Designing and Delivering an Online Course for K-12 Educators
The design and delivery of a distance education course are complex undertakings. This is partly because the development process involves many interrelated elements that must work in unison to form a single system for learning. Each of the elements is critical to the success of the distance education course and the learning experience that the student receives.
MGT651: Internet Applications in Science Education is part of a new graduate level certificate program titled Technology Applications in Science Education (TASE) that Stevens Institute of Technology has launched on its e-learning site, WebCampus.Stevens.edu. The decision to develop this program as a distance education initiative was based on the perceived need for robust graduate-level professional development opportunities for practicing K-12 educators who could not attend traditional face-to-face courses.
Internet Applications in Science Education was designed to provide middle and high school teachers with an understanding of how the Internet can be used to enrich science education. The course was taught by faculty at Stevens Institute of Technology's Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education (CIESE), which over the past six years has directed a range of state and federally funded teacher professional development programs on the use of the Internet in education.
The content for the course was based on the past experiences of CIESE, and focuses on what it has defined as "unique and compelling" Internet applications in science education. These applications tap into the potential power that the Internet holds as a tool to enhance science education. They include use of real time data from remote locations around the world, as well as global telecollaborative projects that engage students and their peers in electronic investigations of scientific issues and phenomena. The course also covers techniques on how to manage the implementation of these projects through the development of Project Management Plans (PMPs), another CIESE-developed concept. Additionally, the course touches on more traditional Internet-in-education topics, such as strategies for conducting online scientific research.
Course Design Considerations
Internet Applications in Science Education required that students develop both a theoretical and a practical understanding of the Internet as a tool for enriching science education. This would necessitate a diverse set of teaching and learning strategies that went well beyond the typical "talking head" lecture that is often central to the instructional process of a face-to-face course. It was decided that the strategies had to expose students to the same real-world challenges they would face when they began to use the technology in their own classrooms. To meet this difficult challenge, the following strategies were employed:
- Peer-to-Peer Collaboration : Students were encouraged to interact on a regular basis with each other on the topics that were discussed in the course.
- Instructor Feedback : Much time was spent supplying instructor feedback to both individual students and the class in general.
- Grader Feedback : Along with the instructor's feedback on content issues, detailed critiques of each assignment were supplied by a course grader.
- Student-Centered Learning : Because of the range of student abilities and experiences, the lectures were designed to support advanced, intermediate and novice users.
- Authentic Learning : Students were immersed in realistic situations in which they had to apply what they had learned to solve real-world problems and deal with authentic classroom situations.
- Critical Thinking : Students were challenged to form their own opinions concerning a range of topics that pertained to the use of the Internet in science education.
- Project Based Learning : Students developed a management plan to implement an Internet-based project in their own classrooms.
The learning environment had to support this diverse set of teaching and learning strategies. At the same time, it needed to address the needs of a diverse group of learners. The core elements of the learning environment included a set of dynamic course notes, a course discussion area and e-mail exchanges.
A set of course notes was developed for each session of the course and formatted as HTML documents so that they could be accessed easily from the Web. These were primarily text-based, but included some images and sound where appropriate. Hypertext was used extensively throughout the course notes to allow students access to both remedial and advanced supplementary materials. This created a student-centered learning environment that encouraged students to find the learning path that best suited them.
The learning environment also had to support authentic learning, critical thinking, and project-based learning strategies. To meet this requirement, the following were embedded in the course notes:
- Problem Solving Scenarios : Students were presented with realistic scenarios describing classroom environments and traditional science lessons. They were then asked to integrate "unique and compelling" Internet applications into these scenarios, as they might need to do in their own classrooms.
- Case Studies : Students were provided with in-depth case studies written by actual classroom teachers who had engaged in a range of Internet-based projects.
- Simulated Classroom Exercises : Students were asked to participate in several Internet-based projects as if they were K-12 students using them in the classroom.
- Critical Reviews : Students had to review several major research reports and papers and then critique them based on what they had learned.
- Project Management Plans : As a culminating project, students were asked to develop a very detailed plan for implementing an Internet-based project in their own classrooms.
A Web-based discussion area was used to facilitate both peer-to-peer collaboration and instructor feedback. Weekly assignments were posted to the discussion area, and students were asked to discuss each other's postings throughout the week. The instructor would review the postings two times per week and supply feedback and comments to the students. This feedback process allowed the instructor to guide the discussion so as to focus the students' attention on the central themes and issues of the course. This is in sharp contrast to the instructor's traditional role in face-to-face courses, whereby he or she broadcasts knowledge to students, rather than guiding them through the learning process.
E-mail was used extensively by the course grader to supply private comments and detailed feedback to the students on their course assignments. This was done on a weekly basis in order to supply timely responses to each student on the work he or she had just completed. This was a time-intensive undertaking but had a very positive impact on the students and on their achievement in the course. The instructor also used e-mail to introduce the course topics each week, answer student questions, and alert users to technical problems when they arose.
The course was broken down into 15 weekly sessions that began on Monday and ended on Sunday. There were two or three assignments per week that were generally designed to reinforce the concepts that were introduced that week. Most of these assignments required students to interact with their peers, and formed the basis for class participation. Besides these, there were three short opinion papers required. These generally involved either a problem solving scenario, case study or critical analysis. The final project was the development of a Project Management Plan (PMP) that detailed how students would implement an existing "unique and compelling" Internet-based project in their own classrooms. This final project required that they utilize all of the skills and knowledge they had learned throughout the course, and was designed so that they would leave the program with everything they needed to be successful back in their own environment. The PMP was used as both a final assessment and a final learning activity, and replaced the need for a traditional final exam.
The Web and e-mail were the two primary media used for content delivery and interaction. The Web-based materials were stored on a single server that was password-protected but accessible by all students. Most of the students accessed the materials from both school and their homes. This created a mixed mode of access, as they typically had high-speed (T1) access from their schools but only 56K dial-up access from home. Although high-speed access is the ideal, this mixed mode worked well as students quickly learned to schedule time at school to work on those aspects of the course in which high-speed access was most useful.
The course was delivered and managed using WebCT software that is used for other online courses at Stevens. The WebCT system provided most of the basic course management tools necessary to administer a distance education course, and was flexible enough to allow a significant amount of customization. The system included a student tracking and grading capability, real time chat environment, bulletin board, whiteboard, calendar, and file management system.
Impact of Course on Students
For all but one of the students in Internet Applications in Science Education, this was their first experience taking a Web-based distance learning course. All of the students were practicing middle or high school teachers who had enrolled in the course for many of the same reasons: convenience, course content, Stevens'/CIESE's reputation, the opportunity to expand their knowledge, and the chance to further their careers.
Most of the students had taken other traditional face-to-face graduate courses over the course of their careers, and some had even taken face-to-face courses that focused on similar content (offered by CIESE or other professional development organizations). All of the students enrolled in this course had a very positive experience and agreed that this online course was comparable to or better than courses they had taken in face-to-face environments.
Some students attributed their positive experiences to the format and convenience of the course. They could access class notes, resources, the instructor, and the grader on an as-needed basis. They could better control the pace of their own learning, spending as much or as little time as they needed on any of the topics being covered in the course, depending on their prior experience level. Others attributed their positive experiences to the content and organization of the course itself. They had not been able to find this type of course offered elsewhere, and it provided them with the opportunity to focus on Internet-based material that was relevant, timely, and on the cutting edge for their own science classes. These students felt that this particular quality of the course contributed greatly to their success.
Some students were undecided about which type of learning environment they preferred: online or face-to-face. Some felt that a traditional classroom setting would have forced them to remain on a more disciplined schedule instead of relying on a self-disciplined regimen that, admittedly, was challenging for some. Others missed the social interaction afforded by meeting with real people on a regular basis. However, even these undecided students felt that the convenience that an online course offered weighed heavily in its favor despite some of the other drawbacks.
The Learning Experience Through the Students' Eyes
All of the students felt that the course was paced appropriately, and most felt that the level of difficulty of the course was what they had expected. On average, most devoted nine to 12 hours per week to the course, which included reading through the course notes, exploring linked examples, writing up assignments, and posting comments on others' work on the class bulletin board. Since the class notes provided by the instructor were the primary means for introducing a new topic each week, they tended to be fairly extensive, with numerous imbedded links that students could follow for further clarification. As mentioned previously, the lectures were designed for a wide range of student abilities and experiences, so links to additional examples and material provided novice learners with the background necessary for the lecture. It was up to each student to decide what to read and explore and what to skip. Early in the course, some students found themselves spending quite a bit of time on each week's reading and assignments because they were exploring every link. It quickly became apparent to those students that they needed to decide from the start what to focus on and what to skip in each week's lesson. Having such a wealth of information just one click away can easily result in anyone spending more time than necessary on an assignment. Some students remarked that they felt the course workload was greater than in other graduate courses they had taken, although some admitted that their perception might be influenced by the amount of "exploring" they chose to do each week.
Some of the students were new to using any type of bulletin board forum. Despite having initial practice postings at the beginning of the course, it took a while for some students to become comfortable using the board. One of the more Internet-experienced students remarked that he felt that there were very few spontaneous remarks made by the group members. Although face-to-face meetings are not always practical in a distance learning class, this student also thought that exchanges on the bulletin board would have been livelier and more spontaneous had members of the group met once or twice informally.
The bulletin board was, however, the only means students had for getting to know each other. Students were asked to read and comment on other students' completed assignments that were posted to the class bulletin board. The responses were required and part of the class participation grade. It was hoped that these required responses would lead to additional dialogue among the students. At the conclusion of the course some students felt like they got to know their classmates fairly well, but others felt isolated. Despite some students' efforts to jump-start a dialogue, there were other students who just didn't feel comfortable with this means of communication. They would have preferred to engage in a discussion with real people sitting next to them.
Although all of the students in this course indicated that the course notes, discussion area, and e-mail exchanges with the instructor and grader were helpful to their learning experience, they felt that they learned the material best through:
- Applying what they had read to typical Internet-based lesson scenarios
- Participating in simulated Internet-based lessons
- Applying what they had read to develop a plan for their own classrooms
All of these different types of exercises had been designed as part of the strategy to incorporate authentic learning and project-based learning into the course material. Other required course exercises such as reading case studies and providing critical reviews of Internet-related material did not provide some students with the learning experience hoped. These students were most interested in applying what they learned to their own teaching efforts.
Effect on Teaching Practices
Although it was not a direct objective for this course, many teachers reported that their comfort level using technology, as well as their computer and Internet skills, improved by taking this course. Just taking an online course and having to deal with all the technical issues that surfaced was in itself a good learning experience for the students, and better prepared them for dealing with technical issues back in their own classrooms. All of the students stated that they felt more prepared to use the Internet for classroom instruction than they had prior to taking the course.
As a result of taking this course, students felt that they were better able to:
- Use an Internet-based lesson in the classroom
- Develop a plan for using an Internet-based lesson in the classroom
- Manage the implementation of an Internet-based lesson in the classroom
- Identify appropriate uses of the Internet for classroom instruction
- Integrate unique and compelling Internet resources into classroom instruction
- Instruct other teachers in ways to use the Internet in their classrooms
This course has helped students feel better prepared to undertake Internet-based projects. Further, students implemented some projects in their classrooms while still enrolled, and they completed the course with working plans for integrating future projects. Some teachers have even already seen the effect of their newly found knowledge and skills on their own students. Physics teacher Matt Klemchalk, a student in this course, remarked, "this course has changed the way I teach now! I could see an immediate response in my students. Since what we were learning in the course was directly applicable to the classroom, the work in this course was serving two purposes. Most of my upper level students were aware that a number of activities that they have been working on in class are experimental in nature. Because of this, they sense a pioneering spirit and are more than eager to participate, learn, and teach (including me, their teacher!)."
The user interface of the course bulletin board was not designed well and led to a significant amount of confusion on the part of the students, especially those new to using this mode of communication. Part of the problem was due to how the system marked messages as read as soon as they were viewed once and then would not display these messages again unless specifically requested. These problems interfered with the initial use of the system and the student interactions that are critical to the learning process. A newer version of the bulletin board addresses these problems and will be used for the next run of the course.
Facilitating meaningful online discussions may cause some of the most frequent problems in running online courses. In this course, the problem was mostly due to scheduling conflicts. Each week the course notes were activated on Monday mornings, and the weekly assignments and student discussions were all due the following Sunday at midnight. Early on in the course, it was discovered that most of the students didn't have much time during the week and thus were posting their assignments late in the week. This left little time for any discussions concerning these assignments to take place. In an attempt to deal with this problem, the weekly schedule was shifted slightly so that the course notes were activated on Saturday, giving students slightly more than a week to complete the assignments. Although the weekly assignments were still due Sunday night, students were allowed to continue discussing the posting until Monday night. This slight change improved the discussions somewhat, but the issue will need to be addressed even more for the next run of the course.
All of the students entered the course with at least the basic technical skills needed to use the Internet. Some were rather advanced, while others were just at the novice level. Although this did not impact their use of the materials or success in the course, it did add significantly to the amount of time that some of the students had to spend on the course. For example, one student did not touch-type, which meant that entering in her discussion postings took her almost twice as much time as it took the other students. Another skill that appeared very important was reading comprehension. Some of the students did not read carefully and as a result often did not complete assignments correctly. Also, students who came into the course with low-level computer skills didn't progress as well with the course content because, at times, their skill level interfered with the learning process. Students who had no prior experience with things such as sending attachments to e-mail or downloading PDF files found themselves overwhelmed by some of the assignments. In future runs of the course it will be important to screen students more carefully for these skills. More information about Internet Applications in Science Education can be found at http://www.k12science.org/
Joshua D. Baron is manager of curriculum development and training at the Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. During the past five years he has led a pioneering effort in the creation of Internet-based mathematics and science curriculum materials. He has played a key role in the organization and implementation of teacher professional development programs, including a national Internet-in-education teacher professional development training program. Mr. Baron is an experienced K-12 science teacher and a magna cum laude graduate from the University of Michigan with a degree in Aerospace Engineering. He is currently enrolled in a Master's degree program in Education Technology Leadership at George Washington University.
E-mail: [email protected]Mercedes M. McKay is senior Internet curriculum specialist at the Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. She directs several professional development projects for K-12 teachers and is responsible for the development of Internet-based science and mathematics curriculum material. Ms. McKay graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University and has taught high school physics and mathematics. She is currently engaged in graduate studies at Stevens Institute of Technology.
E-mail: [email protected]
This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.