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Applying Best Practice Online Learning, Teaching, and Support to Intensive Online Environments: An Integrative Review

Demand for flexible online offerings has continued to increase as prospective students seek to upskill, re-train, and undertake further study. Education institutions are moving to intensive modes of online study delivered in 6- to 8-week study periods which offer more frequent intake periods. Prior literature has established key success factors for non-intensive (12–13 weeks) online offerings; for teachers, skill development is critical to promote a flexible, responsive approach and maintain technological capabilities; for students, an ability to navigate the technology, interact with the learning environment in meaningful ways, and self-regulate learning is important, as the absence of physical infrastructure and opportunities for face-to-face interactions in online environments places a greater emphasis on alternate forms of communication and support. The current paper explores known best practice principles for online instructors, students, and student support and considers how these might apply to intensive online environments. It is suggested that the accelerated nature of learning in intensive settings may place additional demands on students, instructors, and support mechanisms. Further research is imperative to determine predictors of success in online intensive learning environments.

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The scope and availability of online offerings continues to expand globally. Demand for more intensive, short-term courses that provide opportunities for up-skilling has increased in the wake of massive open online courses (MOOCs), and this increased demand has in turn expanded the availability of online degree programs. As many as six million students in the USA were undertaking online education in 2015, with nearly five million of these students studying an undergraduate college (tertiary) qualification (Allen and Seaman, 2017). Similar trends have been noted in the Australian context. Recent scoping reports of the Australian Higher Education sector have highlighted continual, rapid growth in online enrollments, but also a degree of “blurring” of boundaries, due to the increased adoption of technologies to support the on-campus learning experience (Norton and Cherastidtham, 2014; Norton and Cakitaki, 2016). Changes to Australian funding policy have also enabled more public universities to invest in online offerings (Kemp and Norton, 2014), contributing to the continuing growth of this sector.

Online modes of study have been found to be equivalent to on-campus environments with respect to key outcomes such as student academic performance (Magagula and Ngwenya, 2004; McPhee and Söderström, 2012) and student satisfaction (Palmer, 2012). However, online offerings also pose some key differences to on-campus modes of study. Accessing course materials online allows unprecedented levels of flexibility and accessibility for students from around the world and overcomes geographical barriers that might prevent students accessing on-campus course offerings (Brown, 1997, 2011; Bates, 2005). The nature of the online education environment also means that course delivery needs to compensate for the lack of immediate physical infrastructure, relying more heavily on asynchronous methods of communication. There is also emerging evidence that online student cohorts differ from on-campus cohorts with respect to factors such as age and work or family commitments (Bailey et al., 2014; Johnson, 2015), which also speaks to the demand for more flexible, career-driven online offerings. The requirements of online students as a distinct demographic are another factor for consideration when planning and developing an online course. Furthermore, from a course development perspective, there is increasing understanding that developing online courses is more complex than merely translating written materials to an online format; it requires careful planning and maximization of available online technologies to cater for a variety of individual differences, student timetables and external commitments, and assessment modes (e.g., Rovai, 2003; Grant and Thornton, 2007; Rovai and Downey, 2010). Online learning does not only differ for students but also carries implications for instructors. Online instruction places varying demands on delivery and feedback methods and relies on different teacher knowledge and skills than face-to-face tuition (Alvarez et al., 2009). It is evident that a sensitive approach catering to both similarities and differences of both modes of study is warranted.

With the abovementioned differences between on-campus and online education in mind, there is a duty for online education providers to continue to research and implement best practice for online modes of study. As fully online offerings continue to develop, new modes of delivery necessitate continual adjustment and evaluation to ensure that courses meet student needs. One such development is the move toward intensive mode courses. Intensive online degree courses (hereafter referred to as “intensive online courses”) are those in which students complete a degree entirely online, within an accelerated timeframe compared to the typical on-campus learning experience. Units of study are also delivered in shorter timeframes than the traditional (in an Australian context) 12- or 13-week semester, sometimes comprising 6 or 8 weeks of intensive learning, where a similar amount of material is covered compared with a semester structure. Students typically complete one unit at a time (as compared to four units concurrently for a traditional on-campus semester). Intensive online degree programs have built on the success of MOOCs to help upskill, and in some cases provide certified professional development, over a faster timeframe than typical on-campus university courses (Laurillard, 2016). MOOCs aside, the literature base on intensive online learning for degree programs in particular remains limited. With the potential for tertiary institutions to move more toward this mode of offering, which provides for increased student intake to meet growth demands, there is a need to more comprehensively evaluate the factors that contribute to student and instructor success in an intensive online learning environment. The present integrative review aims to bring together acknowledged best practices in online education, with a view to considering how these may apply in an intensive online education environment. In particular, the elements that comprise a successful online experience for instructors and students, and the provision of student support and well-being services are considered.

Online Teaching: Critical Factors
As online modes of study continue to expand, there is increasing awareness of the need for competent online instructors. Developing institutional competence for online instruction requires a careful approach to training online instructors and a workload investment in staff training and development (Gregory and Lodge, 2015). While it is acknowledged that face-to-face teaching competencies such as knowledge of curricula and pedagogy do transfer to online contexts, it is also important to recognize the unique competencies required for online teaching success, and the role of institutions in setting instructor duties and responsibilities (Alvarez et al., 2009). Despite much prior research attention exploring the notion of online student readiness, online instructor readiness is now emerging as an equally important construct (Oomen-Early and Murphy, 2009).

There is consensus in prior literature that effective online instruction requires a more flexible approach to skill development, due to the variety of roles and skills applied in online contexts (Bawane and Spector, 2009). Key environmental differences between online and on-campus learning environments also necessitate the development of different online teaching competencies. A sample of existing frameworks for teacher competencies in online education is summarized in Table 1 below.

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