Guest Lecturers in the Online Environment

By: Virgil E. Varvel Jr.

Introduction

Guest lectures have long been known to offer the possibility of enhancing student learning, but this belief has been based for the most part from experiences in the face-to-face classroom and lecture hall environments. Can the same be true in the online environment? As online education is still a somewhat new phenomena, this question might be left to methods as exact as the Magic 8-Ball to decide. But this does not need to be the case. Our experiences with a wide variety of guest lecturers have shown that online guest lectures can and should be a success. Rather than “Are guest lectures successful in an online environment?”, the question should instead be, “How do I set up an online guest lecture so that it will have the highest likelihood of being successful?”

The keys to a successful guest lecture involve controlling for potential risk factors while creating an environment in which the special benefits of an online guest lecture can be realized. This paper will outline effective techniques for doing both. In addition, in the next installment of ION’s Pointers and Clickers, we will outline tried and true methods for seeking out the good guest lecturer. Finally, we will look at student responses to online guest lecturers concerning the quality of the experience.

Controlling the Risks

Before we look at the benefits of the online guest lecture, it is important to note that like all guest lectures, there can be dangers. The good news is that these dangers can be controlled, leaving only the benefits behind.

The first and primary risk that is always present in any form of technology dependent activity, is technology breakdown. True, most technology woes will have nothing to do with the lecture, such as server down-time, but the potential exists for guest dependent technology failure. The guest’s computer may break down at an inopportune time. The guest’s Internet access may wane for a few days. The guest may not completely understand the technology. Three keys will help control for these risks.

First, make sure that any guest lecture, especially one that is not geographically located at the same site as the main course developer/instructor, has access to computer support personel. This support can be the guest themself if they are a computer expert, but some form of verification of computer support should occur prior to committing to the guest.

Second is computer access. If the guest only has access to one computer with a single point of Internet entry, then any technology failure will result in a loss of the guest’s participation. Most faculty should have access to the Internet both at home and at work, preferably over a different or at least independent means of obtaining Internet service (for example, a local area network failure in an individual’s office space will not necessarily effect dial-up access to the same institution). If the guest only has one means of connecting to the Internet, it may be wise to verify that the guest would be willing to seek out alternatives, such as a local library, should they suffer a computer problem.

The third technology factor deals with the ability to actually use the technology. You may want to think twice before scheduling a guest lecturer in an online class if the lecturer just learned how to turn on a computer yesterday. But even a veteran computer user may have difficulty in the online course if the guest is unfamiliar with the course management system. Students often go through an orientation period before beginning an online course, including receiving training in one form or another in the use of the course management system, especially the discussion forums to be used in the course. Just because a guest lecturer may only participate in the course for a short period of time, this same orientation time may be required in order for the guest to become familiar with the online tools for the course. If necessary, the guest should be trained in the software prior to beginning their guest appearance. This training can occur online through an online tutorial. The key though is that the training should occur.

Not all risk factors in an online course are technology related. Sometimes, the risks are simply due to natural human dynamics. We have identified three primary risk factors in this respect.

The first human factor involves participation. On the extreme end, there is always the possibility that every indication will point towards the guest being ready to go, and then, one week before the scheduled time of the guest appearance, they back out. When this happens, and if you teach long enough it probably will eventually, your options could be slim. But, as the Boy Scouts of America would say, “Be prepared.” Just as this is true for your regular online course materials, so too is this true for the online guest lecture. Waiting until one week before the lecture/discussion may be too late. Try to get the materials on the guest lecture as soon as possible. Hopefully, you can have them well in advance, so that you can arrange the lessons and assignments around the guest appearance.

Participation can have many meanings as well. The guest may take the title to heart and believe that all they have to do is to present an online lecture, which amounts to little more than placing a file online. There we go, job done. In some instances, perhaps this is all that the course instructor wanted based on previous face-to-face lecture experiences. Guest lecturers in traditional classrooms are often available for a single class period that is dominated by the lecture. The inherent structure of the power-relationships in the traditional classroom makes it unlikely however that students will be able to readily access the entire resources of the guest’s expertise and experience. The discussion-based online course, in contrast, is inherently more collegial in nature, and it is in that collegiality and discussion centered atmosphere that the power of the virutal guest lectureship lies. Students have the potential to acquire full access to the instructor. The asynchronous discussion allows everyone to have equal access to the guest who can periodically respond to student inquiry. The risk though is that this potential will never be realized. Everyone must realize that the guest lecture is not a week off for the instructor. Students will not only continue to have questions for the main instructor, but the potential for a non-participating guest requires that the instructor be prepared to step-in and address student questions that may appear based on the guest lecture. Being prepared to meet this need by thoroughly reviewing all guest lecture materials is the cornerstone to this preparedness and should be considered a must for the instructor.

Another risk factor is in some ways related to the permanence of the online discussion. In an online course, all asynchronous discourse (and most synchronous discourse since it should always be archived) remains long after it is initially placed within the course discussion forum. Consider what happens then when the guest lecture “says” something that is contrary to what the instructor for the course had already stated or will state. In a face-to-face class, when something is said, there is not necessarily a permanent record of that statement unless it also appears in a handout. The students may simply consider the statement a slip of the tongue and refer to the core course materials for the correct information. The same may not be true in an online course. Sometimes, this alternative perspective may be welcome when two philosophies are somewhat equally accepted, but if the instructor says that DNA forms a right-handed helix and the guest says that it is left (somewhat of a stretch since I can’t imagine that particular example happening, but you get the idea), who are the students to believe. Furthermore, the conflict may diminish the students’ trust in further statements made by the main instructor. Once again, the key relates to the instructor having the guest lecture materials well ahead of time to read through them and verify the content of the lecture. If there are discrepancies, one can then discuss them and come to an agreement before presenting the information to the students.

Bringing Out the Benefits

From the previous discussion, it can be seen that being prepared will help to control for the possible pitfalls of the online guest lecture. With this knowledge in hand, the benefits of the online guest lecture begin to take precedence. The virtual guest lecture can enhance the quality of student learning in multiple ways.

  • They add interest and excitement, which can increase student involvement. The students may have a personal interest in the thoughts of the guest lecturer. The guest lecturer could be a renowned expert in the field or the author of the course textbook. There are many reasons why the students might find it particularly interesting to have access to the guest lecturer. If their interest is perked, the students are more likely to want to get involved. This involvement and the ensuing discourse can add synergy to the online learning so that everyone can feed off of the energy and knowledge of other participants.
  • They provide students with alternative perspectives, opinions, and personal experiences that can reinforce the teachings of the instructor. The guest lecture may have stories or anecdotes other than those used by the instructor. If multiple perspectives arive at the same conclusion, that conclusion can be reinforced in the minds of the students.
  • They provide expertise in select areas within which the instructor may have limited knowledge. Not everyone that teaching a course is an expert on every aspect taught within the course. In fact, few instructors probably are. The key is to know who is and to find ways to get them involved in the course so as to best benefit the students.
  • They provide the instructor an opportunity to concentrate more on the students. If the instructor is less involved in the teaching of the content, then more time becomes available to take a step back and view the discussions taking place in the course. The instructor can pay more attention to who is posting comments, at what level of quality those messages are, and whether the conversation has sparked an interesting tangent discussion to give a few examples. The instructor can furthermore take the time to try and get some of the less active students involved in the course through personal messages and/or emails.
  • They present an opportunity to utilize alternative technologies and teaching techniques into the course (flexibility). The guest lecturer may have a method of delivering content that is different from the main instructor. For example, the instructor may be using video in several parts of the course. The guest may instead opt to use illustrated audio (similar to RealPresenter). The variation can remove the chance that repetitiveness could begin to bore some students.
  • They increase the access to the expert. The expert can be anywhere at anytime. Not only can all students asks questions of the guest on their own time, but now that given instructor can be anywhere. Unlike the face-to-face guest lecture, the virtual guest lecture does not need to even be in the same country as the students in the course, as long as they have Internet access. Consider, for example, the benefits of having an archeologist in Egypt discuss first hand knowledge of the pyramid in an online course that is taught by an instructor in the continental U.S.

We can see that there are many potential benefits of the virtual guest lecture. So what can one do to help insure that these benefits will be brought out during a virtual guest lecture?

Just as being prepared is the key to controlling the potential pitfalls of an online guest lecture, so too is being prepared the key to bringing out the potential benefits. Only, in this case, it is everyone that needs to be prepared. We have found that the following techniques can help to reach the required level of preparedness, and they help to insure a positive guest lecture experience.

First and foremost, the instructor needs to be prepared. Try to have all of the materials for the lecture / discussion well ahead of time. Read these materials yourself so that you can be prepared to answer student questions in case of guest lecturer absense. Furthermore, make sure that they make sense and place them appropriately within the course Website. Furthermore, once you have knowledge of the materials to be presented, prepare questions to help initiate discussion on the topic of the lecture. Discussion is one of the keys to a successful online course, and discussion is much easier to initiate if the students have something on which to frame that discussion.

In addition to yourself, you need to prepare the students. Begin by introducing the topic of the lecture and the guest lecturer. Let them know who will be speaking an perhaps there will be common thread that may spark an interest. You might even consider having an ice-breaking activity to get things started.

Next, outline the lecture. Let everyone know exactly what will be going on during the lecture so that no one is confused and everyone is ready to participate. Provide an advanced planner if necessary giving a flow chart of the lecture and key points for which to keep an eye out. List exactly what your expectations are of the students during the guest lecture. Let them know that the atmosphere is an open one and that student comments are welcome.

Back up any lecture / discussion with additional resources to be read ahead of time. The guest lecture may have some of these resources to provide as well. The reason to read them ahead of time is to give everyone some background knowledge on the topic prior to the availability of the guest expert. In this way, students will have the most opportunity to take advantage of the presence with fruitful questions and pertinent discussion.

Also, provide an activity to go along with the lecture. The activity should provide an opportunity for everyone to get involved somehow with the lecture so that it becomes less of a task and more of an experience. You want everyone to feel a part of the learning process and you want that process to directly relate to the content. If possible, have the lecturer take part in the activity as well to provide additional insight and to continue to spark student interest.

Finally, the guest lecture needs to be prepared. Some of this aspect was mentioned previously with respect to an introduction to the technology, but there is more involved in an online course than just technology. We don’t want to forget the instruction aspects. The best way to help insure that a guest will prepare a pertinent and informative lecture is to give them a clear understanding of what it is they are preparing. To begin with, the purpose of the lecture should be understood by all so that the guest understands what it is that the students are supposed to get out of the lecture / discussion. For the guest to prepare an appropriate lecture, they also need to understand the audience of that lecture. The guest should be given a clear understanding of the student makeup of the class and what techniques have been working with the class thus far. Try not to bring out any of the negatives with the class, but rather focus on the positives to avoid biasing the instructor and to keep the attitude of the guest positive at the onset of the lecture. Also, do not forget to introduce your perspective. The only way to make sure that there is not a conflict between your message and the message of the guest lecturer is to make sure that the guest lecturer understands what your perspective is. There may still be some conflict, but it can be displayed to the students in a contructive manner in which the reasonings behind the perspectives can be discussed rather than allowing a who’s right mentallity to form.

Preparing the guest lecture helps in a few other respects as well. An expert may sometimes see something as obvious and skip it subconsciously when discussing it. When someone else goes to read over the materials, the ommission becomes apparent and there can be resultant confusion. Therefore, you are given another reason to read through the guest lecture materials ahead of time. You form a checks and balances for the guest lecture to correct for possible omissions. Lastly, if you provide the guest lecturer with a clear understanding of the lesson and all activities described in the syllabus for that lecture / discussion, the guest may come up with new ideas that you had not thought of. New activities may result that enhance student learning.

 

Finding the Guest

Recruiting a good online guest lecturer can be the hardest challenge when considering to use a guest. Where can such a guest be found and how can you know that they will help the class? To begin answering these questions and others, keep in mind that to help insure a successful guest lecture, the guest must meet a variety of criteria. In this section we will discuss these needs and how they can be met.

Requirements of a Guest Lecturer

There are suprisingly few requirements of a guest lecture. Sure, we would recommend that the guest be fun loving, energetic, talkative (or writative to coin a new word), etc., but such are not really requirements. The list below outlines a few of the musts though.

  • The guest must be able to communicate well in writing.
    Most online courses will make wide use of written forms of communication (both synchronous and asynchronous). As we said in part 1, the lecture can be more than simply a one hour online presentation that everyone attends. It can involve a week of asynchronous interaction with the guest or other activities. Even if it is only 1 hour, this communication may be in writing and there may be a presentation (comprised mostly of words) to go along with the lecture. Thus, ability to communicate well in writing is important on some level.
  • The guest must be a content expert. If they are not an expert on the topic, then there is no reason to bring them into the course. This may sound obvious, but in an online course involving asynchronous long term communication, the students will have potentially greater access to the guest. Questions can arise on a variety of topics, and you do not want the guest to be overwhelmed with subject matter with which they are unfamiliar. [As a side note, let the students know that the guest is an expert in the particular topic to enhance their interest in the lecture.]

The following topics are listed more as recommended wants than necessities.

  • The guest needs to be willing to participate in an online course (or at least prepare materials). Obviously, the guest must at least prepare some materials as a necessity to create an online guest lecture. Otherwise, you are just putting their name on someone elses work. But you really want a little bit more than just the preparation of materials. Preferably, you want the guest to be willing to actually take an active role in the online course discussion, to answer student questions, and to reiterate important points among other things.
  • In order for the guest to be able to actively participate, the guest must be available. Fortunately, for any online asynchronous component, this is related more to willingness. As long as the guest is willing to log into the course at least once a day, things will go easier for the instructor.
  • In order to fully share their knowledge with the course, the guest needs to be familiar with the online environment at least to the extent that they can navigate around the course management system used. As a minimal requirement, the guest should understand email.

There are probably other recommended items that you will think of such as the fun-loving energetic comment above, and these will most likely add to the enjoyment of the guest lecture. But that is not to say that they will not be enjoyable without it. You will see from the next discussion, that even when a guest lecture is completely uninvolved with the lecture and somewhat bland in writing style, the students may still find the lecture to have a positive impact on the course.

Finding the Guest

O.K., so you know the qualities that your guest lecturer needs to have, but where can you go about finding such a lecturer for an online course (or any course for that matter). You can break your resources into 3 categories to aid your search. These categories are the field, the course, and the book. Let’s discuss each of these and how they can be used to find a guest.

The Field

The field is probably the most common source for the guest lecture. It includes anyone that you meet in your professional life. Often people think about the person down the hall or in the same department when thinking about in the field, but there are a few more sources to think about that may be overlooked. First, everyone attends conferences and meets people as they go to talks. How many talks have you been to that you thought would go great in a course you were teaching? Well, approach the person. You’d be surprised how often you’ll receive a yes response when the person is available. Another resource did not exist as little as 10 years ago, but now may be one of the best resources out there. This resourse is the online listserv. Many people subscribe to various mailing lists and information sources. After a while, you will begin to notice who the experts are on various topics if you pay attention to the posts. You will also see that many people disagree on a number of topics. You could even go so far as to invite two guests with varying viewpoints to both present the variety and to spark discussion. A related resource are the various Ask-an-Expert Web sites out there. A few of them are linked below. Through these sites, you can quickly find experts on a given topic. Basically, the key to the field source for guest lecturers is to keep your eyes and ears open. You never know when an interesting individual will cross your path.

  • Community Learning Network, Ask an Expert Sources
    http://www.cln.org/int_expert.html
  • AllExperts.com, ExpertCentral
    http://www.expertcentral.com/
  • Virtual Reference Desk, Ask A+ Locator
    http://www.vrd.org/locator/
  • AskMe Corporation, @skme.com
    http://www1.AskMe.com/BusinessSplash.asp

The Course

Within your teaching practice, you will often have the student(s) that excell. Have you ever wondered what happened to those students later on in life? In the online course, you have a unique opportunity in that you will often develop a more thorough understanding of your students through the online discussions that take place. You can also sometimes develop professional relationships that can continue after the course. You may also lose contact with the student and then hear about them later on at a talk or such. The point is that if they were good then, they are probably good now. If you come across a special student, don’t be afraid to bring that student in later if a good relationship exists.

The Book

Finally, we all read some resources that we find especially informative on one topic or another. Authors are rarely told but often flattered to hear that someone has found their materials effective and useful. Why not go one step further and ask them to be a lecture in your course?

The unique lack of geographic boundary makes the online course an excellent opportunity to bring in just about anyone to your course. Hopefully these tips may have given you an idea for how to increase your own list of potential guests.

What Do Students Think?

We’ve been discussing throughout these articles our own impressions of the effectiveness of the guest lecture and given many reasons why that is so, but what about one of the most important reasons, the students. As part of our course evaluations, we have been posing questions to students about their experiences with the guest lecturers. We have also pulled comments from within our courses that deal specifically with the guest lecture. Overwhelmingly, the responses have been positive.

In our Online Learning: Overview course, evaluations were performed at the end of the course asking as one of the questions, “Did the guest lecture make a positive contribution to this course?” We looked at responses from 10 different sections of the course taught by 2 different instructors over a 2.5 year period utilizing 6 different guest lecturers (several gave more than one lecture). Course enrollments ranged from 11 to 17 students. Our return rate on these evaluations was from 30 to 100 % of students depending on the section. Within this setting, all returned evaluation responses to the above question were positive (although some contained both positive and neutral comments together).

Let’s look at some of the comments students have returned to this open ended question that support some of our earlier discussion. You will see that there are many different reasons that students feel that the activity was positive, even if it was something as mundane as simply supplying one more resource to consider. In the list below, we have tried to list a few examples of comments that pertain to points made earlier in this report. We should note that there are also many comments that have been returned regarding the actual content of the lectures as well as numerous comments within the course (not part of the evaluation) such as “I really appreciate the help” etc., but these have been omitted. Often, key items that were returned for the course as a whole or for the week that pertained directly to the guest’s topic would also contain comments about the guest. Once again, these were all positive or neutral in nature but did not directly relate to the topic of this report and have been omitted. Here is a collection of comments in no particular order. Names are replaced with bracket descriptions and additional notes that are not part of the quote are added in brackets.

  • [Comments pertaining to the additional perspective and information resource (either new or similar to that already displayed) added by the guest.]
    • “I enjoyed the information [the guest] provided.”
    • [Here we see a somewhat neutral comment that still supports that the guest can be yet another resource to be utilized.] – “Yes, but…I don’t think that I saw [the guest] to be any different than any of the other assigned readings…”
    • “Most definitely, the guest lecturer made a positive contribution to this course via sharing [the guest’s] insight, experiences, culture, etc.”
    • “Yes, added new ideas/thoughts to the mix.”
    • “Very nice to add another ‘live’ voice to the discussion.”
    • “It’s always nice to have the perspective of another expert.”
    • “[The guest] gave us another course to look at, and some more ideas…”
  • [Comments pertaining to the value of a variety of experiences within a course.]
    • “Yes, that was a nice touch and something I had not thought of before as part of an online course.”
    • “Yes, particularly for breaking the routine of the course.”
    • “Yes, an excellent change in the course dynamic…”
    • “Highly positive. This was a great addition and got me thinking about ways to incorporate collaborative TEACHING as well as collaborative learning in my own online courses.”
  • [Comments pertaining to the way in which the guest interacted with the class.]
    • “More so in [the guest’s] interaction and comments and sharing of ideas than [the guest’s] notes.”
    • “One thing I found interesting was that you could tell [the guest] had a different ‘style’ of responding – positive…”
  • [Comments pertaining to the connections that the guest can make with the real world that might have been missed by the instructor.]
    • “Yes. The guest lecturer helped illustrate the applicability of what we have been discussing.”
    • “[The guest] gave us a full range of issues to think about and [the guest’s] contributions were very concrete.”
  • [And lots of these comments.]
    • “Yes, it was helpful.”
    • “Very positive
    • “I think I should incorporate something similar in my online courses.”

So as you can see, the students enjoyed the guest lecture and found it useful in our context. I should add that the comments for all of our various courses dealing with the guest lecturers are primarily positive, but only this course has been thoroughly analyzed. Comments, in addition to those above point out that the guest lectures are “great” and “enjoyable”, etc.

Additional Comments Regarding Student Responses

Interestingly, the positive student feedback is independent of the opinion of the facilitator / instructor of the guest lecturers contribution to the course. There have been guest lecturers in our courses that have had little involvement with the course other than to post the original materials, and yet positive responses are still returned by the students. The question then becomes, is a “good” guest lecturer even necessary, or just one that meets the minimal criteria mentioned earlier.

Well, we usually ascribe the positive responses with inactive guest’s to our instructo’rs ability to compensate as one possibility. A good instructor who is prepared and knowledgeable about the topic can make up for any short comings of the guest, even total absense. The instructor can spawn discussion of the topic and try rewording questions directed at the guest so that they can be answered by the instructor or redirected at the students. But such actions take time away from the instructor that could be used elsewhere. Thus, even though the students may not notice a bad lecturer, the instructor may and then have to compensate. Avoid these situations by insuring ahead of time that you have all of the materials, a good relationship with the guest, and acknowledgement of guest participation (among other topics discussed in part 1 of this paper). In this way, both the students and the instructor can come away with a positive experience.

Conclusion

Guest lectures enhance online courses in unique ways and present a useful resource towards the enrichment of online courses. In this report, we began by discussing several techniques that can help towards the creation of an effective guest lecture that will be enjoyable to both the students and the instructor. We then backed this discussion with student data showing that the use of guest lecturers can indeed enhance an online course from the student’s perspective. We feel that the same is true for the instructor when properly applied. We hope that you find our suggestions useful, especially comments on how to locate a guest lecturer for your own practice.

One final note. We spent some time looking for outside resources on this topic and were hard pressed to find anything relating to actual research on the use of guest lecturers in the online environment. Most if not all references to the topic are simply “we use them” or “we don’t use them” with several non-research backed arguments for the conclusion. While this paper does not itself constitute an in depth study on the topic, we hope that it will ignite the interest of future studies into the topic.