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Pedagogy and Policy in the Age of the Wired Professor

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Can online reading, writing and research enrich the classroom experience and improve the level of interaction between students and instructors, as well as among students? With this goal in mind, the authors initiated a collaboration designed to create and deliver a distance learning module that would help students improve their skills in writing and reading Spanish. Online activities and assignments supplemented textbook readings, class discussions and activities in twice weekly course meetings. Specifically, a WebCT (Worldwide Web Course Tools) module incorporated articles from the Internet, writing assignments, and research projects.

At the course midpoint, the authors asked the students to report on their learning progress. The results highlight an array of benefits - some anticipated, others unexpected - and a host of challenges that face universities and educational institutions as they harness the Internet revolution for teaching purposes. Sixty percent of the course participants reported that, as we expected, they improved their writing through this process. A significant minority of just over twenty percent, however, reported problems with access to computers and the Internet that hindered their completion of the assignments. In particular, the results identified a technology gap, where students without their own computers and the latest versions of Web browsers finished assignments with greater difficulty.

The Pedagogy of Reading and Writing Spanish Online

This Spanish course, which fuses traditional classroom activities and assigned textbook readings, typifies the trend towards increased use of online teaching at colleges and universities across the United States. In particular, the WebCT program used to design this course's online dimension belongs to a family of distance learning programs that enjoy increasing use around the world. Experience with this technology in a Spanish Conversation and Composition course during the spring semester of 1999 presents issues relevant to a wide array of educational applications for the Internet.

This course focuses on helping students to improve their oral and written communication through a program that integrates Spanish language lessons with discussions and readings about Hispanic culture. To meet these goals, the WebCT module combines some elements readers will recognize from a traditional university language class and others unique to courses delivered online. Class discussions and textbook readings, naturally, remain quite similar to traditional foreign language classrooms, though the Internet supplements readings and conversations with related Web-based materials.

Where this course changes the traditional university classroom experience comes in the areas of course administration and organization, as well as the approach to writing exercises and student research activities. Our survey of student learning experiences measures outcomes related to the first and second of these - course administration/organization plus student writing activities. Both, as we will discuss, highlight opportunities and challenges to the increasing numbers of instructors and institutions that wish to make the Internet a staple of teaching.

Successes and Benefits of Online Instruction

Goals for the use of technology pivot on making online work a required element of the course, rather than its more common place in foreign language courses - solely as a source of supplementary material. To this end, the authors designed a course Web site that interfaces with all areas of the class: a student who calls up the course home page finds the entire course laid out at his or her fingertips. A Calendar component shows assignments on the due date and leads students to hyperlinked readings found on the World Wide Web, or in the case of textbook requirements, shows the required page numbers.The Writing Workshop, Final Essay and Web Research Project components allow students to call up the assignments that, taken together, comprise the graded course work.

For instructor and students alike, the potential benefits of the Course Calendar component stem from creating a flexible syllabus. While students received a traditional syllabus at the semester's outset, the Web-based Calendar has allowed the instructor to note days where discussions from one day would continue during the next, or where considerations of an assigned reading warrant an unanticipated extension of the discussion.

Perhaps most appealing is the fact that this section works as an ideal forum for integrating Spanish culture into the study of the Spanish language. For instance, to add a new dimension to a class assignment focused on the question of why students should learn a foreign language, class members read an editorial from a Spanish newspaper that attacked the use of "Spanglish" in Hispanic communities in the United States. Of course, such information about the cultural context for studying language can be provided in the most traditional classroom environment, through instructor handouts. Yet the organizational structure and flexibility of getting access to readings through an online calendar proved to be an unanticipated appeal of the online module.

The Writing Workshop component serves as the nerve-center of this course: students write short essays, submit them to the instructor and peer reviewers, receive instructor and peer feedback; then write and submit revisions. Here as well, each student finds his or her work filed automatically into a folder from which he or she can track progress and grades. For the instructor, moreover, this section provides a tool for more attention to the progress of each student, as it creates a file where quick access allows new assignments to be compared to previous ones. Benefits for teaching from this automatic filing system have proven decisive from the standpoint of grading writing assignments. Few instructors have the time and inclination to photocopy each student assignment with their comments before returning them, thus they rely on memory or students' own diligence in following instructor remarks. With each essay corrected online, an automatically generated electronic record allows the instructor to track progress.

Taken together, the Calendar and Writing Workshop components serve the overall pedagogical goals of expanding communication in Spanish outside the classroom, increasing consistency in instructor feedback, and raising student awareness of progress. To assess the effectiveness of this pedagogical method, the authors conducted a mid-semester evaluation of the use of technology in the course. Each student filled out a questionnaire about the effectiveness of each component of the WebCT module, and an informal focus group evaluated the technology in a more collective fashion. Although this course continues for five more weeks, the results about attitudes towards Spanish language learning online proved striking, both in terms of the potential benefits and the potential challenges. As educational institutions across the country increase budgets for technology, these issues merit attention in order to make online teaching a means for increased interpersonal communication and better student preparation.

Cooperative, Interdisciplinary Learning Environments

Online courses, and courses augmented with an online component such as our Spanish course, can bridge the gap between the university and the world of work. Exchanging work online, students become editors of one another's writing, taking advantage of the increased flexibility of the computer file to insert corrections within the text and offer summarizing comments. Unlike the exchange of a printed paper - highly vulnerable to unplanned student absences and lost papers - these files remain permanent records for the writer, his or her peer reviewer, and the instructor.

Taking seriously their tasks as editors, students insert grammar corrections and offer substantive suggestions. A typical remark on a recent composition shows this value: "I enjoyed reading your opinions about the film, but I think this would improve greatly if you varied your selection of verbs and offered at least one more specific example to back up your main argument." It is easy to imagine that such comments coming from a peer carry a different value, and perhaps increased credibility, than the same suggestions delivered from the usual suspect, the instructor. Indeed, an informal survey of compositions revised after peer review suggests that class participants take peer comments very seriously. Though the peer d'es not assign a grade, for some reason fellow students feel an incentive to act on his or her suggestions. As such, the peer review activity models the working environment in which students will find themselves after graduation where such interaction and exchange of peers is commonplace.

An entirely unanticipated benefit of the WebCT module stemmed from the Web-based course calendar, from where students call up each day's assignments and connect to related Web sites. This feature has become a valued time-management tool for those students who use it regularly. One student commented that "for people with bad organizational skills, this has been an excellent means of communication." Another commented that "it helped to see assignments in advance," referring to the visual compatibility of a calendar format as opposed to the accustomed syllabus layout. Initially envisioned as a helpful side tool, this feature warrants greater emphasis as a flexible means for instructors to communicate with students and as a tool to help students develop time management skills.

Ethical Implications of Technology-Infused Courses

The increased use of educational technology in colleges and universities tends to draw enthusiastic descriptions of new frontiers, adventurous conceptions of the whole world (or World Wide Web) as a textbook, and most practically, increased funding for hardware and software, even where other budgets, such as research in the humanities, shrink. While the survey results reveal the great potential of online courses, they also highlight an ethical challenge to universities and schools that require students to do some portion of their class work online. As noted at the outset, this technology-infused course drew a sixty-percent favorable rating, but elicited a negative rating of just over twenty-percent, with an equal portion of mixed or neutral opinions.

Which students embraced this new way learning and which recoiled against it? Without a doubt, the most reliable predictor of the experience was the ownership of a personal computer with an up-to-date Web Browser and Internet access. A computer-owner thus made the characteristic observation that "I also enjoy doing a lot of work at home instead of in the classroom so it has been beneficial in that regard too," while another reported a great freedom saying, "you can turn in assignments at any time."

But students who rely on the university's computer facilities without dorm room access find inconvenience rather than freedom. Even state-of-the-art campus computing facilities posses the inconvenience of location. Considering most students do their schoolwork at night, the need for computer access adds a safety concern with walking to and from the campus facility. As well, users encounter lines during "crunch" periods such as Sunday evenings, midterms, and end-of-semester, plus the unavoidable variation from one machine to the next. There's no place like home and there's no computer like a home computer, configured to user specifications and connected to a server. Those with this freedom enjoy doing online course work, those without find it difficult. One student reported in the informal focus group that the requirement of online writing prompted her to buy a computer on an installment plan despite a tight budget. Of course, as the student is aware, this purchase will most likely prove a longer-term benefit. But should students be forced to pay 18% interest on a limited budget?

In other words, given this stark difference between haves and have-nots, universities and institutions that promote online learning must consider the ethical implications of this new frontier of teaching. If some students have the necessary equipment and others must walk across campus at night or stand in line to get the same, then online courses act like cars and clothes - further measures of income differences. In order that technology-infused courses become tools for communication rather than measures of distance, educational institutions need to consider policies that ensure students have the necessary equipment.

Already, this issue has inspired a host of university experiments (Gates 1998). In the state of Georgia, for example, Clayton State College and State University and Floyd College require students to purchase a specific type of computer, whereas Georgia Tech simply requires students own a computer without specifying which kind. The challenges of instituting a coherent policy appear daunting, but our experience suggests the importance of ensuring roughly equal access to equipment. If an Internet-ready computer and associated software became part of the tuition cost at an institution, the student who purchased a new machine on installments could, at the very least, make such a purchase using a Hope scholarship or a low-interest student loan.

Conclusions

Our experience with the WebCT module of the Spanish course highlights pedagogical and policy goals that merit careful consideration. Online learning give an excellent opportunity to foster high-order thinking skills, time management capabilities, interpersonal communication, and the capacity to process information. These strengths transcend disciplinary boundaries. This greater reach, however, requires greater interdisciplinary collaboration in the establishment and implementation of pedagogical goals. On a small, individual scale, instructors who seek to use online tools for teaching would do well to explicitly describe the goals of this new direction in learning. These goals will likely include traditional aims based on the topic at hand, but also goals not directly related to the subject, yet crucial for success after graduation.

On a broad scale, educational institutions must pursue these pedagogical goals while honoring the best traditions of academic environments as communities. For this reason, policy implications must gain increased attention. Rapid growth in online courses raises a crucial ethical question centered on access to adequate hardware and software. In order that technology-infused courses become means for greater communication rather than marks of soci'economic differentiation, institutions that feature courses where online assignments count towards the final grade must take steps to insure that students have up-to-date hardware and software. This issue of access requires that institutions decide what equipment students need, take steps to help them acquire it and then train them in its use. The potential and drawbacks of online learning are so great that the widespread move to digitize courses needs to be accompanied by a broad-based discussion about the social implications of this trend.

 

Angela Benson is a doctoral student in Instructional Technology at the University of Georgia. Her research interests are in the areas of distance learning and instructional design. She has taught online writing courses and is the author of a fiction writing text.

E-mail: abenson@bensonink.com

 

Elizabeth Wright is an Assistant Professor of Spanish in the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Georgia. She and a colleague have just received a grant from the state of Georgia to prepare a technology-infused "Introduction to Hispanic Literature and Film" course that will be used as a model within the university system.

E-mail: elizabethwright@compuserve.com

 

References

Gates, K. F. 1998. "Should colleges and universities require students to own their own computers?" Cause/Effect, http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/html/cem9839.html.

 

Suggested Readings

Deloughry, T. J., 1996. "The widening gap: Students, colleges with computers forge ahead of those without." The Chronicle of Higher Education, (June 14), 40, A16.

Harasim, L., Hiltz, S. R., Teles, L., & Turoff, M. 1995. Learning networks: A field guide to teaching and learning online. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

McCollum, K. 1998. "A computer requirement for students changes professors' duties as well." The Chronicle of Higher Education, (June 26), A22.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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