A Face-to-Face Graduate Class Goes Online: Challenges and Successes

Jan Turbill

I love my computer. I have had one since 1983. I love being able to write using word processing (I have always felt that my handwriting is poor, but I can make neat and legible overheads with the computer). And most of all I love e-mail. When one lives on the underside of the world in Australia, “the land down under,” e-mail is a wonderful way to contact colleagues, internationally and nationally. I find that even in my personal life, I now often e-mail my friends and family rather than calling them. Checking my e-mail first thing in the morning and again late at night is part of my daily life.

Despite all this, I never saw computer and Internet technology as a teaching tool, let alone the only medium for my own teaching. However, in the late 1990s I was dragged kicking and screaming into using technology for just that. And now I am a convert -- and, dare I say, an expert (or so my colleagues tell me!) on the use of technology as a tool for learning at the university and school level, and as part of the professional development of teachers.


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Worldwide, many have seen the potential of online learning for reaching international markets. Australia has been “exporting” education to countries in southeast Asia, as well as to the United States and United Kingdom, for many years (Frameworks, ELIC, and First Steps are just a few of the highly successful Australian exports in literacy education). But, in the past, these efforts have incurred the huge costs involved when people must travel long distances to deliver programs in partnership with universities, publishers, or educational authorities in the importing country. For a university such as the one at which I work, Wollongong University in New South Wales, reaching out to the international marketplace in new ways is a must for our financial survival.

I acknowledge that there is a whole new discipline that has emerged around distance education, information technology, instructional design, computer-mediated communication, information communication technology, and all the other labels given to the forms of learning that are occurring mainly via the use of the computer, the Internet, and e-mail. Much of the literature in the area examines the changing role of university faculty, from instructors to facilitators (Berge, 1995; Burton, 1998, online document). I am aware that, like myself, others have experienced the shift from face-to-face teaching to teaching through technology (Stacey, 1998). However, I have found little in the professional literature written by literacy educators attempting to use computer-mediated communication, or what I would prefer to call simply “online learning.”

In this column, I want to share what online learning looks like in my context, the problems I have encountered, and what I have found out along the way about providing effective online learning for the teachers in my university-level courses. Clearly the use of technology as a tool for learning is something that most school educators are dealing with in their classrooms. Indeed, in Australia this has been written into school policies and curricula. However, with respect to teacher education -- be it at the preservice, inservice, or graduate level -- we are only just beginning to realize the potential that technology has for learners.

I also believe that online learning has the potential to bring together international communities for the development and enhancement of literacy education in ways that we have never before envisaged. It offers a way of breaking down barriers and sharing insights across diverse cultural and linguistic literacy communities around the globe. What is important at this stage is that we share what we are doing so that our work can support and inform others. This is my attempt to share my bit of that world.

Why Online Learning? | Facing the Challenge | Getting Started | Preparing Material | Running the Subject | Running the Revised Subject | What Now? | References

Why Online Learning?

Why did I move to online learning? It was, first and foremost, a survival strategy. In its effort to reduce costs, my university declared that unless there were 10 students registered for a postgraduate on-campus subject (what those in the United States would call a “course”), the class would not be offered. Numbers in the literacy specialization program had been dropping for some time, and my average was about five or six students per subject. There were obvious reasons for this decline. The federal government, which funds tuition at most universities in Australia, had several years earlier introduced a form of tax, called the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. In the beginning the tax was low, reasonable enough that it did not greatly affect the level of student enrollment. Every so often, however, the government raised the amount of the required student “contribution,” until it became large enough that people began to question whether they really needed to do postgraduate work.

Teachers in New South Wales do not need to upgrade their academic knowledge and skills to maintain their positions or to receive salary increases, so earning a postgraduate degree does not “count” in their workplace. Another important factor was that most local teachers who might be interested in doing a master’s degree either already had one, or considered themselves too old to begin (the average elementary teacher is about 47 years old) or sufficiently experienced that a postgraduate degree would not be useful. Finally, demands made by the employing authorities on teachers’ time were increasing. Most staff development was now being run after school hours. Meetings also occurred after hours, as did the usual teacher-parent evenings and extracurricular sports and music programs.

A conundrum was developing. I knew that if we stopped offering the literacy specialization at the master’s level, we would never get students in the doctoral program. And that would have been a disaster, since it would have meant that little or even no school- and classroom-based literacy research would occur at the university.

At the same time as the minimum-enrollment requirement was put into place, the university was jumping on the online-learning bandwagon, encouraged by the “techies” among the faculty and staff. The university leaders, I believe, had the view that “going online” was a way to increase student intake without requiring additional resources. And so they made grants available to any department willing to put its postgraduate programs online. Our faculty applied and received one of these grants.

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Facing the Challenge

Thus it seemed to me I had no choice: go online, or lose my classes altogether. I was essentially forced into using technology for my postgraduate teaching. However, I also knew that as one who believes in a constructivist teaching-learning paradigm, I would have to force the technology to suit my beliefs about effective teacher learning. And so my challenge began.

In an earlier endeavor to make the literacy specialization more appealing to teachers, I had restructured the program into four 8-credit subjects. The first two, called simply “Teaching Reading” and “Teaching Writing,” were compulsory; students could pick from the remaining two, selecting either “Children’s Literature” or “Assessment and Evaluation of Literacy.” (Three additional subjects were required for completion of the master’s program: a research methodology course, and two electives that could be taken in any of the other specializations.)

I decided that the place to begin going online was with Teaching Reading, which had by that time been running for 2 years as a traditional subject in which my teacher-students and I met face to face. A major focus of this and all subjects I teach is the nexus between theory and practice. Topics in Teaching Reading include

My face-to-face teaching had been guided by a particular teacher-learning model that had emerged from my doctoral studies (Turbill, 1994), and is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1
Model of Effective Teacher Learning

diagram showing model

Briefly, this model argues that there are personal as well as external dimensions of learning that need to be considered in teacher learning. All teacher-education students have (or should have) a clearly articulated personal theory of teaching that both informs and guides their work. This personal dimension is constantly being challenged and informed (or should be) by the theories of others and the theories of others in practice. Both dimensions are equally important, and the interaction between them is fueled by reflection, sharing, and collaboration. This model therefore dictates that certain structures or activities and processes be put in place for effective learning to occur. The challenge is in getting the right mix of structures and processes so that optimal learning conditions not only exist but are made operational in such a way they that they become synergistic.

With a skillful mix of structures and processes such as those listed following, a culture is created in which there are sufficient enabling factors to support learners:

No structure alone is sufficient, and none is more important than another, but together all can operate synergistically so that any potential inhibiting factor in the learning culture will have only a temporary lifespan as learners work through what they want to know.

In such learning cultures, trusting and caring relationships develop. Learners become highly supportive of one another’s efforts and understandings. A shared meaning begins to develop among the learners, and with it a shared language. This does not mean that everyone has the same beliefs -- far from it -- but it does mean that members of the culture begin to understand one another’s perspectives. The learning culture moves toward what Barth (1990) calls a “community of learners.”

These principles were behind my design of the face-to-face subject of Teaching Reading, which had worked well for the 2 years that it ran in that mode. Now I needed to consider what had to change when the course moved online, without my needing to move away from this model as a framework.

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Getting Started

First I needed an overview of the “bits” in the subject that had been part of the weekly sessions, the assessment, and the readings and activities. Although I had a set of topics, I had never “seen” the subject as a whole, and it was time to do that. The software program Inspiration helped me draw up a flow chart of the components (what I like to call “structures”) in the subject. This then forced me to tighten, clarify, and map what needed to be done (see Figure 2).

Figure 2
Chart of the Components of Teaching Reading as an Online Subject

flow chart of course components

I could see clearly that there would still be a need for print material. Making large amounts of text available online was not the best use of the technology, since I could send the material to students in traditional print format and abide by Australia’s copyright laws. But I did need to prepare some materials for the Web, and that was my next task.

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Preparing Material for the Web

I needed the support of the programmer who was funded by our grant to teach me how to use Claris Home Page. It was at this point that I realized that what I normally would deliver orally in a face-to-face lecture would need to be written down. And while I could have done this week by week as the students worked through the subject online, my experience in writing staff-development programs told me that it would be best to get it all done -- at least at a draft level. This would allow me to get a sense of the overall picture and the cumulative flow of ideas and concepts as they would be introduced and developed in the subject.

I called on my colleague Brian Cambourne, and we spent several days of our summer break with our notes from past classes and the many books we’d used. Together we “wrote” the subject, noting what readings were to go where and designing the activities and workshops we wanted the learners to experience. Our experiences in writing activities and workshops for the Frameworks staff-development programs published in 1991 and 1999 proved invaluable. We were able to visualize how the Teaching Reading workshops would play out, when to have a workshop and when some straight input by means of an assigned reading, and so on. We served as critical friends as we worked through and finalized the ten topics that we believed would fulfill the necessary content as well as the various workshops that would aid the learners in coming to know this content. When in doubt, we returned to the teacher-learning model.

All this effort, but I still had not put one thing online! Over the next few weeks I worked with the programmer, telling him what I wanted. I spent time exploring Web sites to see how they looked, were organized, and worked. I wanted color and movement. I wanted the subject’s Web site to be different from what I could do on paper. The programmer took me to a whiteboard and made me outline how I wanted each weekly topic organized. Having already put this together, I was able to show him quickly, and he then translated the structure into a predictable navigation page for each topic (Figure 3). He advised me not to use too many colors or animation, arguing that they would detract from the reading of the material and pointing out that students who wanted a hard copy of what was on their screens would frequently not have access to a color printer. He also kept reminding me that my audience was likely to have limited computer skills and older computers, so keeping it simple would be wise.

Figure 3
Web Site Navigation Used for All Topics

screen shot of Web site navigational structure

Each of the ten topics was presented at the Web site with the same predictable structure shown in Figure 3. An introduction outlined the key concepts covered in the topic. “Workshop Tasks” were designed for learners to explore the concepts that were being introduced. Some topics had only one such task, while others had up to four. Students wrote their responses to these tasks on Web forms posted on the site and submitted them over the Internet. Each response then appeared in the “Student Responses” area, under the appropriate heading.

“Making Connections” provided a summary of the key connections that we, the writers of the subject, deemed important. “For the Next Topic” listed “Between Topic Reading(s) (BTRs)” and “Between Topic Activities (BTAs)” that the students were expected to carry out and respond to before they began the next topic. The former were set readings that students were asked to complete and respond to using two key questions as a framework:

The students’ responses were to be composed in “academic” writing, using appropriate referencing, and posted to an online discussion forum (more on this later). Where possible, students were to cite their classmates’ comments, as these were perceived as published pieces and thus the “theories of others” important in my model of teacher learning. And students were also encouraged to make connections among their set readings and the practical activities. These responses in turn accumulated into one of the assessment tasks.

The BTAs were practical activities designed to allow the students to explore in their professional contexts the concepts they were learning about. Students might be asked, for example, to pose a series of questions about reading to the children or adults with whom they worked. Sometimes they were asked to try a teaching strategy with children, and other times they were asked to monitor their own reading practices. For each of these activities students were to describe what they did and observed and to provide a brief analysis of their findings, submitting these responses through a Web form for posting under “Student Responses.” In this way, each BTA was a sort of small action research activity. Responses accumulated into the second assignment for assessment.

Having set up the instructional design of the subject, we next worked on the homepage navigation (Figure 4). I wanted it to look like it had something to do with reading, and so used a photo of my nephew and his mother that I happened to have! I was getting excited as it all began to look like a real Web site.

Figure 4
Homepage for the Teaching Reading Web Site

screen shot of course Web site homepage

Next, the topics were listed and linked (Figure 5), and I left the programmer to convert the rest of what we had written to HTML (hypertext mark-up language) pages so they could be displayed on the site. Within a day or two, he had developed all of Topics 1 and 2. (Take some time to explore Topic 2.) It took only a week to turn all of what we’d written for the 12 topics into HTML-tagged files and to upload them to the Web server. We were ready to begin.

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Figure 5
The 12 Topics in Teaching Reading

screen shot of topic list

Running the Subject

The online subject began in 1999 with four students. Theirs and our initial evaluation was that it was “a lot of work.” Whoever thought that online learning would reduce lecturers’ workload has either never run such programs or has run them in traditional read-and-test mode. For us, it was back to the drawing board to consider how to reduce the workload and how to get students to interact more frequently.

I no longer had access to the programmer, so I was forced to learn Claris Home Page in depth by myself. (Thankfully, I had some great teachers -- the Grade 4 students in a school I was working in at the time.) In our revisions, we deleted several workshops and one whole topic. The assessment was also fine-tuned.

It emerged that there were too many tools for communication purposes: students found them confusing and tended to use none at all. The discussion forum (known as “Discus”), powered by a packaged program on the university Web site, rarely worked, and both students and lecturer had to resort to e-mail. We had also set up a “Notice Board” and a “Hot Issues” area as places for communication, but students rarely used them. Thus, while we tried to emulate structures used in face-to-face classes (such as an issues and concerns chart, key concepts chart, great quotes list, and so on), they clearly did not fulfill the same purpose online.

Not only did it seem that we had too many places for communication, the students were too busy trying to keep up with responding to the required readings and activities to want to spend time “talking” online just for the sake of it. Thus, there was little or no additional communication occurring between and among the students. The only form of interaction that was occurring was between individual students and the lecturer (either myself or Brian Cambourne). Clearly, this was not conducive to building a community of learners.

Furthermore, on examining the many responses we sent to the students during the course of the session, it became clear that we were falling into the trap of delivering individual minilectures. We were setting ourselves up as the experts, inconsistent with our desire to establish and work within a constructivist learning environment in which all people’s views and ideas are valued. Things had to change.

As a result of these early evaluations, several decisions were made. One was to delete all communication tools other than the online Web forms that allowed posting of student responses to set workshops and the BTAs. These had worked well, and the students indicated that they’d enjoyed reading one another’s responses. To replace the eliminated communication channels, we introduced an e-mail listserv to which students subscribed in the first topic. This meant that e-mail messages that before had been exchanged between individuals were now sent to everyone, and all of us were aware of the messages every time we opened our e-mail programs. Because e-mail is perceived as informal, we hoped students would be more prepared to talk to us and one another by means of the listserv than they had been through the original channels.

To make sure there was traffic on the listserv, students were asked to post each end-of-topic assessment task of responding to the set reading as a message to the list. In their responses, they were encouraged to raise questions and to link key aspects of the reading to their own teaching contexts as well as to any other readings. All students were encouraged to comment, challenge, and generally discuss their peers’ responses. To ensure that this was seen as important to learning, the assessment criteria listed this aspect as a must if a student wished to receive a grade higher than a simple pass.

The final change that had to be made was in the role that we played. It was important that the lecturer not be perceived as the expert, we believed. There were plenty of experts in the subject: those who had written the book chapters and articles that made up the assigned readings. Our writing was also there for the students to read. We wanted to let the readings be the experts, while we saw our role as being one of participating in, mediating, and facilitating the learning.

With all these changes, the overview of the subject now looked like the flow chart shown in Figure 6. (Compare this to the original chart of components, shown earlier in Figure 2.)

Figure 6
Revised Chart of the Components of Teaching Reading as an Online Subject

flow chart of course components

It was now time to see if the new format and change in roles would work in the way that we envisaged.

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Running the Revised Subject

The year 2000 was exciting. For the first time we had students from many different backgrounds and from two different sides of the world -- eight in all. Some worked close to Wollongong University, while others were 12,000 miles (19,000 km) away. This latter group was made up of doctoral students from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. Our literacy specialization had been recognized as electives within their program. This unique partnership between universities was made possible only because we had gone online.

Large folders of set readings were printed in Australia (thus abiding by the copyright laws) and sent to all students, including the American cohort. The students’ teaching context ranged from kindergarten to university to adult literacy programs, special education, music education, and English as a second language. Some had many years of experience in teaching, others had been out of the teaching profession for a few years while at home with child-rearing duties, and others were in their first years in the classroom. The diversity was truly amazing -- and, again, would not have occurred had the students not been able to access the subject online.

From the very beginning of the course, things were different than they had been the previous year. Although there were eight students in the subject, they were never working on the same topic at the same time. Several of the American students worked very quickly through the topics since they were on summer break and had no teaching responsibilities. The listserv seemed to make all the difference. Students shared their work, their working context, and personal comments that were appropriate for their audience. The Sydney 2000 Olympics created much discussion, as did the weather. The sharing of the different seasons sparked many short conversations. And the fact that both one American and one Australian had babies toward the end of the subject caused great excitement.

I believe that we truly developed as a community of learners who together built individual and collective knowledge. Unexpectedly, I had considerable difficulty when it came to the overall assessment of each student. I wanted to award the highest grade to everyone -- and while I knew this was impossible, I wondered why I perceived everyone to be achieving such a high level of knowledge growth and development. A more in-depth reflection on this issue revealed some interesting outcomes. The subject outline stated that “knowledge development” was to be demonstrated through evidence that the criteria for the subject were being achieved by the students and that students were making connections with the readings, classroom practice, and their own context. This was certainly happening, but there were other factors I found I had to take into account and could do so because of the nature of online learning.

I discovered that my assessment process was quite different from what I was used to in assessing a face-to-face situation. In a face-to-face class, assessment tasks are usually submitted by all students at the same time. While in my traditional classes I used set criteria to grade the work, I certainly compared and contrasted the assignments when deciding each student’s final grade. But my online students did not work through each topic at the same pace, nor did they need to. Assignments were completed -- and therefore submitted -- at different times. I also found that each person clearly came into the subject with different levels of understanding, and different backgrounds and experiences. And I had access to everything they had written (said) over the duration of the subject, whereas in a face-to-face class, I may not even hear much of the interaction among the students -- so much of the here and now of class is lost once class is over. Thus, I found myself assessing each of my online student’s growth over the session in light of the set criteria and of the understandings and experiences that that person brought into the subject. And if students could provide evidence that they had achieved their personal best, they were awarded a grade accordingly.

Figure 7 demonstrates that all structures had a part to play in the effective running of the subject; however, for a knowledge-building community to develop, it needed to be made operational by the interaction between and among the members of that community.

Figure 7
Structures Involved in an Effective Online Knowledge-Building Community

flow chart showing interaction of components

Of particular interest were the interactions that occurred on the listserv (Figure 8). The evidence clearly indicated that the listserv played a pivotal role in increasing student interaction. However, this interaction was facilitated by the lecturer, who took on the roles of learner, mediator, and facilitator in the community.

Upon examination, it seemed that the listserv interaction could be divided into four main categories: management and organization, personal contextualizing, professional contextualizing, and knowledge building. While all four forms of interaction may have occurred in each e-mail message, it is interesting to explore the purpose of these interactions.


Figure 8
Types of Listserv Interaction

flow chart showing interaction of components with listserv

Management and organization interactions were used by both students and lecturer. Often they were initiated by a student seeking clarification or help with a technical problem. I gave reminders about deadlines and asked questions of “missing” students -- those who hadn’t been active for a week or so. (Most weeks, after reading all the responses and interactions that had come in, I would do a mapping of who had completed what topic. This also served the purpose of checking that I had received all that they thought they had submitted. More than once, we found that submitted work had disappeared into cyberspace.) I would also draw students’ attention to a particular comment or example that one student made, referring them to the URL where they could read the comment. I also used this type of interaction to demonstrate the expectations of the subject. For example, I shared one person’s response to a set reading in order to demonstrate the importance of making links with other articles and other people’s responses. The provision of such a model gave the others a clearer understanding of what they were not doing and so helped them.

Personal contextualizing occurred in most listserv messages. Even when the message included the formal, academic response to a set reading, students often began or ended with a short personal snippet. These were often focused on the weather -- something that was of great interest to people at opposite sides of the world. Both students and lecturer shared why they might not have been very talkative over particular weeks, or that they were going to be away in the future week. Holidays were shared, school happenings, children, and, for some of us, caring for aged parents. In the latter part of the course two babies were born, causing a great celebration and sharing of photos.

These interactions allowed us into one another’s lives just enough for us to begin to feel we knew one another. They contributed to the building of trusting relationships among the group and, therefore, to our increased comfort with taking risks in sharing our ideas and beliefs. This personal sense of knowing one another was evidenced in the fact that once people finished the subject, they tended to stay on the listserv and interact with their peers, at least for a short time.

Professional contextualizing was expected in the subject and so occurred often in the responses to the set readings as students made links between key concepts and their practice. However, such contextualizing also occurred in the responses students made to each other, as they used their own professional situations in order to provide examples of the points they were making.

Knowledge building was also an expectation of the subject overall. As already indicated, the responses to the set readings and activities cumulated into two of the three assessment tasks. In the past (prior to the use of the listserv), students had submitted their responses to the lecturer, and many were very good. However, the fact that the submissions were now to be read by peers as well as the lecturer provided the students with a broader audience. The reflective responses that students then made to the work of their peers helped them make more connections, and so on. It was clear that students were learning from each other as much as they were learning from the set materials.

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What Now?

Teaching Reading was the first subject I put online. I have since developed two more online subjects using a software program called WebCT -- but that’s another story, with its own challenges and successes. What I have learned most about is learning, and literacy learning in particular, via the online medium. I’ve learned that

Some might say that the items on the preceding list are important for all teaching, whether face to face or online. I agree. But after many decades in the profession, I thought I knew all about teaching and learning, and now I know that I still have lots to learn. Moving from my safe territory of face-to-face teaching to online teaching has put me onto a sharp learning curve over the past few years and has made me re-examine myself as a teacher. It has been both exciting and frustrating -- but never boring. I know that I will continue to use a technology presence in my teaching, since in my online experiences I have seen such powerful learning take place.

My fears that online learning would be too formal and impersonal have been calmed. I know that my positive views about online learning may not necessarily be those of my students, but I was pleased by Stephanie’s comment in one of her last listserv messages:

This listserv reminds me of a friendly but also professionally oriented staffroom, with its combination of personal details and professional development.

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Barth, R. (1990). Improving schools from within. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Berge, Z. (1995, Jan.-Feb.). Facilitating computer conferencing: Recommendations from the field. Educational Technology, 22-30.

Burton, W. (1998, April). Facilitating online learning: Charting the conversation. Paper presented at the Third Annual TCC Conference, Online Instruction: Trends & Issues II, Honolulu, HI. Available: leahi.kcc.hawaii.edu/org/tcon98/paper/burton.html

Stacey, E. (1998). The trials, tribulations and triumphs of teaching with technology: Coping with computer mediated communication in distance education. Paper presented at the conference of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia, Deakin University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Turbill, J. (1994) From a personal theory to a grounded theory in staff development. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia.

Turbill, J., Butler, A., & Cambourne, B., with Langton, G. (1991, 1993, 1999). Frameworks: A language and literacy staff development program. Newark, NY: Wayne-Finger Lakes Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

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Citation: Turbill, J. (2001, July/August). A face-to-face graduate class goes online: Challenges and successes. Reading Online, 5(1). Available: http://www.readingonline.org/international/inter_index.asp?HREF=turbill1/index.html

Reading Online, www.readingonline.org
Posted July 2001
© 2001 International Reading Association, Inc.   ISSN 1096-1232