Online Family Studies Course Design and Implementation: The Roles of Architect and Instructor

by Bryce Dickey, M.S., CFLE, Western Michigan University
NCFR Report

This article is temporarily open to the public.

All other articles of Family Focus are only accessible to NCFR members. You will need to log in to the NCFR website for access.

See all articles in this issue


Faculty, administrators, and students at "brick-and-mortar" colleges and universities are concerned about the academic integrity of online education, an established innovation on college and university campuses. Interest and growth in the number of online family studies courses and programs can be seen through announcements of online courses on related listservs and presentations at conferences. Prospective students interested in online degree programs often first look to institutions of higher education whose reputations they know, including regional universities. If they do not find what they are looking for, they look elsewhere. This preference for reputable brick-and-mortar institutions bodes well for family studies and child development programs, typically offered at public and private four-year institutions.

Course design

Successful e-learning classes require careful consideration of course substance, structure, and management. Course content and design are related to student satisfaction and success. The development of a successful online course involves much more than simply taking presentations, lecture notes, and videos from the traditional classroom and moving them to an online platform.

Students greatly value carefully structured content. High-quality content is well organized, effectively presented, easily understandable, clearly written, the right length, useful, up-to-date, and of appropriate breadth. When courses are presented with clear instructions for requirements, an easily followed course progression with some due dates and structure but not an absolute framework, and carefully planned interactions, students are able to be successful and to perceive it as a valuable learning experience.

Learner control is closely related to student satisfaction. It is up to the designer and instructor to create and manage the course in a sufficiently structured way while still allowing for some level of learner control. Students want to be able to move through the course at their own pace and they want options for choosing what content they work on during any given online session. Having block due dates and learning modules directly linked to discussions, assignments, and assessments help students complete a college course while managing lives, families, and jobs; thus, designing and teaching a well organized and flexible course is of value.

Instructor Role

The role the instructor assumes and the process of teaching have a large impact on students' online experience. How instructors appear to students in an online course is determined by instructor actions in the course and communication style. Faculty need to be mindful of how they want to be perceived by students through the underlying tone of their written communication. Level and manner of involvement in discussions, careful word choice in e-mails, and amount and style of feedback on assignments all form a picture of the teacher in students' minds. Whether the instructor chooses to function as a formal expert teacher or as an informal partner in learning, the teacher needs to present in ways consistent with his or her desired perception by students.

The first week is a very important time in an online course. When students do not have the physical presence of their teacher in the classroom, they will fill the void with their own impressions about the person who will be evaluating their work and assigning their grade. The teacher establishes a first impression through introductory e-mails, sharing carefully chosen information about the instructor, and other initial welcoming contacts.

After the initial week of class, continued instructor presence as the course progresses is important. Effective course management (e.g., entering grades and providing feedback in a timely manner, posting announcements, sending all-student e-mails, and instructor presence during discussions) is beneficial to students. Consistent feedback to students provides vital interactive direction during the learning process. Students also highly value personal e-mail interactions and are affected by the perceived tone of the e-mails. Instructor presence in the course is necessary for student satisfaction, and it is the responsibility of the instructor to continually check in with the course, even if only to explain a temporary absence.

Students prefer small-group interactions within the larger course interactions. Instructors can respond by creating peer feedback groups or small-group discussions. Students also appreciate some ability to form relationships with other students, which is easily accomplished in a format that invites them to post a self-introduction. The process of getting to know each other affects their later engagement in and their level of satisfaction with the course. Strong teacher–student and student–student connections and high degrees of interactivity and student participation are critical components of online instruction.

Synchronous online classes have at least a portion of their interactions designed such that all students are online and communicating at the same time, while asynchronous online classes allow students to log on to and work independently, regardless of whether any peers are logged on simultaneously. The best way to create and support a sense of community and student–student interaction is to require asynchronous discussion. Another advantage of asynchronous discourse is that it has been found to mimic the dynamics of real-time, multi-voiced discussions. There is some suggestion that students learn more from the asynchronous discussions because they have time to think and reflect on their contributions, they are joining the discussion at a time that is convenient for them, and they are not in competition with more outspoken peers.

Of significant importance to student satisfaction with online learning is the level of technological support available. Often faculty and students spend time to learn new technology skills in order to participate in the online learning environment and faculty and students alike experience frustration when technical problems interrupt course functioning. Students' perception of the lack of tech support, rather than the actual extent of technology problems, is related to students' negative view of a course.

Most faculty face or soon will face questions and decisions about online education. A majority of four-year public universities offer online courses and hybrid/blended courses in addition to traditional face-to-face classes. With more than 3.5 million enrollments in distance education and expected growth of this format, faculty will find that following the recommendations listed will ease the transition to online teaching. The online format can be rewarding for both students and faculty, but appropriate course design and implementation are vital to this success.