spend triple the time I spent per week when I taught in a conventional classroom." Weaver at Emporia State admits he was initially surprised and overwhelmed by the workload.

"I came to somewhat despise the course because I couldn't get away from it," says Weaver. "Everytime I turned around there was a question, a comment, a concern, or an issue for me to address--and I had obligated myself to a 24-hour turnaround."

He suggests faculty carve time into their schedule a full semester before the Web-based course to find and explore Web sites that can be resources for the course, learn the technology and craft assignments and course material. During the course, he says, make time for pulling material on and off the course's Web site, revising assignments, answering student e-mail, visiting chat rooms and monitoring discussion boards.

"And, above all, make sure you have the full support of your department chair," he says.

Cut and paste

Teaching a Web-based course doesn't have to squeeze everything else out of your life. There are tricks that can save time and help students, say faculty. Hartman suggests adding a Frequently Asked Questions section to the Web course for students to refer to--a tool that can trim down student e-mail.

For faculty who want to answer all student queries personally, another trick is to create a document with answers to commonly asked questions to pull from.

"Then, if you get the same questions over and over again, you can simply cut and paste your answers," says Deborah Briihl, PhD, a professor of psychology at Valdosta State University in Georgia. Another timesaving strategy is setting up online office hours by posting a block of time that you'll be available in the course's chat room, say faculty.

Briihl also learned that she could lessen her workload by being explicitly clear about her expectations for all assignments, activities and tests.

"That was something I learned the hard way," she says, "As an assignment, I asked a question that was too broad and I got everything from a three-page paper to a one sentence answer back."

Start small, start simple

While the jury is still out on what the ideal size for a Web-based course is, many say a class of less than 20 students is the easiest to manage. "Web courses are not the panacea to generate lots of credit hours," says Weaver. "I am department chair and at one time looked greedily at Web courses with enrollments of 40 and 50. Not any more."

Turner at Edison Community College recalls, "I had 21 graduate students at once and it was too many to give the proper attention to," she says. "You don't have that added facial element, and when you are trying to keep 21 people straight for 10 weeks, it can be a little hectic."

Along these lines, Turner warns faculty against using too many high-tech tools--such as Real Audio, group work functions, video and interactive self-testing--the first time they teach an online course. "Be comfortable with what you set out to do--don't let technology get in the way of what you are trying to teach."

Create a community

Just because traditional face-to face contact is absent in a Web-based course doesn't mean that a feeling of warmth and community needs to be, say faculty. In fact, seasoned Web instructors say students in online courses can actually generate more discussion, interaction and familiarity than those in a traditional classroom.

"I really like the written format, it allows for richer discussion and reflection," says Caire of The Fielding Institute. "Furthermore, someone who would be quiet in a classroom has to write in online courses, and it gives them a chance to be more involved in the discussion process."

Assigning group activities, asking students to post pictures, or planning "getting to know each other" icebreakers at the beginning of the semester are all great ways to foster community among students and reduce isolation, say faculty.

Weaver created a listserv for his online statistics course to encourage interaction, and plans to introduce a discussion board next semester.

"You really do connect with students," he says. "I have a knowledge of their abilities and aptitudes that I would not get from a traditional one semester class." Weaver adds, "This experience is going to help me be a better teacher in class and has made me want to reach out more to the psychology majors here."

Further Reading

  • Kardas, E. (1999). Psychology Resources on the World Wide Web. Pacific Grove, Calif.: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

  • Palloff, R.M., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom. Jossey-Bass.

  • White, K.W., & Weight, B.H. (Eds.) (1999). The Online Teaching Guide: A Handbook of Attitudes, Strategies and Techniques for the Virtual Classroom. Allyn & Bacon.