Below is the text of a paper for submission to the following:

The WWW Journal of Online Education (JOE)

Online Course Design: An MBA Course Example

by D'Arcy A. Becker


Keywords: constructivism, MBA, design


Abstract:

Course design is the key to student learning, whether the course is taught in a traditional setting or online. The ease with which constructivist elements may be included in online course design is thought to be a major virtue of that medium. While constructivist elements may be theoretically sound, student opinions on the learning value of those elements are important to the effectiveness of any course. This paper outlines the constructivist assignments of an online MBA course, Introduction to Assurance Services and student opinions and reactions to those assignments.

Introduction
Quality need never be compromised when a course is delivered online; online courses should provide learning experiences that are at least as effective as courses using traditional teaching methods (Hobbs 2002). Online instruction may even be superior to traditional methods under some circumstances (Ross and Schultz 1999; Samans 2003). McCallister and Matthews (2001) suggest online MBA courses may be one such case, offering advantages over traditional MBA courses that are often overlooked including the unique possibility for greater appreciation of content, and the ability to instigate creative and critical thinking. Course design may determine whether online students reap these learning benefits.

Online courses have the wide variety of information available on the Internet to add to traditional course learning materials, and the manner in which online courses take advantage of this increased variety is essential to course success. Learner- based (or endogenous) constructivism (hereafter, constructivism) is frequently proposed as the best way to enrich traditional course materials when courses go online.

Constructivism is not a teaching theory but instead a theory on knowledge and learning. Its basic premise is that students can actively construct their knowledge, thus modifying their understanding, by assimilating new information with prior knowledge and promoting active and cooperative learning (Bennett 2001). In effect, each student constructs their own representation of knowledge (Moshman 1982). This leads to deeper learning because it results in students seeing interconnections within information sets (Rosie 2000). An important assumption about constructive learning is that learners bring their own needs and experiences to learning situations, and that background can be very helpful to learners as they construct new knowledge (Grabinger 1996).

The ease with which constructivist elements may be included in online course design is thought to be a major virtue of that medium. Here are some examples of constructivist elements: searching for examples of a phenomenon such as a company with a ìsocial policies reportî and examining the reportsí content; pursuing a link identified via search engine through to subsequent web sites until a logical answer to a case is uncovered; identifying several sources of reporting about a single event such as an accounting fraud to identify source bias in the reporting.

While constructivist elements may be theoretically sound, student opinions on the learning value of those elements are important to the effectiveness of any course. Student satisfaction with a course affects their learning, and it also impacts the success of the MBA program (e.g., Arbaugh and Duray 2002). We cannot assume students will enjoy or accept constructivist learning. For example, Williams (2002) found that students felt online course elements implied a lack of instructor knowledge and a failure of the instructor to provide sound teaching materials.

This paper describes an online MBA course, Introduction to Assurance Services, and provides data on the effectiveness of constructivist course learning components from the viewpoints of students in the course.

Student Characteristics
Nineteen students all had basic background in business courses but need not have had prior online courses. Students had been out of college an average of 7.5 years (range four to 21 years). All students except one were working full-time during the course. Students worked in middle and upper management at companies varying in size from five employees to multinationals. Students worked in accounting, finance, marketing, management information systems and management. Because each area of business was represented, students brought a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences to the class. Some course elements were specifically designed to take advantage of this variety.

The number of prior online courses ranged from one to five (average 2.94). Eleven students reported routinely taking a lap top computer along on business trips; eleven students reported routinely engaging in e-commerce transactions (such as buying online). All students reported using the Internet outside of class or work for three to 15 hours per week (average 6.6 hours). Students reported they had been using the Internet from three to 10 years (average 5.9 years); one student reported belonging to an Internet chat group. Fifteen students obtained course access via dial-up modem, three obtained access via cable modem and one obtained access via DSL phone service. Clearly, the students were technology-oriented.

Introduction to Assurance Services
An online lecture summarizing basic background information on assurance services was part of the first lesson. Some students were familiar with parts of this information although that was not a course prerequisite. All course assignments were designed to deepen student understanding of this material.

Assurance is an independent professional service that improves the quality of information. Experts provide oral or written testimony that the assertion of another party meets (or does not meet) certain specified criteria or standards. Examples: whether financial statements are prepared according to accounting standards, whether a company follows a stated process for handling customer returns, whether credit card information is kept securely on a web site, whether child labor is used to produce a product, and whether the percent of money a charity uses for charitable purposes is as high as claimed.

Overview of Course Design

The four-week, one-credit course ran on the web-based system BlackBoard. Major elements of the course were designed in accordance with constructivist learning theory. Constructivism emphasizes the learnerís role in constructing meaning as opposed to simple transmission from teacher to student (Wilson and Lowry 2000). Constructivism does not imply certain specific teaching methods (Wilson and Lowry 2000); lectures, readings, web searches, online discussions, quizzes, exams, papers all may lead to constructivist learning. This course used a variety of teaching techniques including lectures, web-based research, papers and discussions. The Internet affords the opportunity to use multiple representations of knowledge and a way to sequence that information in a way that makes pedagogical sense (Arnone 2002). This course centered around Internet use and followed the three core principles for effective use of the web in teaching as proposed by Wilson and Lowry (2000): access to rich information sources was provided, meaningful interaction with content was encouraged, and students were brought together to challenge, support and respond to each other.

Course information was taught in two units, each containing multiple lessons. The major goal of the first unit was to have students learn background information about assurance services. Students learned to identify situations where assurance services would be of value, learned to generate examples of useful assurance services companies provide to their customers and learned to determine the difference between information labeled as ëassuranceí and information that really provides assurance.

The major goal of the second unit was to have students investigate real-world applications of assurance services. Students evaluated assurance provided in different contexts and learned to assess its quality and information content. This type of modular design for online courses has been advocated in the education literature; the function of the modules is to deliver course content and make available all necessary information to meet the learning goals, including the opportunity to put that information together in a meaningful way (Tilson, Strickland, DeMarco and Gibson 2001). A course outline listed the due date for every assignment along with its point value and referred students to the details about each assignment. This outline helped students see the workload over the entire course to enable them to adjust their schoolwork to fit their work schedules.

Each lessonís readings including an online instructor commentary (lecture) and online business press articles; reading guide questions were provided to add structure. Seventeen of 19 students rated these readings and commentaries as very helpful in introducing new course material. Each lesson also contained online research activities, both individual and group, as described below.

There were three small group (three students per group) discussions and one class-wide discussion. For small group discussions, the instructor assigned students to groups and different pairings were used for each discussion. Students were always paired so each group member was from a different school to negate the possibility of in-person communication among students. Participation in all discussions was monitored to assure a minimum of free riders. For the first discussion, the instructor sent messages to all students regarding their participation in an effort to make discussion monitoring more visible. Shortly after the discussion period ended, all students received their discussion participation grades, which helped ensure students understood the expected level of participation.

Gaining an Understanding of Assurance Services

In unit one, students learned about the common characteristics of assurance information and applied those characteristics to assurance uses in several different settings. Research has shown students benefit from applying concepts to specific contexts. When concepts and context are separated, knowledge itself is seen by learners as the final product of education rather than as a tool to be used dynamically to solve future problems (Herrington and Oliver 2000).

After the first set of readings, students provided examples of assurance use by their employers in a class-wide online discussion. Students were required to both post their own example and comment on the examples of others. Through this assignment, students became familiar with the variety of ways assurance is used in business. In addition, students were able to benefit from the wide array of backgrounds and viewpoints represented in the class when each student posted a unique business and assurance combination. The differences in opinions expressed enlivened the discussion considerably.

All data reported below were obtained via two email surveys containing both objective (e.g. rate how much you learned from this discussion) and open-ended (e.g. explain your rating) questions. The first survey, which elicited opinions about the content and format of the discussions, was conducted after one class-wide and one small group discussion were completed. Its timing early in the course helped students recall immediate impressions of their discussion experiences. The second survey was conducted after the course was complete, and elicited opinions about overall course design. Each survey had a completion deadline. Students who did not return surveys by the deadline were contacted with email reminders, resulting in a 100% return rate for each survey.
 

As shown in Table 1, students found the interaction between new course material and their workplaces to be helpful in learning about assurance services. Importantly, they also found it interesting. Suggestions for improving the discussion address ideas that would expand the discussion, also indicating student satisfaction with this learning experience.

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Table 1

Student Reactions to Course Content in Unit #1:

Class Discussion on Assurance Examples from Student Employers


1. Did you know what assurance services are when the course began?

6 Yes

10 No

 

2. How helpful were the readings and instructor commentaries in introducing you to new material in the course?

17 Very helpful

2 Somewhat helpful

0 Not very helpful

 

3. About how many student examples of assurance did you read prior to preparing your example for the first class-wide discussion?

2 More than 3

12 One or two

5 None

 

4. Rate how much your understanding of assurance services changed as a result of reading the examples posted by your classmates.

6 Large increase

12 Modest increase

1 No increase

 

5. In the first discussion, you were asked to link your example to your employer. Which of these statements is most true about this aspect of this discussion?

15 I learned more by linking assurance to my employer

4 I would have learned just as much without linking assurance to my employer

 

6. Rate how interesting you found this class discussion.

15 Very interesting

3 Moderately interesting

1 Not very interesting

 

7. Can you suggest something that would enhance the amount you learn from class discussions?

a. The instructor could give his or her own examples

b. The instructor could participate in the discussion

c. Require interaction (more than one round of comment-reply)

d. Allowing a longer time window for them to develop

e. Have students post counter-arguments to the responses their postings receive

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Interaction with a series of real events or examples has also been shown to help learners develop a deep level of competency (van Merrienboer 2001). Once students were familiar with the basics of assurance services and had generated and discussed examples, their next lesson required an investigation of common applications of assurance in the areas of charitable giving and e-commerce. The goals of these investigations were to illustrate the necessary components of assurance services and to enable students to understand how and why companies provide assurance information. An additional assignment in this unit asked students to write papers about the use (or the potential use) of e-commerce by their employers and the need for accompanying assurance information.

To develop further understanding of the connections between the goals of assurance and the kinds of assurance disclosures organizations make, the issue of social audits was highlighted. Students read background information about social audits and then examined two companiesí disclosures: The Body Shop Inc. and Citizenís Bank of Canada. By examining the companiesí web sites, students evaluated the disclosures for thoroughness and quality, and then wrote papers addressing the inferences they had drawn about the companiesí reasons for making the disclosures.

Students also examined disclosures made by The Gallup Poll under the category of ìsocial auditsî. The Gallup Poll shows survey results on issues such as teenage smoking or seatbelt use. Students held small group online debates about whether these kinds of disclosures meet the requirements of assurance services.

When asked if they would rather have searched for and analyzed companies of their own choosing for these assignments, five of 19 students responded affirmatively (see Table 2) while 14 of 19 students preferred that the instructor find these pertinent examples for students to investigate. The choice was not provided because the instructor was unsure students would be able to find excellent examples such as The Body Shop. (In fact, one student in the survey mentioned this potential difficulty.)

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Table 2

Student Reactions to Course Content in Unit #1:

Papers on Disclosures of The Body Shop, Inc.




1. Did you increase your knowledge of assurance by performing a critical review of the information provided by The Body Shop, Inc?

18 Yes

1 No


2. Was working on this paper an effective way to increase your understanding of the use of assurance services across broad applications in business?

18 Yes

1 No


3. Would you rather have searched for and analyzed a company of your own choosing for this assignment?

5 Yes

14 No

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Once these learning activities were completed, students had developed sufficient understanding of assurance services to be able to examine and evaluate more complicated assurance examples.
 

Application of Knowledge to the Real World
The second unit of the course allowed students to enrich and deepen their basic understanding by focusing on socially responsible investment fundsí disclosures of investment criteria and related information. These funds attract investors by promising to make investments in companies that meet a defined set of social responsibility criteria, which provides an ideal setting for assurance.

Students each selected a mutual fund that claimed to follow a social responsibility philosophy for their projects; no two students were permitted to investigate the same fund. The only restriction on fund choice was the fund had to be listed in either www.socialinvest.org or in www.socialfunds.com. This was the first time students found their own examples and investigated them; in all prior course assignments, students were directed to specific examples of assurance.

This decision setting was chosen because there is a wide range of information available online about a myriad of funds, and because students may have been exposed to these funds as investment alternatives for themselves or their companies. The funds provided an authentic context for studying assurance as it is used in business. Adults learn best when knowledge is presented in a real-life context (Huang 2002) and involves experiential learning (Harper, Squires and McDougall 2000). This assignment also allowed students the freedom to explore Internet information on these funds, thereby permitting students to construct individual learning experiences (McCallister and Matthews 2001).

Students wrote individual papers which addressed the investment criteria of their funds, purposes assurance services might serve for their funds and whether assurance information was provided; they also assessed the quality of the assurance information provided. Next, students held small group online debates about which fund had the best example of social responsibility criteria and accompanying assurance that the investment criteria were being followed. To participate in this debate, each student posted a summary of the fund they investigated and nominated it for consideration (or no consideration) as "best". Each group formed consensus about one fund and submitted a group paper explaining the groupís conclusions.

Students found these investigations helpful in enhancing their understanding of assurance services (see Table 3). When asked whether there was another decision setting they would rather have investigated, 18 of 19 students replied Ano@. Table 3 shows comments students made to accompany their responses to this question.

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Table 3

Student Reactions to Course Content in Unit #2:

Investigating Socially Responsible Investment Funds

1. Did you increase your knowledge of assurance by performing a critical review of the information provided by your fund?

18 Yes

1 No


2. Was working on this paper an effective way to increase your understanding of the use of assurance services across broad applications in business?

18 Yes

1 No

3. Would you rather I had required that all students analyze the same fund?

0 Yes

19 No


4. Would requiring all students to analyze the same fund have facilitated the group discussion on your results?

3 Yes

16 No


5. Is there another topic you would rather have analyzed as the final project for this class? If so, explain. (All students not commenting simply responded "no".)

a. No, this was perfect, especially with the amount of controversy that's out there.

b. No, I liked the different companies being reviewed to compare their strengths and weaknesses.

c. No, I wouldnít have thought of a better topic myself, as this can relate to all of us and to our working environments.

d. No, I liked this one, it was something I had never really given much thought and I found it interesting.

e. No, this was a nice final project that is applicable to daily life. I learned a lot about the type of information that is not only available for socially responsible businesses but also a lot about investment fund criteria in general.

f. Yes, I would have liked to explore more about assurance services at my employer...and probably still will...what data they use as their reference points and benchmarks, etc.

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Rating the Assignments
When asked to rank the seven major course assignments according to the amount learned, all students rated the employer examples class-wide discussion either as one or two. This is not surprising given that it was early in the course when many students still have relatively vague knowledge of assurance, and the fact that this assignment allowed students to see concrete, interesting examples from actual businesses.

The next most popular assignment was the socially responsible investment fund paper. Sixteen students rated this assignment in their top 3, although almost no students (4) felt the related group discussions added substantially to their knowledge of assurance. This seems logical given that the bulk of information from this assignment was gained in analyzing a fund and not from hearing the results of others= analyses.

Interestingly, the third most popular assignment was the reading guide questions provided for each reading assignment. Gupta (2002) states that just posting lecture notes, assignments and the solutions does not help the student in e-learning. While these assignments would not fare well if they were the sole learning opportunities, such learning elements may play an important role in an online course. In this course, many students found this traditional course element helpful in focusing on the important aspects of the readings. Students submitted answers to the questions if they wished, although this submission was not a formal part of their course grades. The instructor read and sent back comments on all answers submitted, which sometimes led to dialogues between instructor and student. The lesson learned from this course feedback is that we should not eliminate any one type of assignment from online courses but rather should consider how best to incorporate many types.

Students were also asked about course modifications for the future. They rated each of the major assignments as Akeep same@, Akeep but modify@ or Areplace@. No student rated any assignment Areplace@ and there were very few rated Akeep but modify@. The one disgruntled student commented that the assignments were all fine, but there were too many assignments and the workload was excessive. No other students made this comment. Overall, students felt they learned a substantial amount from this course and the assignments were helpful.

Conclusions

This course allowed students to capitalize on advances in information processing and the Internet. As simulations of real-world decisions were addressed, there was a high level of interactivity between the instructor and students as well as between students. This interactivity enhances studentís ability to engage in constructivist learning (e.g. Sampson, Karagiannidis and Kinshuk 2002). Students= individual backgrounds were also used to enhance learning. Online discussions of student examples, group debates about assurance examples and uses and student investigations of socially responsible investment funds all were heavily influenced by the studentsí points of view about the course materials.

The course also took advantage of wide variety of information available online. Most assignments used Internet information and would not have been possible without its use. Certainly the capstone project about investment funds would not be possible in the tight course time frame without Internet information. Students reported learning a lot from the assignments and did not seem to feel negative effects from the lack of face-to-face contact time.

The results reported here are only for one 4-week course, and therefore some discussion of limitations is warranted. Courses conducted over a longer period of time may not lead to similar results. It is possible these students found their learning experiences to be favorable because they were completed over such a short period. If drawn out over 10 or 15 weeks, the same experiences might not have the same depth of impact.

In addition, it is not possible to generalize these results to all undergraduate courses. These students were all studying business at the graduate level, were taking the course as an elective, were highly motivated individuals to be working and taking classes at the same time, and were older. These same characteristics are true of very few courses. As Samans (2003) points out, successful asynchronous learning requires extremely strong personal motivation and discipline; for this reason, it is an ideal medium for higher education opportunities offered to working adults. It would be interesting to study a similar course design with undergraduates to see if they had similar opinions of their levels of learning.

It would also be interesting to compare two classes where one was taught using the methods reported here and the other was taught face-to-face. The impact of having the materials online would be more clear under such circumstances.
 

Finally, a precautionary note on the results is warranted. Students perceptions of their levels of learning do not always match actual learning. In this case, student learning appears to have been similar to student perceptions, but the differences between the two is subjective in nature.




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