Making the Most of Home Pages, E-mail, The Internet and Presentation Graphics

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The rapid introduction ofnew technology has enabled educators to present materials in waysthat did not exist a few years ago. Learning how to use thetechnology, and when and if it should be used are questions beingraised at many educational institutions as they strive to provide thehighest quality educational experience for students. Assessing andsharing experiences with these technical options, and determining howbest to make use of them becomes more important as their useincreases.

Several recenttechnologies alter the classroom atmosphere: course home pages thatinclude syllabi, assignments and other materials; using electronicmail and attachments to communicate with students and for them tosubmit their assignments; showing Internet sites in class todemonstrate access to current information, and incorporating thissource in class assignments; and the use of presentationgraphics.

The purpose of thisarticle is to present a view of the advantages and disadvantages ofthese technologies. The discussion that follows is based on theexperiences and observations of both professors and students who haverecently experienced these new technologies in both undergraduate andgraduate courses.

The Home Page

In determining what toinclude in a home page, look at the home pages of other instructorsand consult with a school's resources that provide expertise oneffective use of technology in the classroom. Many home pages includesuch things as a teaching philosophy, syllabi, assignments,assignment grading sheets and a link where students can send e-mailto an instructor directly from the instructor's home page.

There are severaladvantages of having a home page that includes course syllabi,assignments and information about the instructor. One advantage isthat students who are thinking about taking the course, wherever theyare located, can look through topics covered, course requirements andqualifications of the instructor. This gives them fairly completeinformation on which to make the decision to take the course. Second,when students are in computer labs working on assignments they canaccess assignment directions from the home page. Third, less copyingneeds to be done by the instructor when each student can access hisor her own syllabus, assignment sheets and other course information.Additionally, students have access to the information throughout thesemester so if they lose a handout or a copy of an assignment theycan print it from the home page.

Drawbacks to having a homepage include that it takes a lot of time to: determine what courseinformation should be on a home page; create the home page andaccompanying graphics; and update home page materials as needed.Similar to the traditional format of having a printed syllabus andmaterials to distribute to students, there is no guarantee thatstudents will read the materials, but the use of graphics mayencourage such action. With more instructors having home pages,students' expectations for their format and design have increased.Home pages must present a professional-looking image that reinforcesthe instructor's credibility.

Some professors feel thatdeveloping home pages makes it too easy for students &emdash; that itis, in essence, hand holding. Others have expressed the opinion thatthey feel it is too impersonal, too high tech and not enough hightouch. However, in an era in which we are using technology to extendour courses beyond the traditional campus setting, losing some directstudent contact may be a necessary trade-off in reaching morestudents. Last, those who teach similar course content can review andadapt course ideas and materials for use in their teaching. Thissharing of information will lead to a better educational experiencefor the student.

According to students, ahome page can be valuable if it is complete but concise. Too muchinformation or too many graphics and links often diminishes theusefulness of the home page. With the proliferation of informationand ever-increasing demands on their time, students don't wantnonessential information. While a few students may, for example, findthe instructor's biography and personal teaching philosophyinteresting, many feel that it just adds clutter to the page andprovides no relevant course information. Information about teachingabilities is generally sought from the instructor's former students.What students often need and want is to develop professionalfriendships with their instructors through personal contact outsideof the classroom. Instructors should consider creating a home pagefor each course that is separate from their personal homepage.

The most important item onthe home page is the syllabus. Like its paper cousin, the electronicsyllabus should be accurate when it is first available to students.Even though they can access the syllabus and class assignments at anytime and from virtually anywhere, students generally print copies ofthe syllabus and accompanying information instead of revisiting thehome page. If the instructor plans regular updates to the home pageand expects students to habitually visit it, then students need thisexpectation emphasized at the beginning of the course. If correctionsor additions to the home page are necessary, instructors need toinsure that all students are informed of the changes via somemechanism other than the home page (e.g., e-mail). Also, the changesshould be clearly indicated on the home page by typeface that differsfrom the original in both size and color.

Using E-mail

In order to use e-mailequitably, each student needs to have Internet access and an e-mailaddress, and know how to send and receive e-mail and how to downloadattachments to e-mail. One way to get students motivated to e-mailtheir instructor is to award extra credit points to any student whosends an e-mail to the instructor during the first week of class. Theinstructor can respond individually to each of these first e-mailmessages, and add the student's address to the course distributionlist. This connection can be maintained via a weekly class newsletterthat is e-mailed to students. E-mail opens the door to communicationthat can last throughout the semester. Once students see what theyare missing if they have not sent their e-mail address, students aremotivated to send it.

E-mail is a handy way toinform or remind students of upcoming assignments, exams, seminars,guest speakers and items in the news. Messages can be personalizedwhen appropriate for helping an individual student, or an e-maildistribution list can be used when everyone is getting the samemessage. Setting up and maintaining a distribution list can takeconsiderable time if class sizes are large. For large classes,suppressing the list of students' addresses both shortens the e-mailand protects the privacy of students' e-mail addresses. In bigclasses, where students are actively using e-mail, much instructortime can be spent responding to their messages. Students'expectations for timeliness of responses may not be realistic. Manydo not understand why their e-mail message to an instructor is notimmediately answered, or not answered if sent on a weekend. They areaccustomed to the rapid pace at which computers operate and canforget that teachers have multiple responsibilities and are notalways in their offices and available to respond to studentmessages.

Sometimes networks godown, which means that the e-mail system is not working. Occasionallymessages get lost during these down times. Flexibility is importantin having alternate ways to communicate such as the telephone orface-to-face interaction. These interactions help to balance thechange that technological advances sometimes bring in the dynamics ofinteractions with students. There may be less face-to-face contactwith students during times such as office hours since they have askedtheir questions via electronic mail. However, some students arewilling to ask questions via e-mail that they are not comfortableasking in person.

Once they have experiencedthe high level of contact via e-mail, students expect to hear frominstructors often, and if they do not, may call to find out whetherthey missed receiving one. Some want a grade sent to them via e-mail,but do not understand the privacy issues involved. Attachingassignments to e-mail is an advantage, particularly for off-campusstudents. This will mean more instructor time to bring up theattachment and print it out. Occasionally there are problems inbringing up word processed or graphics files if versions are notcompatible.

E-mail is a wonderful wayfor students to communicate with not only their instructors but alsofellow students. Many students find that via e-mail their interactionwith the instructor substantially increases when compared to thoseface-to-face meetings. It especially can be beneficial to thosestudents who are shy or have verbal challenges. E-mail, however, isnot without problems. Many students do not have e-mail access whenthey are away from campus. Most problems (and the resultingfrustration) arise because students are unfamiliar with the propercommands, procedures or capabilities of the technology. Labassistants and other support personnel often are lacking orinadequately trained to help students; when problems occur, thereusually is no one available to help. In one class, for example,students were asked to send (and receive) articles and assignment asattachments to e-mail. Most of the time the students could not readwhat was sent from the instructor. The support personnel could onlysay that there were probably hardware or software incompatibilities,but it was evident to the students that they really didn't know whatthe problem was either.

NetMeeting

Increasing numbers ofclassrooms, instructors and students have easy access to theInternet. Students' assignments that include having to locate andassess information on the Internet are facilitated by their havingseen an instructor use it as part of standard classroom presentationsand discussions. Part of showing what is on the Internet includesassessing the information: Who is the source of the information? Howreliable and accurate is it?

NetMeeting software allowsfor voice communications using a microphone attached to the computer.Video cameras can also be attached to allow for two-way visual andvoice communication. This is a low-cost way to have small groupmeetings and classes when the groups are in different locations. Theadvantages include time and money saved that would have been spent ontravel. In addition, persons can both hear words and see the bodylanguage that accompanies them, allowing for better communication.Software applications can be shared so that persons at each site cansee, for example, a PowerPoint presentation.

Disadvantages include thatover long distances the Internet voice transfer is sometimes choppy.In this case a speakerphone can provide back-up. It takes some timeto learn to use NetMeeting effectively, including how to share andcollaborate applications such as PowerPoint, Internet sites and thewhiteboard. The benefits particularly outweigh the costs if thealternative is an option such as a speakerphone with no ability tosee persons or share applications.

In spite of the problemsthat sometimes occur, Internet access during classtime is a realasset to the teaching-learning environment. Instructors and studentscan simultaneously discover, share and discuss the validity andrelevancy of any Web site. One student observed that, without theshared experience, the class discussion would have all the excitementof seeing slides of some stranger's family vacation; there is nosubstitute for "being there."

NetMeeting software allowsvisual and audio transmissions over the Internet. It is a useful toolwhen courses are being provided to off-campus students or when theexpertise of an off-campus professor is needed. While it is a betteralternative than a correspondence course, taking a course byspeakerphone, or not having the course offered at all, students findthat viewing the instructor on a small computer monitor is a curious,yet unsettling experience. Most students are not used to aneducational experience via "interaction with the TV."

Unfamiliarity with thesoftware and the general absence of technical support during classtime creates anxiety when problems arise. For example, heavy Internettraffic often results in distorted or unsynchronized pictures andsound. When this occurs, much of the students' energy is focused onthe mechanics of communication instead of the assimilation andprocessing of the ideas being communicated. Students also find blackscreens or dark images, a result of infrequent mouse movement, a poorcamera or insufficient room lighting, to be verydistracting.

Additionally, it is verydifficult for several students at the same time to see what is beingpresented on the computer monitor. Lack of eye contact with theinstructor and the quick realization by the students that only thestudent directly in front of the camera can be clearly seen createsan atmosphere where students often feel they are not a part of thediscussion. Because it is almost impossible for the instructor toknow what is really going on in the classroom, students can easily bedoing something else. Improved hardware and software may solve manyof these problems.

PresentationGraphics

A primary advantage ofusing such presentation graphics packages as PowerPoint or HarvardGraphics is that a hard copy of all overheads for a particular classsession or for the semester can be made available to students at thestart of class. Then, instead of students' eyes moving from anoverhead to their paper where they are rapidly copying the writteninformation, they retain eye contact with the instructor and areactively involved in class discussions. Another advantage is thatgraphics tend to hold students' attention and help them understandand remember a concept.

Presenting in this manneris effective for the range of learning styles that students have.Some learn best by listening and discussing and are better able to dothat if they have a packet of all overheads for the semester. It is apleasant change to see students eyes and know they are listening toan instructor rather than having their heads down recording all theinformation on the overhead, worried that they may miss somethingwhen the instructor moves on to the next slide. Others are visuallearners for whom the graphics and movement on the screen will behelpful. Those who learn best by writing things in their ownhandwriting may opt not to purchase the visuals packet but rathertake notes as material is presented.

There are disadvantages tousing this presentation method. The two primary ones are cost ofequipment and time. Computer-equipped classrooms can be used ifavailable, but there are often waiting lists for their use as moreinstructors want access to the technology. If such classrooms are notavailable a notebook computer and LCD panel may cost around $6,000.Many new computers come with PowerPoint so there is access to thesoftware, but time and assistance are needed to become familiar withhow to best use it.

Experience has shown thatinitially it may take eight to ten hours of preparation time for each50 minute class session. Equipment may need to be carried to andconnected up in the classroom. There may only be ten minutes betweenclasses for set-up. Sometimes equipment fails so a back-up plan isneeded. Security, shared use and storage of the equipment must beplanned, and copyright issues must be considered. Skill in developingeffective visuals involves knowing how much and size of text,choosing graphics that enhance rather than detract from a point, andcontrast between the background and lettering. Some campuses willprovide more assistance to instructors than others in doingthis.

Regardless of theirvarious learning styles, students enjoy well-designed graphics. To bemost effective, however, the instructor must be careful not tooveruse the technology. One professor, for example, used an averageof 50 slides per class period. In spite of the visually pleasingcombination of words and color, the effect was too much for thestudents, especially for those who tried to write everything down intheir notes. Most students appreciate instructors who not only usevisuals, but also make them available to students in either printedor electronic form.

Summary

Whatever technology isincorporated into the learning experience, much care andconsideration must go into its selection and use. Student comments oncourse evaluations generally show appreciation for time spent indeveloping home page materials and graphics. Some also comment ontheir frustration at having to learn how to use the technology. Theadvantages outweigh the disadvantages if the end product is effectivepresentation of materials reflected by evidence of increasedlearning.

New technologies haverapidly opened a global door to many creative and enhancededucational opportunities undreamed of a few years ago. There arestill many "bugs" to be worked out, but students and teachers alikeare more frequently using these new innovations in the classroom.Yet, most have not been adequately prepared. In our zeal to conquerthe technological world, many students are beginning to feeldisconnected.

Instructors that choose touse new technology need to become "experts" before they introduce itin the classroom. They also need to remember that its use d'esn'talways translate into increased learning for their students. With orwithout technology, students still need interaction with wellprepared, conscientious, caring individuals; for they will always bethe best teachers.

Virginia W. Junk and LindaKirk Fox are professors in the School of Family and Consumer Sciencesat the University of Idaho. Dr. Junk teaches courses and conductsresearch in personal finance and consumer economic issues. She alsoteaches distance education courses in Idaho and Utah. Dr. Fox is theinterim Director of the School and the state Extension Specialist inFamily Economics. She presents programming on credit use and also onfinancial planning for life's transitions. Co-authors LucyDelgadillo, Mark Oleson and Jan Andersen are doctoral students in theDepartment of Human Environments, College of Family Life at UtahState University. They participated in a course taught via NetMeetingby Dr. Junk.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.

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