Individualized Learning: The Self-Paced Computer Lab

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The changing demandsof American society raise new expectations concerning education.Schools are being challenged to offer as many courses as possible, toas many students as possible, all at the lowest cost possible. Tomeet both academic and vocational needs, Grossmont College chooses tolook at innovative approaches to education. This community collegeestablished its Leadership and Economic Development Institute forthis purpose.

The Instituteanticipates, recognizes and responds to community economicdevelopment needs by originating innovative vocational trainingopportunities for business owners and operators, their employees, andfor people preparing to enter or reenter the workforce. With thisgoal in mind the Institute created the Grossmont College ComputerSkills Enhancement Lab (CCLab). Located in San Diego County, theCCLab is a service of the East County Career Center (ECCC), which ishoused in the East County Regional Education Center (ECREC).Utilizing just 22 computers, this lab serves over 2,100 people ayear.

The CCLab came aboutin response to a changing norm that now considers computer literacy amandatory skill for most jobs, akin to basic reading and mathability. The traditional computer course is taught, on a semestercalendar, via lectures supplemented by hands-on work in a computerlab. As an alternative, the CCLab is designed as a self-paced,open-entry open-exit, interactive educational environment wherepeople enhance their knowledge and learn new computer skills foremployment. This unique set-up provides a format for people of allabilities and learning styles.

Structured classes,as well as a plethora of self-paced learning materials, are availablein an "a la carte menu-like structure" allowing people to selectthose pieces that fit their needs. Students have the flexibility tocome when they want rather than attending specific scheduled lectureperiods, while instructors reallocate lecture time to accommodate thegreatest need. The open-entry open-exit format is geared to thebusiness world, where layoffs and hiring do not occur conveniently atthe beginning of a traditional school semester. People attempting toget off welfare can flourish in this format, as well as those withcollege degrees.

An educational teamof instructors, technical staff and tutors is actively involved inthe ongoing development of a focused curriculum reflecting currentand future employment needs. Our non-traditional student-led climateputs the learner in control &emdash; controlling the sequence, pathand pace of learning while we control the quality and integrity ofthe education. This flexible and non-linear design combines the bestof vocational and academic training.

PhysicalFacility

The computer labpresents a professional, rather than an institutional, environment.Comfortable chairs, well-maintained equipment and a quiet libraryatmosphere provide pleasant surroundings where clients canconcentrate on their chosen tasks. The facility addresses ergonomicconsiderations by offering specialized keyboards, wrist pads,footrests and task chairs with multiple adjustments. Headsets formultimedia are comfortable and allow students to adjust the volume.Lab tutors well versed in software applications, as well as customerservice, are available at all times to assist students.

The facility isequipped with 22 Pentium-based workstations capable of providingaccess to interactive multimedia courses. All but two of theworkstations connect to a LAN and access a shared laser printer aswell as the same business software programs, courses and tutorials.The teaching of emerging software and technologies, such as Javaprogramming and Web site development, occurs on the remaining twoworkstations.

The 20 networkedcomputers are set up in four hexagonal pods of five computers each,rather than in rows. Students easily interact with each other if theydesire, yet cannot readily see the screen of the person next to them.Instructors and staff can "work" the room better with thisconfiguration, spotting a "lost" student quickly. Sometimes at aparticular pod a set of specific skills is presented for thoseneeding extra assistance, while the rest of the lab stations arestill available for other uses. Small groups of students working onsimilar projects can be located together to encourage cooperativelearning. The two standalone workstations reside on individualergonomic desks easily raised or lowered to serve individualneeds.

The lab currentlysupports the Windows 95 platform, specializing in businessapplications and giving students instruction in the followingsoftware programs stored on a Novell file server: Microsoft Office(Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint), Lotus 1-2-3, Corel WordPerfect,keyboarding and proprietary data entry programs. Simulations ofWindows 95 are available on CD-ROM for those students who wish topractice with that operating environment. Future plans call foraccess to the Internet from each student station.

The computer lab ispresently open all day, Monday through Friday. Sign-up sheets areavailable to reserve a space during structured class times. Noreservations are taken for open lab hours; these are available on afirst-come, first-served basis. Should seats fill up, a waiting listfor open lab is maintained and students are seated, in order, asspace becomes available. Self-paced books are kept in a lockedcabinet and checked in and out by notifying a lab tutor. CD-ROMcheckout involves a trade for a valid Driver's License, picture ID orstudent's keys as a deposit to safeguard against loss.

LabFormat

Classes. For eighthours a week the lab schedule accommodates students who desire a moretraditional classroom structure. During that time beginning coursesin the most popular software applications are taught in intensive andaccelerated one or two hour class sessions, with the same coursecontent repeated each week. Participants are encouraged to repeat theclass until they are comfortable with the concepts. A few may beready to move on after only a single session, while others choose torepeat a particular class many times, until they master thematerial.

Open Lab. Duringopen lab sessions, clients choose an activity and practice. The CCLabemphasizes and incorporates School-To-Work curriculum and practicalapplications. Students are encouraged to create their resumes as adirection for acquiring beginning word-processing skills. Spreadsheetskills are mastered by using learning materials incorporating typicalbusiness problems. Our proprietary data entry training programexposes students to computerized data entry, teaches listeningskills, and models problem solving and good customer servicetechniques.

InstructionalMaterials

Books. Weaccommodate the varied learning styles, reading speeds and knowledgelevels of our students by providing a wide variety of self-pacedbooks. Some are detailed and cover advanced skills; othersincorporate colorful pictures for intimidated beginners. Again, inthe self-paced approach, lessons can be skipped if not needed orrepeated until mastered without fear of appearing foolish. Quicklearners continue without having to wait for the rest of the class tocatch up, and advanced students choose specific individual lessons tomaster.

The books we findmost useful and popular are either: (1) a series of several manualswith an accompanying data disk, or (2) a single book with colorfulillustrations and small incremental learning steps. Each typefulfills different needs and modes of learning. The first type, witha data disk, gives students the option of starting at page one orjumping to a specific lesson. Although the presentation is in blackand white with few graphics, the content covered is quite extensiveand detailed. We have found two series of this type that provideclear and in-depth coverage of materials: PTS Professional TrainingSeries Manuals and InfoSource Presenter Series Workbooks. The secondtype of book we use is for the visual learner, incorporating colorand graphics as well as written descriptions. The user creates a filethat is modified as they progress sequentially through the book. Thistype of book d'es not go into as much depth or advanced level ofskill and is therefore not intimidating to the first time user.Although we have a number of books following this format, themajority of our students prefer Prima Publishing's Visual LearningGuides.

CBTs and InteractiveMultimedia. CBTs (Computer Based Training) are an integral part ofthe curriculum available at the CCLab. In the case of new and/orexpensive technologies, multimedia CBTs with simulations offer anopportunity to expose many students to new and emerging products at avery low cost. We spend a tremendous amount of time researching andidentifying CBT programs that will best serve the needs of ourstudents. Evaluation copies are often necessary since most salespeople we contact do not have the technical knowledge to adequatelyanswer questions regarding networking and/or hardware issues. Thesoftware is reviewed in terms of ease of use, appropriate content,clarity and quality of presentation, ability to handle erroneousanswers, and integration of pre and post testing.

Our multimediaworkstations are very popular, and even beginners quickly adapt toand enjoy using this new technology. Learning through multimedia in aself-paced environment provides quality control with consistentrepeatable content, elimination of intimidating peer pressure, andadaptations for some students with disabilities. The CBTs encompassthe whole spectrum of technology ranging from simple tutorials builtright into the software applications to multimedia programsincorporating audio and full-motion video technology. The commoningredients are that they are all interactive, provide immediateongoing feedback regarding progress, and encourage students to becomeactive rather than passive learners.

All tutorials builtinto software applications are installed in the CCLab for studentuse. Additionally, a CD-ROM produced by Akersoft and containing 45tutorials runs from the file server. Although the AkerSoft CD usesbasic CBT technology, without the bells and whistles of audio andvideo clips, its presentation is simple, easy to understand, and runs"bug free" across the network. It is relatively inexpensive for anetwork license, allows simultaneous access and d'es not require highpowered computers, soundcards or individual CD-ROM drives.

CBTs with softwareapplication simulations monitor your keystrokes and give you hintswhen you are stuck or warn you when you do something incorrectlybefore moving on with the lesson. We use InfoSource, Inc., multimediaproducts, which provide this technology for a wide range ofapplications at a reasonable cost. Courses are structured intolessons covering a specific operation or set of operations with theCBT explaining each step along the way. Quizzes are built in forincremental skill testing. These programs require a soundcard andCD-ROM drive on each workstation.

Our most populartraining programs are from the ITC Activ PC Skills Learning LibrarySeries. Though expensive, the ITC series uses technology to itsfullest with a sophisticated multimedia presentation. Two featuresmake this series stand out from other multimedia products on themarket. First is the full-motion video of an on-screen coach wholeads the trainee through the program. Second is the ability of thetrainee to "window" back and forth from the instructional videoscreen to the actual application software as they learn to use it.Workbooks further enhance practical experience with exercises. Preand post testing are featured along with an administration package.These programs require MPEG technology, soundcard and individualCD-ROM drive.

Components forSuccess

The success of theself-paced lab concept depends on many factors beyond the physicalfacility and the instructional materials. Commitment to adequatestaffing, teamwork, customer service and competency-based testing areimportant.

IndividualizedLearning. Through a combination of multimedia computers, structuredclasses, self-paced books and flexible hours, individuals customizetheir training. The primary advantage of this innovative format&emdash; for both students and the educational team &emdash; is thatstudents can learn at their own pace. Self-paced learning allowsstudents to repeat segments they did not understand without fear ofholding up the class; at any time they can pause, stop, review, skipahead or ask a question. Hands-on experience is gained in anon-threatening environment. Flexibility is another important part ofindividualized learning. Students come and go as they please to thelab. Some students have erratic schedules precluding them frompursuing their college education, yet now these students completecourses!

Customer Service.The equipment is new and many materials are available, but what mostpeople comment on, and come back for, are the lab tutors. The programis committed to hiring knowledgeable lab tutors. Two tutors areavailable at all open lab times to explain software applicationconcepts, help choose learning materials, proctor tests, encourageand build confidence in our students, and facilitate tracking ofdata. One tutor assists the instructor and students during each classsession. Since we receive so many unsolicited comments regarding thehelpfulness and professionalism of the lab staff, we believe anemphasis on customer service makes a difference in the success of theprogram. Early concerns about students feeling self-paced instructionwas impersonal proved to have little merit. The accessibility of theeducational team and their quick responses to questions seem toprovide the level of interaction desired by participants.

Educational Team.Although all courses offered at the CCLab follow the course syllabusdefined by the college, the specific exercises and practical examplesused to teach the content are developed through a cooperative sharingof input. The CCLab educational team solicits input from CCLab staff,ECCC employability specialists, ECCC case managers and localemployers to define training needs for open lab. In turn, thisinformation is also passed on to our main instructor, Thomas Smerk,who incorporates these concepts into real-world projects for classsessions. All course content and materials are reviewed in a timelymanner ensuring they reflect the needs of the localeconomy.

Competency Testing.In a self-paced lab, testing is a necessary component so students canevaluate their level of skill. Self testing enables students to checktheir level of knowledge without fear. Most of the CBTs we use havequizzes or tests built in. Certificates are issued by GrossmontCollege to students who pass proctored competency tests. Couplingtraining with tough competency tests and certificates allowsindividuals to show proof of their knowledge to potential employers.We currently use InfoSource's computerized exams and areexperimenting with their new test designer software.

Exploring MoreOptions

This self-pacedcomputer lab is located in eastern San Diego County and fundedthrough a partnership with the San Diego Workforce Partnership andthe Grossmont Union High School District (GUHSD). Communitypartnerships with GUHSD, ECCC and local business result in enhancedprograms, an expanded student base, and employment connections. TheCCLab and the Leadership & Economic Development Institute plan toexplore more collaborative options in the future including distancelearning and exploiting the potential of the Internet.


Janine Tarkow andDeborah Smith are Certified Novell Administrators serving as labcoordinators for the CCLab under the auspices of the Leadership andEconomic Development Institute of Grossmont College. They have 15years combined experience with computers in education. In 1996 theyreceived an Innovations in Education Mini-Grant, and in 1997 theyreceived the Workforce Development Professionals of the Year Awardfrom the San Diego Consortium and Private Industry Council (now SanDiego Workforce Partnership). Tarkow has a Master's Degree inPlanning and Analysis from the University of Oregon. Smith has anAssociate in Science Degree in Computer Programming and Systems fromGrossmont College.

E-mail:jtarkow@wpsmtp.grossmont.k12.ca.us;dmsmith@wpsmtp.grossmont.k12.ca.us


Productsmentioned:

Akersoft CoursewareLibrary; Akersoft, Inc., Atlanta, GA, (770) 936-9101.
InfoSource, Inc., Winter Park, FL, (407) 677-0300, pctrain@gate.net.
ITC Activ PC Skills Learning Library Series; ITC, Herndon, VA, (703)713-3335.
CustomDOC Courseware; PTS Learning Systems, King of Prussia, PA,(610) 337-8878.
Visual Learning Guides; Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA, (916)632-4400.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.

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