Student Perspectives on W&M’s First Online Courses

This summer Randy Coleman (biochemstry) and Till Schreiber (macroeconomics) taught William & Mary’s first fully online summer courses in the Arts & Sciences. Once the courses were completed and grades were posted, we sent out a student satisfaction survey to all 22 students who completed the courses. We had twelve students complete the survey (a 56% response rate), and invited students back to review and discuss the results.

Three students participated an hour-long discussion about their experiences in the online courses, and a few more joined us afterward for pizza with their professors from the summer sessions.  (Note that the actual response numbers have not been included so that students participating in the panel interview could remain anonymous if they were the sole respondent to an answer choice). One student said the following of their online class:

I was beyond satisfied with the course. It went a LOT better than I had initially anticipated.

What Kinds of Students Took Our Online Courses?

First, we wanted to know who enrolled in the online courses. We asked a series of demographic questions, and found that students ranged from ages 19-25 and came from a variety of majors. A third of the students were double majors. We found that the students had GPAs lower on average than we might expect from William and Mary students, which was supported by Till Schreiber’s comparison between students enrolled in his online and his students from face-to-face sections of macroeconomics.

As it turned out, all online summer students were William & Mary students. We wanted to know why William & Mary students enrolled in an online summer course.

Online Pilot 1

In addition to their reason for enrolling, students also identified flexibility as one of the main strengths of the online courses, but indicated that they’d like to have even more flexibility, as one student said, “Due dates could be a bit more flexible to accommodate fluid and busy summer schedules.”

Student Satisfaction Survey Results

Bar graphs representing student responses to survey questions.

Bar graphs representing student responses to survey questions.

We were delighted to find that students rated their overall learning experience in the courses favorably. Much of the hard work of course development lies in curating (and creating) course content and in laying out the sequence of instruction in such a way that is clear and accessible for an online learner. To that end, we partnered with instructional designers to develop clearly organized learning modules, sequential learning activities, and systematic paths of navigation within each course.

One neutral response outstanding, students were overall satisfied with the organization of the courses. Both courses employed instructor-created videos through user friendly screen capture software: Camtasia and Screencast-o-matic. For the most part, students were satisfied with the instructor created content. One student said, “This was a great opportunity. Without it, I doubt I would have been able to graduate when I intend to.”

The communities of inquiry framework for online course development indicates that including opportunities for social interaction within an online course is likely to increase student engagement and student satisfaction.

Peer-to-Peer and Professor-Student Interaction

We included discussion boards in both courses for students to introduce themselves to their peers and instructors. We also included discussion boards for students to pose questions about the course, whether those questions be geared toward the course content or toward tech help inquiries. While all students introduced themselves, both professors indicated that students utilized the discussion board areas very little. This is reflected in the student response to the question about interaction with peers in the course.

When we sat down for the panel discussion, students indicated that they chose “neutral” because “n/a” was not an option (we’ve since added that option within our survey instrument). This is an important point for consideration as we move forward with plans for additional online summer course development. In order to increase peer to peer interaction, we’ll need to be intentional about incorporating learning activities that require peer to peer interaction, and this will be more difficult in some disciplines than others. Social interaction is a natural part of seminar and discussion based courses like English and Philosophy here at William & Mary, yet other courses like biochemistry do not immediately lend themselves to social learning activities, particularly given the condensed nature of a summer session course. Clearly, this is one area for improvement.

Bar graphs representing student responses to questions about professor and peer interactions.

Bar graphs representing student responses to questions about professor and peer interactions.

While interaction with peers was deemed neutral, students across the board rated satisfactory engagement with their instructors. Both Randy and Till were in constant communication with their students, sending weekly or daily emails, offering online office hours, and even checking in with students on the phone. We were pleased to learn that the William & Mary “brand” of teaching, the high-touch student to faculty interaction (or as some have called it, our “special sauce”), is possible in online courses.

Technology Use Responses were Positive Overall

We were happy to learn that students were generally satisfied with the ease of technology use in the courses, as you can see in the images below of the bar graphs representing the last two survey questions.

Bar graphs representing student responses to questions about the ease of technology use and about online test-proctoring service ProctorU.

Bar graphs representing student responses to questions about the ease of technology use and about online test-proctoring service ProctorU.

Both courses were developed and facilitated in Blackboard, and both utilized Blackboard assessment tools (tests). We decided to offer two points of access for all instructor-created video content. We included the video files uploaded within Blackboard (for students wishing to download video content to view offline) as well as links to the hosted (think streamed) videos through the Google Drive (WM Apps). Some students had difficulty getting the larger files in Blackboard to load, however the videos hosted in the Google Drive were easily accessible (with an Internet connection). We were initially concerned about being able to provide additional technology and help desk support for our off-campus students. However, Rachel Kleinsorge, LMS applications specialist, graciously volunteered to serve as the “help desk” in each course, inserting herself into both as a technology liaison. Moving forward, we will need to consider how our IT infrastructure can support the needs of off-campus students during summer session.

Our last student satisfaction question asked about ProctorU, a third party proctoring service we contracted with for the summer courses.  When students were ready to complete an exam, they made appoints with ProctorU.  Proctors there would check the identity of students, and then monitor them via a webcam during the exam.  Students indicated some discomfort with ProctorU, but generally agreed that trying to ensure testing integrity was a necessary aspect of an online course. When we sat down with students in the panel interview, we learned that the dissatisfaction tended to stem from the amount of time students had to wait to take their exam once logging in to ProctorU. We are currently investigating alternative proctoring services for future iterations of online courses.

I really, really, really would like to see more online classes or even evening classes taught at the college. It would be wonderful for the school to be more accessible to the non-traditional student who might not be 18-22 or works a 9-5 job and can’t take classes at our amazing college because we only offer, with few exceptions, courses from 8-4:30ish.

Overall, Students Thought Online Courses at W&M Are a Good Idea

Finally, we asked students whether William & Mary should continue to offer online course options. As you can see in the image below, all survey respondents agreed that William & Mary should continue the development of online courses.


While these results are not generalizable to the William & Mary general student body, they do indicate that students who enrolled in our summer pilot were satisfied with their courses, and agree that we should continue these efforts. As one student explains:

William & Mary prides itself as being a place that is diverse. Diversity is more than just demographics, but also has a lot to do with background and experience. It is important for W&M to continue to evolve with technology and the rest of higher education. Evolving and expanding can be accomplished without sacrificing the rigor and importance of teaching at W&M. Online learning also makes things potentially more affordable for more students, and as a state institution affordability of an undergraduate degree should be a top priority.

We will continue our efforts by developing a new set of online courses to be delivered and facilitated in Summer 2015. William & Mary has recently subscribed to Quality Matters, a best practices program for online course development in higher education. Rachel Kleinsorge will share more about Quality Matters in an upcoming post. W&M IT has also recently hired William & Mary’s first ever in-house instructional designer, Ali Briggs. Ali will be working closely with John Griffin, Dean of Undergraduate Studies, and the Arts & Sciences faculty who will be developing the next round of online summer courses. If you are interested in designing and teaching an online course, please email John Griffin.

About April Lawrence

April Lawrence is the Academic Technologist for the School of Education. A high school English teacher for ten years, April also worked in online course design and development before joining the AIS staff. April is a doctoral candidate in Educational Policy, Planning & Leadership at William & Mary. Her research interests include exploring the intersections of culture, technology integration, and learning.