July/August 2003 // Case Studies
From Large Lectures to Online Modules and Discussion: Issues in the Development of Online Teacher Education
by George Gadanidis and Sharon Rich
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: George Gadanidis and Sharon Rich "From Large Lectures to Online Modules and Discussion: Issues in the Development of Online Teacher Education" The Technology Source, July/August 2003. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

In this article, we consider issues in the development of online teacher education based on our experience in replacing large lectures with online modules and discussion. We suggest that the successful development and implementation of online education require two major commitments: one to improve the educational experience for students, and another to encourage close cooperation—especially among instructors and technological staff—so that subject matter, pedagogy, and technological expertise are brought to bear in an integrated fashion. Below we recount our first-year efforts in this arena at the University of Western Ontario (UWO).


For the purposes of this discussion, we use the term preservice teachers to refer to students in undergraduate elementary education programs offered by the Faculty of Education at UWO. These students traditionally received 18 hours of small group instruction (25-30 students per class) and 9 hours of large group lectures (200-400+ students per lecture) in the areas of mathematics and language arts. In an effort to improve preservice teacher training in these subject areas, in 2001-2002 we replaced the nine large group lectures with nine online content modules and online discussion conferences. The goal was to move from the simple transmission of information through face-to-face lectures toward online interaction that uses modules to offer content, links to Web-based resources and video, Web-based interactive activities, and online discussion conferences.

This new direction for the preservice teacher curriculum took advantage of existing expertise in the Faculty of Education and its capacity to offer online courses through a continuing teacher education program. In the last 4 years, the online component of that program grew from 2 to more than 100 courses. Such courses contain online content, discussion areas, and tools that were developed locally, within the Faculty. For example, the discussion area that we currently use was designed by the technology staff in consultation with key instructors. Compared to the commercially available discussion board that we used previously, the customized version more successfully meets the varied pedagogical needs of instructors. It has the added advantage of being 4 times faster, allowing for more rapid interaction and placing much less demand on expensive Web server resources. The online program offerings also include a process to facilitate the effective management of students and course discussion areas, and a set of locally developed course management tools that enable efficient registration, records administration, and student evaluation.

Teaching Philosophy

Our approach to teaching fosters the collaboration of instructors, students, and technical staff in the design of the learning process. This approach recognizes that all members of the academic community have a stake in improving student learning; our program's hallmark is the team members' willingness to listen to and learn from each other. Technological staff address the pedagogical concerns expressed by faculty members, and together they solve problems related to course design and delivery. All parties discuss elements of interface design that enhance seamless interaction; the result is often successful products like the discussion area mentioned above. Academic staff members have learned to respect the limitations of current technology and work with what is available, rather than become oppositional to the use of technology in their teaching.

The fact that the technological capacity (Web servers, etc.), technical expertise (database specialists, Web designers, etc.), and teaching and administrative staff are all based in the Faculty of Education building has fostered a sense of community, ownership, and personal control that is crucial to the development of an online education program (Gadanidis, Graham, McDougall, & Roulet, 2002; Rich, 2001; Rich & Woolfe, 2001). At monthly meetings, team members raise issues related to pedagogy and course delivery and suggest areas for subsequent development and research. All team members—technological, administrative, and academic—help create inservice training sessions on Web-based education for other academic staff. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the collaboration is that team members have become involved in researching particular aspects of online teaching and learning. These research efforts are an integral part of our teaching philosophy, as outlined below.

We strongly value the process of "coming to know." This means that we see knowledge as continually constructed by students rather than as a ready-made product created and handed down by instructors. Our teaching philosophy is of heightened importance in an education faculty setting, since it needs to govern both the methodology and the content of the courses we teach. For this reason, we are sensitive to situations in which we may apply methods that are not aligned with the pedagogical directions we promote for use by our students when they teach. When giving large group lectures, in particular, we sense a contradiction between promoting a learning environment where students actively participate and collaborate, and delivering this message in a lecture hall with 200 to 450 students. Our shift from large group lectures to online content and discussion represents an attempt to better align the pedagogical content we teach with our teaching methodology—that is, to better align what we teach with how we teach. The online components of the preservice program allow students to interact with ideas represented through various media, enable them to engage with Web-based simulations, and support the online sharing and discussion of ideas and issues in each of the nine modules.

Implementation Challenges and Opportunities

In spring 2001, during the proposal stage of the online initiative, some faculty members raised concerns about student access: How could we know that the more than 400 students affected would have access to the Internet? If they all depended on campus computer labs, wouldn't access be impractical? There were also administrative concerns about notifying students of the program change, as application forms were processed and acceptance letters were mailed prior to the project proposal. Should prospective students have been told ahead of time that part of their program would be online?

Meanwhile, support for the initiative came from most of the mathematics and language arts instructors, who felt that the lecture format did not provide optimal effectiveness and who agreed that the shift to online content and discussion would better align their instruction with the pedagogical content. Coincidentally, an external review of the Faculty of Education recommended that online technology be incorporated into the preservice program given its successful use in the continuing teacher education program. This recommendation added further impetus to the initiative, as did the fact that physical space in the Education building is at a premium due to increasing enrollment in recent years.

The online initiative proceeded in 2001-2002 as a pilot project. In the spring and summer of 2001, team leaders in language arts and mathematics authored first drafts of online content for each of the modules. We notified the preservice teacher candidates of the new direction of their program in the summer of 2001, and we demonstrated the technology for them during orientation in September. Implementation of the proposal in such a short time was possible because, as noted above, the continuing teacher education program already had the capacity to offer online content and discussion; existing processes and tools from that system were adapted for use in the preservice program.

The 2001-2002 Experience

Although we had confidence in the quality of our online continuing teacher education program, we were not sure how preservice teachers would react to the online language arts and mathematics components. Students in the continuing education program choose the online format (the program offers parallel face-to-face courses), whereas their preservice counterparts would not be given a choice. Also, continuing teacher education courses are taken by teachers in the field, scattered across Ontario and beyond (many Canadian teachers working abroad take our courses), making the online program an attractive option. In contrast, preservice teachers are already in the Faculty of Education building.

Anticipated access problems did not materialize during the first year. When students were asked at the general orientation in September 2001 whether they had regular access to the Internet outside of the Faculty of Education, more than 90% indicated with a show of hands that they did. A significantly lower percentage (approximately 50%) had answered positively when a similar question was asked at the general orientation in September 2000. Also, it seemed that students were able to access and participate in the online component with ease and with little resistance to this mode of program delivery. Instructors reported few problems and questions from students.

Faculty members noted a number of benefits of the online component. In relation to required readings, which included both physical texts and online materials/activities, workshop instructors in language arts and mathematics saw a significant improvement in teachers' completion of assignments prior to workshop attendance. Each of the online modules contained an introduction section (Exhibit 1) that listed expectations and raised key questions, a content section (Exhibit 2) that included various activities and questions to guide student thinking, and an organizer section (Exhibit 3) that listed the reading and online discussion requirements. It seemed that these modules, each of which preceded the respective face-to-face workshops, motivated preservice teachers to finish the readings and dissect related issues online. We suspect that accountability was also a factor, as online discussion was assessed while attendance in large group lectures was not.

Though one general format of online content and discussion conferences was used in both language arts and mathematics, there were differences in implementation. For example, in language arts each workshop instructor was responsible for monitoring, facilitating, and assessing student performance in the online component of the course. In contrast, in mathematics only one instructor was responsible for the online component. However, mathematics workshop instructors inevitably monitored and participated in the online discussions so that they could effectively link the online and face-to-face components of the program. In both subject areas, students answered questions posed by the instructor and then responded to the comments of peers.

In this way, an interactive community was formed. Overall, we were surprised by how smoothly the online component appeared to function and how few technical problems students experienced when working online.

Further Improvements and Pending Issues

In the 2002-2003 academic year, all language arts and mathematics workshop instructors participated in and assessed their students' work in the online component. We also revised the course outlines to create more explicit links between the online and face-to-face components. For example, in one assignment for the mathematics course, students work in small groups and take turns facilitating online discussion; they also take turns relating a summary for further discussion in subsequent face-to-face sessions. In addition, the print textbook used in the mathematics course in 2001-2002 was replaced by an online textbook (Gadanidis, 2002; see Exhibit 4) that contains text, graphics, and interactive explorations of mathematical concepts (Exhibit 5).

After a second year of implementation, the online modules are now viewed as a potentially permanent aspect of our teacher education program; they are also under greater scrutiny. A number of issues are still under consideration, including the following: (1) Although all language arts and mathematics faculty members appear to agree that the online modules are an improvement over large lectures, some instructors are not comfortable teaching online. What are the implications for them? (2) Is it really possible to demonstrate knowledge and ability in a "hands-on" skill online? Although the same question may be asked of the large lecture format, this remains a nagging concern for some faculty members. (3) What is the effect of workload? Should the online component be worth greater teaching credit than a large group lecture? Our faculty recently increased the teaching credit for the online component, as it requires more contact time and more assessment than the large lectures it replaced, but this decision is still under discussion.


Task forces involving leaders from government, business, and education have envisioned comprehensive e-learning programs with full courses delivered online (Ontario Ministry of Education/Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, 2000; Task Force on Learning Technologies, 2000; Web-based Education Commission, 2000). Likewise, a large number of postsecondary institutions and school districts have considered how to create or expand online teacher education programs (and education programs in general). There seems to be a rush to put something online. Our experience indicates that online programs are more likely to succeed when people with experience in subject matter, pedagogy, and technology closely cooperate in course development and when the move from face-to-face to online learning is based on a commitment to improve the educational experience for students. The latter point is paramount and remains the driving force for the preservice curriculum discussed above. While some questions remain to be resolved in our program, there is little doubt in our minds that the online component offers a better learning opportunity for students than the large lecture format that it replaced.

[Editor’s note: This paper is modified from a presentation at the 2002 ED-MEDIA conference in Denver, CO.]


Gadanidis, G. (2002). Becoming a mathematics teacher: A mathematical romance. London, ON: MathMania Publications.

Gadanidis, G., Graham, L., McDougall, D., & Roulet, G. (2002). On-line mathematics: Visions and opportunities, issues and challenges, and recommendations. Toronto: The Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences. Retrieved March 30, 2003, from http://www.fields.utoronto.ca/programs/ mathed/meforum/onlinereport.pdf

Ontario Ministry of Education/Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. (2000, June). Plugged into learning, plugged into tomorrow. Paper presented at the Ontario Knowledge Network for Learning Symposium, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Rich, S. (2001). On-line teaching: What do instructors need? In W. Windfield (Ed.), Proceedings of the 17th international conference on distance education (pp. 307-311). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Rich, S., & Woolfe, A. (2001). Creating community online. In B. Cope & M. Kalantis (Eds.), Learning for the future (pp. 203 -215). Melbourne, Australia: Common Ground Press.

Task Force on Learning Technologies. (2000). A time to sow: Report from the task force on learning technologies. Toronto: Council of Ontario Universities. Retrieved on March 30, 2003, from http://www.cou.on.ca/publications/briefs_reports/ online_pubs/ATS.pdf

Web-based Education Commission. (2000). The power of the Internet for learning: Moving from promise to practice. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved on March 30, 2003, from http://www.ed.gov/offices/AC/WBEC/ FinalReport/WBECReport.pdf

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