Pioneering W&M’s First Fully Online Classes

William & Mary’s College of Arts and Sciences quietly crossed into a new era at the start of the second summer term with the launch of two fully online classes. Don’t be surprised if you missed it; the two pilot classes weren’t advertised or formally announced.

How It Started

Meetings began last December, and continued until just before the courses launched. Each month a group of A&S professors, IT staff members, and Dean Griffin debated all of the issues involved, from the obvious — like grading and student engagement — to the more obscure — like intellectual property rights and testing security. Randy Coleman (biochemistry) and Till Schreiber (macroeconomics), volunteered to be online pioneers, each wanting to transform their face-to-face class to one that covered the same information without any physical meetings.

By the time Williamsburg started to see snow storms, the professors had begun meeting with instructional designers (IDs). The IDs assisted with the nuts and bolts of the changes. They helped with filming lectures, creating online workbooks, and adding graphics to lecture slides. Paper-based tests were converted to Blackboard tests, and the professors experimented with video conferencing tools. Finally, the courses were ready.

How It Works

Prof. Coleman's online lecture on Metabolism.

Prof. Coleman’s online lecture on metabolism.

Our online courses are run through Blackboard. Each student is required to view video lectures, complete online assignments, take quizzes on the lecture material, and complete exams. Both professors have office hours for their students. One uses Adobe Connect video conferencing software while the other calls students to answer questions and then posts videos on those questions to the class. Online discussion boards give students the chance to introduce themselves and talk about difficult subject material. If that sounds like a normal W&M class, well, that’s the point.

While we hoped to stay as close to a face-to-face class as possible, testing requirements are more stringent online. One of our classes, biochemistry, is a course that is important for pre-med students. To avoid even the appearance of improprieties W&M contracted with the ProctorU testing service. ProctorU proctors tests for our students at any time of the day, from anywhere in the world. Grades are passed on to Blackboard automatically.

ProctorU begins the testing session by quizzing students to ensure their identity. The quiz is made up of publicly available information like every address you’ve ever lived at or your phone number in the third grade. You’d be surprised how much information is available. One student described it as “super creepy but it was effective.”

How It’s Doing

So far initial feedback is positive and test scores are strong, but we won’t know how the pilot online classes do until they are complete. We’ll be gathering student feedback in the fall and assessing if the work (our professors spent six months developing the content) is worth it. If things go well we’ll offer more courses next year, saving W&M students the hassle of finding summer courses elsewhere and having to transfer those credits back to W&M.