Teaching Online

An Alternative Strategy for Course Delivery

In Autumn Quarter 1989, the School (then College of Forest Resources) enrolled 146 undergraduate and 164 graduate students for a total of 310 students. In Autumn of 2011, the School enrolled 353 undergraduates and 166 graduate students for a total of 519 students. Over 22 years, the percentage increases for the undergraduate, graduate, and total student enrollments were 141.8, 1.2, and 67.4 percents, respectively. During this period five teaching faculty lines were lost and state funding for the school was reduced by about 50 percent. A newly developed UW budget system now assigns annual budgets to academic units based on faculty productivity as measured by teaching, graduation rates, and number of majors.  In short, SEFS has more students being educated by fewer faculty, staff, and funds. How does an institution cope with this situation?

Professor and Dean Emeritus Bruce Bare has been thinking about this challenge during the past year, and serving as a member on a School committee that is studying alternative and emerging instructional approaches.  He says, “Responding to this challenge, some academic units hire part-time lecturers to cover their teaching needs. While this results in lower costs to the unit, it often creates discord between the faculty and lecturers because the latter may feel that they are not treated equally to their peers. Similarly, students often feel shortchanged because they are not being taught by professors. Administrators often react by increasing class sizes to accommodate more students at reduced costs. Then students become unhappy because as class sizes increase, the perceived quality of education decreases. All of this has been accompanied by a steep rise in student tuition at most public four-year universities—including the UW.”

SEFS is currently exploring the use of distance learning, via the internet, to help cope with growing enrollment and reduced capacity. Says Bare, “This is not the panacea that many believe it is; however, it allows us to reach large numbers of students at reduced costs. Subjects like mathematics, economics, statistics, GIS, dendrology, biology, soils, environmental science, and others lend themselves to a distance learning environment when taught at the introductory level.  Using high quality videos, computer simulations, and instructor-student interactions via discussion boards, email, or video links provide convenient ways for student-faculty interaction.  In addition, many textbook publishers now offer eReaders that allow students to interact with their texts in novel ways.  And, most of these resources are priced about 50 percent lower than a standard textbook.”

The principal difference between distance learning and lecture-based courses is that the instructor does not provide in-person lectures. However, some deliver lectures and notes via the internet while others rely on videos produced by textbook publishers. Just as in a lecture-based course, the instructor spends considerable time preparing course materials, answering questions, and designing examinations. And, just as in a lecture-based course,  the quality of instruction and the student experience can be varied.

At SEFS, up to 1,000 students have enrolled in ESRM 100, an online introduction to environmental science course. For the past 11 years, Bare, the first at SEFS to embrace online instruction, has been teaching up to 150 registered students in Q SCI 381, an introductory statistics course designed for students in natural resources disciplines like forestry, fisheries, and wildlife science.  He says, “To be successful, a qualified cadre of teaching assistants is needed to help the instructor answer email and discussion board questions, grade exams, and prepare supplemental course materials. Our distance learning courses follow a hybrid model in which students have an opportunity to interact with teaching assistants face-to-face and with the instructor via electronic means or private office hours. Our experience shows that students perform as well as in a traditional lecture-based course and enjoy the freedom to study at their convenience. And, for a class of several hundred students, we believe that the quality of a distance learning course can be higher than that experienced sitting in large lecture-style classes, especially if small sessions are included where students can meet with teaching assistants or the instructor.“

To date,  SEFS has not introduced an online degree program.  However, there is a growing array of online master degree programs offered through the Natural Resource Distance Learning Consortium (http://www.nrdlc.org/). Says Bare, “Based on our experience with online courses we believe that the potential for online masters programs is very high and should be explored further.”

Anderson Hall 223, a traditional lecture-based classroom.
Photo:University of Washington Libraries.

Professor and Dean Emeritus Bruce Bare, an "early adopter"
of online teaching, outside of Anderson Hall
. Photo: Kirsten Atik.