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Addressing Student Needs: Teaching on the Internet

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Many faculty members inhigher education are wondering about teaching courses on the Internetsince they have heard and read many things about it, both pro andcon. This article covers the experiences of a university professorwho has been teaching graduate courses to community college facultyin Florida via this medium.

Technological change iswhat many are saying is the only constant in our work today. And,talk about change! I transitioned from a community college presidencyto a university professorship, teaching graduate level online courseson the Internet, in one year. As president, I did not need to knowthe ins and outs of computer technology, because I had people whowere employed to do so, and they were skilled in providing theinformation and services I needed.

The learning curve wasrather steep when one considers the need to understand thetechnology, and at the same time design all of the course materialsrequired for online instruction before the first course began. I onlymention this to indicate that novices can, in fact, become proficientin the design of course materials on the Web in a very short periodof time.

For me, it was fortuitousthat I got involved with the computer-based activities I had beenreading about for several years. Otherwise, I would have been left inthe academic dust as learners all around me were cruising down theinformation highway. Online instruction on the Internet is in manyways a form of individualized instruction. It requires regularcontact between the student and the instructor for maximum learningto occur.

I found that students weremore willing to participate in class "discussions" and other learningactivities online as compared to the traditional mode of learning.There was a measure of anonymity which served as a motivator forstudents to get involved. Lauzon found that anonymity helps with theuse of the computer.[1] People feel more empowered. They aredaring and confrontational regarding the expression ofideas.

When students postedmaterials on a Course Forum for discussion purposes, we all learned.Of course, my students may have been unique because they wereexperienced community college educators in Florida. They hadsomething to contribute. They did not wait around for me to raisequestions, although that certainly was an important function for meto carry out.

 

CoursePreparation

I have designed and taughttwo, three-credit-hour online graduate courses that deal with thecommunity college. One course, "The Community College in America" wastaught for the first time during the fall semester of 1996. Thesecond course, "The Community College Curriculum," has been taughtregularly since the spring semester of 1997. Both courses are part ofa doctoral program that is specifically designed for communitycollege faculty and administrators as well as those who wish toprepare for a community college career.

At the beginning of eachcourse, students purchased textbooks, which formed the basis of thecontent. Students ordered them by telephone from our bookstore usingtheir credit cards, and the books were mailed to their homes. Inaddition, students were provided with a set of handouts for theentire semester that supplemented the content in thetexts.

The handouts required asubstantial amount of time to prepare. First of all, they requiredface validity so that students would want to read them. The copieshad to be high-quality documents. It was necessary to design thesequence of handouts so they would dovetail with the readings in thebooks.

A face-to-face orientationsession provided students with a clear understanding of courseexpectations. For the first class, students from various parts ofFlorida drove to the main campus of the University of Central Floridain Orlando for a lecture/discussion session and computer/Webdemonstration. We wanted to be sure that all students were competentwith basic computer skills so they could interact with the instructorand each other, submit research papers, access the course resourcesand search the World Wide Web.

A discussion of thesyllabus, the papers to be written, the timelines and the gradingsystem helped to create an active learning environment via electronicmeans. It was good for the students to talk with their classmates andform a structure for collaborative learning in the future. Theirpictures were taken and posted in the Student Listing along withshort biographical statements and their e-mail addresses.

In addition, studentsinteracted with the course designers and technical staff who werepresent at this first session. These people provided the expertiseneeded by the students in the event technical problems occurred; andthey did occur. Although many students had used e-mail, and wereskilled in other ways, they still needed to be guided through thesteps involved in taking a course electronically through the WorldWide Web.

They required anorientation to the power of the Internet, such as how libraries,governmental databases and academic repositories could be accessed.The Internet offers tremendous potential to eliminate the academicisolation associated with learning at adistance.[2]

TheTwelve Canons

In this first class, wediscussed the Twelve Canons for Distance Learners. These statementswere developed by UCF faculty who teach on the Web:

  • Do your homework.
  • Be an explorer.
  • Help each other and your instructor.
  • Acquire technical skills as quickly as possible.
  • Take responsibility for your own learning.
  • Be patient.
  • Write brief messages.
  • Do not flame.
  • Do not procrastinate.
  • Only take credit for your own work.
  • Have a life ( besides this course ).

Of course, most of thesecanons are applicable to learners in traditional courses, butemphasizing them in Internet-based courses gave them special meaning.The phrase, "Do not flame," always requires an explanation becausemost students in these courses are new to the terminology. It meansthat students should be careful about strong messages that border onverbal abuse and they should avoid comments that they would notconvey to a person in the same room. Within this context, the classorientation also covers "Netiquette" -- the etiquette of theInternet. A detailed commentary is included as part of the coursematerials.

Importanceof Technical Staff

For online courses to beeffective, it is important for there to be competent and responsivetechnical staff to assist the instructor, especially if he or she isnew at delivering online instruction. There are numerous proceduresand tricks to increase efficiency. The technical staff members arevery adept at performing magic, and this can be extremely useful tothe instructor.

It is not necessary forthe instructor to learn HTML. However, it is important to know how to"copy and paste" and transfer a document from a word processor toe-mail for transmission. The first time an instructor conducts anInternet-based course a number of thoughtful questions will begenerated for the technical staff.

One major requirement fortechnical staff members is that they be good teachers themselves. Itis counterproductive for staff members to try to impress theirinstructors with their level of computer knowledge because thisusually leads to increased confusion. Answers must be kept simplewithout a multitude of options. A supportive team concept needs toevolve.

The problem commonlyassociated with traditional distance education is the lack ofopportunity for collaborative work, debate, dialogue andconversational learning.[3] This point needs to be kept inmind in the basic design of a course so that a variety of learningactivities may be built in. The course designers, and other facultymembers who have taught online courses, can be of immense help. Thereis no substitute for experience in this endeavor.

Once a course is beingconducted, students must stay on-track and up to date. Since thereare no weekly classes to attend on campus with fellow students, outof sight can quickly turn into out of mind. Therefore, weekly quizzesare useful learning tools. During the semester, a quiz was postedeach week on the reading assignments, and students were asked torespond by a specific date. If an answer was incorrect, Icommunicated with the student by e-mail, and the student was asked torespond with the correct answer. If it was still incorrect, Ireferred the student to the appropriate section of the coursematerials, and then assigned the grade.

It was important torespond to students as quickly as possible, and I tried to providefeedback within 24 hours from receipt of quiz answers. Occasionally,lessons were e-mailed to expand upon the readings, or a provocativequestion was posted in the Course Forum to elicit student thought,analysis and reaction. These activities were very useful in thelearning process. Students must be challenged to use their highercognitive skills to research, solve problems and inquire about theiranswers to course materials and postedquestions.[4]

The Course Forum was alsoused by students in the course to raise questions on current events,course materials or Internet findings so that everyone had anopportunity to expand their levels of knowledge. The Forum was a partof the course materials where students and I could post questions andseek answers to items of course content. Internet searches were usedto respond to research topics, and for the papers that had to bewritten as part of the course requirements.

 

Assignmentsand Exams

Specific computer ContentLinks were provided to students for their use, directing them toestablished Web sites. The papers the students wrote were termed"reaction papers" covering topics of their choice. They were asked toreact to the content they found in their research. In the CommunityCollege Curriculum course for example, students applied theiracquired knowledge in the course, and designed new associate degreeprograms to address unmet needs in their communities. All papers weresubmitted via e-mail.

I did not employ ChatRooms in these courses for a number of reasons. The experiences ofother faculty members who used Chat Rooms were not always positive.Further, the difficulty of having all students available at a giventime was considered a major deterrent. The Forum seemed to satisfythe objectives that otherwise might be achieved with a ChatRoom.

Each course ended with afinal exam. This exam was a paper and pencil test taken on campus, orat a distance. If it was taken at a distance, a proctor was selectedat a community college testing center that was near the student'shome. Many community colleges have testing centers where make-upexams are routinely administered to community college students whowere ill or otherwise unable to take an exam when it was scheduled.The personnel in these centers understand the need for security. Theyare very responsible professionals and I felt comfortable in havingthem handle my final exams.

The final exam counted for35% of the course grade, with 35% allotted for papers and 30% forquizzes and class contributions. There was also a course evaluationthat took place. Students completed an evaluation instrument that waspart of the course materials. The evaluation was completedelectronically and anonymously, then automatically transmitted to anadministrative office on campus.

The results from allstudents who have taken my course were as follows: All respondentssaid that Web-based courses met their learning needs. All respondentssaid they would recommend these types of distance learning courses totheir friends. Other results:

94% of the students saidthey felt adequately connected to the instructor -- more connected orsimilarly connected as compared with traditional face-to-faceclasses.

  • 81% of the students said they preferred taking Web-based courses.
  • 19% said they would like to try a combination of Web-based and traditional formats.

StudentEvaluations

When students were askedwhat they liked most about the courses, words like flexibility andconvenience were at the head of the list. The following comments weresubmitted:

  • "I appreciated the fact that I did not need to go to the campus, fight traffic and find a parking spot."
  • "I communicated more with the professor than I usually do in a traditional course."
  • "The individualized attention was great!"
  • "I enjoyed the opportunity to learn and communicate without sitting in a classroom, and I did it on my own schedule."
  • "I worked on my course materials at 6 a.m. or at midnight. The flexibility was wonderful."
  • "Among other things, I learned that technology and education can be combined into an effective learning experience."
  • "The Web-based course gave me several more hours per week to devote to studying since I did not waste time driving to campus."
  • "Please expand the number of courses offered on the Web." Although the overwhelming response to these courses was positive, there were a few concerns and problems, such as:
  • "I had major problems with my Internet provider. I couldn't get on when I needed to."
  • "I didn't like interacting with other students in the Course Forum."
  • "I missed interacting with classmates. The opportunity was there, but I simply didn't get as involved as I should have."
  • "The technology was quite a challenge at times. My system would go down and I would lose all the content I had generated."
  • "There was initial frustration in learning how to access everything. Hands-on training would have helped."
  • "It was too easy to forget the assignments. I needed to be a little more disciplined."

The student reactions tothis mode of learning have been reinforcing and extremely useful aswe endeavor to improve our offerings. It was gratifying to note thatstudents cited the quality of the course materials, the amount oflearning that took place and the academic stimulation as the positiveexperiences in taking an Internet course.

They appreciated theasynchronous nature of the required responses to quizzes, papers andthought-provoking questions. The term "asynchronous" refers to theability of students to participate at any time and from any placethat is convenient to them.[5] One of my students kept upwith assignments and completed all course requirements while hetraveled throughout the world on business for his company. Ingeneral, students found the Internet to be a more friendlyenvironment than anticipated, although some technical glitches didoccur at the beginning of each course. Nevertheless, most said theywanted to take all their graduate courses online.

Not forTimid Souls

Jumping in with both feetis not for timid souls. Internet offerings require large amounts oftime in the preparation of course materials. Everything must beviewed in a global sense for an entire semester at the outset. Forexample, each week's assignments must be prepared carefully wellbefore the course begins. You cannot "wing it" from week to week, andyou must follow the syllabus you have established for the coursereligiously. Keep in mind that your students may become confused ifyou change major components of the course while it is beingconducted.

It is helpful to teach acourse a couple of times in the traditional mode before embarking onan online design. More important than technical expertise is thewillingness of faculty to learn, try new approaches and scrutinizelearning materials as they adapt to a new instructional format.Faculty must be master teachers and must be able to translate theirstyle into an effective educational format.[6] The key hereis to focus on the needs of learners.

Finally, I am convincedthat almost any course can be taught at a distance using theInternet. It takes knowledge, creativity, perseverance and help fromyour friends. The bottom line with Web-based graduate courses isaccess. These courses provide learning opportunities for communitycollege faculty and administrators living in remote areas of a state.These courses also fit into busy schedules when time is limited dueto job and family responsibilities. "Access with Excellence" is themotto of our nation's community colleges, and this motto applies toprofessional development opportunities for community collegepersonnel as well.

Dr. Tom Kubala holdsthe rank of Professor of Higher Education at the University ofCentral Florida in Orlando. He has an extensive background incommunity college work, having served as a community collegepresident at two institutions, as the head of the Office of CommunityColleges in a large statewide community college system, and as aCommunity College State Director. He is also the former chairman ofthe National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges. Dr.Kubala has written numerous articles on community colleges and is theauthor or co-author of six books. E-mail:tkubala@pegasus.cc.ucf.edu

References:
1. Lauzon, A. ( 1992 ), "Integrating Computer-Based Instruction withComputer Conferencing: An Evaluation of a Model for Designing OnlineEducation, American Journal of Distance Education, 6(2),pp.32-46.
2. Lever-Duffy, J., R.A. Lemke and L. Johnson (1996), LearningWithout Limits. Mission Viejo, CA: League for Innovation in theCommunity College.
3. Kaye, T. (1989), "Computer Supported Collaborative Learning in aMultimedia Distance Education Environment," paper presented at theNATO advanced research workshop in Maratea, Italy.
4. Mizell, A. (1994), "Graduate Education Through Telecommunications:The Computer and You," paper presented at the Association forEducational Communications and Technology in Nashville, Tenn.
5. Allen, K., J. Hartman and B. Truman (1997), "Learning from aDistance Education Experience," Technology and Teacher EducationAnnual. This article won the "Best Paper Award" at the AnnualConference of the Society for Information Technology and TeacherEducation in Orlando, Fla.
6. Barker, B. and M. Baker (1995), "Strategies to Ensure Interactionin Telecommunicated Distance Learning," paper presented to TeachingStrategies for Distance Learning, 11th Annual Conference on Teachingand Learning in Madison, Wisc.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.

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