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Improving Student Performance in Distance Learning Courses

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Distance learning poses new challenges for educators. In some cases, achieving student success can be as simple as preventing student withdrawals from distance learning courses. Distance learning gives educators the opportunity to teach their students both course content and how to become lifelong learners. This article concentrates on the problems encountered and the solutions developed while teaching two college networking courses in the distance learning format. One course is a freshman course, Introduction to Networks, and the other is a junior course, Data Communications. While the subject matter of the courses is similar, the approach to achieving student success in the courses is different.

In the Beginning

The Information Systems and Computer Programming (ISCP) Department at Purdue Calumet was the first department on campus to develop distance learning courses. Two courses were chosen for a pilot project in the summer 1996 session: Introduction to Computer-Based Systems (CIS 204) and Computer Operating Systems I (CIS 286). Introduction to Computer-Based Systems consists of two components: computer literacy and an introduction to office productivity software, including word processing, spreadsheets, etc. The students in this course are both CIS majors and nonmajors. Computer Operating Systems I is a required course for CIS majors and is an introduction to the concepts related to computer operating systems. I taught the CIS 204 course for the pilot, and then started teaching one junior-level networking course in this format during the fall 1996 semester.

Although the pilot project had mixed results - a very high dropout rate occurred - the distance learning project was continued and has grown over the years, with additional departments offering courses in this format. By the spring 2001 semester, more than 35 different courses in 13 disciplines had been offered in the distance learning format at various times. Although the school started with fewer than 30 enrollments in the initial courses, the success of the program is evident in the spring 2001 semester enrollment figure, which numbered 681. A breakdown of enrollments by discipline is shown in Figure 1. In the future, the school hopes to expand its offerings and provide several degree programs through distance learning.

Part of the commitment to quality on campus includes the fact that the online courses are equivalent to on-campus courses. On campus, because the distance learning courses and programs are administered through individual departments rather than through a centralized distance learning office, each department is responsible for ensuring courses are equivalent to their on-campus counterparts. Accrediting bodies have taken some initiative to evaluate these programs as valid forms of higher education, and the institutions must ensure that documentation exists to satisfy these agencies.

In addition, assessment of these courses is very important in determining their merit as part of the institutional mission. Measuring student performance using traditional methods of assessment has been problematic in distance learning because the format is somewhat different, even though the objectives are the same. What is needed is a new method of assessment to ensure students are mastering the concepts required for the course.

Course Comparisons

As new courses are converted to the distance learning format, student performance has become a concern. Course evaluations and student grades were used as the impetus for changes in the courses offered in this format as the semesters progressed. Many educators learn to improve their courses as they go along, and the longer a course is taught in a particular format the better it becomes - this fact is especially true for distance learning courses. Using established techniques for student success in traditional classrooms do not always work in distance courses, so educators need to be willing to modify their courses and find different ways to help their students learn. Based on feedback, modifications were made in these two networking courses to improve student performance and student retention of material.

In Introduction to Networks (CIS 240), students learn the basic concepts of networks, including the terminology associated with them and how to diagram the various types of networks. Materials pro-vided on the course's Web site include PowerPoint slides as outlines for each chapter in the textbook, links to the textbook and Web sites, as well as additional information on selected topics in each chapter. Class assignments include homework from the textbook, and laboratory assignments developed by the instructor using Microsoft Visio diagramming software. For distance learning students, Visio is available bundled with the textbook. Tests for both online and on-campus students are given online.

In Data Communications (CIS 340), students are expected to understand the basic knowledge from the Introduction to Networks course. Because this is the final networks- concepts course in our degree program, advanced details of networking concepts are covered. Materials include PowerPoint slides for each chapter in the book and additional reading materials on selected topics. Assignments include a term paper on a networking topic, a network design project and participation in discussions - online for distance learning students and in class for on-campus students. Starting with the fall 1999 semester, these students were also given an online test. Prior to that time, an essay test was given to all students.

Since CIS 340 was the first networking course converted to distance learning, both the students and the instructor struggled with the best way to conduct the class. Simply providing PowerPoint slides and reading assignments is boring, and students had a difficult time with the tests. With this information in hand, CIS 240 was developed with more activities and more instructor interaction. As the students have become more familiar with participating in distance learning courses, and as the instructor has become more familiar with teaching over the Internet, Figure 2 shows that the grades in these courses have improved. Because CIS 340 has not been taught on the Internet since spring 2000, this table ends with that semester.

Student Assessment

In reviewing student evaluations from CIS 240, it became clear that the students were struggling with the material, were unsure about how to study for tests, and were reluctant to contact the instructor for help with assignments. To overcome these problems, certain policies and changes in procedures were introduced that have improved student performance in this course.

The tests were particularly problematic. Quizzes were not given for the on-campus course since it was an introductory course, and the students seemed to keep up well with the material. But I discovered the online students were not studying the appropriate material for the tests. To address this, online quizzes were introduced to the course Web site for the students to take as many times as they wanted. The scores are not recorded and the questions are in the same format as on the actual tests, although they are not exactly the same. Ten questions are chosen randomly from a bank of 20 for each quiz. In addition, each chapter has its own quiz. Students say they have found these quizzes to be invaluable.

The tests have been developed in a manner similar to the quizzes. Each 100-point test is created from a 200-question test bank. As each student logs in their test is created randomly from the test bank. This makes cheating extremely difficult because each test contains different questions. Even if the questions are the same, they are randomized so they do not appear in the same order. And although the test is open book, the students are admonished to study, because the questions are in random order and they do not have time to look up the answers to each question. The tests are timed and automatically submitted at the end of the time limit. The addition of these practice quizzes has dramatically improved performance on the tests.

A point about testing that should be made is that many educators are concerned about students finding someone else to take tests for them. I agree with the statement made by Palloff and Pratt (1999): "Cheating is irrelevant in this process because the participant would be cheating only him- or herself." Although attempts are made to minimize the threat, educators should not let this prevent them from teaching online. Tech-nology will allow educators to verify the identity of students taking online tests in the future, so educators must trust students for now.

Alleviating Problems

To alleviate communication problems that inevitably develop in distance learning courses, it is helpful to institute online office hours. Students are not often prepared for the isolation of distance learning when they sign up for the course. The problem occurs when the students are not disciplined enough to check their e-mail regularly for course updates and are reluctant to ask questions when problems occur. Online office hours offer an opportunity for students to receive an immediate response to a question. A three-hour block of time scheduled once a week should be sufficient. Of course, this can be in addition to on-campus office hours, during which students can contact the instructor either in person or by phone. It is also helpful to communicate weekly with students, encouraging them to contact the instructor immediately with any problems.

I utilize e-mail as the primary method of communication in my courses. A policy noted in my sylla-bus states that all e-mail is answered within 24 hours on weekdays, and checked at least once during weekends and holidays. Although this is the formal policy, I do check e-mail more frequently. One thing many distance learning instructors forget is that distance students often feel as if they are out in cyberspace alone. Without a classroom environment in which the students can feel comfortable as part of a group, a camaraderie must develop between the instructor and individual students, as well as among the students themselves.

Feedback on assignments also lets the students feel like they are an important part of the class. I try to return all assignments within a week of the due date. If students turn in homework a few days before the due date, I try to return the graded work to them within a day after the due date. Students have often complained to me about other instructors who do not return work until two or three weeks after it is due, which causes frustration among the students about the quality of their work. Although this problem is not limited to distance learning courses, it seems to be more disturbing for students in this environment since they don't have face-to-face contact with the instructor to validate their work.

In some cases, the course management software used for distance learning courses can be a stumbling block for students. Web Course in a Box (WCB) was used in the networking courses discussed in this article. Features such as assignment submission, which allows students to submit assignments to the course Web site rather than e-mailing them, as well as the online quizzes and tests make it very useful. Starting in the fall 2001 semester we switched to Blackboard CourseInfo, which purchased WCB, and I have found Blackboard to be very powerful. One thing that isimportant to remember is that students are much more comfortable with online courses once they are familiar with the course management software.

Conclusions

Eliminating student frustration is one of the main factors in improving student success in distance learning courses. If students feel they are empowered and have close contact with the instructor, then their learning experience in an online course will be a good one. Also, the testing issue in online courses will be minimized as we develop new methods of assessment. Communication is another key factor, because feedback is critical to keeping students involved in the class. Encouraging students to interact with one another is also important.

One of the best lessons that students take from distance learning courses is that learning can take place outside of a classroom. Distance learning also introduces students to self-directed learning and gives them the capability to continue their education throughout their lives. Thinking outside of the box is difficult at first, but it will provide educators with new methods to evaluate each student's learning and a better way to grade them in distance learning courses.

Reference

Palloff, R. and K. Pratt. 1999. Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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